On the Business of Writing, Creativity, and Burnout

After today’s kettle bell workout, I lay on the floor for awhile just staring at the fan and the whirling wooden dragon I have hanging from it. Not because I was all that physically tired, just because I didn’t feel like thinking or doing anything else for awhile. I tried, in vain, to let my mind wander to a big day job project in the hopes that I would be magically inspired with a fantastic creative idea that I could bag up and get to my creative director on Monday.

Alas, no luck. Spinning dragons turned out to have no creative tie to the project that my weary head could make at that particular moment.


The first thing to get sidelined in September when I started piling up work for myself was regular workouts. This is not so surprising when you realize that I have to put in about 90-120 minutes a day to push down my weight. It’s about 60 min a day to maintain.  And 30 min a day to not be crazy with anxiety. Generally, I have to do 30 min a day to stay sane, but what I realized when I started piling up work is that I was burning off adrenaline pretty efficiently by focusing hard on deadlines. By using it all up to push out more work, I didn’t have to invest it in working out. So I started fueling my life with extra coffee and more adrenaline.

There are a few reasons I took on all this work – the extra freelancing, the teaching, on top of the day job. Mostly, I was burned out and disillusioned with writing novels. Finishing RAPTURE on deadline back in May just about broke me. I was writing twelve or fourteen hours a day at the end, and before that doing 3k to 5k and even 7k a day from January to April on top of the day job. That last 30 days before I turned it in, I didn’t even know if what I’d written was any good. I handed it off to my partner and first readers and begged them to be blisteringly honest. I had lost all perspective on the book. I was working blind, flailing to tie up character arcs and ensure things made sense, working to end chapters on cliff hangers and broaden the world and give away enough but not too much. I was so focused there at the end that I could see the whole book mapped out, I could see what extra chapters I needed, and so I wrote them, but I didn’t know if it was “good.” Or “made sense.”

Even when the first readers came back saying, overwhelmingly, that it was the best of the three books, I still couldn’t see it for myself. This was actually really horrifying. I had to trust them. I got very little editing from the folks at my publisher, which meant I had to ensure going in that it was the best it could be before passing it off. Once it hit my publisher, it was down the rabbit hole, pushing hard for the publication deadline without much attention to structure or quality. Whatever I turned in was about 98% to what eventually got published.

It’s not widely known that I actually held the draft of RAPTURE for 30 days waiting on outstanding payments from my publisher. I chose to hold it hostage because, you know, I was owed money, and it was my last bit of leverage. So it sat for 30 days and then got rushed through the process, as the other books were. Today, once again, payments are late – by about three months – but I’ve got no leverage.  So I sit here on my ass waiting to get payments contractually owed.

I mention this here because it’s a big reason of why I’ve gotten so disillusioned with publishing these last couple of years. It’s why the book I expect to be shopping at the end of last year never got finished. You expect when you sign on with a publisher that at the very least you’ll get paid, and if you’re lucky, get a lot of editing and marketing support. I didn’t get a lot of that. It was mostly just me flailing around, begging first readers to tell me what the hell I’d just written, and hoping me and the copyeditor could ensure that something passable got out at the end. I started insisting on doing a “final pass” to check edits so that fewer typos got out after cringing my way through the typos in GW. Doing that ensured much cleaner drafts, but I only had 24-48 hours or so to do those passes for INFIDEL and RAPTURE.

It’s frustrating to not get out the best possible book. It’s really frustrating. But that’s the business, or at least the one I experienced.

I love writing. I love making up worlds. I have wild characters. They are awesome. But there’s no greater killjoy in this business than…the actual business.

I hated publishing so much by July, when the final draft of RAPTURE was approved and went to printing, that I couldn’t bare to open a fucking manuscript. Oh, sure, I worked on things. I workshopped my fantasy novel at Wellspring, and put together a proposal for LEGION, and started rewriting the fantasy novel in earnest in November. But then I started piling on other work. I started saying yes to freelancing projects. I agreed to teach a class I initially thought would eat 8-10 hours a week that turned out to eat 20-30 hrs – prime novel writing time.

I wanted to fill up my life with actual unhappy paying work so that novel writing became my pleasure work again, my escapist work, instead of some bloody angry thing I did that was basically like writing for free since the checks never came on time and I got so little bloody support with what I was doing. It was hard to hear from people that GW “should be doing better” when I had so little publisher support and just recently got improved distribution. Yes, I look forward to seeing how GW does overseas with a publisher with real financial backing and a real distribution network and hey, marketing! But I was so sick of the book and the bullshit of this business by July that I didn’t want another fucking thing to do with it. I wanted to spend time making real money doing writing that actually fucking paid me for what I was doing.

I wanted to divorce my fiction writing from the expectation of payment. I didn’t want to work under contract, since “contract” meant exactly bullshit.

I remember, back before I published a book, hearing rants from “bitter midlisters” and you know, it was like, why are you so angry? Your book is published! Isn’t that great!? But then you start hearing the stories. You start seeing what happened to some great books that were left to die. Really, really great books. And though that certainly hasn’t happened to my books because some great folks have found them and loved them and continue to share them and talk about them (BLESS YOU ALL), I did get really disillusioned and angry really fast, and I knew that if I didn’t take a break and figure out what the fuck I was doing in this business in the first place, I was indeed going to become some bitter midlister, anxious for any contract from anyone, upset and lacking in confidence about my work.

