Dawn Montgomery

Burn Out and Recovery for #ROW80 2014, First Quarter by Dawn Montgomery

Fifteen months, two weeks, and three days.

That was my longest consecutive burnout period. Creatively and with my everyday work load (I was in the military. Lots of deployment, work pressure, highly technical and competitive field, battle stress, and writing pressure on top of it all). During that time, I started many things and finished nothing. I floundered in confidence and my publishers increased pressure (I had no firm deadlines, but I had a solid readership).

Emails came in from readers asking if I would work on a series or create a follow-up to this or that couple. My family didn’t get it. Writing income slumped and it wasn’t like I wasn’t working. I was crying at the computer. Hands on the keyboard. Typing all the mess they tell you to in order to “get the muse working”. Nothing helped. Why couldn’t I speed write like mad and “get over” this slump?

On top of this stress came the nightmares I suffer with when I’m not writing (I’m one of those kinds of people who have to exhaust my mind daily to keep nightmares at a minimum). So my sleep suffered as well. I was convinced this was the wrong field. I needed to quit and walk away.

Then I came across two posts that changed my life. Morgan Hawke talks about burnout and how it relates to success. She focuses on tedium as the number one factor. The other was by comedic writer Gene Perrett (Emmy winning writer of the Bob Hope and Carol Burnett shows). Gene talks about the need to get away from writing in order to rebuild your mind. Read them if you get a chance. I’ll highlight where they helped me if you hang with me a little longer.

As writers we spend a massive amount of time in our own heads. We get into routine, expect to knock out x number of words per writing session, per day. When it doesn’t happen, we get upset with ourselves and keep at it past our normal days, working harder, dragging out word after word. If any.

Each day gets harder and harder, crawling up behind you. You’ve got promotional stuff, deadlines, emails, social media interaction, blog posts, instant messages, work phone calls. All of this is on top of real life.

Then you reach a point in your book where you wonder who these characters are and what they’re doing. Why should you care about what happens to them? You might grind out another chapter (or finish the book), but it’s not your best, and it eats at you.

But you don’t have time to think on it, because the next book is due. Now. Yesterday. Tomorrow. So it’s butt in chair, hands on keyboard for the next book. You might have been excited about the book at the beginning, but the words aren’t coming like you’d hoped.

Stress starts building. You’re not producing the words at the level/speed you’re used to so other things are falling behind.

You run timed writing sessions every day, trying to get the words down, but they are getting harder and harder to drag free? Why?

Boredom/apathy to your characters and the book you’re writing. I read both articles at different times in my writing career, but at the 15 month mark, it all came together in my mind.

Somewhere along the way I stopped emotionally investing in the story/characters and shifted my focus to the numbers every day. I wasn’t giving myself time to unwind from the last emotional upheaval of a book before diving into the next one.

I took a week off away from the computer and writing. In that time I read, watched tv, hung out with my family, and just relaxed. I gave myself permission to not worry about writing. Then, I started playing with characters in my mind. I didn’t think about what book would sell over another or which story would be more likely accepted by my editor. Instead, I went through idea after idea until I found two characters whose story interested me enough to get to know them. And I wrote it.

I also finished it. And took time off after that. I then tapped my mind for the next two (or more) characters who captured my interest. For years I did great, but it’s easy to fall back into old habits.

January and February I hit two burnouts. Each lasted a little over a week. Both were highly stressful and devastating to my ego. We’re into March now and I’m still shaken.

Not because I burned out, but because I saw the signs and ignored them.

November and December were record-breaking in word count numbers. I wanted to top the previous month with even bigger word counts. I ignored my previous schedule. Mondays were admin days. Write from Tuesday to Saturday. Off, completely, on Sunday (I’d schedule my ROW80 post on Saturday). No, according to my new obsession, I needed those days to write more.

I forgot how important it was to enjoy the characters, to invest in their lives. It became a numbers game. I finished a novel in January and immediately jumped into publisher’s edits for a novel that would release at the end of that month. From there, I jumped right back into a new novella.

