When You Crash and Burn...
The last year has been intense for me. I haven't published a new book since 2018 and I've felt awful about it. As an author, your success is partially measured by your productivity, unless you're one of the rare birds whose first book becomes the NY TImes Best Seller right away. That's not me. I have a series I need to complete, a new series to start, and another project to finish.
What happened to me is common. I burnt out. Three years, three consecutive books that I didn't plan to write. The first one just kind of happened. I was home due to a newly diagnosed disability and I was bored out of my mind. I found a writing prompt on Reddit, and it took off from there. I never thought anyone would read it, let alone pay to read the words I threw on a page. But to my surprise, people not only bought it, but they liked it. And since I left the story on a cliffhanger, I felt obliged to write a second book. That one took a good three months of messing around with ideas and six months of writing full-time. Then came the promotion.
When you're an indie writer, all the publicity and promo falls on your shoulders. I traveled to conventions to hawk my books and host panels. Don't get me wrong, it's good fun, but it's one of the most exhausting things I've ever done, and I've trained for a marathon. After another cliffhanger and "fans" demanding a third, I buckled down to write the best book I've ever written and by far the best in the series. It was fun. I rediscovered why I love writing.
Then I published it and sent it out into the world. I had some decent sales, but I didn't do the same amount of promo as I did for the first. So I decided to sit down and write book four. The problem is, like with the other three, I had no plan, no plot. Instead of pushing out another book exactly one year after the last, I stared at a blank page. I worked on side projects I know will never be published. I cried.
I burnt out.
I was tired of writing short stories, beta-ing and editing for others, and trying to be creative. Writing seemed like a chore, something I should be doing because everyone in my life now knew me as a writer, someone who produces ridiculously weird fiction about assassins and magic. I needed to move beyond that. I was in a rut.
So I did nothing. I let the ideas marinate, and even when nothing stuck, I threw words on a page. It was the most painful period of my writing career. I thought I wasn't cut out for this work. I wasn't good enough. My stories were laughable, and not in a good way. My writing sucked.
Intellectually, I knew none of that was true. I have a "fan" base of people who love my work and constantly bug me for the next story in the series. There are people who want me to write spin-offs of their favorite characters. Some want entirely new worlds. That's a lot of pressure, and with the lack of inspiration and frustration with the process, I spiraled into the writer's depression. You know what I'm talking about. You've seen the cutesy comics of a writer with a blanket over her head staring at a blank screen. That was me.
I'm not going to tell you a magical solution to get out of the burnout. I know what worked for me, and that was to let it go for a while. I had to come up with other things in my life - remember, I'm disabled and sometimes immobile - to occupy my time. I tried to learn the coding language Python. I read fiction and non-fiction, all outside my genre. I joined a book club, a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and I started spending time with IRL friends. I had to remove myself from the pressures I put on myself.
My last book was published in March 2018. My next is a collaboration with a friend - the thing that reignited my love of writing - is due out in December from an actual publishing house. And that book 4 I've been talking about for well over a year - well, I finally have a plot that I love. My goal is to have that out by April 2020. It's a long pause in the series than I wanted, but it's the break I needed to bring the series to life. I have another idea poking around in my head, but it's not ready to hatch yet. If it takes me another year, I won't bellyache. I needed this burnout to evaluate whether I loved writing enough to work through the hard times and whether I wanted this as a career. I do, and I do.
But I'm willing to take my time to give the best that I can. My most recent idea for a plot came on a four-hour drive to see a heavy metal band. Writing was the last thing on my mind. That's when my characters reappeared and begged to be released on paper again.
So. Take a deep breath, walk away, and realize that writing is hard. It can be painful. There are times when you can work through the pain and produce something worth reading. If you're like me, sometimes you need to write garbage for a year until you have confidence in your ideas and skills.
If you're lucky, you'll never experience burnout. If you do, welcome to the club.