So is this what burnout looks like?

Image: Pixabay

Back in the dark ages, I joined the other tiny handful of fish-nutters who had made it into what was reputed to be the toughest post-grad in South Africa (we started a full month before anyone else, had no vacations – and that one year is now a three year course) with the kind of subject fanatics who thought eating on your dissection table saved time. Besides, if you couldn’t find your mouth while staring through a dissecting microscope, you deserved to starve. It was a glorious, intense year, fueled on caffeine and a peer group who basically did almost nothing else, seven days a week.  No-one left before midnight, 2 AM was common by the end of the year.  We were driven, inspired and pushing ourselves to our limits.

And one of the previous year’s graduates, engaged the bludgeoning edge of science that was to produce the first artificial abalone feed (and a lot of dead abalone) paving the way for a billion dollar aquaculture industry, said to us on of last days when we were looking to him for advice on that great future we all thought was there: “Ichthy Honours? Oh, well done. That proves to everyone you could work hard, once. You’ll be f…all good to anyone for six months, and never ever work that hard again.”

He was… not that far off either, at least in that it took some recovery time, and while these were work-oholics, (I’ve kept some degree of touch), some of that ‘burn’ and the lessons from it endured.


Sort of.

In part.

In some ways, we were all bad learners.

Oh we were good at learning a lot facts, and a lot of methodology. A lot math, and a bit of Latin (honest, it helps you remember species if you understand the names).

But about ourselves, and about the demands you can make of your mind and body… much less so.

I plunged into a series of ventures, (next post-grad, fish-farming twice, and then writing, and trying to build a farm from nothing, with little) each of which I remained sure that by working harder and longer (if not smarter) than you average bloke, I’d somehow succeed.

By and large, I have indeed succeeded.

Sort of.

But it’s very like the drowning man (another subject I can speak with some experience of). Suddenly in deep water, at first he swims and struggles really hard toward the shore, trying to yell and doggy-paddle, before he goes down again. And somehow, by sheer bloody-minded determination and no real skill at swimming he gets to the surface again and makes another valiant effort toward the shore. It’s shorter than his first effort, and he makes a bit less distance. Then he goes down again. The third desperate gasping return to the surface is… often the last. It’s shorter and even less effectual. Once his lungs fill too much with water, and the water seems more forgiving than the struggle for the surface, barring luck, or intervention, the person usually doesn’t get to the forth try.

That varies from individual to individual. Some people just keep trying although they ought to be dead. Some of those get that foot onto the sand, or get a lucky wave.

But the key in all of this is: each struggle is shorter than the one previous. You may have learned a few swimming strokes with every return to the surface, but you’re putting more into staying up than your body is able to recover from with those couple of breaths before you go under again.

And that’s not a bad metaphor for a writing career. Your first book… well your efforts are herculean. Often ineffectual as hell, but you give it everything.

And then you plunge straight into the second book…

And give that everything too.

But it’s a smaller everything, because you just have less to give. It may be more skilled and ‘better’ but it’s chewing at your resources.

This pattern keeps repeating. You can see it in ever so many authors, until they finally sink into a kind of relieved despairing oblivion, or die trying.

I’m on twenty-something books. Quite a few are goat-gaggers which, honestly are two and half to three books long… and five books work. If I took it by average book-length, I’d be hitting 35 books now.

The days when I’d do a book in a month, and spend more time putting in edits than writing are long gone.

My swimming/writing may be better, but I just haven’t got that 18 hour days focus any more.

And every time I fight to the surface and get another book done… It takes longer and more out of me. Old authors inevitably have battle fatigue. In the case of the headliners and dahlings they have support from their publishers.

The rest of us… we have ourselves and our fans.

Which means managing the process as well as possible. And that starts back at book one.

Because no-one is superman, as much as I liked to delude myself.

There is a degree of pragmatism, a need to take some damage to yourself and your writing, simply because real life intervenes. You need money from a book. You only have x amount of time, etc.

But seriously, it’s a process of recovery – psychological (particularly emotional) and physiological which you NEED to be able to swim hard the next time. And the sooner you get into a pattern that works for you, the better, long term.

