Workshop Multiple Projects: Take Conrol!


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Vision 70

 

Workshop:

 

Multiple Projects: Take Control!

By

Lazette Gifford

Joyously Prolific Blog

Copyright © 2013, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

Authors who plan to make a career in the publishing business (traditional or indie) should be on the look out for writing opportunities which will help them get their name in front of the reading public. Sometimes a short article in a writing magazine, for instance, can reach new readers by a venue outside the usual marketing lines. Short stories can do the same, and even writing something like a blog on a regular basis can draw potential fans.

 

Assessing your time, tracking your work and especially taking control of the larger projects will allow you to know what is safe for you to take on, and make certain that you get your projects done and submitted on time.

 

 

 

Part One: Overall Management

 

Time

 

If you actively pursue new writing opportunities, you might sometimes find yourself deluged with different writing projects and each on its own deadline. These can be everything from a novel under contract to a short story for an anthology or a nonfiction article to a writing magazine. Making certain you get all of your work done on time—and written well—is important to maintaining good relationships with editors and publishers.

 

The first and most important aspect of project control is to logically evaluate your time constraints. Saying, for instance, you work from nine-to-five and have the rest of the day and weekends free to write is not realistic. You must travel to and from work, have dinner, maybe spend time with your family and friends, do housework and perhaps even have some community obligations.

 

It may turn out that at best you have only an hour of truly free time to write during each work week day. Counting on anything more would be counter-productive to the process of arranging your work load to best handle the writing.

 

This hour also involves more than just sitting down at the keyboard and clicking out words. There is research to consider and editing as well. Every project, from a new fiction novel to a short nonfiction article, will require some of both.

 

Keeping track of the timeframe for a large task (like a novel under contract) is an important aspect of project control. Once you have control of your schedule, you’ll know if adding another project is a reasonable decision.

 

Even if you are working only with short stories, the overall process is the same, and you’ll need to evaluate how long each story will take you to write. Try to overestimate the amount of time it will take you, because some padding will help with the projects which inexplicably stall.

 

The Big S

 

 Stress can have a negative effect on your writing so you will need to avoid it as much as you can. Never underestimate what taking on more work than you can comfortably handle will do to your ability to write. Deadlines are stress-inducing, no matter how well planned the work may be, and any little bit of real life—good or bad—might upset your writing schedule. If you’re not used to having a steady writing workload without time to recover and replenish between projects, you may find that having too many of them can create a problem.

 

One of the hardest lessons (especially for someone just starting out on a career) is learning when and how to say no to a prospective writing assignment, but keep in mind that if you can’t make the deadlines it’s also not going to help your fledgling career. You must quickly learn to judge how much writing work you can handle. If you have a fulltime day job as well, taking on too many writing assignments can be more work than the return warrants.

 

Being asked for material is thrilling the first few times and the excitement alone can get you through the work, even if you are already busy. If you already have contracts for manuscripts, like a novel due to a publisher, it must take priority over any new projects, no matter how much fun they look. The wonderful idea for a new short story/book/series must be put on hold. If you have work under contract, you dare not let your imagination wander too far off the path to explore new territory, and lose the feel for the material which must get done.

 

Occasionally a writer may be able to postpone a proposed project until later. If a magazine asks for a nonfiction article or short story for their next issue, but you are already strapped for time, ask to have a spot in a future issue instead. Then put the item into your schedule and make certain you get it done early, if possible. If you are working on several small projects, line them up according to due date, make certain that you have time to do the research you need, and work your way through them.

 

Once you have a larger project, like a novel under contract, you need to start thinking in terms of more complex schedules. Even if you only have a single novel to get through, and no side projects, giving yourself a timetable is a good way to make certain that you get the work done on time.

 

In fact, you would be wise to set your timetable so the novel will be done ahead of the date the book is due to the publisher. Giving yourself as much leeway as possible will allow for moderate vacations and ‘real life’ disasters—or even an occasional smaller project along the way.

 

If you have more than one project that needs to be done, you’ll need to sit down and figure out which one is going to take more time. A nonfiction article of a thousand words may look like something you can write in a weekend, but—once again—don’t forget to factor in research and edits. Don’t underestimate the time it will take to complete. Better to have extra time than not enough.

