Thursday, August 18, 2005

BURNOUT ~ SUCCESS is out to Get You!

Raped from an interview with corporate psychologist Steven Berglas, who deals with burnout among the ultra-successful.

The most detrimental problem for a writer,
isn’t Failure, it’s SUCCESS.

The Mystery of the Missing Best-selling Authors.
You see it all the time. A hot new author puts out book after book, then suddenly the story quality drops, and those books aren’t so wonderful any more. But you keep buying them on the hope that what made them great (in the first 9 books,) will resurface. Instead, that author suddenly drops off the face of the earth; sometimes for years – sometimes for ever.

What Happened?


In the corporate arena, the wildly successful with nothing left to achieve, often turn to self-destructive behavior -- drinking, drug use, extramarital sex, embezzlement -- just for something to DO.

Authors, become self-destructive too, but internally, rather than externally. They destroy themselves -- and their relationships, rather than turn to actual crime. Burnout causes many authors to become mentally unstable, neurotically paranoid, and bi-polar, as well as secret drinkers, and perscription-drug abusers. (How many of you take Xanax already?) Authors typically end up in the hospital, rather than in jail.

What causes burnout?
One of the primary reasons for burnout, is tedium. While building your career, you're developing your skills, and experimenting with techniques. With every new revelation, ("Wow! This works!") you feel psychologically rewarded.

Once you have your technique down, and are recognized for a specific ‘style’ of plot or characters, you become locked in to producing that ONE style, often by the publishing house that recognized you. And don’t discount your adoring fans! To keep that recognition, you start replicating the same story, over, and over, and over..., Dull, dull, dull…

Out of sheer self defense against the mind-grinding boredom, your brain shuts down into Writer's Block. And then your brain, and your body, rebels. Exhaustion, mood-swings, health problems that the doctor swears is stress-related...(and this can take YEARS,) until you get total mental and physical meltdown -- BURNOUT.

“I do a lot of work with white-collar criminals, and invariably -- and I mean invariably -- they're not doing it for the money. They're doing it because they're bored.” -- Steven Berglas

From multi-published author:
Lena Austin

-----Original Message-----
Boredom began when I became bored with the sex scenes. (Yawn) Okay, you showed me how to fix that. Then, it was (writing) the series. Oh, yes, the series. That creativity-eating monotony of being locked into "What do I do now?" Oh, yes, how well I understand the series author's pain.

However, I will add one thing: Over-commitment.

Authors are, by and large, a hungry bunch. We love praise, and sparkle when we get it. We succumb so easily to flattery, especially when the publisher that made us successful asks for you to "squeeze in just this little story" for the themed promo, the continuity, or whatever. (I have managed to resist, but not without a modicum of guilt.)

Let's not forget the other form of overcommitment: "Don't put all your eggs in one basket/publisher." Two baskets are good. Three may be pushing. Four is a killer, at least for me.
Writing for different pubs allows the author to stretch their creative muscles, change voices, and even experiment a little. In theory, that's good.

Until they all want your time and effort.

Until you start saying, "I'm sorry, I won't start on the book for you for another three months." One publisher actually said to me, "The fans will forget you in six months!" (They didn't.)

Publishers have their own timetables, and are not above trying to push an author into working harder than they should by moving a deadline or deliberately misunderstanding you. If you say, "I won't start on this book until June," it's entirely possible they'll set the release date for June! It's happened to me three times.

I no longer give them any clues like that.

Lena Austin


What about money and success?
Don’t they offer a sense of accomplishment?

At first, but to Keep that success going, to Keep those paychecks rolling in, you strangle your creativity to keep manufacturing the stories that made those paychecks happen in the first place – and put a time-limit on your whole writing career. Tick… Tick… Tick…

In most cases, the problem is NOT with the author -- it's with the Publisher. The bigger publishing house DON’T encourage Change. They encourage stasis -- especially with something that proves successful. They have no desire to fix -- what ain't broke.

To many of the larger publishing houses, authors are consumable products -- like Pepsi cola. The last thing they want is a change in the recipe. But authors AREN’T like Pepsi -- their work is NOT mass-produced, so this kind of thinking actually encourages author turnover, especially among the best sellers.

“When you try to get people off that track, they say, "What am I supposed to do? Take my kids out of Exeter, move from Nob Hill?" I say, "Well, what are the alternatives? You loathe your job, and you're gonna take it out on them." This is why you get these flagrant burnouts. When jobs become constraining, we will often do things that will (deliberately) throw us off the fast track.” -- Steven Berglas

Is leaving the Publishing House or Quitting the only option?
Nope. Leaving one publishing house for another is just as career-killing as quitting altogether. (The publishing world is VERY small. The editors are constantly talking to each other.) Rather than scrapping everything, your books, your publishers, your careers... EXPAND on what you are already doing. Add an interesting twist, or a change in locations.

“The paradox is that to prevent burnout you need more challenges, not fewer.” -- Steven Berglas

What role does stress play in burnout?
Stress ISN’T the problem. Stress can actually help alleviate the boredom by making you work harder to get that story down on paper.

“Stress and burnout are unrelated. Stress is being thwarted from a goal. A traffic jam causes stress. Burnout would be giving a canned lecture every day of the week for four months.” -- Steven Berglas

Can you tell who is Least likely to suffer from burnout?
Those who are PASSIONATE in their work. The pains in the ass authors that constantly shift their style, their characters, and sometimes their genres, are never bored. These authors tend to avoid writing long-playing series, but instead, have a ton of good-selling, well-written, single-title books.

