When a Writing Break Turns Into a New Novel: J.T. Ellison

Laura Benedict here. Refilling, refueling, refreshing…There are many names for it, but they all refer to giving our creativity the chance to enjoy a well-earned rest. To give it some space, and let our subconsciouses play so we can come back and mine it when we’re ready. My guest today is my good friend, J.T. Ellison, and she and I have had hundreds–yes, hundreds–of conversations about staying creative and navigating flashes of burnout for over a decade. Given that J.T. has published 22 novels since 2007, along with a significant number of stories, novellas, and anthologies, she knows well the challenges of keeping her work fresh and herself productive, yet also sane.

Welcome, J.T.!

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Credit: Krista Lee Photography

“I’ve always wanted to write a boarding school mystery…”

Let me set the stage. 2018. St. Petersburg, Florida. Bouchercon. A long lunch with an editor, a publisher, a spouse, and a completely burned out author.

I’m not one for tears, but I was feeling it that day. I’d been juggling too much, jumping back and forth between my books and my co-written series, work for the TV show, traveling all over the place, and I was feeling it. I tend to bite off more than I can chew anyway, but at that moment, I had the horrible sense that writing had become work. It’s happened a couple of times in my career, so I recognized what I needed. A break.

Of course, that’s the very last thing any editor wants to hear, but I didn’t think I had a choice. It was take a break or flame out completely.

I’ve worked with my team long enough to be comfortable being honest with them. We talked frankly about author burnout, about finding the joy in the work, about how sometimes, you have to take a break from the grind, write something that you know will be fun. And the words slipped out: “I’ve always wanted to write a boarding school mystery.”

Though I wasn’t actively writing this story, I already had a character – Ash Carlisle. I already knew she was British, and was coming to America to attend an elite boarding school. I knew I wanted her to go from revered to reviled. That’s all I had. But my editor’s face lit up, and I knew I had to find a way to write the book. Just not then.

We left the lunch with a plan for me to regroup and get back to them when I thought I was ready to jump in. I planned to take the rest of the year off – two full months – and then spend six months on a new co-written book, then write the boarding school mystery.

We had scheduled a few days between events to go across the state for some east coast beach time. On the drive over, I was kicking myself. I’d had a conversation about burning out with another author friend, Carla Neggers, who rightly pointed out that some people have to work for a living and we writers have it pretty cushy. She didn’t exactly say suck it up and get back to work—or maybe she did, there was a lot of wine that night—but that’s what I heard. I was relaying this to my husband, feeling silly for my whining. “She’s right, of course. It’s not like I’m digging ditches. If I took a little time off now, maybe I could write the book by February.”

We talked it through. I only had one tour event left after Bouchercon, but February was only four months away. I had the setting, the main character, and the semblance of a plot. It wasn’t like I’d need to do a lot of research—I attended an all woman’s boarding college and was planning to use it as my setting anyway. We’d just been to Oxford, so Ash’s hometown was fresh in my mind. I had a sense of who she was. And it would be a fun book to write. A really, really fun book to write. Hauntings and history, secret societies and hazing, all against a backdrop of one of the prettiest campuses in the country.

I texted my editor, who said yes, they could work with February. I took three full days at the beach to recharge my batteries, handled a couple more events. And then off I went. I started writing in early November and the story just poured out. It was so much fun. I rediscovered the joy of writing. I wrote a few scenes in screenplay format to make sure the visuals worked, played and played with it, hit my usual ¾ of the way in block, where I need to blow up the book to make it all make sense. I even went so far as to change POVs after I’d written a large chunk of it, which truly brought it to life.

I made that deadline (with a small two week extension). My editor loved the book. And here we are, 14 months after my temporary meltdown, and GOOD GIRLS LIE is about to be in stores. It feels like a huge triumph, because this book refilled my well so completely that I found a new joie de vivre for my writing. It’s amazing to me how these things work themselves out.

I think it’s very important for writers—artists in general—to take a step back when they’re feeling burned out or discouraged. You may think you need months off, but a few days at the beach could be the ticket. Or writing a book that you’ve had simmering in your subconscious, one that you want to write, that you know will be a blast to experience. Your passion project will refill your well, and isn’t that what we all want?

Have you ever wanted to take a break from writing, or been forced to by life circumstances? How did you find your way back?

 

J.T. Ellison is the New York Timesand USA Today bestselling author of more than 20 critically acclaimed novels, including TEAR ME APART, LIE TO ME, and ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, and coauthored the “A Brit in the FBI”series with #1 New York Timesbestselling author Catherine Coulter. J.T. is also the EMMY®Award-winning co-host of the television series A Word on Words. Her forthcoming novel, GOOD GIRLS LIE, was a LibraryReads Pick for December 2019 and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. For more, please visit www.jtellison.com, or visit her online @thrillerchick. An excerpt of GOOD GIRLS LIE is available now.

 

 

 

 

 

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

15 thoughts on “When a Writing Break Turns Into a New Novel: J.T. Ellison

  1. I couldn’t write for the weeks that my wife was scheduled for a kidney transplant. I did not believe she was in any danger as her surgical team and medical facility was top-tier, though I admit things can go wrote. But . . .

    We had to go to another city for five weeks for the surgery and the critical follow-up doctor visits two days a week. I took my laptop along, set it up (in a not-so-great compromise of writing space), sent daily e-mails to the kids and grandkids), and daily leafed through the internet. But . . .

