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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Success with Multiple Writing Projects Requires a “Reasonable” Number


Of course, a reasonable number of projects varies from writer to writer and from situation to situation. For example, Stephaine O’Brien recommends focusing on one primary project until it’s complete and working on other projects whenever inspiration strikes.

I can’t possibly tell you what’s reasonable for you. But I can tell you that making conscious choices about the number of projects you work on simultaneously will allow you to complete more projects and be more satisfied with your writing.

“Reasonable” Depends on Resources

To determine what’s reasonable for you, consider your available time, creative energy and focus.

Time is relatively easy is assess.

Start with your calendar (digital or paper) and a list of the projects you’re contemplating. Assume you will give each project discrete Product Time sessions. If you wonder why it’s essential to set time boundaries for multiple writing projects or how to do that, I recommend “Prioritizing Multiple Writing Projects” by Todd Rogers.

For each hypothetical project, block out typical Product Time sessions (5 to 15 minutes commitment plus the additional target time you usually strive for) for a month or two. Be sure to not schedule Product Time when you have other commitments to family and friends, another job if you have one, personal life (don’t forget groceries, laundry and dentist appointments), etc.

Don’t worry – this hypothetical schedule is an inventory of your time, not a commitment.

Even if you plan to decide day-by-day which project to attend to, identify the projects by name on the calendar to ensure each projecty gets enough regular Product Time.

Actually allocate and commit to Product Time on the calendar only when you know you’ll have the time AND the creative energy and ability to focus on the project.

Like physical energy and mental energy, creative energy is limited and constantly changing. It is drained by other creative demands like remodeling your home, planning a big family event, solving problems, doing creative work at another job.

Creative energy is restored with rest, time outdoors and creative play, aka Process. Some writers think they should decrease Process to give themselves more time for Product Time; the opposite is true. The more time you can give to Product Time, the more you need Process time.

When you genuinely immerse yourself into playtime with children, temporarily free of parenting responsibilities, those kids can boost your creative energy.

Like creative energy, your ability to focus and pay attention is drained by other demands (creative and other). Major life changes – marriage, divorce, a birth, a death, moving to a new home or workplace – drain capacity for attention. Likewise, other cognitive demands – working on a degree, learning a new skill at work, teaching, parenting, following politics and other news – drain capacity for attention.

Health concerns, your own and others, consume focus. The longer the problem persists, the greater the drain. Frequently multitasking, spending more than four hours a day with your phone and other screens, or being in environments with frequent or overwhelming sensory input can also splinter your ability to focus.

Keep these factors in mind as you commit to Product Time on your calendar.

Track how you honor each commitment for a couple of months. Then look back and assess how you honored your commitments.

If you commit to Product Time from 8:45-9:00 am and show up at 9:15-9:30 pm, count that as honoring the commitment. If you commit to Product Time on a Tuesday and show up on Wednesday instead, still count that as honoring the commitment.

But if you show up for an hour on Wednesday when you committed to a half-hour on both Tuesday and Wednesday, it counts as honoring one day’s commitment, not two.

If you’re not consistently honoring commitments, you need downgrade some of those commitments to the “Not Now” lane.

Reasonable Depends on Diversity

For the most part, I need diversity among the writing projects I’m working on. It’s relatively easy for me to manage my blog while developing a novel because they’re different genres (non-fiction vs. fiction) and have different scopes (short posts I can complete in a week vs. a huge work I’ll work on for at least a year). I find it far more challenging to maintain my blog and query a writing publication about an article because the projects are so similar.

It’s easy for me to manage my agent search project for my first novel and the development project for my next novel because they require very different tasks. Agent search is now primarily administrative, tracking who I’ve queried and what their responses are, with occasional research on agents I might add to the query list.

Of course, what’s easy for me isn’t necessarily easy for you. On the WriterUnboxed blog, Heather Webb discusses how too much diversity in the historical periods of multiple fiction projects became problematic for her:

I discovered quickly that I could not be in old Paris and the twentieth century at the same time. The dialogue, the mannerisms, the societal norms were all so different that I found I was making too many errors. I finally made the tough decision to pause on my 20th century projects to finish the French Revolution before continuing forward.

