I want you to imagine something with me. Big surprise, right?
There is a happy ball of ice and stone on the outskirts of the solar system. He’s orbiting a few million miles beyond Pluto, his back to the sun. Then one day, a small asteroid bumps into him, spinning the ten-mile-across ball around for the first time in his existence.
It isn’t long before the ball of ice and stone sees the sparkling sun. He’s seen stars before, but never so close, or so warmly inviting. Though he’d been content up to this point, he now can’t think of anything but the sun. He wants to be closer to it. To make it his own. Ambition fuels him, and somehow, through some cosmic miracle, his orbit shrinks. With each revolution, he draws closer to the sun.
And the closer he gets, the larger his ambition grows. His speed increases. His journey is without cease. And with each pass closer to the sun, he loses a little bit more of himself. If he looked back, he’d see two long trails of ice and stone, peeling away from him, reducing him. But his eyes remain fixed on the sun, on the goal, and despite every planet, moon and asteroid he passes telling him to slow down, to pace himself, to take a break, he continues building momentum, racing toward his own goal.
Never once does he consider that the pace, or the goal itself, might undo him. The pain of losing himself to the sun’s power builds, but he ignores it, writes it off, and finds scapegoats for it.
And then, passing closer to the sun than ever before, the ice holding his form together cracks.
Despite being so close, so damn close, to the sun, he can’t enjoy it. The pain is all consuming. He’s lost in it. Orbiting a black hole of despair. The sun loses its appeal. And with that all-consuming goal removed, he feels empty. Panic takes hold and the cracks spread, threatening to separate the pieces even further, but then, he’s not alone. He’s being held together by something bigger than himself. And for the first time since he left Pluto behind, he feels hope.
Okay, so, that’s really just a cosmic version of Icarus, but with a few distinct differences. First, it’s a comet. With a face. That’s just more fun than a dude with homemade wings. Second, there’s a happy twist at the end. Third, and this is the big one, I’m the comet.
As most people reading this are aware, I release a lot of books. A literal shit ton of books. In the ten years that I’ve been writing, and been paid for it, I have released more than fifty novels and novellas, and that’s not counting comic books and unsold screenplays. In a single decade I have released more books than many authors do in a lifetime. And in the ten years before I started making a living from writing, I wrote just as much, working long days and nights to hone my craft without pay. To say I’m ambitious is an understatement. Over the years, my peers have called me “the hardest working man in publishing.” And while I’ve made a good effort to not work at night or on weekends (I AM a good father), I’m always working in my head, and I have never, not once in twenty years (until two weeks ago), taken a vacation. Only a high fever can get me to stop working, and even then, I’m using the loose, delirious state of mind to work on story ideas.
The result of all this work has been a steady rise to financial success and all the stress that comes with it. I’m not just writing anymore. I’m overseeing cover designs (or designing them myself), art directing several artists, creating book trailers, updating and designing the website, working deals with agents and publishers, editing and writing with co-authors, paying lots of people, budgeting a business, marketing the books, analyzing sales, creating business plans and fueling it all with my nuclear fission of ambition.
But the rocket ship that is my mind and body, wasn’t designed to fire at full blast forever. So, like our little comet friend, I broke. This blog post is the first real writing I’ve done in six weeks. I replied to a few e-mails, worked out a single deal (which will be announced at a later date) and replied to some Facebook messages in that time, but I’ve mostly been a useless lump.
*Disclaimer #1: If discovering an author you read is a deeply flawed human being disturbs you to the point that you’d quit his books, then maybe stop reading. Despite my recent change in focus, I’d still like you to read my books.
So what happened? I’ve been pushing through exhaustion for some time now. I’ve always had insomnia, but in the past two years it has kicked into high gear. I would go months with a max of five hours sleep a night. Sometimes just two. And during all that time, I never slowed down. In fact, I increased my exercise regimen to five days a week. I believed my ambition-fueled willpower was enough to plow through life like a freaking snow plow through a horde of zombies.
For a few years, it looked like I was right. And then six weeks ago, I wasn’t.
I have had a decent amount of anxiety for as long as I remember. It’s insomnia’s good friend. They hang out together. For me, anxiety is this nervous tension that feels like Andre the Giant has his hands around my throat. I feel this probably 75% of the time, even when everything is great, because for me, even my successes were just a step closer to the all-important sun, which is some kind of undefined level of super success…like Stephen King or Michael Crichton. With a career like mine, I’ve already won the lottery, but I really want to win a much bigger lottery.
About a year ago, that anxiety branched out into panic. Despite being fit (in a cardiovascular sense) I was convinced my first few panic attacks were heart attacks. Several dozen panic attacks later, I still have a hard time believing you can feel that bad and not be on death’s doorstep. Despite this new roadblock, I kept plowing ahead, aiming each day to write two chapters, on top of all the other things I need to do.
And then six weeks ago happened.
I took a rare day off to go swimming at a lake with my family. It was a beautiful day. Perfect for swimming. I’d spent my childhood at this lake and it felt like home. Being a long time swimmer, I decided to swim out to the buoy rope, as I sometimes do, and swim back. No problem. And it wasn’t, at first. I got to within six feet of the rope and noticed my heart was pounding. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, because it was a long swim. Then I looked down. The lake was deeper than I thought. At least twelve feet.
My chest tightened. My heart began to pound. I thought about going the last few feet to the rope, but the buoys were small. I might not be able to stay afloat. I might not be able to rest. The water was deeper six feet further out. I looked back to shore and for the first time, really noticed how far out I was. Best guess, 150 feet, in 12 foot waters, with teenage lifeguards more concerned with their tans than with watching people. I turned back to the rope. It was my only chance of not drowning. But if I have a panic attack, I thought…and then I did.
