Burning Out: The Dark Side of Writing
This tale has a happy ending. I wanted you to know that before I begin because, for a while, it won’t be clear. It certainly wasn’t clear while I was living it.
I often tell people that my burnout began in 2015, shortly after finishing Kaitlin’s Tale. I say this because it simplifies the story, not because it’s true. Indeed, if you look at my bibliography, you’ll see that Kaitlin’s Tale came out about two years ago, in 2016, and that Frozen is the first novel I’ve published since. So when I say that I didn’t write anything for almost two years, beginning in 2015, we can all see that the math works.
It’s important for math to work. For instance, if you sell 10,000 books at an average royalty payment of $1 per book, how much money have you made? Now, subtract advertising and marketing expenses. Divide by the number of hours you spent writing, editing, and marketing roughly eight books, and estimate how much money you have spent per hour to be a published author.
When I say I freelance edit to support my writing habit, I am not joking.
But this story isn’t really about math. It’s about validation, and the definition of success.
For years, I had success hopelessly confused with math.
Before the Cassie Scot series, I wrote two stand-alone novels that didn’t sell well at all. No worries. First books often flop, and so do second books. Besides, I was learning as I went and I knew, when I finished the first Cassie Scot book, that I had created something I could be proud of. Not that I wasn’t proud of the first two, it’s just … there’s something special about Cassie. Well, I would hope so. I ended up spending six years of my life writing six books in that series!
ParaNormal Detective began selling hundreds of copies per month, the first time I had earned sales figures like that. And people liked it! My reviews were positive, even enthusiastic. I got some flack for the cover art (which I recently redesigned), but otherwise, I felt like I was on the verge of being successful.
Note here that I say I was on the verge of being successful, not that I had actually succeeded. I can’t tell you, even now, how many book sales would be “enough” for me to feel the pull of success; I’ve been told that something like 98% of books never sell triple digit copies in their lifetime, and even my first book did better than that. So you could argue that I was successful.
But the math didn’t work. I wasn’t making money, and then something even worse happened – far from being on the verge of some major breakthrough, the subsequent books in my series began to sell fewer and fewer copies!
I suppose this makes sense, in retrospect. People usually buy series books in order, and not everyone is going to keep reading. So you’re always going to sell more of the first book than any other. But with each new volume I wrote, I wondered what I was doing with my life, and why.
Here are some painful truths I began to learn, but not accept, as I slid into burnout:
1. Publishing is a luck-based industry. There are strategies you can employ to better your odds, but ultimately it’s a gamble.
2. There is no direct link between any single marketing strategy and sustained book sales.
3. The best books do not necessarily become the best seller. And even if they did, I haven’t written the best books. Just really good ones. And really good doesn’t guarantee a thing.
I was burnt out before I finished writing Kaitlin’s Tale. Arguably, I was there before I started! But it’s hard to explain the soul-deep despair gnawing at my insides when I did, in fact, manage to eek out one last book, a book that I had been planning for years and that still took me nine months and three drafts to write!
And here’s some more math for you: Kaitlin’s Tale was my eighth published book (a few other novels got trunked, but let’s just say I’d written eight books). Shouldn’t it be getting easier to write books?
I went to conventions and sat on panels, pasting a smile on my face and pretending I wasn’t dying inside. Quick tip: Don’t go to conventions when you’re depressed about writing. You never hear the bad stuff at cons; the other authors may be going through a good phase or they may be faking it, but everyone is putting a good spin on it.
But it wasn’t just the cons. I became a freelance editor in 2011. By 2014, I had begun editing novels for Chris Nuttall, a YA fantasy author also published through Twilight Times Books. And he was churning out three or four 120,000-word novels a year! I mean, you hear talk about authors who can do stuff like that, but as I was being paid to work on these, I knew it was happening firsthand. From the beginning, Chris has been good for my bottom line and bad for my ego.
So let’s see, if he’s writing 120,000 words every three months, assuming he takes some time for revision and outlining, how many words per day is that? Let’s do some more math!
He’s not the only one. There are many authors out there – and this does seem to correlate more consistently with book sales than anything else – who can just plain write up a storm! I met my editing business partner, Claire Ashgrove, around this same time. She’s my age and had already published over thirty books!
So what I needed to do … okay, figuring some quick math … if I’m going to insist on taking weekends off to do insane things like spend time with my kids, I would need to be able to write 2,000 words a day or 10,000 per week. And then … well, I seem to need second drafts, so maybe it would be better if I could just sneak up to 15,000 words per week. That would mean, hang on … a new draft every two months or so.
I used that 2,000 word goal for years, although in my mind there was always an “at least” and some serious disappointment if I didn’t get to 3,000.
So wait … how did it take me an average of one year to write each book in the Cassie Scot series? That math doesn’t work! It’s not even close. I should have been able to write five or six books a year at a rate of 10,000 words per week.
Oh, math! We’ve lost a variable somewhere. A critically important one, it seems. But what is it, and how do we quantify it?
I didn’t exactly stop writing after I finished Kaitlin’s Tale in 2015. Saying I didn’t write anything for almost two years is another thing I say to simplify the story, not because it’s true. In fact, I wrote more days than not during that time period, still aiming for 2,000 words a day. Yet it all failed. Utterly. There was not a single usabe book created in that time period.
I’m going to skim some details here, because it’s painful to go back to that time and I don’t think it helps the story. Suffice to say that I was severely depressed. I was in therapy. I got to know the mental health system (such as it is). I tried medication, which didn’t turn out to be a good option for me, probably because I was still exposing myself to distressing stimuli every single day. And by distressing stimuli I mean BOTH and SIMULTANEOUSLY that it was distressing for me to write, and distressing for me not to write.
