James Scott Bell is the author many thrillers and the #1 bestselling writing book of the decade, Plot & Structure. His other writing books are Revision & Self-Editing and The Art of War for Writers (from Writer's Digest Books). For more about him, visit his website.
When Should You Quit Writing?
At a writers conference recently, one of the attendees (who has been coming for years and still hasn't broken into publication) sat down with me and said, "I want you to tell me, straight up, if I'm just spinning my wheels here. I've been trying so long and never get anywhere. I want to know if I should just quit and forget the whole thing."
That's a good question and deserves an expanded answer. So . . . here's mine.
First, I know many immediately jump to the thought, "If you have to ask, then quit. Real writers never quit!" That's a little too flip. This can be an incredibly frustrating business at every level, from query rejection to book returns, from agent hunting to bad reviews. So genuine feelings of angst are real and I don't want to downplay them.
Still, there is a kernel of truth in the statement. To write well, you have to have an inner desire that can't be doused by setbacks. Yes, the flame may dim when you're hit hard, but in a real writer it keeps coming back, like one of those trick candles you put on a birthday cake.
You have to be like Rudy, from the movie of the same name. He knew his chances of ever getting into a real game were virtually nil. And every day at practice he'd get his head knocked off by the varsity players getting ready for the week's game.
Bam. Bam. Bam. That's what this writing thing feels like sometimes. But you get up and keep hitting back.
You have to know, going in, that you need to develop Rhino skin to survive. The good news is you can develop it. Every time you come back from a set-back and write some more, you create a little more of that protective coating, that inner strength.
So if you can look at the big picture, with all the odds stacked against you . . .if you can understand full well that you will be taking hit after hit . . .if you can understand all that and still have that inner ferret that says, "Write, dang you!" – then no, you should not quit.
Okay, I know some of you are saying, "That's the same old rah-rah stuff I hear at every writer's conference. Easy for him to say . . ."
Well, ladies and germs, we don't get very far without the rah-rah stuff. It's the stuff of Churchill on the BBC during the Blitz, or Henry V at Agincourt, or dare I say Aragorn at the big black gate: "This day we fight!"
So hear these words resounding in your head: It's always too soon to quit.
Yes, rejection hurts. So, let it. Let it hurt for about fifteen minutes. Then go to your keyboard and write, "I resolve . . ." and continue writing for fifteen minutes.
And, as long as you're not quitting, you can do things like this:
1. Get ideas.
2. Play the first line game (come up with a bunch of first lines, choose the best one, and write)
3. Write a short story.
4. Write your memoirs (hey, you've got a family, right?)
5. Write an essay.
6. Write blog post or a meaty comment for a blog.
7. Study the craft. Read a writing book with a highlighter in hand.
8. Finish that project you've been putting off.
9. Eat one cheeseburger, with everything on it, once a month.
10. Keep writing.
Remember, every moment you spend writing is a moment spent not fretting about your writing (h/t Dennis Palumbo).
So don't quit.
Successfully starting and finishing a publishable novel is often like fighting a series of battles - against the page, against one's own self-doubt, against rebellious characters, etc. Featuring timeless, innovative, and concise writing strategies and focused exercises, this book is the ultimate battle plan and more - it's Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" for novelists. Tactics and exercises are provided on idea generation and development, character building, plotting, drafting, querying and submitting, dealing with rejection, coping with envy and unrealistic expectations, and much more.