 

Many new writers with novel contracts, seeing that they have months to do the work, put it off in favor of doing other things. Here’s something to consider though: Are you one of those people who end up making your holiday gifts the week after they should have been in the mail? Do you find yourself rushing to get the last minute work done before you go off on vacation, even though you had weeks to prepare before hand?

 

Then make a schedule, start early and work on your material without fail. Writing a novel is not something you want to leave to the last minute.

 

 

Organization

 

 Ideas, character creation, worldbuilding, outlines for novels, research notes, interviews and outlines for nonfiction articles—there are numerous pieces that go into projects, and that’s even before you get to the manuscript writing. You will want to have some way so that you can keep all of this information in a readily-accessible format. A plain paper notebook can be good for many of the pieces, especially if you can carry it with you and are able to add notes at any time. A three-ring binder is better because you can put both handwritten and computer-generated notes in one, rearrange them to suit you and easily add in extra pieces of information as you find them.

 

For those who keep everything on the computer, it doesn’t hurt to make periodic printouts and to occasionally replace the older copies of information with updated ones. It’s also wise, of course, to make back up files and keep them somewhere safe and away from the computer. In fact, even if you handwrite most of your material, you may want to set up a schedule where you either type or scan the material into the computer, thereby making a back up of your handwritten material as well.

 

Note cards can be kept in notebooks by either taping them to pages or buying plastic pages into which they can be slid. This last will allow you to rearrange them as you need to, and to easily group them for reading.

 

How you organize the material is up to you. However, remember that it doesn’t help you to do the hard work of research, worldbuilding and character creation if you can’t find or access the information when you later need it.

 

Charting Your Progress

 

 Many writers find it useful to chart their progress and word count totals, especially if they have a deadline to make. Such a chart, done on Microsoft Excel™ or any other like program, can allow you to track the number of words you’ve written along with how many more you need to do per day to meet your deadline. You can, of course, do the same on paper or on a calendar where you can write the information. Making certain that you stay on track during the actual story writing is very important. All the preparation in the world won’t help if you don’t apply yourself to the writing and stick to it. This is one of the main places where the ability to self-motivate is essential. Having something that tracks the work and makes you look at your results can help.

 

This will also give you a way of watching which projects need your immediate attention before they fall too far behind. You may not have the choice of setting aside all other writing work in favor of a big project like a novel. If not, keeping a calendar and checking it regularly is going to be very important. You may also need to build in alerts that give you plenty of time before a deadline to get work done. Having an alert that says “send article today” will not be nearly as helpful as “article due in three days” with follow ups on the next two days. Computer programs like Microsoft Outlook™ are an excellent way to organize such warnings, but only if you keep them updated and pay attention to them when they arrive.

 

Writing to any regular schedule will work—every day, three days a week, only on weekends—whatever works best for you. However, if you have fewer writing days, you will need to write more material at each sitting. If you fall behind, don’t worry—as long as you continue to write, you will get the novel done.

 

A writer who has trouble sitting down and working might join in dares, challenges, marathons, and other anti-procrastination games that can be found at various places on the Internet. Forward Motion (http://fmwriters.com) runs something every month, besides having regular two month long challenges of various types. It might be just what you need to focus on the work and learn how to pace yourself for longer writing projects.

 

 

Part Two: Organizing Projects

 

 There is no sure way to schedule in something like the writing of articles or short stories when you are working on a bigger project like a novel. You have to decide when you’re comfortable with writing them. If you find that writing something else breaks your feel for a novel, then don’t do smaller projects during the writing phase. You might even find that you do an entire novel project from idea to submission, and then take some time to write smaller projects before you start a new novel. If you have projects that are time-sensitive, make certain you get them done as quickly as possible. There is nothing that will induce writer’s block faster than an article you haven’t started that needs to be completed in the next day.

 

There’s something else worth mentioning: Avoid projects you don’t want to write. Just because you are offered a possibility doesn’t mean you have to take it. It’s better to turn down an article, book or short story possibility than to find yourself stuck working on something you dislike. That dislike can translate into two problems. First, your prose isn’t likely to shine in something you don’t like. Second, a disagreeable project can slow you down and take time from other

 

 

 

 Handling Small Projects

 

 Once you start thinking of your writing career as a series of individual projects, some of which overlap, you will see the need to keep track of the pieces and arrange your writing schedule to accommodate them. Those projects may come in various sizes, from novels to short articles. It is, unfortunately, easy to lose track of material as it begins to pile up, or to leave it until the last minute and rush through something that should have had better research and editing. Not keeping track of projects can put you in a contract bind and even take the joy out of writing.

