Beware the Shiny New Toys

There’s few better states of being for an artist than that of being inspired. I shan’t over-describe. You’ve been there. You know.

Before you know it, it’s 2am and you’ve added two new drawings and a poem to your armoury. These projects are great: with a short burst of action, you’ve accomplished something concrete.

Some bursts of inspiration take weeks, rather than hours, to turn into something real, such as painting a portrait. As you continue to work on this big project, suffering the setbacks you will inevitably come across, you’ll naturally be inspired by something else. You’ll be on a bus, and a poem will start writing itself in your head. If you can get it down and written that day, grand. If you can’t, you’re faced with a conundrum. 

Do you:
Pursue this shiny new toy you’ve discovered?
Forget the idea and focus on your current big project?

Let’s choose the former for a minute. You persuade yourself the old project wasn't taking you anywhere and pick up this Shiny New Toy. You carry along nicely with it for a week and make good progress. When the initial motivation starts to run dry and you meet your first setbacks, something new catches your eye: Shiny New Toy 2.0. So you persuade yourself the old project wasn’t quite right and pick up the next one. A week into this one, something else catches your eye.

Do you see a pattern emerging? If you do this often enough, you’ll chase the Shiny New Toys round and round the shop, never achieving anything. From experience, this results in that creeping feeling of artistic insecurity, manifested in the following sentences in your head:

“I work so hard, but get nowhere.”
“What have I actually achieved in the last six months?”
“I hate [painting/writing/photography/video/life].”


This is caused by a lack of focus.

Counter-intuitive as it may feel at that moment, you’ll make more meaningful progress if you don’t chase every Shiny New Toy that crosses your path. You don’t train for a 10k run by running 1km on ten different treadmills, do you? So why would art be any different?

It’s counter-intuitive because new projects always feel more exciting than the old. New projects feel like you’re making progress, getting better, pushing boundaries, but a finished book based on an older idea is stronger than a hundred first chapters, no matter how great their potential, their writing, their plot. 

So if you can, bottle that motivation. Write down the idea and set it free to swim in your subconscious. You may find, in time, that other ideas latch onto it and it becomes a bigger beast than you ever expected. Use the desire to pursue so many projects as a motivator to make you finish your current project. But leave the Shiny New Toy on the shelf for now, and finish that project. Creative focus is the way to go. 

Too big to fail

I hadn’t realised it until today, but when undertaking any project, there’s a point where you’re too far in to give it up. In business, sunk costs shouldn’t be factored into the decision as to whether to continue a project, but in a labour of love, it’s crucial. I passed that point with my novel a good few weeks ago, but only today did it make itself apparent to me. 

The point of being too far to give up can be at different stages of different projects. In my case, looking back, it was probably when I bust a gut to make my 20,000 word deadline. Before then, I’d put in effort, but never shifted plans in order to write, or had to slog long and hard into the night to get the words down on paper. The relief when I hit the goal was like a sandbag lifted from my shoulders.

However, having only written 5,000 words since that point almost a month ago, I’d sidelined the novel. The characters aren’t who I want them to be. My plot is running out. The practice of jumping between characters is faltering.

The writing of a novel requires a huge amount of stamina. The story needs to keep evolving, but every day can bring with it a fair number of setbacks. Passing the point of no return carries with it a commitment to see through these setbacks – and all future setbacks, before you’ve even encountered them. After this point, the choice as to whether you’ll overcome the bumps in the road is removed. You simply have to. The only question that does still remain is how you can spin your way out of them. Seeing light shining over the wall you’ve run into is often motivation enough to keep going. When you know more or less where you’re going, the distance doesn’t seem so far.

And so, my characters are still weak, my plot forecast is still not great and the way I’m telling the story may still have run its course. But there’s light. And I’m too far in not to follow that light.