How to Recharge Your Creative Battery After Publishing
If you’ve reached life post-publication, then you don’t need me to tell you how much work you’ve just accomplished. I’m going to start off assuming you’ve already learned some helpful tips about capitalizing on word of mouth and using social media to find readers. Like a rockstar, you’ve researched how to do a book signing, and learned the ins and outs of press releases. Instead, this article is about how to recover your creative edge after all that is over.
Like a Boss
When I was faced with my own resistance to starting the next book, I remembered that I am in this for the long haul. I am the boss of my own writing career. I don’t want writing to be my hobby, I want it to be my life. The experts agree that the only way to become a successful writer is to keep writing. With each book you write, you are going to get better and faster at writing books.
From a cold and calculating viewpoint, think of it this way: Your investment of time and effort will decrease as you hone your craft. Your devotion doesn’t need to decrease, only your effort! It just takes practice. Getting back to writing must become a priority for any serious writer.
When you start from there, it also means that anything you do to help you get back to writing is also productive time. In another article, I talked about the benefits for your brain of taking a break out in the world. The focus there was on rest, but engaging in activities like visiting museums has the added benefit at this step of also giving you a chance to do passive inspiration-gathering. In the same way we can’t possibly know everything we don’t know, we also can never be sure what will serve to inspire us. More now than any other time in the writing process, you should take the time to experience new things and visit even tiny, roadside attractions just to see what there is to see.
Of course, chasing inspiration can only take you so far, and you need a little push to get your creativity flowing again. Banging the pipes with a hammer won’t help, but there are habits and practices that are the right sort of tools for the job.
In this article, I will touch on:
The Empty Nest Blues
Writers often refer to their projects as their “babies” to express their effort “nurturing” it, as well their own devotion. No one finishes a book if they don’t love the story; it’s way too much work! You’ve spent months or even years eating and breathing a set of characters, themes, and events. Of course there is going to be some residue. And it’s great to love what you do, but it is also vital to be able to cut the umbilical cord and move on to the next project.
First-time authors are especially susceptible to getting hung up at this stage. After such a huge output of effort, false starts, rewrites, and everything else it took to will it into being, I know I had a lot of trouble moving on. I tried going straight into plotting and writing the sequel, but I hit wall after wall. My synapses simply refused to fire. There were too many questions, and I didn’t have enough creative energy left to draw on to answer them.
Fire and Brimstone
On the other hand, you could be suffering from “why-did-I-do-this-to-myself syndrome.” Publishing and marketing is waaaaaaaay less fun than writing, but it is easy to forget that when you are drowning in all of the other details. The stress and frustrations of publishing can easily turn to resentment and resistance.
If you never start the next book, you never have to go to the trouble of publishing it, after all. Even if you don’t realize this is happening, if you find yourself staring at blank pages between projects, this could be the root cause. If you’ve had a rough time with the process, one approach to moving past your brain’s trauma is to write about it. Think about all of the things you did that went right. Then, list all the things that went wrong, but also the solutions you found. This will help reassure yourself that the next time you publish will go smoother. Plus, you’ll have a handy reference when you’re ready to take that step.
Falling in Love All Over Again
You’re in a crowded room, moving between boring people with mundane things to say. Then suddenly, you spot them. It’s impossible to pinpoint the reason, but somehow they seem to be just a little bit brighter, a little bit more than the other people. Before you know it, you are drawn straight to them, eager to explore the potential every sense is screaming at you is there.
No, I’m not talking about meeting a new lover. This is how it feels to find your next “big idea.” It all begins with that first glance, then the flirtation begins. The conversation takes off, and the writer has the chance to explore if they want to start something deeper than just a few batted eyelashes. It is a HUGE commitment to start writing a new novel. It’s okay to feel daunted…for a little while at least.
If you are one of those people who has been frustrated by the publishing process, you’re probably feeling like your marriage has just gone through the ringer. There is nothing more exciting than falling in love, and writers get the chance to do it every time we start a new project. The key to is remember that is part of the process, even when the other parts are no fun. Unlike a real-life love affair, we get to decide when it is time to work things out, and when it’s over for good.
What Happens Next?
On the most basic level, you only have two choices now. Do more of the same, or do something completely different. You can muscle through your book hangover with a “little hair of the dog that bit you.” If your book left unanswered questions, you could write a short story set in the same world. Even better, start thinking about the sequel or series. But, there’s often a long time between writing “The End” and getting your book out the reading public, so if this was easy for you, then you probably would have already done it.