When you have a panic attack, walking doesn’t seem possible. At the same time, you won’t die if you stop walking, or collapse to the ground. My next thought was something like, “I’m going to freaking drown in front of my children.”
That was when I started swimming. Toward shore. Whole body was quivering. My breaths came in rapid, inefficient bursts. My heart felt like it would tear free of my chest. I lied on my back, kicking with my feet and flailing my arms, fighting to stay afloat. To stay moving. And I didn’t stop until I heard my son speaking to me. I’m going to drown in front of him, I thought, and then I looked at him. He was fifteen feet away, the water up to his chest. Hoping all this meant I was close enough to touch bottom, I put my feet down and my toes found sand. But I was still panicking, and now my chest was submerged. Being with my son was enough to make me grit my teeth and push the rest of the way to shore, where I managed to catch my breath, end the panic attack and fend off one of the worst headaches I have experienced.
That was six weeks ago. And in the time since, I’ve had many more panic attacks. I’ve broken down in sobbing tears, experiencing emotional pain that I thought was reserved for the deaths of loved ones. I’ve been so emotionally shaken that was unable to watch any TV aside from Girl Eats World and the new Pee Wee movie. I was broken. I am broken. I pushed myself toward the sun, not noticing, and not caring that I was being peeled apart by the effort.
So where is the happy twist at the end? In addition to the small army of doctors, a psycho-therapist, and a naturopath, whose combined efforts managed to keep me out of a hospital…
Disclaimer #2: If discovering an author you read is a Christian (if you’ve read all my books, that really shouldn’t be a surprise…though if you’ve only read a select few, it could be a big surprise) makes you not want to read his books, don’t worry. I’m still a normal (sort of) person, who already wrote all those books you love (I hope). Most Christians do not resemble those who most often make the news (or control it), and I’m honestly tired of only connecting with people on a surface level. At the same time, I’m not going to suddenly get political, as I suspect both sides of the aisle would freak out, and even mentioning news networks generates hate mail. I’m trying to reduce stress!
For the first time in my life, I understood the Slough of Despond featured in Pilgrim’s Progress. I’d written about it in The Last Hunter, but only had an imaginary sense of what it felt like. But I was in it. I was choking on despair. I was lost. And despite being a lifelong Christian, I felt alone. I felt abandoned.
Thank God for my wife. She read Ephesians 6:10-18 as I sat, sobbing uncontrollably after two solid weeks of panic attacks. Then she read it again, and again. And over the next few days, as I tried to not go insane, I started reading the verses on my own, over and over, and slowly, I felt something new. I felt protected. I felt armored. And there was a strength in there that wasn’t my own. I was no longer alone. Over the past few weeks, I have learned, perhaps for the first time, to let go of my worry (about my health, and my insane ambitions,) and to trust that someone much wiser than me is in control. It’s a work in progress.
I’m still worried about my high growth hormone numbers that indicate something is going wrong somewhere in my body. But the mind-numbing deer-in-headlights panic is retreating (most of the time…but it likes to surprise me still). The fingers around my neck have loosened their grip. I’m enjoying my life, and success, and for the first time in a long time, I’m feeling hopeful in a way that has nothing to do with a successful career. I’m praying more, and not just about myself. I’m trying to spend more time with my kids, and less time fretting about books, or deals, or future possibilities that might result in my death. Instead, I’m starting to feel God again, who is strongest when I am weak, and who is more concerned about eternity than this brief life. I’m starting to shift my focus there, too. And it feels good. Better than the nuclear furnace that is the sun, that’s for damn sure.
That wasn’t too bad, right? Just a little God stuff.
So, why did I write this? Mostly for myself, to help me process, but also for those who might be going through something similar, or as a cautionary tale for authors whose ambition might match my own.
What does it mean for the future? There are a good number of readers, who despite my insanely stupid pace, are still telling me to write faster. Well, that’s not going to happen. In fact, over the next year, I’ll be reducing the number of books released per year. But even if I cut my number of releases in half, I’ll still be releasing double to triple the amount of many authors. My goal is to release fewer books, but also better books. And hopefully to sell more of less (I am still a business man). As a result, Centurion and Helios will be coming out later than planned, hopefully in winter 2017, but I can’t make promises.
Other than that, you might not even notice the slowdown, because there are SIX novels already done, just waiting to be released. SIX! That’s like three to six years of books for some writers! It also means that some series will be coming to an end. In fact, the next 18 months will bring about the end of most of my series. The Jack Sigler Thrillers, Cerberus Group, Continuum, Nemesis, Hunger and Unity will all see their final books published in 2016 – 2017. And I will then be focusing more on standalone novels, like Apocalypse Machine, which seem to sell better anyway.
For those of you coming to RobinsonFest, this might mean I’ll need to take a break from the festivities from time to time (though I think the distraction will help). I’m easily overwhelmed at the moment, and my panic attacks have weird triggers. I have been in love with oceans, and boats, my whole life, but feel nervous about the whale watch. I don’t expect to have to sit anything out, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I do.
So there you have it. This is the most words I’ve written in a while, and it felt pretty good to get it all out. I’m going to leave this open for comments, but anything discouraging or negative (including complaining about series coming to an end, or even theories about what could be wrong with me–I don’t need to hear horror stories, thank you) will be quickly deleted. I’ve debated whether or not to post this for a week, so be nice! Thanks for reading, for your support and for spreading the word about the books. I love my fans, and hope the slow down news isn’t too unwelcome.