When you first start writing, it's wonderful: you're drunk on words, you're super-thin-skinned so you feel the brush of every idea and every emotion, you're obsessed with the magic of things in your head condensing, gaining colour and form, appearing on the page. You'll be seized with the passion at odd moments and have to run away and scribble.
And then comes the point when something becomes big and important enough to need more: more work, more research, more planning and shaping and sitting down. Especially if it's a novel, it takes a lot of sitting down. It also takes a lot of ignoring of the voices (Anne Lamott's chattering mice) which tell you it's not worth it, you'll never be any good, it's old-fashioned or ahead of its time, you should be down the pub with your friends, or painting the sitting room, or whatever.
Then a new idea pops up so, since you're used to following new ideas and it might disappear if you don't, you divert and pursue that one for a while. Only inside the dark cupboard where you've left it the original One suddenly sprouts a bright new idea that demands to be followed, so you drop Two, and go back to it, but something you read for research gives you an amazing idea which can't be integrated into either, so Three is born, and so on. In the back of your head you know that at this rate nothing will get written, but, then, the chattering mice have said all along that it's not worth it, haven't they...
An aspiring writer acquaintance asked what she should do about her habit of flitting to the new thing all the time, since it means that lots gets written but nothing gets finished, or at least not finished and revised and so on to the point of being able to send it out. And yet, surely it's very easy, isn't it? You have a bright new idea for Two (or Three, or Four)? You make a note, buy the book, file the newspaper cutting, draw a diagram. And then you put it in your folder which says 'New Novel', and you go back to One.
It's not so hard, is it? So why do people go haring off to start a whole new project, rather than sticking to the One? As so often, I think, the symptom is universal but the causes are particular:
- Novel One's at a turning point (such as the Thirty Thousand Doldrums), and either a) you can't see what it needs and none of the possible routes look promising or b) you can't see any routes at all.
- One's hit a bit you unconsciously don't want to write. It's hard, it's technically harder than you've ever tried, it's emotionally too close to the bone, it needs asking someone you don't like talking to for help, you don't know what the character would do in this situation, you don't know where to find the facts you need.
- You've worked on One so long and so often, too-ed and fro-ed, done major surgery and minor tweaks, and you can't see it straight. In fact you can't respond to it at all, and so you can't tell what else it needs.
- One's nearly finished: a couple more passes and it'll be ready... to be seen by others; to tell the world this is your best; to be lined up against the opposition; to be sniggered over by slushpile readers; to come thudding back through the door with no indication of why; to come thudding back through the door with a letter saying exactly why.
- A friend has read One, and says the idea's just like a Sarah Waters, only she can't remember the title, except that it reminded her of the last Marian Keyes but two.
- An agent has said on his/her blog that books like One aren't selling any more.
- A friend has read One, and says she just couldn't get into it.
- Your partner said ages ago they would read One, and hasn't, you suspect because they don't like it. And they have a look in his/her eye as if they'd quite like a whole conversation with you some time this week which isn't about One, or Two, or your writer's circle/class/forum.
- Last time you were really involved in One a child opened the dishwasher 'So you can do the supper quicker, Daddy,' and dropped three of your best plates on the floor, then cut her foot on the shards and you nearly had to go to A&E.
- Your new writers' circle are all brilliant writers: they're nice about One, but you could never write like them, so they're just being polite.
So, have you noticed something? All of these are about One, not about Two or Three or Four.
The relationship between you and a major piece of work (let's call it a novel) is not unlike a long marriage. They are the One. Meanwhile, Two is the Other: in its cloudy, sparkly form in your mind it looks more exciting, more fun, more promising, more sophisticated, quicker to write and less of a struggle, and without the dull problems One seems to throw at you all the time.
But since you could always make a note about Two, and go home to One, whether instead you go off hunting Two depends on how you're feeling about One. Adulterous thoughts are a fact of life, it seems to me, but what you do about them is another matter altogether.
Which isn't to say that you should always stick to One till death do you part. Even though second marriages are statistically divorce-prone, we all know second marriages which are clearly the marriage which should have happened from the start. Sometimes - as with the novel you've gone blind and deaf to - a bit of distance can make you see it afresh. And novels not, actually, being people, a fling with something else might be the best kind of way to to so, because you can be sure the novel will welcome you back.
But before you flit off after the latest allurement - the latest sparkly new idea which has such a sexy twinkle in its eye - a bit of introspection might be wise. A careful, thoughtful state-of-the-nation report, a conversation with a clear-eyed friend, even marriage guidance as provided by an editorial service, can help you decide why you want to leave.