When is it okay to quit?

Harshness ahead. You were warned.

There have been a very few instances when I’ve encountered a writer who is clearly wasting his/her time. I know, we’re not supposed to talk about it. We’re not supposed to admit (among ourselves) that any of us could be wasting his/her time. Yet, clearly, there are people in this field who are wasting their time. I know. I’ve met them. They are few in number, but they do exist.

Sure, 90% of the business is work ethic and never quitting. But if you don’t have the other 10% (imagination + style + insight + voice + creativity + ability to learn + yadda yadda) then you’re kind of trying to paddle up the Mississippi with a soggy flap of cardboard.

In each of the these few instances (and they truly are few) the writer in question had been struggling for decades (yes, plural) with no results: no sales, no publications, or at least no publications of serious note (badly formatted, unproofed self pub, with a bad cover, almost doesn’t count.) As a result, (s)he had developed a rather ferocious level of envy towards anybody who had enjoyed some success (YMMV as to the definition of “success”) and there was also a fair degree of conspiracy paranoia happening. Ergo, “The publishing system is rigged against me! The reviews system is rigged against me! Amazon is rigged against me!” Et cetera.

I have come to strongly suspect that such tortured people are far more in love with the idea of being authors, than they are with actually writing stories. No, not in love. Wrong word. Love is a healthy emotion. They are obsessed with having a book (or books, or stories in magazines) with their names on the covers, and with passing through the halls at conventions in the guise of “author”, and with also having fans, and with gathering to themselves all the acclaim and credibility of accomplishment, and warm fuzzies, and all that they believe will come to them, if only . . . if only . . . if only . . .

In one particular instance (because I am sometimes too nice for my own good) I read some of the works proffered by just such a writer. (S)he claimed to have spent the better part of 30 years perfecting them, before putting them up on the internet. In despair. In the hope that someone might read them.

I did. Because I was morbidly curious. And I wanted to see if I could help. I paid my dues. Two decades of toil and effort, no sales. 1992 to 2009. Surely the patient could be cured? Lord knows I’d been brought back from a near-flatlined state myself. I was determined to see what I could do for this despairing individual.

The stories were . . . pale and flat. They were stale. Lifeless. Clearly, they had the abuse marks of having been “polished” into oblivion. And they did not manifest — from story to story — any sign that the author in question was getting any better. Not even a little bit.

I made a few (what I thought) were gentle suggestions; for potential improvement. Not with the stories themselves. They were DOA. In fact, that was the thrust of my advice: let the old stories go, get on with the business of telling new stories. Polishing (or the process most of us call “polishing”) has what I consider to be a rather sharp curve, in terms of diminishing returns. Past a certain point, you cannot improve a thing. You’ve looked at it too much. It’s as good as you can make it. Let it be. Go on to something different. Something fresh.

I also said (s)he might think about trying a new style of voice (1st person to 3rd, or was it 3rd to 1st? I can’t remember . . .) and branching out into a new arena of speculative storytelling, etc. (“Instead of near-future contemporary, try off-world, or maybe even a cyber-fantasy?”) It seemed to me this author was trying very hard to write what (s)he thought the markets wanted; without much consideration for what the author wanted. I of course cited my own trials and tribulations, to make him/her aware of the fact that I knew from personal experience how this kind of uncomfortable change — turning over the writer’s apple cart — had helped me grow, get better, and break through.

Yet, I was rebuffed. (S)he got defensive. Started up with the victim stuff, and the paranoia stuff. I was accused of being both lucky, and knowing how to “game” the system.

So I gently withdrew my interaction, and allowed him/her to return to his/her dark closet of creative despair. I could not help him/her. (S)he did not want help. Even from a fellow traveler who knew his/her struggle in intimate detail. Having secured for myself a life preserver, when I offered to show him/her how to also obtain a life preserver, (s)he preferred to stay submerged.

