Mark Terry

Monday, February 23, 2009

Should You Quit?

February 23, 2009
Every aspiring fiction writer, I'm convinced, at some point in their attempts to get published, thinks about quitting. Give up writing, take up competitive TV watching or computer programming or go to the Culinary Institute of America, go back to school, or become a sex addict and take to hitting the singles bars.

And here's something I suspect: every published fiction writer probably asks themselves the same thing.

And for damned sure, every aspiring fiction writer who's now published, no matter at what level of success, probably went through this themselves.

So, should you quit? What's the threshold for frustration? At one point do you feel that you're wasting your time, that your spouse is annoyed beyond belief with your "hobby" and the whole experience of stringing words together is making your life worse instead of better?

That's entirely up to you. Only you can determine that.

I just want to share an anecdote or two or three.

One, I was going through this years ago when I worked in a laboratory. I shared an office with a young woman, probably about 23 or 24, a single mother of a very young child who was sick all the time. Chronic ear infections and sore throats. I was grumping about how I wasn't getting my fiction published and I should probably just quit (why I thought she would give a damn under the circumstances is a mystery to me now, but I think we were just talking about our lives, killing time) and she said, "Do you enjoy actually writing?"


"Then why would you quit?"

Well, the answer to that seems to me to be because it wasn't the writing that was driving me crazy, it was the getting published part.

In terms of fiction, that's still a big part of the problem. And now, added onto that for me, is that even when I get my fiction published, the business aspects of fiction publishing drive me crazy--especially the marketing aspects.

Still, the stringing of words and the telling of stories is a wonderful, joyous thing for me. It's all that other shit that bugs me.

The second anecdote: for anyone who has followed this blog for some time, you know that this question of quitting writing fiction crops up fairly regularly for me personally. Today, this isn't about me. I'm fitting in fiction as well as I can. I have a book contract signed and scheduled for publication sometime next year. To-date the new publisher seems terrific. There are some exciting things going on in the background that I might get to talk about in the near future.

And if I had quit writing fiction, none of this would be happening.

Anecdote number three: I started out writing fiction. Nonfiction never seemed likely, I just wasn't interested. Then I tried my hand at an essay and sent it off and it got published. Somebody asked me to write a book review for a technical journal, I did, it got published, then I wrangled the job as book review editor, and a couple years later I ended up as editor of the journal, a position I still hold today.

Somebody suggested I write an article about genetics, I did, it got published, I wrote a couple more, then I pitched a column, and I'm still writing a column for that same publication today. And over the years, it kept expanding.

And you know what happened: I did it often enough and well enough to quit my day job and become a full-time freelance writer.

Thank God I never quit.

Thank God I was willing to try writing other things when people suggested it.

Thank God--and this might sound crass, but it's true--I was willing to follow the money.

So I'm grateful--even to this day--that I didn't quit writing fiction because it didn't seem to be going anywhere. It was, as a matter of fact, going somewhere, not necessarily where I was planning, but someplace good nonetheless.

But everybody's path is different. Some people have focused on one particular goal so hard, they may have missed out on some great opportunities and side trips along the way. Maybe those side trips aren't of interest to you. Maybe you'd rather work the job you work now than be a freelance writer. It's novels or nothing.

I can't tell you when to quit. Nobody can.

But I keep a sign up on my wall. I first saw this poster about 6 years ago, when I was visiting my father in the hospital. It was superimposed on some country road, but it said:

Success is a journey not a destination.

So, when it comes to quitting writing fiction, the point obviously is: don't get so fixated on the destination that you forget to pay attention to the journey.

Mark Terry


Blogger Richmond Writer said...

Yes, I want to quit often. For the first time ever my husband actually told me, "now?" because he likes the subject I'm researching. He hates to read but I'm always telling him things like, "guess what I learned today."

5:10 AM  
Blogger LurkerMonkey said...

Funny ... I almost did a blog post this morning on the VERY SAME SUBJECT. There must be something going around.

I've pretty much always written fiction, since about kindergarten, so quitting fiction would never happen for me. But many times I've considered quitting the pursuit of publication, for all the obvious reasons. So much effort, so little reward (usually), etc.

But the thing is, the whole process just brings me such ... joy. On the days I work on fiction all day, I quit work excited at the end of the day, and I'll often go back to work that night. I love the feeling that I'm gaining control over the form, that I'm breaking through levels of competence and improving.