I finished the first draft of HEALER OF KARRES last Tuesday and I am now into what should be that recovery mode. As usual pragmatic needs say I can’t just do what is sensible and step away. I have to edit, get my first reader to edit, and put her edits in, and then go off to my tier of next readers, and get their inputs and put their edits in. Then we go to Eric, and possible offers.  All of this takes time, and I will really need to get rolling on the next piece of work soon.

But, speaking strictly for myself that is the one key: Time.  Recovery time. Time spent READING SOMETHING ELSE. I tend to put in a fair amount of physical exercise, and escapist dangerous pastimes too.

I recharge my social batteries – which is quite hard because all I want to do at this stage is… not to be with people. But being with people improves that.

It’s also good if you can come up with some sort of emotional and visible reward for the effort – be that a trivial expenditure, or some visible trophy. I am bad at this. So, generally, are publishers. You need that soon after finishing.

It’s like having a reached a rock Islet that lets you stand and breathe.  The recovery may not be as complete as if you climbed out and set up camp, but if you did that, you’d never get in the water again. Every time I have tried to plunge straight in… well the cost has been high and the writing slower than if I stopped for a couple of weeks.

But I am up for listening to your mechanisms of coping with this.


39 thoughts on “So is this what burnout looks like?

  1. Somewhat similar experience — second year at Caltech, particularly inept professor teaching course I had to have to graduate, and I didn’t have the financial resources to do a fifth year. 2/3 of the entire sophomore class at Caltech that year dropped the course. I stuck it out (including one 240 hour stretch without sleep — which is a Very Bad Idea). The resulting burnout was so severe I coasted through the next quarter and over the subsequent summer.

    But … I credit that experience for a high level of productivity for the rest of my career. Now I know where the red line is, I know not to cross it, and I can run right up to it. Now I know that when I start to feel certain symptoms I have to take a break and recharge (reading new books for the pleasure of it, going to conferences to meet my colleagues, etc.). That isn’t sloth, it’s necessary maintenance and I know full well what happens if I neglect it. I’ve never pushed that hard again, but I’ve gotten more done by knowing how hard I can push — and how hard I can’t.

    1. 240 hours without sleep? I hope that’s a typo, because I can’t quite fathom someone surviving that long like that.

      1. Usually means they were unconscious for many times during that period, and never realized it.

        1. A two liter bottle of Diet Coke every hour or less kept me awake from sheer hydraulic pressure even after the caffeine had ceased to have any effect. But I tell you in all earnestness that this was a Very Very Very Bad Plan.

      2. It was medically extremely inadvisable. Do Not Try This At Home (or anywhere else). Since then I’ve never missed more than two nights and usually try to take a short nap when I’m pushing it because I get more done in less time with naps than with all-nighters.

  2. Since I’ve only written one book, which took me ten years, and haven’t figured out how to get past about 35,000 words on three others, I’m no help on the burnout you speak of. However, since finding this blog I’ve been working my way through the authors here, reading for an enjoyment I’d forgotten could exist. I’ve read two of your books and would like to thank you for the pleasure they gave me.

  3. Due in part to forces outside my control, Day Job has piled up so that I’m just now getting my head above the sea of papers this term. Not my giraffes, but still my problem, and that drains me. I have to write, or else I start snapping at people. However, instead of what I ‘should” be reading, I’m picking up where I left off in Jim Corbett’s books. Dang, that man could write! A fiction writer could learn a lot about setting and mood from Corbett.

  4. Yep, I’m with you on this. Pacing and not over doing things, but the trick seems to me to be is have fun. Enjoy what you do, then it’s play, not work. However, writing, it is what it is.

    1. I’d agree in general terms, but well YMMV but there are always parts of a book where… I really don’t want to do this. Sometimes it is because I have an emotional involvement in the story, and I know what HAS to happen is horrible or tragic. Sometimes it’s just I cannot work out how to write that ‘link’ between two scenes well, and I am angry and frustrated with my lack of ability. Sometimes… the book is contracted at 200K+ and I know that’s a huge ask to sustain. And the sun is shining, and wind still…
      You have to get your butt in the chair and just knuckle down. The fun will come, eventually.

