I really do have just one rule about writing. This isn't a "One Rule" a la Barney Stinson either. It's the only one and I mean it. Ready?
"Don't start a new writing project until you've finished the current one."
A lot of writers will understand the temptation to work on more than one project. You're slogging through, trying to find that thing that's missing, or fix that something that just doesn't sit right, or maybe you've been at it for 70,000 words and you don't see the end. Then one day you hear an interview in the car or you're lying in bed turning over a half remembered dream in your head and, BOOM, brilliant new idea. You get inspired and start typing. You ride that crest of enthusiasm all the way into shore, but not, usually to the end of the project. Now you're stuck again and you have two projects that aren't ready to be shared with anyone. How do I know? Over a period of about 20 years, before I created my Rule, I started literally dozens of works of fiction of all lengths, but only finished a handful and published just three.
I realized I needed a different approach and now I have The One Rule to Finish Them All.
A lot of writers will disagree with my rule and many will favor what I call "The Joss Whedon" method. Not long ago I read an interview with Joss Whedon in a business magazine in which he outlined his recipe for success and the piece which stuck out to me, because I disagree with it, was what he called, "Eat dessert first." As I understand his point of view, Joss believes you should do what you're fired up about and go back later to fill in the hard and boring parts. Well who are you going to listen to? Me, a guy you've probably just heard of, or the creative juggernaut that is Joss Whedon? Hmmm. Perhaps I should re-phrase.
Once you're on the level of a Joss Whedon you can work any way you want. In fact, once you have Buffy the Vampire Slayer up and running you're pretty well on the way because writing, or creating and having others do a lot of the writing, becomes your full time job. The problem is getting to that first far and elusive milepost. Maybe the new idea that you're really hyped about is the one that will get you there, but you can't know that until it happens. What you can be absolutely sure of is that the unfinished work on that flash drive in the back of your desk drawer will never get you there unless you finish it. The first Buffy script might have been made up entirely of fun parts, but few stories worth writing are so blessed.
I'm FB buddies with author Heather Elizabeth King, who recently posted a video about how to get published. The secret, she says, is to write something good. Heather contends that to do that, you have to "give yourself the gift of a first draft." I absolutely agree. Editing is a different project than writing the first story. Don't edit along the way. Power through to the end and then go back and tune it up. If you stop to edit along the way, the chances of getting bogged down and leaving a project incomplete increase dramatically.
I'd encourage any author to try my rule on the last thing they sat down to work on. Don't try it from scratch with something that looks more fun. Finish the one you worked on most recently, especially if it's difficult. The challenge will make you a better and more disciplined writer. You'll also begin to see the subtleties of The One Rule and understand how to adapt them to your unique workflow.
The rule will work a little differently for everyone who tries it. The way it works for me has developed over the last couple of years. For me a project is the first draft of a new project or the edits and revisions of a previously completed first draft. I also view editing and revising as a separate project that gets its own time in my creative spotlight.
This rule is not the rule that will get you published or get your movie made. The idea is to finish your story so that you have a vehicle to take down the road, hopefully all the way. After you complete that vehicle you still have to edit, refine, and promote, but at least you'll have something to edit, refine, and promote instead of just an unfinished idea.
When I first started working like this it wasn't a rule per se, but it led to a good deal of success for me. I was doing well in competitions and getting good response from editors with several different stories, all written in a relatively short period of time -- about six months. Other aspects of my life took me away for a while, but that initial test was still valid. When I got back to writing in late 2012 I didn't follow the method I'd had so much success with and I didn't get very far. I hadn't codified the Rule yet, but I still managed to break it by engaging in a complicated re-write of another, earlier project, while writing a new first draft. I took on too much and was unable to juggle both “Deadblood” and The Flatstone Beach.
When I realized that “Deadblood” was pulling me off task I should have probably dropped it, but instead I finished it because it was far closer to being finished. By that point I was actively working on two projects and it was hard to determine which was primary, so I went for the quickest completion.
Fortunately, I had recognized what was wrong fairly quickly. I formalized the One Rule and finished the project that was closest to completion – the "Deadblood" re-write. After that I returned to work on The Flatstone Beach exclusively. By February of this year I had a complete first draft of that novel and sent it out for reading and editing. Since early February I've written four short stories and a novelette. All four shorts have been through edits and revisions, and three have them are currently under consideration by various publications. In short, I've completed more work in the last two months than I had in any previous year, and in the last 14 months I've more than doubled the amount of completed works in my entire fiction writing career.
So if writing is a new first draft or the revision of a first draft, what is all the other stuff writers do? Obviously, I still blog, I still do social media and other marketing, and I still write queries, and send submissions. I don't consider these activities to be writing because they don't advance a story. These are marketing activities. Making changes sent to me by an editor are what I consider a "production" activity.
And what happens when that thunderbolt comes to me with the next great idea? I write it down quickly. You can't, and shouldn't want to, stop your mind from wandering to other creative avenues and projects. When a good story element or snatch of dialog comes to me, I get it down quickly and file it with my other notes for that story. That way when I finish the current project I have a file full of exciting stuff to launch me into the next one.
For this to work I have to know my limitations. Writing is usually very energizing for me, but at the end of a project, right as I'm finishing, my energy level drops and I get a little bummed. I don't know why. You would think finishing something would be the best part, but for me it's the worst and I know that I'll need a couple of days, or even weeks, away from writing to recharge. I also suck at editing stuff that I've recently completed because I remember it instead of reading it.
After this break, I give that first project to someone else to edit and start a new one. Once I'm done with the first draft of the new project, I'll do my own edit of the first one and then compare it to what I get back from my editor or beta-readers. This process is a separate, new project. This got me in trouble with “Deadblood” because the editing work was so extensive. I mistakenly viewed that edit/re-write as "not writing" and ended up splitting my writing time between two projects, slowing both to a crawl. It was much slower than working on the two projects in sequence because I needed to mentally change gears and voice as I bounced back and forth between the two, very different projects. I liken it to a method actor in two different plays having to get in and out of two characters every night. It wastes time and can actually become confusing.
Author's typically set goals for progress. Mine is now 400 words per day, no matter what, and extra words done today don't roll over to tomorrow, e.g. if I write 642 words today, I still owe myself 400 tomorrow. I still blog (though less than before), market, and make notes on other ideas. But all of that is in addition to the 400 words per day. I don't write any other story in the sense of writing from beginning to end, nor do I revise a draft of a different story. That discipline keeps me focused on my top priority and keeps me moving forward to completion. That's my One Rule in detail and I hope you can adapt it so it works for you.