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

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. 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.
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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.)

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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.

THE TIME I TRIED TO DROP OFF MY MANUSCRIPT AT HOUGHTON MIFFLIN IN PERSON

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."
"Um…"
"You need a literary agent. Did you know that?"
"Um…"
"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.

THE TIME I HAD AN AGENT ONLY TO GET DROPPED OFF AT THE AGENT ORPHANAGE

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?"

THE TIME I NEVER GAVE UP ON MYSELF

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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