WORK IN PROGRESS OR WORKS IN PROGRESS?

If you follow me on GoodReads, or this blog for that matter, you know by now that I switch between four books at any given time. I switch off between one science fiction, fantasy, or horror novel; one “literary” work of fiction, poetry, or plays; one non-fiction book; and one graphic novel or comics collection. By letting myself respond to my own moods I find I read more often, and so read more books in a given year (not counting the books I edit as part of my job, which, yes, continues to be to read books!). If I’m not in the mood for SF, I grab the non-fiction book. Not in the mood for non-fiction? There’s a graphic novel or comic collection right next to it, and so on. I’ve been doing this for years and it works for me—and I know I’m far from the only person who does this.

So then if I can switch between books—and switch between TV series and movies and other media—who says I can’t work on multiple writing projects at the same time, too?

Well, turns out I can. This, what you’re reading right now, is a “writing project” for me, and one I work on every week. I also have a short story I’m noodling my way through, a fantasy novel that currently exists in pieces—scattered scenes and an outline—and I’m revising another novel that’s finished. I’m also working on two ghostwriting projects I can’t tell you about, and fairly easily switch between this novel, that novel, the other short story, and a weekly blog post, with considerable ease. And as it is with reading multiple books, I know I’m not alone in having multiple writing works in progress at the same time. “In Revising One Sentence,” Lydia Davis wrote:

Sometimes I have four or five, or more, stories in progress at once. It is nice to feel that there is too much to work on rather than nothing at all—the blank page. Some stories, not quite finished, may get pushed out of the way in all this activity and may be forgotten for a while—even months. But sooner or later I come back to them and finish them, and it does not hurt them to let this time pass. I see them more clearly.

This is true of science fiction legend Connie Willis as well, who said in “Science Fiction and Schmaltz: A Conversation with Connie Willis” in Clarkesworld: 

Despite appearances, I am an incredibly slow writer. I’ve just produced a lot of stuff because I’m really old. I’ve always been able to keep working, I think because of the way I work, which is in pieces. If I get stuck on one story, I work on another. If I get stuck on one part of a novel, I write some other scene or the ending or something and then come back to the place I was stuck in a couple of weeks. Or I work on something else altogether.

Can’t get motivated to tackle the next chapter of the novel? Write a poem instead. Not inspired to write a poem? Tackle a short story. Feeling a bit burned out on fantasy halfway through an epic fantasy novel? Start writing something else. If you have an idea for a horror novel but think you can’t start in on it until you’re done with the epic fantasy… says who?

James Baldwin said, “Every form is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass. None of it comes easy.”

And he was right. Writing is hard, and writing well and continuing to write even as the world seems to be completely ignoring you is harder still. And projects do have a tendency to stall, sometimes permanently. If you can at least take an occasional break from the incredibly complex novel for the occasional short story, or to do a little worldbuilding for the science fiction novel, or put your notes together for an essay collection… you’ll stay writing. And when lightning strikes and that long awaited big idea hits you and gets you back into the fantasy novel—back into it you go!

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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