How Do We Know When It’s Time To Quit Being A Writer?

Let me tell you a story. I have only shared this story with one person before. It’s that embarrassing. When I was 19 years old, I decided it was time to “take things more seriously” as a writer. “Taking things more seriously” entailed dropping out of school in the middle of the semester, telling nearly no one that I was leaving, and driving up to New England (where I had grown up) so I could separate myself from all distractions and just … simply … write.

JM is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Lindsey won.)


Guest column by JM Tohline, author of The Great Lenore
(June 2011), a work of literary fiction, which is currently
available for pre-order. He spends his time writing,
reading, and wading waist-deep in lakes. If you have
any thoughts or question for him regarding the world
of publishing (or if you want a copy of The Great Lenore,
but do not have $14.95 to spend),you can e-mail
him at JMTohine[at]Gmail[dot]com.



Twenty-five days later, I had done what I’d been unable to do in four previous years of writing: finished a full-length manuscript. I printed this manuscript at a Copy Cop in downtown Boston and spent about five days editing the manuscript on paper, with a red pen, feeling very official. After transferring the edits to my computer, I reprinted it. And then … I headed for the Houghton Mifflin headquarters, right there on Berkeley Street, with several hundred printed pages tucked under my arm. I fully expected to march upstairs, speak to someone, and leave with a publishing deal. By the time I made it back home, my family and friends would all be impressed; they might even throw a party in my honor; I would never have to work another day in my life, would never have to do anything but write.

I entered the lobby of the massive building where Houghton Mifflin resides, and I asked the security guard—this griffin guarding the endless treasure of my literary future—what floor I needed to visit. Before he could supply me with an answer, a man nearby interrupted.
“Is that a manuscript?” he said.
“Yes.” I faced this man. I stood up taller.
“You can’t just take it up there, you know.”
“You need a literary agent. Did you know that?”
“Go home and look up literary agents; you need one to get published.”

Home was nearly 2,000 miles away, but I followed his advice. I went home. And it was five more years before I finally landed a literary agent. During those five years, I went through three manuscripts I thought were “definitely it” before writing The Great Lenore and realizing that “definitely it” felt a whole lot different from what I’d been feeling before. I then passed through a full year of near-misses with The Great Lenore before finally landing an agent.


A few months after I landed an agent, she decided it was time to shrink her agency, and she dropped me off at the Agent Orphanage. I began to wonder if I was being impractical. If this would ever happen. If I should just plain quit. I wondered if I was the only writer who ever felt this way.

A couple months ago, I e-mailed about 100 agents, asking them, “What is the biggest mistake writers make when querying you?” More than 50 agents responded, and after I compiled these answers and posted them on my blog, the traffic on my website exploded, and my inbox swelled with fresh correspondence. Much of this correspondence came from writers who vented about the difficulty of procuring an agent, or of breaking into the publishing world. Some of these writers even made themselves vulnerable enough to wonder, right there in their email to a stranger, “Am I being impractical? Should I just give up?


During those times when I felt this way myself, I came to the following conclusion: Sure, I dream of someday publishing a novel. Heck, I dream of publishing a string of novels. I dream of these novels being well-received and widely-appreciated. But never, at any point, have I written for these reasons. These are the goals, certainly; but all along, I have written to write. I have written because I have no choice but to write. If I ever try to quit, I’ll just come right back.

In truth, my path has probably not been so different from the one you are traveling yourself, or (you better start preparing now) the one you will travel yourself. And unless you are a masterpiece of mental toughness and emotional unassailability, you will sometimes find yourself asking that dark question: Is it time to just plain quit?

The answer, of course, is simple: Can you quit? Chances are, you probably cannot. So keep writing, Dear Writer – because that is what you are. Whether or not you have a novel in bookstores. Whether or not the whole world has read your writing. Whether or not anything of yours is ever published, as long as you live, you are still a writer. It is part of who you are. Keep writing. It is never time to quit.

JM is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Lindsey won.)

