There are two–maybe three–big things that prevent you from finishing a story. One, procrastination. Two, burn out. Of the two, procrastination at least pretends to be something useful (don’t let it fool you though, it is lying to you and is not actually useful). Burn out on the other hand makes no attempt to hide what it’s there to do: make you dislike your story.
Every creative person has a well from which they draw inspiration and motivation to create. That well is a finite resource however, and burn out is what you get when that well is empty. It can feel like you’re tired of working on that particular project or that you’ve run out of ideas for it. This can make you susceptible to Shiny New Project Syndrome, or just add another unfinished piece to the pile.
Thankfully, avoiding burn out isn’t a huge undertaking. There’s a lot of little steps that can prevent it.
Start with self-care. Your energy reserves will only go so far, and they’ve got to get split between taking care of family, the day job, relationships and your creative projects. Sometimes the best way to keep your energy up is to go ahead and indulge yourself in twenty minutes of cat videos or to accept that yes, you know you’re procrastinating, but one night off of this that or the other thing won’t hurt. Just don’t make it every night and don’t let self-care be an excuse to procrastinate with more cat videos.
Make sure you also have plenty of creative inspiration to keep your ideas flowing. This might be anything from a mood board, a hand-picked playlist or even just a list of random things you like seeing in stories. Keeping something to help bring a new idea to life helps you avoid getting stuck on trying to cover that gaping plot hole and helps refill your creativity.
The final part is pacing yourself. Not everyone writes at a breakneck pace, and even those of us who do might want to consider pumping the brakes a little. There is no such thing as overnight success, it takes lots of little steps. Pouring your energy into one step leaves you unprepared to handle the next step–be that editing, submitting, marketing or whatever else you have to do for your project. Your energy needs time to refill. Also keep in mind that just because you’ve finished one step doesn’t mean you have to dive headlong into the next. If you’re getting feedback, give it a day or two to soak in before you start making changes. The same goes for finishing a draft–pace yourself and give yourself some time for the emotional reaction to diminish so you can give the right amount of energy to the next step.
With the holidays and my bout of burn-out, I ended up taking a little more time away from Hero Stones than I’d anticipated. That meant a large portion of the inspiration I had for it had vanished. Although it was something I suspected would happen when I decided to take a break, I’d been half-hoping my muse wouldn’t wander off to places unknown.
Thankfully, finding inspiration again isn’t too hard, even if you have a dozen other things to do (hello holiday season, you’re looking busy this year). Even if you only have a few minutes, there’s a lot of ways to rekindle that lost spark.
Music is especially useful. Really think about the sort of music that would suit your story–be that a sweeping symphony to go with the massive, magical war you have planned, or a heartfelt love song your Main Character and Interest might have playing when they triumph over every obstacle. Maybe it’s a foreboding opera every time your villain walks into the room. If there’s lyrics to the song, think about which character those lyrics might apply too.
Art and Imagery is another way to get your creativity going again. If you’re not particularly artistic yourself, try creating a collage of images you feel fit your story (this can be done in basic programs like Paint). Of course, if you are on the artistic side, create an image from your story–this might be character references or even pictures of some of your settings.
Write some fluff or filler scenes to help you find the flow of the story again, as well as to help you create more realistic characters. These can be things like a day in the life of your Main Character, a cute moment between your favorite character couple, or even sibling squabbles. Keep in mind that these scenes don’t actually have to happen in the story either, their purpose is to help you get back into the flow of the story.
My biggest piece of advice however is to reread your favorite scenes. Sometimes the scenes you had the most fun writing are the ones that can kick start more ideas and more inspiration for you. A word of warning though, this might lead you to the temptation to edit what you have written already. Although that in itself isn’t inherently bad (especially if you’re trying to find the inspiration to edit), if you’re just trying to finish off a piece, too much editing can lead you into an endless cycle of fixing what you’ve already written without much progress going any farther.
Yesterday after I finished the rough draft of a piece for the other (and still untitled) project I’ve been working on while letting Hero Stones sit after November. At that point I realized that while I wanted to keep working on something, I didn’t have any ideas or even the energy left to keep writing.
Although I’d felt burn out approaching when I made the decision to let Hero Stones rest for a while, I hadn’t quite realized that it was in fact total burn out. Oops.
The problem with any creative undertaking is that it does take time and energy, and the bigger the project or challenge, the more energy it takes. Although I’m lucky enough to have a fairly large capacity for creative energy, like anyone else I need to remember to take time and let my energy reserves recharge every now and again.
Rather than working on writing and focusing attention on that, it’s a good idea to turn attention to other things. This might be other creative endeavors or other hobbies. Perhaps it’s even indulging in a session of binge watching your favorite show.
Depending on you and your process, the best time for taking a rest will vary. When you’re first starting on your writing career you might find it difficult to keep your attention and energy up over the weeks and months it takes to finish a draft under normal circumstances. In that case, setting milestones (such as every so many chapters or pages or after plot points x then y and finally z,) for taking a day off from actively working on the story. As you build up the ‘creative stamina’ so to speak, you might find it better to take those rest days after you finish a fully draft.
Don’t let your rest periods go on for too long though–it can make it harder to get back into the story. Again, the exact amount that works best for you will vary. If you’re approaching full burn-out like I am, I’d recommend taking at least a day, if not two.
As for me, I’m planning on spending the rest of today with a sketchpad and probably working on some gifts for the holidays.