Creative Exhaustion

Your plot is going nowhere, your characters are pathetic as sheep, and everything you write sounds like rubbish. You contemplate your future as a writer, and more than likely decide you’re a miserable failure and should give it up.

Well, don’t. And stop looking at that delete button. It is not your friend.

You’re probably also thinking you have writer’s block. You don’t. There is no such thing. Do you say you have human’s block when you’re too tired to function properly? No, you say you’re tired and go to sleep. Sometimes it takes a few days to wake up, but those days of rest make you feel ready to take on the world.

Writing is no different, and I can’t imagine painting, drawing, dancing, or even mathematics are any different, either. Our brains and our bodies need rest, else they’ll become tired, exhausted, and too weak to function.

So what do you do when you’re exhausted creatively? Easy: Take a break! The hard part is deciding how long that break should be, and how to get yourself back into writing afterward. Everyone is different, but I’ll share my guidelines on dealing with and preventing Creative Exhaustion. Feel free to share your own.

When to take a break:

The best time to take a break is after you’ve completed a draft. Whether it’s your first, second, third, or final draft, give yourself as much as a couple months off. This will give your mind a rest from your MS, letting you return to it later with a fresh start. You’ll see things you didn’t see before your rounds of revisions will be far more beneficial. If your MS is shorter, it makes sense to take a shorter break, but it’s ultimately up to you.

If you are stuck or frustrated with your plot or characters, give yourself a weekend away from the MS, even if you’re mid-draft. Nothing’s worse than staring at a dead end. Spend a couple days drawing diagrams, writing outlines, and letting the problem simmer in your head. Just don’t take more than four or five days off, else you’ll have to reintroduce yourself to your characters and plot and that takes time.

What to do when on a break:

If you’re on a break between drafts, let your mind relax and wash itself clean. Do what you enjoy doing, especially if it involves reading. You can also use this time to do research, whether on Craft or something that you will need when working on the next draft of your MS. As it comes nearer to the end of your break, work on some light organizing. Clean up your space, pull out your scene lists and outlines, and get ready for the next dive.

If you’re on a break between MS, there are two things that will help the most: reading and planning. Reading will help get your creative mind working and offer a source of relaxation and inspiration. Planning or otherwise “pre-writing” is about the most important thing you can do to help yourself with a new MS. I could write dozens of posts on different ways to navigate this process, so I’ll not mention anything here beyond encouragement to plan at least a little before diving into a new MS.

As for those mid-draft breaks, your goal should be to solve whatever problem you have in your plot. There are several ways you can do this. I prefer diagrams, charts, and outlines. I’ve also found it helpful to analyze the plots/characters in other novels/movies/video games. If you’re still stuck, try talking to someone, like another writer about your MS. Another person’s opinion and insight can be immensely helpful. Don’t stress over this bump in your path, you’ll get it smoothed out, even if it takes a few extra days.

How to get back into writing:

Preparing for a revision depends on how you revise. If you’re not sure how to revise a draft, do some research on the editing process and experiment. I find applying structure to my drafts is the best way to see where I need to improve. I diagram the structure then start reading, adding notes to what I need to change in each scene. That’s one revision round for me. After another break, I go back and apply what I wrote in my notes, creating my next draft.

Preparing for a fresh start on a new MS is far more involved. It’s also very personal. I like to write the first scene of a possible MS to see how I like it before I spend weeks planning to write it. Regardless of what your process is, I think it’s vitally important to plan before writing. It will save you time and work down the line and will make your first draft easier to write. In fact, it will save you from the next kind of break.

Mid-draft breaks are often a bit more stressful, as you’re trying to overcome some issue you have in your MS. If you’ve taken a few days off your MS and still don’t know where to go with it next, start re-reading some of it. Revise a bit and you may find the solution to your problem. I find writing different versions of a troublesome scene helps me. If you’re still stuck, skip the scene and move on. The point is to continue no matter what.

In summation:

Break between drafts

  • How long? One or two months
  • What to do? Read, research, relax
  • How to go back? Start re-reading your draft

Break between manuscripts

  • How long? Two to four months
  • What to do? Read, research, organize, write
  • How to go back? Pre-writing

Bread mid-draft

  • How long? One to five days
  • What to do? Relax, organize, think
  • How to go back? Re-read previous scenes, skip troublesome scene

When frustrated with writing, the best thing you can do is not give up. Don’t dwell on the parts that give you trouble. Relax and detach yourself from writing. Take a break and release your mind. You’ll go back feeling better equipped to tackle the task at hand.

How do you handle Creative Exhaustion?


About Squishy

Writer, dancer, gamer, and admirer of all that is beautiful.

Posted on December 6, 2010, in Ishy Writes! and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I call creative exhaustion as writer’s block but since most real (I can’t think of another word) writers don’t believe in it I am trying to delete it from my dictionary. Speaking of delete, delete buttons are my guiltiest pleasures. Oh oh.
    I am on an unofficial writing break right now (it is unofficial because I also think best breaks are between drafts and I am not yet done with this one) and it is only because I am catching up on all those lesser priorities in life like school…
    O and thank you for another helpful post.

    • School is a very important thing to stay on top of. Perhaps I should put an exception like “Real life excluded” on my guidelines?

      • By school I didn’t just mean studies, I was talking about the extra things that came along. High school dramas and the people who populate the school. THOSE lesser priorities.

  2. This is great advice. The longest I took off was a little over a year during my last bit of college, and that is when the story took a drastic turn for the better. Spending time educating yourself on your craft and reading excellent fiction in the meantime definitely makes an immense difference. It definitely did for me.

    Talking things out with someone else is my primary way of working out problems. I talk to my mom about short stories and my husband about novels. Neither are writers–unfortunately, I don’t have close friends who write avidly–but they both understand the fibers that hold stories together and share my passion for quality stories. The process of thinking through things enough to talk about them is often enough to get me set on the right track again.

    • I agree — sometimes the best way to improve your craft is not to write, but to research and read.

      I find talking “at” people instead of “to” them can be quite helpful. A friend of mine listens my writing-related rants, though he can’t offer much in the way of advice — his mind just doesn’t work that way. Yet rambling to him about what’s going through my mind helps me, I think in the same way talking to your mom and husband does. Pestering Twitter works well for me, too.

  3. Thank you for this post. It’s great. Sometime you do need a break to sort through and reorganize your ideas in a more relaxed fashion I think. Don’t give up though, and don’t let it get away from you. Right?

  1. Pingback: Taking A Little Break | EVEN AS MY SOUL PROSPERS

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