How to Work on More Than One Book at a Time

The most critical thing a writer does is produce. — Robert B. Parker
When I started writing seriously, after ten years of believing the Big Lie that you can’t learn to write fiction, I decided I had no time to waste. I wanted to be prolific. So I set out to work. Looking back at 20 years of getting paid for what I write, I see three practices that have helped me more than anything.
First, a quota. I’ve always written to a quota and that, IMO, is the most important thing a writer can put into practice.
Second, I systematically and consistently studied the craft. I read novels with intention, examining author technique. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest, went to conferences, devoured books on writing and practiced what I learned.
Third, I always worked on more than one project at a time. That’s what I want to talk about today.
No publishing house or agent is looking for one good book. They are looking for authors who can keep on writing them. Which is why it pains me when I see the same faces at writer’s conferences who are still working on the same projects, year after year.
I am always telling writers who show me their first finished manuscript, “That’s great! Congratulations. You learn a tremendous amount finishing a novel. Now get to work on the next one. And the one after that.”
This is especially important in the new era of self-publishing. The winning indie formula is quality production over time. You want a trend line that looks like this:

Upward direction is a function of producing new work, the best you can do, in various forms (short stories, novellas, novels, non-fiction). So work on more than one project at a time.
My method is to think of myself as a mini-studio. I always have a main project (my work-in-progress, or WIP). I have several projects “in development.” That means I’ve started making notes on character and plot, and perhaps a preliminary story board (I use Scrivener’s index card view for this). Projects in development go into a file I call “Front Burner.”
Then I have a file of hundreds of ideas I’ve collected over the years. Usually one or two lines. Sometimes just a title. I scan these ideas from time to time, looking for the ones that catch my fancy and, if they do, I make a few more notes. If I start to like something, I move it to the Front Burner.
As far as the writing itself goes, my first priority each day is to my WIP. I want to meet my word quota on that project. Part of my day will usually be spent editing a finished work. To do this, I print out a hard copy. I still like to be able to cross out and write notes on paper.
Another portion of my day will be spent on a Front Burner project. I prioritize these. I want to concentrate on the ones that meet this formula:
Desire to Write + Commercial Potential
Somewhere in the intersection of those two things is the project I “green light” for writing in full. I lean heavily on the desire line, because I believe you write best what you’re passionate about. For example, I love writing my Jimmy Gallagher boxing stories. They only make me Starbucks money, but I write them because I want to. Eventually there will be enough for a collection. I write the Sister J vigilante nun series because the concept was too good to pass up. (Note: I’ll have Force of Habit 2: And Then There Were Nuns out later this month. And a new Jimmy Gallagher next month). 
Now, I realize time is an issue for many writers. There’s the day job, the family, the remodel, the PTA. But that doesn’t mean a writer cannot put into practice a personal plan for prolificity (like all those p words? That was fun to write, but there’s no money in it). Here is what I suggest:
1. Figure out how many words you can comfortably write per week. Up that by 10%. Make that your writing quota.
2. Keep a notebook (or electronic equivalent) with you, and train yourself to think “What if?” all the time. Write down lots and lots of ideas in this notebook. The key to creativity is to take in a ton of ideas without judgment, and only later choose the best ones.
3. Spend a few hours each month looking at your idea file and expanding the ones you really like into a few paragraphs.
4. Try this: write like mad on your WIP. Take a break. Then write like mad on another project. Go back and forth.
5. Finish your novel. If you’d like some help with it, I will soon be offering you a way to do that. Check here for more information.
6. Revise your novel. At the same time:
7. Get to work on your next novel (or novella or story).
8. Never stop.
A plan like this, consistently followed, will please and amaze you. And you will be a real writer, one who produces words. That’s the main ticket in this game. Everything else is secondary.

What about you? Do you have some sort of system you follow for consistent productivity? How do you choose what projects to write? 
* * *

My new thriller DON’T LEAVE ME is available here:

30 thoughts on “How to Work on More Than One Book at a Time

  1. I like this post, Jim. I’ve been thinking about my next project while I’m finishing book #2 in my latest series. I worked up a massive proposal for another 3 book series & I’m itching to get to it. This one has three really detailed plot outlines so writing them should be easier. I put the work in on the lengthy proposal so I wouldn’t lose any ideas if I set it down.

