I had a discussion with a student last week about how many projects a novelist can work on, because our students who are taking multiple classes that involve novel writing are expected to work on different projects. Of course, there's no correct answer to this question, and I've always said that you've got to find what works for you. Only this last year I've found that that's not necessarily the case.
Up until recently, I've always thought I was a one-project-at-a-time person. Even when it comes to short stories.
I get an idea and think about it, and that's where my focus is. It's one of the reasons I don't write many short stories -- because mostly I'm focused on my novel. It's a lovely, indulgent, obsessive thing, writing a novel. I don't get that same pleasure out of short stories or poetry -- but they do offer their own pleasures and satisfactions, especially the satisfaction of finishing something!
Some people have bags of projects on the go -- they swap and change depending on their mood or deadline, even working on several in the same day. My friend, Sherryl, is like this, and it's always made me shake my head in wonder. But writing our group novel this year has taught me that I can work on more than one project at a time, and the longer I've been doing both the easier it's becoming.
At the beginning, it would take me a few weeks to reacclimatise -- I'd have to sink back into the depths of whichever project I was working on. Being in the writing group and doing the plotting or reading out what we'd just written and discussing it made it easier to get back into this. But there was the unfamiliarity of what others had written -- I say unfamiliarity because clearly I had heard their portions and discussed them, but they weren't integrally part of me the way the parts I'd written were. I know the details of my character's background, for example, in far more details than I know of their characters'.
The challenge with my own novel has been different. I've been working on this book a long time, so I'm very well acquainted with it. But it's a complex story with multiple viewpoint characters, and worse than that, multiple drafts. I say worse because the problem is that when I've been out of it awhile I forget which things belong in which draft. I might remember that A does this, but it might be something that I've taken out of the current draft for whatever reason.
Paradoxically, I've found that the thing I thought I needed (time to reimmerse) has been the thing working against me. It's actually easier to work on multiple projects if they're all on the boil at once, if I'm working on both in the same week, rather than having that gap between them. This works really well in that I can do whatever the mood takes me. If I'm in a writing mood, I'll head off to the group novel. If I'm in an editing mood, I'll work on my own -- which also requires some slabs of writing as I make changes that I've decided on. This week's change, for example, is in a background scene that my main character remembers. When he was a small child, he found his sister hanged, and that change has been to make him find her a few minutes earlier, when she was dying and imploring him to help her when things went wrong (knot on the wrong side of her neck so that she was strangled slowly). This secret he has kept. Everyone else thinks he found her dead. It's all about making the worst thing possible happen to your characters. This doesn't have a great effect on the story as a whole, but does strengthen his motivation for doing the things he has to do, and is perhaps something I'm thinking more about because I'm busy writing the other novel, putting my character there through the wringer. Honestly, you have to love writing!