So, you know, part of me wishes I could quit because it would be so much easier in so many ways. But I always go back to writing because of the satisfaction and pleasure it gives me.

As for whether or not I'll ever sell a book ... well, here's my answer: Of course I'll sell a book. If I didn't believe that, then I probably would quit pursuing publication :)

6:56 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

For you, just based on the whole making-a-living-as-a-writer, I would say, Yeah, you probably will with time.

Back a few years ago when I was promoting my first two books, I kept running into this guy at group signings who had self-published. His books were a thing of beauty even if his writing wasn't so good. Up until he had a baby, he and his wife seemed to be having a lot of fun traveling around promoting the books. (Once they had the kid I think he just changed his priorities).

Toward the end, though, we were sitting together at a book fair and not selling any books and talking about the business and he said, "I doubt if I'll stop writing, but I'm considering just doing it for my own pleasure. The whole fighting for publication and promotion thing takes all the fun out of it."

I've thought about that a lot because I think it's true. Presumably all the promotion, etc. helps sells book, although I have very little evidence to support that statement. And I think of all the people who play the guitar (like me) or the piano or paint or do other artistic endeavors who do it 99.9% for the pleasure of it and don't plan to go out and perform or have a gallery show and I wonder why more writers don't pursue that.

I suspect it's partly that art is about communication and fiction writing even more so.


7:06 AM  
Blogger LurkerMonkey said...

I think that's an interesting question, about writers writing for themselves. I know some very good writers who consider writing a very private thing and have no interest in sharing it. Ever. If they're good with it, then so am I.

But I'm just not that guy. My whole point has always been to put my writing in other people's hands. Even when I was little. Maybe it's the communication thing.

The pursuit of publication and marketing and all that ... I don't really have any experience in any of it. I don't think I'd mind the marketing much -- I enjoy sales. But I can imagine how frustrating it would be to publish and not sell. Finally, I think I'm improving mostly because I'm working toward a goal: publication. If it was just for me, I can see laziness setting in.

There's also that momentum thing to consider. To quit now would be to alter course, as opposed to someone quitting who isn't actively writing and shopping novels. I have a writing habit in place, I have inertia, and I even have measurable progress. For me, right now, quitting would feel like dropping out of a marathon after 15K. I want to see where this ends.

8:10 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Like your self-published acquaintance said, the whole publishing process takes the enjoyment out of writing for me. But, like LurkerMonkey, I write for an audience, and how do you get any audience without publication? What I need to do is make myself write as if I weren't going to bother to try for publication, but then after I've had the fun of writing, try to get the stuff published anyway. But can I really fool myself? Well, I suppose I'm always fooling myself about lots of things, so maybe....

9:00 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hi Mark . . .

Well . . . last night, I decided one way to get me out of my funk is to work on a short story. I have no intention of getting it published. But at the end of the day, I still like creating fiction. Even if, like all jobs, there are the parts that I get weary of.


9:15 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well... I'm totally unable to write fiction without thinking about selling it, I'm just sayin'...

That said, I do sometimes think I could live without writing it at all. That didn't use to be the case, but I do find that writing for a living can make the fiction sometimes seem like work, and low-paying work at that. I do recognize, of course, that to the unpublished, I sound like some spoiled philistine or something, to which I can only respond, "Once you've typed a million words in my shoes, blah, blah, blah..."

9:50 AM  
Blogger Joe Moore said...

Mark, my advice is to quit. I would like to see everyone quit. Don't hesitate, just stop writing and definitely stop trying to get published. I have no intention of doing so, but I sure wish everyone else would. :-)

5:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend recently pointed out your blog to me, Mark, as I just had a first contract for a book under my own name get cancelled. A week later, I lost my agent when he closed his doors. Having written some twenty-five novels under contract, you can bet I've been thinking hard about quitting after all of that. I haven't decided yet. But thanks for giving us discouraged dopes another viewpoint.

7:00 PM  
Blogger Scooter Carlyle said...

I've quit so many times, but after a while it calls to me. I need to do it. (Writing, that is. I realized belatedly that the above sounded a little naughty.)

I've struggled the last few weeks with medical problems, which has brought my writing to a standstill. I hope I can find a way to make it work soon, or I'm gonna go ut of my gourd.

Thanks for the encouragement.

9:15 PM  

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