How Burnout Made me a Better Author

Burnout saved me from my writer self
by Michelle Pennington

Burnout. Few words spark such dread among writers. Avoiding it, surviving it, and recovering from it are each the focus of many articles, blogs, podcasts, books, and conference classes. Still, most of us have or will find ourselves grappling with it. This struggle resembles a hiker who has fallen off an unforeseen cliff and now clings to the sheer rockface with desperate, failing fingers, unable to pull themselves up.

I speak from experience.

While attempting to write at the very edge of my abilities and capacity in an effort to release rapidly and reach a six-figure a year income, I ran headlong into the pandemic. All at once, I found myself—an introvert—constantly around my family, needing to manage virtual school for four children, and facing an onslaught of mental health dilemmas between the six of us. My daily word count became a determined slog until just thinking about writing flooded me with resistance.

My publishing schedule and sales took a massive hit while so many of my close author friends and community connections were successfully writing and earning at dizzying rates. It was impossible not to feel like a failure.

That is the two-pronged attack of the burnout monster. It injures both your productivity and your self-esteem. The tailspin of frustration, resentment, jealousy, and dejection is not easy to break out of. So, yes! Avoid it at all costs if you can.

However, if it should happen to you, don’t despair. For me, burnout proved to be a blessing in disguise. In fact, I am emerging from it as a better author, and so can you.

Burnout saved me from myself.

Like so many other authors, I rushed headlong into the swiftly flowing waters of rapid releasing without taking stock of my capabilities or the strength of the current. As a result, I enjoyed more commercial success than I had previously dreamed possible, but at the same time, I suffered personally in ways I hadn’t expected. The dangerous part was that I didn’t realize the beating I was taking as I was carried along in the rush of success. Who knows how great the toll would have been if burnout hadn’t dragged me out of the water—unwillingly—before I drowned.

Only once I’d been stranded unceremoniously on the shore while everyone else continued on without me, was I able to take stock of myself. My stress, back pain, a chaotic household, disconnection in my relationships, toxic absorption in my work, a skewed perspective on success, and depleted creative energy all became painfully apparent.

Burnout made me rest and replenish.

At first, the resistance I felt toward writing felt like the death of my career. But since pushing against it made things worse, I gave in and simply took it easy on myself. During this forced period of rest, I discovered Asian dramas—especially Korean, Chinese, and Japanese dramas. With new languages to hear, cultures to explore, and story-telling structures to follow, I was able to simply immerse myself in the experience.

I realized later that I had been expending all of my creative energy without refilling it. I had become a dry, thirsty sponge, and dramas were a fountain of living water. Here was a new source of wonder and magic that demanded nothing from me and gave until I was filled and longing to write again.

Burnout forced me to question everything.

As hope and desire to write returned, I realized how delicate my creative health was. Unwilling to put it at risk again, I had to determine what had gone wrong so I could protect myself going forward. The most basic questions brought surprising answers.

What makes me happy?

As I sorted through my cluttered soul, I pared my answer down to peace and connection.

While I had been chasing after sales for financial peace of mind, I realized that most of the things that brought me actual peace didn’t require money: time spent with my family, nature, music, spirituality, and solitude. Of course, paying the bills and being able to travel made all of those things easier, but I now saw that there was a tipping point at which my business pursuits had gone from supporting my needs to distracting me from them. I saw that the more time and effort I put into chasing success, the more it impacted my relationships and health.

These answers led to another question. What does success look like for me?

This answer was harder to define. I suspect it will require constant examination and focus. I am also positive that it would be pointless to share because my answer will look different from yours. By questioning everything, I learned that I had previously based many of my decisions and measures off of others instead of myself.

Burnout took me back to my roots.

Getting caught up in the author rat race had also stolen the joy of writing from me. And that was not something I could allow to continue. In trying to discover how that had happened, I realized that I’d severely neglected my inner artist. So, in order to reclaim that part of me, I went back to the beginning. Who was I as an artist before my business-self took over? Both roles are important, but they needed to be equally yoked together.

As I thought back to my early days as an author, I was surprised at how many important parts of my creative process I had abandoned along the way in order to write faster. My craft had improved enough that my writing was still strong—perhaps better than ever—but the process of writing was not as satisfying or fulfilling. The ideal creative process will renew your energy instead of draining it.

For me, that meant I needed to go back to creating music playlists and vision boards for my projects. I needed more scope and space for daydreaming. Being more grounded in real-life experiences and soaking in the world through my senses had to become intentional again. While I was still capable of describing a thunderstorm from my desk, standing in the rain first would provide an immersive, detail-rich experience that would benefit both me and my readers.

Burnout led me to a better way forward.

Instead of being the end of the road, burnout helped me find a better path to follow. Sure, I have battle scars that will likely impact me for a long time to come, if not forever. Instead of being able to reliably produce five to eight thousand words a day, my new reality is being thrilled with two thousand. My sales are down and my fans are either impatient or forgetting me. I must battle demons of comparison that won’t stay down no matter how many times I beat them back into their cages.

But this is only a moment in time, not my whole career. That’s the perspective that I’d lost before. I hope to have thirty years or more ahead of me, so all of my struggles are just part of the journey instead of being a dead end.

Because of my detour through burnout, I now have wisdom and experience to serve as my compass. Instead of haphazardly chasing after success fireflies, I am determined to stay on my path. I may not know the exact destination, but I trust that my new guiding principles will take me somewhere meant for me. Those are:

Joyful Writing

Work/Life Balance

Sustainable Growth

Let me be clear: Rapid-release strategies and ambitious financial goals were not the problem. Writing to market doesn’t exclude writing for love. I am not denouncing any of them. In fact, I believe in them and will still apply them throughout my career. However, I learned the hard way that an author’s capacity for workload, stress, and creative output varies by person and the circumstances they find themselves in at any given time. The problem is not with any single tool, method, or strategy. The problem comes when we are not mindful enough of our core needs. And nothing will remind you of them faster than burnout.

