Recovering from burn-out: I can still do this

Today I finished the first draft of a short story. It’s not very good, which is fine: being not very good is what first drafts are for, so the later drafts can be better. Normally finishing a first draft wouldn’t be notable, but for me right now it’s a milestone in my writing life, so I’m going to write a bit about it. The story is a standalone, unrelated to any other work; but the thing that makes the story significant to me concerns my forthcoming novel, Belt Three.

I wrote Belt Three over the course of a few years, from 2009 to 2012. At the time I was writing it I had a fairly demanding day job which involved creative writing and story design, and that left me without much creative energy to spend on the novel.

Writing Belt Three nearly burned me out. There were moments of euphoria, of creative joy; I vividly remember one night when I stayed up late writing 3000 words (the most I have ever written in one sitting), listening to Explosions in the Sky, living my main character’s triumph as he outwitted the villain and achieved the personal insight that marks the book’s mid-point. There were also times when I despaired; times when I hated myself for not having the energy to write even though I had the time; times when I became perhaps unhealthily obsessed.

At the end of it I had a novel which I considered good enough to be published. My beta-readers agreed. I channelled my creative energy into writing synopses and covering letters, researching literary agents and the best ways of contacting them. I sent off batches of letters, waited for replies, and collected a stack of rejection slips. I was on the verge of giving up, of writing Belt Three off as a never-to-be-published ‘trunk novel’ whose value would be as practice for my later works, when I learned of the Harper Voyager open call for submissions. I’ll give it one last chance, I decided, and sent my manuscript in. Then I filed it away, assumed that continued silence meant rejection, and put my mind to other projects.

I think Belt Three did burn me out, for a while. I tried to write other stories but found myself unable to produce anything, and I no longer enjoyed the process. I convinced myself that Belt Three, into which I had poured so much of my soul, was not good enough to be published, and I no longer believed I would ever write anything that was. Writing became a joyless slog, something that I felt I had to do because of my self-identity as a writer. Eventually I gave up; I always intended to start writing again someday, but right then I needed a break. I stopped attempting to write stories and focused my creative energies in other directions: the creative writing I was doing in my day job, running a long and complex tabletop roleplaying campaign, and writing a (now likely never to be finished) indie computer game. Without the novel to obsess me, my social life improved and I became a generally happier person, but I still couldn’t write.

Then, earlier this year, I got the email from Harper Voyager saying they wanted to publish Belt Three. (I remember that moment vividly, too: I was in the middle of watching Iron Man 2 on Netflix, saw the email on my phone half way through, and watched the second half of the movie in a daze while my mind came to terms with the information.) My initial reaction was one of shock: I really had assumed that silence meant rejection and put it out of my mind. Over the next weeks I rewrote the next chapter in my mental life story. The indie game that had been filling my head would have to go; I would no longer have time for that. I would have to fill my head with Belt Three again, re-read the manuscript to refresh my memory, be prepared to implement the edits the publisher sent me, write new synopses and promotional materials, think about what to write next

Above all else, I needed to start writing again. I was worried that Belt Three really had burned me out, and that I wouldn’t be able to write anything again. That’s why finishing the short story draft today feels like an achievement. It took a good few weeks — as I get back into practice, I hope to write bad first drafts more quickly — but it proves to me that I’m still able to write new material. I’m over the slump; I’ve recovered from creative burn-out; I can still do this.

Now to see if I can still edit.

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5 Responses to Recovering from burn-out: I can still do this

  1. jutsuj says:

    Congratulations on getting published I look forward to reading it 🙂 It’s my dream to become an published author as well some day. Early days yet though.

  2. I’ve had a bit of a creative slump lately, too, and am just starting to wade out of it. Thanks for sharing this, John, and congratulations again on the novel. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  3. Felix Pearce says:

    “I convinced myself that Belt Three, into which I had poured so much of my soul, was not good enough to be published, and I no longer believed I would ever write anything that was.”

    Writing is not God. Remember that 😉

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