The Writer’s Cooldown

by Helen Kenwright

So, how was Nanowrimo for you? Or perhaps there’s another big writing project you’ve recently finished?

One of the criticisms sometimes directed at Nanowrimo is that it can cause writer burn-out. Hopefully if you’ve followed the advice in Ekaterina’s blog post last month you won’t have succumbed to total mental and physical exhaustion. But there can be an aftermath to be dealt with, and in this post we give you some advice to help move forward from the experience, however it went, and keep writing into the future.

While this post is written with Nanowrimo in mind, it applies to any concentrated period of writing, including dissertations, theses and fiction written for personal, rather than public, goals. Any writing project with a deadline for a first draft may have one of three outcomes:

  • You didn’t meet the deadline or finish the work
  • You met the deadline but there’s still a lot of work to do
  • You met the deadline and you’re so done they could stick a fork in you and serve you with a knob of butter.

Regardless of the outcome, you may experience any of the following

  • Feelings of relief, triumph and joy
  • Disappointment and/or self-loathing
  • An inability to write so much as a shopping list
  • An inability to stop writing, to the point that you’re probably narrating yourself reading this blog post in your head right now.
  • A deep need to never so much as think of reading your draft
  • Itchy fingers to get on with editing asap.

All of these are perfectly normal, and to varying degrees are likely to be experienced by most writers from time to time, regardless of talent, disposition or publication history. I’d like to suggest a few golden rules that can help you through it.

Rule #1. If you’re not done, don’t stop.

This one really comes from the heart, as I’m currently working on finishing a novel I started for Nanowrimo in 2007. I wrote 80,000 words in the month, which I was thrilled to bits with. But as soon as November was over and I’d got my t-shirt and shiny winners’ cert, the writing petered out. I was quickly overtaken by the things I’d set aside to do nano (including my PhD thesis, oops) and that was that. Over the next decade I’d pick it up from time to time and try to get back into it so I could finish it off, but all I saw were its flaws. I wasn’t even sure it was worth finishing. It’s only this year that I’ve taken the painful step of making sense again of those first 80k words, so that I could write the ending. It’ll be worth it: I’m in love with the book at the moment and I’m so glad I went back to it. But it would have been so much easier if I’d finished the first draft while I had the wind in my sails and remembered who everybody was. Also, it makes you feel really old when you realise the hero of your contemporary urban fantasy is using a Motorola Razr flip-phone because iPhones hadn’t been invented yet.

Of course, you have a life to live, and no-one could expect you to write at your Nano-speed forever. Set a modest target – work on your draft for fifteen minutes a day, or a thousand words a week. Whatever’s manageable. Just keep going, keep your world fresh in your head until you’re done. Beware those tempting words ‘I’ll take a break and pick it up again after the holidays’. Because science says you probably won’t. And that would be tragic, after all the hard work you’ve put in.

This rule also applies to anyone who didn’t meet their deadline or wordcount. Hopefully you didn’t give up altogether. If you did, how about restarting now? Just baby steps. It’s fine to be a tortoise or a hare. Whatever works for you.

Rule #2 If you are done, let it brew.

Once your draft is finished, set it aside. This is one of the most often given pieces of writing advice I’ve ever come across. It’s most famous proponent is probably Stephen King, who suggests in his excellent ‘On Writing‘ that one should put a first draft in a drawer and leave it there, untouched, for around six weeks. This gives you enough distance that you can be reasonably objective about it when you read it back. It’s very tempting, in the rush of excitement that follows the achievement of a goal, to rush straight into editing. But you need emotional distance, not only to be able to spot mistakes, but to take your investment out of it so that you can see all the shades of good and bad that it will be, without feeling you’re the worst writer who ever lived and deleting it forever/throwing it on the fire, or else being so blind to its failings you show it to someone else and they crush you with their incisive feedback.

Let it rest. After a month or two your mind will have digested the magnitude of what you’ve done, and be ready to make it even better.

Rule #3. Don’t stop writing.

Just because you’ve finished (or given up, it matters not which) doesn’t mean you get to have a holiday. Writing breaks can be dangerous things. So often you get back to it after a pause, only to find you’ve completely forgotten how you ever did this in the first place. Much better to keep things ticking over.
However, you may well not fancy piling straight into your next big project. Instead you need to replenish your creative larder. This is the time to get really arty. Start a nice fresh journal (check back here on January 1st for some journalling tips). Write about anything you like. Write about what you’re reading. About the boring guy who sits opposite you on the train every day. About the weather, your pets, your hopes and fears. Freewrite. Use one of the Writing Tree’s daily prompts on Twitter and write a few lines of micro-fiction or a haiku. Just a little bit every day, until you’re ready for the next big project.
It’s worth keeping this going through your editing phase as well. In my experience all editing and no freewriting makes my brain itchy. Ask my friends, it never ends well.

Rule #4. Take care of yourself.

Most important of all – it’s not just your creativity that needs replenishing after an intense project. Get good sleep, eat well, get out in the fresh air if you can (or the gym, whatever floats your boat). Spend time with friends or family members whose company you enjoy. Consider mindfulness meditation practise, yoga, warm bubble baths or anything else that helps to relax you.

Follow these tips and you can keep writers’ burnout at bay, and make the most of whatever came out of Nanowrimo for you, rather than letting it put you off for ever. Good luck!


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