The other day I read a post on social media from someone announcing their retirement from writing. This wasn’t one of those attention-seeking posts that writers sometimes make, where they say they want to quit writing, but what they’re really doing is fishing for reassurance. “No, don’t quit! We love your writing and we love yoooooouuuuuu!” The post I’m talking about was a serious announcement of how the person’s life circumstances had changed and they no longer found satisfaction in writing. The person had started a new job that offered opportunities for being creative in different ways than writing fiction, and they felt very positive about their new direction in life.
After reading this, I started thinking about another writer, one who’d messaged me a while ago saying that they were going to quit writing. They’d suffered a great deal of loss in a short span of time and no longer felt they could continue producing fiction. This writer was a critical success in the horror field, but – like the vast majority of us – hadn’t gotten rich off their writing. It had been a while since I’d checked in with this writer, so I decided to take a look at some of their recent social media posts to see how they were doing. I was glad to see that they’d finished and submitted a new novel in the last month.
And this got me thinking about Ronald Kelly. Ron sold his first horror novel to Zebra Books in 1989, during the legendary 80’s horror boom, and he published seven more novels with Zebra before the horror market collapsed in 1996. Discouraged, he retired from writing for ten years. But fans and fellow writers continued reaching out to him via social media during this time, telling him how much they enjoyed his work and urging him to begin writing again. Eventually, he did, and now he’s regularly publishing in the small press and greatly enjoying his career resurgence. Here’s a link to Ron’s website if you’d like to learn more about him and check out some of his work: https://www.ronaldkelly.com/
I started writing fiction seriously, with the intention of making it my life’s work, forty years ago. I’ve also taught college writing courses for thirty-five years, the last twenty-three as a full-time tenured professor. While my writing brings in a decent amount of extra money each year, if I quit tomorrow, it would have little economic impact on me. My day job provides me with regular income and health benefits, as well as retirement benefits. (And assuming that society doesn’t collapse into a Mad Max-type hellscape soon, I’ll be able to retire in seven years.) The only reason for me to write is because I want to. I’ve published a lot of stuff in the last four decades of my career: fifty-one novels, seven short story collections, ten novellas, and too many articles to count. I’ve won three Bram Stoker Awards, been a finalist for three more Stokers, been a two-time finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, a multiple finalist for the Scribe Award, and a one-time finalist for the Splatterpunk Award. Isn’t that enough for one career? And while I’ve worked toward mainstream success throughout the last forty years, I haven’t achieved it, and I doubt I’ll suddenly break out as a bestselling author at this point. My freshman comp teacher in college, Pam Doyle, urged me to take my writing as far as I could. Maybe I’ve done that, and there is no farther for me to go.
Don’t worry. I’m not planning on quitting anytime soon. I still have four books that I’ve contracted to write, and I’ve always said that I need to write the same way I need to breathe. I don’t think I could quit if I wanted to. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think about quitting sometimes. Hell, I’ve probably thought about it, to one degree of seriousness or another, hundreds of times over the years.
Quitting is viewed as one of the worst things you can do in American culture. It’s giving up, showing weakness, proving you don’t have what it takes to keep going, to keep fighting. But quitting writing – for whatever length of time – isn’t necessarily bad. As a matter of fact, it could be exactly what you need.
Why You Should Quit Writing (or at Least Take a Break)
1) You’re not enjoying yourself. Writing isn’t always fun and games, of course. There’s a lot of hard work involved, not just in terms of craft but in terms of developing psychological resilience (to rejections, bad reviews, poor sales, etc.) But somewhere along the way, you should be getting some satisfaction from the process, and if you aren’t, why do it? Writing might not always make you happy, but in the end, it should leave you feeling fulfilled.
2) You find writing and publishing emotionally and perhaps even physically destructive. Maybe the writing and publishing process provokes strong negative emotions in you – anxiety, depression, self-loathing, etc. Maybe you’re giving up sleep to write, giving up exercise, giving up time for your loved ones. Instead of writing feeding you, it’s draining you. If you can’t find a way to deal with these negative emotions, and they keep getting worse, maybe it’s a sign that a writing career – or at least the way you’re currently approaching your career – isn’t for you.
3) You’ve explored writing enough to satisfy yourself. Often, creative people try out a lot of different types of art – writing, painting, music – at different times in their life. They’re explorers more than they are careerists, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re an explorer, you might write and publish for several years, learn what you need to from it, then move on to trying out another art form. When you do this, you’re not quitting writing; you’re graduating from it and moving on.
4) You want/need to put your efforts toward other areas of your life. Got children? The younger they are, the more they need you to be present for them, and the more of your energy they’ll take (the little vampires). You may not have anything left over for writing, and that’s okay. This is exactly how it should be. Maybe work heats up and you have to pull extra shifts. Maybe your job is downsized and you need to go back to school for retraining. Maybe your marriage is having issues and you and your spouse need to go into couple’s counseling. Maybe you or a loved one is facing a serious medical issue. Whatever the case, it’s okay to put writing on hold to deal with what needs to be dealt with. You’re not a quitter; your priorities just need to shift for a while.