Even if your ultimate goal is to write an epic series straight through before building a new world, it’s okay to take a break between installments. Not just okay, it is beneficial. The same way we need some distance in order to spot our plot holes, our brains also need a rebound period.
“What?! But I haven’t written a thing since finishing my last book!” you cry. All of that publishing and marketing is taking up time and brain power, and isn’t at all the same as fiction. Which is true, the activities are different. On the other hand, it’s like the difference between going on a real vacation and traveling for work or going to a conference. One is restful and rejuvenating. The other may be a little something different, but it is still work. Recharging your creative battery is all about PLAY.
Embrace your Inner Child
I know, that’s a super corny phrase that paints all sorts of hilarious mental pictures of full grown adults in diapers and over-sized bonnets. (Or maybe that is just me…?)
I don’t know how well it works as a general philosophy, but as an approach to unlocking your creative potential, it is 1000% accurate. As adults, we get way too bogged down in the idea that we have to judge everything we do. How can you know if it has merit if you can’t somehow quantify it to calculate some sort of cost/benefit analysis. We beat ourselves up for “wasting time” and making lists of what we “should” be doing. And nothing kills creativity faster than trying to force it to happen.
As children, we didn’t draw or dance or bang on a drum because we are “good” at it. We did it because it felt good. Our brains are wired to reward us with these good feelings because we need the activities to grow up, and adaptability (which requires creativity) is the main reason our species has taken over the planet. Quite simply, creativity is part of what makes us human beings. And creative play is what helps us tap into that quality. There are tons of ways to be creative, but here are some suggestions to get you started. (Hint- if you have children in your life, ask them to play with you!)
- Mess around with a musical instrument even if you’ve never tried it before.
- Draw a self-portrait, your pet, or an object that means a lot to you.
- Paint or Color (and don’t worry about staying in the lines).
- Sing – loudly.
- Decorate your driveway or outdoor wall with sidewalk chalk.
- Make homemade “play-do” or slime.
- Try origami or other paper crafts.
- Play with digital software and design.
- Using only objects you can find in your house, build a bridge that spans between items of furniture in your living room.
- Build something. Use materials in your home, blocks, Legos, whatever is at hand.
- Make something out of clay, then smash it.
- Buy a kit to make anything—model, dollhouse, scrapbook, wreath, etc.
- Do dramatic readings of non-dramatic things, such as recipes or children’s books.
Get Serious About Relaxing Your Standards
When I say play, I truly mean play. To see the most benefit, you can’t put any expectations or consequences on your efforts. Avoid setting too many goals for yourself when it comes to mastery. You don’t even have to finish the projects you start as part of this recharging process. This is all just a game to help get your brain back in the right mode for creating.
The More, The Merrier
There are only so many games you can play without a partner or two. I’ll give you some brainstorming prompts and individual games below, but don’t forget to include other people in your recharging process. Board games are also a wonderful way to relax, and many of them also have the benefit of creative play. There are stakes, but they are comparatively low, and the rush of adrenaline from the competition can help you engage with the experience. These are my favorite mass market and group games that help boost my own creativity:
- Apples to Apples, or it’s R-rated cousin, Cards Against Humanity
- Dixit (especially if you want to stretch yourself with abstract thinking)
Go Down the Rabbit Hole
As we age, we tend to lose our curiosity. The world is very big place and there are endless subjects to learn about. Like visiting a museum, opening a book also opens our minds to possibilities. If the word count isn’t flowing, go ahead and dig deep into a subject that fascinates you. Check a book out of the library on an artist you admire. Subscribe to a new magazine. Or even better, sign up for a class and immerse yourself in something that tickles your brain just because. The more time you spend making your brain happy, the harder it will be able to work for you when you need it to.
Please don’t think for a second that I am only referring here to “serious” or “intellectual” pursuits. Video games, trashy reality TV, vintage cars, making the perfect tiramisu—during your recharge period they are all fair game. There are already fantasy worlds ready for you to fall into, mysteries ready to be solved. Immersing yourself in a fandom is a wonderful way to take a break from your work, and soak up the creative energies of others. If you usually write romance, check out some horror films. Is crime drama more your usual jam? Perhaps it’s time you read a Young Adult fantasy.
If you need a break, but don’t want to totally lose your fiction momentum, there is also a middle ground. Authors interested in a series especially can benefit from taking a deep dive into something related to their world. Maybe you are thinking of setting your next installment at a football stadium, but which one? Or perhaps your characters are headed to a planet with only ½ Earth’s gravity, so you could learn more about the physics involved. If you have a character who is a wine connoisseur, then it’s time to become an expert, too. And every character needs a hobby or two, making this a great tool for characterization.