 

Project control for writers is almost entirely about time management and self-motivation. Without a boss standing directly over you, it can be easy to put off work until later. If you aren’t careful, it’s also easy to lose track of smaller obligations. When you decide to take on a new project, make certain you know what it requires before you agree, including the expected word count, deadlines and how much research you will need to do. Also make certain that whatever else you have already committed to is not going to suffer for taking on a new job. A weekly blog entry is relatively easy to track and remember, even when you are working on a big project like a novel. However, add a couple nonfiction articles, a story for an upcoming anthology and a query to a publisher and you might find yourself floundering.

 

Short Stories

 

 Writing short stories, even while working on a larger project, can be a nicely fulfilling way to use your creativity. They can also give the writer a sense of actually accomplishing something since it’s far easier to get to “The End” than it is with a novel. Not all people are short story writers, and it’s not a requirement for novelists to write and sell short stories as well. Many published authors have written only novels, and some have written only short stories. Authors have to find what they’re comfortable with.

 

Unlike a novel, a short story often does not need a huge amount of pre-work. The lesser amount of worldbuilding needed, and the fact that the plot can usually be held in the head for the entire short time it takes you to write, make these nice additions to slip in now and then. If you find your story is taking longer to write than you expected, one thing you can do which will help you stay focused is to end each day’s work with a list of steps for the rest of the story.

 

Be sure to take the time to properly edit the story. Afterwards, look for a publisher to submit to—unless you have written a story for a specific market. If you have, get it off to them early. If it’s rejected, find another market. Keeping stories in circulation is relatively easy compared to writing and editing them, and much easier than novel submission since you don’t need anything but a cover letter and the story. Don’t let short stories sit around gathering dust.

 

Nonfiction articles

 

 Writing nonfiction articles can be a great boost to your income. Nonfiction articles almost always pay better than fiction. However, they take a lot more care than writing a quick short story.

 

The first step is to decide if there is a market for your material. There are markets for just about everything out there, so the chances are good that whatever you’ve come up with will find a home. However, check first. Some topics may only be open to professionals in the field. Some may require you to write in a way which would make the article more work than you care to do.

 

Many markets require that you query with an article idea. You may be able to put out several queries without having to write the material first.

 

The second step is to research your article. It doesn’t matter if you think you know exactly what you’re talking about—double check those facts. You will also likely be asked to give references for the article, so it doesn’t hurt to find some material that supports what you want to write about.

 

The third step is to write and edit. With a short article these two actions can often be handled at the same time. Get the manuscript done as quickly as you can, and send it off to the market. Don’t try to second-guess yourself on whether it will work or not. Trust your research and your writing. If you have done both to the best of your ability, then reworking the article again and again will not make it better. Also, remember that anything seasonal has to be to the publisher months in advance. Get that holiday article out in July!

 

 

 Handling a Novel Project

 

 Keeping track of a number of smaller projects is difficult enough, but once you have a manuscript which is going to take months to develop and write, it becomes more complicated.

 

Many writers make their first novel sale based on a book they spent years writing, editing and nurturing. They make the heady first sale and suddenly they have a contract saying the publisher wants a second book...in one year! Sometimes they have even less time. Knowing how long it took them to complete the first novel, some writers have even turned down contracts because they didn’t believe they could fulfill the ‘second novel’ clause. Publishers are often unwilling to give the writer more time in the contract, and for a good reason. Once your book is on the stand, you will want to have a second one there as soon as possible to reinforce name recognition for those who enjoyed the first book.

 

Nevertheless, having taken several years to get your first novel done, how can you hope to get a second one written, edited and ready in so short a time?

 

You need to evaluate the steps needed to move from the formation of the original idea all the way to submission. There are pitfalls along the way, and places where you can get stuck and that have nothing to do with the actual writing process. This can be one of the most fearful challenges for new authors. One way to overcome this obstacle is to start preparing yourself before you have a publishing contract in hand. Treat each of your novels as though you have already sold it, both in the quality and in the timeframe during which you work. Preparing now for a time when you have to meet time constraint obligations will make the first contract—and the ones after it—far less frightening.

