Welcome to Creative Conversations—real-time discussions about the creative process. Today I’m talking with fellow author Janni Lee Simner. The subject? Career Cycles: Intensity, Burnout, and Regrouping. Do you see yourself in one of these three career stages? Do you feel trapped in Intensity or Burnout? Take heart; Janni Lee Simner is about to launch fearlessly into this little talked about subject.
Janni calls herself “just another desert-dwelling writer of post-apocalyptic faerie fiction,” Yet her books, from the eerie Bones of Faerie trilogy to Thief Eyes and more, cast lasting spells. Janni’s also scripted Desert Owl Games’ new release The Huntsman: Winter’s Curse, a game set in the expanded universe of the movie The Huntsman: Winter’s War.
Janet: Welcome, Janni. Thanks for offering to talk with me about Intensity, Burnout, and Regrouping.
Janni: Hi Janet, and thanks for having me here!
Janet: Looking back, how did this creative cycle affect your early career?
Janni: My first short story was published almost 25 years ago now, and like many new writers, I started out at a tremendously high level of intensity. I was working at my first adult job, writing fiction in the evenings, getting by on a little (or a lot) too little sleep … and I felt this tremendous urgency about it all, this sense that things needed to happen right away. Within five years of my first short story’s publication I’d sold a dozen more short stories and seen the release of my first three children’s books, the Phantom Rider trilogy, yet it never felt like quite enough, somehow.
During that time, I remember actively pushing the idea of intensity. I talked proudly about how I wrote instead of getting together with friends after work and about how I stayed indoors on beautiful summer weekend days. I told other would-be writers that they needed to do the same and that if they didn’t the sad reality was that they would never sell.
This was all within five years of the start of my career—a length of time that felt like forever, but that I now know was nothing. I thought I understood so much, but most of my advice came down to, “Just be like me.” That’s terrible advice.
Janet: I so relate to this Janni. I was just as driven, though I worked for ten years before my first novel sold. I used to picture myself banging my head against a wall— that’s what the waiting time was like, then when I sold my first novel in 1999, I was determined to prove myself as a writer. My personal motto was “write hungry” which literally meant, sit at the keyboard, write hour upon hour with no breaks = starve myself for my art. This lifestyle worked in the short term (and for a number of novels), but it was a sprint mentality that did not work for the career marathon. What happened to you after that first Big Push?
Janni: So you deprived yourself of food, and I deprived myself of sleep. 🙂
Janet: I’m picturing the two of us staggering sleepless and starving into our writing careers. Of course we were going to smack into a wall!
Janni: What works so well short term that feels like it will work forever, and then …
Well, for me the “and then” was that shortly after those first three novels came out—this would be in the mid-90s—I hit a lull. The industry was changing—as it always is, though each time feels new to new writers—and the sort of children’s paperback series books that had once been a relatively easy sell now were not selling much at all. I wrote proposals for some books I loved and didn’t sell them. I wrote proposals for some books I didn’t love but I thought were more commercial and didn’t sell them either. I took on a work-for-hire project that seemed like a sure thing and had it fall apart after I’d put a year’s time into it.I struggled with some health issues, and some depression issues and my writing speed slowed way down, making it harder to get work out there. I don’t know exactly when I began to burn out, but as I neared the end of the first decade of my career—as we moved from the 90s to the 00s—I clearly had.
“Nebuchadnezzar” in madness, William Blake
Janet: I’ve been there. How did you handle Burnout?
Janni: One thing I had to realize was that my work didn’t define my worth. I needed to separate those two things from one another. I’ve needed to revisit the struggle to do so regularly throughout my career.
At some point, it also hit me that there were no guarantees as a writer and that success wasn’t as simple as just being intense enough or doing any other one right thing. Anything I wrote could ultimately sell or not sell, find its audience or not find it. I had less control than I’d thought—and that was oddly freeing. If there were no guarantees anyway, I realized I might as well just write what I loved. So I jumped in and finished a book—a whole book, not a proposal—for no other reason than I wanted to write it. That book, Secret of the Three Treasures, would become my next published children’s book—ten years after the Phantom Rider trilogy. More importantly, though, for the first time in years I had fun writing, genuine fun, and I felt my writing energy rise again.
Note: Originally published as Secret of the Three Treasures by Holiday House
– visit Tiernay West, Professional Adventurer
Janet: I had a similar experience. I was desperate to write and publish fantasy but had not sold any yet. After rejecting Dragon’s Keep, my then agent and my editor advised me to “stick to middle-grade realistic fiction.” Being a rule-breaker, I secretly wrote another fantasy novel—The Beast of Noor— telling no one but those in my critique group. Because I had to write that book. And it sold, hooray! But of course, I didn’t know it would ever see the light of day while I was deep in the story; asking the questions that could only be answered in that world with those characters. I was dealing with a family trauma and the way I “deal” with life is to dive into story. The character of the Falconer taught me something I would need to know later–to let go of my need to control, to step back and let others help. Daring to write that book also broke the glass ceiling in my career and Dragon’s Keep the book that had accumulated tons of rejections, sold shortly after selling The Beast of Noor, selling first in the UK and then in the U.S.
note: UK title cover on sidebar = Talon –>
Janni: We forget that teen fantasy was once such a hard sell! We forget that everything cycles around, and that any book can be commercial one year and uncommercial the next—or vice versa.
By the time I wrote Secret of the Three Treasures I’d already written the opening to a YA novel too, Bones of Faerie, and like you, I was afraid to talk about it much.
