In the two years and a bit that I’ve been producing this blog, I’ve developed a rule of thumb that goes “Any time three people ask me more or less the same question in the same week, it’s probably time to do a post on the topic.” Last weekend, as I said, I was at a convention, so I got lots of material, but this post’s topic came up first and most often.
More specifically, I had a number of people ask “Should I work on one story at a time, or should I work on a bunch of them at once? What do you do?”
Anybody who’s read this blog for more than about a post can probably figure out that my short answer is “You should do what works for you. What works for me is irrelevant.” But the fact that people kept coming up and asking makes me think that more discussion is warranted. (That, or I’m just not convincing when I say “Do what works for you.”)
The longer answer requires consideration of two things: why the writer wants to work on more than one story at a time (or only one), and what the writer needs in order to improve his/her writing. In other words, there still isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer (and is anyone really surprised to hear me say that?), but there are some ways of looking at oneself and one’s work that can aid one in making the initial decision.
First, there’s what the writer wants to do and why. Generally, I meet three kinds of writers who really, really want to be told “Sure, go ahead, start as many projects as you want.” The first kind of writer loves doing the beginning. That’s the fun part; it’s where they get to make up all sorts of cool new stuff, and they don’t have to worry about tying it together. These are the writers who get six to ten chapters in, hit the first big wall, and immediately start a new book. After all, they reason, at least they’re writing something.
The trouble is, these folks clearly know in their hearts that this isn’t working; that’s why they’re asking me this question in the first place. They have seventeen different first-six-chapters scattered around their hard drives…and they’ve never once gotten any further, let alone actually finished something. Why they think I’m going to say “Sure, keep doing that” is beyond me, but that’s evidently what they expect, because they get kind of perturbed when I ask “And is that working for you? No? Then cut it out!”
The second kind of writer who comes to me with this question is the one who is spinning off ideas faster than she/he can keep up with. They want to work on eight projects at once because they’re afraid they’ll lose a brilliant idea if they don’t write it down immediately. They’re all about the “Oooo, shiney!”
This group is a bit harder to sort out, because for some of them, working on multiple projects at once does work. (The definition of “it works” in this context is: these people finish stories on a regular basis, even if they don’t finish absolutely everything they start, and the number of projects they finish keeps growing compared to the number of projects they don’t.) If that sounds like you…then go to your word processor or your “completed works” file and count up how many things you have finished, how many are abandoned, and how many you’re working on right now. If the number of abandoned works is two or more times as many as the number of finished works, you should seriously consider cutting back on your number of projects, because this system may not actually be working quite as well as you think it is.
Those for whom the multiple-project system works well cite the lack of down time as a plus – when they get stuck on one project, they can move on to another while that one is cooking, instead of having to waste days or weeks while they wait for the first project to get un-stuck. This can work well…or it can be distracting. Mileage varies; in this case, one has to be honest with oneself about what is working and what isn’t.
The third group that comes up and asks about this are the ones looking for a second opinion. Somebody told them “You should work on multiple projects! It works great for me!” and they don’t really want to, or else they’ve been told that they shouldn’t ever be working on more than one thing at a time, and they really want to. So first I have to give the “There are no rules except that you have to write and what you write has to work” speech, and then we have to sort out why they don’t want to follow whichever bit of advice they’ve been getting and whether it is or is not a good thing to do for them.
Because the second piece of the decision depends on what the particular, individual writer needs in order to write publishable stuff…and this may very well not be what that writer wants to be doing. As should be obvious from the above discussion, there are quite a few writers who would really like to work on multiple projects, but for whom this is not going to be a particularly fruitful way of proceeding. Also, even writers for whom multiple projects have worked for years and years occasionally find themselves with a book or story that absolutely requires them to focus on it, and only on it. Again, if the hard drive is littered with abandoned starts-of-stories, whatever you’re doing probably isn’t working. Try something else.
And trust your instincts; if you know in your heart that you aren’t being as productive as you’d like, but you keep working the same old way because it’s more fun, then admit it to yourself. You don’t have to do anything about it if you really don’t want to. Honestly, nobody’s making you do any of this.