Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 9): They Quit
The title of this post seems obvious. How do writers fail? They quit. Yes, they do.
But it’s about more than quitting, really. This post is about when they quit.
Let me start with a quote from John Mellencamp that slapped me about the face and neck when I was casually reading the AARP Magazine. To celebrate his seventieth year, Mellencamp was interviewed about his seven tips were for living his best life. All seven are really interesting, including one about being productive. But here’s the related—and more important—one to being productive.
He said, “Usually I have to write about a hundred songs to get one good one. Painting is the same way. You’ve got to keep slugging. The problem with most people is that they quit too early.”
Because this is a short little article, filled with pithy tips, there’s something missing from the first part of the quote. Mellencamp doesn’t define (here) what he means by “a good one” in reference to songs and paintings.
So I get to define it.
The good one is decided by the viewers or the listeners. They buy the singles or download the songs or sing along. They enjoy the art. They love the stories.
In Mellencamp’s case, he wrote some “good” songs, some forgettable songs (to me), and more than one that almost every modern rocker has referenced, either in their own songs or in tribute. I’m sure you’ve all heard “Jack and Diane” and if you haven’t, you’ve heard someone mention that a couple was a true “Jack and Diane.”
Yep, every now and then, writers get lucky enough to actually have an impact on the culture. Mellencamp did it with “Jack and Diane,” which I’m sure he sings at every concert he performs.
But I’m sure he does not perform several of his good songs or many, many others. That puts me in mind of Paul McCartney. When Dean and I were lucky enough to attend one of his concerts in 2019, Sir Paul informed the audience right from the start that he would probably not be playing “your favorite song.”
McCartney has been writing and performing songs longer than I’ve been alive. He knows that some fans love, love, love the obscure song that was on only one not-very-successful album from forty years ago. He might never play that song in concert. Or he might have stopped playing a “good” song decades ago for personal reasons.
I learned that lesson too as an artist. When I started posting my Free Fiction Monday stories, I was stunned to realize that stories I thought were mediocre or stories that some editors told me were bad or stories that didn’t hit the idea I’d started with as fully as I would have liked were adored by some readers. Not by all of them, of course. But some of them.
I learned even before that not to bad-mouth anything I’ve written because someone might like it. I watched Marion Zimmer Bradley reduce a fan to tears by telling her that the book she wanted Bradley to sign was “a piece of dogshit.”
Never do that to someone who loves your work. Don’t even tell them that you’re surprised by their love for that work. Be gracious, and understand that we’re all different, and stories, songs, paintings—anything creative will have a different impact on each person who experiences it.
Remember that when you take your finished story to a critique group. Everyone in that group has their own agenda, as well as their own tastes. If you’re wedded to a critique group, which is really not a good idea, then you need to look at my book, The Pursuit of Perfection, or read the free blogs about perfection on this site.
But let’s get back to “quit,” shall we?
Mellencamp isn’t talking about walking away from the profession. He isn’t talking about quitting creative pursuits the way that people quit day jobs and move to some other line of work.
He’s talking about not trying hard enough.
I have no idea how many writers over the decades have told me that they’re giving up because their novel—their single novel—didn’t get an agent or sell to traditional publishing or (in the past decade) didn’t sell more than one or two copies on Amazon.
Probably a thousand or more writers have told me that.
Then there are the writers who have put in a year or two or three or five and have written maybe twenty things and have not had the traction they thought they should have after all of that “work.”
(Can you imagine working a day job for five years and only having twenty experiences to show for it? That’s four bits of work per year. No employer would put up with that, ever.)
Mellencamp is talking about the same kind of productivity that Dean blogs about almost daily on his site. Dean challenges himself with things other people think are impossible, like writing a short story per day or publishing seventy things in his seventieth year. He’s constantly pushing the envelope on productivity and on figuring out how to keep himself creative and interested.
Other writers do the same thing with word count. I tried 1,000 words per day last year (minimum) and realized the number slowed me down. Yes, it made me write on days that I wouldn’t normally have written anything—a habit I have since continued—but my rebellious creative voice figured once she had 1,000 words, she could lounge around for the day.
The point of that goal was to ensure that I wrote every day. That part worked. If I had set the goal at 5,000 words per day, I would have failed more often than not. But the problem—for me—with the 1,000 word goal was that it got in the way of very big days, like the one I had last week as I tried to finish something on deadline. That was a 7,000 word day. I got lost in the story, which was almost impossible for me at 1,000 words.
I was, in Mellencamp’s words, quitting too soon.
Writers who are concerned with results—and by results, I mean book sales, fan response, awards, movie deals, and all those other things that outsiders think of as “writing”— never master the art of productivity.
