Burnout and the Writer

I have mentioned burnout here and there on this blog over the years, but I’ve never really addressed how this has impacted me as a writer. As a teenager, I wrote stories, and that continued through college. I even wrote some stuff after I got married. But these were always “just for me” stories that I never intended to publish, so there was no pressure to keep writing. When I was done with the story, I was done. I didn’t write anything else until I felt like it. So from 1996 to 2006, I probably wrote seven novels and a few short stories. Back then, I wrote as the whim hit me, and then I rested until I felt the burning need to write again.

In late 2007, I finally gave into the desire to write romances. I held off for a long time in writing romance because in my family said romances were “trash”. I stuck with reputable genres like fantasy and thriller. That decision caused my writing output to explode. I had many story ideas built up within me for years, and I had trouble writing fast enough to keep up with them. I got into paperbacks in 2008 with Amazon (back when they had CreateSpace), and then I got my feet wet with ebooks in 2009 on Amazon and Smashwords. It was great. I felt like a kid at the world’s most amazing playground. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t restricted by what others told me I should or shouldn’t write. I also never thought anyone would read my stuff. I thought I was going to be the only person reading my books. That, ironically, made writing super easy. When you are just writing for you, your only concern is pleasing yourself. The inner critic doesn’t exist.

In late 2010, I started to see these strange $20-$50 deposits coming into my bank account. It took me a couple of months to figure out they were coming from Amazon. Suddenly, I was aware that people were reading my books. The first time someone commented on my first draft blog post, I was scared because I was no longer putting the story up in front of empty space. Someone was on the other side of the screen. I had to push past the fear to keep going, and it was not easy because the critic started to emerge at this point. Then the 1-star reviews came. The negative emails soon followed. I received positive feedback and reviews, too, but it’s always the negative that shines the brightest. I almost quit in 2011 because I no longer felt good enough to write stories. It didn’t matter if I loved my work. All that mattered was that someone out there hated it.

But I manged to push through the fear. It took time. It was not easy. But the creative well was still full. My biggest problem was what book to write because I had so many ideas. In 2012, sales exploded. This was a time when writing was super easy. I had the ideas, I had the motivation, and I was aware that people out there really did enjoy my work. I even got invited to do some interviews about self-publishing. I won’t lie. It was fun. 2013 through 2015 were harder even though I made more money because suddenly this was a “business”, and day after day, the message going out to me (and other authors) was that if we weren’t treating this like a business, then we weren’t “real” authors; we were just “hobbyists”. (They’d add that there was nothing wrong with being a hobbyist, but your opinion didn’t matter because you weren’t serious about writing or selling books.) Looking back, I can see how this mindset has hurt a lot of writers.

Anyway, I didn’t realize it at the time, but 2016 was when I started to burn out. The creative well was starting to get low. My income dropped for the first time ever. I blamed it on the fact that I had taken time off from writing to move to Montana. So I renewed my writing efforts. If I could just get more books out there, my income would return. I was so focused on the money that I missed the fact that my creative well was suffering. I wrote a lot of books to market around this time, mostly because I was out of ideas. I looked up plot ideas that were popular at the time and gave them my own spin. (I did this until 2018.) I studied up on how to write to market. I didn’t want to waste me time writing something that wasn’t going to make money, so I’d only pick stuff that I thought had the best chance of bringing me back to 2015 income level. Though I was writing the stories myself, the process felt more robotic than creative. The stories were all formula. I was just churning out the words. I always tried to be mindful of my parameters, and I tried not to go in any extreme that might alienate any of the readers. I also didn’t slow down the writing. I dictated a lot, and this only sped things up. It also made editing a nightmare.

I thought the reason I was crying a lot during this time had to do with my struggle to make the same money I was making back in 2013-2015. As I write this, I wonder if I was crying because my body was trying to tell me that I needed a break, that I was burning myself out. Giving up the money side of things did make me happier since I could stop writing those market books. I cried less. But the fact that I was exhausted and struggling to come up with story ideas created a different kind of dissatisfaction. I didn’t know what to do about it.