Janet: I remember you reading the opening of Bones of Faerie at the Jane Yolen retreat. I was awestruck. This was years before it was published.
Janni: It was before I’d written anything more than the opening of the book! I was terrified to write the rest of Bones of Faerie back then because I loved that opening so much and I knew living up to it would be a tremendous creative challenge. Though I now think seeking out challenges is a way of reducing burnout, too.
That conference with Jane Yolen was the first children’s, and YA focused writing conference I’d been to, by the way—until then I’d only gone to adult science fiction and fantasy conferences—so I was also terrified that I would get there and just find out I didn’t belong, that I was deluding myself or something. Instead, I took a lot of encouragement and support, from Jane and the other writers there, back home with me.
The fear of not belonging as a writer is another really common thread I see among writers, especially new writers. I wonder if our initial intensity is in part an attempt to outrun that fear.
Janet: I think you nailed it, Janni! So we covered Intensity. Burnout. And somewhere in here we also stumbled on another phase of the Creative Cycle—Regrouping. You said “I now think seeking out challenges is a way of reducing burnout” That rings true to me. Taking on a new challenge seemed to have helped us both come out of that dark time of loss and rejection when we feared our careers were over. In my case, the fear that I would never be able to publish any fantasy books haunted me because that was the path I desperately wanted to take. We both turned to writing books we had to write and found encouragement from those further along in their writing careers, who loved the books we dared to write.
Janni: I think both definitely help. Jane remained tremendously supportive of Bones of Faerie, by the way. Every time I saw her for the next several years, she’d give me this look and say, “So, have you finished that book yet?” That was tremendously encouraging!
Photo © Jason Stemple
Janet: Jane Yolen also heard the opening of Beast on that retreat and advised me on the sequel, The Dragons Of Noor. We have a lot to thank Jane for.
Janni: We do!
Janet and Janni: “Thanks, Jane!”
Janni: Support, just knowing we’re not alone with the ups and downs, that we’re not the only ones to invent and reinvent ourselves, is huge. We’re so afraid of admitting to struggles, of being seen as less than perfect. Again, it’s like if others detect weakness, they’ll realize we don’t belong, and somehow magically kick us out of this writing world. But no one can make us stop writing, and no one person controls the whole writing-verse anyway. It doesn’t work that way.
No one can make us stop writing … it’s always the writing this comes back to. Back when I wrote the opening to Bones of Faerie, commercially it seemed like a very chancy thing. But creatively, it seemed like a necessary thing. Whether a book sells or not—and I’m not dismissing the economics of making a living, which aren’t trivial and can also be a path to burnout—no one can take the creative process away from us. Like you with The Beast of Noor, I wrote Bones of Faerie because it was a book I had to write. When I was done, I knew the process of having written it, and all I took away from that, was mine forever, no matter what happened next.
Ultimately Bones of Faerie became one of my most successful books, but I didn’t know that would happen when I wrote it, and I had reason enough to fear the opposite would happen.
Janet: Instead of this
You kept working through book one and beyond. Now the world has . . . !!
Janni: I didn’t know that faeries, dystopia, and darkness would all become larger parts of the YA publishing landscape. Maybe sometimes when we write a book we have to write, there’s a reason for that compulsion, something in the larger world that we’re picking up on, that makes the book more commercial than we know.
But there are no guarantees about that, either. There are no guarantees at all once a book leaves our hands, whether it’s a book we wrote because we thought we “ought” to or whether it’s a book we wrote because we had to, whether it’s a book we wrote easily and joyously or a book that was hard to write, a book that took everything out of us. Maybe that’s one thing we all have to make our peace with as writers, eventually, the fact that there are no promises—not when we start out, and not ten, twenty, or thirty years later, either.
Janet: I needed to hear this today, Janni. Thank you. I’m thinking of the W.H Auden quote, “Life is a picnic on a precipice.” I’m on the precipice again, writing something I’m not sure will sell, and writing without a contract for the first time in years, which is both exhilarating and terrifying, so it’s a relief to talk about these cycles of the writing life with you. Reading online, so much focuses on the “Intensity” phase. This talk is an invitation to a wider, longer-lasting view.
Janni: I’m glad we’re talking about it, too! It’s so heartening, even energizing, to have these conversations.
So many of us enter this field on that wave of initial intensity. Maybe we even need that intensity to get started. But no one can remain intense forever. At some point that intensity needs to relax—we need to relax—or else we crash and burn. Many of us, if we keep writing long enough, need to find a new approach—a more sustainable approach, because flat-out intensity is sustainable for a few years, but not forever.
Seen that way, relaxing our intensity isn’t a sign we’ve given up, but a sign of success. We’re still here. We’re still writing. We’re doing what it takes for us to stay here and stay writing.
Janet: Thanks for this creative conversation, Janni.
Dreamwalkers– more posts, more gifts.
If you’ve enjoyed our conversation and would like to explore these ideas further; you’re in luck! Janni Lee Simner has a series of author interviews on her blog that focus on Writing for the Long Haul.
Gifts: Dying to read the book Jane Yolen nudged Janni for ten years to write? Dying to understand why the daring opening exhilarated and terrified her? Janni will gift the Bones of Faerie trilogy to one lucky Dreamwalker!
Note: To those of you who are new to rafflecopter, the only thing you have to do is tweet. The tweet is written for you ahead of time. You just need to click. Also, you need to click “I Tweeted” to confirm the entry. Good Luck All!