I’m quite lucky to be surrounded by the kind of creative talent I am, and quite conniving to get all that talent working on my behalf. That’s something I think (and am told) fairly often, but in this case it’s because of yesterday’s guest post.
With no prompting whatsoever, Courtney wrote a perfect introduction to this week’s writing series. I wanted to talk about the role of inspiration for the serious writer.
That’s not a new topic at Unstressed Syllables. Courtney and I both have mentioned it at times, and almost always in the same context:
Enjoy it when you’ve got it, and write anyway when you haven’t.
That’s a core tenet of daily writing. In fact, that’s most of the point. If you want to be a master of your craft (instead of a slave to it), you have to be able to write on your schedule — not on the schedule of some fickle muse.
Dividing Your Efforts
And that’s just the problem: it’s fickle. I almost used the word “elusive” before, but that’s not quite right. If you’re really trying to be an artist (and since you’re putting in the time to read this article, I’m sure you are), chances are good you’ve had your fair share of run-ins with inspiration.
Inspiration is amazing. Inspiration is wonderful. I’ve told the story of the time inspiration drove me to finish my first novel overnight — doing as much before dawn as many serious contestants do during all of NaNoWriMo.
The problem is, it usually doesn’t work that way. It usually does the opposite, prompting you with the start of a story. That’s my experience, anyway. I’ve got a real knack for stumbling across an extraordinarily compelling book idea every two or three months.
Problem is, I’m not producing at that rate. That means, for every shiny new story I start on, I leave a whole pile of unfinished (and quite promising) titles back in the pile.
I mention that as a warning. Too often, everything you read on this topic is about the dangers of not writing while waiting for inspiration, and that’s because it’s a bigger tragedy.
For most creative types, though, the danger of skipping from project to project is much higher. Instead of leading to roadblocks, chasing after inspiration can be more like following a will-o-the-wisp as it leads you merrily off into the woods, never to see your former project again.
Finishing What You’ve Started
I wish I could say that the answer is to ignore that siren call (to mix my mythy metaphors), to find within yourself the self-control and personal determination to complete the project that needs completing. And…well, I will.
The thing that separates a real writer from someone who wants to be a writer, ultimately, is the ability to write all the way to an ending. Lots of people start lots of creative projects, but only a handful of them ever see anything through to completion.
And that’s what NaNoWriMo is all about: prodding you on toward completion. Ideally, that means you buckle down, focus hard, and write a perfect new novel start to finish.
Making a Casserole
That’s not always how it turns out in reality, though. Last year, facing the imminent start of NaNoWriMo, I couldn’t decide which project to work on. I had two unfinished projects that needed ends, one brand new novel with most of its prewriting done, and a series of non-fiction articles I wanted to expand into a book.
I chose the right one. The new novel. Oberon’s Dreams. It was perfect for NaNoWriMo. I went to the infamous 2009 kickoff party, bragged about having a scribblebook so I could write even when everyone with their laptops realized there was no wifi…and then I sat there with nothing to write.
I panicked. Tons of prewriting done (same as Courtney talked about yesterday), weeks of preparation put into this, and yet I didn’t have a single word to write. Seconds ticked by, minutes, and then inspiration struck.
For a scene in one of the half-finished books.
I worked on that instead, putting off the blank page until a time when I wasn’t so tired. Then the next morning, bright and early, I sat down to write…and ended up working on the other unfinished novel. By the end of the month I had more than 50,000 new words spread over half a dozen projects, all pasted together into a single Google Doc like some sort of story casserole, and in the whole bulk of it there was less than a page written on Oberon’s Dreams.
Working in Parallel
This year isn’t any better. I’m bouncing like a pinball from Thriller to Sci-Fi to Young Adult to Paranormal Romance, and back again. What matters, though, is that I’m finishing projects.
Last year I finished two in November (and made significant progress on two more). This year I intend to finish one (my highest priority) no later than the 15th. I’ll be working on three or four more in parallel, though, and the moment I write The End on my Ghost Targets book, I’m pouring all that time straight into Seatac.
That won’t necessarily work for everyone, but it certainly works for me. I’m way ahead on word count already, and I don’t really feel like I’ve even had a chance to really get started yet.
But I spent years accomplishing nothing because I was following those same impulses…and leaving projects behind. These days, I’ve got the discipline to stick to an old project, even when a shiny new one comes along. That’s the trick. Working in parallel, instead of hopping from one thing to the next.
Eventually, it gets to be too much. Eventually, you’re spread too thin — and that is true for everyone. Maybe your limit is four or five projects at once. Maybe it’s one. Whatever it is, you’ve got to know your limit…and stop taking new ones until one of the old ones is done.