What To Write and When To Write It

by limebirdster

As people, we think a lot of things over the course of a day, or a week, or year. And as writers, we form a lot of these into story ideas. Some of them we think about, we roll around our heads for a while, and then we decide that they won’t make a good story, or that they will make a good story but we’re not sure exactly how to go about it right now. So, we make a note of it and promise to come back later and look at it again.

But some of them are amazing. Some of them take hold and grow like some kind of virus and leave us unable to think of anything else. But we’re writers. We usually already have an idea, we have word documents on our computer that contain half a book that we’ve been slaving away at, and a quarter of a book that we started before that, and then the bare bones of a story that never got any further than the first paragraph and a list of the main characters.

So my question, and it’s not one that I have the answer to, is, how do you decide what to write? How do you choose which order you’re going to write your stories in and how much attention give each one? What makes you put down your pen on your current project and pick up the pen for a new one? And what, if anything, convinces you to give up and move on?

I sat down at my computer today to write a post for Limebird, it’s my day off and I wanted to be productive. I have a meeting this evening and before then I thought that I had enough time to bash out the post I thought of yesterday and also write a few words for the novel that I started during NoNoWriMo. This is the third Limebird post that I’ve started today.

I wrote a large chunk of the first one, and then I had another idea so I opened a new document and typed the first line, and then went back to the first one so I had at least finished something today. And then another Limebird wrote a post that gave me a story idea so I had to stop everything and write that down, and now I just want to get into that. But I already have my NaNo project to finish, and after that I’d promised myself that I was going to write a new urban fantasy. But the new idea is really interesting! And that prompted this post, which I am now writing instead of any of the four previously mentioned, and now abandoned, word documents.

And that’s just this afternoon! After writing an adult fantasy a few years ago, a conversation with a friend convinced me that childrens fantasy would be easier to publish, so I spent about a year trying to write a kids’ book. It didn’t go very well, it turns out that if I’m going to write fantasy and spend all that time creating a world for it, I want to share all the details of that world with the reader and that’s too much extra information to put into a kids’ book where you’re looking at about 50,000 words for the entire thing, not just the introduction!

But I spent over a year trying to write it before I figured that out, and at the end of that year I had four new story ideas written in my notebook and no idea of how to decide which one to work on. I promised myself that once I’d fleshed out my NaNo project into a full novel I could devote all of my time to the new urban fantasy idea, but now I have this other idea competing with it and my NaNo project is proving tricky to write. I’m half tempted to stop the NaNo and give both the new idea and the urban fantasy idea some attention simultaneously, but then that’s 3 unfinished projects instead of 1 finished project, 1 work in progress, and 1 idea!

And that’s saying nothing for the pages of notes in my notebook for about, hang on let me count, 17 other story ideas. As you can probably tell this new idea has thrown all of my attempts at trying to be organised completely off course. I have a decision to make now, what to focus on and when to focus on it, and I think I’m going to try to be sensible and finish this NaNo story that’s hanging around my neck like a miniature albatross. But what do you do?

New idea or old idea or idea that’s been put on hold for the past few months? Everything all at once, or one idea at a time? Finish something completely, or write a bit of everything as you go?

I’ve always been a write whatever you’re in the mood for kind of writer, but recently I’ve been trying to be a bit more disciplined. As you can probably tell, it’s not going very smoothly!

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51 Responses to “What To Write and When To Write It”

  1. I currently have two projects in the works; one short story and one novel. It gives me a fall back if I get stuck on one of them. They are completely different in character and plot, but I find that each can help stimulate my imagination for the other one.

    • That’s great that you can you can bounce back and forth between them Dennis, and that they actually help each other! I used to use my blog to gear up my imagination for stories, once I’d churned out a post of funny things that had happened recently it was much easier to get stuck into the hard work!

  2. Great post Ster, I have to say I’m definitely guilty of doing this. I always have about 5 projects on the go, so many ideas swirling around in my head at once. I’m in the everything all at once camp!

    • Thanks! I’m totally in the everything all at once camp with you, even if I’m only actually writing one thing I have to be thinging about something else too, otherwise my concentration just wanders!

  3. To say I have a multitude of projects kicking around my brain would be an understatement. However, in deciding an order for them, I only decide what’s next (on deck, so to speak). And even then, it’s subject to change. For the current, well, it’s a matter of what feels ready to take that step in my brain, what’s developed enough. And that’s always a commitment in and of itself, as a project is usually a trilogy or a quartet for me. I don’t seem to think in terms of stand-alones. I think that’s part of why I only decide the on-deck project. At the moment, I’m almost done the first book in a quartet, so it’s going to be a while before I can even think about actually writing another project that isn’t a short story.

    Yes, I’m editing other books in previous projects in between books on my current one, but still, for actually writing, I go through each book in the project first before I start writing another one. I have to, partly because I find I need to wrap myself in that story as best I can.