So I spent my time doing other stuff. I blog about taxes and send out press release templates and teach a copywriting class to students who, as most of us in college recall, would rather be doing something – ANYTHING – else. Much as I felt about writing fiction for that latter half of last year.

It’s only been the last couple of months, when I’m so drowned and exhausted with freelancing and day job work that I quite literally nearly burst into tears at work yesterday when the scope of a project was changed from “refresh” to “creative reposition” that fiction became my happy escape again. It was no longer the thing that caused me so much anger and pain and frustration, but the place I went to escape heavy churn work and exhaustion. Last week I was pushing out 5-6 creative projects a day. That’s totally different projects for different customer segments selling different things, in addition to freelance blogging in the early a.m. and late at night and class prep and grading.

Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_ImageMy stolen moments – waiting at the Urgent Care with my partner, or an hour before bed when I didn’t have freelancing work to do – were spent doing a deep dive into a fantasy world where people called on asendant satellites to do specific types of magic – to unmake flesh or control plant life or rip open portals. And I got to recreate a whole culture as this polyamorous matriarchy, this people who a thousand years before ruled the world and now only existed in a narrow sliver of the world as just a few tens of thousands of folks, and now the world is changing again, and we’re headed toward massive war and genocide and armies bearing carnivorous plants and folks gaining powers through cannibalism, and it’s like a fucking vacation again, instead of this long slog of work I’m doing that I’ll do so somebody else makes money and I kick around angry about late checks and bullshit rush job deadlines. While not under deadline, I own these worlds again, and these people, and I have total freedom and control. It reminded me of why I love writing fiction so much.

And I found myself working to be better at it. I gnawed over a proposal and worked on an outline and suddenly realized while live-tweeting something about anger and violence and bullying what the character arc I was going for with one of my main protags really was. It was a lovely moment, a moment I owned. I had missed those moments.

I understand why people self-pub. I understand the allure of controlling the process. But I also know that just because things have been shit once doesn’t mean they’re shit everywhere. I know that letting somebody else steal your love and joy of a thing through sheer incompetence means the world wins, and you get broken on the rocks, and your voice dies, and you go silent. And that’s some seriously fucked up catshit right there.

I needed the time off from my fiction. I needed to lose myself in massive amounts of other work. I needed to figure out, again, why I was writing fiction. No, it’s not for the money. The money is shit, and doesn’t come on time, for me. But I do need to learn how to own what I do. And be smarter about it. Because when I realize the sort of power I have, and I have the confidence in what I’m doing, I enjoy it a whole lot more.

I am glad to be writing substantial fiction again, yes, and I’ll be even happier in two weeks when the worst of the deadlines are over and I will once again have those 30 hours a week back to do fiction, and on March 1st get back another 4+ hours for a total of 35 or so hours a week to dedicate once again to it. But I know now why I avoided it. I know why I pushed it away and cut everything down and burned it all up. Because I was so angry that I forgot why the fuck I was doing it in the first place. I wasn’t just angry at others, but I wasn angry at myself for not being smarter about it. For not making better decisions and demanding what was mine.

I don’t intend to make the same mistakes again, it’s true. But I also don’t want to lose my way again. I don’t rely on book money to make a living, and as angry as it may make me to not get what I’m owed when it’s owed, it’s no excuse to hate on my work. It’s not the work’s fault. It’s the business. And there is a huge difference between the work and the business, one that sometimes gets all muddled up when you’re angry and frustrated.

I took on too much work in September. I’m on hard churn and burn right now. I regret, right now, taking it on, but I suspect that in two weeks when the dust clears and it’s all over and I take a harder look at these writing projects, I’ll be glad I did it. It helped burn away the bullshit. It forced me to focus on what’s important.

It’s not the reviews, or the late book checks, or the scramble to get something to print, or the arguments and back-and-forth about covers, or the mispronounced words in the fucking goddamn audio books or the fucking complaints about typos because of the rush. It’s about the work. It’s about building worlds. It’s the sheer joy and delight and huge rush I get from creating something that wasn’t there before. It’s writing the books I want to read, because nobody but me can write them.

That’s what this is all about. If it was about the business shit, or the checks, I’d continue to load up on freelancing work. But it’s about the creative work. It’s building something from nothing.

I opened up a copy of GOD’S WAR yesterday and cringed at some of the writing. It was like somebody took a shotgun filled with words and blasted them willy-nilly onto the page. My writing got better as I wrote the others books, thank Prime. I sat down later and read the last few chapters of RAPTURE and thought, “Holy shit I can’t believe this book actually exists.” Because it was a book I’d always wanted to read. It had everything I wanted. It was everything I’d yearned for as a reader – tough 80’s apocalypse heroines with more interest in saving the world than courting romance, flawed people who fucked and cried and screamed and killed and lived spectacularly, without reservation or apology for what they were or what they’d done. And spectacular fucking worldbuilding. Some place really different. Very fucked up.

I wrote this. I made this. And I have a lot more to make and write. THAT’s what this is about. I’m never going to be not angry, it’s true, but I can be more focused. I can be clearer about the purpose of all of this, instead of getting lost in the churn of this often broken-down business.


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