When is it Time?

An author friend of mine came to me the other day and posed a sensitive writing question that her husband had raised with her the day before, namely: “How long are you going to keep trying to get published before you give up?”

Now before we all jump in and scream at the guy for being an unsupportive #$&@ to even ask such a thing, I guess on one level, he has a point. I mean, in his mind, he has been watching his wife put in hundreds of hours of effort and, thus far, to no avail (well, publishing wise, not writing wise, she has completed three manuscripts). She has had an agent for a couple of years now, but he hasn’t been able to place her work…so she has (with her friends’ support) continued to try and write full-time while juggling being a mum (and I know all about how hard that juggling process can be!)

At first her husband was really supportive, especially once she landed an agent, but, as the years passed and the rejections mounted up, I could tell he was starting to get antsy. I’m not sure whether he doesn’t want his wife to waste her time or whether he thinks she should use that time on a ‘real paying job’, but I do know that he finds all the angst that accompanies his wife’s ‘hobby’ (his words, not mine) unnerving. I think he worries that all his wife’s hard work, anxiety and pain will never pay off.

I’ve tried to tell my friend that there are countless examples of great writers who took years to get published and many who then went on to be very successful…but, she countered, exactly how long should I wait before I give up on the dream? 5 years? 10 years? 20? I couldn’t answer – except to point (rather lamely) that there are a multitude of ways writers can now get their work out into the public domain. My friend is, however, a traditionalist and is hanging out for a traditional publishing contract. I also suspect she feels that her husband won’t really accept anything else as ‘success’.

So how would you answer my friend? How long should she continue to dedicate the hours in pursuit of her publishing dream? Would your answer be any different if she had been published before (perhaps many years ago) and was still finding it hard to get the next contract? What advice would you give her (or her husband:)!)…

23 thoughts on “When is it Time?

  1. I don’t think there is any set amount of time where one should consider giving up. If you don’t enjoy writing & all that entails, then go ahead & give up. But if you think you’d be at all unhappy having quit, then hold on, persevere, and never give up the dream. With everything in transition in the pub industry, you never know how things will end up when the dust settles. Why not give it at least that long?

  2. I’m assuming the husband in question loves his wife and I would imagine that he has watched her time after time as she gets excited about the posibility of her work being published and then is in the dumps after it is rejected. As an outsider, he can look at it from a different perspective than she can and what he sees is that she wouldn’t have to go through the emotional turmoil if she would just give up. I very much doubt he is expecting her to make money at this, after all, it is just a hobby, but he cares for his wife and doesn’t like to see her hurting.

    One of the things I don’t like about the publishing industry is that the answer for everyone seems to be “don’t give up.” People take the statistics that show that most authors will never have a traditional publishing contract and explain it away by saying, “but you aren’t most authors.” So most authors think they have a chance because they aren’t like most authors.

    I think that until you are selling enough books that you can quit the day job, the best way to approach it is as a hobby. We all need a hobby. If an author can get enjoyment from writing without getting a contract and the drive to get a contract isn’t too stressful, then why quit? But if the author is writing for the purpose of making money, give it a couple of years and if you don’t have a contract, quit.

  3. The Japanese have a word, Shoganai. It basically means “There’s no hope.” They also have the word, Ganbatte. Roughly translated, it means “Do your best and never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up” (okay, very roughly translated). Kathryn Stockett spent 5 years on The Help. She received 60 rejection letters. J.K. Rowling spent 5 years on Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone. For three years straight, every publishing house she submitted it to rejected it. George R.R. Martin’s first work was rejected 42 times by publishers. Barry Eisler has talked about Rain Fall being rejected nearly as many times, if I recall correctly. Point being, to be a successful writer you have to believe more in Ganbette than Shoganai. Never give up. There’s always hope, there’s always a way forward. Perhaps she should sit down with her husband and discuss expectations and perceptions, come to a compromise.

  4. I suppose it depends on the person’s situation. In this case, it sounds like the husband is growing tired of being the only breadwinner in the family. Whether his concerns are practical (“Hon, we need more money”) or emotional (“How come you get to sit on your butt while I work all day??”) isn’t clear, but both would be, in my mind, equally valid.

    So in this case, I think the answer is “as long as your spouse is willing to put up with it.”

