The Writer & Author

Tips for Avoiding Burnout

I’m sure you’ve heard it said over and over again how important it is to get the next book out.  One of the most effective marketing techniques out there is to publish the next book.  Ideally, this will be a compelling story, but in order to create a compelling story, you need to be energized.  If you’re facing burnout, your work (and other areas of your life) will suffer.

A couple of quick indicators that you might be facing burnout are trouble sleeping, lack of energy/excitement, trouble focusing, headaches, increased illness (ex. you get a head cold easier),  irritability, and anxiety.  Having any of these once in a while isn’t cause for alarm.  But when you notice this is an ongoing thing, you’re probably facing burnout.

What are some causes of burnout?  Doing too much, lack of sales, lack of social support, doing work you’re not passionate about, and negative feedback.

The good news is you can take measures to avoid burnout (or, if you’re currently in the middle of it, pull yourself out).  This is something you have control over.

Here are some tips to avoid burnout.

1.   Take breaks.

This was a hard one for me to do because I used to believe if I wasn’t writing every single day, I was failing as a writer.  After all, you hear over and over how important it is to do this if you’re serious about writing. I’ve found it’s best to take planned breaks.  My new philosophy this year is to write five days a week and take two off.  It doesn’t matter which two are my days off.  I just need to make sure it’s at least two a week.

Ever since I started doing this, I have found it so much easier to write when it comes time to sit and write. I feel renewed and energetic.  When I was making myself write every day, it took me about fifteen to twenty minutes before I could get into the story, and there were days when I felt like I was pulling teeth to get my word count in.  But when I gave myself permission to take days off, I can get into the story in five minutes and I’m able to write more with less effort.

I believe when you take breaks and you’re giving our mind a rest, your subconscious thinks over the story and works things on its own.  Now, I do find it helpful to keep a notebook nearby to mark down ideas if they pop up, but I don’t do any writing.

2.  Take vacations.

It’s okay to take vacations.  These are extended breaks.  If you had a job outside the home, you get days off.  There’s no reason why you shouldn’t use this same principle if you work at home.

Your vacation length will vary depending on your situation.  It can be a week, two weeks, a month, or more if you need it.  I find it helpful to take at least one vacation a year, though I do three because I have kids and realize I need to spend these times with them while they’re still young.   So my husband and I will pick somewhere to visit and spend a few days there.

This time should be dedicated to nonwriting/nonbusiness stuff.  Take time to play, spend time with family, or check out something new.

A word of warning: the longer the vacation, the harder it might be to get back into the writing routine.  It takes me about a week before I’m back in the flow of things.  The most I can manage at first is 500 words. Each day, I can get more in.  On an average day, I write about 1500 to 2000 words.   I know some authors can do more in a day, but that is where I settle on the word count spectrum.  And this brings me to my next tip…

3.  Adjust Your Word Count or Time Goal for Your Comfort Level

Not everyone can write 5,000 words a day.  I know some authors who do, and they do it very well.  I’m not one of them.  As I said above in the five days I write, I average 1500-2000 words.  Some authors prefer to sit down and write for a certain amount of time, like 30 minutes to an hour on their writing days.  Some break up their writing throughout the day.  They might write an hour in the morning and another hour in the afternoon.  Another might break up their writing by word count.  Five hundred words in the morning and a thousand in the afternoon.

Whatever method you choose, pick the one that is most comfortable for you.   If you don’t know where your comfort level is, I suggest taking a couple weeks to monitor how you feel while you’re writing.  When you start to run out of ideas or start feeling like you’re winding down, this in an indication that you’ve reached your limit for the day.  If you ignore this indicator, you could overdo it and risk burnout.  (I’ve done this and learned my lesson the hard way.  Yes, it’s hard to stop, but sometimes you need to stop before you exhaust yourself.)

4.  Do Not Dwell on Sales (or Lack Thereof) or Reviews

I know this is hard.  It is probably the hardest thing we need to do, but focusing on sales (whether good or bad) can hinder the creative energy that makes it exciting to write.  I don’t know how often you can track sales without it affecting your ability to write with as much enthusiasm as possible.  I’ve found I can’t look at my sales report any more than once a month.  I do this at the very end of the month to plan out my budget, so I pretty much have to check them at this point.  But doing more than that will make it difficult for me to write because then my mind is on sales and rankings instead of the story.

Sales go up and down.  The highs can inflate the ego and the lows can bring on depression.  I don’t like this roller coaster ride.  I like to keep things as level as possible in my emotions, and I found I’m actually a lot happier when I ignore what is going on with my sales.

The same is true for reviews.  Reviews are for readers, not the writers.  The time to get feedback on your story is before you publish.  This is why a good editing team (which includes beta readers and critique groups) is so important.  The input you get at this stage is what you need to make your story the best it can be.  Once you publish, that part is over.  Reviews are for potential readers.  They are to help readers decide whether or not to read the book.  It’s okay if some people don’t like your book.  Look at the reviews on your favorite books and movies.  Scroll down to the 1 and 2-star reviews.  See how subjective the reviews are.  Embrace the fact that some people will hate your story.  You can’t please everyone.