Reflect on what easier for you:

  • different or same genres (e.g. does poetry match well with non-fiction for you?)
  • different or same topics (e.g. can you juggle poetry and non-fiction if both are about winter in Minnesota?)
  • different or same scopes (e.g. do you need a few short projects for a quick creative fix while working on a book-length project?)

Reasonable Depends of Stages of the Creative Process

You’ll find detailed information about the Six Stages of the Creative Process in chapter 4 of Around the Writer’s Block and shorter discussions here and here

Keep in mind that the larger the project, the more times you will circle through the six stages. A blog post, poem or short piece might require one or two cycles through the six stages; a novel requires so many times through the stages, I don’t even try to count.

It would be extremely difficult for me to repeatedly move through Stages 1-4 to develop two novels at the same time. I need all my creative energy and focus to keep one setting, one set of characters and the multiple series of events possible with those characters in that world straight in my mind.

On the other hand, I had little trouble shifting between copy-editing one novel (Stage 5) and developing blog posts (Stages 1-4).

We all have individual preferences and strengths we bring to the different stages, so there are few absolutes to make. Nonetheless, considering what stage each of your writing projects is in and how you work in the different stages will suggest when you can successfully manage multiple projects and when you might need to narrow in on fewer projects.

One guideline I do strongly recommend is that you don’t attempt to Incubate (Stage 3) multiple projects at the same time. Don’t set a project aside when you complete the research (Stage 2); the feeling that you can’t keep the research details straight is essential to move you through Incubation.

Incubation is commonly mistaken as writer’s block because the progress you’re making is almost entirely unconscious. It’s also the stage most likely to trigger a misguided impulse to jump to a different project  to avoid frustration. (Watch for more about “project-hopping” in an upcoming post.) Stick with the Incubation until you reach Illumination (Stage 5). If If you need to narrow your focus, set other projects aside to keep the focus on the incubating project.

Similarly, be sure you don’t short-change Stage 6, Hibernation. Completing a book or other major project usually means ramping up marketing and promotion projects. Do this essential work of course, but keep Product Time available for the creative-energy-restoring activities of Hibernation so you don’t burn out.

Sources

Stephanie O’Brien, “Juggling Multiple Writing Projects and Actually Finishing Them” from Adazing.com accessed January 2019 at https://www.adazing.com/juggling-multiple-writing-projects/

Todd Rogers, “Prioritizing Multiple Writing Projects” from How to Write a Book Now.com, accessed January 2019 at https://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/prioritizing-multiple-writing-projects.html

Heather Webb, “Juggling Multiple Writing Projects at Once: Exhausting or a Bright Idea” from WriterUnboxed.com accessed January 2019 at https://writerunboxed.com/2018/06/28/juggling-multiple-writing-projects-at-once-exhausting-or-a-bright-idea/

Rosanne Bane, Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance, 2012, Tarcher/Penguin/Random House, pg. 67-79

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2 Comments on “Success with Multiple Writing Projects Requires a “Reasonable” Number”

  1. kperrymn January 31, 2019 at 8:30 am #

    Thanks for this timely post. Just yesterday, I was brainstorming some ideas for an essay. I wrote them down but then questioned whether I should even be thinking about something like that when I am “behind” in my goals for my book project. I appreciate these tools for organizing my time so that the creative energy from one project can feed the other. I think the reminder to allocate specific product time to each project will be especially helpful. Many, many, thanks!!

    Like

    • rosannebane January 31, 2019 at 2:59 pm #

      You’re most welcome KPerry! Just curious: what does “behind in my goals for my book project” mean? Are you honoring your commitments? If you have goals beyond your commitments (aka targets), are they reasonable? Do you need to/can you commit more time to the book (more Product Time sessions per week, not longer Product Time sessions)? Or do you need to scale back on your commitments to relieve you of a nagging sense of being “behind.” Think about these questions; I’m truly curious what insights you have to share about this.

      Like

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