This post isn’t about writer’s block. No. It’s about the fact that if you’ve been writing fiction long enough, it’s a given that you’re going to experience some form of burnout sooner or later. This looks different for everyone. Generally speaking, a writer who is first starting out will more than likely have energy and passion for his or her projects: ideas will flow, characters will crop up and come to life, plots will present exciting scenarios, and so on.
Over time, this energy can go away–some people don’t have an issue with this all the time, but at some point, most do. You find yourself having to work harder to keep those fires burning. You’ll have to fight to keep up your momentum. At times, everything will work, and other times nothing will work–everything will feel wrong and you may become so overwhelmed that you don’t know where to begin to fix things.
All writers also figure out at some point that the publishing business is just that–a business. It is harsh, unforgiving and cruel. It never claims to be fair, and it seldom is. In the past several years I have read countless stories of authors who did everything “right” or followed “the rules” to success: they got the MFA or workshop certification, they got the big literary agent, they got the attention of New York editors at large publishers, and they felt that the hard part was now over and that they could ease up on their forward momentum…
…only to have everything come crashing down when: a) their publisher pulled the titles and didn’t publish them, b) they published the first two books in a series and the publisher dropped them due to poor sales, and in some cases, c) they got dumped not only by their literary agent but also their spouse, as one author detailed in a blog post a few years ago. Writing is not for the faint of heart.
So much about this business breaks people down–and in some cases, just plain breaks them. The pressure, the deadlines, the expectations, the networking, the events, the hours of work, the revisions. All of it. And that’s not counting family obligations, health issues and career woes. If this hasn’t happened to you yet, give it time. It might mean you haven’t been doing this long enough.
You will question your sanity and ask yourself:
- After years of hard work and sacrifices, why do I have so little to show for my craft?
- Will I ever get published? Like, ever?
- Why do I torture myself for something that is so frustrating?
- Shouldn’t I have already made it by x age or x point in time?
- Will I ever make it?
- If I love this craft so much, why doesn’t it love me back?
Maybe you just heard back with a rejection from an agent who made it seem like you had a deal only to reject you. Maybe you just heard back after six months or a year or two years after you pitched to an editor or agent at an event and they said no.
Maybe you submitted a short story to an editor who told you “no” at first but said if you rewrote it and sent it in again, they might re-consider and then it turned into another “no”, yet again.
Some writers are burned out from the business side of publishing and need to take a break from submitting for a while. My advice would be not to wait too long otherwise you might never submit again.
Other writers are burned out from the craft side of things. If you find yourself not caring about any of your characters–whether in novels, short stories or screenplays–pay attention, because that’s a warning. The same goes if you don’t care about any of your plots or story ideas. If you find it difficult to care about anything, that is a far more serious matter. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it from your friends, family or indeed a professional.
And some writers are burned out from both. This business tends to wear writers down quickly, and it’s difficult to know what your next steps should be. We all need a break and sometimes writers go through phases where they’re forging ahead at warp speed and they need to slow down and go into re-evaluation mode. Here are some solutions:
- Don’t look at anything writing-related for a week. This might also mean a sabbatical from social media or email or just a reduced volume of Internet time. Don’t worry about rewrites or pressure or what to do next. Give yourself time to decompress. Take stock of what your goals are and re-evaluate how you’re going to get there. Show yourself kindness and compassion.
- The urge to beat yourself up may be powerful right now, but do your best not to wallow in it or dwell too much or you might not find your way back to the surface.
- Do activities you enjoy. For you, that might look like walking or hiking outdoors, painting, drawing, crafting, knitting, baking, cooking, or maybe even going to the spa with a friend. When’s the last time you went to the movies? Maybe a visit to a museum or art gallery will be fun. Indulge a little bit in some guilt-free “me” time.
- Do talk to someone. Right now, you’re very vulnerable to the nasty Inner Critic that’s barking in your head and telling you you’re not good enough. Talk to friends, peers or family about what you’re going through and don’t bottle it in. Don’t ignore your frustration and hope that it’ll go away. You’ll need supportive people who build you up to help you on your journey.
- Most people listen to and believe that chirping Critic, but you need to find ways to shut it up. That might mean meditation, positive affirmations, replacing negative thoughts with good alternatives, or other techniques.
Also, re-visit your definition of success. Many writers I know are dead-set on going the agent → big publisher route while ignoring mid-sized to small presses, self-publishing options or submission calls for unagented manuscripts that the big publishers do from time to time.
Remember that you have many different avenues to get to where you want to be and the first route doesn’t always yield success. In fact, you may be limiting your publication opportunities by trying to get to the top of the mountain straight away.
Whatever you do, don’t believe the nonsense that your Inner Critic is spewing at you right now as it’s dragging you down. It’s tempting to believe the lies spinning around in your head, but learn to recognize the Inner Critic’s voice and separate it from your own.
“Don’t give up” might seem like trite advice, but just remember: the writers who made it succeeded not because they never gave up–they gave up plenty of times, in my opinion, and we just never knew about it. They succeeded because they picked themselves up again and kept pushing after they were done with giving up.