How many balls should I keep in the air?

Those of you casually perusing this blog might say “This fella here looks like one of them wannabe writers, who talks a lot about how he wishes he could write some day, but doesn’t actually commit any words to paper.”

I’ve known people like that, more in love with the idea of writing than with the act itself, but I’m not one of them. I don’t write every single day, but I’m pretty productive. No, the reason I haven’t said much about my own fiction yet is a bit of self-consciousness about talking my own ideas and process. Having asked myself “What’s up with that, anyway?” I’ve come to the conclusion it’s mainly due to being unpublished at this point, so I feel more qualified spouting off about science fiction books and writers, since every reader feels qualified to be a critic. I figure, though, if I have enough nerve to send my work to professional editors to consider for their periodicals (a threshold I’ve crossed), I can certainly put myself far enough out on the limb to talk about some of my own creative philosophies and mechanisms.

Rather than starting with something I feel confident about, though, I’ll begin with a question to which I don’t really know the answer. One thing I feel unsure of, and I go back and forth on this question, is this: How many stories should I be working on at any given time?

Over the past dozen years I’ve recorded a lot of ambient electronic music. That’s not what this blog is about, but it’ll come up here sometimes because it’s an important part of my life. I mention it because in all those years, having released a handful of solo albums and another handful of collaborative ones, I’ve almost never tried to work on more than one thing at once. Finish the Griffin solo album, start the Viridian Sun duo album, start the second Griffin album, set it aside entirely and make the second Viridian Sun album, and so on. The process was to start a project and either finish it or set it aside completely before starting another. I never thought about this way of working, but it made sense to me and it seemed to work.

With my writing, I’ve always worked on more than one thing at once, sometimes juggling a really large number of projects and ideas. Last month I counted twelve short stories in progress and another thirty plotted, outlined or otherwise planned (but not yet started). When I have an idea for a story I slowly add little things to the mix during the planning stage, starting from a scribbled sentence or two that could barely be called an idea, into the seed of a story, fleshing it out into a full-fledged anecdote or scene, finally combining elements of plot and character, conflict and drama, until I have something ready to be written into a story. Often I stumble upon elements that fit well only very gradually, and I feel like my best stories have benefitted from being “in progress” for long enough for this to unfold.

Recently I felt overwhelmed by the many long-pending stories hanging over me, and resolved not to start anything new until I could shorten the queue down to just a few. Though I’m not yet entirely sure I need to change what I’m doing, I’m considering this an experiment.

MANY items working at once gives me the benefit of allowing each idea longer to mature, gather a sort of richness or complexity. The drawback is, certain stories get lost in a swirl of too much going on. When I have a dozen stories working, and I’m not able to write every single day, sometimes I’m away from a given story for long enough that it becomes too unfamiliar and I have to reacquaint myself with important details before I can begin working again.

FEWER items working would help me see clearly all the balls I’m trying to keep in the air, and ensure I can give time to each of them every week without spending too long away. The flipside to this, though, is that I can’t take much time away from an idea that seems like it would benefit from being shifted to the back burner for a few weeks, because I won’t have enough other stuff to work on instead.

I’ve been on roll lately, finalizing stories and sending them out, and January’s dozen or so pending stories may be reduced by half before the end of March. This is gratifying because the more stories I have completely finished and off my plate, the more I feel like a “real” science fiction writer and not just this confused guy who’s starting to dabble in a new genre. Also I feel the stories show rapid improvement, which makes me hopeful about getting something published soon, if not with one of the stories already finished and submitted, then with something I’ll finish soon.

In Stephen King’s wonderful book On Writing (and no matter what you think of King’s own work, this really is a useful book on writing that any fiction writer should own no matter what style they’re working in) he suggests an approach not too different from my own, involving sticking a first draft in a drawer for several weeks until it can be seen more objectively, and working on other things in the mean time.

If my focus were on novels this wouldn’t even be a question, as novelists usually just hammer away on their one novel at a time, or at most take a little break to work on a short story before getting back to it. Nobody’s juggling a dozen novels in various stages of completion. I’m curious how other writers focused on short fiction do this. I suppose I’ll just try narrowing it down a bit this spring, and see if that’s better or not. If it doesn’t feel right, I could always just start a few new stories… toss a few more balls up in the air and try to keep them up.

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