Something interesting happened at the conference I attended this weekend. A writer friend with whom I exchange manuscripts remarked to me that she generally has five-to-six manuscripts circulating “behind the scenes” at any given time, and that if one doesn’t work out, she simply to turns to another one. She suggested I do something similar, as I have been feverishly working to make a specific chapter of my story flow more smoothly with the rest.
My gut reaction at her suggestion gave me pause. I balked at the very idea. I, if I’m lucky, have five or six IDEAS circulating behind the scenes—and maybe one comprehensive outline—at any given time. But I am loyal, devoted, faithfully adhesed to one story at a time. My instinct is to see it through till the bitter end. It is to go through fire and water and death with it, kind of like Gandalf and the Balrog. I am not a multi-tasking writer. Sure, my next story is sitting there waiting for me, thank goodness—comprehensive outline, world-building notes and all—but I still want to see this current story through. My challenge with this difficult chapter feels like just that—a challenge. And ALL this feels particularly interesting to me because some of my former teachers would be stunned to hear that I of all people harbor any kind of capacity to marry and remain faithful to a project.
But my friend’s comments made me wonder if this die-hard clutching on to one story is perhaps the best approach. I confess I haven’t come up with any definitive answer; I don’t know if there is one. What she said made sense, after all. We all know how it feels to write what we think is genius, only to return two days later to find it seriously lacking. Return six months later, and you often want to lynch yourself for not deleting your outvomit of “genius” the moment it hit the page. Given that, it makes sense to put entire books aside and let them slumber in the dark before returning to them. I am surprised this never felt like the thing for me to do. I’ll put whole chapters or sections aside and re-visit them, but never the entire book, so far.
The good part of this, regardless of what I decide to do, is that it’s made me take a step back from my story so that I can now much more easily hold the book as a whole in my head. I am more merciless in my editing, more willing to move entire sections around (which previously would have required prying out of my cold dead hands). For which I owe my friend a great thanks.
But it makes me wonder: how do other writers operate? Do you remain obsessed with one story? I know of several writers who toiled away in obscurity, hunched over a single project for years before pursuing publication (and as a result often churning out a masterpiece. Think Tolkien and Patrick Rothfuss.) And then, I guess, others who have the five or six “on the back burners,” safety nets to turn back to.
What feels best to you, fellow writers?