    But I’ve never really worked on two projects simultaneously. I didn’t think that would work for me since I get so wrapped up in my WIP…and my daily quota ( a must for me).

    But after reading your post, and listening to that ever present niggling voice in my head, I think I might try it. Thanks & have a good Sunday.

    • That’s great, Jordan. Those three detailed plots are exactly what I’m talking about. In development, and a long way toward it.

      When I was pitching screenplays I learned about “development hell.” The nice thing for writers of fiction is that there is no such thing. Not even Purgatory. We are the ones who decide where a project goes.

  2. Thanks for this, Jim. I have lots of Exeter stories in progress, but I’ve not been good about working on more than one at a time, and I need to be. This was the kick in the pants I needed today, which was always designated as “Get Back On Track Day” after several weeks of work hell.

  3. I’m a writer newbie (although it’s been a lifelong goal), not yet published. But I’d like to stand up as a poster child for your wise advice, Jim.

    A couple of years ago I decided to work consciously at realizing my writing goals. Much of the last year has been devoted to the study you talk about — I re-read all my writing books, devoured each issue of WD, found the best quality blogs (like this one), joined a writer’s group, went to my first writing conference (even though we couldn’t afford it), and attended your fiction writing seminar in Austin last June.

    *I’ve written a short book about creating fictional characters which I plan to publish as an ebook. It’s currently being formatted and I’ll be releasing it next week.
    *As I’ve beeen getting that book ready, I’ve been working on the outline for a book on creative personality types; a collaboration with a fellow writer.
    *My active projects on Scrivener are a second cookbook and a mystery novella.
    *An article I wrote based on my interview with you, Jim, will be appearing in Southern Writers Magazine in May.
    *I recently spent some time with a private detective collecting information for the thriller I ultimately want to write.

    I haven’t yet been able to set and meet a quota, but I’m actively working on it and plan to have that habit established within the next few months.

    So, keep talking, Jim — some of us are indeed listening! Thank you for generously sharing your wisdom (that thanks goes out to all the killers on the Kill Zone).

  4. This is great. I haven’t been working on more than one thing at a time. And I don’t have a quota. But other than that I’m right with you. Uh huh. Thank you for this post. With it, I can see where the right track is.

  5. Great advice, especially since I’ve been following it. Working on 3 completely unrelated novels at once. The writing quota was the best advice you ever gave me (from your book, The Art of War For Writers). Thanks again.
    -Isabel B.

  6. James, I think we have run into the same writers at conferences. (those poor souls who’ve been chained to one manuscript for ten years.) As you said, that is the path to failure and frustration. If you do get lucky and nab and agent or editor, the first question out of their mouth will be: “What else are you working on?”

    Even if you’re self-pubbing on Amazon, you can’t succeed on one book.

    Like Jordan, I used to be a monogamous writer but ebooks are pushing me into approaching writing more like you do. I’m finding that far from confusing me, it sort of recharges dead batteries.

    • I find that, too, Kris, the “recharging.” Working on more than one project generates electricity for me. In fact, when one project dulls in the senses, working on a short story or novella or outline freshens me up.

  7. Thank you thank you thank you!

    One of those nasty “rules” floating around on the Internet is you can’t work on more than one project at once, in case you abandon it in favor of the new project.

    But then, when you get published, you’re expected to be able to juggle more than one project, so this bit of “wisdom” never made sense to me.

    On thing I’ve always wondered was HOW exactly people juggle projects. Now I know. 😀

    I’ve found that spending that much time developing an idea has been really helpful, since the idea tends to grow and mature the more I work on it.

    I just finished the first draft of that zombie novel I keep talking about, so this is a perfect time to test out drafting and revision at the same time.

    Knockout Novel sounds awesome, btw, especially since you’re not coming anywhere near the East Coast with your Next Level Seminar this year. Can’t wait!

