Monday, June 20, 2011

Juggling Acts: Can You Work on Multiple Novels at Once?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It's not uncommon to hear people ask, "Is it okay to work on more than one project at a time?" Since I don't know a single writer who doesn't have multiple stories in the works, I'd have to say the answer to this question is a big Yes -- But...

Multiple stories can help free your creativity and give you something to work on while another idea is still brewing. It's a great way to jump start your muse if you're having trouble putting two sentences together. Early on, when you haven't yet figured out what makes a good story and what doesn't, bouncing between projects and seeing what works and what falls flat is an important learning experience. It's also a great way to find your voice and figure out what you like to write and what you're good at.

And now for the but...

Jumping around too much can lead to never finishing a project or developing the discipline needed to be a professional novelist. Every novel reaches a point where the shine is gone and we can't stand the thought of looking at it again. It's easy to move on to a fresh new story that still has that shine. I've no doubt everyone reading this has at least one partial novel that got set aside with the promise that you'd go back to it.

Sometimes moving on is the right choice, sometimes it's not. But how do you know?

Oh! Shiny
If you find yourself dropping projects around the same time every time, you might be suffering from New Project Distraction. You get three chapters, 30,000 words, or whatever the length in and then find yourself bored. A few times is fine as you work out what story you want to work on, but if you find yourself doing this over and over, you might want to stick your butt in the chair and finish one just to prove to yourself that you can.

Possible Problem: If you stall fairly soon in a novel, there's a good chances it's a goal or motivation issue. You just don't know where the story goes because you don't know what the protagonist wants. You might also have a premise novel, where you have a cool idea, but no one has anything personal at stake to drive the story. Try the one sentence technique: My story is about [protagonist] who has a [problem] and needs to solve it before [stakes]. Pinpoint what the story is about and who is driving it and you'll probably see what you need to do to move forward.

This Sucks
You've reached a point where you really hate your novel and can't bear to look at it. You hate the writing, the story, the characters. You feel like you're wasting your time with this book and maybe even writing in general.

Possible Problem: The book might just suck. Or you've learned things that allowed you to see flaws you missed before. Your tastes might have even changed. When you really hate a book, taking a break can be a good idea to give your a more objective view. Time away gives you distance, and working on something new can help spur ideas for the old project. Sometimes projects do need to be abandoned. Don't worry about moving on if you feel you need to.

Yawn, I'm Bored
There's nothing wrong with the book, it just doesn't grab you anymore and you find yourself writing yawn-worthy scenes. Every word feels like work even though you still like the story. Moving on to a fresh new story is more exciting.

Possible Problem: This happens most often when we're doing a lot of revising and reading the book over and over. The story might be boring, but it might also be that you've read it so often nothing feels fresh. This is a good example where working on something new can jump start the creative juices and give you time to forget the story so when you go back, it feels fresh again.

Juggling projects isn't always a bad thing. I always had several going at once while I was trying to get published. However, when I have a contract and obligations to get books written, I find that it's nigh impossible for me to work on multiple projects at the same time. But technically, I guess I still work on multiple projects, because I'll be editing book one while writing book two and plotting out book three. It's just more focused.

If the writing is fun and you're learning and enjoying yourself, write however you want. You don't need to buckle down until you want to seriously pursue a publishing career. And even then, if you can work on several projects at once, there's nothing wrong with doing it. But if you're always moving onto the next project, that could indicate you're missing a skill or two needed to finish a book.

What novels have you set aside? Did you eventually move on or stick with it, and why?

More articles on process and first novels:
The Stages of a Writer
When You Can't Write What You Love to Read
How Do You Know if You're Writing is Getting Better?
Writing That First Novel


  1. Great post! I've tried to do multiple projects, but it's too hard for me to shift gears. I get so wrapped in one imaginary world, if I try to work on something else, one of the projects will inevitably suffer. Thanks for the tips!

