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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Guest Post: Carolyn Haines, Southern Mystery Doyenne

Hey, y’all! I’m so excited to have writer Carolyn Haines visit with us. Decades ago, even before Carolyn started her mystery series featuring Sarah Booth Delaney, I saw several of her books shelved in a place of honor at a friend’s house. My friend told me that Carolyn was a wonderful writer, and as an unpublished newbie, I immediately got stars in my eyes knowing I was thatclose to a famous writer. Carolyn’s writing is truly wonderful, and these days, I’m proud to call her my own good friend.

(If you’re in the Houston area, dash over to the amazing MURDER BY THE BOOK for a signing event with Carolyn, plus Terry Shames, TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m.)

Carolyn is here to talk about the pleasures and pitfalls of having a successful, long-running series. Please give her a warm TKZ welcome!

LONG LIVE THE BONES

I’ve been writing about my amateur detective Sarah Booth Delaney for over 20 years—and I have 20 books documenting her mystery-solving skills. The latest, GAME OF BONES, was just released. But I have to tell you, it’s my time to whine. In the world of Zinnia, Mississippi, Sarah Booth Delaney seldom ages. In the twenty years I’ve been writing about her and the rest of the gang, Sarah Booth has aged less than two years. I, on the other hand, have stacked two decades onto my total orbits around the sun. This is not fair.

While Sarah Booth remains eternally young, still able to consider pregnancy (though she is pushing that really hard as her personal “haint” Jitty would tell her) and still able to perform the physical feats that make her a good detective (and also a bit like Lucille Ball), I am feeling the passage of the years in my bones. Sarah Booth has never met trouble she didn’t want to get down and wallow in. I have not been arrested in a while, so I’m a slacker.

I’ve read a lot of blogs from authors who talk about “when it’s time to end a series.” To be perfectly honest, when I wrote THEM BONES, I didn’t realize I was writing a series. The book sold at auction and the publisher who bought it wanted a 3-book deal. I was terrified. I’ve always read mysteries, but I never considered myself a skilled plotter. But there I was—with two additional mysteries to write, and then two more, and then two more, and then three, etc., etc.

Now, the characters are so much a part of my daily life that it’s hard to imagine NOT writing about them. They are family, and I love the work of bringing their adventures to the page.

Over the course of two decades, I’ve outlined the series arc. I know what the last book in the series will be, but since I just signed another three-book contract, it won’t be until after 2022. (There will be two books in 2021. One in May, my regular publication time, and a special Christmas book.)

Through the years, folks have pressured me to marry Sarah Booth off and let her have young-uns. I’ve resisted this pressure for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Sarah Booth doesn’t listen to me or to Jitty, her ancestral ghost who tries to boss her around for her own good. I tried to edge Sarah Booth toward more romance with one character, but she balked completely. She knows her own mind. As I said, she is like family and the Haines clan is known to be hard-headed. My guidance is often rejected. But again, that makes the stories interesting to write.

Aside from Sarah Booth’s recalcitrant behavior, there are other reasons. I’ve read a lot of series books and watched a lot of series television where the two leading characters finally give in to lust, love, or domesticity. That’s the point I lose interest in the characters. I realize not all people are like me, but as the writer, I refuse to spend time in a world that bores me. As it stands now, Sarah Booth has a love interest, but romance is always a dicey business with my feisty anti-belle. Sarah Booth breaks the rules of polite society and she disdains the expectations to marry.

Each book in the series is a complete, standalone mystery, but the characters do change. I’m really proud of the way that my characters have grown. While Sarah Booth and her friend and partner Tinkie have madcap adventures, they are serious about the life decisions they make and the values they buy into. The cases they tackle highlight some tough issues, but always with humor. Most of all, the characters and I want to make you laugh and have fun. “A lot of life’s hardships are soothed by laughter.”—that’s a Sarah Booth quote.

I just finished the last season of GAME OF THRONES, where a lot of characters die. Some I watched with relish and others I mourned. I don’t have any plans to kill off any characters in the Zinnia universe. Just remember, I don’t have total control of this world. Sarah Booth goes her own way and she’s been heard to say, when asked why there are so many homicides in her small town of Zinnia, Mississippi, “A lotta men just need killing.” I concur. Some people beg for a swift end. Sarah Booth would be happy to deliver on that. Patience is a virtue she doesn’t have.

When I listen to other writers talk about ending their series at 8 or 9 books, I understand. Writing a book is an intense relationship with the characters. When a writer is tired of a character, it’s time. Give the series a dignified ending. What I really hate is an abrupt end to a series with so many questions unanswered—and no way to find an answer. The pulling of the publishing or television plug is an unfortunate part of the business that upsets both readers and writers. I do have an exit strategy, but I am a long way from executing it.

I write other series, and I think that keeps me fresh to “document” Sarah Booth’s escapades. I love writing humorous books, but I am also a fan of gothic/horror and mystery/fantasy, so I explore those worlds in other series. I’ve published over 80 books. I love riding my horse, caring for my pets, pranking my family and friends—and telling stories.

Sarah Booth will tell me when it’s time to let go, but I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon.

Where to find Carolyn:

Carolyn’s Facebook Page

GAME OF BONES  links

Carolyn’s Newsletter Sign-up and Website

Carolyn Haines is the USA Today bestselling author of the Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series and a number of other books in mystery and crime, including the Pluto’s Snitch paranormal-historical mystery series, and Trouble, the black cat detective romantic suspense books. She is the recipient of the Harper Lee Award for Distinguished Writing, the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence, and the Mississippi Writers Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. She is a former journalist, bartender, photographer, farmhand, and college professor and lives on a farm where she works with rescue cats, dogs, and horses.

 

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