How do you (gently) tell such a person, that (s)he is running him/herself over the proverbial cheese grater for nothing? That perhaps (s)he simply wasn’t meant to do this thing we call writing? The mantra is that (s)he who never quits, gets published. And it’s true. Especially now that Amazon and CreateSpace have made it easy. But what can you say to a person who has dwelt in a personal wasteland of disappointment for so long, over failing at a thing (s)he was clearly not given any gifts for?

It’s a bit like seeing a cellist who has no musical ear, nor any finesse with the instrument, saw painfully at the thing day after day, over the same dog-eared sheets of rote music, all the while despairing of ever joining an orchestra or getting to play solo at the concert house.

The noble response is to simply smile and say, “Keep trying, you can do it eventually!” The professional arts world is replete with examples of failures who simply pushed one step farther, and the light went on, and success was had by the truckload. We adore and love these rags-to-riches examples. They inspire us all to keep after it. To keep putting our butts back into our chairs. Because we need to believe that we too can be that rags-to-riches (“riches” being defined any way you please) person.

But sometimes . . . sometimes I wonder if we’re also not just enabling a person’s further descent into a paralyzing spiral of fruitless time consumption — for the sake of a dream that probably should have been set down at the side of the road long ago. Really, not everyone who wants to be a writer (or a concert cellist) was given the gift.

That’s blasphemy, I know. And as someone who went the better part of 20 years without any success, it may be wrong of me to suggest that somebody else may not have what it takes to make it. How dare I?

But there ought to be a point of clarity. A realistic look in the mirror. A limit past which sanity tells you that you’re doing something self-destructive. That the void you’re trying to fill (with Passion A) is actually just a process of digging your hole deeper. When what you really need is to go discover Passion B (or C or D or E, ad infinitum) and allow those seed(s) to sprout, and blossom, in the soil of your soul.

Misery, bitterness, paranoia, for years on end . . . these things are just not worth it. There are other ways to be successful. To leave a meaningful impact on the world. There are even better, quicker, more lucrative ways to achieve fame and fortune, if fame and fortune are what you truly desire in the final analysis.

I didn’t quit, because I ultimately couldn’t stop telling stories. To myself. In my brain. On the bus, or while driving, or even at night with my head in the pillow. I couldn’t stop the puzzle-assembly fun of putting characters and situations and settings together, like a cookie dough mix, and imagining where the mixture might go. On the “movie screen” of my mind. Even when the rejections were piled up and the thousands (yes, thousands) of hours spent, seemed waste. I couldn’t help myself. My mind would find excuses to go back to the stories. To the mental bijou. And (ultimately) wanting to share my mental bijou with the rest of the world.

If you don’t have your own mental bijou — if your favorite thing is not getting a soda and a bucket of popcorn, and sitting alone in your personal theater to watch the imaginary movie(s) of your own making — I suspect that you might be trying too hard at the wrong thing. That writing may not be what you were cut out for. Especially if the exercise has lasted for so long, with so much disappointment, that all you have left for the affair is pain and sorrow. It might be time for a divorce: kick your “dream” out of your life, and go find a new dream. Something that actually makes you happy and which brings you joy. Something that makes your spirit light up like fireworks on New Years Eve. If writing doesn’t do that for you, take a close look at what it is you truly need from writing.

And maybe you can fulfill that need somewhere else?


  1. When people ask for my opinion I try to avoid giving opinions on things that they haven’t asked. Unless someone specifically asks, “Do you think I should stop writing?” I am not going to offer my opinion on that. (And to date the only people who have asked me that are people that I think have talent–the ones who don’t never allow that question to come to mind.)

    I have told people that I don’t care for their work and I won’t read any more samples from them, and not all of them were bad writers. But it is not my job to try to force anyone to face reality.

  2. I have a friend who has self published five or six novels on Amazon for the Kindle. He tried to get me to read and review the first one. I tried reading it, I really did. It was terrible. Now, this friend is a gentle type, the type that would be crushed by honest criticism. The novel had an okay idea behind it, the execution was terrible. I didn’t know how to tell my friend that, so I didn’t. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings that badly. He also seems to be the type that would take any criticism personally and instead of learning from it, he would ignore it and lash out.