Those writers seem to believe that they “deserve” some kind of accolade because they wrote and finished something.
For a songwriter like Mellencamp, writing and finishing something is like taking a breath. We don’t reward people for breathing, unless they’ve had some kind of serious blockage or trouble with breathing.
Otherwise, it’s just part of what we all do.
So writers who celebrate each finished story, every single completed poem or article or play, are writers who are training themselves to quit.
Yes, pat yourself on the back for getting things done, particularly when you’ve completed a particularly difficult project. Think of day job again.
No one gives you an award for finishing your eight hours. But every now and then, you get recognition for going above and beyond.
Writers deserve recognition from friends and family for going above and beyond—finishing that project that took decades to come to fruition or getting back to writing after a particularly debilitating illness.
But daily participation medals? Productive writers don’t need that.
Productive writers are writing to tell themselves stories. They need to find out what’s going to happen next just like the reader does. Really good writers binge-write, the way that many of us binge-read an author or binge-watch a really good show.
By the time that particular project is out in the world, the writer has moved on to different things.
Recently, as part of the Starter Kit Kickstarter, we promised stretch goals that included videos of Dean interviewing me about ten of my series. (You can still get them here.) There were a number of times I didn’t have the answer to his question at my fingertips.
Not because I was losing it or because I don’t know, but because those stories or that series is currently on the back burner. My creative voice is always, always, always busy with something new. At some point, I will swing around to one of those series and all of the details will come to the forefront of my brain—including all the plans I have for the future of the series.
Right now, I’m writing in one series, planning a novella in another, and (I just realized) another, and I’m gearing up to do research for yet another series. This, after writing a surprise novella in a series for the Uncollected Anthology. (I had thought I would contribute a short story; muse decided otherwise.)
I can’t imagine quitting on any of those projects or on the various ideas that are rattling around my brain.
Maybe that’s what shocked me about Mellencamp’s statement. He mentioned that creative types quit too soon, and the number he mentioned —Usually I have to write about a hundred songs— is what most people (non-fulltime artists) would consider to be an entire career. Imagine if Paul McCartney had quit at 100 songs. Imagine if any of your favorite songwriters had.
Limiting the amount of writing you do is a 20th century construct, built by writers workshops at universities. Professors there, non-writers all, get overwhelmed by writers who produce more than one or two stories per semester. What’s the best way to control a writer and stop them from producing too much? Make them rewrite.
I met Kevin J. Anderson in a writing class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison over 40 years ago now. Both of us were told by our writing instructors to slow down. Both of us refused. Both of us stopped turning in everything we wrote, though, and only turned it what we thought was “good.” (Okay, I’m speaking for Kev here. Maybe he turned in what he thought was “literary” or what the professor wanted; I don’t know. I never asked.)
It’s been forty years, so there’s some evidence here and the evidence is this: Kevin and I are the only writers from that time period who have had long-term careers in writing and publishing. The only ones. It’s no coincidence that we, the productive ones, the ones who never quit, are the ones who are the most successful.
We kept on slugging, even when we were told not to. We just found a way around the mandates from the people in charge, the people who had a different agenda than we thought they had. We thought they wanted to teach us to be professional writers. One of the profs told me later that his job was to get me into an MFA program. Another one told me that his job was to get me through the class. So much for being a professional writer.
The best way to be a professional in the arts?
That’s what this entire series is about. Keep slugging, keep learning, keep trying.
And that’s about it.
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“Business Musings: How Writers Fail Part 9: They Quit,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / mcgill.
I think I ran into this with NaNoWriMo.
I wrote three novels and a full short story collection in 4 successive Novembers.
And then I stopped.
Because *dun* *dun* *dun* I HAD WRITTEN!
I really should’ve seen it coming when, after 3 novels, I changed my goal to 50,000 words of short stories.
I need to get back to writing just for fun, just for myself, as often as I can BECAUSE it is fun and for myself.
Thank you for the insight.
I remember the story about Chuck Jones, the director of the Roadrunner cartoons who, when he went to art school the instructor told the students they had about 100,000 bad drawings in them before the good ones. Jones was relieved because he’s probably made about 200,000 drawings by that point.
One of the core drivers in my work as a writer as well as an artist is: “I have this idea, I wonder if I can do it?” Whether it’s I wonder if I can cut this rock I found on a hike (turns out I could) or I wonder if I can write a cyberpunk story set in the Roman Empire (which has stalled out at the moment). Which brings me to the other problem, I tend to spread myself a little too thin.