They’re the ones that publishers point to, and wince. “They could be superstars, if they only stuck to one thing.” And yet, they are far more likely to have steady careers that span decades.

These authors are usually passionately supportive of their fellow authors, (even if their fellow authors don’t want to hear it,) because they have a million ideas running through their heads, and aren’t afraid to share. They may not always play well with others, but they are NEVER accused of back-stabbing, or idea theft.

“Throughout my career, I've noted that the most authentically motivated employees are the ones who will get in your face and get angry. I always counsel managers that the yes-man/yes-woman is the most malicious force in organizational life because they're the ones who are whoring, who are mercenary, who are talking behind your back.” -- Steven Berglas

Who are candidates for burnout?

The wildly successful authors who made their success writing ONE type of story, or one long-playing series.

Robert Jorden, for example, is boring many of his more passionate readers to tears, because his Wheel of Time series, stopped evolving. Laurell K. Hamilton, is fighting tooth and nail to keep her Anita Blake series going, by adding character after character, and a lot of sex. Jim Butcher is well aware of the danger, and intends to end his Harry Dresden series, and in fact, has already started another series. However, the big question is, will his Publisher LET him stop writing Harry Dresden books? Will his bank account?

“Let's take an entrepreneur for example -- Michael Dell. What did Dell do? He created a distribution system that was both economical and efficient. Ted Waitt, at Gateway, did the same thing. Those two men, I think, are in jeopardy of burning out because they're replicating and refining a single paradigm. When you're changing your product, that's when you're happy.” -- Steven Berglas

What can you do early in your career to stay Inspired?

KEEP your Passion. If you are stuck doing a series, make sure that the fictional universe you’ve created is big enough to sustain radical shifts in theme, story-line, and characters. Fight boredom by giving yourself room to grow, and change.

“Easy for the fantasy authors,” you might say, “but what about us contemporary authors?”

For those of you trapped in the mundane world, try a Location Change. Put your established characters in New places, and New situations. Send your characters to other cities, other countries. At least get them fired from their job, and have to deal with a new one.

Already stuck? Try writing a new series, something different from your old one. Contract it with a new publisher, under a new name, if you have to. When a book in one series gets to be too tedious, you can switch over and write a book for the other series, to refresh your mind, body, and creative soul.

“Stay angry. When you notice you're not committed to an organization anymore, when you don't need to fight for changes, take stock. When Bill Gates handed over the running of Microsoft to Ballmer, he said, "I'm going back to the drawing board." About five other CEOs did the same thing.” -- Steven Berglas

How can Publishers & Agents keep from losing their Selling Authors?
STAY CONNECTED to both the authors you work with, and their reading audience.

With the advent of the Internet, the reading market changes faster than ever before. With access to email, instant messaging, weblogs, and fan-groups lists, Authors are no longer isolated. They’re directly connected to other Authors, as well as their fans, and their fans talk to each other.

USE THAT RESOURCE! Don’t leave everything up to the Marketing department. Marketing is all about Packaging, it's Advertising. They don't have a clue about managing your bread-winning authors, or dealing with their fans. They’re ‘idea’ folks with a pile of sales numbers on their desks – and those numbers are DATED, usually by months. Authors are actually more aware of the fluctuations in their readers’ tastes than Marketing is. They are connected directly to the source -- the BUYERS.
  • Want to know what’s happening in the reading market?
  • Want to know where the trends are going?
  • Want to know who has buzz -- and who is getting a bad reputation?
  • Want to know if your Author is dealing with undue stress – or extreme boredom?
Get your answers straight from the source – the authors you work with, and the readers they talk to. Get a blog (weblog) and encourage the readers to talk to you directly. Run a poll, ask questions and get answers – before you lose that money-making author.

“If you're a manager and you don't have someone to tell you that you're a fool, then you're in big trouble. Hire a court jester. Just give someone carte blanche to say, "Berglas, you're an asshole." And "Berglas, this is (what’s being said on) the grapevine.

"What managers don't understand is that they will not know (what’s being said on) the grapevine unless they beg for it. The grapevine will give them the negative information, (that they can’t get anywhere else)."
-- Steven Berglas

The Business end is killing me!

Them’s the breaks. Publishing IS a corporate business. Dealing with contracts, filing taxes, convincing your family that you need to be left alone to WORK, and handling publicity, is part of the job – and not the fun part.

If you have an agent, you can shunt a lot of the legal crap on them, that’s what they’re there for, but managing your time and handling Publicity -- going to conventions, book-signings, managing a fan-group, and a building a website to promote your work -- is ALL YOU.

Welcome to the world of Fame.

Morgan Hawke
Nothing Thwarts Burnout Like a Healthy Dose of Rage
By Stephanie Clifford, Business 102 Magazine, August, 2001

Reclaiming the Fire: How Successful People Overcome Burnout
By Steven Berglas Random House


  1. This was an excellent article. I thoroughly enjoyed it and agree whole heartedly with everything I read.

  2. Everyone who is tired of their success (and those incredibly tiring mucho $$$ multi-book contracts) is welcome to relegate said success to me. Thanks in advance :)

  3. Thanks, Morgan. I needed that, LOL. Not that I haven't mixed things up, ROFL, but I...

    LOL, I just needed it.