Confessions of an ex-multi-tasker

I used to be a multi-tasker.  I remember being able to:  

  • watch television, do homework, and carry on a phone conversation all at once
  • track 3 different conversations at parties
  • write 2 or 3 different projects at once (and keep them all straight)

I can’t do that anymore.  Heck, I can’t even knit while watching television without either dropping a stitch or dropping the action of the show.  I suspect multitasking is a function of a younger brain.  

I haven’t given up trying, though.  Now I’m reading 3 different books (1 for the exercise bike, 1 for book club, and 1 of my choice), and I can’t keep the characters and plots straight.  It’s eery when I’m reading along in one book and I ask myself, “but what about Martha?” and then realize she’s in another book.  Oops.  

So, what’s a writer to do about multitasking?  There are plots and subplots and different viewpoint characters to track.  We have to keep them straight, weaving them in and out of the story in all the right places.  We can’t drop a single one of them, like my dropped stitches.  

Here’s what I’ve done to help keep some of this straight:  

  1. Write a 1-2 sentence summary of each chapter or section.  Being a pantser, this summary comes after the chapter has magically appeared.  
  2. Use a different font (in the growing outline) for each viewpoint character.  This makes it easy to scan through and see where that character is in the story, and who to juggle next.  
  3. Different colored index cards track the different subplots as they grow.  I lay them out on my table and intersperse them where they appear in the book.  I can easily see where one subplot has been neglected too long.  This is an especially handy tool for the revision process, after a complete draft is written.  

Right now I’m facing a huge challenge with my Work-in-Progress.  Doesn’t it always seem like the current book is the hardest book you’ve ever written?  My WIP has (so far) 3 different viewpoint characters, 2 time-lines, and 3 settings.  So I’m looking for more ideas of how to multi-task this mess!  

What tips do you have for keeping track of different plots and characters?  


Author: sue star

Sue Star writes mysteries about families in chaos. She is the author of the Nell Letterly series, about a single mom who teaches karate to support her teenage daughter. Sue also writes suspense with a touch of romance in exotic settings.

23 thoughts on “Confessions of an ex-multi-tasker”

  1. Brilliant suggestions, Sue! I especially like the color-coded cards. What a great way to get a handle on those subplots at a glance!

    Good luck with the WIP! Sounds like you have the tools to get you where you want to go!!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Re dates and timelines -they’re not obligatory. Problems arise from including too much detail. The readers won’t care if it’s Tuesday or Sunday unless you tell them it is. Then, they will expect consistency. Ditto for day and night. Don’t include details unless they’re important to the story, then you have to be consistent only with those.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Good points, Tom! When I write out a timeline, it’s for my eyes only. As for details, it’s a fine line between too much and not enough. We don’t want to overwhelm the readers, but instead, ground them in the story. Maybe another topic for a future blog post?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Why do you need to know the day? I’ve read plenty of novels, especially thrillers and other fast-paced ones, where the day is never mentioned. And if it happens to be a Sunday and my protag needs to go to the Hall of Records, I’m just going to skip a day so he can do it. All of this can be written so it’s transparent to the reader.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. As a reader, I think what day it is does matter. The timeline or chronology of events is important to readers for continuity and context. I like to know how much time as passed as the book goes by. Did all this happen over a few days, weeks, or even months? The “closeness’ in time of events contributes to the sense of urgency and building tension of the story. Even if the exact day of the week is not mentioned (although in a fast-paced story it should be) there should be some concept of the passage of time. Oh and that weekend thing for services, events, supports, etc.

          Liked by 2 people

    1. It could matter, depending on where you are in the world, what the local customs are, and what story you’re telling. Setting affects the plot, just as characters do. Setting is when as well as where. Interesting discussion!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I multi task as a reader. I listen to an audio book as I run. (and you all know I don’t actually RUN). Usually another as an e-book on my tablet )usually an ARC) and another hard copy of a book I bought after a book signing or a new release by one of my favorite authors. I usually do not have trouble keeping them separate.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You are so fortunate to be able to keep them straight! I usually have a book on tape going as well, and I listen to it while I sew. If I listened on my daily walks, I’d probably end up getting lost!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I’m envious! I used to be able to multi-read (?? is that a term??), but now I find it harder to keep the plots straight. My mom was a master at it, though. She would read seven books simultaneously without missing a beat!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I also love to use colored index cards to help me keep track of subplots or difference POVs. And I’m pulling up my socks in preparation for wading into a re-write. I do lots of intensive note taking to help me keep track of all my ideas, but like you, I also use outlines, chapter summaries, and spreadsheets to keep track of it all.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. One way I’ve developed a timeline is by using colored sticky notes. I have four glass door panels by my desk and I put them up on there, using a different color for each character. Sometimes by the end of the exercise, my windows look like stained glass.

    Another tool I have (but have yet to use) is Aeon Timeline. I got it through Scrivener.

    One issue I seem to have now with multitasking is… “Squirrel!”


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