Stacking Isn’t Juggling: Advice on How and When to Stack Your Writing Projects by Andromeda Romano-Lax

Sometimes we just need the right word or phrase in order to bring a problem and its solution into focus.

For me last month, that phrase was “Project Stacking.” I came across it in a newsletter by a comedy writer named Caitlin Kunkel, who learned it in grad school, in a program focused on writing for the screen and stage.

Screenwriters tend to be more practical than novelists and other solitary prose writers. You can’t be precious in Hollywood, working on your one and only dream script and nothing else. Or rather you can, as long as you plan to hang out at Starbucks all day, writing for your eyes only, content to die without seeing your work on-screen.

Screenwriters are used to juggling many projects at many stages. In addition to basic drafts, there are projects awaiting action by others: feedback (“notes”), contracting and negotiations of all kinds (endless emails!), collaboration, providing human sacrifices to the film gods (I think that’s part of it?), and so on. One idea is not enough. You must be prolific. You must have many projects in many different pipelines. You must stack.

False ideas die slowly

Five years ago, when I started out my new life phase as an empty nester who was finally settled in one place—oh, Canada!—I thought I would finally manage to juggle big projects with ease. I planned to simultaneously write a new memoir and a new novel, dedicating two days each week to the memoir and two or three days to the novel. (Ahem. I actually had two memoirs planned and couldn’t decide which to prioritize. That was nuts.)

I had no young children at home, no sick parent needing my attention. My finances were unusually stable, and I wasn’t overly busy with freelance side projects. Why not knock out two (or three) books in the same year?

It didn’t work. My brain couldn’t switch tracks quickly enough. Both projects floundered until I set all but one aside. Only then did the novel get traction. I finished it in less than a year, revised it another year, and finally got to hold a finished copy in my hands a year after that.

From that failed juggling experience, I thought I’d learned a one-size-fits-all lesson. I decided that it’s usually better to work on one big project at a time, so that all brainstorming and mind-wandering time could focus on that one thing.

Recently, I’ve changed my mind. Looking back, I see that my problem was working on two projects that were at the same stages of development, both of them tender and unproven, both of them needing my daily efforts, both conscious and subconscious. I was trying to juggle two balls of the same size, trying to keep them both in the air—plus the balls were, well, kind of soft. Mushy dough-balls instead of nice hard tennis balls. But let’s set this juggling metaphor aside. Let’s talk about stacking.

The best kind of stacking, I’ve now decided, involves projects that are at different stages, with different needs. Waiting periods are unavoidable in the writing life. While something is out on submission—for example, waiting months for an agent’s or editor’s feedback—you can’t do much with it. Off it goes to the sidetrack, where all the other project containers are stacked!

Sometimes, you need to research before you write. Sometimes, you need to re-read a long draft in preparation for revision. Sometimes you may want to noodle around with some openings, playing around with voice or rehearsing an idea before committing to it. Sometimes you are really just tweaking lines here and there, which doesn’t involve the same kind of deep attention as inventing.

We all need to learn what works best for us. But if we want to be highly productive, we also need to regularly revisit our assumptions. At some points in our lives, stacking too many projects may lead to burnout, no matter how you stack them. At other times, there’s a pleasing sense of order in getting things stacked just right.

In case you’re curious what this really looks like…

Currently, I have one novel I’m actively drafting (at the 25K words mark). I also have some proposal material written for that novel, with the hope I may be able to sell it on premise rather than as a full manuscript. I have one novel that has received notes from my agent, which I intend to finish revising this month, in the hopes of it being submitted this fall. I have one novel coming out in May 2024, which was occupying most of my time last month (line edits), which I will see again at least two more times (copy edit queries and proofreading). That’s three novels so far.

As the kind souls in my writing groups know, I have some other projects stacked as well: a language memoir that is half-written. At least two other novels started and set aside, not because they were broken, but only because other ideas clamored for attention. In the meanwhile, pausing them provided some good reflection time on what was working and what wasn’t. I can’t wait to get back to them!

I also have a screenwriting project, begun a while back and on pause until the WGA writer’s strike ends. To keep my mind agile, I listen to great screenwriting podcasts in the meanwhile, allowing my brain to occasionally puzzle over film-specific problems.

Is there a time when a project should or should not be stacked/sidetracked?

I’ve personally learned that if I’m working on a new novel that needs to be set aside in order to handle a revision (say, of a novel just back from an agent or editor after months of waiting), I need to get that new novel to the 20-30,000 word mark. If I set it on the sidetrack any sooner, I may come back and feel like I can’t sink back into the voice, characters, or plot. Consider your own habits and tendencies. Is there a time when letting a project rest makes it better? Is there a time when you shouldn’t risk losing momentum?

Should you stack less, or more?

Stack less if:

  • You tend to start many projects without finishing most of them
  • You are a novice writer
  • Stacking is really an excuse not to power through the hardest part of a project, like the second act of a novel
  • You find that one project is contaminating another; for example, by blending your authorial voices when each project is meant to have a different voice

Stack more if:

  • Your primary frustration about the writing life is all that WAITING! Don’t wait. When you send something off to your beta-reader, agent or editor, consider it done for now (like a lovely dough-ball that needs to rise and can’t be bothered—yes, we are back to the dough and mixing all kinds of metaphors)
  • You are novelty-seeking by nature, and jumping between different projects energizes you
  • You are an experienced writer ready to amp up your productivity
  • Working in different genres or on different projects simultaneously helps you generate innovative solutions to plotting or structure problems

I hope this helps you look at stacking in a different way!


Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach and the author of five novels with a sixth, called THE DEEPEST LAKE, forthcoming in 2024. Writing this blogpost made her hungry for pancakes.

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