You can’t quit

I think almost everyone who writes — barring a rare few — will decide at some point that they’re tired of trying. Statistically, this bears out. In any given writing program or class, only about 30% of the people will have any real success in the commercial world. Everyone else, the other 70%, will eventually lay the burden down and go do something else.

I can grok it. It’s a lot of work to build up and keep up any kind of writing momentum. It takes an almost obtuse level of stubbornness to ignore the setbacks and the roadblocks and the odds, and keep producing and sending the work out. Most writers will, at some point, decide that struggling to become a well-sold, financially lucrative professional fiction author is just too hard. Or, if they actually get to that point, they discover that staying at that level is too hard, and they will either back off, walk away, or lapse into a sparser, less consistent production pattern.

I think this is why I am so attracted to exemplars like Dave Wolverton, Kevin J. Anderson, Dean Wesley Smith, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and so forth. These writers have been through lots of turmoil and changes and ups and downs, and they’ve found a way to keep going and survive as professionals. All of them consistently sell, and all of them consistently say that they have more fun doing what they do, than anything else they’ve ever done. Even with as much work and uncertainty as there can be in the business.

I remember when I went through Basic Combat Training in 2003, our Drill Sergeants told us the first day — as we stood around in our PTs, toes on the outside line of a rectangular area dubbed the Kill Zone — that at least one third of us wouldn’t make it. One third of us would wash out. At the time I didn’t even know you could wash out, but over nine weeks I watched it happen. People got sick. People got hurt. People had discipline issues. And people simply gave up and quit.

I know I wanted to quit a few times, especially since I got very sick at the beginning and at the end of the experience. Trying to do BCT while seriously ill is its own little version of hell. I only kept going because I knew if I didn’t keep going, I would never be able to look at myself in the mirror again, and not feel like a failure. I’d never be able to look my wife in the eye, nor anyone who knew I’d joined the military, without feeling like I’d blown it. So I gutted it out, and I am sure glad I did. The military has paid off big time for me. BCT sucked, but it didn’t kill me — even though I sometimes wondered if it would.

I think writing is not all that different. Those who gut it out, become successful. Those who decide it’s not worth the trouble and the effort, move on to something else. I guess it all comes down to how much each of us wants this thing? How maniacal are we willing to get?

Jay Lake is a guy whose level of writing mania is epic to the point of being scary. I know for a fact if I’d gone through the cancer hell he’s gone through, it would have destroyed my writing, and probably just about everything else in my life too. I’d have curled up in a corner and quietly wished for the world to go away. But with rare exception, Jay kept up his production goals and made progress and kept selling, and never gave up even when the cancer was taking its toll and other things — even his relationships — began to dissolve.

I am not sure I have even half of Jay’s determination. But I admire the hell out of Jay because of his drive.

When I decided to really get invested again in my writing and make a “final push” for professional break-in, I sort of made a deal with myself that I couldn’t quit. I absolutely could not quit, for any reason. It felt a lot like the decision I had to make to gut it out with Basic Combat Training. There was no going back, only going through. And this is still how it feels. Each time something nice happens for me, I allow myself a day or so to feel elated and excited about it, but then I pull my hat back down over my eyes and re-focus. Because there is more writing to do, and it won’t do itself if I let myself get too hung up on worrying if I’ve got what it takes, will I ever really be able to make it, and so forth.

Chances are, if I keep putting my head down and driving forward, I’ll look up some day and realize, hey, I made it! And then, probably, I’ll put my hat back down over my eyes and I’ll push on some more. Because this again is what the exemplars do: they don’t rest on their laurels, they aren’t satisfied with just one successful project, and they don’t slack off. Or at least, not for very long. They put the work gloves back on, pick up the literary pick and shovel, and head back to the creative ditch to dig more stories and novels out of their own particular creative Earth. Like coal mining. The seams are down there, but you won’t ever touch them if you sit around on the surface and waste time.

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About Brad R. Torgersen

Science Fiction & Fantasy Author - Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell award nominee
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8 Responses to You can’t quit

  1. Jeff Ambrose says:

    This is a great post, Brad. Last year I decided to make 2010 the Year I Would Get Serious About Writing, and I had only one goal for myself — not to quit.

    You see, you and I are the same age, and though I don’t know for sure, I think we’re both April 1974 birthdays. (I read that somewhere, I didn’t go look it up, I’m NOT stalking you!). When I first read your own writing experience — all those years you only wrote here and there — I thought to myself, Here’s a guy JUST LIKE ME, and he’s made it.

    I realized at the end of 2009 that I’d had enough, that I NEEDED to write, that I couldn’t quit. Not again. So when I told my wife about it, she asked me, “Are you gonna quit again?” Boy, did that stink. It hurt like hell. Here I was thinking how clever I was, but my wife knew it all along. And so I knew if I started writing again, I couldn’t quit b/c I could never look at my wife again.

