I finished my first full length novel last month. It took me ten months to write and edit it, and by the time I’d implemented editor feedback and done a final search and destroy mission against typos I was ready to move on.
At least, I thought I was.
I figured I’d take a couple of weeks off and then dive into my next project, maybe do a short story or even start my next novel. I also had a little free time after more than a year of being the smelly writer hermit that my neighbors avoided, so maybe I could rejoin polite society?
No. No I couldn’t do any of those things because finishing up with my novel made me feel like someone had punched me in the brainstem. I spent several days just wandering around my house in my underwear eating chips and talking to my cats. The cats didn’t seem to mind but I should probably have closed the curtains. I think I traumatized the courier who dropped off our Christmas parcels.
On day three I thought I’d gotten myself together and sat down to write a blog post. No words came. I typed the word ‘barnacle’ twelve times in the hope that moving my fingers would kickstart my brain into being creative again. But all I ended up with was twelve barnacles and no blog post.
Almost a month went by, I got through Christmas and vowed to start writing again on Boxing Day, and it was only then that I realized what was wrong with me. Mentally I was still stuck in my novel, and my brain still wanted to write the story I’d spent almost a year refining. I missed my characters. I missed the plot that had driven me half crazy throughout the year. I missed my snarky, self deprecating main character and his awesome friends.
I even missed my monsters; the faceless spindly little creeps.
It didn’t feel like a major depressive episode, I didn’t feel sad exactly, but I was lethargic and cotton brained. I hadn’t given myself the time and space I needed to move on from a project that had occupied almost all of my time over 2014. It wasn’t until I figured that out that I could give myself what I needed to get back into the writing mind set. It turned out what I needed wasn’t to write something; I needed to read.
I’d been reading throughout the year, but because I’d been so pushed for time I was only reading about half the number of books that I normally would. This time I dug out some of my comfort books, stories I already knew but loved so much that I knew going back to them would be like drinking a cup of hot chocolate. I also picked up a couple of newer titles that looked like fun, then I sat down and read for a week solid.
It was like I had been handed a brain cleanser, the literary equivalent of those little bags of coffee you’re supposed to use when you’re smelling different sorts of perfume. I got so deeply into the novels I was reading that my mind let go of my own novel. I felt so much better that I did other things that improved my mood, especially getting some of the exercise I’d been putting off while I wrote.
So what should you do if you find yourself low at the end of a project? First off don’t be too hard on yourself. A quick Internet search reveals this is a common phenomenon in creative people of all types.
Next you need to give your mind some space. I made a mistake by trying to leap too quickly from one project to another. You might only need a few days, but get out of your writing chair and go and do something else. When it came to my post project depression it was reading and exercise that made all the difference, but for you it might be something else. Unless you have a medical condition that prevents you from exercising, getting out and moving is always a good thing. It encourages blood flow to the brain and will give you a way of switching off your conscious mind so your subconscious can work on your next idea.
I trust you to know what kind of exercise suits you; cage fighting probably isn’t a good first step.
I think that going back to consuming the art that inspired you to create something in the first place is a good idea. Something about looking at ideas you are familiar with, but from a different angle can help you approach your own work. There’s also nothing like being inspired by another writer to get your butt back in your chair. I personally think it’s a good plan to mix in some new stuff with your comfort fiction, but as my doctor says, I’m just an idiot with an internet connection, so do whatever works well for you.
I also think it’s important let yourself be happy that you finished. So few people finish major creative projects, especially novels, and it can be easy to forget that you’ve achieved something good. After I finished my father called me up to say congratulations and without thinking I asked him ‘what for?’ Throw a small party, tell your friends and family, be proud of yourself. If you can afford it, buy yourself something small as a reward – it doesn’t have to be much, just something to tell your subconscious mind that writing brings rewards.
Finally, once you are ready to get going again, don’t delay. Get back on the horse (in my mind the horse is made out of old typewriters and hates clichés) as soon as you can, leaving it too long can leave you feeling like starting again might be too hard.
And learn from my mistakes: put on some pants, or couriers will refuse to come to your house.