Is It Okay To Quit?

“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.

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

39 thoughts on “Is It Okay To Quit?

  1. Thanks, PJ. Very insightful.

    I never “wanted to be a writer.” When I found I enjoyed creating stories (however weak the plot, characterization and dialogue), and my time was my own, I plunged into writing and studying what can be learned about the art.

    But if it dries up, if it becomes only a chore, then why do it? New writers as well as veteran writers do well to include, as part of their examen, occasional reflection on the difference between “wanting to be a writer” and “wanting to write.”

    Your experience with The Killing Stone suggests that maybe there are seeds of other non-Kincaid novels lying fallow during your winter of discontent, waiting for a spring thaw.

    • I am hoping that is true, Eric, what you said about seeds. I am keeping open to possibilities but for now, I’m happy to rest.

  2. I’ve asked myself those questions lately. I have a book coming out very soon, which was a departure of sorts, and as it sits with my editor, I ask myself ‘What next?”
    I understand the age thing–I’m a bit older than you are.
    The writing is slower, the ideas are a jumble, but I discovered I didn’t like myself if I wasn’t working on something and we can’t garden where I live, so I started another book, one with familiar characters.
    It’s still slow going, and still a jumble, it’s not always fun, but as long as there’s a trickle, I’ll hang in a little longer.
    As one of your readers, I hope your joy returns, that this is a sabbatical, not retirement, but you have to do what’s right.

    • Thanks Terry. That means a lot coming from a fellow author. I suspect part of this funkatude is due to our weird times. I do still enjoy writing but confronting a full blown novel feels like sitting down to a 14 course dinner right now. Good luck with your new book.

      • I think almost ALL of the funkatude is due to our weird times. It’s like there’s a shift in the universe and everything’s out of sync.

    • Thank you Sue. As you know, writers tend to have favorite babies. Killing Song is one of mine. Maybe it was because it was the book that helped me regain confidence.

  3. Wow. Thank you for this post which hit me really hard. I had a really strong fiction career right out of the gate that included the sale of worldwide English rights to one of the Big Five, foreign translations, RWA nomination (got to chat with big names at some cocktail parties), starred review in PW and even made their Top 100 Books List that year. And then…a string of books that didn’t sell. Along the way I was busy with life and when I became an empty nester I returned to work full-time. It is high stress, very busy work from the career I had before. Most days I’m happy to be done with trying to write fiction. My brain was raw those last years of trying to balance raising a family with writing. It is a relief to be done. But there is one last thriller inside me…it pulls at me. I have the story concept, scenes I’ve played with and (through my current job in law enforcement) access to information I could only dream of. And yet….I have used my COVID furlough days to redo a closet and work on my garden. I don’t know what the answer is but I was glad to know I’m not the only one. Thank you for sharing. And I hope you stay on this blog because I really enjoy reading your posts.

    • Margaret,
      I don’t have kids so I can’t even begin to imagine what is it like to work. raise kids and still find free time to write novels. And no, you’re far from alone. I have more than a few author friends who have stepped away during these times. Priorities shift when the world goes off its axis.

  4. Kris, you scared me with the beginning of this post. I thought you were saying goodbye to TKZ. Even if you’re not producing new books, I’m glad you’re sticking around to share your wisdom. I’ve soaked up plenty of knowledge from you over the years. You still have a great deal to give, if no longer as a novelist then certainly as a teacher and guide.

    With your body of work and accomplishments, you’re not quitting so much as retiring. You’ve earned it.

    • Yeah, that’s what I tell folks when they ask…I’ve retired. They can understand that of a novelist. Quit, they don’t get. 🙂

  5. I hope when the time comes I will understand when it’s time to stop writing. I often get frustrated & think, briefly, that I want to quit. But it’s not that I don’t want to write the stories, I just get so extremely weary of trying to find the time to do so. At middle age, I simply can’t live on a few hours sleep a night, no matter how much I might wish it. And, like it or lump it, I have multiple interests like drawing, painting, fitness studies, etc., all of which are also vying for the precious few hours of free time each week. I would have been more productive as a single-focus person. 😎

    So far, what keeps me going is that my story ideas are ones that I haven’t seen tackled before. I also view them as puzzles to solve. The high stress we are all going through right now has forced me to take my foot off the gas. I’m trying even harder to get adequate sleep & if I don’t work on a project one day, oh well. When I do stop, I want to do so without regrets. I’ll just have to trust that I’ll know when the time is right.

  6. This was very encouraging to me, thank you. I thought I was making excuses or not being tuff enough or being afraid to write. But I’m just tired.

    The last three years have been extremely difficult with 2020 being over-the-top.

    Thank you for helping me to see and be at peace with taking a break even if it’s been an extended one.

    I miss my garden and flowers so enjoy it. 😊 Wishing you the BEST!