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49 thoughts on “How Do We Know When It’s Time To Quit Being A Writer?

  1. samcarter46

    Thanks for this post. It helps to know there are others out there like me. I’m looking towards the next phase of my life (when I’m done homeschooling my kids), and I can’t imagine not calling myself a writer even if I never get published.

  2. Crystal

    Excellent post! It helps me so much to know how long that road was for you to find an agent and get published. I just finished my second manuscript and am now working on editing my first. Sometimes I feel like it doesn’t matter how much editing I do, or how great I think my stories are, no one will probably ever publish them just because of the dismal odds I read on a daily basis. Your story is very inspiring, though, and it gives the rest of us still-unpublished writers hope.

    Congratulations on The Great Lenore! 🙂

  3. Joe Sewell

    Hmmm … guess my previous comment was too negative or something. I’ll just say that I continually get discouraged, wondering if I have the time (keeping a full-time engineering job), money (to learn how to "do it right"), and energy to get a non-fiction thing I’ve got in my head to a publisher. I participated in NaNoWriMo last November, but wound up with 50,000 words of garbage. (It should’ve stayed a "short story.") Ah, well, at least I got Scrivener at half price out of it.

    Oh, and for the record, Kristan, you’ve got the right actor, wrong character. "Never give up, never surrender" was spoken by Tim Allen, who played Jason Nesmith, an actor who, in turn, played Commander Peter Quincy Taggart in the movie Galaxy Quest. You were thinking, no doubt, of Allen’s voicing Buzz Lightyear in everything but the animated Disney series; Buzz’s catchphrase was "to infinity … and beyond!"

  4. Claudia B. Manley

    Just last year, I had one of those moments when I wondered, "When do you just say enough already?" Even bringing that question to other writers I know was daunting and met with the inevitable "Never!" Yes, we never stop, but that doesn’t mitigate the frustration and disappointment being a writer can bring. What does help is being connected to a community of writers who can help steer you through the fog and back to why we do it in the first place: because it’s what we are.

  5. jackie allison

    Congratulations and thank you. Sometimes I want to look up and yell ‘Are you nuts? A writer?’ Then someone like you comes along and I know there are others like me. It’s okay. One lunch date, with helpful friends suggesting other career options, lets me know I don’t want to be, can’t be anything else. Write on.

  6. Mona Alvarado Frazier

    Ah, an article that allowed me to breath and relax, I couldn’t handle another agent article saying what and what not to do, not today. You have walked more than a few miles in our shoes (or high heels) and you know the sound of a flung pen, the punch on the computer keys, and the crumple of rejection letters banking on the rim of the trashcan ( I can go on, but I’m losing that sense of relaxation). Thank you for a great article. I’m going include some of it on my blog and link the full article to it and your website.

  7. Kathryn Tuccelli

    What a great article! Very inspiring. The writer’s life can be lonely and discouraging at times.

    I have already Re-Tweeted the link to my friends and followers =)

    (PS: I read the synopsis of The Great Lenore and am really intrigued. I’d love to win a copy!)

  8. Bonnie

    Somewhere along the way my novel writing became buried under another career that took hold and flourished. The writing didn’t stop, however, as I eventually began writing how-tos for that particular career and have had over two decades of articles and columns published in trade magazines. The other day I came across a box of my earlier manuscripts – mostly for children and romance, which I had been pursuing in the 70s. I tried to toss them, but decided perhaps I’d find time to give each another read first, while tucking them back into the box. I was contemplating tonight the need for those old works, asking myself, "Should I really hang on to such dreams at my age?" And then a Tweet appeared in my Twitter Timeline from WriterDigest, bringjng attention to this column. I’ve now decided to sort through that box of manuscripts and perhaps I’ll find a renewed passion. If nothing else, I’ve been reminded that writing is not a decision; writing is a part of what makes me who I am. Thank you Mr. Tohline.

