February 27th, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
My Quest to Avoid Burning Out

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.

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8 comments to “My Quest to Avoid Burning Out”

  1. Diana Peterfreund
     · February 27th, 2012 at 1:07 pm · Link

    I find I’m having the opposite problem. In 2010, I took a huge step back to deal with my pregnancy and other personal matters. Now it’s 2012 and I’d like to be involved again, but I’m finding it very difficult to get back in the game.

  2. Sasha White
     · February 27th, 2012 at 2:00 pm · Link

    I’m the same as Diana, I did the mad rush and wrote 9 novel and multiple novellas and short stories from 2005-2008, then I took a year to write one more novel which brings me to 2010. Then i took a “break” the break was supposed to be from contracted work. I want dot work on stuff just for me, but I needed up getting more into everything but writing. (photography and back to bar tending) SInce 2010 I’ve written 3 short stories, and I keep trying to get back into the novels, but I just can’t seem to do it, even though I know I owe publishers option material, and readers want more.

    I think you were very smart to build the break in when you had deadline. Deadlines always force me to get over my own inner thoughts and use write. I wish I’d done it the way you did.

  3. Carrie V.
     · February 27th, 2012 at 2:28 pm · Link

    It’s so difficult to strike a balance. And then life happens and sometimes doesn’t give us a choice…

    My intent was not so much to give myself an all-out break, but to slow down. Find better ways of charging the batteries. And I think part of the issue is timing — everything in writing and publishing takes time, and effort now sometimes translates into results years down the road. The spin-up takes a little bit of time to develop momentum. Does that make sense?

    Another writer friend of mine is dealing with some of these issues as well, and may be of interest:

  4. Thomas
     · February 27th, 2012 at 5:49 pm · Link

    Thanks for giving us a little insight into your writing process and the issues with writing, Carrie. I think it’s good that you’ve taken a step back and slowed down, even though I did like the year you had four books out at once. I’d rather you stay happy, healthy, and still interested in writing than pushing yourself to do more books than you are physically able to do. It also allows me to look forward to many more excellent stories from you for years to come too.

    On a more personal note I appreciate the insight on how you’re dealing with your burn out situation because I have found myself in one recently even though I didn’t entirely realize what it was until I was reading your post. I’ve been trying to figure out what the problem was and how to fix it and I’m sure I’ll still be working on how to fix it for a while to come.

    Hears to many happy years of writing for you!



  5. Diana Peterfreund
     · February 27th, 2012 at 6:43 pm · Link

    I’m really talking more about the industry. I wrote very little in 2010, but I wrote a ton in 2011 (for me), and 2012 is shaping up the same way. However, I have stepped back completely from the industry and I’m not sure how to re-enter. The invitations to festivals and cons and retreats are much fewer and far between than they were before I went a year without a release.

  6. Roni Loren
     · February 27th, 2012 at 9:08 pm · Link

    Thanks for this. I’m a newbie, my debut just came out in January, but I’ve sold 4 books in the series (yay for that) and am on the novel every 6 months deadline. I’m finding it difficult to maintain that pace. I’m not a fast writer by nature and this schedule sets it up where I don’t have a lot of breaks or downtime. It’s led to creative blocks for me and stress because of that looming deadline. Your 9-10 month between books schedule sounds much more sane, lol.

  7. Carrie V.
     · February 28th, 2012 at 10:58 am · Link

    I think the book every 6 month schedule looks very doable when we first get that contract and we’re excited and full of energy. It’s only on the other end that we realize our brains are fried and our friends have stopped calling us and we’ve either lost too much or gained too much weight, etc. etc.

  8. Burnout Symptom Questions
     · March 23rd, 2012 at 10:16 pm · Link

    Ola! Genreality,
    Thanks for that, Parents need to be aware of the repercussions associated with living their lives or striving for their goals through their children. In most cases children perform better and stay in their chosen sport longer if coached by a third party not a parent.
    I look forward to your next post


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