 

Planning to write in a timely manner doesn’t make the writing any less fun. In fact, by focusing on the work, you may find you are more attuned to the story and the characters than if you spread the writing over a longer period of time. By preplanning and sticking to the schedule the story will have a better chance of remaining coherent, whereas a novel abandoned for months can lose focus and require extensive reworking.

 

Whether you also take on other new projects, and how many you’re comfortable with, is going to depend on you. No one else can tell you how much work you can handle and at which point the workload will start affecting the quality of the individual pieces. You have to learn to be honest with yourself.

 

 

 The Steps in a Novel Project

 

 An idea! It comes racing through your head, and your heart beats a little faster. You suddenly smile for no reason anyone around you can see. If the people present know you, they’ll just nod and say it’s a “writer’s moment.” If they don’t know you, they’ll just consider you strange. It’s all the same. You’re a writer.

 

However, if every writer immediately leapt up and started writing novels based only on those first impressions and ideas which come flooding into their heads, the chances are they wouldn’t finish anything. An idea is not enough.

 

The first step in a novel project is to look at your wonderful idea and see if you can expand it enough to create a viable story. Starting something which dies in the second or third chapter is a waste of your time and counterproductive to producing publishable work. It becomes easy to abandon projects if you are not prepared to take them from the first idea all the way to the end.

 

You also need to think about the story and the characters who are going to people it. Are these people and events you want to live with for the next year or more?

 

The second step is to do research. If you’re writing a contemporary fantasy based in the real world, you really don’t need any research, right? Wrong. Never skip on the research. Get as much background material sorted out for your story as you can, though beware of overindulging in your fact-finding mission. Some people love research so much that they sometimes never get around to writing the book. If you are writing a fantasy set in an imaginary world, you will need to create an entire world and everything in it. The good side is that you can make something fit, rather than worrying if you missed something in your research of the world as we know it.

 

What does this have to do with project management? Doing the prework to a novel can save the writer considerable time later. There’s no reason to rush. Let your mind work on the story and the characters, and do whatever research you think you need. Chances are you’ll end up doing more as you get into the novel, but getting the obvious stuff out of the way will allow you to move forward on the novel with few delays.

 

Character creation may come before the research, during it, or afterwards, depending on the type of writer you tend to be. Many plotdriven writers imagine a situation and then create characters to fit into the scenario. Others are character-driven and imagine their characters followed by what sort of world they would live in. It doesn’t matter which way you work; when the book reaches the shelves readers can rarely tell the difference. The best stories weave character, plot and world together no matter which came first in the author’s mind.

 

The third step is the outline. Yes, outline. I know some of you are shaking your heads in dismay and vowing you will never write an outline; it will stifle your creativity, you’ll lose interest in the story, your characters will no longer have the freedom to explore that they need.

 

Outlines are not set in stone directions you have to follow from start to finish without any deviations. They are nothing more than roadmaps which will keep you on a general course from the first line of your story to The End. The outline isn’t going to dictate every move your character makes, who he sees and what he does. Even with your roadmap/outline, you are likely going to end up taking detours to see odd and exotic things along the way. Your imagination is in no way constrained by the words on the paper. Then why bother with an outline at all?

 

An outline makes certain your important scenes fall where they need to for story pacing, and that you remember to cover all aspects of the complicated story line. If you do follow something unexpected that turns up as you write, the outline will help direct you back to where you need to be in order to reach the next important step in your novel. An outline can note not only events, but thematic revelations, mystery clues or any other aspect of the story the writer wants to track. An outline is a writing tool. There is one important reason to get used to writing an outline of some sort; many publishers and agents require the submission of one before you write your novel. This form is usually called a synopsis, and is essentially little more than an outline in paragraph format. This is an important tool for professional authors who cannot afford to take a year to write a novel that doesn’t sell. Learn to write one now and you’ll have yet another hurdle crossed before you have to face it under more demanding circumstances.

 

The fourth step is to start writing. If you have done the research, character creation and outlining, you’re probably going to find it remarkably easy.

