Kage Baker – although she could and did concentrate on a given project with laser-like specificity – had a little personal trick for keeping her creativity interested in what it need to do. She always tried to have more than one story going at once.
Never mind metaphors like irons in the fire and pots on the stove. Those items all actually require constant, simultaneous attention, in order to prevent common kitchen and forge disasters. (Kage, as an historical re-creator, was familiar with both of those.) What she wanted was something that would sit quietly in the background, not bursting into flames, fixing her current project with the famous Hairy Eyeball and frightening it into obedience. She wanted a thug, who could lurk in the background and glower over her shoulder with the threat that – unless her main squeeze behaved and gave her some sugar – they would move in and waltz her away to a sleazy dive.
It usually worked just fine. If and when things got impossible, Kage could lay the troublesome story aside and work on something else for awhile. She could even use the process as a preemptive strike: often, working on an old, stalled or otherwise not current story line would provoke a new, fresh idea to germinate. It seemed to work on the grit-into-pearl model; if something was irritating enough, Kage’s unconscious would turn to something prettier.
I’ve heard vague references from other writers about similar reactions. It’s well known that nothing will make you come up with cool new ideas like having a prior commitment that MUST be finished first. Apparently, deliberately getting involved in something helps attract something else: them as has, gits – as Kage’s North Carolinian mother would often pronounce.
I guess it was like fighting with your boyfriend and going out for a drink and picking up some total stranger. Except, the way Kage did it, it ended better. She usually got at least 2 stories out of the trick, and got paid for it to boot.
I have found this to also be an effective process for keeping two or more projects richly productive. I always have more than none knitting pattern on the needles at once; when the linen stitch or entrelec won’t work, you can always relax with a nice sock in a garter stitch – round and round, not even needing to reverse your fabric. I got three stories begun while working on polishing Knight and Dei – two of them have been subsequently finished, and given rise in turn to a few more seeds …
This can be regarded as a juggling version of the jigsaw puzzle technique. Only with this, you’re drawing pieces from several puzzles at once, and seeing if you can fit them together. Kage actually did this with real puzzles, by the way: if pieces had gone missing – as happens when you have cats, parrots and small relatives – you can always turn them wrong-side up and see if pieces from other puzzles will fit in the gaps. Jigsaw puzzles are mostly cut in the same dozen or so shapes – if all you are dealing with is shape, and you aren’t concentrating on the color or design, it’s amazing what you can fit together.
Of course, the really peculiar thing is that Kage thought of this truly individual form of entertainment in the first place. I’ve never heard of anyone else doing it, to be honest. And I’m not sure if she adapted it from writing more than one story at a time, or if she re-purposed blind jigsaw assembly to writing. Either way, they both worked.
Naturally, I still use as much of this as I can manage. Not the jigsaws: I think you need a mind like Kage’s to pull that one off, and I’ve never met another mind like hers. But the running two trains of thought on parallel but different tracks – yeah, that one works. I know the Bible says not to hitch a horse and an ox to the same plough, but what dooms barley (and why does it not work, anyway?) works just fine with books.
So today, I was working on the the first little errors and alterations needed on “The Teddy Bear Squad”. Most of them so far are spelling and punctuation – I type just fast, and see just poorly, enough right now that some weird combinations result. And even the best of us slip on the Oxford comma now and again … but while I was working away at that whole deal, my mind was leaping hither and yon through scenes from the zombie story.
The nicest part of this is that what was 497 words 2 days ago is now 2,245 words. And 11 pages of notes.
And, true to Kage’s time-honored system, there are at least 3 story-gems nascent in this mass of undifferentiated mother-of-pearl. Only one is getting written just now, but there is content in there for at least 2 more. Maybe a novel. It’d even be a pretty cool comic book, if I could draw …
But that skill of Kage’s, I never could learn.