So, real talk. I write four books a year — more or less — plus half a dozen short stories and pitches for new projects. That’s not counting travel, events, and promoting new releases. Up until 8 years ago, I held on to a full-time, high-pressure day job, too. Sounds overwhelming, right? (It does to me, when I put it that way.) But the fact is, with a plan and a solid writing process, it’s achievable.
So how can you juggle such a massive workload? I’ll break down how I schedule writing and revising multiple books in progress. Perhaps you can adopt some of these writing process tips in your own life and work… but remember the cardinal rule of writing: You need to find your own path that works for your life and your particular process. (Also, there are no rules — just guidelines.)
My initial challenge was a common struggle authors face: finding the time. But you don’t find time. You make time. So let’s start there.
Tip #1: Calendar everything
There are two immutable things in my life: family and deadlines. Family comes first, and deadlines are a close second. So start by creating a calendar and clearly setting out important dates, book conferences, promotional events, family appointments, and deadlines. If you’ve done it right, it should look like this:
(This is not my actual schedule, but pretty similar, mocked up for the next couple of weeks…)
Note that there are deadlines twining around family appointments, get-togethers with friends, and travel. It’s important to understand that with proper planning, you really can have a life and a career, especially as a writer. But be careful! Writing will expand into every bit of your free time if you don’t schedule free time just as diligently as you do your work.
Tip #2: Make a Task List
A calendar is a starting point for me. But what I really rely on for the day-to-day business is a task list manager that syncs across all my devices called Wunderlist. Note: All my software will be Mac-specific, but there are equally great options for PC as well.
As you can see in the list to the left, I broke out tasks into categories, so what you’re seeing here is simply upcoming deadlines I have over the next few months. As soon as I get a new deadline, it goes into this list. This helps me keep my writing process organized! Promotional activities are a separate category.
To quote Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” It’s a real thing, unfortunately. So putting the deadline on a task list is one thing. Planning how to actually meet that deadline is quite another.
Tip #3: There’s no substitute for math
I know (per my contracts) how many words I need to write for each project. The short story that’s due tomorrow? That’s 5,000 words, minimum. The book due October 22? 100,000 words. The one due October 15 is co-written, but it’s also 100,000, so that maths out to 50,000 that I need to deliver. That’s 155,000 words I have to deliver by October 22.
Now, let’s just talk frankly: That’s all but impossible for me. I’m fast, but that’s brutal, and I know it. There are reasons this happened (I had six months off this year for medical leave), but now I have to deal with the fallout. Life happens! And guess what? You can’t do the impossible. You can try. But you’ll likely fail, and if you succeed, it hurts. Sometimes badly.
So. What do I do with a schedule that’s impossible? I look at which book is going to be published first. The last Great Library book has a scheduled pub date of July 2019. The last Honors book has a pub date of February 2020. So I’m going to request an extension on the Honors book to the end of the year, which still leaves an entire year for edits and promotion.
Schedules are iron, until they’re unachievable. Then you have to melt it down and re-mold it. But don’t do it lightly! Do it with the full knowledge that you’ve just burned a little bit of your reputation. And you’d better have a good reason that doesn’t include, “I didn’t feel like it.”
Back to the math: Leaving out the co-written book that I need to reschedule, I need to deliver 105,000 words by October 22. That means 37 days (including today). 105,000 / 37 = 2,838 words per day.
Not so terrifying now, at least for me… My typical output is between 3,000-5,000 words per day — and 10,000 on a really painful day. So if I don’t falter, I will have both projects on the calendar done on time. Any day I don’t meet my goal adds to the total and results in a new per-day word count goal.
As ever, your mileage can and will vary! If you like project planning tools, try Project Manager or Basecamp. I prefer simple math; it’s one less thing to manage for me, but having that structure may be helpful for you.
Tip #4: Outline (even if you don’t like it)
I understand the difference between “plotters” and “pantsers” — pantsers being writers who like to explore the story in an organic way. And it’s hard to change a writing process that works for you. But here’s the trick to multiple projects: You need a plan. If you have contracts that require you to produce writing on a set schedule, you need a plan. There’s really no substitute.
Here’s why: If you’re a traditionally published author, you don’t exist in a vacuum as a writer. Your publisher has things to do while you’re crafting your book. They need to commission cover art, or design the cover in-house. They need to create back cover copy and get the entire cover ready to launch for pre-sales. They need to print those covers ahead of time to fit the size of book you’re going to turn in (side note: this is why sticking close to your word count is also important). If you insist you can’t tell them anything about the book before it’s finished, that might benefit you, but it hampers them, especially if your book comes in at all late.
Still not convinced? Here’s something else to consider: Catalogs need to be created with cover art as much as a year prior to release. Those catalogs help persuade bookstores to place preorders for your books. So… think about it.
If you’re a self-published author, you have more flexibility — but you also likely have a faster publishing schedule, and fans will want sneak peeks of your upcoming work ASAP. So outlining can help you not only create a roadmap, but create marketing material and teasers to create early buzz. Same principle, really, but you control the timing and supporting materials.
