Crunchy on the Outside, Flaky on the inside — Sarah Hoyt

No, I’m not about to announce I have burnout. On the contrary. I’m about to analyze why I don’t have it.

Burnout is the reason I don’t have anything coming out in 2011. But the burnout occurred in 08/09.

For those of you who are not acquainted with the inner mechanics of a writers life (at least as it was, even as it’s passing from this world) for me at least things worked like this: send out proposals. Hear about them over the next six months (year. Two.)

Proposals are normally an outline and the first three chapters. The problem with this for me is that once I hear the character in my head – once I’ve done the preliminary work to have him/her be that real to me – then getting the rest of the book written is just a matter of time.

But let’s take me in 03, when the Shakespeare series had tanked spectacularly and I didn’t have anything else sold. We were paying on two mortgages, I had kids in elementary and I needed to sell. (Yes, I could have found a job, but the only job I’m qualified to do – free lance translator – takes as much time establishing yourself as writing. Sometimes more. Then there’s secretarial, and technology hit THEIR job before it hit writing. When every executive keyboards, secretaries are few and not particularly well paid. In fact, they’re barely above retail, which was my other option. Both of those would require me to leave the kids with someone and neither job pays enough to cover that.)

Particularly because my name was burned, I couldn’t count on selling everything I sent out. There was no point just writing a new book and sending it out. Chances were very high it wouldn’t sell.

So in the space of six months, I wrote seventeen proposals. And it almost killed me. Because I’d just got INTERESTED in writing a book, when I had to drop it and write the next proposal. And the next. And the next. And all the while I was perfectly conscious that I might never sell any of these – that these characters might die being born; that it was quite possible no one would ever see my clever world building.

Then the books sold. They sold as series, and they sold in such a manner that I was “locked” doing four to six books a year. And of course, I still had to do the occasional outline. It was around this time – I think 07 – that an older friend in the field took me gently to task for writing too many books a year, which was seen as a sign I didn’t care enough about any. But I really didn’t have much choice. By 07 the field was crazy enough that if I didn’t stay on the treadmill, if I said “No” to any given contract, it could very easily be my last.

I’ve said before I can write six books a year. I can. It’s different though when I have to, and when I have to regardless of what else – illness, kids issues, etc – is going on in my life at the time. It’s also different when the book is not necessarily the book I’m burning to write, but simply the one that’s due next.

I could recognize the symptoms, including the frequent illnesses. When you don’t give yourself any way to escape the unbearable, your body gives them to you. What I didn’t know was what to do about it.

It got so bad while writing book five of the musketeer mysteries (at a time I suspected they were going to cancel the series anyway) that I had trouble keeping in mind where I’d left the characters two chapters back. I’d flip back to see what I’d done, and by the time I came back to the current page I didn’t remember it, again. Super betas had to step in to help with that edit.

Being able to recognize burnout, I bought a book called something like “overcoming burnout.” It identified three main causes to burnout. Any of them could induce that “smoky” feeling, but if you put the three together, it because a perfect storm.

They were:

Poor pay – this entire time, I was working weekends and holidays, trying to keep up with obligations, writing 4 to 6 books a year for… around thirty thousand dollars in the good years, twenty thousand in the bad ones. For those outside the US, twenty thousand is a “retail salary”, not beginner but not spectacular. How is that possible at four to six books a year? Well, to begin with the mysteries never paid more than 6.5k (And the last one paid less.) Also, books get paid in three “bits” – one for contract, one for delivery and one for publication. Contract is usually the biggest chunk, so the next two payments will not give you a great annual income. And of course you don’t sell new series every year.

Overwork – again, while I might choose to write four to six books a year, and while I CAN technically write a book in three days, there is a world of difference between writing it because I’m burning to do it, and writing it because its number is up. Particularly when the proposal was written years ago and the world has gone “dead.”

Lack of Control Over Career – once the books left my hands, that was it. I had no more control. My contribution was only one and perhaps in many ways the least important of the factors determining whether that book would sell and the series would go on. Arguably more important was the cover – over which I had no say – the “position” of the book in the “scale of push” the house determined to make. I really couldn’t tell them “you will push my book, so that there are at least three in every store.” And don’t tell me that’s related to the quality of what I turned in. It’s not. How much push/how much they’ll work on the cover/etc is determined when they give you the advance. I.e. on proposal, which as any writer knows is but a pallid image of the real book. (At least for me it is.) You could turn in spun gold, and no one would know. I know of at least one friend’s book whom no one in the house read (though the copyeditor did, of course) after turn in. I had to watch in mute horror as the third musketeer was given a cover that spine-out was indistinguishable from the first, and cover-out, because of the cover design, made you look really close to make sure, for instance. As a mystery reader I knew this would kill the series. There was nothing I could do.

So I realized I was headed for the perfect burnout, if I wasn’t there already. The problem is the solutions the book advocated “get another job” or “work for someone else” or… Were all impractical… or all required me to walk away from writing. And I couldn’t do that.

But all the same, I let my contracts taper out in 09, without sending any proposals out. I couldn’t bring myself to write coherent proposals. (I tried for Toni, who’d asked, but they didn’t make much sense. In fact, Darkship Renegades is as different from the proposal it sold under as any book I’ve ever written.)

And if the above is taken as a whine – it’s not. I was lucky to have a job and to keep writing. Most of my midlist friends weren’t so lucky. BUT the job I was lucky to have was grinding me to bits.