  9. Donna

    Thank you so much for this post! Perfect timing – having a bit of the query blues. I also checked out the query tips on your blog – and was glad to see I appear to be on the right track there at least 🙂

  10. Arlee Bird

    Great story. Great advice. The bottom line is that no one ever achieves their dreams by giving up too soon. You’ve got to have the will to persist and the gumption to keep on persisting. Wishing you much success with <i>The Great Lenore</i>.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

  11. Karen Harrington

    This is a very inspirational piece. Thanks so much for sharing it…and for sticking with your passion. That’s the very best advice for any creative person. In fact, I recently attended a talk in which the speaker made a similar declaration, saying "It is better to focus on what you can do for your writing than on what your writing can do for you."

  12. Becky

    Thanks so much for this article, and for the link to your great blog post. I completely understand what you’re talking about here–it is so nice to know that I am not the only writer who has experienced doubt along the way. Congratulations on your book, and thank you for the encouragement!

  13. Abby

    Great advice, and in my opinion it applies to any artistic endeavor, and probably outside of the arts as well. I wish you the best of luck, and I think the amount of adversity a person goes through is often directly proportionate not only to their success, but even more importantly, to their character and their ability to appreciate what they do achieve some day. Thanks for the encouragement, and best of luck!

  14. viv

    I gave up for about 8 years; it was like some of me died. No one but my closest friend noticed. Then a change of home brought it all rushing back, and I began writing. It felt amazing.
    Before this, I’d gone through a process of almost getting through, getting two books to committee stage with a number of publishers. It was destroying me, hence making myself stop. It hasn’t been any easier this time around, I got abandoned by my agent too, and similar things. But I am still standing, my first book came out last year.
    You are right; being a writer is in the blood, bone and soul.

  15. JM Tohline

    Lindsey – I agree! There is never a time to quit chasing a dream.

    Theresa – I know that feeling. While a full is out with an agent or editor, you convince yourself that you will be okay no matter the answer. But it’s still a letdown when you get that "No thanks." But you’re right – keep trying. As long as you keep doing that, you keep moving closer!

    Anna – That is a very interesting way to put it. Very insightful. I guess it is easy to "talk down" to people once you have moved further along the path than them…but really, we’re all on the same path, no matter where we are in the journey!

    Leann – Yup, writing to write. That is what it all boils down to in the end (in my opinion). Not "writing to get published" or "writing to make money." But writing to write. Writing for the love of stories, and for the love of the craft. The other stuff will follow.

    Valerie – You have about a one in thirty chance right now! Hey, that’s pretty good odds. (P.S. Thanks for taking the time to read the synopsis and the sample; that’s awesome.)

  16. Leann

    You have written to write? Well, I guess I know that feeling well enough. Try as I might, over the years, I walk away only to return. It’s a fate I have learned to accept.

  17. Anna Mac

    Thank you, JM. This is one of the few posts on this blog that I feel treats me–the reader–as an actual writing person who could also be published. I am tired of being talked at like someone who might someday be something. Thanks, JM. I cannot stop writing, I might not ever "get published" and be read by millions but I am and always will be a writer.

  18. Anne Kenny

    Such great advice at such a perfect time. I have to say, I don’t think you should be embarrassed. Rookie mistakes happen to rookies.

    Thank you (SO MUCH) for sharing this story.

  19. Theresa Milstein

    JM, I needed to read this today because a couple of hours ago, I received a rejection on a full. This April will be five years since I began writing my first manuscript. I’ve had close calls, near misses, and a short story success, but I’m still not where I want to be. I can’t imagine not writing. So I’ll keep trying.

    Congratulations on your book The Great Lenore.

  20. Lindsey Edwards

    I don’t think there is ever a time to quit chasing a dream. As long as you are passionate and open minded, eventually a persons sheer determination will always triumph.

    I like: "Whether or not the whole world has read your writing. Whether or not anything of yours is ever published, as long as you live, you are still a writer. It is part of who you are. Keep writing. It is never time to quit."

  21. JM Tohline

    Brent – I guess "impressive" is a better way to look at it than "embarrassing"!