    But I don’t really buy the idea that you have to quit your day job. Plenty of successful writers penned their breakthrough works in stolen moments throughout the day. I’m pretty sure Stephen King wrote “Carrie” (or one of those early books) while waiting for his clothes to dry in the laundry room. Neil Gaiman wrote “Coraline” a few words at a time every night before bed.

    I don’t think you should ever “Give up,” but I also don’t think you should quit your day job until someone offers you a contract.

  5. If income is not the issue–if the mom in question would remain as a full-time mom irrespective of the writing in her life–then the time to quit is the instant that the stories inside of her die away. For most of the writers I know, the writing is key. It’s great to get paid for your words, but in the absense of pay, the writing would continue. They writing is what they are, not what they do.

    If, on the other hand, the issue is indeed income–if Mom needs to start bringing in money to keep creditors at bay–then the time to get a job has arrived. I don’t see the logic where getting a day job means quitting a full-time pursuit that was producing no income. Wouldn’t she likewise be quitting her full time job as a clerk at a store where she’d never been hired?

    Getting a job and giving up writing are not synonymous. A day job doesn’t prevent the writing. I am a poster child for that reality.

    John Gilstrap

  6. Great question, Clare. I’ve never bought into that “never give up” mantra. There are more than enough wannabe writers out there that should give up and join a bowling league. In fact, there are plenty of published ones that should, too. This is no reflection on Clare’s friend—I don’t know her. It’s just my general opinion. It’s also important to remember that if you do get lucky enough to be published, don’t think you’ve finally got it made. In many respects, your troubles are just beginning. Now you have to worry about a whole new set of obstacles. But having expressed my cynical, dark viewpoint, I offer this advice: If you are consumed with an overwhelming obsession to tell stories; if you constantly think about your characters as if they are real people; if those non-stop voices in your head are your characters talking to you or each other as you refine their dialog points; if you have dozens if not hundreds of story ideas swirling around in your head at any given moment; if you feel that you need to write no matter what the cost; if you are eaten up with writing as if it were a disease, then I would suggest you not give up. If you are doing it in order to quit your “day job” or make lots of money or become famous, then . . . well, you know what I’m going to say.

  7. Well, I don’t have an answer for your friend, but I am in a similar situation. 6 novels written, obtained an agent a few years ago, several close calls, but no sale as of yet.

    I wonder if the husband is actually trying to support his writer wife in a strange way–if he doesn’t want to see her disappointed, in his mind, having her stop writing/submitting/getting rejected would be the best thing. I’ve had well meaning friends and family go this route with me and it was about them not wanting to see me hurt.

    I agree with the other commenters: if it’s not a matter of needing the income to survive, if your friend has stories she needs to tell and is willing to work through the process to see them published, then she doesn’t need to consider stopping.

    Even if it *is* a matter of income, working and writing are not exclusive propositions.

  8. Hmmm. I say, if you’re born to be a writer, there’s nothing you can do about it. You have to write.

    I wrote my first novel in 1984 after playing with the story idea for many years. Harlequin held it for 9 months then rejected it. I continued to write, with absolutely no support from anyone around me (oh, THAT hobby??), while focusing on raising my family, not my writing career. However, during that time, I wrote 8 manuscripts, and each one earned rejections, even with the occasional agent thrown in. Finally, I sold one book by myself to a small press in 1998, and made close to no money–bad negotiating. Just about throttled my career.

    Five years ago, when my youngest left home, I gave writing my full attention-while working part time from home. Last month I sold my latest book to Harlequin and was represented by a fabulous agent. In addition, I’ve self-pubbed three books thanks to the Internet, and they’re doing remarkably well!

    So, in almost 30 years, only several times did I consider ending my writing dream . . . for about 10 seconds. I couldn’t imagine not writing ever again.

    My bottom line: if you’re a writer, you can’t give up. There is no option. You might have to snag a day job, but hey, being out there in the world just keeps the juices flowing. Don’t stop, dammit. We Americans are too used to instant gratification. Everything comes in its own time, I say. It does help to get out to conferences and network!!! I can’t stress that enough. Otherwise, I suggest to be patient, Grasshopper, and WRITE!

