When to Quit

This post is going to get a lot of hate. So if you hate hate, then you’re better off reading the blog of someone that you like like.

Because this post isn’t going to be about how anyone can make it. And it’s also not going to be about knowing when you’re ready to make it. And it’s certainly not going to encourage anyone to keep trying.

This post is about necessity: if I’m honestly going to cover every subject that has to do with being a writer, then I’m going to have to eventually cover this topic. Though it is unpleasant, it is an essential part of the writer’s reality.

And that topic is when to realize that you actually aren’t a writer, and move on to something else.

BLASPHEMY!!!!!

I know, I know. We live in an era where encouraging people to give up is the unforgivable sin. Even the most successful of professionals is forbidden from telling anyone—including the most hopeless of aspirers—that they are better off in a different field. That is doctrine. That is cannon. That is orthodoxy. That is UNQUESTIONABLE.

However, it is also incredibly recent.

The “never give up” school of thought—at least as it pertains to the arts—was not widely embraced from the dawn of civilization through most of the 20th century. Pockets of resistance still exist, but only in the shadows. No one wants to be seen committing the unforgivable sin, after all.

Think of every Cheesecake Factory waitress who has ever had dreams of becoming a famous actress. Yet all those waitresses, busboys, maids, and gas station attendants who went to Hollywood with dreams of breaking out into stardom got a cold dose of reality once they caught the first bus back to Podunk, New Jersey.

How many tears do you think were shed by the studio bigwigs over each dream they crushed? If you guessed one, you guessed too many. And even among the humbler ranks of writers, there has been plenty of constructive discouragement.

If you have to find devices to coax yourself to stay focused on writing, perhaps you should not be writing what you’re writing. And if this lack of motivation is a constant problem, perhaps writing is not your forte. I mean, what is the problem? If writing bores you, that is pretty fatal.

URSULA K LE GUIN

Writing is considered a profession, and I don’t think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else.

GEORGES SIMENON

It is not work. If it’s work, stop it, and do something else.

RAY BRADBURY

If you want to be remembered as a clever person and even as a benefactor of humanity, don’t write a novel, or even talk about it; instead, compile tables of compound interest, assemble weather data running back seventy-five years, or develop in tabular form improved actuarial information. All more useful than anything “creative” most people could come up with, and less likely to subject the author to neglect, if not ridicule and contempt. In addition, it will be found that most people who seek attention and regard by announcing that they’re writing a novel are actually so devoid of narrative talent that they can’t hold the attention of a dinner table for thirty seconds, even with a dirty joke.

PAUL FUSSELL

Now these might seem like some mean quotes made by a bunch of haters. And you know your field is in trouble when established names warn young prospects away from it.

But then, professional author, as an occupation, has been going extinct since the time of Cervantes, and the old guard of most generations has issued the same caveat down through the ages. Somehow, the job perseveres—but always with giant warnings attached.

These warnings are not meant to hurt anyone. They are a courtesy, made by people who have seen would-be writers fall by the wayside, their hopes dashed after their illusion forsook them.

Which brings us to our next problem.

Survivorship Bias

It is the Achilles’ Heel of the “never give up” philosophy, and it has recently started to gain momentum in academic circles.

Basically, human attention is dangerously one-sided: we ascribe lots of importance to success, and give little or no credence to failure.

Let’s say we have an investor who made a billion dollars by investing in tech stocks. Suddenly, we believe that anyone who invests in tech stocks will make a billion dollars.

Because we have completely ignored the thousands of other people who have lost their life savings in tech stocks. The failures are forgotten, but the successes are remembered, thus convincing us that certain practices always lead to success.

This also applies to writing. Because there are lots of big-name writers who were told to give up but didn’t. And they are always used as human shields whenever the subject of giving up is broached.

“How dare you tell me to give up writing! What would have happened if JK Rowling had given up on writing Harry Potter? What if Stephen King had given up before publishing Carrie? Determination will always triumph. That is GOSPEL!”

Except that for every JK Rowling, there are a thousand Joe Blows who wasted their whole lives trying to write a children’s book with zero success. You never hear about them because survivorship bias makes them invisible. But, like the investors who lost everything to tech stocks, they were in need of helpful discouragement.

