Friday, April 19, 2013

Working on Multiple Projects

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

Image: MorgueFile: haphthat
I don’t go to a lot of conferences or give a lot of talks.  When I do give a talk though, and it’s time for an audience q&a, I know which question I’ll be getting.
“Do you work on all three series at once?”
It used to be that I’d get the famous “where do you get your ideas from” question most often, but this new one has definitely surpassed the other. 
And I don’t really know why people are interested in this.  Maybe they’re looking for tips for juggling their own stuff.
Here’s the answer—not unless I have to.
The reason—I get very confused.
The series are very different.  My protagonists are very different. But…when you’re writing humorous cozy mysteries set in Southern towns, there’s enough similarity there to get your mind boggled.
The toughest is when you’re working on more than one first draft at a time.  I avoid doing this at all costs! If I've got to, then I try to work one day on Project A and the next day on Project B.  I would rather have a “if it’s Tuesday, it must be a quilting mystery” scenario than a “if it’s 2 p.m., it must be quilting, if it’s 3 p.m., it must be barbeque mysteries” scenario.
It’s even easy to get confused when you’re drafting one book and doing edits on another.  I just got an email on Thursday that the proofreader had found an error on the page proofs and my editor asked me to correct it.  Now I know that working on page proofs means that the text is already set…any corrections need to have the same number of characters as the original to prevent text reflow.  But I’d already forgotten that we were in the pass page stage of the process since I’m busily drafting another book.  I sent in a broad correction (I deleted most of a paragraph) and emailed it to my editor. She emailed me back a very patient reminder.
This week, though, I came across a post that actually recommended working on multiple projects simultaneously.  I read the post with interest since this is a blog that I regular follow and tweet and have found some great information on: Cockeyed Caravan.  The blog’s author is Matt Bird, a screenwriter.  Matt says:

Writing a few pages of another project is helpful in multiple ways:
  • It buoys you up out of that sinking sensation and allows you to start fresh on new challenges.
  • It reminds you that not everything is riding on your main project, so it can be what it needs to be, instead of being all things to all people.
  • It allows you to move that big problem to the back of your mind, but it keeps working the muscles that you need to solve it, which makes it more likely that you’ll have that “Eureka!” moment, when a solution for the supposedly forgotten problem suddenly flashes into your head.  If you take days off to just think about the main problem, it’s more likely that you’ll forget it entirely.
He’s specifically talking about writer’s block in the post.  Writer’s block isn’t something that I have a problem with.  But I can see his point—working on more than one project means that when you reach a stumbling block with one book, you can make headway on the other and feel like you’re not missing your goal.  It could be a good way for some writers to stay motivated and keep a creative spark.
For me, though…there’s always that temptation to cheat on my current project with a new project.  It’s known as Shiny New Idea Syndrome.  Plus, for me, there’s that aforementioned confusion factor.
Sometimes, though, I do have to work on multiple projects at once.  Whether you’re working on more than one book by choice or because of publisher-set deadlines, here are a few tips:
Keep a style sheet or series bible for your series/each project.  A style sheet listing character names, short descriptions, setting names, character traits and quirks,  and relationships between characters can help you keep organized and jump back and forth between projects much easier.
It can be easier to edit one book while drafting another…the processes seem to use different parts of our brain.  If you’ve got to work on two books at once, see if you can avoid drafting two different projects at once.
If you’re writing series, it’s helpful to keep the old Word documents of already-published previous books in the series.  That way you’ve got an easy way to quickly search a book for details you might have forgotten (or have forgotten when working on the other project.)
Noting where you left off with each story is a helpful way to quickly jump back in the next day.  If you’re writing Project A and it’s time to move to Project B, do a one-line recap to refresh your memory when you return to the book the next day: Myrtle finished questioning Sybil and now plans to talk with Lucas about the argument he had.  
One more tip--if you're working on multiple projects, you might want to take care to carefully put everything on your calendar and make lists for all your non-writing-related activities.  I've dropped the ball in a spectacular way several times when I was working on two books at once.  Your mind is just so thoroughly engaged in the two worlds that it's hard to remember the dentist and doctor appointments, the carpool you're supposed to drive, etc.
And take care of yourself if you're working that hard.  Remember to eat and sleep and exercise.  Those things are also easy to forget when we're busy.
Have you ever worked on multiple projects before?  Did you enjoy it?  How did you make it work and keep it all straight?