  9. If she can actually stop writing, then to me that’s a good indicator of whether to go on or not. There’ve been times I wanted to quit but just couldn’t. The stories won’t shut up and leave me alone. LOL!

    But it’s very hard, especially when a loved one is scrutinizing your every writing move, regardless of whether it’s about time, money, or emotion.

    If, in the writer’s mind, she considers it a hobby until published, why give up a hobby? I bet hubby has hobbies too.

    BK Jackson

  10. When you’re a writer, you write. It’s that simple. I agree with John G.–whether your friend is working at home or outside the home, a “job” doesn’t preclude writing.

    If finances aren’t the issue, perhaps the husband is reacting to the frustration your friend feels at not getting published. If it were me, I’d wonder if perhaps I’d been emoting a bit too much about my frustration and disappointment. Your friend might consider joining a critique group, and do her venting there. Husbands always want to “fix” problems for us, so perhaps he’s trying to spare her more pain.

    Regarding writing as a “hobby”: I have a friend who earns mega-bucks as a TV writer. Once when she thought she wasn’t going to get re-hired, I suggested she write a book. She replied, “I can’t afford to write as a hobby.” I’ve written 7 books under contract, but she still considers my writing a “hobby.” It all depends on your perspective, I guess.

  11. It’s no longer quit or continue the same path, of course. There’s now the truly viable option of self-publishing. As long as this isn’t seen as a shortcut to a “dream” but a hard-as-nails way to offer your writing to readers; that it’s not get-rich-quick but keep-building-steadily; that it requires a certain skill set (to think like a small business), then I would think, for someone who is a true writer, this is preferable to just quitting.

  12. You can’t put the answer in terms of years, or manuscripts, or anything else that’s easily quantifiable. If she is continuing to learn and grow as a writer, if she still enjoys writing and feels internally committed to it, she should not give up. On the other hand, if it really is a hobby and by trying it she has proven that she’s not particularly gifted at it or committed to it, she should give up. But from what you’ve said, it sounds like #1 is much more likely to apply.

    Many successful writers have way more than three unpublished manuscripts sitting in a drawer somewhere. T. Davis Bunn comes to mind–I think he has eight. The husband in question may not quite realize how difficult it really is to become a writer of publishable quality. He and his writer wife both need to know it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient at anything. If she hasn’t put in her 10,000 hours yet, she should definitely not give up.

  13. I think for me the issue is…If I was to give up, would I still keep writing?
    Does giving up mean never typing another word? Or does it just mean never submitting anything more with the hope it will be published?
    I hope I would keep crafting stories, even if they were silly little tales I’d read to my children…or stories I’d create in scrapbooks for my nieces and nephews.
    Depends how you look at it.
    Is publishing your idea of ‘success’? Or is working at what you love your idea of ‘success’?

  14. The word I have to type to get this onscreen is ZITLIT. How weird is that? I wrote three MSs, gathered 161 rejections. I had 41 on THE LAST FAMILY. It simply never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be published if I kept at it. Had I not been published, I’d still be thinking, “What is wrong with these people?” If she has to write for herself, she’ll keep on doing it. If she’s writing fiction to make money, she can stop now. The odds are against it. If you do what you love, and you are good at it, the money will follow.

    I just can’t imagine not writing.

  15. As some of the others here have said; If you write because the stories flow keep writing, try self publishing if you think beyond any shadow of a doubt that your work is ready for the big show. If you run out of stories or find out nobody wants to hear your stories, rethink your position, don’t beat a dead horse.

    The idea of never give up needs to be tempered with actual physical ability as well. Out of a class of 100 Navy Seal wannabes, only 20 or so get to bear the title. Not everyone who wants it gets it. But if you think you’ve got what it takes to be one of the league of extraordinary people who make stuff up, then stay at it till you’re there and we promise not to throw you into the surf or squirt firehoses at you or make you roll in the sand when wet then do a ten mile run with a zodiac over your head.

    See…writing ain’t so hard.

  16. After so many books that came close but didn’t make the cut, I don’t think she should quit, but it might be time to sit down with her agent and figure out why those books failed.

    I’m a firm believer in “if you’re growing, keep going.” If a writer is continuing to show improvement, it would be premature to give up. The key for her is to re-evaluate her career and make a plan for what she can do to take it to the next step.

