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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

When Should You Quit Writing? by guest blogger James Scott Bell

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.


  1. I don't want to quit writing but there are times I'd like to quit all the posturing, the putting-yourself-out-for-disappointment ventures into the world of publishing. The need to write is ever present. The need to be published takes more courage and work.

  2. I'm too early in the game to have been knocked down and dragged around much--yet. But I think that fire will continue to smolder and burn for the course, no matter how long it takes.

    So here's my rah-rah for all writers to keep the candle burning!

  3. Jim, I especially like the advice to eat cheeseburgers ... now THAT I can relate to. God bless!

  4. Excellent post, Jim. We've all wanted to quit at times. I quit every other day and unquit every other day. It's a painful business from years of rejection to harsh reviews to dissapointing sales to wondering if you'll get that next contract. It doesn't get easier but for those who are born writers, ten years, twenty years... at least it's not forty. :) Some of the most successful and amazing writers were ones held back the longest.

  5. Great points, Jim. As always, you are a voice of encouragement in the midst of this writing storm. Now, back to writing.

  6. You know, Mark Twain once said it was easy for him to quit smoking because he'd done it hundreds of times.

    Gina's comment brought that to mind for some reason. And I guess it's always good to quote Twain if you can.

    Anyway, this is not a game for the faint of heart. But if you can make up stories and write them down, you're always in the game. And that's really the crux of my post.

    They used to say that if a boxer could punch, and not much else, he still had a chance to win the bout. It was called the "puncher's chance."

    So keep punching.

  7. Sometimes we decide to quit, then God taps us on the shoulder and says, "Not so fast." It happened to me.
    I suppose a writer should place about his/her computer Churchill's famous words: "Never give up! Never give up! Never give up!" (Of course, sometimes we instead echo the words of the fighter, Roberto Duran: "No mas.")

  8. Another great post, Jim. You are so right. SO VERY right! You def have to acquire determination and dedication but most of all a writer must learn to be patient. Sometimes I think, wow, out of all the things to have passion for, God chose for my heart to love to write. It's some pretty intense stuff LOL.
    Always a pleasure to see you posting something.

  9. Great post. My litmus test has always been: If I knew that nothing I wrote would ever get published, would I still write? Tough question, but it reveals our passion for writing.

    And I love #9. :)

  10. Doc, my wife gave me a paperweight many years ago with Churchill's words on it. It has stayed on my desk all that time.

  11. Timely advice, Jim. I've been in and out of committee and pub board so many time, my head is spinning. But I can't stop the stories. So I guess I'll keep on keepin' on. :) Thanks!

  12. Upon the event of my first rejection, I was crushed and despaired for two I'm down to a couple days. I hope to get to that 15 min thing real soon! Thanks for the encouraging words. Loved your class this summer at the OCW conference.

  13. April, I like your trend line. And thanks for the good word.

    Ane, you are a true vet. I want to give you a medal. And then a contract. Or maybe vice versa.

  14. Last year I read a quote out of Art of War and it made everything right in the world for me. I have not worried about quiting since.

    I decided that I would continue to write as long as
    I lived, even if I never sold one thing, because that
    was what I wanted out of my life.
    —George Bernau

    Of course, shortly after that bit of enlightenment I sold! But since there is a whole new set of challenges that come with a publishing contract, I still think about the quote from time to time.

    ;) Thanks

  15. Gjillian, you made my day. Thanks for that. Congrats on the contract.

  16. I quit and swear I'll never write again on a daily basis.

  17. I love what Richard Mabry said above. I have many times felt like walking away, but I immediately feel that tap on the shoulder - God nudging me to keep going.

    Thank you for this post and every post, Mr. Bell! I actually just ordered a copy of Plot & Structure as a Christmas gift to my brother, the attorney, who has written most of his life just for fun. He's the real story teller in my family. So, I was thinking of giving him a little nudge.

  18. Though I love Churchills quote it is Captain Peter Quncey Taggart from "Galaxy Quest" I keep in my office "NEVER GIVE UP< NEVER SURRENDER!" Either way to quit writting even if my family and freinds are the only ones to read what I write would be to surrender my dreams and that I will never do. To surrender is to die while still alive. I like everyone else get discouraged and then the next "great" idea comes my way and I must explore that universe as well all the while munching on Triple Whoppers with cheese because if your gonna eat a burger make it the biggest burger you can! :)

  19. Jimbo, once again you've nailed it about as neatly as I've seen. And it helps. Thank you.

  20. It takes courage to be a writer. On so many levels. There’s the courage to write the truth, whether fiction or nonfiction. The courage to share your innermost thoughts with others. The courage to face rejection of those thoughts by your family, peers, critics, agents, editors. The courage to know that, however much you revise, it could always be better. The courage to fail, dust yourself off and try again.

  21. Thanks Mr. Jim

    Every time I get discouraged and even think about giving up, I have nightmares. Real doozies!

    These nightmares are so vivid they force me to write them down to get them out of my head, and thus the writing frenzy resumes.

    David Morrell said in his book, “Learning from a lifetime of Writing,” that abuse is a goldmine to a writer. This was shortly after he explained about trauma or abuse causing nightmares and daymares. He also said these compel writers to write regardless.

    Even if publishing never becomes a reality for me, writing keeps me going. It is almost as if I would stop breathing if I stopped writing.

    Thanks again for the encouragement

    Ps…this may sound a little strange, but rejections do not hurt as much as I have read they should. Maybe I already have that Rhino skin from life, but rejections feel more like prods to learn more, to write better.


  22. I love the rah rah stuff so keep it comin'! Thanks for the encouragement.


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