This isn’t too well thought out, just a random linking of a couple of ideas. There’s been an article going the rounds about how novelists are being pressured by their publishers to turn out more product. I use “product” deliberately, because books are regarded more and more as disposable entertainment, for which there’s an endless appetite. This view of books is about making money.
Indie authors don’t have publishers breathing down their backs, but there’s lots of noise about not letting your readers forget about you in the too-long intervals between books. So the two situations look very much alike. They aren’t. The trad-published author is under contract and wishes to continue the relationship with their publishers. They also, if they’re being put under that kind of pressure, have a backlist of successful books and an audience waiting for more. Finally, they’re probably accustomed to a leisurely writing schedule (this obviously doesn’t apply to some of the top residents of the best-seller lists), and are now going to have to come up with commercially viable ideas more quickly and turn them out faster.
Indie authors, on the other hand (and this applies to most but not all), are in the process of establishing themselves. They don’t have huge audiences yet, so some degree of speed is appropriate in keeping the readers they have and gathering in more. Every new book eventually becomes part of the backlist, which is what new readers are going to want to find when they’ve read and enjoyed the latest one. So, by every practical measure, it makes sense to write as many books as you can, as quickly as you can. But not so quickly that you skip the essentials — good stories, careful editing.
Where are the WIPs in all this? I’m beginning to think of them as a kind of secret weapon, one that established authors may not be able to take advantage of because they have to be so focused and self-disciplined in order to meet publishers’ deadlines. I’ve read complaints about the ideas that these authors have stashed away and that they simply don’t have time for — novels that they want to write for themselves rather than the publisher. I don’t doubt that some of those ideas have been annotated, possibly outlined, and maybe even started. But the publisher calls and the money needs to keep rolling in.
For indies, the only deadlines are the ones we set for ourselves. We’re probably less disciplined because so many of us do get sidetracked by the newest attractive idea instead of sticking to one novel and forgetting everything else until it’s finished. (A late thought — I don’t think I’ve heard of many professional writers talking about their WIPs.)
And then there’s the money. There isn’t enough of it yet for us to become dependent/addicted enough that it’s a strong motivation to stay on track. That’s a disadvantage when it comes to self-discipline, but it’s also an advantage. The advantage is that we have the freedom to experiment, to goof off, make mistakes, and spread ourselves around.
That freedom has risks, of course. You can waste too much time and accomplish nothing, you can keep making the same mistakes because there’s nobody to tell you you’re making them, and you can spread yourself too thin. So maybe we need a rule for WIPs. You can never have too many WIPs, but you can’t let them distract you from finishing one at a time.
How do I define a WIP? It’s an idea that is clear enough in your mind that you’ve made notes about the plot and characters, done some outlining if that’s your thing, and even written parts of some scenes or lines of dialogue. You can never have too many WIPs because they’re your guarantee that you’ll never be totally at a loss for the next novel or story. They’re your rescuers when you’re temporarily burned out on the current work and need to switch off to something different for a while. Burnout time is wonderful for wandering around your WIPs, adding an insight here and some dialogue there. Then, when the current novel is finished and you’re looking to start the next one, you may be surprised that one or two of the WIPs is far enough along that you actually have a novel-in-progress.
All this came together for me as I was trying to make a decision about Camp NaNo. I realized that 1. the proposed novel still has a lot of unresolved plot points that would hang me up in June. 2. I would have to (for the third or fourth time) stop work on a novel that I very much want to get finished and out of my hair. But — the notes and scene outline for the proposed novel are far enough along that I’ve built up some momentum. This is the WIP that I can keep working on for the next few months whenever I have a spare moment or need a break, and that will be ready for the biggie — November’s NaNoWriMo. And there are others lined up right behind it, waiting their turn.