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. [Read more…]