    Did not write one word. Wanted to. Couldn’t. But . . .

    The Friday we returned home, I took another weekend break, watched movies, sports, and my TV shows. Listened as my wife, a determined machine as she has always been, cooked, talked to the kids by phone, and carried on with only moments of pain. So . . .

    Monday morning, I sat down at the laptop and wrote five chapters–about 7,000 words–pausing only long enough to sip more Pepsi and eat another handful of Fritos. (I don’t indulged in the short mini-chapters currently being taught, encouraged, and executed by many.) So . . .

    Another 15,000 words after that, and I was done. I have no idea why I was so dry during those five weeks. Couldn’t think, couldn’t come up with a decent, intelligent sentence.

    When my Babe was safe and well on her way to good recovery, did the word flows turned back on.

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    • I cant imagine even trying to write under those circumstances. And yet you did, and came back to it again and again. Bravo! So glad to hear your wife is doing well.

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  2. I work full time and do theatre at night.

    I write when I can and feel guilty when I hear other writers talk about how they write a zillion words a day and never miss.

    I hope the day will come when I can write full time but I do what I can in the meantime.

    I’m currently working on a dystopian novel that I’m thinking might work better as a miniseries as I have three sets of characters I’m following. In between scaring myself silly, I’m also working on a fun little screenplay that’s basically Freaky Friday Meets 9 to 5 at Christmas. Good times!

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    • My hat is off to you — that’s a lot of outside interference. Love both ideas, too, and love that you’re diversifying your creativity. That’s also an excellent way to keep your mind fluid when the words don’t flow on a project – a totally different format.

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  3. One of the ugly sides of writing is that most editors/publishers don’t give a roaring sh*t about the health of their writers. If a writer burns out, they are tossed like a dirty diaper, and the house moves on to the next victim because there is always a next victim. One of my best friends had to deal with that, as well as other crap, when she wrote for Leisure, may it rot in publishing purgatory. It was famous for using the exact tactics as an abusive mate. “You are worthless, no one else wants you, you will work so hard you will have no time to escape.” I’m glad you are in a better place professionally than Ronda was.

    I’ve read that every writer wants to write one heist novel. Now with HARRY POTTER in the zeitgeist, the boarding school story is that other novel. Good luck with it!

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    • Love me some Harry Potter, for sure. I’ve never really thought about a heist novel, but now I’m thinking hmm… I think I’ve actually already written one. So I fall into two tropes, don’t I?

      I’m really sorry that your friend had that experience. I know how blessed I am to have compassionate teammates who understand and encourage me to do what it takes to maintain my creative mental health. I’ve heard so many horror stories. A lot of my burnout was self-inflicted, and that’s something I’m working on year after year, releasing myself from the unnecessary to make time for the things that matter.

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  4. Just finished my most recent series, ICE HAMMER, in June of this year. Was planning to take a few months break, as well as receive the last of my new knees (I have a matched set of lovely titanium body appliances now). But alas, a true break was not in the cards.
    Within days of turning in ICE HAMMER book 3 my brain was suddenly swirling with images of ancient megaliths, pyramids, and massive stone statues, and a story started forming on its own in my head.

    My muses started talking and continued, incessantly, for the next several months, tearing through the pain killer haze as I got accustomed to my new semi-bionic legs.

    There would be no break.

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    • That new series, by the way, while requiring tons of research still, has started finding its way into draft forms.

      Working title: KINGS OF EARTH

      Pitch: The arrival of the Annunaki, fathers of the Nephilim, changes the course of human history, and dooms an entire world. One man, Ar Tor, rises up to fight an unwinable war against supernatural beings who rule the Earth.

      The world before Noah, land of Stone Henge, Pyramids, and Peruvian Megaliths. The memory that became Atlantis in modern minds.

      How did it go from Paradise on Earth, to the flood of judgment?

      “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was altogether evil all the time.” Gen 6:5.

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  5. OH, and by the other way, I still get chills at times thinking about the short story anthology I narrated for you JT. Scottish demons are haunting my garage now.
    😉

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  6. Welcome to TKZ, JT! Sorry I’m late. I’m getting down to the wire with my deadline, juggling a refinance, and planning/hosting Christmas Eve for my family. Needless to say, your story resonated with me. I could use a break now, but I’m slapping the snooze button till Feb. 1st (deadline). My husband and I will be married 20 years next week, so we’re planning a few days away, starting on Feb. 2nd. 😊 Can’t wait!

    I have a fun project I’ve been mulling over for a over a year. Just haven’t found the time to write it in between other projects. Your post has inspired me to make it a priority. Thank you!

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    • I’m so glad! I hear you about the craziness of the holidays. I’m rejiggering my schedule to start taking at least 2 weeks off in December. A mini break. Have a great holiday and good luck with it all!

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  7. Ha, and here I remember urging you to take a break! Must have been the wine. 😉 Burnout is real and a tough thing to go through (don’t ask me how I know!), but I wonder if you were experiencing “resistance” (as described by Stephen Pressfield). Whatever the case, the book sounds great. Congrats, and can’t wait!

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    • Carla, you were sympathetic and kind and did tell me not to burn out. It’s weird, I almost needed permission to chuck my planned break. And you gave it!!!

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