Many people would tell me right now that what I’m doing is quitting. But it’s not, no matter how you define it. I’ve spent all of this year, and really the entire pandemic, reevaluating who I am as a writer. I came to the conclusion I was trying to fit myself into a mold I’m not made for and that I was in the wrong genre. That particular genre doesn’t really have a space in it for how and what I write. Rather than continuing to fight against that and getting nowhere except losing my love of writing, I’ve gone back to my first love. Back to the idea and characters that made me want to learn how to write a novel in the first place. And you know what? I’m in love with writing and being an author again.
That break from these characters was apparently needed, though, so I don’t count the last decade as wasted years. I learned so much about structure, how my muse works, what guardrails I need to have in place, my rhythms. And I have 11 finished 100,000+ novels to show for it, 10 of them published. That decade break before diving back into Russian-set historicals included an explosion in secondary source research materials to deepen my worlds, and an easier way for me to learn Russian so I can dive into primary sources.
Sometimes it’s really okay to quit what you’re doing in one direction so you can go in the one you always wanted in the first place.
I agree with that, Rachel. Sometimes you have to step away, reassess, and figure out what you value.
I had a character give me a gem yesterday:
“Logan’s the creative one. He just fails so fast it looks like luck.”
I like that.
I took a pause on writing when caregiving became much harder due to my husband falling. But I’m outlining for NaNoWriMo. (I remember your column when you had to be a temporary caregiver in an emergency and how little writing you actually got done).
But switching to a new project will probably help (I did get 120k of revising done this year before I stalled out from exhaustion both with the project and Just Plain Exhaustion).
Yep, Jean. Sometimes life demands our full attention. Please take care of yourself throughout.
I’ve noticed writers like C.S. Friedman having to drop out of writing because of caregiving responsibilities, too. My husband is starting PT and one can only hope he’ll be stronger someday.
I hope so too, Jean.
What an excellent perspective, thank you for pointing this out!
I know “Get after it and stay after it” has been said many times, and often by me. On the other hand I needed to hear it today so thank you.
Thank you for giving me the notion of binge-writing. I’ve never been able to get into a daily routine, so now I can tell myself I’m binging and resting.
Persistence is key, but I would draw the distinction between persistence and speed. Cait Gordon wrote an excellent piece called “The Ableism and Privilege Behind ‘You Must Write Every Day.’” You can persist without thousands of words per day. Although I agree speed and experience polish your craft, you can write smaller amounts and that’s valid too.
I do try to write every day, but I enjoy my personal 1K/day limit because it allows me time to see my children and husband, use my medical degree, walk my dogs, chill out, etc. Speaking only for myself, I used to cudgel myself into constant writing and feeling guilty. I need to relish my life.
When I was so sick in Lincoln City, I couldn’t write every day. My health did not allow it. So I did what I could on the days that I could.
I agree that we all need to enjoy our lives. Cudgeling ourselves to write takes all the joy out of a profession that we are privileged to be able to work in.
I appreciate the emphasis on setting goals of production, as that’s (mostly) under our direct control versus goals focused on consumption, which is (mostly) out of our control and influence. As someone still very much in the first, lean years, I find the notion of not considering stopping writing and publishing until I have written and published at least 100 books rather freeing. Though, I would prefer that my creative voice not have me juggle between more than a few at any given time.
I confess I do celebrate my stories, but not so much the finishing—I celebrate getting to do a cover for each one. It’s like Christmas every time, pulling together the images and bundling them off to the design company. I’m a little kid, clapping my hands together and gazing at the result with all of the wonder of a child seeing the lights on the tree. It gives me a lift, a burst of energy to marry the story and the cover together in the final whole. I’ve been a little short on joy lately (depression and anhedonia suck) and I figured it was one way to grab some of that back for myself.
I really needed to hear (read) this today, thank you so much.
I finally understand what happened 40 years ago. I was in a creative writing class at college. On the bus home for Thanksgiving, I started a short story. By the time I returned on Sunday night, I had finished it. When I typed it up, it was 23-ish pages, so 5-6,000 words. I turned it in for my short story assignment.
When it came back, the teacher’s notes had a lot of praise; but she also commented that she wished I had written a new piece for the assignment. For four decades, I didn’t understand why she thought it was an old work. Now I get it: she didn’t think anyone could write 6,000 words in a week–especially not 6,000 good words!
I’m taking one of Dean’s collection classes and have written a story a week for the last five weeks (which is why I am just now reading this post). The shortest was over 6k words, The others ranged from 9.5k to nearly 12k words.
My goal is to write every day. I gave up on a specific word count I had to hit every day, this after coming off a bad stretch during the height of COVID when I couldn’t turn off my critical voice. The goal turned into a streak of 19+ months now and counting.
The real goal is to never give up.