New vs. Old: How to Best Use Limited Time

Most writers I know aren’t only writers. They’re also working professionals in a variety of other fields. They are parents, siblings, spouses, friends, neighbors. They have everyday obligations that can’t be put on hold or neglected. Time to write, when it can be found, is golden.

So when a writer has more ideas than they do time, choosing between projects can be a challenge. Most writers I know speak of this, and each has their own way of prioritizing between their various works.

I’ve not had this problem so much. My only large project has been my current work-in-progress (tentative title “The Founder’s Seed”). Everything else I’ve written falls into the short-story or even flash category, so it’s been easy to put “Seed” aside for a day or two when I needed a change of fictional scenery.

That all changed about a month ago, when a really awesome idea for a new story fell on me like a ton of bricks. Not a series, just a single, standalone novel. I even have a tentative working title: “Entheophage.” This idea is huge. Ginormous. Timely. Badass. I can’t wait to get started on it.

Except now I face a dilemma. (Run program entitled “Project Delay.”)

I envy other writers who are able to do work on major projects concurrently. That’s not my strength. A short story, yes. But not another whole novel. Not one like “Phage.” So I had to choose between them.

It was a hard decision, because “Phage” is an opportune story for our current world. I don’t want to say too much yet, but its subject matter is very big RIGHT NOW. If I wait even a year, it might be too late. (I doubt it, but I don’t want to take that chance.) Timing is critical.

At the same time, “Seed” is my first novel. I’ve already been working on it for many years. I want to give it every chance at publication. I met a fellow writer only yesterday who said she’d been weeks away from shelving her WIP, only to have an agent who had already rejected the idea—but had moved to a new agency—reach out to her about that same manuscript. Now, my new writer friend has a publisher and her book is due out in 2020. How exciting for her! Hearing this, I feel a sense of loyalty to “Seed,” and don’t want to “trunk” it too soon.

In the end, I decided to finish the one I started first, for two reasons.

First, I’m oh-so-close to having a queryable draft of “Seed.” My biggest focus at this point is cutting away the fat. It’s now down to 113K words, and it needs to be no more than 105K. So there’s work to be done in the red-pen department. I’m about to start on another round of those revisions, which will take maybe a week or two.

Second, “Phage” will be a medical science fiction, with perhaps a few fantasy aspects thrown in. I want it to be as realistic as possible, to skate so close to the edge of reality and fantasy that it’s difficult to tell which is which. I want readers to Google elements they read in Phage because it was so realistic and believable, they think it could reflect bleeding-edge scientific discoveries.

The problem is that I am no medical professional. I know nothing about neuroscience, biotechnology, big pharma, or any of the other fields that will inform this story. More to the point, I don’t yet have any expert resources on whom I can call. I’ve made a few initial attempts to reach out to doctors and specialists who’ve written papers or articles online about related topics, but only a few responded. Even those who did never got back to me after hearing my basic premise, but I suspect that’s only because I didn’t explain it clearly enough and now they think I’m some sort of lunatic. Basically, I need to find someone I can speak to face-to-face, and that’s going to take time. I’m thinking a first draft of “Phage” could take 3-4 months. Maybe. If I’m lucky.

So I’ve set “Phage” on the back burner for the time being. I’ve made copious notes, character profiles, basic outline, the foundations that will help me reboot the creative process once I can devote my attention to it. I’ve chosen a tentative setting (Austin, Texas), a tentative time-frame (contemporary), and a tentative ending (which is also badass). I’m not worried the idea will wither. Not at all. It haunts me. Hell, I even dream about it.

While that concept percolates, I’ll make another run through “Seed”, mark it up, and revise, then re-print and set it aside for maybe a month. During that four-week period, I’ll be free to reach out to experts at the universities nearby, and perhaps one or two of those in and around Austin, in search of others to whom I can turn for information to feed “Phage.” Establishing those resources will be an essential first step.

Meanwhile, I find myself caught in one or the other of those worlds much of the time. I’m either on Iridos or Harajüd with my “Seed” characters, or I’m in Austin with my “Phage” characters. I wonder, lately, what friends and family think when they ask me a question and it takes me a few seconds to even register that they’ve spoken to me. I suppose getting lost in one’s created worlds/stories is part of the #WritingLife.

Other writers—how many projects do you have on the table right now? How do you choose which one deserves your focus most?

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3 Replies to “New vs. Old: How to Best Use Limited Time”

  1. Great column. I have been struggling with that whole rewrite it or shelve it dilemma. One well published (traditionally) writer acquaintance said “shelve it– it’s your “learning” novel– go on to use that learning to write the one that will sell. And I’ve heard from another well published (traditionally) writer who said, of the same novel, Why shelve it? If you have confidence in the project, finish the rewrite and send it out– let it find its audience. So, your perspective is very welcome today. BTW: I’m in my final rewrite of that project.

    1. It’s a tough call, I know. I’m glad you decided to give the project another shot, Dennis. Best of luck with your queries!

  2. I’m pretty sure they will both be excellent, eventually. I’m not a writer but temperamentally it would suit me to get as much of the ready ideas down as I can while I’m feeling enthusiastic and then put it on a shelf to age a little while going back to the first novel.

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