Monday, December 12, 2005


When I speak in public, I often tell the newbie writers in attendance that this business is horrible, and they should quit.

It always gets a few laughs, because they think I'm kidding.

Work hard for four years, and you can get an engineering degree. In seven years, you're a lawyer. Eight and you can practice medicine. Hard work = success.

Writing isn't like that. You can bust your butt for ten years, working every day, and not earn a dime. A BA in fiction writing means you're eligible for a job at Wendy's. An MFA means you can teach--but is no guarantee you'll sell a book. And why would you want to teach if you haven't succeeded in the field?

So when does a reasonable person say when? After how many rejections should you decide to try something new?

I've talked with writers about the anguish of writer's block. They speak of their WIPs like it is a monumental task to be conquered, a war to be fought, torture to be endured.

This is how you want to spend your free time?

I read a lot of newbie writing, and 90% of it is bad. Could it be improved? Sure. I always spout that persistence trumps talent. But it took me 12 years to sell a book, and the stuff I was writing back in the day was better than much of the newbie stuff I read. Does that mean I'm fostering hope for hundreds of writers who won't sell anything until 2025, if ever?

The odds are against you, moreso than almost any other profession. Very few have what it takes, and even if you do, lady luck may snub you anyway.

Here's a short list of reasons to quit. If you see yourself on here, it may be time to try your hand at something else.
  1. You've been doing this for more than five years, and haven't sold anything.
  2. You've got some kind of degree in writing, and haven't sold anything.
  3. Writing causes you pain.
  4. You've been working on one novel for five years.
  5. You're great at starting stories, but never finish them.
  6. You want to be a writer, but spend all your time going to classes and researching, but never get any writing done.
  7. You could live without ever writing again.
  8. You think that writing will make you rich.
  9. You believe that once you sell a book, it's a cakewalk from then on.
  10. You truly feel that you have something important to say.
  11. You think being a writer is cool.
  12. You're doing it to show your family and friends.
  13. You want to win awards.
  14. You believe that editing, rewriting, and revision are for the less-talented.
  15. You have a thin skin.
  16. You think that writing will make you famous.
  17. You think that once you're in print, that will be enough and you'll never want more.
  18. You think there's a conspiracy keeping you from getting published.
  19. You don't live to write.
  20. At the end of your life, if you're still not published, it will hurt you.

If any of the above apply to you, consider doing something else with your free time. While high school sports couches crow that quitters never win, Dirty Harry famously said, "A man's got to know his limitations."

Why torture yourself when you could do something you'd be more successful at?

The cold hard fact is: most of the people trying to get published won't get published, and most of the people who do get published won't be successful.

Which brings me to the most important point of all:

21. If this blog entry made you consider quitting, you absolutely must quit.

If all it did was rile you up, well, welcome to hell. I wish you much success.

I also recommend Prozac, alcohol, and lots of understanding friends.


  1. Gee, I'm screwed... LOL

    All this post did was reinforce the fact that I have to be a writer until the day I die.

    But I don't drink, my body can't handle drugs, and I only have a few close friends....

    Guess I'll have to increase the Latte and chocolate intake and hope for the best! LOL

  2. Made me laugh, Joe, even though you were being serious.

    I 'know' a number of online acquaintances who, when asked why they wrote recently, gave at least one of those reasons you quoted. In some cases, they quoted several of them almost word-for-word. But they won't quit. They'll dally around with writing, posting this and that, and bemoaning the fact the publishers NEVER look at new authors, do they? They'll say competitions are rigged, magazine editors are blinkered, but they'll carry on calling themselves "writers". Good luck to them. They won't quit. But neither will they succeed.

  3. Joe, I was about to add #21 when you beat me to it.

    When I was trying to break into screenwriting -- becoming a member of the WGA being the ultimate measure of success (ha ha) -- I was told that my (or anyone else's) odds of ever carrying that union card were slim to none.

    I didn't listen. A few years later, I was a member of the WGA.

    When I decided to write a novel, I was told that my odds of selling it were slim to none.

    I didn't listen. A couple years later I had a two-book deal.

    The naysayers may give you pause, may bring you down, may sometimes infuriate you, but if they can make you quit, it just wasn't meant to be.

  4. Joe,
    Thanks for the post. Every newbie you scare off is one less I have to contend with come submission time.

    For those that are left, you may as well have written a checklist to see whether breathing is our cup of tea or not.

