Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 50

by Laura Anne Gilman

One of the ways that you can make a living as a writer is by writing.  A lot.  And by a lot I mean writing two (or even three) books a year, be it under your own name or a pseudonym, in one genre or many.

This is a tried and true career path, all the way back to the rise of genre publishing.  Not because genre books are in any way ‘easier’ to write than literary ones, but because – bluntly – genre readers read more.  And faster.  Voraciously.

So if you’re able to come up with good, solid ideas that publishers (and readers) like, and are willing to spend 8 hours a day at your keyboard, 50+ weeks a year, you can do it.  Having spent several years writing one series, one trilogy, and stand-alones in another genre, three books a year, I am here to say that it’s a hell of a ride.

Much, I am told, like doing a lot of coke.  Only you’re earning money rather than blowing it.

But the crash at the end?  That’s very much like.

Writing one book a year is an emotional drain.  When you’re writing two or more, every 12-18 months, you’re asking for twice that drain.  Never mind the pile of cocaine:  imagine a candle.  Book one lights one end, books two/three lights the other.  It burns toward ppft stage twice as fast.

And then, if you’re also trying to maintain some kind of a personal life, or maintaining any other interests… imagine a candle, lit at both ends…and then turn it sideways, and place another flame at mid-section.

Eventually, all that’s left is a puddle of wax.

“Every client I’ve had, who does three books in a year…burns out.”  My agent said that to me, a few months ago.  She was talking about the stage we come to, when we think “oh god.  I’m too tired to do this any more.”  And she’s right.

So am I telling you to never try to write more than one book a year?  No.  As I said, it’s a realistic way to make a living as a writer, if you can manage it.  Plus, having your career spread out over several publishing houses and/or indie formats is not a bad idea, even in good times.  But be prepared.

  • You will get sick, and blow a deadline.
  • You will have days at a time when you simply can’t face the desk.
  • You will – no matter how well you plan it at contract stage – end up with projects overlapping each other at the worst possible time.

Acknowledge, now, that these things will happen.  It doesn’t make you a failure, and it doesn’t have to throw you completely off the cliff, emotionally or physically.  And above all, breathe.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  This is your job, you’re doing it six, maybe eight, sometimes ten hours a day.  You have an endless parade of deadlines, and they will crush you under their feet, if you let them.

  • Talk to your editor(s).  Ideally, have them talk to each other (trust me, the odds are good they know each other).  Keep them up-to-date on what’s happening.  This is advice I gave you way back when, and it’s even more important when you’ve got more than one production schedule waiting on you.
  • Schedule something indulgent on a regular basis. Something that doesn’t depend on you hitting goals or anything specific – just Nice, Now.  A thing, or an activity, or an indulgence that makes you slow down and relax, and gives your body and brain both time to recover.  I’m a huge fan of a quarterly massage sessions – it has medical, emotional, and creative benefits I feel almost immediately.
  • Physical activity.  Every day.  Get up and walk.  Play on the Wii.  Turn up the music and dance like a loony person (your pets won’t tell, and your kids PROBABLY won’t post it to YouTube).
  • Write every day, even when you really feel you can’t stand it any more.  It doesn’t have to be the thing you’re working on – just so long as you keep to the routine for a few hours.
  • And most of all, accept that you will, at some point, burn out.  Have an exit strategy planned.

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Coming up in Week 51: will that be a book for one, or two, this evening?

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, including the THE SHATTERED VINE, Book 3 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy,, and TRICKS OF THE TRADE both IN STORES NOW! (ahem). Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, which SF Signal called “amazingly evocative….a potent ride through a changing future,” was published by Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)

She also runs d.y.m.k. productions, an editorial services company (www.dymkproductions.com).

And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.

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About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at https://www.patreon.com/LAGilman Learn more at www.lauraannegilman.net, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.

Comments

Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 50 — 11 Comments

  1. Thank you! For hope that it is possible to pursue the dream, and for the reality check. Burn out is very real for a number of passions and a hard, cold fact we need to face.

  2. Yes, yes, indeedy.

    I *always* schedule recuperation time post writing – it’s the only way I can function otherwise, especially when juggling a day job and the freelance.

    Since I re-charge best by myself, I make sure to have alone time: no TV, no computer – just me & several good books. It’s refreshing.

  3. Maria – ah, but do you schedule recuperation time WHILE writing? That’s important, too. Possibly even more important (she says ruefully, from experience) than saving it for “done!”

  4. After 41 years together my DH knows the signs of imminent burn out and/or meltdown. If I haven’t scheduled something he surgically removes me from the keyboard and hauls my ass out the door for a day trip. Long ride, antique malls, hikes, lunch I didn’t prepare myself, music, and time together.

    Unblocks blocks, recharges the batteries and reminds me who I am. I am not the book. I am me. The book is effluvia from my warped mind.

  5. Pingback: Post-Project Burnout and Resetting the Course - Monica Valentinelli - Website for Author and Game Designer | Monica Valentinelli

  6. I don’t know. I think this might be true of some writers or some projects, but I’ve heard exactly the opposite from seasoned professionals like Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Katherine Rusch. My goal is to write over a hundred novels in my lifetime, so I certainly hope I can make 2+ books per year sustainable, perhaps even 3 or 4.

  7. Joe –

    as I was Kris’ editor for a number of books, I can assure you that Kris (and Dean) are very much aware of the dangers of multiple-project burnout! In fact, much of what I’m advising is based on knowing them for many years, and seeing how they handle it.

    So I’m not sure where you’re hearing “exactly the opposite” from them… (I’m pretty sure nowhere do they say “don’t take time for yourself” or “ignore your body in order to hit deadline.”)

    – Laura Anne

  8. Further to Joe’s comment: please note that while the goal of “write over 100 books in a lifetime” is certainly… ambitious, the real goal should be to “write books that interest me, and will earn me enough money to live comfortably.”

    If for a while that happens to be three books, then do it. But I would strongly advise against a mindset of “well, I have to get one more book in to make my goal…” at the expense of your health, be it physical or emotional. Because yeah, you might make it through that year – but every year takes an increasing toll. That is why you need an exit strategy – the ability to say “and I’m stopping now.” Because all things – even writers – need time to rest.

  9. I’m not saying that burnout isn’t a problem, but I think the two book per year limit isn’t necessarily the burnout point for everyone. From what I understand, Kris and Dean write four or five books per year, under multiple names. We all have different limits, so to peg down a number like two books per year isn’t terribly useful, because everyone’s creative process is different.

    As for the 100+ books goal, it’s certainly ambitious, but it’s not impossible, at least in genre fiction. Many others have done it, including Dean. I’m only 27, and I’ve written 5 novels already (though one of them is a practice novel, so I’m not sure whether it should count). I think the key is to get in lots of practice, and to keep stretching without beating yourself up. If you don’t think you can do it, you can’t…but if you reach for it and give it your best, good things will come even if you don’t manage to achieve your stated goal.