I mean clearly, I was done as a writer. It was over. I’d written some books and yay, they got published and won some awards. But really, I wasn’t emotionally cut out for that kind of life. A life in which math fails its role as a “universal language.”
But … who am I if I’m not a writer? And who do I want to be? I’ve been writing since I was a child. A very young child. I used to make up stories about picture books, and the day my mom dug out her old manual typewriter when I was seven or eight, I typed up a short story about Cabbage Patch Dolls going to Mars. Writing had helped me through some earlier depression, during my adolescence. It was so unfair that it had now become the cause of my depression.
I began employing mindfulness techniques into my daily life. I found time to meditate, to breathe, to exercise, and to do yoga. I learned that importance of self-care, and the simple truth that if you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else.
In October of 2017, I decided to write a book that I would not publish. A book just for me. And it didn’t matter how quickly I finished it; it was just for me. Something in me wanted to write and I was going to allow that to happen with no strings attached. I continued to shoot for 2,000 words per day because it was a longstanding habit, but I was kinder about it now, forgiving myself if I didn’t make it there.
The book, Children of Dragons, is my private healing book. It’s terrible. I’ll just tell you that flat-out. Not a good book at all. I had a moment, after I finished, when I second-guessed my decision not to have it published and sent it to a friend I trust, who had helped me with all the Cassie Scot books. A friend who is, alas, honest. And she told me, honestly, that it wasn’t very good. :)
Well, heck. But something magical happened. No sooner had I e-mailed the manuscript to my friend then I had a new idea. Something fresh and exciting that demanded to be written. That feeling hadn’t struck me in years. Literally, years.
But I wanted to be careful this time … maybe, when I was finished with it, I would play with the publishing world again. Maybe. In the meantime, I was writing the story trapped inside me, that wanted to be let out.
After careful thought and meditation, and set myself my first-ever daily word count MAXIMUM. I would write no more than 1,500 words each day. I set a minimum of 1,000, because apparently I wasn’t quite ready to shake the idea that I had to write every day. I’ve since let go of the minimum.
I finished the book in a little over two months. And far from needing three drafts, I found that the very first draft needed only light revisions, mostly centered on a couple chapters in the middle and a couple more at the end. The book was done, concept to completion, in less than six months. And that was with downtime to wait for feedback and to work on other projects!
That book will be published, sooner or later, but not yet. The book that I recently released is Frozen, another Cassie Scot book, and another healing book.
Here’s the thing: Each new book in the series has an attrition rate. Which means this new book won’t sell well. I know that. I knew it when I wrote it, but Cassie had one last story to tell and had been trying to tell it for years. Frozen was one of the things I worked on during my burnout, unsuccessfully.
When I set about writing it last summer, with my new word count MAXIMUM in place, I completed it in a little over two months. And once again, it needed minimal revision.
So what’s the point? What’s it all for? Why do I spend time every day working on books that I don’t believe wills ell? Why am I no longer even saying that out of despair but rather out of acceptance? Because it’s not like I was wrong, as I spiraled into burnout. Writing is a crap industry to be in, with few guarantees even after (in my case) fifteen years of hard work.
I still have more stories to tell. And people do read them, even if not as many people as I’d like. Those who read them love them, and are a boon to my soul.
I no longer force myself to write. I let myself write. It’s a distinction that took me years to embrace.
Success is something that you have to feel on the inside, because the world will rarely ever hand it to you. There is no formula for success, no math that makes it work. In the end, when you’re ninety years old and looking back on your life, what will matter the most to you? What will make it all worthwhile, as you’re about to leave this earth?
I’m spending more time with my kids while they’re still young enough to appreciate it. I’m even writing a book with my twelve-year-old son, although I’m not at all convinced this is going to work out! He said to me yesterday, “Who knew writing a book was so much work?” And I laughed.
Writing a book is immensely hard work, and it’s natural for us to want to be rewarded for hard work. I still want that; don’t think for a second I’ve lost my hopes and dreams. But the only moment guaranteed to me in life is this one, and the only joy I can take is now. So I will love writing in the moment, or not at all.
#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.
Christine Amsden has been writing fantasy and science fiction for as long as she can remember. She loves to write and it is her dream that others will be inspired by this love and by her stories. Speculative fiction is fun, magical, and imaginative but great speculative fiction is about real people defining themselves through extraordinary situations. Christine writes primarily about people and relationships, and it is in this way that she strives to make science fiction and fantasy meaningful for everyone.
At the age of 16, Christine was diagnosed with Stargardt’s Disease, which scars the retina and causes a loss of central vision. She is now legally blind, but has not let this slow her down or get in the way of her dreams.
Christine currently lives in the Kansas City area with her husband, Austin, who has been her biggest fan and the key to her success. In addition to being a writer, she's a mom and freelance editor.
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Apparently, life doesn’t end when you get married.
When a couple freezes to death on a fifty degree day, Cassie is called in to investigate. The couple ran a daycare out of their home, making preschoolers the key witnesses and even the prime suspects.
Two of those preschoolers are Cassie’s youngest siblings, suggesting conditions at home are worse than she feared. As Cassie struggles to care for her family, she must face the truth about her mother’s slide into depression, which seems to be taking the entire town with it.
Then Cassie, too, is attacked by the supernatural cold. She has to think fast to survive, and her actions cause a rift between her and her husband.
No, life doesn’t end after marriage. All hell can break loose at any time.
Frozen (Cassie Scot Book Seven)
Print Release: July 15, 2018
Audiobook Release: TBA
Detective (Cassie Scot Book One)