I’ve read a lot over the years about how writers work, everything from how they sit down and get out their daily wordcount to how they find inspiration or handle the ghastly business of actually getting published. As with any subset of artists, lots of writers have different, personalized ways of doing things.
Geoff Dyer, a British novelist and essayist, has said: Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.
That’s not quite what I do, but I do usually have a number of projects going at any one time. When I decide I don’t want to work on one for a while, I can work on another.
I don’t often get blocked; usually it’s just that I don’t want to write this scene or that scene that I know I have to write in order to move a story forward. Especially when I’m editing, as I’m doing right now for Dead Isle, I feel like I should be done with writing new scenes. The thing is written! And now I have to write more? What gives?
It also helps to have a diversity of work that I can pick from, because most of the long stuff I’ve written has come out of short work: suddenly an idea will catch fire and for a few months I’ll live and breathe that single project. Every novel I’ve written has happened that way: Nameless took four months, Charitable Getting took one, and the original novella-length version of Trace took I think about two weeks.
So I usually have at least a couple of long works, a couple of short works, and a couple of ideas going at any time. I think it’s especially important to try and have ideas that haven’t come to fruition bouncing around in one’s head. This should probably best be termed “background processing”, but I call it “rocktumbling” — just keeping a concept in my mind until it starts to take form, turning it over and around until I can figure out where to get my hooks in. I think this is one of the most important skills a writer can develop, the ability to be patient with something that needs more time before it’s ready.
Sometimes it takes years. I used to want to write action stories about spies and thieves, about pursuits and how two intelligent people would play that game with each other, but I could never figure out quite how the nuts and bolts would work. One of the reasons I’m so very proud of certain fanfiction I’ve written is that I did it — it took ten years to learn how to write a story where the pursuit was the focal point, but eventually I made it happen. And now that’s a skill I can call my own.
At the moment I have a novel in edits, and that’s really my primary project, but I also have about half a dozen fanfics in various stages of completion, two novels waiting in the wings for me to play with, one really good idea I’ve been rocktumbling for a few weeks, and a couple of interesting but still not fully-grown ideas that I’ve been rocktumbling for months or years.
They’ll get there eventually, but it’s okay that they’re not there yet. I’ve got plenty to attend to while my subconscious plays around with those.