Many years ago, I worked for a call center, where three different shifts shared the same cubicles. Like hot bunking in the military, I shared a desk with two other people. There were minor annoyances, like always having to adjust the chair, but there were benefits, too. Whoever worked the first shift had to do system updates on the computer and replenish the office supplies.
I thought about this the other day, when I was trying to describe to a friend how I can possibly work on multiple writing projects at once. I’m currently writing three different novels. Plus a few essays. And a short story. And this weird thing that may or may not be a hillbilly mythology comic book about my dog. Sometimes I feel like I’m at the writing equivalent of an enormous brunch buffet. I’m hungry and everything looks delicious! I can’t resist piling my plate up, so I’ve had to learn how to balance the urge to write several things at once.
Don’t imagine that working on multiple projects at a time is only for wild-eyed maniacs like me. There are benefits for perfectly sane writers to working on more than one thing at a time. For example, hot bunking can absolutely kill writer’s block. If you hit a block on one project, instead of butting your head against it, move on to one of your other projects and give the troublemaker a rest. Think of it like having a knee injury that keeps you from running. You can either sit around getting out of shape, or you can take up swimming and still get exercise while resting your injured knee. Studies suggest that people can’t really multitask, but that’s not what you’ll be doing. Instead you’ll be splitting your writing time to allow you to focus on more than one thing, and using that split to get a new perspective on each project.
Get fresh eyes on your characters
When you work on more than one manuscript within a short period of time, you’ll be able to refresh your eyes. Rather than looking at the world from the angle of one book all the time, shifting between multiple projects can make each of them look new. If one project has a teenage candy striper as the protagonist, and the other involves a middle aged car salesman, you can use those differences to shape those characters. You can even throw them together while you brainstorm to see how they react to a character who’s very different. Would the car salesman remind the girl of her favorite uncle, the DMV employee who flunked her on the driving test, or the sleazy older guy who tries to flirt with her at the coffee shop? Would the girl’s youth be refreshing to the man or would it make him feel bitter? You’ll learn something about both characters by enquiring.
Stretch your legs
Conversely, if you’re writing two books that are of the same genre, you can use the process of switching out to introduce more variation into your books. Have you ever read several books by the same author and felt that the narrative characters all started to blur together? Hot bunking is a way to make sure you don’t fall into the same trap. Seeing the main characters of two different projects side by side on a daily basis can help you push them further apart. If you’re writing two young adult novels that both have a teenage girl as the main character, alternating between them can help you compare and contract.
You can make purposeful choices to differentiate them and their personalities. Instead of producing two protagonists who sound alike, you can give them both their own specific vocabularies and idiosyncratic turns of phrase. One is prone to calling all her friends dude, while the other likes to use obscure Jazz Age slang. You can also introduce subtly different dynamics to their relationships. Even girls who love their mothers don’t love them in the same way. Say both your teen protagonists are lying to their mothers, but one is lying to protect her mother from reality while the other is lying to avoid disappointing her mother. You can use this to step outside your comfort zones and think about characters in new ways.
By now you’ve either run away from me or you’re thinking, Okay, I might be willing to give this a try. If you’re still here, let me share some of my methods for getting the most benefit out of hot bunking while minimizing confusion in the process.
If I’m working heavily on multiple things, I typically have set times of the day or days of the week when I focus on each project. I may dedicate my late night writing to one, my lunchtime to another, and my weekends to a third. These aren’t set in stone, but I usually get into a pattern that’s comfortable, and then habit takes over. I get into bed thinking about the night project. While walking home at lunch, I’ll record voice notes to myself about the lunch project. On Sunday, I usually spend the whole day on a single project.
Different methods & materials
I keep the line between projects clear by taking different physical approaches to the writing process. I frequently buy separate notebooks for projects, so that I can quickly swap between them without getting my wires crossed. I also usually have one project that I work on exclusively on the computer. My brain quickly learns that when I’m on my laptop, we’re going to work on that (and you know, maybe check Facebook), and when the computer is off, it’s time to write longhand on a different book. The muscle memory of those two different writing methods helps me keep projects separate.
Those different methods can also help you reinforce your schedule. The notebook for my night project stays on my night stand. When I get into bed, there it is, with a favorite pen, ready for me to write. What I produce on any given night may be three sentences in five minutes, or if the mood strikes, I may write many pages that keep me up past my bedtime.
I also typically maintain a spreadsheet that contains a sheet for each project and a comparative sheet. That allows me to keep all my characters and locations straight. It also gives me a record of those compare and contrast observations about different protagonists.
Carrot & Stick
Hot bunking is most useful to me when I’m struggling with a project. Sometimes when I have a serious project that refuses to budge, I’ll alternate with a very silly self-indulgent project. I’ll say to myself, If I can finish this very hard scene, then I’m allowed to play with this fun project the rest of the night. Not surprisingly, I often come back to the serious project primed to work after relieving the anxiety of my own expectations.
Keep the bed warm
No matter how you approach it, working on more than one project can serve the important function of keeping you in the habit of writing. Instead of waiting for the (non-existent) perfect opportunity to jump back into a project, you can take advantage of even small windows for writing. With hot bunking, your brain will already be warmed up and ready to go.