  2. awesome! i'm working on four books at once right now, but they're all related and it's actually helping me iron out details. :D

  3. Very cool observations, Janice.

  4. I have a YA book I'm working on as a side project to my main WIP, the follow-up to my first book. It's been great fun having a different world and set of charactes to sink into if I need a break. Though I am concerned I'll end up spending too much time away from my main WIP.

  5. I have enough trouble working on edits of one MS while trying to write another. I'm definitely a one project at a time person.

    Terry's Place

  6. I can edit book one--write book two--and outline book three, but that is all the multitasking I can do.

    If I need a creative bump I will try to write a boring scene from a new perspective.

  7. I do all the time. Too many ideas in my head, they've got to find a home.
    Probably a bit mad, but it works for me. I have several projects on the go. A question to know your priorities, I make notes and get back to the main project. It keeps me excited, and helps producing a fresh flow of ideas.

  8. I jump from my fiction to my nonfiction project, depending on my mood that day--which seems to work for me, even if it does make me feel like I have multiple personalities. I do the same with reading as well; I usually have three books stashed in various places around the house!

  9. I have wondered how other authors do this. I can write one & edit another, but it's hard to jump between writing two novels when the voice is different. Thanks for the tips.

  10. Good thoughts on whether to do more than one project at once. I'm thinking of trying it and have sort of started it. I juggle things so much at work that it might not be bad with writing. Especially when one is pretty done and you're waiting for your beta reader comments.

  11. I find I typically have one "main" WIP and several other ideas I'm working on less seriously. Having multiple projects definitely helps spark ideas and entice the muse.

    I'm working on an adult fantasy right now, but whenever I need a boost, I turn to my middle-grade project. It's got a lighter tone, faster pace, and is tons of fun to write. It's like a mini-vacation that re-energizes me to return to my "main" piece.

  12. "This happens most often when we're doing a lot of revising and reading the book over and over. The story might be boring, but it might also be that you've read it so often nothing feels fresh. This is a good example where working on something new can jump start the creative juices and give you time to forget the story so when you go back, it feels fresh again."

    This statement sums it up for me. I never move on to the next story, until I am finished with the second draft. Then I let it sit for a long while, before returning to finish the last two drafts.

  13. I had one that I set aside. It was my first novel, and I'd run into a major problem on it. I'd get to about pg 100 or so and get really stuck. I couldn't figure out why I was stuck, so I'd rewrite what I had, hoping to find the solution, reach the same point, and get stuck again. I couldn't even figure out what the problem was, so I couldn't solve it. But it was my only idea, so I stuck to it. It wasn't until someone offered to cowrite a book with me that I thought about it and realized that if I stuck with the first book, I'd never finish one. Since I couldn't quite bring myself to shelve it, I decided to put it on hold and work on the other one. Finishd the second one, and in doing so, I realized that I had spent so much time on the first novel that I'd grown out of it. So I had no qualms about shelving it then.

    Unfortunately, the second book with the cowriter ended up being shelved to because that relationship blew to pieces.

  14. I've got four novels going right now and working on staying focused on them. When I need a break from one, I go to one of the other ones. I'm still making progress, so I can't say what a crazy thing it is, but it's certainly not the easy way. It's taking a long time to get to the end, but I haven't given up yet.

    But working on one story sometimes suggests a solution for a problem area in another one. Sort of the idea that you find what you're looking for when looking for something else.

  15. I've realized that when I go to work on a new novel, the old one gets left behind. Hopefully I can go back to one this summer. Great tips. :)

  16. I've set aside a novel for nearly 4 years because I did not have the inclination to learn the craft of writing. I have now picked it up and am feeling the "oh shiny" still - - I expect it will wear off in time...but I'll enjoy it for now. :)

  17. I do admire those of you who can juggle multiple projects. I always wished I could, but it just never works out well for me. At least I can plot and plan multiple novels at once, so that does let me "work" on several projects. That does cut down on the down time between projects. Though actually, I enjoy that downtime. Hmmm...

  18. Working on multiple projects is my forte, finishing them is not ;) but my WIP was first in line, it would feel weird finishing off the others before that one

    1. LOL, that would be tough. On the bright side, you might finish all of them around the same time and have a slew of novels.