Dueling Manuscripts


by Michelle Gagnon

So I’m currently working on two writing projects at the same time. One of the novels I’m actually getting paid for, the other is a passion project that I started last year and have yet to finish. The goal is to complete both novels in the next six months.

These days, dueling manuscripts aren’t a rarity–in fact, most of the writers I know are doing the same, publishing multiple books a year just to stay afloat.

But a few weeks into this multitasking adventure, I can’t for the life of me figure out how they’re managing it. I feel like I’m trying to nudge two balls up a mountain simultaneously: I manage to move one a few feet, only to discover that the other has slipped down and I have to race back to it.

In the past I’ve worked on short stories while writing a novel, or tackled a screenplay while editing a book. But this is the first time I’ve confronted the challenge of working on two completely separate series simultaneously. Better yet, one is geared toward a Young Adult audience, and I’m still somewhat confused about what limitations that places on it (I don’t generally have much sex in my books, but my characters do tend to have filthy mouths. Is that okay? Do teens say “like” anymore? And what kind of music are the kids listening to these days anyway? You see the problem.)

My agent expressed concern when we first discussed the possibility of signing a new book contract. After all, we’d agreed that I would take my time with the passion project (which will henceforth be referred to as MOPWW, or “My Own Personal White Whale”), working on it without deadline pressure.
“So you’re sure you can write both in that timeframe?” she asked (sounding, in all honesty, a little dubious).
“Oh, absolutely,” I said with confidence. “In fact, I’ll probably have them both done early.”

Ha ha ha.

While contract negotiations were finalized, I did my utmost to finish MOPWW. Unfortunately, I didn’t succeed, and suddenly the “i’s” were dotted and “t’s” were crossed and the September 1st deadline for the YA novel became a reality. I was forced to admit that I’d have to work on both books at the same time.

Initially, I didn’t think it would be a problem. I figured I’d spend mornings on one, and then alternate after lunch. Easy, right?

The problem is, I end up becoming so engaged with one project, it’s hard to switch gears. I find myself really wanting to forge ahead with MOPWW, to the complete neglect of the other manuscript (you know, the one I’m actually getting paid for). Just one more day, I figure. If I can write just a few more scenes, and get within striking distance of the ending, I can set it aside and work on the YA in earnest…

Next thing I know, another week has passed and I’ve primarily made progress on the whale.

Meanwhile, that deadline clock is ticking away in the background, dishes are piling up in the sink, laundry is overflowing the hamper, bills are sitting on my desk unopened (and oh, the mess on my desk–I’m sure it puts Clare’s to shame).
So how do people do it? And is anyone willing to take care of these dishes for me?

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11 thoughts on “Dueling Manuscripts

  1. The thought that occurs to me is to work in two different places. Work on the whale in say a coffee shop and then tackle the YA book at home. That gives you clear definitions of when and how to work on both.

  2. I’m definitely of the Asimov school, working on multiple projects. I might have one main fiction, one main non-fiction, then various in development. With e-publishing now, I also have works headed there as well. I’m writing more now than I ever have. I find that working on one project for a time, then going to another for a spurt, seems to recharge the mind.

    One thing that may help: I give myself permission to do only 100 words on a “switch to” project. That takes the pressure off, and inevitably I do more. I’ll definitely major, however, on those projects that have deadlines attached.

  3. I’d prioritize my efforts on the manuscript that is contracted, and allow myself Jim’s 100-word daily progress on the other one. That way you wouldn’t feel like you’re slipping behind.

  4. I’m working two at once but they are a part of the same story. One is a YA perspective on the same timeline with younger related characters. The other is more serious. The YA sprang out of the other when I hit a block. It was initially meant to be a throwaway piece to reboot my brain but I fell in love with the MC.

    I put most of my focus on the original WIP but allow the second WIP to parallel the other and keep the juices flowing. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”. It’s as true today as when Franklin penned it two hundren years ago. Your main WIP is paying for your pleasure piece. Make sure it gets paid for and the (mayby) slightly delayed 2nd will double your money!

  5. I agree with John. I almost always work on (at least) two novels at once, and by separating where I work on them, it allows me to more easily switch my frames of mind between the two.

    That said, I do recommend working on a story for a few days before switching to the other – I find I burn out a lot faster if I switch every day.

  6. Working in different locations for each book is a great suggestion–I’m going to give that a shot, thanks!

    I’m not sure that 100 words will be enough, but I think that maybe limiting the passion project to 500 words/day might work. It’s just so tough to put it aside when I feel like there’s some real momentum there.

    I think that switching off days might work best for me. So today I’ll devote entirely to the YA novel.

  7. At any given time I have one new novel being built, an outline/idea notes on another, and edits of another going on. And perhaps a short story. I tend to switch around depending on my mood and if I hit a slow spot or a snag in whatever else I am doing. But, I’ve never been on a deadline which makes me think I may not do it this way if I were. Deadlines make for tighter focus.

  8. Great post and comments. It’s not a new issue, but I think the approach now is different. Authors didn’t want to choose between competing, exciting projects in their psyche before. Now, authors want to produce enough work so they don’t have to memorize cool lines like “You want fries with that?” and “But on you, that looks good!”.

    Which brings me to my questions: there’s lots of talk on blogs and such about authors working “hard” to make a living nowadays, but no one really addresses the subject pointblank. How do you make it as a writer in today’s world? Is it even possible for a new author to have a chance to make writing anything but an avocation? Are ebooks a Godsend, or shot in the dark just shy of self-publishing?

    Ultimately, should anyone bother trying to be a novelist as a career?

    — despondent in Toronto

  9. I can’t really speak to your primary issue, but I can tell you about teenagers in my own little sphere of influence as a high school teacher in western North Carolina. You’d think it was California the way some of them talk and behave. The culture of the sunshine state seems to infiltrate everything some days.

    Anyway, there’s *way* too much to put in a comment. Send me an email. I’m dsmith77-at-gmail-dot-com.

  10. Martin- It’s definitely more difficult than it used to be. But there is the good news, especially with regard to the surge in ebook sales. Some authors are doing well by selling directly to readers. And I’ve discovered that even though I sell through a traditional publisher, my backlist is making me as much or more money than new book contracts each year. In the past, books went out of print and were much harder for readers to find after a few years. Not so these days–if someone reads your latest and loves it, with a few clicks they can purchase your entire body of work. And based on my experience, that’s exactly what they’re doing. So once you’ve earned out on your original advance, that’s a constant income stream.

    I also know a lot of writers who make the bulk of their money through foreign sales. Some triple or quadruple what they received for North American rights in foreign markets–for me, that’s one of the main arguments to sticking with traditional publishers, otherwise foreign sales are nearly impossible to access.

    All that being said, advances are getting smaller every year. So yes, it certainly helps to have more than one project in the pipeline.

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