Why You Shouldn’t Quit Writing
1) Your work is valued (by someone, somewhere). Maybe you don’t have a zillion readers and aren’t getting rich from your writing, but someone out there will read it and enjoy it. It might even change their lives in ways you’ll never know. Your art is a contribution to the world, and the world is a better place because your work is in it.
2) You find writing meaningful. If the act of writing, of creating, of making something that didn’t exist before, which would never exist all if it wasn’t for you, is meaningful to you, and you find deep satisfaction in that meaning, then that’s an excellent reason to keep writing despite all the difficulties you might encounter. Instead of thinking of yourself as a writer, think of yourself as a meaning-maker.
3) Writing leads to personal growth for you. Writing can stretch your mind creatively and intellectually, and publishing and connecting with a community of writers can help you grow as both an artist and a human being. If you find this growth valuable, it’s a good reason to keep writing.
4) You’re still having fun. If you’re enjoying yourself as a writer, why stop? Maybe you can only afford to put a small amount of your time and energy into your writing, but if it enhances your life, why quit entirely?
5) You’ll be (more) miserable if you stop. Maybe the more difficult aspects of writing and publishing get you down (maybe a lot sometimes), but you know if you quit entirely, you’ll feel even worse. Why would you do that to yourself?
Ways of Avoiding Feeling Like You Should Quit
1) Learn to deal with rejection. If you’re doing traditional publishing, you’re going to get rejected by editors and agents – especially when you’re first starting out – and you need to learn how to keep going despite these rejections. There are tons of books, articles, websites, and YouTube videos that give advice on how to deal with rejection, and authors often talk about how they deal with rejection in interviews or on social media. Learn as much as you can about how others deal with rejection so you can too.
2) Learn to deal with indifference. You write something, publish it (traditionally or indie), and the world responds with a massive shrug. This can be far worse than getting a ton of bad reviews. Bad reviews are at least some kind of response. There’s nothing worse for an artist than the feeling that their work is invisible. It happens, though, and you have to be able to ignore it and move on.
3) Learn to deal with setbacks. Bad reviews, poor sales, your publisher going out of business before your book or story can be released, bad agents, bad editors, financial problems . . . Writers can experience all kinds of setbacks (just like we can in every other aspect of life), and they can derail us if we can’t find a way to deal with them.
4) Learn to recognize the signs of burnout. People on social media are always touting how important it is to be “grinding” 24/7, and if you’re aren’t, they say you’re not working hard enough, you’re not serious about your career. Fuck those people. Sure, working hard is important, but if you overwork yourself and burn out, you may stop writing altogether. I’ve seen it happen to writers a lot over the years. Slown down, take breaks, take vacations, rest and relax. You need to take care of your whole self in order to keep writing.
5) Understand it’s okay to work at your own pace. This is another bit of advice when it comes to “grinding.” Find out what pace works for you and don’t be afraid to adjust it as necessary as time goes on.
6) It’s okay to take breaks – sometimes long ones. Need to stop writing for a few days? A few weeks? Months? Years? It’s easy to get down on yourself for taking a break, easy to feel like a failure. But a break can be an important part of a person’s overall creative process and creative life. If you really need to take time off from writing, do it. Your writing will be there when you come back to it.
7) Limit your time on social media. I see people – especially younger writers – giving and reinforcing a lot of bad advice on social media. (The all-important, never-ending “grind” is an example.) Plus, it’s easy to get discouraged when you see other writers having more success than you, having more sales, better reviews, movie deals, awards, showing up on best-of-the-year lists . . . Envy is the writer’s disease, and you have to be careful not to contract it. So if you find yourself becoming depressed and feeling bad about yourself as a writer after spending time on social media, limit your exposure to it.
8) Don’t read reviews. There will inevitably be readers who think what you write is the worst piece of shit ever produced in the history of the human race, and they won’t be shy about posting their opinion on Twitter, Amazon, and Goodreads. If you find bad reviews shake your confidence, stay away from all reviews of your work. At a conference, I once heard the science fiction writer Mike Resnick say, “I never argue with people’s opinions about my work,” and I adopted this attitude. It helps me remember that any review – whether from an established critic or a random reader – is still just an opinion.
9) Do read reviews. On the other hand, reading positive reviews can make you feel like your work is appreciated, boost your confidence, and give you energy to keep on writing. The trick is to read only good reviews, so if you start reading a review, and you discover it’s a negative one, you have to stop reading it immediately and stop yourself from returning to it, which is far easier said than done. Some writers have friends who copy positive reviews they find and send them to the writer. This way, you’ll only see the positive ones. (And you can do this for your writer friends too.)
10) Switch things up. If you’re getting sick of writing fiction, try writing a poem or an article. Or if you rather slam your hand in a car door than write another horror story, try writing science fiction. Work on a novel instead of a short story, or vice versa. Create a presentation for a workshop. Make a YouTube video. The old saying, “A change is as a good as a rest” applies here.