 

If you already have a contract in hand and the promise of an advance when the book is delivered, you’ll probably have enough reason to keep going. For other writers, self-motivation, the need to tell the story and even promising yourself a reward for staying on track may work. With or without a contract, give yourself a deadline. Use a chart like I mentioned before and keep close track of how many words you need to do to get the novel done on time. If you do have a contract, don’t forget to allow time to edit once you have completed the novel. Even if you are an “edit while you write” novelist, you will still have to go over the work again.

 

If you have a year to write the novel, you might take the first two months to do all the pre-work of research, character creation, and outlining. You will want to give yourself at least two months to edit, as well. So you now have eight months to write the novel. That’s about 244 days.

 

But not everyone wants to work every single day. So let’s round this off too 200 days in which to write a novel that needs to be about 120,000 words. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? This works out to a mere 600 words a day.

 

If you apply yourself to keeping a schedule, this will give you plenty of time to not only write the novel, but also take on other projects if you find that you have the time and that they won’t interfere with what you are already doing. The trick is to make sure you stay focused and get each project done.

 

The fifth step is editing. Once you have finished the novel, let it sit for a few days. Relax. Enjoy life in the real world again! If you find you want to write, now is again a good time to take on another small project. It can even help you get a little distance on your novel which will make it easier to edit.

 

When you’re ready to get back to work, you’ll have to start new goals based on editing. They will be similar to the writing phase, only now you’ll have goals for “pages edited” rather than “words written.” Using the simplified system of saying a book has an average of 300 words per page (when properly formatted), this would mean a book of 120,000 words would be 400 pages long. Following the suggestions I’ve made for a year long schedule, you will not have two months left before your deadline. Like the eight months to write, you will not likely want to edit every single day, so set your goal at 50 days, which will give you 8 pages a day to edit.

 

Depending on how you go about your editing, you may have to up the number, or work out a multiple pass system. Study books specifically on editing, read on-line tips and take your time at this phase. And remember that the sooner you get the novel written, the more time you will have to edit it.

 

After you’ve gone over the work, you might even want to find a beta reader or two to make some final suggestions. The author is sometimes blind to some problems, and getting them corrected before you send the work for submission can sometimes make the difference between a rejection and an acceptance. You need not ask your beta reader for a line edit (you should have already fixed any of those problems), but do have him point out any obvious problems, both in plot and grammar.

 

Do not send the novel to a beta reader before you do your first edit. A beta reader is best used to gauge a virtually finished product and point out any last changes which need to be made. Having a person read a book too early in the process wastes his time, and ruins him as a beta reader for a later version. You want the impression that the book would make on a person who bought it off a shelf. Work your way through the edits with care. This may take extra time if you engage a beta reader. Do the best you can, but—like overindulging in research—don’t keep editing when it’s really time to let go.

 

The sixth step is the last one! As soon as you finish the editing, start preparing your submission package. For those who are working on the second book for a contract, this is pretty easy. Get the work done and deliver it to the publisher. Sending early is good, as long as you’ve really done all the work. Never send an unedited draft, or one you haven’t gone over even after the final edit. Make certain the impression you present is one of professionalism.

 

For those who are using this timetable but still have to submit the material to a publisher, this means a bit more work. Query letters, cover letters, synopsis and first three chapters are all pieces you might have to put together for a submission.

 

Read the guidelines to whatever place you want to submit and write up a small template which includes everything they want. Afterwards, start filling in the spots. You need not do this in order. Writing the synopsis might be your first step since it is often the most difficult. If the process calls for a query letter before you send a submission package, do it and get it off—but then go on with rest of the work without waiting for an answer.

 

Writing a synopsis is often considered one of the most difficult parts of working toward publication. Find books and web sites to give you hints, and don’t fret too much over it. Do the best you can, but realize this is another piece that takes practice and will get easier the more of them you do.

 

After you have sent off this submission package is another good time to find some smaller projects to do. This is also a great time to start working up ideas for the next novel. Don’t sit back and wait—and waste time. A short break can be rejuvenating, but as soon as possible start the process again. The more work you have completed, the better your chances for sales.

 

If you do make a novel sale, be aware that you will have at least one more round of editing to do, and you’ll have to fit this into your schedule as well. It will be easier to do if you already have a grasp of how much time the work takes you.

