The Benefits of Having Multiple Projects Simmering and Knowing When to Start a New One by Brad Windhauser
Although I often multitask, I used to force myself to devote my energy to one project at a time. When I would finish one thing, then I’d move on to another. I thought this was how you got things done—and enjoyed the process along the way—I wouldn’t watch a movie and a TV show at the same time, would I? But this narrow way of thinking limited how much work I could produce. When I would get stuck with one project, I felt the best way to work through it was to keep at it. Being tenacious is the best way to produce work, right? Even when fresh ideas surfaced, I didn’t follow them up—keep working on this and don’t allow yourself to get distracted, I told myself, as if I were coloring within the lines carefully and not allowing the picture to blur.
I now realize how much more enjoyable the writing process is for me when I learn to listen to it, when I heed the feeling that it’s time to set something aside and devote energy to something different. And once I saw how working on multiple pieces simultaneously increased my trove of stories and benefitted each story, I wondered why I didn’t do this sooner. But why does this work and how do you know when to set one story aside in favor of following up a fresh idea?
I doubt there is any hard and fast rule that one writer can provide another—you have to figure out for yourself in what shape you can leave a story and resume working on it without too much effort (i.e. reacquainting yourself with the content, the rhythm of the piece). But I can tell you that your writing will benefit by working on more than one project at a time.
For me, they need to be at different stages: one close to a complete draft; another merely gestating, a germinating idea that might only be a scene or a character sketch; another loosely connected scenes that is shaping into a particular structure. Starting cold, with a blank canvas—among other blank canvases—leaves me feeling a bit defeated. Not having anything cooking is daunting and saps my creative energy.
So what inspired this transition to multiple irons in the fire? I thought about how musicians who, in the midst of a tour promoting an album, work on new material at their shows and between tour dates, so that when they arrive in the studio for their next album, their songs come together with more ease. They’ve maintained a groove, a certain energy level that enhances the creative process. This could work with my writing, I thought.
But how do I make it work for me?
If I imagine a scene, I finish the scene. If I have good momentum, I write another scene. If the scenes stop coming, I work on an outline to illustrate what might come next. You’ll know you’ve hit this point with a piece when you can’t figure out where to take it. This happens when I am too close to a piece or simply out of ideas. If I’m working on a character sketch, I write until I can “see” the person clearly. Simply put: I leave enough bread crumbs of my narrative trail to make finding it again easy.
But there are more benefits to this process.
Stepping away from a piece once it’s in a good place allows me to return to it with a fresh perspective. When I return to continue writing, edit, and/or revise, I have a better shot at seeing what’s on the page versus what I think is there. In the creating phase, I might be too focused on the feeling of the story and not aware enough of what I have executed on the page.
Starting something new also allows me to pour any new tricks I learned into more work, to work with a tool in a new setting, see what else it can offer. If while drafting I figure out a cool way to begin or end a scene, I can see how I can use it in a different scenario. This also helps me sharpen the use of this tool.
So much of life is about timing: being at the right place at the right time. In writing, your best work will come from the amount of time you devote to it as well as knowing when it’s the right time to stick to it and when to leave it off for something new. Only you can make this call, but it’s something you should think about, and when you find what works best for you and your work, you’ll be glad you did.