11) Collect positive feedback on your work, and read it when you need it. I keep a list of blurbs that other writers have given me along with quotes from positive reviews. When I’m feeling down about myself and my writing, I sometimes read over these quotes to remind me that there are people who find value in my work. If I see someone post something positive about my work on social media, I sometimes take a screen grab of it, and when I’m feeling down, I’ll pull up the image on my phone and read it.
12) Look back at how far you’ve come. When I’m feeling down, sometimes I read over my bibliography to remind myself of how much work I’ve published over the years. I keep author copies on shelves in my office, and I can turn around in my chair and look at them whenever I need to remind myself that I’ve come a long way from that eighteen-year-old who decided he wanted to be a writer so long ago.
13) Understand what kind of success you really need. I’ve read more than one article by literary writers who claim to be failures because their first novels weren’t huge critical and financial successes. I’m always like, “My dude, the audience for literary fiction is small already, and most books that are bestsellers are entertainment-based popular fiction anyway. Don’t get so down on yourself.” Most of us will never write a bestselling novel or become rich from our writing or win tons of awards and achieve widespread critical acclaim. If we set the bar for success too high, we’re bound to fail, over and over, and it’s only natural that we may come to feel like losers and want to quit writing. Having high goals is great, but ask yourself not what your highest goals for success are, but what your bottom line for success is. What’s the least amount of success you need in order to keep writing year after year? This way, while you may shoot for higher levels of success, you know that you’re already enough of a success to keep going.
14) Write with intention but without attachment to a specific outcome. This is a Zen concept I learned from the writer Taylor Grant. You create a piece of writing with intention – say, to make it the best, most entertaining story you’re capable of at this moment in time – and when it’s finished, you’ve accomplished your intention. Whatever happens after that doesn’t matter. Publish the story, don’t publish it. Win awards for it or don’t. This is the problem the literary writers I mentioned above had. They wrote their debut novels with attachment to a specific outcome – financial and critical success of a certain kind – and so when that outcome didn’t occur, they considered themselves failures. Having attachment to a specific outcome sets you up for failure. This doesn’t mean that the outcome you desire won’t happen; it just means that you’re aren’t attached to it happening. You can enjoy the desired outcome if it occurs, but you won’t be emotionally devastated if it doesn’t. I suspect a lot of people who quit writing do so because they’re too attached to specific outcomes in their careers.
Whenever I talk about dealing with the emotionally difficult aspects of living a creative life, I recommend people read Eric Maisel’s books. He’s a psychologist who specializes in helping creatives, and he’s written a number of incredibly useful books on dealing with the ups and down of being an artist. My favorite is Creativity for Life. Here’s Eric’s website if you’d like to check out his resources: https://ericmaisel.com/
The most important thing to remember about writing and publishing is that they are expressions of who you are. They are not you. You – the complete individual – is more important than any one thing you do or don’t do. Your writing should first and foremost serve you, and if it isn’t, it’s okay to make a change, take a break, or leave it behind, whether for a short interval or for the rest of your life. You need to do what’s best for you. Selfishly, I hope you’ll keep writing or, after a break, come back to it. I want to read as much good work as I can before I die. But the most important thing is that you’re happy and healthy, whatever that means for you.
Department of Shameless Self-Promotion
Planet Havoc: Zombicide Invader
If you’re a fan of my novel Alien: Prototype, then you should love this one! It’s an original adventure set in the Zombicide Invader universe. It’s due out in April and is available for preorder.
Scoundrels and soldiers band together to survive the onslaught of alien-zombies spreading across the galaxy in this riotous adventure from the bestselling game, Zombicide: Invader
A deserted R&D facility tempts the hungry new Guild, Leviathan, into sending a team to plunder its valuable research. The base was abandoned after a neighboring planet was devastated by an outbreak of Xenos – alien zombies – but that was a whole planet away... When the Guild ship is attacked by a quarantine patrol, both ships crash onto the deserted world. Only it isn’t as deserted as they hope: a murderous new Xeno threat awakens, desperate to escape the planet. Can the crews cooperate to destroy this new foe? Or will they be forced to sacrifice their ships and lives to protect the galaxy?
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We Will Rise
We Will Rise, my next horror novel for Flame Tree Press, is due out in July 2022 and is available for preorder.
In Echo Hill, Ohio, the dead begin to reappear, manifesting in various forms, from classic ghosts and poltergeists, to physical undead and bizarre apparitions for which there is no name. These malign spirits attack the living, tormenting and ultimately killing them in order to add more recruits to their spectral ranks.
A group of survivors come together after the initial attack, all plagued by different ghostly apparitions of their own. Can they make it out of Echo Hill alive? And if so, will they still be sane? Or will they die and join the ranks of the vengeful dead?
You can preorder the book here:
Flame Tree Press: https://www.flametreepublishing.com/we-will-rise-isbn-9781787585249.html
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