Don’t Climb Two Mountains: Write One Book at a Time
At my worst I wrote four novels and six short stories at once. I felt like a chef in a busy restaurant, although I’ve never worked in a restaurant and the chef would’ve done a better job than I did.
I’d start working on one novel and this flood of great ideas would pop in my head. I figured the most-efficient way to get them out of my head was to start another book — and another — until all I’d do was start books. Not finish them.
Upon reflection, this behavior was really stupid — and inefficient.
I can’t climb two mountains at once. A single mountain (the novel/book) is hard enough. Writing long-form takes everything out of you. Most people never finish a book in their lives.
We must climb one mountain prepared. We bring the appropriate ropes and hooks. When we reach the summit, only then is it ok to scale the next mountain.
The struggle is real
So, why did I think this was a good idea to struggle twice as much, or ten times more?
Our conscious mind can only process one project at a time, nothing more. There’s no such thing as multitasking — only dilution of our efforts. Writing multiple books at once might feel productive and faster, but the net effect was horribly slow. Three years slow.
The process of writing brings a flood of creativity along with it. Whether you write fiction of non-fiction, the world looks different while you’re in writing mode. You pay attention to little details more. You look at language differently and everything around you is fair-game for a story.
The problem: the universe will try and conspire against you with everything she has.
Most people who start books don’t finish them. These are called drawer novels, because they sit in a proverbial drawer (digital or physical) somewhere. Of the people who do finish novels, most of those first books will be terrible (and should stay in the drawer). This is OK. The bad, first book is part of the process. We’ve got to get it out of our bodies, like the flu.
So, it makes sense when a new idea comes to you, and you feel it’s brilliant, that you’d wan’t to act on it immediately. I mean, if we’ve got to write a terrible first book, why not write the bad book and the next book simultaneously?
Don’t. It’s a terrible idea. This was my thinking and it took me ten times longer to finish my first book.
I wish I’d listened to Stephen King earlier. King takes the extreme stance that writers’ notebooks are the worst idea ever — that the best ideas will rise to the stop and stick in your mind. The ideas you can’t let shake are the ones you should write. The ideas you forget were forgettable.
I don’t fully agree with King, but I understand his intention. When I started writing I thought I had all these amazing ideas. I’d write them in giant notebooks and spent more time generating new ideas than I did on the writing itself. I’d get ideas for novel after novel and I’d start each book.
When I got to the point where I had to pick a story I couldn’t choose just one. They all sounded so good. I figured I could peck-away at a couple novels simultaneously. How hard could it be?
Two books became three.
Three became four.
Then, I added unfinished short stories to the never-ending conveyor belt of non-productivity. The ideas would come in. I’d stop what I was writing and pick up the new project. I thought I was a genius and wondered why other authors didn’t write this way… I’d get so many more books done at once!
The process was brutal and unfulfilling. I’d lose track of storylines and put details in one book that belonged elsewhere. I thought I was working smart. I was a lunatic. Being new to fiction writing the process was so exciting I didn’t recognize the madness. It’s embarrassing to type this now.
I hope you won’t follow in my footsteps.
I wrote seven manuscripts in a year and none were salvageable, due to this writing process. I had to send myself to personal writing rehab and completely re-think my process. If I had continued with my treadmill writing I never would’ve finished a single project.
My writing process looks different now
Now, I write one book at a time, but I use my phone to keep track of new ideas. The difference is that I’ll write a quick sentence or two, to jog my memory later. Then, I’ll file the idea away and continue with the current book.
This note-taking process fulfills my need to capture new ideas, yet keeps me from veering off-course with each book.
I believe Stephen King. In his writing lectures he recommends writers not to keep a giant idea file — that only the best ideas need to be remembered. Now I spend little time thinking about and looking for new writing ideas, because I know they’ll come when it’s time. But I do save the ideas that strike me while I’m working on other projects.
Sometimes we’re given an idea only once. If we don’t capture the idea it will go to someone who will appreciates it.
Not only do I save new writing ideas in my phone, but I use it to write my short stories and novels too. Although the words-per-minute is slower with thumb-typing, my daily word count is much higher. My phone is always with me and I’m able to steal small writing moments unavailable with laptop writing.
Sure, I still get floods of ideas as I walk around, and even during writing. But instead of starting a new story I’ll make a quick note in my phone and move on. I believe it’s always good to capture ideas, but not to get too excited about them. It’s better to continue finishing the first story.
Here’s a story I wrote about my phone wring:
What I Learned Writing an Entire Novel on My Phone
The year was 2017. It was cold and dark outside. I was thumbs-deep in my latest novel and minutes away from typing the end. I popped my…
I write much more now that I’m mobile, but I only wrote one story at a time. Since I edit on my laptop, I have one book or story in edit mode, and one book on my phone in writing mode. I use my most-alert time during that for writing. The evenings are for editing.
Editing is linear, more analytical, and less-creative, so I’m using two different parts of my brain. This allows me to have one book I’m always writing and one I’m always editing.
I get more done by writing less at one time. When I’m ready for a new project the old project goes into the editing queue. I scroll through my writing ideas for the next book, and pick the best one.
Occasionally, I’ll cull these epiphany ideas in batches. What once sounded like a great idea the moment I thought of it, later, isn’t worth writing.
Everything’s faster now. If we don’t produce quality work on a regular basis our audience will leave us for someone who does.
Watch for your two mountains. Everyone’s got them. Maybe you’ve got an entire mountain range. Capture those little epiphanies when you get them, but don’t allow the shiny objects to distract you. The most-productive writing is the straight line. Occam’s Razor that thing. The other projects will be there when you finish first.
August Birch (AKA the Book Mechanic) is both a fiction and non-fiction author from Michigan, USA. A self-proclaimed guardian of writers and creators, August teaches indie authors how to write books that sell and how to sell more of those books once they’re written. When he’s not writing or thinking about writing August carries a pocket knife and shaves his head with a safety razor.