Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Keeping Burnout At Bay

Every so often I'll read a blog or hear about a "new" (as in previously unpublished author) who's made a rash of sales for books not yet written. They sound excited, and who wouldn't be? After being unpublished, submitting and collecting probably a few rejections, this is confirmation that they weren't wasting their time. It's also true that for a self-employed writer, the more you write, the more you earn. And there's always pressure to build a backlist, and develop name recognition.

Yet although I understand why new authors accept the contracts, I always have a moment where I think, "That way lies burn-out." I've been there, or perilously close to, and believe you me, it was devastating.

I wonder if these new authors realize that you have more to do than simply write the books, which is not so simple and plenty of work right there. There are the various stages of revising and editing and proofreading after you finish a book, and proposals and consultations on titles and art before you start the next one. So you'll be working away on Book II, to be interrupted by more work on Book I and then a question about Book III. There can be some mighty fancy footwork keeping to all the deadlines, especially if you're writing for more than one house. House A isn't necessarily going to care what you've got to do for House B. You signed the contract; you've got the obligations. And we won't even discuss publicizing each book.

Life also has a habit of ruining plans. In my busiest year, my mother got seriously ill. Fortunately, after some tense times, she recovered completely. But clearly, I hadn't planned for that, and if she'd passed away? I would have been completely useless for awhile, regardless of contracts.

That said, I do think that not everybody who has a lot on their plate is doomed to burn out. Exhibit A - Nora Roberts. However, I think there are some things that make it easier to avoid burnout.

First and foremost is positive feedback. If you're getting lots of in-house support, great reviews and winning awards, it's a lot easier to buckle down and work twelve hour days, if that's what's required at some points. If you're not? It's very, very difficult to justify that hard work and time. You feel like a hamster on a wheel, running and running and getting nowhere.

Family support is also crucial. If somebody in the family doesn't "get it," you've got trouble. Fortunately, most of my family members do. The ones that didn't? The less said about that, perhaps, the better.

You have to be really, really self-disciplined, and that doesn't just mean able to work every day. You have to be willing to sacrifice time from other things, including rest and relaxation. I made the mistake of thinking that since my kids were getting older, I could do more, not realizing that I really need downtime. I can't keep going at top speed without the imagination engine running out of fuel.

I also thinks it makes a difference where you are in your career. I suspect that in some ways, it's easier to start off at a faster pace because of all those ideas you've had simmering for a long time. Finally you get to write them and because you're now getting paid, nobody can say you're wasting your time (except for those who thinking writing genre fiction is itself a waste of time).

Which new writers will be like a falling star, bright and vivid for a little while, then burn out? Which ones will not just survive, but thrive?

Like so much in the writing life, it depends on the writer, her priorities, her needs, the market and a host of other circumstances that nobody can foresee or control. And sometimes, it takes nearly burning out to realize that not everybody can, or should, produce several books a year.


Franny said...

In August I went to NYC where I saw JK Rowling, Stephen King and John Irving read/speak. (OMG it was awesome!) Something that Stephen King said really resounded with me. He said that the VERY LAST thing he was was a writer. He was first a father, a son, a husband, a man of his age, a baseball coach, etc, and lastly, he was a writer. His point was that you have to live in this life before you can have anything interesting to say about it.

Thanks so much for your input on the writing world and your really awesome guidance for writers - I often have trouble with censoring myself when I write! (I have been catching up on your all posts today b/c I've been away too long...)

PS- That was a lovely gift for your hubby! It will be appreciated I'm sure.

CherylStJ said...

Well said, Margaret.

Writing is what I do, not who I am.