Some lucky people get inspiration for one book at a time and can concentrate on that book with laser focus until it’s done and ready to publish.
At least, I’m assuming they’re out there. I’ve never personally met one.
What I HAVE often met is writers who keep getting inspiration for new projects, starting to write or outline them in a fit of enthusiasm, and either losing momentum or getting distracted by the next shiny idea, leaving a sad miniature Everest of half-finished stories in their wake.
I’ve personally straddled a line between the two extremes for several years.
I have at LEAST fifteen novels in various stages of conception, outlining, or even near-completion and Heaven help that last category when it comes time to polish those teenhood efforts up to meet my current literary standards.
I also have a large array of half-finished art pieces sitting in my computer, awaiting the day when the fickle fairy of inspiration that led to their birth decides to turn its face toward them again. And that’s not even counting all the fanfiction I’ve thought of but never written!
And yet, I’ve self-published four novels in less than five years, and have been producing pages for my webcomic at a fairly steady pace for over a year.
How do I complete so many projects, when I clearly have some of the same Attention Deficit Ooh Shiny tendencies that plague so many authors?
The answer is simple in theory, but takes some strategy to put into practice.
That answer is: I have one primary project that I focus on until it’s complete, but I work on the other projects whenever I have inspiration for them.
How to balance a primary project and your shiny side projects:
If you choose to implement this strategy, it’s likely that a few questions will come up, so I’ll take a minute to answer them here:
- How do you choose a primary project?
Personally, when I finish a main project and am choosing its successor, I use two criteria:
- Which project do I currently feel the most inspired by and passionate about?
- Which project do I currently have the most data for?
Criteria A is the more important one. If you’re absolutely in love with a story, you’ll have more fun working on it, be more motivated to work on it consistently, and do better work than you would if your heart wasn’t in it.
But if you have several collections of notes, disjointed scenes, or other assorted story scraps, and you’re equally in love with all of them, you might as well focus on the tale that you’ve fleshed out the most, and that is already the closest to completion.
- Should I forbid myself from working on my other projects until I’ve made ‘enough’ progress on my primary story?
HECK NO. When you have inspiration, write it down.
I’ve had times when I thought of a poignant, detailed and beautiful scene, but refused to actually write it until I reached that part of the book.
By the time I went to write it, the magic and emotion had faded, I’d forgotten most of the things I wanted the characters to say, and what had once been a beautiful and heart-gripping scene had gone blander and staler than bread left to dry in a cupboard.
I was so. Freaking. Mad.
Now, when I have inspiration for a scene or conversation, even if it isn’t in my primary project, I write as much of it as I can think of.
Even if I don’t have the whole scene, or I’m not sure how one part of the conversation will lead to another part I want to include, I write the parts I DO have before they can disappear.
Don’t ignore your inspiration in favor of forcing yourself to work exclusively on one project. If you do, you’ll lose a lot of great ideas, and you’ll start to resent the story you’re writing.
To make matters worse, your readers will probably pick up on that resentment, and love the book less as a result.
- How do you keep making progress on your primary project when you’re doing other projects on the side?
By falling back on the old writing principle: a little bit of progress is better than none.
If you’re feeling super inspired by one of your side projects, and you hammer out 2,000 words in that project in one day, great!
But if you ever want your main project to be finished, you need to use some self-discipline and make yourself do at least a bit of work on it, preferably every day.
- How do you work on your primary project when you’re feeling uninspired?
On the days when I’ve yet to make any progress on my main project, and I just don’t feel like it, I’ve found it helpful to tell myself, “I’ll just start writing, and type out as much as I can think of at the moment.
“I can go back and edit it later, but even if all I accomplish today is to write 100 crappy words, that’s 100 words that I wouldn’t have written otherwise, and that are no longer standing there as a roadblock to me writing other words.”
If you really aren’t feeling the scene you’re currently working on, remember: there’s no law stating that you HAVE to write the scenes in order.
If you have more ideas for a scene later in the book than you do for the one that’s up next in the plot, you can write that later scene now and come back to the current one when you’re feeling more inspired.
Another tactic is to switch POV characters. If your current viewpoint character’s perceptions are boring you, ask yourself which nearby character might have a more interesting take on the situation.
- What if you just can’t bring yourself to write?
Even having a framework of “this, this and that have to happen in this scene in order for the plot to move forward and future events to be plausible” is progress, and it will help you to write more easily the next day, because you know what you need to write about.
You may even find that outlining turns into full-fledged writing.
As you list the things that need to happen, you might start to think of events or dialogue that could fill the gaps between those things. As you think of them, you can add them in, and next thing you know, the scene is all but written.
When it comes to getting a main project done while you tinker with other side projects, a lot of my advice could be boiled down to this:
Go with the flow of your inspiration, but when inspiration goes AWOL, use determination and self-discipline as a substitute, and keep working on it bit by bit until you get it done.
Stephanie O’Brien is a lifelong fiction author who loves experimenting with different genres, subverting common clichés and tropes, and picking stories apart to see what makes them work and how they could be better.
To see more writing tips, as well as Stephanie’s novels, comics and music videos, visit her website at http://www.stephanieobrienbooks.com/
You can also get in touch with her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/StephanieOBrienBooks, or connect with her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Stepha_OBrien.