    • Man, I hate “rules.” There’s maybe a nugget of good advice in “don’t work on more than one thing at a time” but I think it is for those writers whose brains are too scattered or those who really don’t want to finish ANYTHING because that means they then have to send it out and risk rejection. But most of us can walk and chew gum at the same time, right?

  8. James, this was very helpful! I just finished my first piece of fiction (which is the first of a series.) and am currently in the rewrite. Your tips were very helpful! I will try out some of your tips! 🙂

    Also I was wondering how do you go about your edit/rewrite process?
    I am having issues with it.

  9. It also pains me to see the same handful of writers at a certain conference always working on the exact same thing. Just retooling the plot to fit the current trends. So sad, and what a waste of time and monye.

    Me? This week I started writing my third novel in nine months. Didn’t even skip a day. Typed The End Sunday, and Chapter One Monday. I write every day.

    While I’m writing on this one I’m in development on another one and the one I just finished is resting at the back of my mind so I can tackle the massive edits it needs before it’s ready to go anywhere.

  10. Great info, thanks! TIme is the big factor. I’ve got 2-1/2 hours every day to write and I feel like I have to focus 100% on my WIP. The extra minutes I can steal away is spent marketing my first book.

  11. I have always a multi tasker with multiple novels and a stream of shorts always in the works on top of one or two audio projects while doing 1.5 day jobs. My main problem is prioritizing. Paid audiobooks come first after day jobs. Then the books, all of which along at a sometimes chaotic, sometimes escargotic pace. Organizing the chaos is my hardest task.

    My wife says its like I’m juggling 7 balls at once. It feels more like I’m juggling 3 balls, a machete, 2 chainsaws, and a flamethrower…and singing Bohemian Rhapsody … all with a smile.

  12. Great advice, although I find I have a hard time working on multiple projects and juggling a day job, too, because each project takes a certain critical mass of focus to keep it going. That underlines the importance of #2 above, because the ideas keep coming and if you don’t at least make a quick note they’re gone forever.

  13. I am finding the marketing aspects are taking up more and more of my writing time. I’ve had more books come out in the last year and this year than ever before in one period, and keeping up with the promotional activities can be draining. That’s the problem for me more than the writing schedules.

  14. Love this advice. My instinct is to have many projects going, but like another person said above, it seems like all the advice tells you to stick to one thing no matter what. I love being able to go back and forth on various pieces. I also love the idea of writing to a quota, but I have a question. Do you revise to a quota, too? I’m curious how you decide how much you need to get done in a week for editing/revising/rewriting. How do you set goals for that?

  15. I read lots of writing blogs, then delete them immediately. This post was so inspirational and wise that, not only did I star it, but I read it more than once. Thank you for posting this.

  16. a pleasure to read your post, i almost do the exact same thing. i also have a notebook in case i suddenly have an idea and need to write it down. i read my novel more than once and add or delete. it’s a lot of work, but i believe the end result is worth it. i’m also glad to know i’m not the only one who wishes to write two stories at the same time!

  17. Great advice, Jim. I have various projects on the go at once. This is mainly because when I hit a block on my WIP, I find it useful to start or work on something different for a while. Most of them don’t amount to much, but I guess that’s just part of the process.

  18. This is great advice, James. But you know that! I find I need deadlines. Not self-imposed ones. I amazed myself in November by successfully completing NaNo. Never have I written so much (crap) in such a short time. I’ll have to be more persistent. I now have three novels in progress, 60K, 51K(!) and 30K so far, and none finished.

  19. It’s nice to know writing more than one novel is commonplace. I have a set schedule for projects. For WIP’s; 1k per day. As I’m working on 3 that’s 3k per day. Easy enough and as I don’t work outside the home, I have all day to write.

    Revisions and edits are on a different schedule. For revisions; 2 pages per day, I know that doesn’t sound like much, but when you schedule in blog post and a couple rounds on social media, the day flies by. Edits are done a chapter a day, and generally on just one project.

    It sounds easy, but it took several years to get this schedule into place.

Comments are closed.