Avoiding creative burnout

I recently got a note from a writer saying she felt creatively drained.  She said, “My book is good.  How can I convince others?” Reading between the lines, I figured she’d written a book she felt was excellent but agents/editors were rejecting it, and that was making her feel a lot like not writing any more books, and also that she wished she could figure out how to get an agent’s (or publisher’s) attention.

I will be the first to admit that beating your head against a wall is way more fun than querying agents and editors, and that the more rejections you get, the harder it can be to feel like doing it all over again.

I also know that making creativity your work — the thing that pays the bills — is a good way to want to shovel ditches for a living.

Basically, we have two connected questions: “How can I succeed in the commercial arena of publishing?” and “How can I, at the same time, renew and feed my creative energies?”

You really do have to separate the act of creation from the act of publishing.  The act of creation is something to be nurtured and protected, even on the days when you don’t feel like it.  The act of publishing is a business transaction, period.  They are two very different creatures, although of course we’re bound to conflate them, being human and wanting to see our hard work rewarded.

Protecting your creativity — renewing it, feeding it, keeping it from shutting down when you get five more rejection letters this week — requires a couple of important habits:

1.  Protect the time.  Even if you’re just drawing doodles on a sketchpad, keep your creative time free from other encumbrances.  My first two hours of every day are for The Work, even though sometimes they actually consist of talking to friends at the coffee shop. 

2.  Remember that sheer financial terror impedes creativity.  Putting the entire burden of your financial health on the capricious whims of the publishing industry requires nerves of steel.  You can spend more time worrying than working.  Not worth it.  I just wrote a blog post for the Renegade Writer on the importance of diversifying your client base as a freelancer; this is just as important for people working on fiction or other creative endeavors.  Have different work to serve different purposes.  It’s not selling out: you’re buying the time to do The Work.

3. The Work is sufficient in and of itself.  Yes, it’s nice to be recognized for your talent, but it’s not required.  There are ways to share your work beyond traditional publishing, if it comes to that.

4.  Keep more than one project going.  Have new work you’re conceptualizing while you edit the old work and send out the older.  Keep your focus on your work and not on the publishing business.

To the in some ways more difficult question of succeeding in commercial publishing:

1. Create a network.  The hardest thing in writing is feeling like you’re talking to yourself.  Have other writers, readers, colleagues, who can give feedback and offer resources.

2. Learn to sell your book.  It’s easier to write a blurb about someone else’s book.  So either pretend you’re writing your query about someone else’s book or trade with a friend: write a query for someone else’s book and have them write one for yours.  See if that helps you nail your query.

3. Don’t invest everything in one project.  Especially these days.  Times are tough in publishing. You can love your book but you also need to Let. It. Go.  Maybe it will be published, maybe it won’t.  Like a child, you do your best by it but beyond that, you don’t have a lot of say in how it turns out. Get to work on the next book.

4. Invest in getting better.  Yes, this book is good.  Focus on how the next one is going to be better.  Read, attend conferences, join writers’ groups.  Immerse yourself in understanding the craft and the publishing process.  Experiment.  Fail.  Fail a lot.  Learn something.  Fail some more.  Write the book no one can turn down (then sell the secret for one million dollars).  That’ll keep you too busy to focus on the inadequacies of the agents and editors who are rejecting your book.

5.  Recognize what you can control and what you can’t.  Writing the best book you can?  Completely under your control.  Convincing other people it’s the cat’s meow?  Not so much.

Oh!  I almost forgot.  Starting today, my “Freelance Editing 101” class through the Rengade Writers.  More here.