  17. Malcolm Gladwell theories, colloquialisms, and graduation statistics from Basic Underwater Demolition School aside, Clare, your friend needs to ask herself a very simple question. Is she a writer, or is she someone who is trying her hand at writing? Disregarding everything else, once she knows the answer, she’ll know what to do next. If she’s writer, she’ll find a way to continue writing because she won’t be able to stop. If she’s trying her hand at writing. She’ll decide that she had a good run and go back to focusing on being a full-time mom.

  18. I think it’s natural for her to wonder, to worry that she’s wasting time on a dream she won’t be able to realize. But I agree with all who say that once the current haze of frustration clears, she’ll either have to keep writing (because writers have to write) or she won’t.

    A good piece of wisdom about pursuing any kind of dream, I think, is that you’ll know when it’s time to give up the pursuit when the thought of continuing becomes more painful than the thought of stopping.

  19. Thanks everyone for your great insight. I am of the don’t quit, never surrender group so that was my advice but that being said she has to make the decision. I can’t imagine never writing but I can understand her husband’s frustration with all the angst surrounding it…I can be just as bad!

  20. There are so many great comments to this post and I agree with most all of them. Mainly, that if you are a true writer, you won’t be able to give up. If I knew with absolute certainty that I would never be published, I would keep writing. I just have to. It’s something that is IN me. I enjoy it too much to stop. I need to do it.

    That said, I can kind of see the husband’s point. When I met my nonwriter fiance almost 6 years ago (when I was in the throes of querying for an agent)he actually did not believe me that the process worked the way it does. He completely rejected the fact that a writer would have to wait months (or even years) for a response from an agent or publisher. To him, agents were the equivalent of a cheesy street vendor with a fold-out table and a bunch of purses that say Bucci instead of Gucci. They are scam artists. He simply did not buy it. To this day, even now that I finally have an agent, he is extremely skeptical. He is supportive but I find that if I am too down about my most recent rejection he will start with his, “Are you sure this is how this works?” spiel.

    Luckily he’s never suggested to me that I give up but I think Ms. Lilley is right that husbands have a tendency to want to fix things and this husband is looking at a seemingly neverending string of problems (rejections) that he will never be able to fix. It is probably less anxiety for HIM if she gives up. But I don’t believe that is fair to her. If she’s good enough to have snagged an agent then I don’t think she should ever give up. Keep writing. Someday one of her manuscripts, the market and the right editor will all align. I may be foolishly optimistic but what does she have to lose?

    I agree with many commenters that financial contstraints should not hold her back in terms of writing. If her husband wants her to bring in more income, she should get a job (although yes, being a mother is a full-time job). I am the sole breadwinnner in my home. I work full time and I have a three year old. I still find time to write. In terms of my fiance, I’ve just learned not to share every single detail with him. If I get good news (an editor asked for my full ms) then I share it with him. If I get a particularly brutal rejection I’ll tell him that but all the in-between stuff I don’t bother telling him. He’s a fixer too and he’d go crazy if I shared every single anxiety and or rejection with him. That’s what I have friends for including my lovely friend and fellow writer, Nancy Thompson.

    Also I’ve learned that the only way to do this is to keep my primary focus on my life and not on my writing. I have a beautiful child, a great man, fabulous family and friends and a job that I love. I’m on submissions now. If it happens for me, I’ll be over the moon but I find having a life makes rejection a lot easier to take. It’s been five years since I started querying for an agents. Eight months on submissions. I’m 3/4 of the way through another manuscript. I would never give up and I don’t think your friend should either.

  21. “If writing makes you happy, keep writing” — fine. But is there ever a time when you should accept that you’ll never be published and should just keep writing as a hobby?

    To me, there’s a big difference. If I weren’t trying to get published, I’d drop the publishing-related blogs I read (though I’d likely keep the craft-related ones). Maybe I wouldn’t edit anymore — I’d write more first drafts instead. Maybe I would switch to writing fanfiction. Maybe I would write less. I’d certainly put less pressure on myself. My whole focus would be different.

    I could see someone deciding that they were no longer interested in going through the heartache of pursuing publishing. Some people’s writing will never be publishable (though how would they know?). Some people were never interested in publishing in the first place.

    How do you know when it’s time to switch from the “publishing” path to the “hobby” path?

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