Why Writers Should Learn How to Quit


Hi Bookfoxers,

When I was 31 years old, I’d been laboring over a novel for 5 years.

It was a quagmire. I was stuck in a plot that wouldn’t move, in characters that couldn’t elicit sympathy, and with ambitions that were far beyond my skill as a writer.

But here’s the thing: I wasn’t a quitter.

I thought that only losers quit.

I thought that way, because when I was in high school, I tried out for the JV basketball team both as a freshman and sophomore – and didn’t make the team either year.

So what did I do, being a never-give-up type of guy?

I went out and bought strength shoes. Does anybody remember these from the early 90s? They had these columns from the toe that went down to a rubber, 5-pound weight. And I did all the exercises:

  • I ran up bleachers
  • I jumped onto boxes
  • I ran figure eights
  • I jumped rope

I’m sorry to report that I never did gain a huge vertical and dunked on my slack-jawed classmates, but I did get much, much faster.

I got so fast that I ended up starting every game my senior year.

So you can see the lesson I learned.

If you don't give up, you can achieve your dreams.

And that was the lesson I applied to writing. That was why after 5 years I hadn’t quit my first novel.

Because I thought if I trained hard enough, if I really put my typing fingers to the grindstone and threw enough hours at it, I would eventually have a breakthrough.

This was a dumb approach.

Quitting, as it turns out, is one of the best skills you can have as a writer.

And I’m not talking about Capital Q Quitting, like quitting all efforts to be a writer and becoming a belly dancer or intellectual property rights lawyer.

I’m talking about lower case quitting.

Here are the three types of quitting skills you need as a writer:

  • Project Quitting
  • Method or Approach Quitting
  • Genre Quitting

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1. First, let’s talk about quitting projects.

It was the best decision I ever made to quit that novel. One day I decided to throw it all away, and the next morning I started a new novel.

I finished that new novel in two months. Boom!

I had to quit in order to free up my brain to create something else. Sometimes when you’re in the weeds, it’s much easier to start over than to salvage something which is fundamentally broken.

In fact, if you read thousands of interviews with professional writers (I have!), nearly every single one of them has a story of a novel they have thrown away or abandoned.

  • Jonathan Franzen worked on a book for years after the Oprah-blessed “Corrections” came out, and he tossed the whole thing in a dumpster.
  • After the success of “White Oleander” and “Paint it Black,” Janet Fitch worked on a historical novel for several years before calling it quits and writing her 3rd novel.

Quitting is not the realm of the amateur, but of the professional!

Professional writers are professional quitters.

2. Second type of quitting: quitting your method or approach.

For the longest time, I wanted to nail a spot in one of the top 10 literary magazines.

And I got so close. Oh man, the rejection letters I got were so nice I framed them and texted them to my mother.

But after I'd published about 40 short stories in different magazines, and won some contests and published my first collection of short stories, I decided I wasn’t going to write any more short stories or submit to literary magazines again.

I pivoted (which is really just a nice word for quitting).

I abandoned that strategy and chose a different one:

  • Writing novels rather than short stories
  • Writing for an audience, rather than prestige.
  • Writing for a wider group of people than other writers.

Listen, if how you’re trying to become a writer isn’t working, don’t keep knocking your head against the gatekeepers.

QUIT.

I don’t know what that looks like for you. It might be self publishing rather than traditional publishing (or it might be traditional publishing rather than self publishing!).

It might be stopping the evaluation of your writing career on the basis of money or fame, and starting to evaluate it on the basis of self fulfillment and reaching a small pool of readers in a deep way.

There are many paths that lead to the writer’s life. Don’t get stuck on just one.

3. The third category: Quitting Genre.

Switching genres can be such a career boost for writers.

  • Look at John Banville, how he stopped the arch prose of his highly literary novels and just pounded out some excellent crime novels under the pen name Benjamin Black. He earned 50x the amount of readers because he switched to a new genre.
  • Or my friend Shann Ray Ferch started writing short stories, then went to poetry, then novels, then poetry again. Switching between genres has strengthened his writing muscles, so when he goes back to fiction after writing poetry, his prose is more muscular.

If you haven’t had success with a genre – literary, sci-fi, romance, fantasy – try changing it up. Write something that you’ve never written.

Just remember, quitting doesn’t have to be permanent. Sometimes the quitting is only for a time.

I am here to tell you that it’s okay to quit. You’re not going to stop being a writer if you abandon your current project. You are not going to be a failure if you switch tracks.

Listen to me: it’s okay. Don’t feel guilty. Don’t feel like you’re a failure. Think of it using one of the euphemisms the military would use about retreating: it’s a “tactical repositioning.”

You’re not running away from writing, you’re just choosing to run in a different direction.

Best,

John Matthew Fox

PS. If you want to publish a children's book in time for Christmas, June is the deadline to get it in time. Contact Courtney at Bookfox Press for more details.

Bookfox

John Matthew Fox helps authors write better fiction. He is the founder of Bookfox, where he creates online courses for writers, provides editing and offers publishing assistance. He is the author of "The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel's Key Moments" and “I Will Shout Your Name,” a collection of short stories.

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