Storm Your Brain
Every time you think of a word, object, or place, pathways in your brain light up. These pathways lead to other things you have learned to associate with that thing, and become more deeply ingrained every time we make that association. For example, let’s say as you read the word cheese in this sentence, synapses fired that connected it to the concepts of “salty,” “dairy,” and “sandwich.” Without changing anything, you will always associate these three words most strongly with the concept of “cheese.”
As someone in a creative field, you are always going to be chasing how to make something feel “fresh.” In other words, you want to make more pathways light up more of the time. “Sandwich” is an okay place to start, but what about “big cheese” or someone who is “cheesed off”? How do you feel about “cheesy” movies? As a Minnesotan, I will always think of our football rivals, the Packers and their fans, the “cheese heads.”
Taking a few minutes to create brainstorming lists is a great way to build and reinforce these creative pathways. They help you build mental agility and improve your ability to think “outside of the box.” These are different than writing prompts, which definitely have their place in a writer’s arsenal. Instead, brainstorming lists of words and phrases does not even require any writing take place. They can be mental or spoken, timed or just questions to mull over in your spare moments. They can be done alone or shared with friends or family around the dinner table. Here are 15 prompts to get you started:
List things that:
- Are your favorite color. Your least favorite color. Any color!
- Fit in the palm of your hand.
- Require electricity to function.
- You do in each of the four seasons in your area. Things that people do in other places.
- Occupations that require hats. Occupations that forbid hats.
- You would do if you never needed to sleep.
- Are better to do sitting down. Are better to do standing up. Are better to do at a run.
- Are circles, squares, rectangles, or any other shape.
- Open and/or close.
- Heroes, villains, and monsters in movies, TV, and literature.
- Words that start with different letters of the alphabet.
- Could be themes for a party or special event like a wedding, prom, etc. What decorations could you make? What food would you serve? (For fun, you could make some of what you imagine!)
- Smell good. Smell bad. Don’t have a smell.
- Weigh about the same as you. Weigh twice as much as you. Weigh half as much as you.
- Good things that come in small packages. Bad things that come in small packages.
Bringing it all Together – Brainstorming Dice
We’ve meandered pretty far away from writing, which means I’ve succeeded. I hope this article has served as a nice little distraction and given you a few ideas about where to go from here. Writing about creativity always gets my creative juices flowing. Which has inspired me to create a little craft project to get you started down your road to recovery. Dust off your colored pencils, markers, or pens and start decorating!
Play with them right away, or wait until you’re ready to seriously get back to writing. Either way, I think you’ll have fun making and using these dice and generating ideas. Even if all you do is color, your brain will get that nice little “buzz,” and that’s the recharge taking effect. Here’s few ways you could use the dice I’m providing:
Idea #1 – Find Your Fun
Stuck for where to start looking for your next distraction? Roll the dice and choose the word that interests you most at the moment. Use it as a keyword in a search on the internet or library catalog.
Idea #2 – Change Something
Make a list of books, movies, and other stories that you know well. The longer the list, the more chances you will have to play. Go down the list and roll at least one of the dice to reveal a descriptor word. Think about how you could reimagine the themes, characters, and plot of the original story to fit that word. If you roll more than one die, repeat the exercise for each word or try to combine them both into your mash-up. Don’t worry about trying to come up with “good” ideas at this point. You may want to record all of your ideas, just the ones that speak to you, or none of them at all.
Idea #3 – Start from Scratch
Roll all three dice and use the combination of descriptors to imagine a new story. Re-roll or remove any dice you feel like discarding.
Idea #4 Design Your Own
Now that I’ve come up with the idea, I can’t seem to stop thinking of other ways to use dice for story building. On my author page, I’ll be posting other sets with other prompts soon, such as archetypes and story types based on Save the Cat! by Black Snyder. Even so, I encourage you to go out and make your own! There are also tons of other sizes and shapes of blank dice patterns out there, and you can apply this mode of brainstorming to any set of related concepts.
If you give them a try or come up with another way they help you be creative, we’d love to hear about it in the comments. Do you have another way to recharge? You could always brainstorm a list!
In Phoebe’s “real life,” she is the Creative Director at a creativity competition for kids called US Academic Triathlon. For the past 16 years, she has been developing activities to foster teamwork and out-of-the-box thinking in Middle School children (primarily in Minnesota). She also has five years of museum program development experience, including designing crafts to inspire a love of science in visitors of all ages.