    For the ideas I can’t get to right away, the ones that occur while I’m in the middle of a project? A lot of notes, kept electronically in neat little folders. Ideas for longer projects take a little while to mature and be ready for writing anyway, and this forces me to give them that.

    • That all sounds very organised Julie! I’m very impressed that you can keep all of your attention on one project through several books, I’ve only ever managed to finish the first one before I got distracted by something else!

      • Thanks! I honestly think it’s one of the reasons I work to a 30-day writing schedule every time I write a book. It’s likely the limit of my ability to withstand the whispers of other projects and book. 😉

    • That’s an interesting idea Julie, I’ve never thought of giving myself deadlines like that other than during NaNo – maybe it should be my next thing to try!

  4. Oh yes, I suffer from the headless chicken syndrome too! I also find that the more things I have like that competing for my attention, the less likely I am to do any of them. I can’t pick which to do first, so I go off and do something completely different instead!

    • Haha, do you think we can enter Headless Chicken Syndrome into the Limebird dictionary along with Pantsing? 😀

      I am very familiar with that work ethic too, I’m forever writing a to-do list in the hopes of being organised and then I spend all my time doing things that aren’t on the list!

  5. I have too many things going on in my Life to be able to focus on more than one writing project, whether I’m actively writing it or researching it or editing it. I don’t do ‘split’ well, actually, and that’s something I only recently learned about myself. Even when I set aside a writing block every day, I have filled it up with blogging because I’m not in the ‘zone’ enough.

    Right now, I am trying to get back into the writing zone after having been out of it since NaNo. With the holidays and being sick and some family stuff, I am having trouble. It’s not a good thing because when I’m not working on a novel or a short story, I am very grumpy!

    However, I know the project that I want to work on first, and that’s because it is always coming to my mind anytime I think about when I’m going to write again. My brain immediately conjures up the pirate story, and so that is enough to tell me that’s the project that I need to focus on first.

    • It’s weird how NaNo knocks you out of your writing groove. I was all geared up to carry the momentum into December and churn out a hefty word count before the new year and just ended up wanting to take a nap instead!

      I hope your pirate story goes well when get back into the ‘zone’ again, for the sake of those who have to endure Grumpy Kate if nothing else! 😉

  6. I don’t really decide what to write – my books decide it for me! Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder came from a dream and insisted on being written down immediately. Then I decided to work on The Termite Queen and it also just began on its own. It was long but I wrote it quickly, even with all the necessary research on termites. I usually work on one thing at a time – I’m not a good multitasker. When I get other ideas, I make notes for later.

    • You bring up a very interesting point, Termitespeaker: the myth of multitasking.

      In reality, our brains cannot focus on more than one thing at a single time. Now, we can switch our focus very quickly – three seconds on this, one second on that, fifteen seconds on that other thing – but the brain can’t process multiple tasks at the exact same time. It’s like having four monitors in front of you, each one showing something different. You can only look at – and process – one at any given nanosecond.

      If you ever consider how your brain processes data (and maybe I’m the only one who does this, since I spend so much of my day waiting for video to encode), there might be a jumble of stuff rattling around in there, but there’s always only ever one thing that can come to the forefront. So the “multitasker,” as we’ve come to call him, doesn’t actually exist.

      …which means that all of us who are so driven to concentrate on one thing at a time are more natural than we might sometimes be given credit. 😀

      • That’s an interesting point you’ve got there Mayumi, I always thought that you could think more than one thing at a time, though it makes much more sense that you can’t!
        It reminds me of what someone told me about Agatha Christie once, that her books are really hard to guess because she puts in more things than anyone can concentrate on at once, so most readers are genuinely incapable of working them out before the end!

    • It sounds like you’ve got a pretty good system going on there! Concentrating on one thing and making notes is how I tell myself I’ll work, I very rarely do though!

  7. I only pursue one writing project at a time. In some ways, this is good, as it makes me disciplined and gets me closer to the finish line, but in other ways it’s bad–nothing else to fall back on should I get stuck. But I am very much a one-thing-at-a-time person, so it doesn’t surprise me I approach my writing the same way.

    • Much as I’d never be able to do it myself, I quite like the idea of having nothing to fall back on. It would mean you were never able to give up and look at something else instead, you just have to keep trying until you work it out. I think if I could work like that I’d have written more than 1 novel by now!

      • It does make you just plow on, that’s for sure. If a scene doesn’t work, I just toy with it until it does, even if it’s the last stinkin’ thing I want to do. 🙂

  8. Hee hee. I can see what trouble this conundrum is giving you…! 😀

    We all have different techniques; I don’t think one is better than any other. I think we should all try our darnedest to employ the sort of discipline it takes to keep to a regular (preferably daily) writing schedule…but if your mind works better tackling multiple stories at once, run with it! I knew someone who always had to have at least three or four different projects going on at the same time, so he’d stay interested in all of them. I can take brief breaks (like a NaNo month) from a large project, but, for the most part, I work better with a fixed focus. Our methods depend on what drives us, what makes us happy.

