Every so often, someone asks me if I work on more than one book at a time. It’s a more complicated question than most people think it is, because there’s work, and then there’s work.
Writing comes in phases. Very long phases, but phases nonetheless. There’s six months to a year of writing the first draft, then weeks or months of revision (depending on the author’s process). Then another few weeks or months for editorial revisions, possibly in two parts if the editor separates major revisions from line editing. Then there’s one to three weeks of copyedit, and another one to three weeks of galley proofing. And then there’s the non-writing publicity stuff that happens after the book is out: autographings, appearances, and so on.
All of it can be considered “working on the book,” and given how long the whole process takes, I’m not sure anyone could make a living writing if they waited until the book was out and all the publicity was finished with before starting the next one. So in that sense, I think nearly every professional author works on more than one book at a time. It isn’t terribly easy at times, especially when you have one book that’s just been published (so you’re doing publicity), another that’s at the editing stage, and a third that’s just starting the first draft. For one thing, it can be hard to psych up to talk about the just-published book that (for you) is two or three years old, when what you’re really excited about is the thing you just started working on.
What most folks seem to mean by the “working on more than one book” question, though, is “do you work on more than one first draft at a time?” That’s a much clearer and easier question. For me, the answer is “rarely.” Partly because I don’t have time – it’s hard enough to squeeze in work on one first draft while also doing editorial revisions and pushing the latest release.
Time is only part of the difficulty, however. The other part is the problem of shifting gears. I tend to write single-viewpoint books, which means I get into my narrator’s head (and into his/her world) pretty firmly. (I was recently asked in a crit group meeting why I had phrased something a certain way, and for a minute all I could do was stare at the questioner. Because it’s what the narrator would do, it was what she’d say and how she’d say it given her background and upbringing; there simply wasn’t any alternative. It took me a minute to back out of the character’s head and see what the objection was, and then get my author hat on and figure out if I could come up with a more acceptable alternative. And that was weeks after I’d finished the draft.)
Being that solidly in one character’s head makes it difficult to change gears and get into a different character/narrator’s head. I can make the switch – I’ve had to do it on occasion – but it takes time. And I’m not talking a couple of minutes here; I’m usually talking a day or two, sometimes more. That means that I lose somewhere between several hours and several days of writing time every time I switch from one project to another. I can’t afford it.
Switching also means that I’m trying to keep two totally different plots and worlds straight and maintain their consistency. Since my brain isn’t large enough to hold even one novel at a time, let alone two, this means I spend a lot of time rereading what I’ve written – more and more as the first drafts get longer and there are more things to keep straight. To some extent, I do this anyway, but it takes longer and there’s more of it if I try to run two projects at the same time. It’s bad enough when I’m revising or copyediting one novel and trying to write another.
Even with the Frontier Magic books, which have the same narrator/viewpoint and take place in the same world, it was more of a problem than you might think. It’s much easier than you think to put in too much or too little mention of a particular bit of important backstory when you’re copyediting Book 2 (in which the incident happens) but writing the first draft of Book 3 (in which the backstory needs to be clear for those who won’t have read the prior book, but not driven into the ground for those who just read Book 2 and have the incident fresh in their minds).
I have, however, occasionally managed to work on two different first drafts at more or less the same time. It’s never lasted for very long; I think the best I did was four chapters each of two books before one of them took off and I committed to it, dropping the other and coming back to it later. I don’t really count the bits and pieces of noodling that litter my hard drive (I have several dozen first pages and a smaller collection of first chapters that haven’t gone anywhere…yet). Those are just things I toss off when I’m playing around with ideas, when I’m between books and trying to decide what to write next.
There are, however, folks for whom working on multiple first drafts is the norm. Some of them can’t stand the down time between scenes or chapters or event horizons, when their backbrains are working on coming up with whatever comes next but they’re not actually writing, and they are capable of switching off to something else without disrupting that delicate unconscious process. In other words, they can write a chapter of their space opera while their backbrain is working on their fantasy, then switch to writing the fantasy while their backbrain works out what comes next in the space opera. I rather envy them; it seems like a marvelous way to be insanely productive…or maybe that’s just insane.
Other folks have an attention span such that working on a single story gets boring after a few scenes or chapters. Switching to something else for a bit allows them to come back to the first project with fresh enthusiasm. Of course, that presupposes that they do come back; I know far too many people who think they work this way, when all they’re really doing is producing one set after another of first-six-chapters. There’s a difference between rotating from project to project to keep your interest fresh, and writing story after story up to the First Veil where it gets hard and then abandoning them for the next exciting new thing.
If working on multiple projects at the same time sounds interesting, by all means try it, but do be honest with yourself. If you’re ending up with lots of first-four-to-six-chapters and no middles or endings, then empirical evidence indicates that this is not the method for you.