Empty Brain Syndrome

By John Gilstrap

Woot! Another book is in the can! I was a tad late on the delivery of the manuscript, but Harm’s Way, #15 in my Jonathan Grave thriller series is in the hands of my publisher. In the next few weeks, I’ll get the editorial letter, and I’m sure I’ll have to tweak a few things, but I am officially on to the next thing.

Because I tend to write down to the wire on deadlines, those last weeks closing in on the final sentence are face-on-fire marathons of 12-hour writing days. For Harm’s Way, I believe I wrote about 50,000 words in five weeks. The good news is, I got it done. The bad news is, I never should have allowed myself to fall so far behind.

The outstanding, unbelievable news is that I really like the end product. It is admittedly replete with typos–though I tried to find all of them–and there’s likely a lot of they’re/there/their-level mistakes, but that’s easy to fix in post. I’m confident that I have further solidified my reputation for being clueless about what commas actually do, and that I did my part to underwrite  the “which” versus “that” mystery, but the story holds together. The dialogue snaps, the action sings. Yay me.

Now, here’s the problem: My brain is empty. I know there’s an idea for a new book out there somewhere beyond my grasp, but right now, all I see is the limits of my grasp.

This isn’t my first rodeo, so I’m confident that this brain seizure–like the 26 that have preceded it–will loosen its grip on my idea factory and allow me to go on yet another Great Pretend, but it’s always a bit discomfiting to realize that I literally don’t want to write again for a while. It’s as if my brain has been intellectually bruised and needs some time for the swelling to go down.

For most of my writing career, I have been committed to one book per year. For the past three years, however, I have been committed to two books per year (one Victoria Emerson book and one Jonathan Grave book). The fact that these expanded commitments coincided with multiple moves, family illnesses and a new puppy was nobody’s issue by mine. A commitment is a commitment.

But I’m never signing contracts for two books per year again. I do, however, expect to write more than one book per year. One of them, though, will be a spec book, sold to the highest bidder.

Brother Bell: Remember the Christmas book I told you about? (No spoilers allowed.) That’s my on-deck spec. I have a feeling that this is The One. I just have post-submission euphoria to die down. That said, it seems to me that this might be the perfect time of year to launch on the Christmas book.

TKZ family, do you look at the completion of a project as a prompt for a break, or a launching board for the next new thing?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

17 thoughts on “Empty Brain Syndrome

  1. Isaac Asimov was a notorious write-aholic. I’ve heard that he’d write “The End,” pull the paper out of the typewriter, replace it, and type “Chapter One.” That is not me. I’m a firm believer in the creative fallow field. After each book, I’d take a break to rest the brain and creativity. I might do some writing busywork but, otherwise, I’d do other things. It worked best for me.

    I also learned by watching others’ careers that editors were perfectly happy to up the number of books and stories an author needed to produce, but they were also perfectly happy to find a new victim when a writer burned out. The only person truly on your side in the business is you.

    • The two books per year thing was my idea. I wanted to get the Victoria Emerson series out of my brain and onto the page. Fact is, I’ll probably continue to do two books per year, but only one of them will be under contract. The second one will be a spec book.

  2. Congratulations on finishing “In Harm’s Way,” John! Number 15 in your series, too. Has to be a great feeling to be that deep into that series.

    As an indie, my finishing a book means that next up is the publishing part–which begins with proofing, sending out ARCs, and then uploading to all the retailers and getting the word out. That publishing phase ends up giving me a break from the creative side. I always think I’m going to write on the next thing during the publishing phase, but so far, I don’t. In fact, it’s usually a week or two after publishing before I begin the next thing in earnest. So, unintentionally or not, I end up taking a break from the creative side.

    Enjoy your break!

  3. Great news! Time to celebrate, John. And relax, if that will stoke your fire. For me, the production process is 90% unconscious effort, so I have to make sure the “Guardienne” is happy. She lets me know by sending dreams.

    (Note: do not practice “Lucid Dreaming.” It can interfere with messages from your Guardienne.)

