Ugochukwu-Charles Onyewuchi writes that as he works on one project, he keeps breaking off to start others. He asks for some advice because he really wants to finish a novel.
Thanks for this excellent question.
First of all, I’d like to say–it’s great to have too many ideas instead of too few! Some of the best artists have the problem you mention, Leonardo da Vinci among them. Leonardo was forever breaking off from work on this painting of that sculpture to begin a new project, and many of his most ambitious ideas remained unrealized. You have only to look at his notebooks to see that this man was brimming with plans and designs.
So I’d say this is a good problem to have.
It’s also true that we know Leonardo for the work he finished. At some point an artist has to commit to an idea and follow through. This is particularly true for novels which require patience and staying power. You need to love your characters enough to keep writing, over days, weeks, months, even years. Writing a novel means keeping the faith–even when you’re writing shorter pieces as well, or going to school, or working your day job, or taking care of children, or all of the above.
So the big questions is: how do you keep the faith?
Here’s what I do:
I spend time thinking about my characters before I go to sleep.
I reread the previous day’s work before I write anything new.
I chart out what’s going to happen next and write down the scenes I’m aiming for–so that I keep my goals in mind.
I imagine what ifs with my characters, composing little stories for them in my head so that they’re real to me and I can indulge my impulse to digress.
I spend time on each sentence that I’ve written so that I’m proud of every word. If you feel that your draft is sound and beautiful then you’re more likely to stick with it. You’ll respect it more.
Anne Lamott writes famously in “Bird by Bird” that you should feel free to write “shitty first drafts”. I understand what she means, but in my opinion, writing a good first draft and revising as you go can be a huge confidence booster. Neither way is the right way–these are just different styles. Some people like to make a huge mess in the kitchen as they cook. Some clean as they go. I belong to the clean as you go school. A clean draft motivates me and helps me to stay the course with a long term project.
It’s a natural impulse to run away and start fresh when you’ve got a huge mess on your hands. My advice: write a witty first draft instead of a shitty first draft. I think you’ll find yourself returning to it whenever you can.