    Larry – Best. Idea. Ever. How serendipitous it would have been if you had been the security guard at the desk that day. Of course, after the "mifflined" editor was through with us, we might have found ourselves blacklisted for life. But hey, at least it would have been a story to tell.

    Kelly – You’re not the first one to have thought up the "expiration date" idea…of course, you probably would have found the same thing most find: these self-imposed expiration dates are totally off the mark! As you know already, you’ll keep writing; after all, it’s what you do! And as you keep writing, the tide will eventually turn. Hang in there! Keep writing.

  22. Kelly Davio

    I ran across this blog post just hours after I’d given myself the "okay, self, we’re going to have to put an expiration date on this novel-writing thing, because we aren’t handling the vast number of rejections too well" talk. (This was in the middle of a bookstore where I had a socially unacceptable crying jag while looking at all the beautiful shelves full of books that weren’t mine. Not my finest day.) But you know what? You’re right. I’m going to keep writing, because that’s what I do. It’s definitely not time for expiration dates, and it’s not time to quit.

  23. Larry Caldwell

    Ha! I was a security guard in the Houghton Mifflin building in Boston a few years back–right around the time you paid your visit by the sound of it. If I saw a writer actually show up with an unsolicited manuscript, I would have at least read the first few pages of it and– seeing you were indeed a writer and not some prose-ranting lunatic–let you up to an HM visitors desks upstairs. Then, when one of the editors showed up in the lobby looking completely "mifflined" (as we used to say) and asking if I knew the consequences of what I’d just done, I would have pulled my own manuscript from my bag and replied: "Yes, absolutely, sir. But since I’m about to be unemployed, could you maybe take a look at this one too?" Who knows what might have been! Seriously though, this is great insight, JM. You have a really positive outlook on the typically dark subject of breaking in. Best of luck with your book, and if you have a mailing list please add me to it.

  24. JM Tohline

    Jeanne – It’s a great feeling when something you wrote hits home with someone in such a way; glad to help!

    PK – "…down in the rejection doldrums" – that’s a pretty piece of writing for such an ugly feeling; if you keep turning frustration into beauty like that, nothing is going to stop you!

    Angela – "Publication would be sublime, but if not, well, I will keep writing." – Exactly!

    Elizabeth – Shortly after my "know-it-all, 19-year-old adventure," I read the foreword in some Stephen King novel where he talked about how he knew everything in the world at 19 – how he had no clue what was "impossible," and how he has tried to maintain that attitude since. That stuck with me! We will never know what is impossible until we try.

  25. Elizabeth Lynd

    This was really interesting to read. I wondered what you’d have to say, wondered if you were offering solid advice on whether or not to give up. What you gave was better, of course, and you are right.

    As for your hubris–at 19, doesn’t everyone know everything? Then you eventually turn 25 and realize you know nothing! I love eavesdropping on young college students; it reminds me of what a know-it-all know-nothing I once was. Now I know I know nothing (which doesn’t stop me from spouting but at least I know I’m full of it).

    Now off to read your link! Thanks for the post.

  26. Angela Scott

    I write because I have to. It’s as simple as that. I’ve written since I was a little girl and I will write when I’m a ninety year old woman. I will write. To quit writing isn’t an option–I wouldn’t know how. Publication would be sublime, but if not, well, I will keep writing.

    Thank you for your article. I’m going to pass it along to as many writers as I know–they need to read this. They need it.

  27. PK Hrezo

    So glad I read this today. I was down in the rejection doldrums and wondering if I’ll ever have a successful ms. Thanks for pumping me up. And you’re exactly right. No way I could stop writing. I press on to next project, because I am a writer.

  28. Elena Aitken

    Great post. And like so many others, very timely for me.
    It’s hard not to get caught up in the rejection and roadblocks that inevitably happen along the way. BUT I’ve come to understand that it’s all part of the process and the difference between published vs. unpublished comes down to one thing – persistence.
    Thanks for the great post.

