“We don’t have time to do one thing at a time!”

In a comments thread on another writer’s Instagram feed the other day, the question of how to multi-task as a writer came up. Here is my approach:

Sooner or later in anything written by Aaron Sorkin, somebody will say: “We don’t have time to do one thing at a time!” It’s always uttered in a time of a big flurry of activity, usually by one of Our Heroes, as they gear up for several conflicts at once.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, I have first drafts to write and I have existing drafts to edit. I don’t have time to do one thing at a time!

I used to try, of course. I’ve been drafting an Alexandre Dumas-inspired fantasy novel for nearly three years now, which I code-name (for lack of an actual title) The Adventures of Lighthouse Boy (because it deals with the adventures of a young man who, at the beginning of the book, helps his father maintain a lighthouse). I ran into problems with it, because it was taking a long time to write, and I ran into the point when I really needed to work on edits for Stardancer.

So I shelved Lighthouse Boy (also in part because at the time I was having trouble with its story). Then I edited Stardancer and wrote the first draft of Ghostcop (again, not the actual title). Then I returned to Lighthouse Boy. Then I put Lighthouse Boy aside again because I needed to edit The Wisdomfold Path and start writing Forgotten Stars III and edit Ghostcop and so on. Now, I’m back to drafting Lighthouse Boy.

Oh, and another problem: all those times I shelved Lighthouse Boy, I lost touch with the story, so that both times I returned to it, I ended up starting it over.

Now it’s time to edit Forgotten Stars III, do final revisions on Ghostcop, and…well, it doesn’t really matter.

I don’t have time to do one thing at a time.

So, do I shelve Lighthouse Boy yet again? Knowing that I’m going to have to probably restart it yet again if I return to it? Knowing also that the book is my Big Doorstop Fantasy (seriously, this thing is going to be in excess of 200,000 words), my choices are to either keep on drafting it even while I work on other projects, or let all those other projects sit on the back burner until I get this one job done.

Neither of those appeals to me, because I’m also thinking in terms of my career here. I want to release at least one book a year for a while, which means continuing the Forgotten Stars series (with a probable break of two years between Books III and IV), launch the Ghostcop series, launch another space opera series that I haven’t even started yet, and eventually, release Lighthouse Boy, in what format, I’m not sure. (I’ve been thinking about serializing, but that’s for a much later time.)

I simply do not have time to one thing at a time!

So, then: since I have to multitask by working on projects at the same time, how do I do it? Well, I’ve set up a few rules:

1. Only ONE first-draft book at any time.

This is important because I don’t want any co-mingling of voices from one book to the other. The Forgotten Stars books have a tone that’s different from Ghostcop, and I fear that if I try writing a first draft of two books at once, it will be hard to maintain voice. (It may also be hard to maintain consistency, as I think I would almost certainly wind up favoring one book over the other, and that will simply not do.)

2. In a day’s work, the first-draft book gets precedence.

So far, I’ve been pretty good about drafting every day and also editing every day. But if the choice comes up — and occasionally it does, because this is Life and not just Writing — then I have to do the first-draft work first, before I write anything else. This means that my early-morning writing sessions — the 40 minutes or so I write before I get ready for work, from 6:10 to 6:50 am — are exclusively for drafting.

3. When I have to work on two projects per day, I lower the quota on the drafting project to 500 words a day.

This may sound like too much, but for me, it isn’t. Maintaining a daily quota is very important to me. Without one, I end up slacking too much. Usually my quota is 1500 words a day, if I don’t have anything else going on. But for me, 1500 words takes up a nice chunk of time, and it’s too much time if I also need to do some serious editing. Thus I lower it to 500 words, which hey, isn’t that bad anyway! It’s about one page of text in a mass-market paperback, so if you keep that pace for long enough, you can write an entire novel in a year. (Depending on how long your novel is, of course.)

4. Once I achieve the drafting project’s quota for the day, I don’t touch it again until the next day.

I like doing this because it really guards against burnout and keeps me energized on this book. I find that by not allowing myself to go very far beyond the quota (I often wind up around 650-700 words), it’s easier to jump back in the next day. It’s the “keep plugging away” approach: “Slow and steady wins the race”, or should I say, “gets the book written”.

I do raise the quota on weekends to 1000 words each day, and when I get to a point when I’m still drafting this book but the other projects are either caught up or on hold, I’ll up the quota again until things change.

5. Try not to have both projects be in the same genre.

This is important to me. I firmly believe in genre-hopping to keep fresh and interested and engaged, which is why I will never edit one Forgotten Stars book while drafting another.

6. Do first-round edits on a hard copy of the manuscript.

This is because I think it’s good to get the writing away from the computer and the same desk as always and everything. Whenever I finish a first draft, I print it out and put it in a binder; when it’s time to edit (at least three months later), out comes the red pen and I edit the thing. I do this because I think it’s good to get away from the screen once in a while, and there’s still nice tactile senses to working on paper. Now, I don’t know for how many more years this particular approach will be feasible, but we’ll see.

I can probably come up with more rules, but these are my big ones for when I have to maximize the time I have for the more-than-one-job that I have. It’s all about breaking the jobs down, so I can keep moving the ball forward, and it’s about keeping my writing-brain fresh and not tired from all the work I’m doing. Writing can be very tiring on the mental front, but there are hacks to get around that, and these are mine. I firmly believe that you can work on multiple projects at once (well, not exactly at once, but you take my meaning), so long as you plan things out and take a consistent approach.

What do you think, folks? Any other multi-taskers out there?


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