I thought about this a lot while reading Donna Cummings' wonderful blog post "The Lure of the Other WIP." I can relate and I love to hear how other writers manage to nurture the current WIP to completion while also figuring out what to do with incoming new ideas.
To me, it can feel like a powerful force like natural selection is at work to favor the new idea, and it's rather awe inspiring to think that every finished story has a writer who made the commitment to stick with the WIP, no matter what. Some do it with one WIP at a time, start to finish, while others let the new ideas develop into multiple WIPs and work on them simultaneously.
Which way is the right way? Or the more realistic question may be, haven't I learned by now not to ask? This is one of those writing process questions with multiple answers. Every writer will answer differently. Heck, for many writers, myself included, the method changes from story to story. The options are wide open.
But if there is so much leeway for choice, then where does the guilt come from when distractions are followed? That's what I'd like to know! I can't help thinking we must have an ingrained sense of what think we should be doing that trumps the options. Somewhere along the way we get a "right way" stuck in our heads. I'd really like to be convinced there are worthwhile distractions.
So, just for "fun" (you probably have a different idea of fun!), I imagined recreating this origin of the "right way" thinking with a "diabolical" multiple choice question. In case it's been a while since you've had the experience, multiple choice can be tricky and deceptively easy. With an essay you have the opportunity to make an argument, but with multiple choice, you must choose the best answer from the available choices.
So, the question is, when writing a story, the best process is:
A) work on one story at a time, start to finish,
B) work on multiple WIPs simultaneously,
C) both A and B are correct, or
D) mostly, "A," but switch to "B" on months with a full moon.
If I HAD to choose which way I think is BEST from the choices given, I'd pick A) one story at a time, start to finish. But I would hesitate a long time over choosing "C" (both) and second-guess myself wondering if this were a trick question. It could be "both," but maybe that's "just me." Would that be considered "best?" (Here's the thinking of what the professor or the majority might think.) And "D" is quickly eliminated as just silly so that can't be right!...but you know, come to think of it, this one does have some appealing wiggle room...
The right answer, of course, is...
Sorry, but I lost the answer key. *grin*
Whichever one you chose is probably the one you think you "should" be doing. And there is the origin of a guilty conscience. We kind of know or have an idea of what is the "best answer"... and often do something else anyway. (Personally, I'm pretty sure I convinced myself it was "A.")
I do respect the logic of the "best answer." I've worked out why it makes sense. So when I "stray" and feel guilty it's because I feel like I've moved too far from the best answer. Never mind that it's not exactly MY best answer.
I probably lost you a while back, right? *grin* Really, all I'm getting at is a compromise. Between what you may ask? Well, maybe think of it as between "who." (Or is that whom?) Anyway, let's say we identify the "best answer" as the hero. Consequently, we may have vilified the other options. And wouldn't you know it, this somehow doesn't lessen their appeal. Well, we all know how appealing it is to write the villain! There's a sense of freedom to explore with the villain.
I also like to think the hero also needs the villain. The hero will benefit from the challenges the villain provides. However, the hero will also demand to be the "last man standing" for THIS story. Next time, the villain may step into the hero's shoes.
Acknowledgement that there are potentially good reasons for the hero/best answer and all the vilified options to mix and mingle is the compromise. If I stray to another story, there is likely a benefit to the original story.
For example, as pointed out by a writer friend (you know who you are!), writing in another story can lead to a sense of competition for the story left behind. There is probably little likelihood you'll never return because the original story will draw you back.
Or maybe the connection between the old and the new is in the form a sequel. Your instincts are telling you to work on the story from a different angle as a way to further develop information common to more than one story.
Are you convinced there are worthwile distractions to the WIP? Can you think of other worthwhile distractions from the WIP?