Once upon a time I managed to land an agent with my OBFN* and he dutifully shopped it around. After it had made the rounds at most of the bigger houses (some nibbles and close calls, but no solid “yes”), I asked him how I’d know when it was time to pull the plug. He said, “You’ll know it’s time when you just don’t want to do it anymore.”
[*Obligatory Bad First Novel]
At the time I thought that was sort of a glib answer, but I eventually came to realize the absolute wisdom of it.
In theory we can agonize over it indefinitely, but in reality it’s a self-solving problem. As long as you have the belief, desire, and energy to continue shopping the project, you’ll keep shopping it. At some point, the desire fades and/or you direct your energy elsewhere, and you eventually stop shopping it. In many cases (including mine) you end up writing something new, and you focus your energy there instead. Which may be a good strategy regardless, since it’s likely to be a stronger manuscript due to you having the experience of writing the previous book. (Again, in my case, it was. I put the painful lessons I’d learned from that first failed manuscript to good use with my second one, and ended up placing it.)
All of that’s fine, and in retrospect finally quitting on that first book and trying to write something better was the right choice for me (although it sure felt crappy at the time). In fact, I’d venture to say we all have projects, either whole or in pieces, sitting abandoned on a hard drive somewhere. Or maybe stripped and sold for parts (which is another post). Bailing on those projects is painful, but part of the bigger process. Sometimes we have to let things go so that we might move forward.
I think we can all understand that. But sometimes, we might reach a point where we just want to stop writing entirely. Which—while being a different thing—is also understandable. Sometimes a break is the best thing for us, especially if we’re using it to recharge and not as avoidance. (I used to work with a coach who, in the middle of leading an intensive group workout, would sometimes call out, “Take a break if you have to, but not a vacation!”)
Stopping is not quitting. Stopping with the intention of never re-starting is quitting. There’s a qualitative difference*.
[*While in NYC a dozen years ago to run the New York Marathon for Exercise the Right to Read (a charity my wife and I started to help raise money for school libraries and to buy books for underprivileged children) we were also able to catch the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which happened the day before on a course that consisted of several laps around Central Park. That was both an inspiring and tragic race, with many takeaways. One of the most instructive things I saw was late in the race, when one of the runners near the front of the chase pack pulled over and grabbed the chain link fence next to the path. “Oh man, he’s done,” I thought. I mean, why else would you stop running late in a closely contested race? But he wasn’t done. He clung to the fence, took a few deep breaths and stretched his leg, then pushed off and got back in the race. And finished in the money—somewhere in the top ten.]
But maybe you’re not talking about bailing on a particular project, or even taking a break from writing. Maybe you’re contemplating quitting altogether.
First things first: If you want to quit, you’re absolutely free to do so*. At any time. And you owe no one any sort of explanation or apology.
[*Assuming nothing under contract, of course.]
I could say lots of encouraging things, all of which I fully believe. I could tell you that “failure” is what “success” looks like from the middle of the process (which I’ve experienced firsthand more than once), and that virtually every published author I know swam through a lot of mud before finding clear water, and that collecting rejections is absolutely part of the game. (I’ve got quite the collection myself, and my wife faced rejection for almost ten years before a single “Yes!” wiped out all those “No!” responses and she went on to publish thirty-plus books—and counting—with a major publisher.)
I could also tell you that your sticking point is likely either a process issue or a writing issue, and either way, it’s likely fixable. (Which is pretty much the entire reason I host this blog.) You might consider getting some help… some coaching… some outside input… to give you the “second set of eyes” that can be so critical in finding areas for improvement with either your writing or your shopping process.
I could say all that, and more. But I also know that feeling like you’re beating your head against a stone wall without even a glimmer of a crack can be daunting. Maybe to the point of wanting to stop. Maybe forever. And if so, I’d be the last person to judge you for it.
But maybe the thought of officially “quitting” depresses you, leaving you stuck between two bad choices.
So maybe don’t look at it that way.
Maybe look at it as a trial separation.
Maybe try it for a while, and see how you feel.
If you try it and you’re still good with not writing after several months, then you probably have your answer. If the relief—or the feeling of freedom or just the extra time for other pursuits—from not writing is worth more than the value you get from writing, then you may have made the right choice. If so, good for you, and best of luck at whatever’s next.
But if not… if after a while you find yourself unexpectedly mulling over plot points and thinking of settings and—most especially—creating characters that you care about… that feel real to you, then there’s no law that says you can’t go back to writing.
Remember: Home is the place where—when you knock on the door—they have to let you in.
You can stop with a project that’s not working for you.
You can take a break from writing if you need to.
You can quit altogether if that’s what’s best for you.
And you can always go home again.
But it should be your choice, for your reasons.
I think there are two fundamental truisms regarding writing:
1. You should never write because you feel like you have to, and…
2. You should only write because you feel like you have to.
These may seem self-contradictory, but writers will understand...