So, if you find yourself clinging to the side of a cliff or drowning in a raging river—or whichever of my mixed metaphors resonated with you—rest assured that while burnout may break you, it also has important lessons for you to learn. It won’t be easy. At times it will feel like a heavy, suffocating black hole. But you can emerge from it stronger, wiser, and more equipped for the journey ahead of you than you ever would have been without it.

About Michelle Pennington

Michelle Pennington is a USA Today Bestselling author of clean romance. Because she was never good at making decisions, she writes contemporary, young adult, historical, romcom, and fantasy. The genre might change but her characters will always be falling in love. When not writing, she spends her days quoting movies with her husband and making messes faster than her four kids. She used to have a lot of hobbies, but then she got addicted to k-dramas. Michelle also teaches and supports other authors as one of The Writing Gals.

Visit her website: https://www.michelle-pennington.com

Join The Writing Gals’ Facebook Group.

Watch The Writing Gals’ YouTube Channel.


Apex Glimpses, News, and Shout-outs!

Jonathan Maberry, one of the Today’s Top Ten Horror Authors, is coming to Apex!

On Monday, January 23, 2023 at 7:00 pm MT he’ll be talking to us about the most effective ways to query. Bring your notebooks & questions!

JONATHAN MABERRY is a New York Times bestselling author, 5-time Bram Stoker Award-winner, and comic book writer. His vampire apocalypse book series, V-WARS, is in production as a Netflix original series, starring Ian Somerhalder (LOST, VAMPIRE DIARIES). He writes in multiple genres including suspense, thriller, horror, science fiction, fantasy, and action; and he writes for adults, teens and middle grade. His comics include Black Panther: DoomWarThe Punisher: Naked Kills and Bad Blood. He is a board member of the Horror Writers Association and the president of the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers. He lives in Del Mar, California. Find him online at www.jonathanmaberry.com

Jonathan Maberry Fiction Writing Course

📌 Opportunity for Apexers:

Submit your pitches, queries, or synopsis. A few will be selected for an upcoming Strategy meeting with Patrick Hopkins & Morgan Hazelwood from “Rewriting Queries with Patrick Hopkins! (And Morgan)” on Jan 30th Strategy to demonstrate concepts and possibly rewrite them to make your docs as strong as possible.

Please email to tfburke570@gmail.com and HAVE IN THE SUBJECT LINE: “Jan 30 Strategy.”
REMEMBER our presenters will be selecting from what is sent.

Tammy will be accepting these emails up to midnight January 21, 2022.

In the Fall of 2021, AJ Benson and David Farland created a “Success Group” within Apex and the first episode of Strategy, “How Traditional Publishing Works,” was born. Many of these early Strategy meetings were led by Dave, such as “Desired Outcomes and Marketing to the Right Audience,” “Creating Your List” and “Parsing Out Book Rights” (and more) while AJ led sessions such as “Websites” and “Self-Publishing.”

Dave hoped guests from inside or outside of Apex would talk about strategic things to us and he wanted Apexers to feel comfortable asking questions and engaging in dialogue. He left behind his vision for us. We have both Apex members and visitors join our Strategy Zoom to talk about everything from craft to tools to marketing and publishing.

We have a few new things to share. To make things easier for our members to both decide what to attend live and how to decide what to watch when on the replays, we have added a few new tools. We have “At a Glance” for both Strategy meeting and “For Mastermind” and we have a searchable Index for our Strategy meetings.

Strategy at a Glancehttps://same-timpani-08a.notion.site/Strategy-At-A-Glance-4052121946fe45caad4eed43bf2202cd

Mastermind at a Glance: https://same-timpani-08a.notion.site/Mastermind-At-A-Glance-de55feec71e94e768eeed5d69becfc54

Strategy Searchable Index: https://same-timpani-08a.notion.site/Strategy-Teachable-c675f3d7f7464b4e99bc0c4e9b1c3667

MICHAEL HAUGE, one of Hollywood’s Top Coaches & Story Experts is coming to Apex in February!

Michael is the bestselling author of Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read, as well as the 20th Anniversary Edition of his classic book Writing Screenplays That Sell, and his latest book, Storytelling Made Easy: Persuade and Transform Your Audiences, Buyers and Clients – Simply, Quickly and Profitably.

He has presented seminars, lectures and keynotes to more than 300,000 participants worldwide, including countless screenwriters, novelists and filmmakers. And, he has consulted on projects starring (among many others) Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise and Reese Witherspoon.

So what will Michael be talking to us about? We will be taking a poll from Apexers and giving Michael the top two answers. Below are the talks we’re going to poll. Look for it on the Apex-Writers Facebook and vote!


📌 Shout-out to some of our Apexers for this week!

  • William Joseph Roberts for his WoTF Honorable Mention “Messenger of Death.”
  • Wulf Moon for his phenomenal Kickstarter – $7,000 in less than 12 hours and concluding with a 1,124 percent over initial funding goal! This is for HOW TO WRITE A HOWLING GOOD STORY, his debut book in his SUPER SECRETS series.
  • Jason J Willis for his first paid, professional-level publication in System Apocalypse Short Story Anthology 2.
  • And Brady Hunsaker for his first book, SCORNED PRINCE, which comes out in March!

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