I Can’t Do Two Books Per Year Anymore

By John Gilstrap

From 2019 to 2022, I wrote two books per year–one Jonathan Grave thriller and one Victoria Emerson thriller. That’s six books in three years. Or, 200,000 words per year. During Covid. While building a house. And selling a house. And moving twice. It was exhausting.

Worse, it wasn’t fun. Don’t get me wrong–I’m proud of the stories and the characters and all the moving parts of the books, but as I age, sitting and writing for long periods of time has become uncomfortable. Thanks to a reckless youth and too many years of catching heavy burning stuff with my fire helmet have left my neck and back pretty creaky. When I stay active–say through gardening and yard work and playing with the dog–everything works fine. But after five or six hours at the keyboard, I feel like it takes an hour just to stand upright again.

And there was a mental strain to that writing schedule, as well. Taking all the unique life-stuff out of the equation, a two-a-year contract means that I was always writing one story while editing or proof reading another. It’s just more work than I wanted to do.

But I still want to explore new ideas.

If all goes as expected, I will soon sign a contract with Kensington Publishing that will advance my Jonathan Grave series to 18 volumes. I never dreamed that the momentum of those books would continue to build as it has, and while I’m very much in love with the characters and their mission to bring justice to bad guys, it’s fun to explore different characters and different plots.

Another new series.

I had just finished the page proof edits for White Smoke, the third book of the Victoria Emerson series, when my agent called to tell me that she and my editor had been talking about me over lunch. They think I should do another new series, this one a spin-off from Jonathan that would take a regular character from the series and spin her off in a new direction while at the same time knocking Jonathan’s world a few degrees off its axis.

The idea had occurred to me before, and I find the idea exciting, but see above. I don’t want to do two books a year anymore. I want to have a life outside of my office. It’s the nature of a popular series (and one that I hope will also become popular) that people want to see new books on a regular basis. I hear all the time from people who count on the new Grave book to entertain them at the beach every year.

So, we reached a compromise: One book every 9 months, each new volume in each series dropping every 18 months. That feels doable to me. I guess we’ll find out.

I’m being deliberately obtuse about the new series because no contracts have been signed. I’ll come clean when that happens, I promise.

So, TKZ family, do you find the act of writing to be physically tiring? Inquiring minds want to know . . .

This entry was posted in Writing by John Gilstrap. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

22 thoughts on “I Can’t Do Two Books Per Year Anymore

  1. Every writer has a unique approach and speed. Indeed, the question is, how much time do I need to create quality work?

    9 months sounds reasonable to be. Two books a year can be a lot. Some people write six books or more a year… I want to know their secret. For me, it would be impossible.

    Happy writing!😊

  2. I checked my inventory spreadsheet. My best writing period was the first seven months In 2021.

    From January 1 to August 6 that year (before I stopped smoking cigars and screwed up my neural pathways) I wrote 13 novels, roughly one every two weeks, and one novella. I was on track for at least 20 novels and well over a million words of fiction.

    Before that (2015 through 2020), I averaged 8 to 12 novels per year in 600,000 to 800,000 words of published fiction per year.

    Six of the novels and the novella in 2021 were in two separate western series, and the other seven were in an SF series. They were novels 54 through 66 (inclusive) and novella 9.

    When I’m writing well, I “work” an average of 3 hours per day, every day, at around 1000 words per hour (that’s only 17 words per minute). So plenty of time for other stuff.

    Stopping cigars slowed me considerably. Since August 2022 I’ve written only seven novels, and only two this calendar year. Frankly, I miss the joy of continually recording the story as it unfolds “live” around my characters and me.

    The “secret” for me is in two parts, and it obviously won’t work for everyone:

    1. When I’m in the chair I write, and
    2. I never second-guess my creative subconscious. I trust my characters to tell the story that they, not I, are living. I just happen to be the lucky guy with the keyboard and the fingertips. (grin)

    • Harvey, I stopped cigars for 2 years but recently restarted and I write at the lounge where I’m a member. It’s been poor for my wallet but great for my writing and my mood. (Surgeon General Not Approved).

      • Yep, the cost was why I stopped, and it was a stupid thing to do. Of course, here in the ‘States any research on the effects of nicotine can be summed up with “Ugh. Nicotine Bad.” Research from Europe is where I found actual intelligent discussion. Belatedly, of course.

  3. This is why I’ve never entertained the idea of writing full-time. I’m so thrilled for the people who have the gumption to do so & stand in awe of the discipline they execute to make it happen.

    For me it’s not about the physical ramifications of sitting & writing. My day job is a desk job so the same physical issues apply. For me, it’s the issue of maintaining creativity. My creativity has always gone in spurts. Plus I’m interested in other creative things besides writing. I can’t see myself putting out more than a book a year (unless maybe there is a short story thrown in or something).

    I think of someone cranking out 200k words a year and I’m in awe. Every writer has their own thresholds. For me, I would have creative burnout trying to produce that much content per year. And my experience is that it changes with age. My creative spurts were longer when I was younger & had more energy.

    2023 has mostly been a year of being in revision mode. I hope to start writing a new project in the next few months. If I hit somewhere on the order of 50k words for the year, great. Just so long as I’m making some creative progress. May not be a SMART goal, but it works for me at this time & place in my life.

  4. I’m still a newbie writer at age 44 but I have to say I recently realized I need a way better writing setup than a mini laptop balanced on my actual lap as I sit on the couch. I’m hammering away at a manuscript now and my neck and shoulders are killing me. So yes, it’s been physically draining but more from my own idiocy.