  5. I play cards, with my brain pretty much in neutral. Number games like sudoku. Something with no narrative to it. When I’m really burned, I can’t even read other people’s work and I’m lucky to get through a news article or blog.

    When I start making up sill stories about the solitaire, it’s time to go back to work. “Queen Heart picked King Spade over King Club because of his sense of humor and they had six kids . . .”

  6. Thanks for this. Day Job/family stuff has been consuming my time and energy wholesale more and more the past 2 years. Every bit of time I spend not doing something that will bring in income rouses all the brainweasels of “you should be doing more!”

    But you’re right. Without recovery time everything’s going to grind to a halt.

  7. I’m currently working on the second book, and have yet to publish the first one, so take this with a grain of salt, but…

    I find it helpful to have a schedule, do my best to stay on that schedule, but not try to go beyond it. Right now, I’m preparing a draft of the aforementioned second book for beta readers. My goal is to have that ready by the end of February, and I have a schedule of exactly where I need to be on each day in order to make that a reality. When I reach that point each day, I stop and go read or surf the web, or go play video games. Sometimes I feel guilty because I know I could probably do more, but I also know that I only have about two hours to myself every day, and that I need to spend at least some of that time recharging.

    I also do get myself little rewards when I reach what seems like a significant milestone. A new video game, a bubble bath, some homemade bread…even if there isn’t a lot of money, there’s usually a way to give myself something I’ll enjoy.

  8. During my 25 years with NASA as I recall I worked ground support cadre for five Spacelab missions, devoting between two and three years to each as my primary focus of effort. During that time we would become as familiar as possible with each astronaut crew as well as each principle investigator with an experiment on board the flight. This was at the Mission Operations Laboratory at MSFC.
    Those years of study and work would culminate in a mission with a duration of between ten and sixteen days, every second carefully planned, replanned, then should all that ever so careful planning go tits up, make it work by the seat of your pants.
    And eventually, as I was associated with the data team so had to remain on console until WOT (wheels on tarmack), each mission reached its end. The brave boys and girls had returned safe which was always a relief, but always with a certain sense of loss. This mission was over. Oh, we still had hundreds of hours of audio and video tapes to review and process, and the experiment data would fuel research and PhD theses for years to come, but essentially my part was done.
    So, you attend the splashdown party with the rest of the cadre a couple days later, and another one with the crew come visiting from JSC a week or so later, then you kick back and do mainly nothing at all for about a month, burning a ton of comp time, which at our grade levels we got instead of overtime for all those long hours put in in prep pre-mission.
    And then it was rinse, repeat, and start all over on another one.
    Ghod, I miss those days, though I suspect trying to do it again would kill me.

  9. I’m … well, a bit burnt-out at the moment, and devoting most energy to getting the master bathroom in my wee suburban bungalow renovated. Honestly, it feels a bit like a vacation, a chance to catch my breath and recharge before tackling two more books – a Luna City romp and the ACW historical that I have mentally promised myself that I’d complete this year.
    18 books in ten years … to me, that’s a cracking pace.

  10. > In the case of the headliners and dahlings they have support from their publishers.

    Nowadays I’ll be reading a newer Big Name Author book and sometimes notice continuity problems which really should have been addressed somewhere before the printing press, and odd changes of style, and characters behaving, well, out of character.

    After learning how many Big Names are now essentially “house brands” done by uncredited writers, I wonder if what I’m seeing is “author ran out of steam, so we hired some help to finish it up.”

    You get a long enough career, I can see that happening sometimes. But I still feel gypped on some of the Dick Francis books I paid for. An uncredited co-author while he was recovering from a stroke, and there were advances already paid and a publication schedule to meet, okay, you fill your commitments as best you can. But they kept on printing “Dick Francis” novels long after he quit writing. I kept buying them in the hopes that there’d finally be one that didn’t suck; I wouldn’t have bothered had I known. Which was probably the point of not letting the customers know, of course…

  11. My only major case of burnout happened at the end of college (undergrad; I’m probably the least credentialed person here). I had been in school for seventeen years, like most people, and had been neglected in the way that quiet, smart kids usually are. So I floundered my way through school and college, dealt with the death of a close family member in my second year, and spent my last year taking a moderate load of classes, playing a sport (intermural level polo), and working two manual jobs that amounted to 20-25 hours a week.

