WARNING: This is a no-edit zone…
In the past week, I’ve gotten a number of notes from people seeking advice on whether they should continue to write or quit. I took extra care in responding–one never wants to be the catalyst in the death of anyone else’s dream. Yet upon reflection, I determined that no one else can be the catalyst–not in the case of writing. What is simply is, and the decision to continue or quit remains with the seeker.
Still, I gave the matter due consideration. It’s been a while since I explored the issue and times and opinions are impacted by circumstances, and those do change as we change and grow. Yet I discovered my advice to those who write to sell is the same as its been since the late 1980’s, and that is this:
If you can quit writing, then do it. Quit.
That advice isn’t just for those writers who have fallen on hard times. It’s for all writers, across the board, because during the span of a career, every writer meets with frustrations and irritations, disappointments and instances where what happens to their work is outside their control. Every writer falls on hard times.
If you can’t take the hard knocks and retain faith in what you’re doing, remain dedicated to the purpose for which you’re doing it, then do something else; something that you can take knocks doing and retain faith in and be content. Because as a writer, there will be many times during your career when all you’ve got are faith and dedication to purpose and discipline. And only they will carry you though the storms to calmer water.
A writer might sit with pen and pad, or at a computer or other device and write alone, but the instant the work becomes commercial, others are involved. Then, often the writer has little control on what happens to the work, including on many occasions not knowing even the form the final work will take. If in doubt, ask a writer before the work is published what a book will earn. S/he can’t say, and many don’t have even a ballpark clue. Ask if ever a book contracted as a paperback had been published in hard cover–or reverse that.
It happens all the time. Experience and time hones expectations, but too many variables make depending on former expectations folly: a fact that has been proven many times.
So writing novels for a living is a job where you don’t know if you’re employed, and if you are, what you earn or when you’ll earn it. Even if you’re contracted from the onset of a project, you have no guarantee that the contract will be carried through to fruition and you’ll actually see the book published. Many an author has ended up buying back a book, and many a publisher has elected not to publish works they’ve contracted. It’s a reality of the business.
If stability and job security is important to you, you won’t find it on the writer’s side of the desk–not in this industry. If reward for hard work is your goal, you might or might not find that. Loyalty and dedication–all the ethics qualities you’ve learned in life are imperative to your professional success–do matter, of course. But perhaps not to the degree and in the manner you would expect. You are, after all, self-employed. You are licensing a product to a publisher, not an employee of a publishing company. It’s their business to look at the product, the bottom line, and they do.
At a writer’s conference, I once saw a group being photographed. Before them, they held a sign: WRITERS. WILL WORK FOR FOOD. They weren’t joking. If you’re under the illusion that all writers are rich, it’s a myth. The last statistics I saw were that the average writer earns about $5,000 a year.
That said, many earn a decent living, and a few earn a terrific one. Yet too many deemed successful earn decent money for a short time and then circumstances change, markets shift–things happen–and they’re suddenly not marketable. This isn’t by any means always the case. Writers who are flexible often shift with the market or into alternate types of writing and do very well. But there are many who graced bestseller lists a decade ago that are no longer writing or are writing and no longer selling. It’s a fact of this business, just as every other business has its facts.
So if you can quit writing, then quit. There are far easier ways to earn a living. Far steadier and less fluid career paths you can take. And, frankly, if you can quit, you weren’t intended to be a writer, anyway, so you’ll be sparing yourself a lot of disappointment and hard times. You might lose some joy here and there, too, but joy can be found in areas where you are content. Note that I’m not saying you can’t write. I’m saying writing isn’t your life’s purpose. There’s a huge difference.
If your life’s purpose is to write, you won’t be able to quit. Oh, you might insist you are–toss in your pen and put it down for a short time, but you won’t be able to not write and be content. It’ll nag at you. Stories will fill your mind and tug at your imagination, at your heart, and make you wonder about them until you just have to write them out and satisfy your own curiosity so they’ll shut up and leave you alone.
You’ll wake up in the middle of the night with the perfect clue, or scene, or character. You’ll be driving down the street and an entire novel will come to you in an instant. You’ll try to slam the doors closed in your mind, but the muse sticks in her damn foot and keeps it pried open.
From this relentless assault, there is no reprieve. No respite. And no mercy.
You’ll write because you can’t not write. Because no matter how else you spend your energy, fill your time or your wallet, writing calls to you and the desire remains there and unquenched. You’ll write because to not write snuffs out the flame of your excitement about life itself, and the idea of spending the rest of your life unquenched is repugnant. The idea of spending even eternity without recording your stories is just too painful to bear.
When you experience those things, you’re one for whom writing is a life purpose. And the money, the challenges, the trials and hard times, the lack of control, the uncertainty for both you and your work–all will still be a pain in the ass you’ll have to deal with as events warrant. (That is as subtle as I can be about that and still be totally honest.) But the bottom line is, no matter how much those things matter to you, they matter less than writing itself.
They matter less because you’re a writer.
So if you can, quit. If you’re a writer, you won’t be able to quit. Which doesn’t mean you should short-sell yourself or your value or eat dirt just to see what you write published. No one in their right mind would ever recommend that. What it does mean is that there can be no death of a dream so long as you breathe–not if that dream is to write. There can be no death because you recognize who and what you are.
Now, how you cope with it–highs and lows, ups and downs–well, that’s the subject of another post…
I hope this helps!
HER PERFECT LIFE
THE COMMON SENSE GUIDE FOR WRITERS