In 10 I wrote one book on spec and that because I wanted to. Weirdly that helped, even though that book has sold unspectacularly and heaven knows how it will do in marketing. And now I’m under contract again, and under contract for a lot of books. But it feels different.

First because I can take breaks between those to write indie short stories (and soon a novel) to put up. This means I can do something where I do have control over my career. Second, I can see next year from here, and next year will probably be half and half indie and not. Which means I get a lot more control back.

The burnout book was right. Changing one of the factors helps. Now, mind you, it’s entirely possible I can’t figure out how to make money in the new model. But I think I’ll figure it out. Yes, I could have done without this upheaval at this time in my life, otoh without the upheaval how long could I have kept it up?

So it’s all for the best, in the best of all possible worlds. And lest we feel like the lone ranger, secretaries got their field upended before we did. For most of them it has meant lower pay, but for some it’s meant much higher pay as they’ve learned new specialties: accounting programs; research; marketing. Secretaries should have been run out of jobs in the hundreds, but they weren’t. They stayed. They changed. They found a way to continue making a living out of things that if you squint still look “secretaryish” but are a lot more complicated – and possibly rewarding – than just sitting at a machine, clean-typing copy after copy of documents. (And when I said there were few openings above, I meant for someone like me, who doesn’t know specialized software or have another side-specialty.)

Am I rah rah about indie? About half and half. The other half is terrified that I’ll never find my footing in this new world. But others have gone ahead of me, and I intend to learn from them.

However, the commenter who told me on my blog that indie I’d have no excuses for any failure got it upside down. Will I fail? Oh, once or twice, at least (probably more) my books will be duds (and probably not the ones I expect.) BUT at least I’ll know I failed at my own hands. I can’t explain why but this feels much, much more bearable than watching a series be killed by a decision I didn’t make and to which no one seemed to pay much attention.

Beyond that, indie allows me to do stuff to keep some control of my other series. For instance, because of that lag above, Darkship Renegade will come out almost two and a half years after Darkship Thieves. In the old market place that was a killing lag. So I’m going to try to do a couple of novellas not with Athena, but in the same universe, and get them out there between now and the summer of twelve. That I can is an enormous innovation. (Before, I might have tried to, but the lag time in getting things published in magazines, even if accepted right away ranged from a year to two.)

The refinishing mysteries will be at least as late, and then I’ll have to figure out if I can continue the series on my own. But until then, and before the fans kill me, I will do a series of self published mysteries set in the same town, with the characters of Daring Finds as secondary characters.

And so, I’m no longer crispy on the outside. I might still be flakey on the inside. Am I sure this will all work out wonderfully? Well… no. But let’s put it this way – I couldn’t go on much longer the way I was. My health – physical and mental – wouldn’t allow it. So, I have one more chance. I intend to take it. I intend to grab it with both hands, and hang little bells to its feet.

Wish me luck.

 *Crossposted at According To Hoyt*


  1. Luck? Bah! You have talent, you have fight, you have imagination. Who needs luck?

    Okay, most of us. I think the question is not “Can writer make money in indie” so much as “can a writer make enough money quickly enough to survive the transition?” I think that’s where your overall name recognition will help, and the Barflies prove their value in starting snowballs rolling.

  2. Sarah I had a patch where I suffered burn out. It was horrible combined with personal health issues and health problems with family. All very draining.

    Feel like I am just putting my head above water now.

    Sending positive thoughts your way!

  3. I remember talking to you in those dark days. The downside is that it leaves a long scar, and takes a while to get un-burned. (I’m there, I know). However, with any sort of luck we can start to leave this behind us.

    1. strangely the way back for me started last year with writing something I REALLY wanted to write, never mind if it dind’t sell, ever. It was like an act of defiance. The same way my saying I’m going indie — I’m not saying I’ll never sell to the big guys again, but I’m trying to change focus more INDIE first, particularly if my reading of the business situation is right — is not so much a decision but what has to happen for me to survive. In many ways I’m still slowly un-burning. But the difference is amazing. I’m STARTING to enjoy creating again.

  4. The lag between books doesn’t seem like as much of an issue when it’s so easy to go on Amazon and order older books. Sure, if someone is waiting for the next installment they still might forget what the urgency was all about, but if someone sees your new book and is interested and sees that it’s a “book two” it’s not automatically no-sale anymore.

    There are some things about the new order that are very very good. 🙂

  5. So is crispy-fried Sarah better than prepackaged Sarah? Based on what I’ve beta-d, I’m inclined to think so. (More Sarah books? HELL yeah)

  6. My risk of burnout comes from a different angle: my current day job is the first job I’ve *ever* held for more than five years straight. In the Navy, I moved to something new every three years or so. So for me, the writing is actually helping to stave it off, I think.

    Kate, my first instinct was to envy you, but I immediately reconsidered that. I don’t want to beta someone like Sarah (or you), and have to only stick one toe in the water so the analytical part can take notes. I wanna dive in and wallow …

    1. Kate is a pre-beta. She gets bits and pieces and chapters I’m not sure are working, and then she gets “the whole thing and the whole of the thing.”
      Actually I know what you mean about staying in a job too long. I’ve never done that either. And fortunately writing is one of the most challenging careers in the world, particularly now. Also, bizarrely, my art helped me stave off burn out at one point. Well, no. I was still burned out, but now I could work again.

    2. I Beta’d DST and I _hated_ not being able to talk about it, and then when it came out I was like, “Oh, yeah, I remember that.” Beta’s sort of miss out on the group “Just read it, WOW!” party.

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