If, when examining all the people who “never gave up”, you include all the failures as well as the successes, then you see that the philosophy is not as ironclad as it first appears.

Don’t get me wrong: the fact that many people who could have given up instead went on to become superstars is highly encouraging. But to insist that literally everyone can do the same is unrealistic.

Why I Bring This Up

Because I follow, and am followed by, a large number of authors on Twitter, and hope one day to use Twitter as part of my marketing, I decided this past week to start looking at some of the books that are advertised on Twitter and actually reading their first chapters.

I took a special interest in self-published books, as the self-pub contingent has been growing for many years now.

And what I found has been extremely disheartening.

Not only were all the books plagued with spelling and formatting errors from the first page, but almost all of them were Voiceless, or moralizing, or comically overwrought, or even all of the above. These books did nothing to recommend their authors, and even warded me away from reading any of their other stuff.

These books honestly did harm to their authors’ chances of being read and loved.

I understand that independent books will not always have a professional level of polish on them, but when a “novel” begins with a character who is comfortable going on a 20-page diatribe about how money is evil and that everyone should just meditate all day before we even know her name, then it is not just an unpolished book. It is a bad book.

Likewise, I would hope that even indie writers would know not to start a book with a 10,000-year, battle-by-battle history of the intergalactic empire. And I must insist that they not recite that history twice in a row—once in prose and once in dialog.

Honestly, some of these books are unsalvageable. They might even be evidence against the rule that forbids the discouragement of rookies.

But the Rule Exists for a Reason

Every writer starts out bad.

Your first book is generally your worst book. There is no Amadeus in the world of writing. We all have our missteps. The training wheels are off, and we always fall.

To tell someone they will never succeed simply because they are failing right now is a fallacy. It’s only natural for an author to get better with time. And you will never know, with complete certainty, which of today’s dunces will become tomorrow’s masters.

But here’s the trouble: you don’t need to be completely certain that someone has no potential. You merely need to be reasonably confident. And with some self-published authors (and even a few traditionally published ones) it is reasonably obvious that they just don’t get it. And filling their heads with lies about how perseverence is the only important thing is like kicking them when they’re down.

When I see people who have actually spent decades trying to get recognition for their writing, draining their bank accounts or even going into debt, I can’t but conclude that the people who encouraged them were not their friends.

But is There Any Way to Know for Yourself?

You want to know if there is a good assay for determining which writers are merely duds right now and which ones will be duds forever?

Well, it’s much easier to gauge this in others than in ourselves. Humans are bad self-appraisers. But some methods can be illuminating. And one virtue, above all others, must be employed if you are going to make a proper judgment.

You NEED Humility

There are two vices that will keep you from knowing your own value as an author. And they are both varieties of pride.

  1. The pride that will not countenance any criticism, no matter how constructive, and
  2. The pride that will not allow you to love your creation until it is perfect beyond all criticism.

Both of these prides can only be stopped with humility. And this same humility has to be applied to all the methods where you judge your own work.

If you have humility, then comparing your work to successful books will help you understand just how marketable you are, and give you a good idea if you’re on the right track.

If you don’t have humility, then comparing your work to successful books will fill you either with resentment or despair, and ruin your ability to get better as a writer.

If you have humility, then you can use editorial advice to make your book better.

If you don’t have humility, then edits will only make you hate either the editor or your own writing.

And if you are sufficiently humble, you can ask yourself the question “Am I getting better fast enough?” and get a firm answer.

And if That Answer is No

Then you can quit without guilt.

I know that’s not what you want to hear, but if it’s the right answer for you, then that’s that.

Of course, there’s also a chance that the answer is “yes”. And if it is, then you have no honorable choice except to continue.

Just don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re exceptional. Because you are not the exception. No one is. And if your writing isn’t up to snuff then that’s a real problem—one that will end the adventure before it has a chance to start.

One last bite-sized recommendation: periodically allow yourself to doubt. If you can, schedule these moments of doubt in advance, so that you will know they are coming, so that you can safely doubt with the knowledge that you are doing it intentionally as a way of testing your own resolve.

Your destiny may depend on it.

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