  29. Jeanne

    This is exactly what I needed to read today. It hits home. After many revisions and rejections I have asked myself this very question — Maybe it’s time to quit. I haven’t yet and for the reasons you’ve articulated so well. Thank you. Onward!

  30. JM Tohline

    Zee – That was perhaps the most ironical and entertaining comment I have read on any blog or article in a long time.

    Karyn – And it’s too bad I failed at calligraphy, otherwise I would offer to make it happen!

    Charles – Tiger blood.

    Lucinda – Lucinda, at least you know you are not the only one to have felt that way! Thanks for following along, by the way…hopefully the wonderful "short" stories will return in the next couple days, once the craziness of the pre-order launch begins to abate.

  31. Lucinda

    Must I confess? Must I admit to having thoughts of doing just what you did? Well, in the midst of the "should I quit?" or "am I crazy to think I can write?" I find peace in daydreaming about success or marching right in there with about three novels ready to hit the bookstores.

    Fortunately, I am a full-fledged member of the Starving Artist’s Society and can’t afford the gas to try that…yet.

    I have followed your tweets. Love your "short" stories.

  32. JM Tohline

    Mara – "…that’s when you know you’ve found your passion (when you can’t NOT do something)" – I agree 100%!

    Beth – Thank you so much. That’s great to read.

    Brittany – Funny, I actually talked about that on my blog recently; about how so many people call themselves "aspiring writers" instead of "aspiring authors." A writer, by definition, is one who writes. As long as you write, you are a writer!

    B.E. – You are absolutely welcome!

    Susan – Exactly! For anyone who will keep writing no matter what, they may as well keep pursuing publication no matter what as well.

  33. Brittany

    THANK YOU for this post! I work as a copy editor for a publisher, and I also get the depressing, unenviable job of telling aspiring writers who call in (or show up–you’re not the only one) that they need an agent, etc.

    The other side of the coin is that I’ve been writing for fun for as long as I can remember. I’ve competed in NANOWRIMO the last three years, just because. Your post really hits home for the artist in me. I especially appreciate your point about how publishing doesn’t define you as a writer. I have always said the same thing… writing is what makes you a writer. Getting published is just gravy.

    As Billy Crystal’s character says in the movie Throw Mama from the Train, "A writer writes, always." 🙂

  34. Mara Rutherford

    Great post! In moments of post-rejection weakness I have felt like giving up, but I always come back to writing in the end. I think that’s how you know you’ve found your passion (when you can’t NOT do something). I love to hear stories from people who have struggled and still managed to succeed. Good luck with the book!

  35. JM Tohline

    Kristen – thanks for the compliment on the cover! The cover was designed by the incomparable Jamie Keenan (who has worked with such writers as Junot Diaz, Nick Hornby, David Foster Wallace, Stephen King, and Irvine Welsh). I couldn’t be happier with it!

    Alicia – I think a lot of people lose their motivation because of the overwhelming aspects of the mean old "business side" of writing. I’m glad you (like me!) did not know until you had passed the proverbial point of no return!

    Nicole – Something you would have done, huh? It’s nice to be so bold that you have no clue what classifies as "impossible," isn’t it!

  36. Nicole Wolverton

    I’ve considered a few times if I would ever give it up if I don’t manage to get an agent, and each time I come to the same conclusion: as long as I keep getting ideas, I’ll keep writing.

    Of course, now that self-publishing is such a viable option (albeit not my first choice), getting an agent doesn’t seem to be the end all, be all of publishing, especially if you’re a good marketer.

    I love your story about tromping into the publisher’s building. Sounds like something I would have done.

  37. Alicia

    I felt the same way when I finished my MS. I didn’t have a clue about the publishing world or agents. But I think if I would’ve known how hard it was going to be, it would’ve discouraged me from finishing that first book.

    Great story!

  38. Kristan

    Haha, WOW, I love that story! And I especially love that a security guard was the one that told you you needed an agent. Priceless!

    Thanks for sharing, and yes, in the immortal words of Buzz Lightyear (I think): Never give up, never surrender!

    Love the cover, btw.


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