I think it’s important to take note of—and to celebrate—the little victories*. Including those in your writing life.
(*The ones that mean something to you, I mean. I’m not always a big fan of participation trophies, especially for kids. Not that participation isn’t a good thing—it’s usually the best thing—but kids generally know the score. Literally as well as figuratively. I remember when our youngest was in a “no score” beginner basketball program. The theory: the kids play, they have fun, no one keeps score, and they’re all happy when it’s over. The reality: they all keep score on their own, and it freaking matters to them. Once after a game I told him, “Good game!” and he looked at me like I was an idiot. “What are you talking about? We lost, eighteen to eight!” **Storms off to retrieve his juice box and Lunchable**)
But when you have a real victory—no matter how small—I think it’s good to commemorate it.
When our oldest was a cub scout they had a little pinewood car derby. The kids all started with identical blocks of pine and they carved, sanded, assembled, weighted, tuned, and painted their cars. Other than discussing the importance of aerodynamics and reducing friction (he was a science guy even back then), I mostly just made sure he could use a power sander without hurting himself then let him get to it. He was pretty meticulous about the whole friction thing and on the night of the derby—after an hour of thrilling elimination rounds—he took first place. He was super excited about winning. Afterward, I was expecting some sort of trophy or plaque or whatever (these things always have trophies) but there weren’t any. On the way home I could tell my son was a little disappointed, but he didn’t say anything about it. So I went out the next day and got him one. Nothing fancy—just a basic little trophy with a race car on top and the words “First Place” on it.
I didn’t get it so he would have bragging rights or anything (bragging wasn’t really in his personality, regardless). I got it because I think it’s good psychology to commemorate the little victories we occasionally have. It’s also nice to have a tangible reminder of the occurrence, so that afterwards when you look at it, all the good, fun, validating feelings you had at the time come back to you, reminding you… Yeah, I did that!
In the writing world, these sorts of things come along all-too-infrequently. Even for the successful writer, a new book deal or a new release or hitting list or winning a big award doesn’t happen every day. Or even every year. And for those of us still upward bound on the ladder (i.e. virtually all of us) they happen even less often. So celebrate them.
You don’t have to wait until the final end-goal is accomplished, either. You should celebrate the steps along the way. These may even be more important to recognize, because they’re the type of accomplishments that don’t usually garner outside kudos. (No one’s going to buy you an ice cream because a well-respected agent requested the first three chapters of your manuscript. So do it yourself.)
Some little-recognized-yet-important milestones that warrant a celebration…
You finish the first draft of a manuscript. (I told a writing friend once that I’d finished a first draft—he was basically a wise old cowboy type—and he said, “I’d think that might make a man want to open a can of beer.”)
You finish all your revisions/edits/polishing and—for the first time—you think it’s finally submittal-ready. (This is a big one, as the most important precursor to publication is a strong, finished manuscript.)
You do all your research and make a first-round list of agent candidates who represent works like yours, then you write/revise/polish your query letter and send it to them. (Oh yeah! Beer me! I put hope in the mail!)
After a number of rejections, you get a request for a partial. (Yay! Someone’s reading! This calls for chocolate!)
After even more rejections, you get a request for a full. (Yes! More hope! We press send and get ourselves a mocha!)
I’m not going to follow this all the way to, You hit list, win a Pulitzer, and get your own imprint… all within the same month. Not just because those things don’t really happen outside of the movies, but because that’s precisely my point: if we wait until “The Big Win” to celebrate, most of us are going to be waiting a long time without commemorating all the incremental victories along the way.
So don’t wait. Start now. Look for interim accomplishments that are steps along your path and give yourself a pat on the back for making that next step.
The events certainly don’t need to be tied to the specific path of publication, either. If they further your writing knowledge, skills, or talents in any way, they’re candidates for celebration.
Take a class on any aspect of writing? Celebrate!
Teach a class on any aspect of writing? Celebrate!
Present at a school, library, or writer’s group? Celebrate!
Publish an article in a magazine? Celebrate!
Write a piece for someone’s blog or podcast? Celebrate!
Interview someone for a magazine, blog, or podcast? Celebrate!
Get interviewed by a magazine, blog, or podcast? Celebrate!
Self-publish your book? You’re a hero—celebrate five times! (Because you’ve just been an author, editor, art director, publicist, and sales manager!)
Along with everything else, it’s good psychology. There’s nothing like a little positive reinforcement to keep us going. (And if you’re in need of external recognition, this can also serve to tip off your friends. “What’s up with all the wine and chocolates?” “Oh, that…?” *looks down shyly* “…I just finished final revisions on my contemp romance.”)
So yeah, recognizing and celebrating those steps along the way can give us the motivation we need to keep going along a path that is otherwise filled with way more rejection than acceptance. And besides, who doesn’t need more wine and chocolate in their life?
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.