I do think choosing those passion projects and going outside the “safe zones” did enable me to keep going for as long as I did. I love the Marriage by Fairytale Series I wrote during this time because I went dark and deep with those stories while embracing the genre I still love most: romance. I also had the chance to go dark and deep with the Wyoming Series. The foundation for that series was partially created by Stephannie Beman, so I can’t take full credit for that one, but she did allow me to write out the entire series, and for that, I am grateful because it’s one of my favorite series to this day. So even during burnout, there can be moments when excitement peaks through and you’re able to do your best work. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

The problem is, you end up using the last of your ideas when you don’t give your creative well time to fill back up. From 2008-2022, I’ve written 98 full-length romances. I’ve done one full-length thriller. I’ve done a few books in others genres, and I’ve written some shorts. I am exhausted. I barely have any new story ideas. I feel like I’m running on fumes. People ask me when I’ll have another historical western romance out. I don’t know. I don’t have a single idea for a historical western romance right now. My mind is a complete blank. The well has run dry on that one. And that’s scary because I worry that I’ll never get any water back in there. I have just a little bit of water left for the Regencies, and I’m going slow with them because I don’t want this well to dry up, too. Any creative wells for other genres is dry. I did consider writing another genre, but that landscape is as barren as everything else. All I have are four Regency stories in my arsenal, and I’ve been working on three of them for about a year.

When you’re in the writing “business”, you need to get books out all the time. You can run ads to help. You can put your books in multiple formats to get additional sources of income. Those help to buffer from serious financial loss, but they don’t prevent a good drop in income from happening. The real money comes from the new books. That’s why I believe a lot of authors will run to AI or a ghostwriter to help them write stories. (And I think AI will win out because AI is cheaper and faster.) The creative well dries up. You can’t keep going at a hectic pace forever. I used to think that taking two days off a week would buffer me from burnout, but it didn’t. It just delayed it. Taking a long break from writing so you can fill the creative well back up is not easy. It’s also not easy to slow down when you’re used to going fast. You feel guilty because people are waiting for the next book. You feel like a failure in the writing community because you couldn’t last. As a writer in the writing community, I’ve fizzled out. My time has come and gone. My opinion has, in writing groups, become irrelevant because I’m not on board with all of the new stuff, nor do I have the energy to get on board with it.

I don’t know what stage of burnout I’m in, but it’s terrible when you dread sitting at the computer. You tell yourself to “write through the pain” because “real writers bleed words on their paper”. That’s what other famous writers did, right? No one ever says what you’re supposed to do when you’re at the end of your rope and feeling like you’re starting to hate writing stories. And then you start to cry because this was the one thing in your life that you’ve loved since you were a teenager. Writing has defined me for most of my life. It’s the one big passion I’ve had. People usually have a couple of interests. My interest has just been writing. You take away the writer, you take away who I am. It used to come so easy, and now every word is like pulling teeth. I want to save my creative well. I want to love writing again. By taking it slow, I have had days where the light comes back. Today, I was excited about writing, and I had fun. Yesterday, things fizzled out, so I left the computer to watch TV and cook a meal that took two hours to make. On most days, I don’t even get on the computer to try. I believe this is the way out of burnout. I believe you need a lot of rest. I believe you need to spend time with family and loved ones. I believe you need to exercise and eat right. I also think it’s okay to keep writing through it. You just need to go slow. Take it one day at a time. Don’t force it. Just let the creative well fill up on its own time. I’m determined to beat this thing. I just need to be patient.

About Ruth Ann Nordin

Ruth Ann Nordin mainly writes historical western romances and Regencies. From time to time, she branches out to other genres, but her first love is historical romance. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska with her husband and a couple of children. To find out more about her books, go to https://ruthannnordinsbooks.wordpress.com/.
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14 Responses to Burnout and the Writer

  1. Truth be told, I’ve been feeling a bit of burnout lately. All this editing for my new collection has me exhausted! I’ll be scaling back the writing and editing for the next few weeks so I can recharge and find the drive again. HOpefully then I can write some new work and improve some old work. Fingers crossed!

    • Editing is the worst for me. I can see how it would be exhausting. I hope you can get your drive back. I have glimmers of it from time to time, but it’s not like it used to be. Let me know how things go for you. I’ve been struggling with this for years. If you find something that helps, I’d love to hear it. Right now, I just have “slow down and do other things you enjoy”. I’m open to any new ideas.

