“You get to a point where you get to the edges of a room, and you can go back and go where you’ve been and basically recycle stuff.” — Stephen King
By PJ Parrish
I knew something was up when I started looking forward to pulling weeds.
Every morning, I’d check the Tallahassee weather and plan my day. First, I’d survey the front and back yards to see what needed attention. Then I’d dead-head the rose bushes. The azaleas needed pruning, so that took a good hour. Eventually came the highlight of my day — pulling weeds. A blissful hour of mindless productivity. As the sun dipped lower, it was time to head out to the nursery because you could never have enough mulch or Miracle-Gro tomato food.
By the time I got back, there was just enough time to shower, make a vodka gimlet and take it outside where I’d sit in a lawn chair while I hose-watered the lawn.
I was as happy as a little garden slug — except for a gnawing guilt that seemed to abate as the vodka glass emptied only to return as I went back indoors. The guilt, of course, came because I wasn’t writing.
I passed the whole of last winter this way. My garden flourished as my novel lay fallow in the laptop. And then, one morning, it hit me: I didn’t want to write anymore.
It was gone. The urge, the need, the pleasure. It was all gone. At first, I was upset. For two reasons. First, I write with my sister and thus had a contract, a commitment, to our partnership. And second, well, that’s complicated. So many folks want to be published writers, and I have known that success. It almost felt ungrateful to stop.
But here’s the truth. I want to quit. I have quit. I have not worked on my novel for months now, and after the initial bad feelings, I’m finding I’m relieved. I’m relieved that I don’t have to worry about getting the book published, be it by traditional means or the hard slog of self-publishing. Relieved that I don’t have to climb on the self-promotion hamster wheel. Relieved that I won’t have to feel the sting of disappointment if it doesn’t sell or get well-reviewed. But mostly, I feel relieved that I can channel my energy, creativity, time and love into other things.
I’m coming up on my 70th birthday soon. That doesn’t bother me that much, because outside of aching knees and bad eyes, I’ve got good health. We’ve got some money in the bank and not many bills. I have family and friends to sustain me. I have two great dogs to take me on walks.
Phillip Roth said he was done when he was 79 and 27 novels deep. Alice Munro did so at 81, a few months before winning a Nobel for a career that includes 14 short-story collections. Munro told a reporter, “I don’t have the energy anymore.” Roth left a Post-it on his computer reading, “The struggle with writing is over.”
I read up on Munro while writing this post. She gave a fascinating interview about her decision where she said she wanted to rejoin the world. “I think you do get to a stage where you sort of think about your life in a different way,” she said. “And perhaps, when you’re my age, you don’t wish to be alone as much as a writer has to be. It’s like, at the wrong end of life, sort of becoming very sociable.”
I get that. My time now will be given to my real people, not my imaginary ones.
Will I change my mind? Perhaps. Things can happen in your life, things you can’t anticipate, that can alter your universe — and it can happen in a split second.
Stephen King, in 1999, was hit by a car while walking down a road near his Maine home. He almost died. He described the pain of recovery as unbearable. His wife, Tabitha, knew he was drowning and set up a writing nook downstairs in their house. King didn’t want to try another novel so he decided to write about writing. A year later, he produced On Writing. In it, he writes with brutal honesty about his struggle with drugs and alcohol and how hard it was to recover his love of writing again. He went on to finish a script for the miniseries Rose Red, calling it a therapy that was more effective than any drug the doctors gave him. But once the script was finished, he decided to quit.
“I don’t want to finish up like Harold Robbins,” he said, referring to the pulp novelist who started with well-reviewed works such as A Stone for Danny Fisher, later suffered a damaging stroke and ended his career in steep decline. “That’s my nightmare.”
King found his way back. With last year’s novel The Institute, he’s closing in on 100 novels. He still needs to write. I don’t. At least not now.
What about you guys? Some of you have sturdy careers and a nice back list. Some of you are still working on your first book. Most of you are probably somewhere in between, maybe published but not as successful as you’d like, maybe finished a couple manuscripts and still looking for that one editor who says yes.
You might have considered giving up. How do you know if it’s time to quit?