    Did you enjoy focusing on one story during NaNo, Ster? Did you feel like you accomplished more during that month with your concentration on a single effort? Why not try setting a smaller similar goal for yourself, to see if that works? For instance: “This week, I will only allow myself to work on Project X.” If you find after a week (or during the week) that that is just not right for you, maybe you simply function better juggling multiple stories at once. There’s nothing wrong with that…so long as you can see the project through. 🙂

    Good luck! (And, let us know what happens!)

    • You’re definately right Mayumi, whatever works for you as an individual, however bizarre that might be, is always the best way to go about things. Though trying to keep up with 4 different stories sounds very crazy, I’m impressed that your friend can keep up with it all!

      I do like NaNo, though by the end I’m always starting to feel a bit claustrophobic, just because there simply isn’t time to think about anything else! When I was writing the only full length novel that I’ve ever actually finished (catchy title there) I had a notebook that I used to write scenes for other stories in when they got stuck in my head. I usually avoided typing them up and only allowed myself to use the computer for the novel, which probably did work quite well considering that I actually finished it. Though by the end it weighed in at almost 200,000 words so I had have something, like the notebook, that I could occasionally distract myself with or I would have gone mad concentrating on one thing for so long!

  9. I am trying to discipline myself this year, so here’s hoping. Great post – I recognised myself there.

  10. This was really food for thought Ster. As for myself, I concentrate on one thing at a time. I may take a break if I have a magazine article due, or need to get a blog post done for the limebirds. I take a break between projects and look at the little ideas I had, the things I set aside while I was working. This way the little things I wrote down on paper scraps and recorded in my phone don’t get lost forever.

    • Thanks Neeks. What you do sounds exactly what I aim to do and never quite manage! I always think I should just do one thing and then look at all the little bits when I’m done and sometimes I almost manage it, but I always find myself in a situation like this sooner or later when I have several big things that I want to write all at once!

  11. Yes, it helps to have ADD or to have periods of mania to be productive. I find that I concentrate better under pressure, but if you’re only productive when under deadline, then you’re always stressed out. When I worked on a video for a major medical center, I had the opportunity to hear several nationally-recognized physicians describe what makes them and their colleagues so successful. They used the words:FOCUS and DEDICATION. In interview after interview, the docs kept repeating that all the talent in the world is wasted if you don’t have these two qualities. You would be too scattered to have an impact.

    So you must take a deep breath and choose–every day, every minute. Write down a list of projects. Then choose what is most important to you. If today were your last day of work, ever, what project would you work on?

    Consider it “serial monogamy,” being dedicated to one thing for a period of time.Yes, there are those who are polygamous. They can work on 10 projects at once, but they are rare–or just fast at, forgive me, “tossing off” their partners (projects) at a record pace. I recall reading an article a long time ago about a writer who used a different computer for each project. All of the computers were in the same room. They just moved from one computer to the next when inspiration struck. Today, I think that writer would just have multiple windows open and flip from one window to the next.

    I work in serially monogamous spurts. We all have to make those hard decisions about what to work on at any given moment. You must feel passion for the work, but you must also be disciplined. That’s what gets you through to the end. Sorry, now that I’m reading back through this post, I don’t think it’s very helpful. There is no magic answer. .

    • I think that is quite helpful actually Jilanne! We just have to focus on whatever we’re writing at the time, whether that time is however long it takes to write an entire novel or just the hours left until lunch.
      We can always have a hundred different ideas going around our heads but when you sit down to write something you have to choose which one is going to have your attention otherwise you’ll just end up flicking back and forth between them all and not actually getting anything done!

      I think that’s what you meant anyway, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!

  12. I try to only work on one thing at a time. I have two WIPs so am doing a round of edits on one of them and then I’ll leave that alone and work on the other for a while. I’m not saying I’ll not think about the other, but will only work on one at a time.

    • Having two projects at slightly different stages is probably a pretty good way to go Pete, less confusing when you switch between them!

      • I hope so. The one I’m working on at the moment has been in various planning stages for years so I know everything that happens without reading any of it. More comfortable to slip back into writing this one.

        The other idea is only a year old and has had one draft. Still fresh. I’ve not confused the two. Yet 🙂

  13. Yes! On the nose, that’s what I meant. :o)

  14. I’m guilty of writing bits of many things here and there, and then never going back to it! So for that I will say, don’t be like me!!! lol. I can see it being good to just flow with one thing at a time, writing ideas down to go to later.

    • I know how you feel Laura! It’s hard to concentrate on one thing when there’s something else going round your head too!