    His other novels that he has published since than are all the same. Just blocks of information. Long paragraphs that would make Lovecraft envious. Everything about them is rough.

    As a budding author, I do take criticism of my work seriously. I listen when people tell me I’m doing something incorrectly, and I’ve had those criticisms, mostly about technical things in my writing. I work on those problems and work to address those issues, so hopefully my writing will progress and get better and one day I can sell a few hundred thousand novels and entertain people with the stories I have to tell.

  3. I think you have to be a little obsessed with creating a great story, and then another, and then another, and on, and on. Sure, I want to see my name on the front cover of some digest, but it should only be there because I crafted a fine product of the trade. People who just want the fame, without having to do the work, are fooling themselves.

  4. I guess it depends on why we write. ‘Mental bijou’ aside, you seem to be saying that if the hours of practice do not eventually lead to sales and publication then the writer is wasting their time.

    Let’s be honest, most of us don’t write for financial gain (with the hours we put in and the rewards we get, most of us would be much better off walking dogs). Maybe we write for the kind words of the readers who have enjoyed our stories, or the admiration of our peers. But many people write simply because they have the urge to: they enjoy the process and need a relief valve for the ideas and characters and situations and snippets of dialogue constantly spawning in their heads.

    The problem, as you say, is that the urge to write does not always coincide with the ability to write well. But is that really so bad? I’m a terrible guitar player; no-one would ever pay me to play to them, even as a busker on the street. Even after many years of playing (I’m probably getting close to the two decades mark) I’m not getting any better. My skills reached a low plateau many years ago and have stayed there. I’m under no illusions that I will ever be a famous musician, but I still enjoy playing.

    So I guess the question here should really be: when should you admit that your writing is a hobby and not a profession? When should you realise that your garage band will forever stay in the garage? It comes back to the Delphic maxim, “Know Thyself.” Your correspondent was a frustrated writer, but they could just as easily be a frustrated painter, potter or guitarist. The ability to be at peace with oneself is something outside of writing… outside of any single enterprise.

    Ultimately, you can try to fix someone’s prose. But what you’re describing here is trying to fix their personality.

  5. I think what I was getting at was: when does writing give you joy, versus merely making you miserable, and do you need to more closely examine what it is you are getting out of writing (or not getting?) so as to determine why you’re miserable, and what might be done about it. I have discovered a very few long-suffering writers who truly don’t seem to be improving, truly are not enjoying themselves, are not happy with it, and much of this seems to be tied to the fact they were more infatuated with things attached to writing (but not being writing) without actually having fun telling stories. I fear that when we preach “Never give up!” this sometimes drives a few people deeper into a cycle of frustration and unhappiness. Ergo, the dark side of cheering ourselves on.

  6. Years ago (as in almost twenty now) I took a creative writing class in college. There was this one kid who really really wanted to be a writer. Nineteen-twenty year old, with all the ‘angsty disaffected youth’ markers of the time – dark clothing, bad haircut, and he/she smoked clove cigarettes because that’s what all the brooding youth of the time smoked. We started with poetry – he couldn’t write it because he was hung up with knowing the rules of poetry so he could break them all with a magnum opus. From poetry, we moved on to short stories. His first story was a sci-fi riff on film noir detective stories. It was six pages of unsubtle “Dick” jokes. So, you’re the Big Dick kinda things. The professor tried to be gentle and explain that if he/she wanted to write classic hard boiled detective fiction (even if it were set in space) then they needed to read classic hard boiled detective fiction – Hammett, Marlow, etc. The rest of us in the class tried to be gentle – explaining that six pages of Dick jokes was a bit much when there was no other plot, He/she was not amused by our commentary. Another two weeks roll around and they turn in another magnum opus detailing how mosiquitos cast the deciding vote to save humanity when the other animals hold a vote to destroy humanity. It was worse. The day came for discussion of his work. No one wanted to bring it up. I was known for being vocal in class (and somewhat vocal campus wide since I was also writing for the university paper) and I got one of those “Please start the discussion” looks from the professor. I did. Gentle went out the window. My recommendation was to burn all copies of the work and the computer the individual had written it on, and for the rest of us to start drinking heavily in an attempt to kill the brain cells we had wasted reading this trite piece of crap. Needless to say there was a lot of “OMG I’m glad someone else said something bad so I can” in the class, up to and including from the prof. Angsty writer type dropped the class the next day. I can only hope they found something useful to do with their lives.