Well, if you want to read a funny but very truthful take on that question, click here and read Chuck Wendig on the subject.
If you’re thinking of quitting, maybe I offer some things to chew on before you do. Here are some signs, in my opinion, that you SHOULDN’T quit for good.
You’ve got some life issues that are sapping your energy. A divorce? A family health problem? Financial issues that might mean you have to focus harder on your day job? That’s okay. Take some time off and deal with whatever’s distracting you. Work the problem. Then, when the clouds clear, you’ll might find your creative juice coming back. Don’t let anyone try to tell you that you MUST WRITE EVERY DAY. If something is off in your life, you might need to step away. Writing is like exercising. Yeah, you should do it every day if you can. But if you’ve got a broken foot, stop and heal first.
Your story is going nowhere and you can’t see a way out. All writers stall. All writers paint themselves into corners. But some folks stay with a story out of pure stubbornness. (I know this twist will work. I just gotta find a way!) Find a reliable beta reader who will TELL YOU THE TRUTH. They won’t be able to tell you how to fix it (and shouldn’t; that’s your job). But talking about the log-jam will help clear your brain.
You’re writing the wrong book. Here’s a dirty secret: Almost every successful writer has abandoned a book in mid-stream. Quitting is not the sign of a loser; it’s the sign of a professional. You have to face the fact that not every idea is a good one. Let it go. Sometimes, you have to give up on story that’s not working so a new story can move into your brain. I worked on a series book for four months (and hated every moment of it) until I finally tossed it out. Soon after, discouraged and depressed about the book, I went on a scheduled vacation to Paris. A week later, I had an idea for a stand-alone that got me so excited I finished the thing in three months. (click here to see The Killing Song).
Your character(s) bore you. This sounds like a no-brainer, but sometimes, we grab onto a character and gnaw him or her to death. We think he or she sounds fascinating but there’s something fundamentally flawed about them. And I don’t mean in a good, deeply human interesting way, but in a death-to-the-story boring way. Unless you are foaming at the mouth to meet up with your character every day, ready to follow their every move and take down their every word, how can you produce a good story? You have to be in love with your characters, even the black hat ones. If you don’t want to spend time with them, how do you expect a reader to want to?
You’re tired. We all are right now. The forced isolation of the virus, the political climate, the constant slow simmer of dread. Understand that the fatigue you’re feeling might have nothing to do with your book. It’s exterior to that but it’s deep and it’s not going away any time soon. I can’t tell you how to deal with this black cloud; we’re all finding our coping mechanisms. (Mine is a hard break from news, exercise, walks with my dogs.). Get outside. Reconnect with old friends but call, don’t email or text.
Okay, now here are some signs that you should quit, in my humble experience:
You’re not having fun anymore.
That’s it. There’s only one good reason to quit. The whole process of writing has become something of a chore, a duty rather than a delight. Again, I don’t mean to sound like I’m whining here. Or that I am dismissing all the years of wonderful writing time I’ve had. Or, as I said, that I am ungrateful for the success that has come my way. I have been blessed; I’ve been lucky. I had a helluva a run for twenty years in the mystery biz, and seven years in romance before that. But I’ll let Chuck Wendig speak for me:
You’re not having fun. This one, too, is tricky, because writing isn’t always an act of eating cotton candy while happy puppies squirm at your feet. Some days are purely reserved for shoveling earth. Some days are like pulling bad teeth. That’s normal. It isn’t always fun. Hell, it isn’t often fun. But there’s also an evaluation you might make — again, after some time with it — where you realize, you’re just not enjoying this. It holds no surprises for you. It feels rote and routine, and if it feels that way to you, it may very well feel that way to a reader. Once again, a strategic retreat is called upon.
With our most recent book, last year’s The Damage Done, I think we left our hero Louis Kincaid in a good place. The circle, for him, feels complete. We done him good. I don’t want to start phoning it in. So I am retreating. Into life, friends, and especially reading, where I am ready to get acquainted with the dazzling spectrum of new writers who are infusing our genre.
I am putting down the pen. Except for this blog and you all, which I have grown to love. I might pick up the pen again. I probably will. But now now, this feels right. Thanks for listening, friends.