If you want to write commercial fiction, modern publishing schedules require you to be prolific — writing a book a year at the very least. Many publishers want books in an ongoing series every six months. Every four months isn’t unheard of. Most genre authors I know are so grateful for the ability to make a living (or near to it) writing fiction, they throw themselves into these schedules, working as hard as they can to be able to keep on making a living. You don’t say no, you write as much as you can, you network and self-promote like a demon. You’re constantly hustling for the next contract, the next gig.
Which leads me, inevitably, to a discussion about burnout.
2009 – 2011 were busy, traumatic, amazing, awesome years for me. My series established itself as consistently bestselling, I branched out into YA and stand-alone novels, my short stories appeared in prestigious markets and got a ton of recognition. I switched publishers, traveled extensively, went on my first real book tour, and wrote a Kitty book every six months. And the whole time, I could feel myself burning out. When I blew out my voice out last summer, that clinched it: I couldn’t keep up this pace and stay healthy and/or sane.
It takes awhile to get into a burn-out situation — if I say yes to every anthology invitation or writing opportunity I get right now, I’m not going to feel the crunch until six to twelve months later, when all those stories come due. Signing three book contracts in a year seems great, until two years later when you have a rough draft, a revision, a set of copyedits, and a set of galleys for four different books on your desk at the same time. All due the week you’re supposed to fly off to a major national convention. (This has happened.) I actually set myself up for burnout around 2007-2008. Kitty hit the NYT list for the first time in 2008, and that opened a lot of doors — and I walked through almost every one of them, because I couldn’t bear to pass up those opportunities. If I had to do it over, I wouldn’t do things any differently, but I did learn a lot about how much work I can actually take on.
A burnout situation doesn’t happen overnight, and by the same token it takes awhile to get out of it. I feel like I’m just now reaping the benefits of my plans to keep myself from burning out, which I started putting into place over two years ago. 2009 was around the time I added “learn to say no” to my annual goal list. Last year, when I negotiated the contract for new Kitty books, I asked for spacing the deadlines out every ten months instead of every six months. Happily, the publisher didn’t argue.
The payoff: I think it’s working. I gave myself two months off in December and January — which I could do because I have an extra four months to write the next Kitty book. I didn’t write much of anything — revised some short stories, put together a new novel proposal, messed around with some ideas. I went on a vacation that didn’t involve books or conventions or anything, and the trip seems to have actually de-stressed and recharged me. Looking at my list of commitments does not (at the moment) freak me out. At the end of my “break” about a month ago, I started the next Kitty novel — and I’m already about 30% finished with the rough draft. I also revised a novelette for a collaborative project during that time. And I feel good! (knock on wood…) This is way up from my usual pace of production, and with much less gnashing of teeth than I’ve felt at this stage over the last few years. I’m torn between thinking A) something must be horribly wrong with the book, or B) maybe I really did manage to hit the reset button and get myself out of that burnout situation. My friends have noticed a difference in my mood and general amiability — and they’ve informed me I’m not allowed to work on four books at a time anymore. Word.
I’m taking notes and paying attention to what I’m doing so I can keep this up and have a strategy in place for if I start burning out again. I’m not taking “learn to say no” off my goal list anytime soon. I’ve learned that writing a book every 8-10 months rather than every 6 months is a much more sustainable pace for me. We’ll see how this goes over the next year or so, and if I’m feeling as good at the end of the year as I do now. Tweaking and adjustments to my schedule will be ongoing, I think.
If I had to offer advice on the subject, I’d say this: like so much else in this business, listen to your gut. If something feels wrong, figure out what you need to do to make it right. Making it in this business is tough and requires a huge amount of constant effort. But if you burn yourself out, especially to the point of making yourself unhealthy, you’re not doing your career any favors.