Working on Two Projects at Once: an update

11 Jan

I have worked hard over the years to increase my writing output. I have become all the more aware of the passage of time as I get older and my desire  has grown to complete as many as possible of the projects with which my imagination teems. So how have I tried to achieve this?

Around the turn of the century, I took work as a freelance music journalist in order to build up a writing CV. This work soon occupied most of the time that I’d freed up by going part-time in my ‘day job’.  At the time, I found this frustrating because it meant that I had almost no time for creative writing. Between 1995 and 2002, I produced nothing of publishable quality. On reflection, this experience helped me in two ways. Firstly, it allowed me finally to abandon the manuscript upon which I’d laboured during those years, my would-be ‘state of England’ novel. I had written 125,000 words that were leading nowhere. I had to let go of it. I came to realise that this was no bad thing and that I’d learned a great deal from the experience. Secondly, working for a music magazine had improved my efficiency as a writer. Being given a week in which to write the 9,000-word main feature on Black Sabbath, for example, works wonders for focussing the mind and for developing a more fluid and natural writing style. And reviewing classic albums in 200 words is a great way to hone the economy of your writing. As a result, over the next couple of years, I was able to produce two novellas and a clutch of short stories with which I was reasonably happy. I felt that this was my metier. And then came the idea for my big World War Two book and another six years spent on a single project… For all that, I don’t think I’d ever have been able to complete this project had I not become a much more focussed and methodical writer.

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The writing den

All of which brings us back to my latest strategy. In an earlier post (The Twin-Pronged Approach), I mentioned that since midsummer I’ve been working on two writing projects at once. One is thematically linked to my last completed manuscript and has a Cold War Setting. The other is a departure of sorts for me, set in and around a fictional east European state and with an unusual structure. Both were conceived some four years earlier but placed on the back-burner while I worked on my long novel with a World War Two setting. So over the summer holiday season, I worked on the Cold War project. I continued work on this until the end of October, when I had precisely 14,500 fairly well polished words. When I began to run out of steam on this project, as planned, I put it to one side and began work on the other. I have just spent a week out in my rural writing den and now have 17,500 words of this manuscript completed too. I’ve related before how pushed I am for writing time. In essence, I have one day a week in which to concentrate properly on my writing and the weeks that I get for annual leave. In addition to this, I write relatively slowly and meticulously, working to make each sentence count. So for me this represents pretty solid progress.

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The view from my writing den window in winter

So far, so good, then. It would appear that this approach is working for me. The test will come when the fictional country project runs into the buffers and I return to work on the Cold War project. Will I be able to pick up the thread? Will inspiration have returned? We shall see… Certainly, the fact that I tend to plan out in detail before embarking helps when picking up a project after some months since I effectively have a road map to show where it is heading. Some writers claim not to have a destination in mind and to be surprised by where their story takes them, by the things their characters do. Heaven knows where I’d be if I took that approach, and yet it must work for them. All of which goes to show that different things work for different writers. The one weekend that I spent on a creative writing course (led by two very good novelists) did nothing for me, but Kazuo Ishiguro, a writer whom I admire enormously, is the product of just such a process at the University of East Anglia’s creative writing school.

Happy reading and writing to all in 2013!

All text and images © PSR

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10 Responses to “Working on Two Projects at Once: an update”

  1. Mari Biella January 12, 2013 at 9:13 am #

    I’m currently working on two projects, too – one full-length novel, and one novella. I have to say that this approach works pretty well for me, as I often find that if I can put something aside for a little while and then go back to it I have a fresher, clearer perspective on it. Like you say, different things work for different writers and I think you have to experiment a bit and see what suits you.

    Anyway, good luck with both of these projects; they sound fascinating.

    I love your rural writing retreat, by the way! It looks like the perfect place to shut the door on the world and just write.

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves January 12, 2013 at 9:56 am #

    Hi Mari and thanks for the comments.

    Ah, pleased to hear that this approach works for you too. You’re definitely right about the whole ‘distance’ aspect of it. Coming back to your work, almost as though someone else had written it, provides you with insights into it that you would otherwise never gain (I’ve yet to reach that point with my current projects, though).

    So what are the themes of your current projects? How far have you got with them? As you know, I love novellas!

    Thanks for the good wishes with my work. The fictional country project, the one that I’m working on at the moment, is quite unusual and incorporates photographs and an experimental structure. I’m quite excited about how it’s panning out at present. No doubt, it’ll bamboozle any publishers to whom I present it and who’ll respond with their customary ‘not quite right for our lists’.

    My rural writing retreat is perfect. I have to travel a long way to get there, but when I arrive, I leave all my other worldly cares behind me for a while. It’s the place where I’ve done much of my writing over the last decade and the two seem to have become inextricably interwoven.

    • Mari Biella January 12, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

      The novel’s taking shape rapidly, though just when I’m tempted to say it’s almost finished I notice something else that needs to be changed. Like your novel, it’s quite unusual, as I honestly can’t say what genre it slots into. It incorporates elements of historical, speculative fiction, steampunk and gaslight romance. The novella’s quite different, and something of a departure for me. It’s set in the 1970s, and though at first I thought of it as being a psychological thriller it’s not really that much of a thriller. It’s about a slightly taboo love affair and some rather nasty secrets that threaten to ruin everyone’s happiness if they ever come to light.

      I think ‘not quite right for our lists’ would probably cover an agent’s or publisher’s response to these projects, too! I’m glad I’m not the only one…

  3. Paul Sutton Reeves January 12, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

    Novels can be like that, Mari. You could continue making incremental changes ad infinitum. I’ve a writer friend who does just that and has written nothing new in an age (not that this is your situation, of course). I believe it’s just as important to draw a line under works with which you are pleased as it is to call time on projects that haven’t worked. As for genre writing, it provides a comfort blanket for the reader but must be horribly constraining for the writer. Throwing in whatever is needed for a particular book is the definitely right approach in my view. My current project fits no genre at all, though you might argue that there are elements of fantasy and SF within it.

