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

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The Muzzle of a Deadline

James Scott Bell

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. –– Douglas Adams
Sometime last year TKZ’s own John Gilstrap tweeted this: “Staring down the muzzle of a deadline, I’m beginning to panic.”
All of us who write under contract know that feeling. Right now I’m on deadline for two books, one fiction and one non-fiction. Through some inscrutable machination of Murphy’s Law (or as a punishment from God) both manuscripts are due about the same time. Add to that galley proofs that I have to get done by next week, and you have a prescription for rubber room admittance. I find myself walking around the house with my hand in my shirt crying, “Josephine! Josephine!”
My author colleagues know what I’m talking about.
But if you backed us up against the wall at a party, and forced us to elaborate further, we’d probably admit there’s a certain “high” in staring down that muzzle. Our nerve endings are on edge, we know deep inside that’s motivation to get cranking, that we’re on full alert, all our senses at the ready, like a hunter who knows the lion (if I may be Hemingway-esque for a moment) is silently watching from the bush.
Does that make any sense? Or shall we just accept the fact that the writing life is a  strange hybrid of joy and misery which, when mixed together, intoxicates with a seductive allure?
For those of you still awaiting publication, this is what you’re in for.
And while you are waiting, may I suggest you train yourselves now and create your own muzzles?
First, finish your book. Finish it! Give yourself a completion date. There are many reasons people have for not completing a book, most of them bad. Fear of failure might be one. Fear of hard work another (it’s fun to keep creating, less so get critiqued and fix things).
But you learn so much from completing a novel it’s best to do it as fast as you comfortably can.
Which brings us to the quota. I know there are some writers who reject the idea of a consistent production of words. But most, I think, see the absolute value of it.
This was one of the earliest pieces of advice I got, and helped me at just the right time in my career. It’s also allowed me to see published 25 books in a little over 15 years. Not a bad output. In fact, I look back with some astonishment at the record, and owe it to the quota.
I know there are other authors much more prolific than I, but I found just the right number to please my desire for production and my standards for the craft. I’m right where I want to be.
My suggestion is that you set a weekly quota. This is so you can break it down into days, and should you miss a day (which you will) you can make it up on the others.
Anthony Trollope was working for the British postal service and trying to become accepted as a novelist, when he began a quota system for is writing. In his autobiography he wrote:
There was no day on which it was my positive duty to write for the publishers, as it was my duty to write reports for the Post Office.  I was free to be idle if I pleased. But as I had made up my mind it to undertake this second profession I found it to be expedient to bind myself by certain self-imposed laws. When I have commenced a new book, I have always prepared a diary, divided into weeks, and carried it on for the period which I have allowed myself for the completion of the work. In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if, at any time, I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face and demanding of me increased labor so that the deficiency might be supplied.
You want to make it in this racket, you produce the words. You don’t need the muzzle of a contract deadline to do it. You can set your own.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go correct some pages. 

Josephine!

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That damned daily writing quota

I hate thinking about my daily writing quota.

Most writers live and publish by a quota, a magical number of words or pages of work they produce each day. Supposedly, Stephen King writes ten pages a day, every day, no matter what. Hemingway was a little more reasonable, at 500 words per day. 

The truth is, I don’t actually have a quota, not if one insists on the notion of measuring effort in terms of something solid and concrete, like numbers of words. My quota is more elastic, more ephemeral if you will: it’s time spent writing. I write for two hours each day in the late morning, no matter what. (Okay, sometimes I’ll write for 45 minutes a day, or 20, but those days are rare.)

The problem with my type of quota is that I’m a word worrier. I can spend the entire two hours nibbling around the edges of a single paragraph. The next day, I might strike that paragraph and start over. With this method, productivity, as you might imagine, is quite the wild card.

I do have occasional spells when the writing flows–I bound through the pages effortlessly, like Emily Dickinson’s frigate on a following sea. But those happy periods of clear sailing are inevitably followed by a dead calm, and I get bogged down on a single page for days. Or a single sentence,


“Just keep going!” When we’re stalled, this is the sage advice we get from most writing teachers, critique groups, and professional writers, But so far I’ve been incapable of doing that.  Sometimes I do leave a placeholder, something like, “Brilliant description of character goes here, but don’t do a generic description dump. Must be something fresh that will make the reader’s eyes widen in recognition.” One can take that kind of thing too far, however. You can wind up with an entire novel of placeholders, and then where would you be? Exactly where you started.

Well, now I’ve depressed myself simply by writing about my quota. What about you? What is your daily writing quota, when and where do you write, and how religious are you about keeping to it?

And if you write ten pages a day no matter what, don’t hold back. Don’t worry about the fact that I’ll be cranky at you for the rest of the day.


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