Ask Cavan – Working on multiple stories at once

Thanks to Nigel Palfreman who emailed me with a question about writing. It’s this:

How do you prioritise what you write? Do you finish writing one story, then go onto another one.  Or do you have multiple stories/narratives/comics on the go at the same time? And how do you choose which story to concentrate on?

Thanks for the question, Nigel. The answer is deadlines, deadlines, deadlines…

By the very nature of my job, I have a lot of different stories going on at one time. For example, at the moment I’m working on a number of different books and comics for Star WarsPacific Rim, Games Workshop and Doctor Who. They’re all at different stages, some being brainstormed, some being drafted, some being edited. It’s quite a juggling act and while in an ideal world I’d finish one before moving on to the next, in reality that’s not always possible. And that’s just the licensed work. On top of all that, I also have my own creator-owned projects.

Basically, I have to be as organised as possible. I try to block out my week into chunks, ideally only concentrating on one project on any particular day. So for example, this week I spent Monday and Tuesday working on Pacific Rim, while Wednesday to Friday was largely dedicated to Games Workshop. I say ‘largely’, as obviously I have to be flexible. A lettering pass for Pacific Rim came through on Thursday and needed to be done urgently, so I made time for that.

However, shifting between stories and, in the case of license work, entire universes takes up brain space in the same way as switching between computer programmes uses up memory, so I try to limit changing from one project to another as much as possible on work days.

Because of this, I am training myself not to constantly check email. It had become a real habit, and can disrupt what you’re working on. There you are, merrily focusing on project A, when an email can come in about project B and totally derails you. So, if I need to knuckle down and work on something, I now tend to turn email off for hours at a time. It’s the equivalent of shutting your door as described by Stephen King in On Writing.

Sometimes the temptation to have a quick look is too great, so I use a programme called Freedom which literally email applications as well as things like Twitter and Facebook. I set it to operate for at least one hour, sometimes a lot more, and then I can’t look even if I want to until the programme has run its course. During these periods of deep work, I also try to leave my phone and iPad in another room, so I can’t cheat and sneak a quick look on those devices.

So largely I choose what to work on depending on the deadline. What needs to be done first? On projects where I don’t have deadlines, such as my own spec stuff, I set my own. So for example, I pitched a series of middle reader books to a publisher this month. I knew I wanted to pitch it in early March so set myself a series of deadlines to get the proposal done, plotting them into my schedule alongside my licensed work.

Again, the schedule can be a bit of a movable feast. Projects shift, especially when you’re waiting on approvals on storylines, or art for a comic, so you do have to be flexible. On the first day of every month, I block out my days on the calendar so I largely know what I’ll be working on on what day, but I try to leave myself some empty days to deal with unexpected demands and requests, and am also prepared to have to rework the schedule if something changes along the way.

Of course, the system works better at some times more than others. If I ever start to feel overwhelmed, I always find it helpful to take a step back, take a look at my calendar and re-schedule.

Times like that also usually feature coffee and biscuits.

I hope that answers your question, Nigel. It was great to hear from you.

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