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Compartmentalizing: The Way I Write


You may have noticed my works in progress bars to the left of the screen. Or seen my tweets about word count on one WIP or the other. Yes, I am currently writing two novels at the same time. One is fantasy that involves a whole lot of world building. The other is Sci-Fi, which is in the here and now. I do not think I can build two worlds at the same time.

However, having these two WIPs allows me to move back and forth between the two. When I am stuck on one, I go to the other. And vice versa. And yes, I do get stuck. Especially when it comes to dialogues. There have been times where I’ve been stuck on both, and I needed another distraction. At that point, I usually turn to reading, or writing a short story, which adds another layer to my WIP.

Stephen King's Dreamcatcher


Several people have commented on my ability, as well as their own, to tackle something like this. And I’ve been trying to rationalize how, exactly, I do this. I’ve termed it: compartmentalizing. Have you ever seen the movie Dreamcather, based off Stephen King’s novel? Like Jonesy locking a part of his brain away from the alien that had taken him over in order to work through and solve the problem? Yeah, like that.

While compartmentalization is usually associated with emotional/psychological problems, such as OCD and PTSD, the fundamental definition fits for my writing habits.

The basic, non-psychological definition from Merriam Webster, is this:

verb\kəm-ˌpärt-ˈmen-tə-ˌlīz, ˌkäm-\

com·part·men·tal·ized  com·part·men·tal·iz·ing

transitive verb
: to separate into isolated compartments or categories

— com·part·men·tal·i·za·tion noun


Essentially, this is what I do. Each WIP has a separate compartment within my brain. It’s how I used to work in school. Each class had its own compartment as well. I didn’t realize this right away.

What I did notice, though, when I was taking both English and Spanish in High School and College, was that my English essays were very articulate while my Spanish essays were nothing more than “See spot run”. It wasn’t until I moved to Germany and tried to speak the language that I realized I literally had to switch between two parts of my brain in order to converse. I could feel it. I could visualize the switching, like watching a tennis match. And when I befriended a German tea shop owner who could speak both Spanish and German, it completely complicated the matter. I did not have a separate “compartment” for Spanish and German. It was more like I had one for English and one for foreign languages. So I was really screwing my conversations up by interjecting all three languages into the mix. Luckily for me, she could also speak English. I think I rather impressed her with my attempt to converse in her native language. Most Americans, I fear, are too arrogant and would expect everyone to speak English. At least, I have seen far too many of us, during my many years in Europe, that never went out of their way to be so courteous.

So, there’s my revelation into the whole compartmentalization my brain goes through.

It’s been a little over a year since I got back into seriously writing again. I’m still finding my groove. Since the New Year, I’ve been writing, or doing writer-ly things, every day. I like this. Really. It has gotten so much easier to write every day. Forming a habit only takes two weeks. But it’s so easy to fall out of that habit. I faltered once in two months. I thought I would be going back to my usual and forcing myself to write. But that one day was nothing. I’ve been managing quite nicely. Especially when I have a multitude of writing outlets. I have my blog. I have reading. I have critiques. I have two novels. And I also continue with my short stories. So, I have a lot of ways I can do something writer-ly each day.

And with all those outlets, I have compartments in my brain. One day I will work on WIP#1. The next day I will work on WIP#2. Another day, I will work on my blog and a short story. And all the while, I’ll wind down with reading. The problem with this method that I have found, at least for me, is that I cannot easily walk between those doors to the many different compartments. If I am working on WIP#1, I just cannot switch to working on WIP#2 the same day. I have to go to sleep, shut down my brain, reset, and wake up to the next compartment.


I’ve also found that when I’ve completed something, say a short story, I have an abundance of writing energy that I’m left wondering what to do with the rest of the day (or however long it takes to work out of my system). People tell me to write more, or something different. But, again, I find the door to the next compartment shut tight. Sealed. I’ve heaved my shoulders into it. Kicked it. But all that I can do is stare at it. Nothing comes through.

So, compartmentalizing my WIPs in my brain may seem like something good. But it can also be a curse from time to time. I hope I’ve explained this well enough for you to understand. Do you compartmentalize? Or do you only work on one project at a time?


  1. Ping from Brenna Braaten:

    Hey there! I’m finally making the rounds and getting to other campaigners’ blogs.

    Wow! I have to admit that I’m impressed. While on most things I’m good at compartmentalizing and multitasking, on writing I just can’t do it. If I were working on two manuscripts at once, I wouldn’t be allowing the proper time to allow my ideas to stew, which would probably end up in the writing taking three-times as long to get done. But, hey, what works for you! If I could do it, I probably would!

  2. Ping from Theresa Sneed:

    Nice blog! I’m in your group for Rachael’s 4th campaign. Glad to meet you! ~Theresa Sneed author of No Angel and forthcoming From Heaven to Earth http://theresasmallsneed.blogspot.com

  3. Ping from Theresa Sneed:

    Nice blog! Compartmentalizing … hmmm, I’ll have to consider that! 🙄 I currently have two partially written sequels and four completely written novels plus the (almost) two that are published … 🙂 I’m in your group for Rachael’s 4th campaign. Glad to meet you! ~Theresa Sneed author of No Angel and forthcoming From Heaven to Earth http://theresasmallsneed.blogspot.com

  4. Ping from Jacob G. Adams:

    I definitely compartmentalize. It’s the only way to explain the way I am with my stories. I jump from one to other (usually to get a fresh look at a story when I come back). However, I don’t think I could write two fresh stories at the same time, aspects of two WiPs would get mixed together and eventually find myself writing the same story twice.

  5. Ping from K.T. Hanna:

    My brain is mean. I have to work on the idea I’m focused on and complete it. I can’t work on separate things. I plot, I plan, I write, I edit. If it’s my work, I have to finish first.

    I can crit or read someone else’s work while doing my own, but two of my own? Nope – I obsess and no amount of will power will let me compartmentalize.

  6. Ping from Holly Barbo:

    I compartmentalize all of the time and have done it for years. I’m self employed so there is the physical activity of that with the to do list and needs. I also have 2 manuscripts going and editing 2 others. One manuscript which is just out of its synopsis stage, is book 5 for my series. The other is totally unrelated to what I have written before. I am finding though, that with the added stress of financial concerns coupled with hot-flash sleep I frazzle more than I used to. Rest really helps.

  7. Ping from Andrew Patterson:

    Aha! Now we all know your dark secret! 😛
    I think I do this to some degree as well. Except mine is more like a giant pot in the back of my head that I toss things that I’m working on. When something floats to the surface, I scoop it out and mess with it and then toss it back in to cook some more. I can switch between things without a total reset (luckily!).

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