And then I spent two weeks writing nothing while staring at my computer screen. Hands on the keyboard. Internet shut off. Nothing to distract me. But nothing came.

I took a few days off and dove into paperwork, updated my blog, and tried to touch base with people so I felt like I’d accomplished something.  What I didn’t do, however, was talk to the characters and figure out why their story was so important.

February I forced it. The book was due, I didn’t have a choice. I cried, ranted, ground my teeth together, and suffered, but I pulled 20k in two days. It wasn’t the best rough draft, but I’d done it.

My critique partners slaughtered the book and one of them (who has been with me since the beginning) told me it looked like burnout. “Not as bad as that one time, but…”

Lightbulb moment.

How had I missed the signs?

1. Ambivalence toward the characters (including a lack of backstory)

2. Obsessive focus on the numbers

3. Exhaustion the moment I THINK about writing.

4. Prone to tears of frustration when I write (I hardly ever cry…EVER). This one, btw, is usually the only warning I get before I go into dark writing depression.

5. No memory of what I’d written the day before or why.

The moment I realized where I was headed, I backed off writing and took some creative downtime. I relaxed with the family, read, painted, and didn’t open my writing programs once. If I had writing ideas, I jotted them down and then went back to what I was doing.

One week into it, I could start blogging again.

One and a half weeks, and I could write this post.

At two weeks I saw the first need to write. The first sparks of interest in two characters and their journey. When I thought about writing, it filled me with nervous excitement. This kind of joy is something I’d been missing for a while. I wrote the first chapter with a light heart and a huge amount of relief. I was afraid I’d lost my writing ability, but it looks like it was just tired of being worked to death.

Be kind to yourself. Burnout is a very real thing, and recovery can take a very long time if you don’t catch the signs early.

~*~

Dawn Montgomery

A Helping Hand by Dawn Montgomery

“Help me” and “I don’t understand” are two of the hardest phrases to say when you feel really passionate about your book and writing career. We have this strange idea that saying these words to other writers will diminish how they see us.

“I’m discouraged” and “I don’t think I can do this” are two others that drag you into the depths of isolation. You shut yourself down and wonder why you decided to do it in the first place.

I wish I understood why we feel the need to shut ourselves away from others, but everyone does it.

Everyone. Does. It.

I’ve been writing for almost a decade now and I can’t tell you how many times I struggled and stared at my computer screen with despair. That inner editor whispered so many times how much of a failure I was. A fraud. Faking my way through the first couple (six, ten, twenty-five) books would now catch up to me.

Here’s the deal.

That terrible voice in your mind is keeping you from doing something really important, something so necessary to your creative process that it cripples you. It keeps you from reaching out to the only people who understand…who actually GET it.

Writing is hard work. Staying confident while you do it is even harder. When you reach a part in your book where you’re second-guessing everything you write, it’s time to step back and think outside the box.

If an architect is concerned about structural material quality, doesn’t he/she consult with others? When doctors are unsure about a medical condition, don’t they consult one another or hit the books? As an elementary school student, didn’t you raise your hand to ask for assistance when you weren’t sure if you heading in the right direction on your work?

All other professionals do it. Chefs, athletes (or do you think they compete without coaching or training?), military members, CEOs, teachers, etc. So why don’t we?

Why is it, as authors, do we think it’s shameful to tell each other that we’re stuck?

A Round of Words in 80 Days is a fantastic community because you’re surrounded by other people who “get it”. If you’re struggling with a scene, why don’t you post a little bit about it and ask your fellow ROWers to help? Put out a call for some beta readers or a quick critique on plot?

That’s why we’re here…to help each other. If you’re concerned that your readers will lose confidence in you, there is the ROW80 Facebook group and many of your fellow writers have contact information on their websites.