 

More than one novel at a time

 

 Some people work on a number of novels at once. There can be problems with this method, and one of them is that the novels sometimes tend to a “sameness” in the story and characters. Be wary of writing the same book in several versions.

 

If you are working on more than one novel at a time, I suggest you vary the steps. Don’t start research on a second novel until you have at least started the writing phase of the first one. In this way you will have a good round of work going:

 

 

Working on projects other than just novels might go something like this:

 

 

 

 

 

Part Three: A look at managing multiple projects in real life

 

 

Besides what I’ve already written in this article, I have two additional rules that I apply to all my own writing:

 

1. Finish everything I start.

 

2. Complete projects within one year.

 

Some people will find those two rules excessive, but they keep me from wasting time on piles of unfinished material or setting aside projects when I hit a bad spot with the intention of getting back to them “someday.” I don’t have time to waste, so I don’t start any project until I have thought it out and made certain I want to write it and can do it in a reasonable time frame. A project which stretches out too long loses coherency and I lose interest as other projects start slipping in ahead of it.

 

Not every story works as well as I hoped when I start—but I still finish them. I’ve learned more about writing from the ones which gave me trouble than from the easy ones. Forcing myself to rework a plot that didn’t fall together right, or to recreate a character who couldn’t hold up her part of the story, is a good exercise. It has shown me where some of my weaknesses are and how to avoid them in the future. I always start a new novel every January 1st. These are always books I want to write, and I’ve done the planning as the previous year winds down. It’s good to start the year out with this kind of enthusiasm and it helps to set the mood for the year. I consider myself primarily a novelist, although I usually write at least a dozen short stories and at least as many articles during the year. I also take part in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, every November), and write a couple novels in thirty days. Those are the only things which I have planned to write from year-to-year. Whatever else I write comes from inspiration, requests, and contracts. You cannot plan for any of those; you can only be ready to take them on when they arrive.

 

Within a couple weeks of the start of the year I’ll already have multiple projects lined up, and some of them started. I keep track of them all on a webpage in my journal which also includes my word count per month and my submissions. On a table in this page I note the title, day began/finished, type (novel, short story, article, etc.), genre and number of words.

 

I do not list every project, but that’s just because I often get things written without remembering to enter them. Articles are rarely listed. Neither are things like the weekly class I write at Forward Motion. You will, however, find outlines listed. For my records, I consider an outline (and the research that goes with it) as a separate project from actually writing the book. In fact, outlines might be written a year or more before I start the novel.

 

Many of my first draft novels tend to be short. That’s just the way I write. It’s not unusual for a novel to gain 30,000 to 50,000 words in the edit. I write a linear and sparse first draft and fill in details on the second round, sometimes adding in subplots and additional characters.

 

This means my writing time and editing time usually balance out more than they will for people who write a good, solid full first draft and only have to edit it afterwards, without massive amounts of additional material.

 

Maintaining daily word counts is another very important aspect of how I work. My goal is to average at least 1,000 words per day at the end of the month. I rarely write that “little,” however. Writing every day trains the mind to slip easily into the work, and having the research done makes it easier to move forward on a story, novel, or article. I keep track of my daily word count in an Excel spread sheet and I’ve written over one million words for several consecutive years.

 

Writing every day will give the author a lot of finished first drafts, which are just as useless as unfinished stories and articles. So I also edit at least five pages every day, and this is entered on the Excel sheet as well. Editing, done in five to ten page chunks, is a lot easier than editing an entire novel all at once. It’s an easily achieved goal, and I learned early that setting goals too high only result in frustration rather than progress.

 

The trick to doing this much work is in exactly what I explained in the first part of this article: keep track of the work, don’t over step what you can do and follow through on all the projects. Half-finished projects are no help to you. They’re a waste of time and they won’t further your career. On the other hand, I obviously write far more than I sell. Those projects are potential future sales, of course. I send out a couple of them every month.

 

A schedule will not automatically make you a better writer. You have to work at the craft and be willing to learn how to improve your prose, and that’s something far more than just writing a lot of words. However, if you are interested in a career as a writer, being able to make the best use of your writing time is essential. Learning to work to deadlines and handle multiple projects will help you enjoy the work by lessening the stress involved, and allow you to concentrate on the story, rather than the time you need to write it.