    Your current projects sound intriguing. All the best with them. I keep threatening to post about novellas but have yet to do so. There’s that on-going debate about when a short story becomes a novella and a novella becomes a novel, and whether this related to word count. How long is your novella likely to be? Is that why you’ve classified it so?

  4. franny Lloyd January 12, 2013 at 9:26 pm #

    Hi Paul, glad to see you back. I like your retreat. Something I should have myself, not for writing, more to get away from the noise of loud music and barping horns as I’ve got terrible tinnitus.

    I’ve never tried to have anything published so though I can relate to some writers problems as I write fairly regularly I’m not really in the category to give an informed opinion about methods of work and construction.

    All of the time I spend writing I try to develop a style and am never satsified that I have. I’d like to be able to write like George Moore, the Irish author of Hail and Farewell. That’s what I strive for but that’s what I forever fail in. Lately I’ve been thinking more about content; as as my style though fails to reach an ideal I think it would be good to use whatever style I have got to get aroun creation of characters and telling stories.

    Not, to be honest, that I havn’t been having a go at these along the way I’ve found that once I start writing about real experience it’s impossible to get off it and transform it into a fictional mode. I get over that my starting in a creative fiction mode and leave out anything that has been part of my experience. My own life hasn’t really given me much to fictionalise on and I always seem to remember the drab and misery. I know some writers make great things from this sort of material, like Dostoievsky, but that’s genius for you.

    I’m sort of envious and curious of your phrase ‘teeming with ideas’ as that seems never to happen to me. So often I can’t get an idea for love nor money and find myself relying on material I’ve come across in my writing and I do find that this is a better way to approach improving style. When you have a piece of writing about a character and setting, however second-hand, it’s easier to apply your mind to questioning the way you use language.

    Elizabeth Bowen is another writer whose style is admirable and a worthy aim and model for someone who wants to use written language really well. I tend to look towards Irish writers mainly for examples of style although I came across a diary sort of novel by Anais Nin a while back and found the style so quiet and modest that I just loved it; disappointed though with the effect on her of meeting Henry Miller I think it was who was an influence which changed her life very much for the worst. Turgenev too has a style ‘to die for!’

    Hope your time at the writing den has been rewarding as it looks ideal, good and solid with a lovely view of natural landscape.

  5. Paul Sutton Reeves January 12, 2013 at 10:28 pm #

    Hi Franny. Thanks for your comments.

    Style, I think, emerges over time and with great effort. I’m sure that we all set out, at first, to emulate the style of other writers. But if one persists, something original will eventually come through, the sum of our influences and experiences. And for some writers, their lives are their material (the good old roman à clef) and there’s nothing wrong with that, potential lawsuits aside! I suspect that you’re being hard on yourself as regards your style and the material upon which you have to draw. I suppose my own life has been fairly eventful, albeit in a pretty provincial kind of a way.

    No, I’m never short of ideas. Each time I embark on a new project, there are a number of possibilities vying with each other to be brought to realisation. I think if there weren’t, I’d put my energies into some other pursuit instead. But people are different, of course, and I know that some writers struggle with terribly long barren spells only to come out the other side. If it were me, I’d take a break from writing until inspiration returned. Once a viable book idea comes to you, I’m sure that you’ll find it demands to be written.

    I’ve read Turgenev and Miller and am keener on the former than the latter (though, oddly, at one time, George Orwell proclaimed Miller to be the only modern writer who counted). Nin I’ve never got around to and of Moore and Bowen I’m ignorant. I shall have to check them out.

    Time in my writing den is always both productive and a pleasure. It is wonderfully therapeutic but now that I’m back in the day job,it feels as though it was years ago that I was there!

  6. Peter Beard January 13, 2013 at 6:00 pm #

    Hi Paul

    I like your blog and I admire your ability to keep two novels on the boil at the same time. I look forward to reading about their progress.

    I tried writing a thriller at the same time as ‘Immortality for Beginners’ but although I succeeded in achieving a spectacular word count neither projects progressed in any meaningful manner. I abandoned the thriller, intending to conitinue once ‘Immortality’ was published. However now that book is on Amazon my obsession is marketing and the thriller continues to languish in some dusty and dimly-lit corner of my hard-drive.

    Best wishes with your writing.

    Peter

  7. Paul Sutton Reeves January 13, 2013 at 6:53 pm #

    Hi Peter. Welcome to my blog and thanks for your kind comments.

    I’m pursuing the two novels-at-once strategy out of necessity as much as anything else, from a sort of desperation to see my projects through to completion at a faster rate as Father Time breathes down my neck…

    You’ve got something out there with which you’re satisfied, and that’s the important thing, I think. As for never-completed/unsatisfactory projects, let them languish, I say! I’ve three longer works that will never see the light of day and numerous false starts. If a book eventually has the legs to be finished – like your thriller – then one day you’ll do it.

    And my best wishes to you too in your writing endeavours.

  8. greenlightlady January 14, 2013 at 12:29 am #

    I love the look and location of your writing den! When I am waiting for my kids’ music lessons to be over, I use my vehicle as a writing den. It works well since I don’t get any interruptions…

    Blessings ~ Wendy

  9. Paul Sutton Reeves January 14, 2013 at 6:49 am #

    Hi Wendy. Welcome to the blog and thanks for your comments. The den keeps me sane – even when I’m failing to fix a blockage in the guttering in the driving rain! Any space in our busy modern lives that allows us to concentrate for a while is to be treasured. I hope you have a powerful heater in your car at this time of year!

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