This is why the most important thing you can do as a writer is to write the story you are most passionate about.  The one person who should love your work is you.

5.  Embrace Stories You’re Excited About

Some of you might be tired of hearing me tell you to focus on what you’re passionate about, but seriously, the best way to avoid burnout is by doing work you love.  If you’re working on things you don’t enjoy, sooner or later, it’s going to drain you of your energy.  You might be able to sustain momentum for a while.  And for a while, it may seem like it’s working great for you.  But creativity is best fueled by passion.  If you focus on work you truly love, it will be easier to write for a the long haul.

Categories: The Writer & Author, Writer's Block & Burnout

Short Stories That Are Too Short

Last semester I took part in a creative-writing class of about seventeen people, including our instructor. This class taught me many things about writing and gave me several new insights into my craft as well as many new tools to write more compelling and interesting stories. It also gave me a few ideas for articles, such as this one:

My classmates and I each had to turn in three short stories during the semester (two original short stories and one edited story). A few times people turned in stories that were really short and just had the barebones of a story. There were numerous reasons for why one or another student would turn in stories like that, with very little meat to it if any. Usually it was something along the lines of having their deadline sneak up on them and rushing to get something written and printed before class (I remember one girl was actually stapling the typo-plagued copies of her story together in the first few minutes of class before she turned it in. She later said that she’d rushed to get the story done, and had spent the first hour or so just wondering what the first few words should be. We all laughed at that, mostly because we’d all been there at one point or another).

However while other students were pressed for time, one or two said they were afraid that if they wrote anything longer it would be too long! When we heard this, we often told the student that their fear of making the story too long had actually made it far too short.

I’ve always defined a short story as between a thousand and ten-thousand words. This leaves a lot of room to work with, even for authors such as myself who are better suited to more expansive works like novels. Yet a lot of authors fear that getting close to twenty-five hundred words is going too far, getting too long, crossing into a territory reserved only for longer projects. Why?

I think it might have something to do with magazines and getting published in them. Many magazines, especially ones that pay, have a maximum word-limit, usually around five-thousand words or so. This creates pressure on the author who wants to be published. They want a wonderful and engaging story but at the same time they’re hampered by the feeling that they can’t go over a certain word limit or they won’t get published in this or that magazine. Even self-published authors aren’t immune to this: many indie authors write stories and send them out to magazines, often to get people to read their work, along with maybe a desire for income and maybe a small wish to show the critics of self-publishing that we can get published in the same magazines as traditional published authors and still have quality work.

The thing is, a story is going to be the length it needs to be. You can’t help it. Twice I’ve thought up and even written short stories that turned out that they needed to novels. And even when a short story manages to stay a short story, I find that a story that needs to expand to four or five thousand words or more is going to expand that length. As much as you try, you won’t get it down to twenty-five hundred without sacrificing quality. At least, not very easily.

I usually end up writing short stories between four and five thousand words. In fact, I try to make sure they stay that length. I’ve tried for shorter but that usually doesn’t happen, and longer stories do sometimes happen, though they often get shorter when I start to edit. The thing is, these stories are going to be as long as they need to be and sometimes you have to accept that. If you want to write a story that’s shorter than what you usually write, do it more as an exercise, as a way to get better at saying something in less words than normal. Don’t feel like you have to make a story shorter, but just try and see if you can. And if you can’t, don’t feel disappointed about it. Just meant that story wasn’t meant to be that short.

And if you’re worried about getting published, there are plenty of magazines, anthologies, contests, and podcasts that accept longer short stories and even short novelettes. Just do your research, you’ll find them. Or don’t go looking for them at all, but try and put together a collection of short stories. You have full creative control then and can make your stories whatever length you desire.

Or perhaps short stories aren’t your thing. They’re certainly not my area of expertise, though that hasn’t stopped me from trying. Either way, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Plenty of authors don’t do short stories and they’re excellent. Just stick to your area of strength and see what amazing stuff you can do there.

But if you do endeavor to create amazing short stories, just remember not to let the length of your story become an inhibition and a drag rather than a tool for successful writing. As I and my classmates have learned, length is important, but it’s by far not the most important thing to keep in mind. That would be the story itself.

 

On an unrelated note, thanks to Ruth Ann Nordin for the new background on this site. I was kind of attached to the old one, but I like what’s here now. It’s warm and welcoming, if you ask me.