  7. Like most things, writing is bot art and craft. Most people can get fairly competent at the craft part of it with practice. But the practice has to be coupled with a willingness to accept feedback and an honest desire to improve. Unfortunately, to improve we have to be willing to be told where we need improvement. And for someone who confuses their work with their self, that’s hard. I’m a professor, and I have to publish for tenure. And while it’s technical stuff, there’s a lot of similarity with any other style of writing – the best way to improve is to find harsh critics who will tell you straight up and to LISTEN to their feedback.

  8. Gee, Brad, trying to tell me something?

    Seriously, though, I think a big reason we’re reluctant to say someone should quit is that most, if not all of us sometes feel like we should quit, that we suck and everyone hates us.

    I know I spend entirely toouch time there.

  9. I think I quit, or nearly quit, trying to write at least once a month. It’s not that I’m not improving (I think that I am – slowly) but more like I keep thinking that nothing I do will ever be good enough. However, within a few weeks, the scenes start forcing their way into my mind and I start throwing words on paper again. Some day, maybe, I’ll corral them, train them and get something worth releasing to the world.

  10. Why not give them the advice that they are just trying too hard? Rather than submit stuff, tell them they should just post it on their blog, and wait to be ‘discovered’. It may take a lo-o-ong time, but eventually the universe will both notice and reward the effort and dedication, and especially appreciate the lack of self-promotion.

    That’s what I’m doing, and it saves me all manner of anguish.

  11. I think it might be unhealthy to require validation for being a writer. I have no problem with someone who writes, does not have a knack for it, but does it anyway purely for self-fulfillment. I wrote hundreds of pages like that back in high school. No one ever read that stuff, not even my friends. (And now that I’m older, no one’s going to read it now!)

    But validation is hard because it’s not possible to control other people. No one is required to like anything.

    I wouldn’t say quitting is the answer so much as asking what is this person expecting from writing. If it is validation, if it is money, then it’s time for them to reassess. If they like writing for itself (and validation is a secondary desire to the enjoyment that comes from writing) then maybe what they need to do is manage their expectations.

    I write what I want to write even if I’m not sure there will be an audience for it, because that’s why I started writing in the first place; to tell stories I wasn’t getting somewhere else. So I end up with things like cyborg Red Barons and Lovecraftian takes on Chinese customs. I hope that other people will like what I write, but I don’t expect them to.

  12. I tried to get my first novel published. It was returned without comment. I never tried to get it published again, or any of my other work. I did however keep writing. I wrote for a fanzine and got some good instruction, and improved quite a bit.
    I wrote a few more novels, but never tired to publish them because I was too busy with my current job and duties that I knew I could never keep to a contract schedule. Even after I once showed my returned manuscript to a friend who wrote for that same house and they told me that the rejection had come from one of the main editors, not from the folks that filtered out the slush pile. They were surprised that I hadn’t gotten anything more then a ‘no thank you’ after it had made it so far through the system.

    Fast forward many years, and the kindle comes out. I figure, what the heck? And publish. Guess what? I got sales. Not a lot, but enough. So I started writing trashy romance novellas and a bit less trashy PNR stories under a pen name to try and improve my skills. (10K words at a time).
    Then I went and wrote a new Urban Fantasy under my name, poor sales at first (lately it’s picking up, I think I need a new cover). Undeterred I took a novel I had started a few years ago, finished it, and released it as a series. Massive Sales. The kind of sales where I’m looking at quitting my job if these sales continue.

    Yes I’ve put a lot of time into learning the craft, maybe if I had pushed harder to be published by a company I might have gotten it. Then again, maybe not. But people are liking my stuff now, so I’m not going to complain, it may very well be that I had to make this journey to get where I am now.

