Changing Gears

Posted on 09 February 2011

An anonymous writer asked Betsy Lerner if she should keep plugging away at her YA novel, which she describes as a “painful” process, or instead ride the wave of success she’s had selling bits of her memoir to various publications. In other words, should she abandon her novel to give in to her current writing career momentum?

Betsy replied: “…I think writers ultimately write what they can. I wanted to be Anne Sexton, I wound up Erma Bombeck. You write what you write. You are what you eat. There are no career moves at the end of the day. Just you.”

I agree with Betsy but I’d also encourage the writer to at least try to finish the YA novel even as she pursues other projects. Plenty of people write more than one type of thing. Heck, I do one kind of writing all day for my job and then I go home and work on fiction. Or a freelance article about writing. Or a personal essay for a lit mag blog. I suppose the bigger warning is that the YA novel has been “painful” for this writer to work on. Is that just the typical first-draft struggle, or is it a sign that maybe YA novels aren’t a good fit for this writer? We don’t know.

I bring this up because I recently made an unexpected jump from one manuscript to another. Revising my novel has been my big February writing project. Then, just as I started gathering steam, something else came up and now I’m slamming on the brakes and changing gears. If you asked me two months ago if I’d be doing this, I’d say you were crazy. If you asked me two months ago if this other particular project would exist, even as a concept, I’d probably laugh. But here I am.

I definitely want to keep working on the novel because I don’t want to lose my momentum on the revisions I’ve already started. This other project, however, is kind of time-sensitive, so I can’t put it aside. That means that, as usual, I am going to try to work on both and somehow not crack. The only thing in my favor is that I need breathing room when I work on something big, so when I take a few days off from New Project, I can temporarily switch to the novel.

What do you do when a new project presents itself and you just have to work on it? Are you good at working on more than one thing at the same time? More than one type of writing at one time? Are you also one of those people who reads like 10 books at once? I can’t do that. I’m a book-by-book kind of girl. Which might contribute to my anxiety surrounding what I’m trying to attempt this month…but it’s already too late. I’m doing it.

Photo: dave lewis 88


7 responses to Changing Gears

  • glasseye says:

    I don’t mind skipping around a bit – and I’m always reading ten things at once – but I don’t like to leave work unfinished unless it’s clearly a load of garbage. Typical Capricorn, plodding up the hill.

    • I would say I’m the same way — I don’t like to leave things unfinished unless I know I’m abandoning them. But just last night I found 1/2 of a short story I’m actually excited about — but I was working on so many other things at the time that it got pushed to the side and I temporarily forgot about it. Oops. That’s pretty rare for me.

  • Downith says:

    I like to work on one thing at a time, but if I had a reason to multi-task, would hope I could do it, you know, say a commissioned piece – is that too much to ask?

    Re your comment above – how great that you found 1/2 of a short story -that’s something you didn’t think you had yesterday.

  • amyg says:

    i walk that rope of doing multiple things only not to finish certain important ones. it’s difficult for me to discern between the projects i like to juggle to keep my momentum going and the projects i start for distraction-purposes only.

    personally, i know that i would complete so much more in less time if i would focus on one thing, but i don’t have the self discipline (or better, i choose not to invoke the discipline) needed to concentrate on one thing.

    i look forward to reading more about (or of) this “time-sensitive” project.

  • lisahgolden says:

    I’m looking forward to hearing more about this. I’m a chronic multi-tasker. Yes, I’m spinning that negatively. I took the book The Myth of Multitasking out from the library and returned it before finishing it because I was reading two other books, blogging, working full time, driving the mom taxi, blah, blah, blah. The break came when my husband pointed out that I was reading the book while brushing my teeth. Incurable.

  • Quick update: First, just to clarify, it’s “time sensitive” by my own choice, kind of. It’s not like someone is commissioning me to write a novel. (Unfortunately.) Also, so far, my plan has failed brilliantly and I barely worked on either project this week. I had a good breakthrough today on the new mystery project, though, so we’ll see.

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