Categories: General Writing, Psychology of Writing & Publishing, Short Stories, The Writer & Author | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Writing a Series

A lot of authors write series. Some make all their money writing long series rather than stand-alone novels. A few are even paid by their publishing companies to keep writing series even after the story has gotten old and there are no new ideas or places for the characters to go (*cough* *cough* James Patterson and the Alex Cross books *cough*). But writing a series is a lot tougher than it looks. Rather than keeping a reader’s interest for about 300 pages, you have to keep it for several times that amount and over several books too.

While there is no one way to write a series (is there ever “one way” to go about anything in this business?), there are some tips and strategies that can make writing a series a bit easier. Here are some of mine, gleaned from years of writing various different series in my teens and publishing one of them once I got into college.

Decide who your main characters are and what sort of story you’re going to write with them. I feel that it’s important to nail down who your main characters are pretty early on, because they often end up influencing where the story goes through their actions. You don’t have to go into each character’s entire history at this early stage, but you should have an idea of who they are, what they like and dislike, maybe what sort of environment they grew up in, and what they want and what you from them in this series. That information will come in handy when you’re planning out the series.

Make a roadmap. When you have your characters (and if you’re writing this story in a world different from the one you and most of your readership live in, a general idea of this world), then you should plan out the series and what is going to happen. You don’t need to go into every single detail on what happens in each book, you can save that for when you write each individual book. Just have a general idea of what will happen in each book, how that might fit into a greater arc if you have one in mind, which characters you might introduce or kill off or whatever, etc. It’s kind of similar to outlining a novel, in a way (for tips on outlining, click here), only for several books. Creating a roadmap can also be helpful in keeping a record of what and when you need to research a subject and can allow you to keep notes of what’s happened in previous books in case you need to refer back to something for the current book.

Immerse your reader slowly. This is something I’ve learned over a long time, but it’s useful to remind some writers of it every now and then. Let’s say your story takes place in a fantasy or science-fiction universe and you’re the only one who knows the entirety of the world, its various pieces and factions and groups and aspects. You’ll have an urge to make sure that your reader is immediately caught up with everything, so that they know all there is to know about these worlds. I’m telling you now, resist that urge! Updating them about everything in this world of yours too early would be overloading them with information. They wouldn’t know what to do with it and they’d put down that first book before getting very far in it.

Immersing a reader in your world is like teaching a kid to swim.

The best way to go about introducing readers to this world is to imagine it like teaching a young child to swim. Naturally you don’t start with the deep end. What if your pupil drowned? Instead you start with the shallowest end of the pool. It’s good to start without overwhelming the kid, and they can get a sense and a working knowledge of how swimming works. Later you move them into deeper waters, teaching them new techniques and watching them adjust to the greater depth of the pool. As time goes on, your pupil moves deeper and deeper into the waters, learning new knowledge along the way, until they’re swimming fine in the deep end and able to handle all you’ve given them.

In a similar way you should treat the reader. Slowly take them in, giving them the bare minimum to get along in this world and how to live and maneuver through it. As time goes on, you’ll add more information and they’ll be better prepared to handle it all, so by the end of the series they’ll be able to handle all that information really well.

Keep a guidebook. This can also be helpful, especially for series in fantastical worlds. A guidebook (or whatever you want to call it) contains information on the many aspects of your world, from characters to places to objects to story points and everything in between. If you need to organize a very complicated world, a guidebook can be helpful. Or if even the world is very simple, having a guidebook could help you keep track of things. I recommend using some sort of 3-ring binder for your guidebook, so you can add more information as time goes on. Dividers will also be helpful, so get those and categorize entries as you need. Using a guidebook can also prevent any ret-conning that could annoy and upset your fans.

Writing a book, and writing a book series, is often like this.

Remember the bigger picture. This is always important in writing, but it is especially important in a series. Writing a series is like working with several hundred or even several thousand puzzle pieces, but you have to focus on both the puzzle as a whole as well as the smaller pieces. It’s not easy, keeping track of the smaller stuff as well as keeping aware of the whole arc of the series, but it’s something you’ll have to do if you want to successfully pull off a series.

Each book has a purpose. If your series has an overall story arc, then not only should each book tell an interesting story (or a segment of the larger story), but it should maybe serve a purpose. For example, the first Harry Potter novel introduced us to the Wizarding world, and to the boy we root for the whole series; Book 2 hinted at the existence of Horcruxes, explained the concept of Wizarding blood purity, and introduced other important elements that would later appear in the HP books; Book 3 gave more information on the night Harry’s parents died and their relationship with Snape, as well as introducing how Voldemort would come back to power; Book 4 brought back Voldemort in an elaborate plot as well as hinted at the denial the Ministry would be famous for in Book 5; and so on and so forth. You don’t have to, but it might be helpful to think of assigning your books a purpose in the overall story arc of the series.

What tips do you have for writing a series?

Categories: Book Formatting, Book Setting, Book Setup, Business Plan, Characters & Viewpoints, Editing & Rewriting, General Writing, Psychology of Writing & Publishing, The Reader, The Writer & Author, Writing as a Business | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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