    Bring on the horrible. It's a better brand of horrible than never having tried.

  5. I find it interesting that when I speak to a group and say "most of you will never be published" everyone looks around for the people I'm talking about.

    It's the same sense of self-delusion that makes most people think they are above-average drivers.

    If everyone were an above-average driver, as everything thinks they are, that would be the average.

    Our will to succeed makes our species great, and striving to improve ourselves is a wonderful thing.

    But you can fit a gallon of milk in a quart jug, no matter how hard you work, how much you want it.

    When I say "You'll never get published" everyone thinks I'm talking about the guy next to them.

    Of course, once upon a time, I was that guy, and I wound up getting published anyway...

  6. I write because I need something to do while my husband plays X-Box.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. "I still think about quitting fiction. All the time. Hasn't happened yet. I love it, but it doesn't love me."

    But, hey, as long as the sex is good...

  9. The pulpit is for preaching. Books are to entertain.

    Telling a story is a lot different than inflicting your opinions upon the world.

    If you want to entertain folks, and slip in a few platitudes, that's great. Of if you want to write essays, or political commentary, that's fine. Just keep them seperate.

    If you yearn to write about how communism corrupts, I suggest your story take place on a farm using pigs.

    Books are about conflict, not ego.

    Also, having your novel rejected is tough. Having your ideology rejected is suicidal.

  10. I fit everyone of those...

    That's it. I'm calling it quits!

  11. Yeah, I'm gonna jump on the beat-up-Joe bandwagon regarding "having something to say." I hope you don't take this wrong way -- of course I don't really give a damn if you do -- but the weakest part of your writing, Joe, despite the Hyperion books' entertainment value is that there's no depth.

    Obviously, it doesn't matter to you, and that's who you are. But the guys who are remembered -- Poe, Bradbury, King -- had something to say.

    One reason why Dan Brown rose above the hoard of thriller writers is that he had something to say about the church.

    If you ever want to break into New York Times Bestsellerdom, you better have something to say.

  12. Konrath, are those the 21 best reasons for quitting you could find?

    I mean, come on, either we're writers or we aren't.

    Yeah, I've been working on one project for a while, but there's been enough progress at every step that I think it'll actually happen.

    That and I started the new project over the weekend, finally. So if the one that's on submission doesn't go, the next one will. Just like it happened with you.

    Do you really think you can scare us away with those 21 little pissant reasons to quit?

    I've dealt with a hell of a lot worse shit in my life and haven't quit writing yet, so why should I quit after reading your list?

    But thanks for scaring off all those other people. Your post was as entertaining and provocative as ever.


  13. I, too, wonder about one item on your list (I pass all the rest):

    You don't live to write.

    No, I don't live to write.

    I live to feel my children's arms around my neck. I live to see Chris' face light up when I come home.

    I didn't write for years, and I didn't die. Now, however, that I've returned to it, I'd much rather write than do most other things, and a lack of publication isn't going to change that. I will continue to write whether anybody buys it or not.

  14. Stacey-- What constitutes depth in writing? Break down the componants a story must have in order to be considered deep.

    Adam-- What would make you finally quit? What is your breaking point?

    Dean-- If every single person on this earth dropped dead, would you still write?

    A friend of mine have an ongoing discussion about capacity. He thinks that everyone has a potential, but not everyone has limitless potential. Your goal should be to reach your own potential. That might not be good enough to get published, but that part is out of your hands.

    I understand his point, but think that a person's potential isn't set in stone. I think capacity can be extended beyond a person's (and society's) expectations.

    He's probably right. A man born with short legs won't ever win the long jump.

    But if he pushes himself, he might do pretty well.

  15. My 12-year-old son wants to be a writer. Hell, he is a writer. Every day he sits down with his notebooks and writes stories. Already he's got more stick-to-itiveness than most aspiring writers. Does that mean he'll make it?

    Maybe. Maybe I can help him. Maybe I can make suggestions. But utlimately it's up to him, isn't it?

    Holy shit, Mark Terry. That' my son, except he's nine. I have to provide the example. I'm so screwed.


    (fingers in ears)

    LALALALALA. I can't hear you.

    Back to writing.

  16. Adam-- What would make you finally quit? What is your breaking point?

    Joe-- I'll let you know when I reach that point. My progress so far has been slow and steady, but it's been progress.