I’ve tried a metric ton of outlining aids. I’ve used Scrivener’s notecard function (which I like). I’ve used digital index cards. I’ve tried Trello and Save the Cat. I’ve gone basic and super fancy. But I keep coming back to this:
Yep, that’s just sticky notes on a window. There’s one note for each important plot event, organized by chapter and point of view. I usually have three windows: one for plot, one for characters, one for theme.
Some people like whiteboards. Some like thumbtacks on a corkboard. Some tape pages up. There are as many ways to go through this process as there are writers, but the point is: You need a plan.
Here’s the real trick: You don’t need to use the plan. I used the outline pictured above, but about half of those sticky notes ended up being superfluous, or I found a better/faster way to make the point and tossed out my note. I’ll often write an outline and simply put it away, and let my subconscious tinker with the plot while I write from the starting point. Sometimes I’ll get stuck while drafting, and that’s when I break out the outline, read it over, and say, “Aha! That’s where I was going.” Then I figure out how to get there — maybe by following the outline strictly, or maybe by freestyling. Outlines aren’t straitjackets. They’re road maps. You can always change the route as necessary.
Tip #5: Stay focused
There are so many distractions. I mean, so many. Phone calls! Emails! Texts! Packages being delivered! Family yelling for help! Laundry! Cleaning! Dinner! Errands! Most (non-writer) people can fill a whole day with that.
But not you. You need to have discipline and schedules and focus — especially if you have a day job, or if you have kids or others who depend on you on a regular basis. Structure will create time for you to work.
I get up early. It’s quiet time, there’s coffee, and I’ve found (to my dismay) that my brain simply works faster and better early in the morning. By noon, I slow down. By mid-afternoon, I’m almost worthless, creatively. So I structure my day around that knowledge. I generally wake up between 5 and 6 a.m., grab coffee, and start attacking my latest project. (If I’m feeling not-with-it, I start with email until the coffee takes hold.) By noon, I’m ready to break for the day; I’ve got at least six hours of work done, and I have half the day to do marketing activities and other life things.
I followed the same structure when I still worked full-time. The coffee shop next to my office opened at 5:30 a.m. I made sure I was first in the door, got my coffee and a chair, and wrote frantically until 8:15 when I drove to my office, parked, and was in my chair for my 8:30 start time. I also stayed two hours late — partly to avoid the brutal traffic congestion, and partly so I could get in another couple of hours of work. So each work day, I put in at least four to five hours of writing time. I did this for years, and crammed in eight hours a day on the weekends. Brutal? Yep. But it was my schedule for almost all of the Morganville Vampires series, the Weather Warden series, the Revivalist series, and the Red Letter Days series. I don’t recommend it from a health perspective, though. It’s a tough way to live, and ultimately, your body pays the price for it. I’d recommend writing no more than two books a year if you’re working full-time on top of it.
Here are two of my favorite tools that help boost my productivity during my writing time:
- Write or Die (software) – It’s available in all flavors of PC/Mac/Linux etc., and I use it religiously for fast-drafting when I’m under pressure. It’s stripped down, simple, and can be set to a completely ruthless mode that either annoys you if you slow down, or starts actually deleting your words. You can even install it on your mobile devices!
- Freedom (app) – I like blocking software that lets me set which sites to block, and for how long; often I still need Google to look up research info, so I want to have that flexibility. Freedom does that for me so I can block Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, all my distracting hobbies.
Tip #6: Forgive yourself
This is an advanced stage, and unfortunately one I have trouble reaching myself sometimes. You’re human, and fallible, and not everything will go right. You’ll get sick on a deadline. You’ll have family issues. You’ll get a long-term problem that impairs your ability to focus. And guess what? That’s life. Do your best, but understand that you’re imperfect, and the longer you work, the more imperfect things can get — even as you perfect your craft.
Find your balance. You’ll keep falling off the saddle because your balance will shift constantly; as the industry changes, you’ll have to readjust if you intend to make a career out of this. You’ll fail. You’ll succeed. You’ll fail again. That’s how it works, and it’s good to know this up front. Do your best. Your best will never be quite good enough, at least in your own eyes. But keep perspective. Nothing’s ever perfect, and you don’t have to be perfect, either. Just always strive to improve. Caveat: If procrastination is your biggest issue, don’t accept that as part of your work ethic.
Conclusion: Remember how I said there were no fixed rules? There really aren’t. I advocated for outlining earlier; a friend of mine simply refused to outline before drafting and didn’t sell the book until completing it and writing the outline from the finished book. That’s a valid path! You don’t have to sell on spec like I do. You can sell finished products. It’s much harder to make a living that way, so you have to plan for that too.
As you can see, planning still factors into your career, even if you don’t like to plan the creative work. Financial planning is important, too. The starving artist thing? Completely overrated. Nobody does their best work shivering, starving, and suffering. Plan for how to survive the lean times and keep your creative spirit alive.
And you? You’ll find your way. Just keep your eyes on what’s in front of you, not what’s behind. We get there day by day, word by word, page by page.
How will you get there? Find out. I’d love to hear your journey. Share your writing process tips in the comments below!
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