Hell is multitasking

iStock licensed image

iStock licensed image

Silk’s Post #56 – As you may have already surmised from other 5writers’ posts last week, our October meeting to plan a new collaborative project took us in an unexpected direction. Oh, we had lots of good ideas … some great book concepts that I hope do get written. But as we kicked them around the room and imagined the logistics of how we’d actually, specifically, functionally write a book together, it turned out that the best idea of all was not to. At least not right now.

Dodged a bullet, I’d say.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my handful of writer friends. We’re probably as close as any writers’ group anywhere. And even though we have much in common, I think one of our great strengths is that we’re all so different. It keeps us from becoming an echo chamber. But it also means that a writing collaboration might well turn out a Frankenbook, or possibly  occasion a mass murder.

The good news is that instead of nailing our collaboration project, we hit a different bull’s eye altogether – one that better suits our collective and individual needs right now. And what we all really need is simple enough: get the projects we’ve already started finished and polished, get them out into the marketplace, and start new projects. Duh!

So we’re all going to start the clock again on 5 new books after the New Year. But instead of holing up in our writer’s nests and crashing them out in secret, then submitting the first drafts for critique, we’re going to marshall our collective resources to overcome the pantser’s worst nightmare: the outline stage. Yes, we’re going to critique outlines, for the love of Mike. Probably as weird an idea as collaborating on a novel, but – like many emerging writers – we all find plot and structure to be among our biggest challenges.

Now, all of us have always sketched out our stories in some manner, and Paula had a good experience with her first outlined novel last year. But at heart, we’re all more like NOPs than OPs. For myself, outlining has always felt too mechanical, like training wheels. I want to get to the fun part – the words. However, I’m now acutely aware that a wonky structure is hard work to fix once a book is all written, no matter how good the concept or the characters or the prose.

Life is for learning. So this time we’re going to try building the bones of five great stories before we put flesh on them.

The objectives: No blind alleys or dead ends. No forgotten characters left up in the attic, never to reappear. Less sag to the middles. Stronger character arcs. Fewer “huh?” moments. More satisfying endings. Above all, fewer rewrites. And – who knows? – having good road maps may actually free our creativity, since we’ll hopefully avoid the constant angst of getting lost too often in a bad neighbourhood.

There’s only one problem with this plan: it means that over the next few months I will be multitasking three different books at different stages. It’s going to be like doing a triple mountain climb on three different continents.

First I have my 5writers challenge book to finish, a mystery-suspense, working title Catch and Release, starring my feisty protagonist, Sunny Laine, versus a very creepy antagonist. Yeah, I know. The first draft was supposed to be complete last February, ready for the critique in June. Well, it wasn’t. Too much procrastinating and writer’s block last winter, and too much travel this past summer. I’m slogging my way through the dreaded middle now. Getting to “the end” is my first priority.

Second, I have to come up with a new story concept and draft outline for our next writers’ retreat in February. I already have a few concepts in my file to mull over, but that’s the easy part – the part that puts a smile on my face. The outline will be the root-canal part – the part that makes me scream for mercy. I guess the good news is that if I can’t make the concept work in outline form, I will have spared myself the future pain of writing a whole book that doesn’t hang together.

Finally, I have my first novel, Saltspring Bridge, to rewrite. It’s now been idling on my drive for a year, and my file drawer still hosts a two-inch-thick folder of month-by-month critiques to review, weep over, heed and learn from. This is the book that was in my head for 15 years before I wrote the first word. I rewrote the first 30 pages 10 times during the three years I was sniffing around the writing life … going to writers conferences and wondering whether I was really a writer, or just someone who liked the idea of being a writer. It’s the book I took the plunge with, and it’s totally a pantser effort. It’s flawed as hell, and maybe in the end is nothing more than a practice book. But it’s my first baby and I can’t abandon it. Gotta finish it, which will require a serious rewrite.

In my long first career in design and advertising, I did nothing but multitask, and I got pretty good at it. I was somewhat famous among my staff as the Queen of Spinning Plates (birthday and Christmas presents at work often picked up this theme in myriad amusing ways). I must admit I’m feeling a bit out of practice, but I seem to recall it required massive amounts of energy, a rapier-like memory, a high tolerance for tedium, a keen sense of timing, an unnaturally thick skin, and eyes in the back of my head.

Hellish, in other words.

iStock licensed image

iStock licensed image

Each of my book projects is like a greedy, squawking fledgling in the nest, craning its scrawny next past its siblings with mouth open wide to get the first worm. “Feed me!” they all cry at the same time. Feed me your time, your ideas, your talent, your life – just gimme everything you’ve got. And now! Feed me first. Me, me, me. Feed me or I’ll die.

Alright, already! Having been, as always, inspired and energized by our 5writers meeting – and the prospect of starting something new and exciting – I will muster my multitasking skills and start digging up worms.

With luck, and not too many diversions, I will keep all three projects alive and healthy and growing until they’re strong enough to fly.

7 thoughts on “Hell is multitasking

  1. Best wishes for juggling those three projects! I think the outlining challenge is a great one, and I’m looking forward to hearing about your experiences with it. As I rebuild one of the manuscripts I originally “pantsed,” I’m trying to work up at least a basic outline for it to avoid some of those very problems you described. Here’s hoping it works for both me and for you 5 writers!

    • Thanks for your always thoughtful comments JM. I’m actually excited about trying the outlining route as a discipline — something I suspect I would not choose on my own if not for the group “quest”. Will no doubt be blogging about the process!

  2. You do have a way with words, Silk! And you sure pushed my buttons on the perennial writer’s problems. I too get overwhelmed with multitasking and wished I had more hours in the day to write. Sometimes I feel like rat on a treadmill.

    • We ask a lot of ourselves, don’t we? But given the uncertain rewards of writing books that may or may not ever be published, we have to enjoy the creative process itself — its challenges, stimulations, satisfactions. I do love writing as “me” time. As discussed before, I’m still trying to unlearn my lifelong habit of feeling guilty about the pursuit of play (like writing) over work (aka some version of the “convenient social virtue” as John Kenneth Galbraith called it). Curse that Protestant work ethic!

  3. “But it also means that a writing collaboration might well turn out a Frankenbook, or possibly occasion a mass murder.”
    The first could lead to the second far too easily.
    Do you know a site where I could download some basic tips on outlining? I’m a congenital NOP, and have paid the price. :p

    • We’ll be hunting for good outlining advice over the next weeks and I promise to share what I find. James Scott Bell’s “Plot and Structure” is an excellent basic resource and there are often worthwhile articles and online workshops on the Writers Digest website. Stay tuned!

  4. Pingback: Multi-Tasking Writers: Are you a Tortoise or a Hare? (Part 1) | 5 Writers 5 Novels 5 Months

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