    But I'd keep writing even without what I call "progress," so again, I'll let you know when I reach the breaking point.


  17. I think depth comes from compassion and a willingness to put others before yourself. The conflict that this causes within someone's mind is the stuff of good writing.

    Look at any classic from Hamlet, to Poe's Tell-Tale Heart, to The Shining, and you'll find a protagonist torn between putting his own needs above another's.

  18. To all the impressionable young writers who read this blog: Be aware that J.A. has (temporarily?) lost his mind. I'm sure he'll be back to his old encouraging self real soon.

    To all the middle-aged hacks like me: Raymond Chandler didn't publish his first novel until he was fifty. Go for it!!

  19. Uh-oh, Captain. That gives me just nine months. Any chance you can come up with someone who only got published when they were, say, fifty-five?

  20. i have friends who wrote several books, then quit. they are very happy and i'm happy for them.

  21. Joe,

    Your post made me want to shave my head, get tattoos, and hurt somebody.

    Disclaimer: Shaved heads, tattoos, and the desire to cause someone else earthly pain does not make you a badass. But writing a novel and surviving does.

  22. Unfortunately, I can't find myself in any of your points. Could you make a longer list, so I can find a reason to quit?

    Things you can skip: babies (c-sections and all), a demanding career, marriage and its troubles, a 90 year old manse that needs insulation, in-laws that find new ways to torture me every Christmas, 2 water-soaked keyboards, 1 lost manuscript, health problems for me, hubby and one of the kiddies--and I found myself sitting in the waiting room of a children's hospital last week writing (WRITING!) while my little one was anesthetized for some testing.

    Maybe it's a sickness. I think I'd keep writing even if I knew I'd never have 'publishing success'. I find great joy in polishing, perfecting and sharing my stories.


  23. There's an anecdote I often spout about an aspiring pianist who sees a virtuoso play. After the show, he sneaks backstage and says to the virtuoso:

    "I want to be like you. May I play for you, so you may tell me if I have what it takes?"

    The virtuoso agrees, and the man plays. When he's finished, the virtuoso says:

    "I'm sorry. You just don't have the fire. You should quit."

    The man is devestated. But he listens to the maestro, quits piano, and becomes a successful architect.

    Years later, he again sees the virtuoso play, and again sneaks back-stage.

    "Do you remember me? I played for you a long time ago, and yougave me advice that changed my life."

    "What did I say?" the maestro asks.

    "You said I didn't have the fire, so I quit."

    The maestro laughs. "I say that to everyone who plays for me."

    The architect is appalled.

    "To everyone?!? But I followed your advice and gave up the piano! Maybe if you'd told me that I did indeed have the fire, I would have pursued my musical career and been as good as you!"

    "I doubt it," the maestro says, "because if you truly did have the fire, you wouldn't have listened when I told you to quit."


    Pursuing dreams is a noble cause. Pursuing fantasy is an impossible cause.

    What are you pursuing?

  24. Dean-- If every single person on this earth dropped dead, would you still write?

    Actually, Joe, that's a damn good question. I don't honestly know the answer.

  25. ...and then the architect picked up a piano stool and bashed the maestro's head in....

    Sounds like a good beginning to a mystery plot. Anybody want to write the next line? We could have a nice community project right here on Joe's blog.

    Joe: Was the maestro originally trying to challenge his young fan in an effort to spur his talents forward, or was the maestro a heartless arrogant asshole who deserved his fate? Either way, a little encouragement might have hit the bull's eye. I know you're not really trying to persuade people to quit, but this post sounds as though you are. What's in your heart? What would make YOU quit. If your agent and publisher ditched you right now, would you give up?

    Even if it's only a fantasy, why not let people have it. Whatever it takes to get through the day (with the exception of alcohol and Prozac, which will ultimately destroy, more than even the maestro's soulless comments).

  26. "Even if it's only a fantasy, why not let people have it."

    That's what religion is for.

    (Joe ducks)

    But seriously, the point of the anecdote, and my post, is that writers have a long hard road ahead, filled with adversity and rejection, and the odds are stacked against them.

    Don't dedicate yourself to it if you aren't wiling to be repeatedly told "YOU AREN'T GOOD ENOUGH." Because you will indeed be told that, many times.