  15. I usually get a concept or character and I become obsessed with it. If I can’t stop thinking about it and I can plot out an entire novel, then I know I have my next book idea. Once I hit that phase, I keep writing and get a draft done. I’ve got an idea folder for first lines or ideas I need to explore and hone in the future too–that’s where I go when I need to decide on the next thing to write. 🙂

  16. Any idea — new, old, indifferent, well-thought-out or off the cuff. Usually one thing at a time, though I have the beginnings of a couple of projects already started that I visit once a day. I used to be a procrastinator and a quitter — now I spend the majority of my time on one idea, with a little bit of time for other things. Great post!

  17. Ditto, ditto, ditto!
    Happens to me all the time. The temptation to start something new vs continuing an existing project. I hardly ever finish anything, it’s very frustrating. I have no idea. I just hope I can shut everything out at times and just finish something.

    • I’m pretty sure that finishing something is the most difficult part of writing! Ideas come from everywhere, it’s just so hard to focus on one of them for a long time without another one interrupting!

  18. I always have multiple things on the go!

    This month:

    1) Finish (and publish!) my first novel ‘Talatu’ (could drift into early Feb).

    2) At least one more Limebird article.

    3) A well overdue old movie review for StarShipSofa (and then record it).

    4) Research for the bits I skipped in my 2012 NaNoNovel.

    5) 2nd draft of ‘Faerie Fire’ (a novelette).

    6) Read through ‘UnMedicated’ (my uncompleted NaNo 2011 novel) which will be rewritten as a novelette to be published with ‘Faerie Fire’ and see what needs changing in the structure.

    Related stuff…

    1) Keep on plugging my Rhysling eligible poetry. I really want a nomination this year!

    2) Finish a narration for StarShipSofa.

    3) Write some poetry dammit!

    I always bounce back and forth between things, but I also have some critical deadlines that I keep in mind when I am not driven to work on a particular thing.

    Mayumi – I may not technically multitask, but I do juggle! My Mum thought I was weird as a child – I would watch TV, the adverts would come up and I would open my book to the right page and read, the moment the programme came back on I would close the book and would then pick up at the correct sentence during the next ad break!

  19. This is something we all struggle with, and it’s such a relief to learn that!
    Really, I think it depends on YOU. It’s about what works for you. I’m a very focused person, but I focus in spurts. If a new idea comes to me, I HAVE to write it down. If not, it’s gone. But I usually will not let myself just drop a project to work on a new idea. I write it down so that I’m satisfied it won’t die a horrible death of forgottenness. (Ha!) Then I go back to my original project with strict orders (from my focused self) that I will NOT start a new project until the current one is done. When I say done, I mean written. After I write, my work has to rest. I need to forget it before I can properly edit, so that’s a good time for something new.
    Now. The exception! If the new idea is REALLY going at me, I WILL stop, but only for a short time. I set my timer for, say, 10 minutes. During that time, I just write, write, write whatever is in my head related to that new idea. And this is fast furious writing, because I’m racing time. Once the buzzer goes off, that is IT. Back to current project.
    So there. The longish answer.
    But I should note that I do not work on novels ONLY. I write multiple short stories while working on a novel, but only one at a time, unless I get really stuck and need to feel useful and good at writing something else. Make sense?

    • That does make sense, it sounds as though you’re very disciplined, I think I’d need a teacher standing over my shoulder to meet your standards!

  20. Oh my dear, I can totally relate! I haven’t been writing long at all and I already have three projects in the works and two more that are dreams written down that beg to be expanded upon.

    First thing first though…..DO NOT GIVE UP ON the kids book!! Harry Potter was a kid series and each book was FAR longer than 50k words. YA for teens is still easier than adult fantasy fiction and gives you more freedom with word constraints and innuendo. Frankly, I prefer YA lit. Apparently I’m not the only one, as I read this past weekend that approx 30% of YA readers are age 35-45. For me, I like to escape thoroughly into a safe world with no adult responsibilities, I think…but I also prefer an environment with less sex and adult fiction seems to be inundated with sex anymore. Even if you start a series without it, eventually you get begged enough and give in…. okay I’m off point here, but maybe that’s one reason you tried YA. If you have an entire year invested, definitely don’t give it up! I know an agent who is dying for an edgy, dark YA and it’s been on her wish list for over a year. GO FOR IT!!

    • Thanks for the encouragement Raven, though I think the kids book as it was does have to go! It was aimed at the 8-12 age group rather than young adult and it really didn’t go very well.
      The new idea is YA though, so I am giving that a go, I think the kids book idea might make a better adult book, but now that you’ve mentioned it I’m tempted to give it a go as YA as well!

  21. I write about my life, so I pick an event that is compelling and write about it. I imagine writing fiction would be very different…

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