This is a question I often ask myself. For years I wrote at a leisurely pace, unwilling to rush myself because I thought that, much like catching a big fish or taking a good nap, writing should not be rushed. I’d work on two or three projects at once without giving myself any timetable for finishing.
I’d finally finish a screenplay or a short story, not like it, and trash it, comforting myself by saying, “Oh well, I’ve got these other manuscripts going over here. This one didn’t work out, but maybe these other ones will!” But guess what? They sucked, too.
Then I had a realization.
Maybe I’m a slow learner, but it never dawned on me that I’d be best served by pouring my heart and soul into one manuscript at a time. More is better, I thought. Multi-tasking is king!
But it’s not. At least not when it comes to writing. Not when you’re first starting out. Was I thinking that an agent, of his/her own volition, would come to my apartment and knock on the door with book contract in hand? That I could write an endless string of mediocre novels/short stories and then sit on them in the hopes that a friend would hook me up with his publisher??
It’s all good and well that Neil Gaiman likes to hammer away at multiple projects at once. But until you get to his level, I’d recommend what I’m currently practicing: the one-at-a-time approach.
Just so you know, this is not the most satisfying approach in the world. If you’re like me, story ideas present themselves to you all the time. You see a squirrel run across the road and you think, “Oh, man! That would make a great story: a squirrel who has to cross the world to find the golden acorn!” And they just keep coming and, much like Lord Byron, you have to unload these ideas out of your brain or else you’ll go crazy.
Here’s what I suggest: incorporate these disparate bits of inspiration into the work currently in front of you. If there’s no place for a squirrel and a golden acorn in your current work (believe it or not, not every story lends itself to both a squirrel and a golden acorn), then use the spirit of that idea. Or maybe even use it as a metaphor to describe a situation your protagonist finds themselves in: “Maggie had to scramble across the park like a squirrel scampering across the road." Or whatever.
Maybe it’s a consequence of getting older, but looking back, I wish I’d had more discipline and put my focus on one manuscript and just gone to town on it. At any rate, that’s what I’m doing now and it’s working really well.
Believe me, I know it sounds cool to have several things in the works, to have a dozen pots boiling at the same time. But as I told my students back when I was a teacher, you can’t plumb the depths of any one story—of any one character, even—when you have so many distractions hovering over you. So just cut down the background noise and get to work!