    • I’m glad it helped. I wasn’t going to write this because it felt…I dunno…the only word I keep going up with is ungrateful. Because I know how hard many of you struggle to get traction in this business. But the biz has changed a lot in 20 years and it’s harder now to stay afloat. It’s not for sissies. Never was. But harder now, I think.

  7. Quitting is always out there as an option. Why continue in a job you don’t need and which probably will never bring you the sense of self-fulfillment you’ve hoped it would? There are always other things to do. I thought that when I retired from my day job more than a year ago, I would find a lot more time to write. I finished a book project and then started fiddling with the next one. A year has gone by, in which I’ve gotten more involved with my church, have returned to work part-time in my original profession of radio (after retiring from government work), and now I’m pretty much as busy as I was when I was working full-time. Considering how hard it is to write a book, guide it along to its birth and help it to walk on its own, why bother? Well, why indeed? Because, at least in my case, there are a couple story ideas out there I just can’t bear to give up on. Maybe they’ll never amount to anything. Maybe they will. (I’m kind of pulling for the latter.) Recently I was asked to contribute a short story to an anthology, and that allowed me to flex some writing muscles that had started taking on some flab. The project renewed some enthusiasm. A new bookstore opened in my town and the owner enthusiastically took all of my titles, plus the anthology. More enthusiasm was renewed. So I’m still at it. Maybe not as consistently as I’d like, but the virus took away the pressure of getting one of them out this year, so now I can work on it more. We’ll see how it turns out.

    • Short stories are a wonderful antidote for writing blahs. They aren’t as intimidating in terms of long-term time/energy commitment. I have a couple ideas for some. Might try that. Good luck with your own projects.

  8. I’m in the midst of book 15 in my 7th year of writing. Many days I find writing tedious as the story it’s so much slower unfolding on paper, than the movie reel playing in my head. I resent typing the words ‘the’ and ‘a’ as they are not the meat of the story. Grammar brings me zero pleasure.

    I struggled with my 8th book. I wondered if my imagination was done. So I set it aside and started a new series. After I launched the first book of that new series I went back to the book that I hated and finished it. It remains my shortest mystery at 62K, but it does okay with reviews and sales.

    As an Indie writer, there’s the added stress of learning the business side of writing. How are my Amazon and FB ads performing, which book(s) should be on sale? As much as I moan the business side of writing. it’s part of my energy to write the stories.

    As a kid who was just an average English class student in high school and college, I’ve come a long way baby!

    • You have to love the journey as much as the destination. Sounds like you do. And having been traditionally pubbed and self-pubbed, I totally get the pressure you feel having to be everything. It adds to the burn-out factor. I got to the point where I resented the time suck it was, leaching energy away from the writing itself. Undoubtedly that’s part of what went into my decision.

  9. PJ, Thank you for your honesty and insight. I can relate, but in a different field.

    Outfitted with a strong work ethic and a talent for analytical problem-solving, I jumped into a software development career right after college. I loved everything about my work and thought I would be one of those people they find slumped over their desk one morning with one hand on the keyboard and the other clutching a user’s manual. I took a sabbatical after our son was born, but returned to my love of all things computer a few years later and fully intended to live out my professional life in corporate or academic computer science departments. Then one day after another boring management meeting, I finally admitted what I had denied for a couple of years. I wasn’t having fun any more. I retired a year later.

    I am more than grateful for the opportunities to build castles in the ether, most notably part of the U.S. Air Traffic Control system. But after I retired, I discovered a new love, one equally as fresh and exciting as the first. Perhaps coming to writing later in life will turn out to be a greater gift since I don’t need to rely on income from writing to supply my daily bread. My goals are strictly to turn out a product that is truly worthy, and I can tell it’s going to take me decades to figure it out.

    I’m glad you’re going to continue as a TKZ contributor, and I hope you will either refresh your own writing or find another avenue for your creativity that will satisfy and excite your soul again.

    Best wishes!

    • I had the same thing happen to me in my newspaper career. Loved it for 30 years…but I kept getting promoted and ended up in management. Personnel evaluations and budgets. Ugh. That’s what got me started writing romance novels, though. And I was able to finally quit the newspaper biz…just before it went to hell. Glad writing is bringing you so much satisfaction.

  10. There are some days I’d rather do anything than write, but then another day comes along and I’m right back at it.

    I’ve been striving to be an accomplished writer since I penned a dreadful play on manners in junior high — that’s a lot of years considering I’m old enough to be your slightly older sister. I’ve been published twice in a national magazine, so I don’t keep at it because I want to see my name finally in print. I do it because I cannot not write. During the past fifteen years, my life has gone through several major upheavals. The one constant has been my desire to write a great suspense novel. Very possibly there will be a day when I’ll decide I don’t want to do this any more, but I hope it isn’t tomorrow because I think I’ve figured out how my bad guy can make things even worse for my heroine.
    (PS — I lived in Tally for 20 years, near Lake Jackson. I love it when you talk about North Florida. It brings back some very nice memories.)

