One of my best friends is an artist, and I’m always reminded of the similarities between the demands of our professions. He once told me the worst part of planning a series of paintings for a show was standing before a blank white canvas. He said there were always so many ideas running through his head, he simply couldn’t decide where to begin. Which, I told him, was not unlike staring at a blank computer screen with hands poised over keyboard. That’s when it occurred to me that the essence of a writer’s job—and a painter’s, for that matter—is to narrow choices from all the possibilities in the universe and distill them into one set of related ideas: Our job is to make decisions.
Before beginning our stories and all along the way, we make decisions about the traits for our characters, the settings for our scenes, and the turning points for our plots. As characters grow and scenes unfold, there are countless crossroads at which we must make decisions that will (hopefully) result in taking an engaging character on an interesting journey to its inevitable conclusion. If something goes awry along the way, you (or an editor) can probably trace it to a poor decision, perhaps one made unconsciously. Sometimes unconscious decisions can lead to interesting story developments, but more often than not, decisions made off the cuff can lead to trouble—and backtracking.
The same is true of planning any career: In general, decisions made under informed, calm conditions will result in less backtracking than decisions made on the spur of the moment. On the other hand, if you plod along, making no decisions at all and letting the chips fall where they may, you’re not likely to get very far.
To improve your decision-making skills, you must (1) (this is a biggie) accept the fact that by choosing one option, you are—at least in the short run—saying no to other options which might be just as attractive, (2) accept the responsibility for the outcome of the option you choose, and (3) learn from your mistakes. And know this: People who seem so confident in their decision-making skills are not so confident about the outcome of their decisions—they are instead confident that they’ll be able to handle the outcome of their decisions and move on. If you never make a move, you’ll never gain the experience needed to make subsequent decisions more successfully.
If you have many partial manuscripts (or half-begun hobbies), but no finished projects, or if your career is languishing, the problem might not lie in your work ethic, but in your ability to make decisions…and to stick to them!