Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

On quitting writing (a discussion, not an announcement)

Sean Lindsay has this fascinating and somewhat hilarious blog called 101 Reasons to Stop Writing. I got pointed there by throughsoftair as part of a discussion on quitting here between him, me and ladnews.

The concept of quitting writing is an interesting one. As I said in that thread, Have you noticed that when a friend or fellow writer decides to hang up their pen, there's often a mad scramble to form a support group posse and head them off at the exit?

To which ladnews replied, Yeah, and I'm not always convinced it's the right thing to do. Sometimes giving up is good for everyone concerned. Some folks, famously Harlan Ellison, but also Charles Brown and others, have been quite direct about quitting when talking to aspiring and new writers.

Bluntly, the odds suck. The upcoming Internet Review of Science Fiction column by specficrider and me includes some numbers I ran on ratio of submissions to publications at professional short story and novel markets. We didn't even run the last factor, which was filtering the new writer penetration from the total submission load, but I will make the educated guess that for the New York novel imprints in spec fic, it's far less than one first novel published for every thousand first novels submitted. While I can quickly break that number back down to less frightening levels via Sturgeon's Law and some other reasonable filters, it's definitely bog mindling no matter how you slice it.

In other words, this ain't no get rich quick scheme. Nobody does this for the money, not from the front end. You can make quite a good living writing, if you hit a lot of projects and spread out your name and efforts through multiple genres of standlone fiction, across work-for-hire or outside fiction altogether, but in our little fishpond, the odds are staggering, while the payouts are tiny. (Remember that New York novel contracts have three or four milestone payments which could stretch over two to three years, minus agent commission and tax bite. It skinnies down fast.) Even to get to the point where that is possible requires a lot of hard work.

So, as Sean Lindsay reminds us, there's lots of reasons for quitting. 1,000 of them for every winner, if you want to fingercount by one crude measure.

All that being said, I'm hopeful as a writer, and hopeful for my friends and associates in this field. So when someone does say, "hey, I've had enough," I'm ready to form up that aforementioned posse and head for the horizon, to cut them off and beat them back into the kraal.


I think it's a projection issue for all of us. This is the obverse of the classic writerly jealousy. "If she can fail, if he can walk away, what does that portend for me?" We all work alone, and the green worm of envy gnaws in all our hearts to some degree, but far more so than most professions writers tend to be very conscious of the commonality of their effort. One success is everyone's success, one failure is everyone's failure. And in a business rife with rejection, rewrite and resubmission even in the hottest careers, it's easy to convince ourselves that the only real failure is walking away.

And I have to say to myself, "How do I know that?" Walking away might be a victory for someone else. Not for me, I don't think, but that's just me. Some people really do have much tougher rows to hoe than others, due to scope of ambition, limitations of talent, needed growth of craft, emotional roadblocks, what have you.

I think it does come back to projection. The fear that if one person jumps the fence, it will be easier for the next to do so, then a few more, then one day it's our turn. Come on, it's always easier to walk away from the keyboard and watch TV or play some MMORPG or go clubbing. We do this because it's hard, not because it's easy. If it was easy, everyone could do it.

I'd like to think that if a dear friend or beloved writer announced that they were done, that I could celebrate and support their decision. I'm not sure I'm that big, but it would be the right thing to do. I'd also like to think I'll never say that, but I learned years ago to never say "never".

What's your take on quitting? Do you know anyone who just walked away?
Tags: process, writing

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