Works in Progress: How Many Is Too Many?

I often go hunting for quotes from authors about writing, usually for my weekly writing update posts. I recently stumbled across the following quote from novelist Philip Roth, and I really dig it. He said:

“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.”

-Philip Roth

It’s a great quote, and I think it cuts to the heart of the most difficult thing a writer can do–call something “done.” If you’re like me, then your hard drive is chocked full of flash fiction pieces, short stories, and novels languishing under the label “work in progress.” So I thought I’d take a dig through my files and see just how many projects I’ve started and yet to finish.

First some ground rules. These rules apply to me and only me. You can, of course, make up your own mind for what counts as a work in progress.

  • One, I will only consider a piece I’ve actually submitted as a work in progress if it is currently undergoing a major revision, like pretty much a total rewrite.
  • Two, I will consider a work as “in progress” if I have actually completed an outline. Jotted-down story ideas don’t count.
  • Three, anything I am contractually obligated to write I won’t count because it WILL be finished. To me, a true WiP needs a little uncertainty.

Okay, let’s have a look.

Flash Fiction WiPs: 13 (about 13,000 words)

The main difference with my flash fiction works in progress is that everyone of these is technically a finished first draft. That has a lot to do with how I generate my flash fiction, primarily in one-hour flash fiction contests/writing exercise that by their very nature ensure I end up with 1,000 words by the end. Most of these are in serious, serious need of revision, but a couple are almost there and will likely head out the door in the near future.

Short Stories WiPs: 22 (about 50,000 words)

My short story works in progress range from simple outlines to ancient completed works that need to be totally rewritten and everything in between.  A fair number of these might never see true completion and submission, but there are a half dozen I’ll finish in the next few months, let my critique partners read, and then send them out into the world.

Novel & Novella WiPs: 3 (about 65,000 words)

This includes one novel in which I’ve written about 35,000 words (my next project), a full novel outline, and a finished novella I’m still tinkering with. The novel that has progressed beyond the outline stage will definitely be finished, and I’m working on it now. The outlined novel I might get to one day, but it’ll be down the road a ways. The novella needs some revision, mostly because it’s the sequel to a published short story, and I’m not sure it works without that short story.

In Summary

In total, I have 38 works in progress totaling about 130,000 words. That’s actually less than I expected, though if I counted stories that have been submitted at least once and are not undergoing major revision, that number would be much, much higher (maybe double).

Now let’s answer the question I posed in the title of this post. Do I have too many works in progress? Maybe, but it’s more a question of identifying which works are actually worth completing and which I should maybe set aside as ideas that are not gonna pan out. If I did that, I guess I’d end up with half the number of flash pieces and short stories, and, as much as I hate to say it, that outlined novel might not make the cut either. This kind of winnowing of WiPs is probably a good thing for every author to do at some point. Basically, I want my creative energies going toward works that are meaningful and might have a shot at publication. Of course, that’s a tough decision to make, and, as you can see, I kinda suck at it.

How many works in progress do you have going? Tell me about it in the comments.

8 Comments on “Works in Progress: How Many Is Too Many?

  1. A very interesting post and quite a few words you’ve got written in these drafts!

    I generally write in bursts (feast/famine) because my job (plus family) leaves me no head space for creative writing when it’s in full swing, but I do have a few weeks here and there where it lets up, so I try to write as much as I can in those periods. Ideas percolate in my mind a bit during the dry spells so, when I finally have time to write, I’ve already committed to a few select stories; this also means that I generally finish everything I do start drafting. However, I haven’t really undertaken something that could conceivably take me more than a few weeks to finish, mostly because I am afraid that I won’t be able to pick it up if I drop it completely for months (which I have to). A few stories that could’ve been great died in my mind w/o even a draft because I was just too busy to get to them for too long, and then other ideas took over. I’m a bit sad for them, tbh.

    You mention critique partners. Would you mind writing a bit about them (or point me to an earlier post if you discussed it already)? Are you part of a formal critique group, where there are rules on the frequency of giving and receiving feedback? Or is it less formal, and if so, how did you all find each other? How do you organize the critiquing so that everyone is comfortable / thinks it’s fair? Do you all write in similar genres? Thank you!

    I have a few writer friends who get me and my writing. We review each other’s drafts and their feedback is very valuable, but they are all busy people so I always feel like I’m imposing on their time.


    • Hey, Maura,

      Oddly, I haven’t written anything specific about critique partners, but I should remedy that. Here’s a quick summation of my critique partner options. First, I belong to a very good group of writers on Facebook, and I’m not gonna lie, I just got lucky there. Most of the time these groups are not great, but this one is composed of a whole bunch of talented folks (writers and editors) who provide feedback on pretty much every flash or short story I write (I also return that favor).

      For novels, I have some critique partners I trust and who get my work and the genres I write in. These folks are usually authors themselves and we often trade critiques.

      Anyway, that’s the short answer. I’ll think about a long answer for a future blog post.

      • Many thanks, Aeryn! Looking fwd to a full post when you get a chance.

  2. Thank you Aeryn for posting about your WIPs. It’s reassuring to know it’s not so weird for me to be writing among the bodies of my abandoned works. 😉 I don’t have nearly as many, but I’m catching up!

    Do you feel anxious that you have some many unfinished works? It sounds like something you really just take in stride.

    • Thanks for the comment. No, I don’t really feel anxious about the number of unfinished projects, mostly because I feel like I do finish a good amount of pieces too. The issue is less anxiety for not finishing and more the inability to abandon projects that, frankly, probably aren’t good enough to bother completing.

  3. Apparently, I like consistency because currently I have 1 each of an unfinished flash story, short story, novella, and novel.

    I would feel anxious about so many unfinished works and do feel that way about just my four! Maybe I’d feel less so if I had more time to experiment with ideas with the understanding that many of those won’t, and don’t need to, go anywhere.

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