  27. Ah. Now we have a nice revision, an extension to the scene: The maestro ducked, and one of the piano stool's sharp edges grazed the top of his skull...

    This is play for me. When you love something, it is play and not work. When your writing becomes something other than play, when it resembles stress, THAT'S when you should quit. Not when someone tells you you're not good enough.

    Never listen to the maestro. That's my advice. The maestro might be (and probably is) full of shit.

  28. Stacey - I would define depth in a story as anything that makes you feel something. Laughter. Sorrow. Tension. Happiness. Fear. Excitement. Or if it makes you think.

    Jude - Love can hurt. So can play. I broke my heart being in love, and my leg playing football.

    As for stress--that's the key, isn't it? Don't let anything get to you. But if that was the case, the apprentice never would have played for the maestro, because he wouldn't have needed validation. Nor would he have quit if told he wasn't good enough, because he wouldn't have cared about anyone else's opinion.

    Play doesn't mean submitting to agents, or writing for a living.

  29. I was going to write a response to this post, however I have quit writing.

  30. "The people whom God or nature intended to be writers find thier own answers, and those who have to ask are impossible to help. They are merely people who want to be writers." Raymond Chandler

  31. I totally agree with "you truly believe you have something to say." If you truly have something to say, become a politician.

    I don't at all agree that "hard work = success" in any other field. No matter what your endeavour, success is always a combination of talent, technical merit, effort, people skills, and knowing when to sell out.

    And I certainly don't agree that writing has particularly low odds of success. First, it depends what kind of writing. If you're a respected expert writing a textbook on a narrow subject, your odds are much better than a fiction writer's. Second, the data set is biased, because there is an assumption that everyone who writes fiction aspires to be a famous fiction author. I think that's much the same as saying that anyone who sings in the shower aspires to be a rock star and you should quit singing in the shower because you're never gonna be a rock star.

    People don't make it big as fiction writers for the same reason they don't make it big as rock stars: because it's part of the entertainment industry.

    Personally I think I'm a successful fiction writer and I don't plan to quit. You know why? Because it entertains me. That's why I write. When I'm after money, I go to my day job.

  32. Captain Anomalous and Doolols: Helen Hoover Santmeyer's ...And the Ladies of the Club, a major bestseller in the late 90s, was published when she was 96. Laura Ingalls Wilder was 64 when the first Little House book was published. So, there's always hope for us older folks.


  33. I too disagree with "You truly feel that you have something important to say." Mainly because I think it doesn't say what you seem to mean.

    Perhaps you mean "If you truly believe that you have something important to say and think that that alone will sell your novel, then you should quit." or "If you truly believe that you have something important to say that everyone must hear, then you should quit."

    If writers didn't believe that they had something important to say, then there would be a distinct lack of theme in books.

  34. Well, if "every single person on the planet dropped dead," I'd be dead, too (since, at last report, I was a person and on this planet). Assuming I somehow survived, sure, I'd still write. In fact, I'd have even more incentive to write.

  35. Could live if you never write again?
    Might feel amputated,but live?
    Damn right.
    Do you posit that writing must be the sole triumphant value?
    C'mon, Joe.
    That's neurotic back-of-the-hand-to-the-forehead shit.Diva stuff.
    And I'm way too old to have patience with it.
    Most of the rest I agree with.

  36. "Do you posit that writing must be the sole triumphant value?"

    No. I posit that it is extremely likely that on your death bed the only place your writing will have ever appeared is on your computer.

    Can you live with that?

    It's much easier to live with if you write based on some inner need or drive--if you can't NOT write.

    I live to write. That's not me being a diva. It's just a fact. If no one ever read me, I'd still write. If the world was destroyed, I'd still write.

    Do all professional writers have that drive? No. But it helps get you sold, and it helps your piece of mind when you aren't selling.

    This is a hard buisness. If you don't live for it, why do it? There are plenty of easier tasks to accomplish.

  37. Anonymous3:00 PM

    # You're great at starting stories, but never finish them.
    # You want to be a writer, but spend all your time going to classes and researching, but never get any writing done.

    Ayup, that about says it all.... Thinking about quitting writing. Again. Too much other stuff going on in my life. Not enough time to do what I want to do!

  38. Please God, don't let me die with a story still in me.


Thanks for the comment! Joe will get back to you eventually. :)