    I came close a few times in 2010 to hanging it up, but I thought about what she said, and pressed one. Then I contacted you (back when I was still using the pen name Baerveldt) and read all of Dean’s posts on his blog and changed everything. And you know what — I’ve had more fun the past seven or so months than I’ve ever had.

    I’m writing, I’m working hard, I’m finishing, and for 2011 I’m focusing on being an indie writer because it’s all moving so damn fast I feel if I don’t jump on now it’s gonna be harder to next year.

    And in June I’m off to Dave Wolverton’s Professional Novel Writing workshop which I’m really jazzed about.

    And all of this has happened b/c of one reason: back in December of 2009 my wife asked if I was going to quit, and that was enough to make me NOT quit.

    Now writing is such a habit — and my wife sees my determination — she’s willing to give me the time I need to write and fork over lots of money so I can go to a writing conference.

    Well, this is all much too long and far too rambling. Just wanted to say THANK YOU for this post. I hope many others read it and take your advice.

  2. thomaskcarpenter says:

    Just keep swimming… just keep swimming…

    That’s what I keep telling myself anyway. :)

  3. Pingback: Writer’s Workspace: 2/2 « Comedy or Tragedy?

  4. Jeff, I think you will like Dave Wolverton’s class very, very much. Dave has birthed so many top-selling writers, it’s scary. And all because he’s a really nice guy who likes to share what he’s learned on his own road to becoming a top-seller. A fantastic gentleman, Dave, and you couldn’t pick a better instructor.

    Before I was published everybody said the same thing: the only real difference between published writers and unpublished writers is that published writers never gave up. If you have even a lick of talent, but can find a way to be disciplined and produce, you can make it. Sometimes, you can make it big.

    See, the guy I look at very hard is Brandon Sanderson. He’s our age exactly. And he’s a #1 New York Times bestseller. How did he do it?? He had the kind of drive and focus that I never had when I was in college. He not only finished his degree, he also decided after he finished his degree to keep plugging on his novels. He wrote exactly 12 novels without a single sale. Lots of rejections, but not a single sale. Then, suddenly, he sold his sixth book out of the 12, and the ball started rolling. He became a bestseller under his own steam, and then his publisher fingered him when Robert Jordan’s wife began inquiring about who Tor liked — to finish the Wheel of Time series. Kablam. Brandon suddenly went from bestseller, to NYT #1 bestseller.

    This is a guy like you and me. He just decided when he was younger that being a novelist was his destiny, and he focused on that destiny with dogged intensity. He arranged his work life to permit him to write 5 hours every night. He never quit, never gave up, and never let the doubts (or the doubters) talk him out of his dream. And now he is, in the words of Tony Soprano, a Made Man.

    So Brandon is the guy I look up to a lot right now — because I could have been like him, if I’d hade more discipline and not let the doubts and rejections slow me down and stop me up. Now that I’m finally getting some pro sales — ten years late, by my reckoning — I feel like there is no time to lose. I have to make sure and keep on it! So much to write, so many opportunities coming down the rails!

  5. Absolutely! Tread a little water every day, and eventually you’ll have enough to fill an entire swimming pool. Maybe several swimming pools?

  6. EJ says:

    Brad,

    Thanks for putting this blog post up. I stumbled on it today after receiving my 22nd rejection letter for a story I really thought would make it. I think I needed to hear/read this to be reminded that I too can’t give up.

    BTW, I loved Exanastasis.

    -

  7. Thanks, EJ! I am glad you liked my WOTF winner. Much obliged on that. And yes, you never know when a story might score with an editor. I’ve had stories bounce around to the point I think it’s hopeless, and wham, suddenly an editor picks it up. Once your craft reaches a certain place, everything else is just the peculiarities of editorial taste. There is no “good” or “bad” at stake, just whether or not your story pushes enough editorial happy buttons to earn you a contract. The key is to never, ever let yourself stop writing new material. Even if this story you really like doesn’t score, you keep working on new stuff. Because guess what? In time you might come back around to this story you love so much, find new ways to tell it, write a whole other story using the same concepts or ideas or characters, and then THAT story sells. I’ve done this too. Lots of fun and very gratifying.

  8. bzuley says:

    Love this. I find connecting with writers keeps me going. They won’t let me quit and I wouldn’t do that to them either. My writing group put together an anthology called The Handbook of the Writer Secret Society (it’s free on our blog, but don’t tell Amazon) http://peevishpenman.blogspot.com …one of the “secrets” it contains is precisely what you’re saying, “keep writing.” Although we give a Latin title “Servo Stilus.” It works. Being a good writer helps, too.

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