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This Writing Life: Knowing When to Start Something New

22 March, 2011

A couple of posts ago, I talked about all the things I was working on, particularly the continuation of novel editing. These edits have been dragging on for months and months now, partly because they’re hard work, but also because I decided to write a whole new novel before I’d finished them. There have been a few short stories, too, as well as everything else unrelated to writing that I do, but it was that first draft of a novel that took up the greatest chunk of time. I knew, at the time, that trying to do both at once was a mistake, but I did it anyway. And now, what am I contemplating? Doing the same thing all over again.

This time, I’ve been much more patient. My newest novel idea is one that I’ve been mulling over and picking at since the early part of last year. I’ve made an aborted attempt at it, I’ve written a short story in its world, I’ve done some research and planning. Now though, I’ve got another question to answer: just when do I start properly writing it?

As my experience has shown, knowing when to start something new isn’t as easy as it might seem. The conventional wisdom is ‘finish one thing before you start something else’. It’s good advice, and if you can stick to it, that’s all to the good. My creative brain doesn’t seem to work that way, though. I always need something else in the back of my head, something to be thinking about and fretting over. It’s what pushes me to finish anything at all, even when my willpower isn’t quite strong enough and I end up starting it early. Then it’s always, ‘I just need to finish that older novel so I can give my full attention to this new one.’

For published novelists, the pressure of deadlines probably makes this management of workload a lot easier. You work on what’s due first, and if that means working on two things simultaneously, that’s what you do. Alternatively, you can push to finish one project and leave your time free for the second (or third, or fourth…) For those of us without deadlines though, being able to put things off indefinitely and keep starting new things is a very real temptation – and a danger.

I still haven’t decided when I’m going to start working on this new novel. In a sense I’ve been working on it for a year already, but I won’t really feel like I’ve started until the first words are on the page. Will that end up happening before I finish editing the last novel? Probably, but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep telling myself to do one thing at once all the while.


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