    It doesn’t sound like a massive amount of work, when it’s laid out in black and white, but apparently it was too much for my body, and I had the first attack of the autoimmune weirdness that will probably kill me (hopefully not for another fifty years!). By the time I started treatment, I was sleeping eighteen hours a day, got out of breath climbing a flight of stairs, and had to be lifted off my horse. Yeah, I kept riding (a safe horse, at slow speeds) because I’m insane.

    The point of all that rambling is that when my body says it’s done, it’s DONE. And when I don’t listen to it, it’ll send me on a year-long odyssey through the medical system while it’s trying to kill me. Since then, I’ve been a little more careful. Recently, I flirted with writing-related burnout, but looking at it from the other side, I think it was mostly boredom. A change in routine (working simultaneously on 2-3 projects in different genres) seems to have cured it. Thank goodness.

    1. Blake, you aren’t the least credentialed person here — I probably am (went to college for a couple of years, but no degree). And I totally hear you on the auto-immune stuff. I deal with not only my own, but my autistic younger daughters (and since she can’t communicate very well — she’s not non-verbal, but not far from it — it’s a real guessing game figuring out what’s going on with her sometimes). At my age (61 now) I’ve learned to pace myself and avoid looking at the dust bunnies in the corners!

    1. I’ll push you up to the surface, little sister. Get a couple of good breaths because you might need to haul on my hair. We’re going to reach that shore. It might just take us a bit longer.

        1. Get a room you two!
          Seriously, get a room with workstations at opposite ends, a coffee station, fridge with cold drinks and treats, and a supply of adult beverages.
          Lock the door, and don’t come out until your next two books are ready for me to edit.

          1. If only we could! Actually, take an unoccupied Massive Office Building, and everybody gets their own room, and LawDog gets a stretch of hallway outside his office long enough to get some good pacing in, with a workstation for pounding away at the keys as the walking frees up thoughts, and the former-cubicle-Maze opened up for all the light from the full-wall-windows to become the crafting area for the Arty & Crafty People to spread out their projects… The lowest level of the parking garage might be converted to a pistol & small-calibre rifle range, and don’t ask about the garden growing on the top level, unless you want to get dragged into weeding (more satisfying than copyediting!)


              1. Can I have a room? Actually – I have super-vivid dreams all the time, especially when I am on the CPAP machine.
                They are all rather pleasant dreams – which the doc at the sleep therapy clinic was surprised to hear. Guess it proves that I am an Odd. I had a whole character and concept show up in my dreams a couple of nights ago. I dreamt that I was already a couple of thousand words in…

  12. If I’m having a rough time with the writing job, I’ll take off a little bit of time to do something else: movies, a walk, trip to the bookstore. Just staring at the screen in frustration doesn’t get anything done, so I might as well do something to recharge myself.

  13. I need music. I need to make music (though not write it). That engages the part of the brain that burns out). I’ve discovered that my writing flat lines if I don’t have an alternative creative form to play with. Art works alright, but it turns into another cause for burn out less if it’s copying something or something very precise like knotwork. Music, the making of, seems to be the one thing that keeps me, consistently, on an even creative keel. Which is bad since the last four years I’ve been without it except for lullabies to the kids. No piano and my church has no choir. But I need to throw myself into something creative that takes effort… but not a lot of thought.

    1. For me, that’s crochet/knitting. Gives the satisfaction of having made something, just because you wanted to, without all the brain of writing.

  14. I get minor burnout — on a project, not on writing. So I switch between them.

    It does create an urgent need to manage circling back when you burn out on the next.

  15. I’ll take all the tips I can get. Because I can’t tell if I burned out from NaNoWriMo, or if it was the last breaker that tripped and I was already on the downhill slide from medical issues. I’m fixing the medical, but figuring out how to get anything but static behind the eyes when I try to write has been a challenge.

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