    • The ergonomics of a laptop are terrible. Start by adding a real keyboard and a real screen. Make sure the screen can be adjusted to where your eyes are.

      • Thanks for the advice. I long for a desktop but laptop was more in my budget last time around, believe it or not.

  5. Hi John,

    My aching back and hip send regards to your aching back and neck. Arthuritis is that annoying relative who’s overstayed their welcome and won’t leave. Yet the brain/subconscious keeps throwing out new ideas and bits of scenes. I gave up keeping notebooks of those b/c I know I don’t have the energy to follow all those rabbit trails. I have to choose a few to concentrate on and let the rest drift away.

    But I love to write and feel fortunate the wellspring has been consistent. When words are flowing, I hate to drag myself away from the keyboard even though sitting is hard on the body. Walking and zumba help work out the kinks.

    Now if I could only sell enough books to afford a daily massage… 😉

  6. That sounds like a terrific compromise, John. A novel every nine months, especially a longer one at 100K, is a good pace IMHO. My novels are much shorter than yours—my fantasy novels averaged about 65K while my first cozy mystery was long for the genre at 75K. My goal with mystery is to write two a year, but I’d be happy at one every nine months. Of course, different genres, different writers etc—I’ve learned what’s important is not how you compare with other writers, but how you compare with yourself and what works for you and what doesn’t.

    Writing is physically tiring in my experience. I worked with a writing coach back in late 2019 (Becca Syme) and she pointed out that most writers in her experience are good for four or five hours a day of concentrated actual writing. For me, I’ve learned I can’t sit in the chair for more than about three hours, and in fact, try to take breaks every hour. Take a short walk around the block, do some yoga stretches, etc.

  7. Congratulations, John. I think exploring new ideas is exciting, no matter how many books are written.

    Although I sit at my desk to do email and “administrative” stuff, I move to a recliner to write. It’s much more comfortable. My laptop is on a laptop stand, and my body is aligned better, not “hunched over” the keyboard.

    I also try to fit in an hour of exercise six days a week. I don’t always meet that goal, but I usually make a good dent in it. Whoever invented the treadmill is my hero.

  8. I finished destroying my back about thirty years ago. A small woman with a Napoleon complex against a world built for much taller people as well as five acres of land and an old house. The only thing that helped me was the gym which kept the back muscles strong. Gardening and general grunt work just weren’t enough. Now, my spine from my butt up a third of my back is solid with arthritis. It helps the pain, but not recommended. The gym helped me keep writing at my desk for 3-4 hours a day, but I’d have to stop when the pain was bad to give myself time to heal. Fortunately, I wasn’t on a constant deadline.

    • This is not intended as medical or dental advice:
      I’ve used food grade phosphoric acid* [H₃PO₄] or monosodium phosphate [NaH₂PO₄] for my rheumatoid arthritis. These chemicals are commonly used in foodstuffs to control pH in jellies, etc., and are “generally recognized as safe” [GRAS] by the FDA. They work for my RA but not my OA. I take a daily mineral supplement, as well.
      Some historical data:
      Old drugstore “phosphates” were made with H₃PO₄. They are still available, last I checked, at the Disney Store in Hollywood.
      Phosphoric acid is a component of Diet Coke.
      Check with your MD and see what he says.

      • Note that pure H₃PO₄ and NaH₂PO₄ are very acidic and must be diluted roughly 1000:1 and handled with gloves and eye shields, like any chemical.

        Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor in Pittsburgh apparently also has phosphates. (Some drugstores substitute citric acid, which is not likely to be effective.) “We make real phosphates,” says Klavon. “We add about three drops of phosphoric acid to add tang and cut the sweetness of the sodas…”

  9. …I will soon sign a contract with Kensington Publishing that will advance my Jonathan Grave series to 18 volumes.

    My heart beats faster just thinking about it, John! I love this series. Replete with flawed heroes, a few sympathetic baddies, and some really kill-worthy baddies.

    My kind of reading for pleasure.

    I’ll be watching . . . and drumming my fingers.


  10. Congratulations, John, on the extension of the Jonathan Graves series.

    After too many years of doing my own landscaping and lifting too many heavy objects, too much bending while working, and back surgery, my low back begins to ache after a few hours at the desk top. Like Kay, I’ve found that partially reclining while using a laptop greatly extends the time I can write, pain free. Low-impact low back exercise (Nordic Track) has also helped.

    I hope you find a way that works better for you.

  11. After writing sixteen books and four novellas since 2014, I totally know how you feel about slowing down some. I’ve cut back to one book a year…actually a book every nine months–and know those nine months are going to fly by.

    I do water aerobics twice a week and Pilates on two other days, and walk a mile the other three. And I cut back on carbs and that has really reduced my pain level.
    Your new series sounds intriguing–at least as much of it as we got. Can’t wait to hear more about it.

  12. I have a friend that writes while walking. He dictates into his phone. Oh, I need to learn to do that! Sitting for long periods of time does get tiring on the fanny!

  13. Congratulations on your new contracts and possible new series!

    I’ve never been able to publish more than one book a year, because as you mentioned in your post, I do have a life outside of writing and I don’t want to miss out on those precious moments. Besides, I find my Muse does better if I step away from the keyboard now and then. She likes to give me ideas when I’m walking, doing dishes etc. 🙂 So, in some ways I’m always writing, even when I’m not at the keyboard. Thank goodness for the note app on my phone. A few words jotted down saves the idea for later. 🙂

Comments are closed.