      • I’m actually already feeling that drive again. I’m just waiting till after Stokercon next month to start writing again (biggest horror writers convention in the world, it you didn’t know). In the meantime, I’m mostly just doing things to help build interest for the new book and relaxing. I might actually binge a couple movies tonight, which would definitely help with the creative juices.

        • I was wondering if movies were a good idea. Some people will say it’s a waste of time to watch TV, but in some ways, I think it can be therapeutic, especially for creative people. Some of my best inspiration has come from something I’ve seen on TV. It also helps with body language. I’m just now beginning to appreciate how pauses, movement, and tone an actor uses can convey things that can’t be outright “told” to the audience. It’s been making me think about how I can incorporate these elements in a story.

          I don’t know if I’ve heard of Stokercon or not, but it sounds like fun. The more horror I’ve read and watched, the more I realize it’s harder to nail down the right balance between action and fear in a story than it looks. In my opinion, the two main genres that people (in general) seem to dismiss are romance and horror. They both seem like easy genres when you glance at them, but they’re really more complicated to master if you’re going to do them correctly. This is another reason I can’t see AI stealing jobs from writers. AI misses the subtle nuances that makes a story meaningful to the reader who loves a certain genre.

          I’m glad you’re already feeling that drive again! That’s great news.

  2. Kay cooper says:

    You will get there I have two types of books those that as soon as I see a book by that author I have to have it and then there are the ones I buy just for a book to read you come in the first I am at present waiting for midnight wedding having just read secret admirer. You are a great writer stop pushing yourself. Your books are quality slow down and make us wait your health is more important. Hope you are resting not just your body but mind as well. God luck and god bless.

    • I’m honored to be in the first category. I don’t take anything like that for granted. Thank you. I can honestly say that I’m having a lot of fun with Midnight Wedding. I do think taking time away from it has helped because the story is turning out better than I expected. I never want to disappoint people. It’s better to slow down and get it right. God bless you, too!

  3. anitadavisalexander says:

    Hello Ruth.

    Thank you so much for your heartfelt post.
    Burnout is an insidious thing. It can sneak up on you without warning.
    I am happy that you are enjoying writing again. Most people don’t understand that writing, especially fiction writing, is mostly about how you feel.
    If you are sad, angry and anxious when you are writing, the words that you produce are going to reflect that.
    Fiction writers write what they feel. And if they feel burnt out, their work, and most importantly their health suffers.
    I’m no expert, but I truly believe that no work of art is worth the price of your health. The readers can wait. But an author’s physical health, mental well-being and family life cannot.
    We are only here on this earth for a limited time, and as some of the old timers say, “health is wealth.”
    You need to safeguard it as long as you can. And live life to the fullest.
    Mostly away from the keyboard.

    • I agree 100% that feelings end up pouring out onto the paper and that the burnout can hinder one’s health. There are studies that show a connection between our emotions and our bodies. I’d rather not spend my time at a doctor’s office or in a hospital because I didn’t take the steps to slow down and relax. Thank you so much for your comment. I enjoyed reading all of it. It’s been very encouraging.

  4. Marilyn Pond says:

    I thoroughly enjoy your work. As much as I eagerly await new books from you, you do deserve to have a happy and fulfilling life. If that means a break from writing, we will have to deal with it. Know this, when you are ready to return, we will be there for you.

  5. Erica R says:

    Sounds like it’s been a real roller coaster, but I am glad you have balance in your life and realize the importance of it. So many people don’t. Happy writing and I am looking forward to the next 4 books. I am so glad you added that 5th book to the Marriage by Obligation series.
    Happy summer and thanks for writing.

    • I’m setting up the foundation for Book 5 at the end of Midnight Wedding. I’m in the last chapter of Midnight Wedding right now. I made myself only write portions of the last few scenes so I wouldn’t end up rushing just to finish it. Usually, I would aim for a certain word count, but by focusing on getting to a certain point in a scene, it gave me time to ponder how to proceed next. I have enjoyed this story so much, and I want to give it the ending it deserves. I am very happy with the results. I think this is one of my best books.

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