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…”
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.