    • I’m up in northern Michigan now (thank God!). We’re lucky to be able to split our year between our two little homes. I love Tallahassee. Really nice people, good neighbors, nice town. I miss it when I am away. But I miss Michigan when I am in Florida. 🙂

  11. I actually have the date my website renews on my computer, thinking maybe that would be the end. Its a couple of months from now, and After finishing my last book I was ready to be done, until another idea smacked me in the head. The idea was fresh, and despite the doldrums lately, I was reenergized. So here I am, knowing I’m not done as much as I might want to be. Still too many characters fighting to get out of my head.

    • That means it’s not time, I think. Your people are still yelling at you, “Tell my story! Tell my story!” All my imaginary friends are quiet. When I start hearing voices again, I’ll let you all know. 🙂

  12. I gave up on my career years ago. Was I sad? Yes. Was I relieved? Hell, yes! Am I happy now? Yes. (WARNING: Depressing writer reality ahead.)

    I loved the writing, I still love the writing and creating, and my characters continue to trot around in my head. I still have what-if novel-starting dreams. I think about sitting down and writing about it then sigh with disinterest and don’t because I no longer care or need to connect with readers.

    The career poisoned the writing and the caring. Nothing I did ever fired it up, and I rarely broke even in those early days of ebooks although I was on bestseller lists, and I had over a dozen major awards including Best Book of the Year, and five-star reviews from all the top review magazines. Readers who found me loved my books, but they weren’t enough to build a reader base.
    Still, I had hope. But The Fates and the damned publishers were determined to destroy me. The final straw was a romantic suspense I went all out on with the early promotion, expenses, everything, and I was using it to promote my backlist, too. The market was ebooks. The week before it came out, my fudging publisher in a display of utter stupidity broke their contract with what was then the equivalent of the Kindle Store by offering the books much cheaper on their website. The dealer dropped all their books, and that was the end of that. Six months later, they made up, and all the publisher’s books including mine were dumped back into the store to sink in to non-existence without promotion on anyone’s part. That was my why-the-hell-bother moment.
    Last year, my first publisher died, and my two most successful books went out of print. I thought long and hard and decided to let them stay dead. Publishing and promotion are for the young and energetic. Two weeks ago, another publisher died putting two more of my books OOP. Ironically, the publisher that started this is still around and appears to be flourishing. So I’m one novel and a short story anthology away from total oblivion, and I’m okay with that.

    Moral of the story for you newbies out there: Write and sell as long as you are happy doing it, but, when the joy disappears, let it go. That’s okay, and there’s no shame involved when you give up the fight. There’s a life out there that doesn’t involve writing.

    • Wow, that’s a helluva testimonial. I wonder, though, about your OOP books. Do you not want to repackage them and make them available? That is what Kelly and I are working on now, getting our old back list titles available.

      • I’m making a dead run at seventy. Even if I could generate the energy and enough I-give-a-shit to do all that extra work, I would be leaving a pile of extra business stuff outside of her knowledge to my sister if I dropped dead. I am also a dinosaur, and my books show it. Modern romance is now essentially erotica, and all the characters are screw it if it moves. My books are positively Victorian in comparison. All us Victorian readers are dying off, too.

  13. Like Debbie, I feared you were quitting TKZ! Thank goodness you’re not. I look forward to your posting days. I’m a little older than you and got started writing very late, but since 2013 I’ve written 13 books and 3 novellas…writing is about all I do. lol.

    Even on the worst days when writing is like pulling those bad teeth, I’d rather be writing than anything else. When that changes, I’ll stop, but I want to be like Barbara Cartland, still writing into my 90s.

    Enjoy your garden and whatever else hits your fancy, Kris! Does your sister share your feelings? Or will she continue solo?

    • I truly am happy for you, Patricia. Follow the joy. As I said, if you enjoy the process itself, it is worthwhile whatever the outcome.

  14. I liked this post because it was beautifully written, Kris, not because you are retiring. I am a long-time fan of your work and through the years you’ve given me good advice. I’ve stopped writing series for the reasons you gave, but still enjoy writing. I hope you’ll enjoy your retirement, and that — like so many retired people I know — you’ll go back to writing mysteries again.

  15. Kris, what a story, and so beautifully and honestly told. Thank you. It’s a keeper for all of us. Whatever decision you make going forward will be the right one.

  16. This was a gem, Kris. I relate to everything you said, include out “age group” and the way it causes us to view life and the work we do. Just wanted to say thank you for all you’ve contribued to so many, here and elsewhere, as well as all the delight you’ve brought to so many readers. I wish you well with the next chapter.

    • Many thanks Larry. It should have been a hard decision but it really wasn’t in the end. Life is short. Getting shorter. Carpe whatever’s left of the diem, right?

  17. Whatever you do, I’m a fan! There’s no shame in taking a break if that’s what your gut is telling you to do. Glad you’re not leaving TKZ, because I think it’s good to keep your hand in the pie, so to speak.

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