  13. Nitpick: your headline doesn’t match your post.

    When is it OK to quit? Any time you want (if you can).

    But your post is: when is it OK to tell someone else to quit?

    And for me, the answer is: never. That’s not my place. But there does come a time when you should stop encouraging them. And that time, again for me, is when I realize that they’re lashing out at feedback. When that happens, they can’t improve, and you can’t fix them. Either they outgrow it on their own, or they don’t, but that’s personal growth they have to make on their own.

  14. disperser has a point. Once when contemplating a fit of general rejoicing over an author who signed with PublishAmerica — yes, that PublishAmerica, those rejoicing had on other occasions argued passionately with people who considered signing, but this guy just got too abusive after soliciting honest criticism with the brag he could take it — I concluded that vanity publishers served one useful purpose: draining off the pests.

  15. Several of us have recently dealt with a writer. The man claims he spent 20 years crafting his novel, yet the samples available look more like a high school freshman who has never actually read a book tried to write it. It’s just bad.

    People critique it, at least based on the samples. In the day of Amazon, this isn’t unusual for that to happen. Right or wrong, it is at least fairly common.

    Based on the ranting and raving coming from the writer, he isn’t interested in critiques. Everyone who dislikes his magnum opus is jealous of him. He called them all a bunch of wannabes (despite at least one person he was “discussing” this with having logged several months on the Amazon bestseller lists for both science fiction and literature) and that they feared the work.

    Honestly, Brad, I’m not sure that there’s really who is completely incapable of writing well if they’re open to constructive criticism. The problem here is that the person you’re talking about, much like the writer I’m talking about, aren’t open to real constructive criticism. In order to improve in the craft, you have to listen to people who can help with that. Twenty years and you’re not improving? Then you’re either not listening, or no one is telling you anything. Either may be possible, but based on what you’re saying? It’s pretty clear which it is in this particular case.

  16. Hey! . . . I’m doing the best I can.

    How am I ever going to get better without first getting all the crappy stuff purged from my system?

    . . . by the way, didn’t know you were reading my stuff.

    Wait . . . this is embarrassing; you’re not talking about me, are you? Nevermind.

  17. I was trying out my hand at humor, but I gather I’m stepping into the middle of a feud. I’ll go now, and unsubscribe from the comments.

  18. Considering that your story begins with “it started with a blinding flash, though I got lucky” and the preview of it ends with “extra ammo was deposited into the pack, which now felt like it weighed the same amount approximately as a small elephant,” and everything in between is just as bad, shut up.

  19. disperser,

    I can’t really call it a feud. Alauda, aka Clamps, aka Chlamydia, aka whoever he wants to be this week, is just a troll. Nothing more, nothing less. He likes to attack other people’s writing because they don’t conform to his own standards of good literature.

    What he misses is that since his opinion doesn’t matter to anyone, it’s impossible to be insulted by him.

  20. If you opinion actually mattered, your comments might bother me. Since it doesn’t, I guess I’ll go on with my life of actually making money off of my writing.

  21. I just finished Chaplain’s War, I loved it! Surprising twists and turns and a great ending!

    This post speaks to me. My natural talents are totally opposed to the work I love to do every day.
    Whether reading a good book, or being part of a good relationship, I like the process and flow of doing things, and I am always a bit sad when the really good things are finished. Then I go on to another thing.
    Some people find things they want to have, not things they want to do.

    And now going back and reading the good comments, I seem to be following the trend.

    My natural talent is working with people. I prefer to sit at a table where I don’t know anybody, so I can meet someone new. But my favorite flow is solving interesting problems using technology. Today I wrote code for a wireless sensor network I designed and built, tomorrow it will send data to a website I built, and it feels so good!

  22. I’m not sure anyone can decide that for someone else. I’ve seen plenty of crummy writers get better with practice. I’ve seen a truly terrible writer develop a following.

  23. That’s only because they know how to network and leech off of people who already have a following.

    Like Knighton.

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