You may get some bad apples when you go searching, but, in the end, you could end up with a tight group of critique partners who can help you see the forest for the trees. There may be your perfect match out there, the one person who “gets” the way you write and your process. They might be able to point out your reason for struggling in the second scene of chapter two was because you made your hero do something out of character or that the fight scene you’re struggling with can be solved if you two talk it out step by step (or act it out step by step, if you’re close enough to work on it that way).

Keep three things in mind when you do this.

  1. Staying positive will take you and your critique partners so much farther since it’s less draining on your emotional health
  2. All opinions are that…opinions. Take from it what will help and discard the rest. Truly. It should never hurt yours or their feelings if you pick and choose where to place their advice.
  3. Admitting that you’re stuck has nothing to do with your abilities as a writer. It means you’ve managed to write yourself into a corner and aren’t sure what to do next. The book before might have flowed like a waterfall and the one after may be a dream, but this book…right now…is what you need to work on. You’re not a failure. You’re human.

I hope this helps you feel a bit more confident about asking for help and admitting that while the story is all in your head, sometimes you need someone to hold the lantern while you stroll through the maze.

Good luck this quarter, ROWers. If anyone can do it, you can.

~*~

Dawn Montgomery

The Long Stretch

I have three boys, two tomboys, and have been raised in a family of Texas (American) football fanatics, so let me throw this one at you in sports terms.

It’s fourth and goal, 10 seconds on the clock, and twenty yards to the end zone. A field goal would tie the game and knock it into overtime while a touchdown would end it right there…so what do you do? Both are respectable choices and come with their own risks. You can take the field goal and run the risk of losing the advantage in overtime OR you can go for the touchdown and run the risk of the game ending with your team 3 points short if you fail to bring it home.

Writing is no different.

When I’m reaching the end of a writing challenge I feel this panic in my chest and gut like I’m racing against the clock…and losing. I haven’t met my goals, I didn’t complete my book, I didn’t create the world or edit the pages I’d said I would. I’m a failure…

Any of this sound familiar?

The field goal is what you can safely finish by the end of this challenge. You have a *few weeks* left. You can’t look at the game (the writing challenge) with how many points (words, pages, etc) you’d MEANT to complete. You have to take a good hard look at what you can accomplish. By now you’ve seen all the possible things that could wipe out your motivation, time, etc. So you have a better handle on what you can get done. So now, make a goal, based on your previous weeks’ tallies. Check your average and set that up as your new goal. Then, when the challenge ends, you’ve got some time to finish your current work in progress by going into a little overtime.

But what about those who will accept nothing less than a win?? I want that touchdown! What about you guys? If it’s in your heart to do it, go for it! You’ve got a *few weeks* left so get it done and take that hard break between challenges. When the next round starts, however, you’ve got to consider taking all the work you’ve finished and polishing it, getting it ready for submission, etc. That kind of drive is fantastic, but remember, we’re developing our writing skill as well. Get the words on the page, get your work done, but schedule time for editing.

So what do we do when the challenge is over? When we’re in the off season, so to speak.

I, for one, will be breathing a great sigh of relief for another challenge under my belt. Just like athletes in the off season, however, we have to prepare for the next one. Does that mean read a ton of books on writing, lose myself in all the recent political intrigue involving my chosen genre, etc.?

No.

Staring at my playbook on plotting and character description is not going to make me a better writer after such a tough challenge. What I will do in my off season is pick up a book in my favorite genre and/or an author I love to read and just enjoy. Remind myself why I do what I do. I love books, how they send me to far off places with amazing adventures. How the hero and heroine in a romance find that key moment where they each realize they’ve fallen in love. I will give myself permission to enjoy it and not feel pressured by deadlines or looming challenges. Give my mind a break.

I’ve seen so many different challenges in this round from writing poetry, creating a new novel, novella, or short story to editing, creating a new world, or completing research papers. I hope you’ve met your goals, but if not, I’m still proud of how hard every one of you have worked to get this far.

Keep writing!

~*~

Dawn Montgomery