    Record your dreams in a bed-side notebook immediately upon waking. Analyze them later, asking yourself what each detail might mean. There are books that explain the process, but no book can analyze your dream. A therapist can help, but the dreamer is the best analyst of his own dreams.

    “In each of us there is an ʘther, whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams . . .” –Carl Jung

  4. Congratulations! So proud of you.
    I took a workshop with Julia Cameron from The Artist’s Way. She talks about taking a weekly fun Artist’s Date to restock the creative pond, especially if it’s been overfished.

  5. Wow, John! Twelve-hour writing days are unimaginable. No wonder your poor brain needs a vacation.

    Like Dale, finishing a book for me means the ongoing work of publishing and launching so there isn’t really a respite, just a different focus.

    I have felt a sort of postpartum depression, an emptiness, when a book is complete. But, a few weeks later, another idea starts nibbling.

  6. Congrats on finishing #15 in the series!

    WOW. 50,000 words in five weeks. I read that & want to lay down and sleep for a week! 😎

    I can’t speak to the pressures of publication/deadlines since my writing journey has been long & leisurely thus far, but even without hard deadlines of a contract, I have to take a mental break upon finishing a manuscript. While it’s very satisfying to finish a story, I find I am drained by the time I’m done and I have to just let my brain recharge for a while before tackling something else.

    Sometimes I switch to another creative outlet entirely for a while, such as drawing or painting. Sometimes I start brainstorming another writing project. The great news is those times of brain-drain don’t last, and there are always more story ideas than I could ever finish.

  7. I do remember that lunch we had at Bouchercon when you pitched your Christmas idea. If I’d been a publisher I would have snapped it up! I’ve nudged you a couple of times on this, so I’m glad to hear it’s now on the front burner. These speciality Christmas books (e.g., by Koontz, Klavan, and others) usually drop in October, so plan accordingly.

    As for me, I always have 2-3 projects in development. I take one day off a week anyway, for recharging. When I finish a book, while I may take a few days off, I’m still jotting ideas for the future projects, or working on a short story or two. But I imagine if I’d done a five-week, 50,000 word sprint to the finish line, I’d want to shut down the ol’ noodle for a longer time.

  8. Congratulations, John, on completing HARM’S WAY. Fifteen in a series, that’s a real accomplishment!

    In answer to your question: When I finish a book, I send it out to beta readers. And while I’m waiting for their comments, I begin the brainstorming for the next book, one of my favorite parts of writing.

    Good luck with the editing, production, and launch of your new book!

  9. Congratulations, John, on completing Harm’s Way. And 50,000 words in five weeks! You put me to shame.

    I think the completion of any major effort requires some down time to regroup. At least it does for me. It’s sort of like sleep — time for the brain to rewire itself without conscious interference. I have two projects on the back burner (far back) that I’m noodling on as I work on my current ms. When this one is done, I hope I’ll be able to switch gears smoothly and continue the journey.

    “… right now, all I see is the limits of my grasp.” Ah. I think Robert Browning had something to say about that.

  10. I’m looking at an early January deadline, and trying to calculate how many words I’ll need to write each day (or week, per JSB), but 12-hour days aren’t in the mix. Hat tip to you.
    As others have said, there are different tasks along the way as an indie author/publisher. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I do believe in channeling other creative outlets to help recharge.

  11. An idea prompt. Late last night, a friend was driving home in a dark rural area. She spotted a deer in her lane, not moving. She slammed on the brakes. A man in a deer suit just stared at her. She drove the heck away.

  12. Congratulations, John. It’s amazing feeling when you complete another book, one that you’re excited about and proud of. I’m in final edits for my latest. Yay!

    The End used to signal a break for me, but now that I ended one of my series, I’m too excited to stop. Thus far, I’m never at a loss for where to take my Mayhem Series next. I struggled for ideas in my Grafton County Series. Hence why I ended it.

    Reading helps clear the fog. 🙂

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