Know When To Fold Them

First of all calm down. This is no statement of intent. It is instead an exploration of something I first read about in a how to write book – the importance of giving up and of knowing when to give up – and how impossible to navigate most of the traditional “career road maps” have become.

I first came across the concept of there being a right time to quit writing – or at least writing as a career – in one of the first “how to write” books I read, which means either Damon Knight’s or Orson Scott Card’s. (It’s been a while. But theirs were the first two I read.)

The advice went something like this: know when you don’t have enough talent/persistence/ability to learn craft to give up. I’ve seen marriages, careers ad children ruined by the determination to persist in the face of all obstacles.

At the time this advice seemed eminently sensible to me. I was, remember, very young and still believed natural talent was the most important thing in getting published, (or any artistic endeavor.) And I didn’t know you could learn, because I’d just started trying to.

In fact, at the time, it all seemed perfectly clear cut and accorded with the concept of an “artistic life” that I’d grown up with. It went something like this: if you’re an artistic genius – and if you’re not, kindly stop cluttering the field – you’ll be recognized on sight by the first professional recruiter (talent scout, editor, gallery owner) who sees you perform your art – or even just sees you because, yeah, talent is that obvious and you know, usually accompanied by madness or artistic temperament – and they’ll immediately bow before you and take you to the top of your profession. At that point, as long as you avoid drugs, sex and suicide (no word on rock and roll) you’ve got it made.

This concept by the way was why I was so distraught at my first rejection, even though it was personal and – in retrospect – almost abjectly fawning. Because clearly I wasn’t a genius. This concept too, was responsible for my not sending anything out again for another four? Six? Years.

Anyway, so when I read that book, it made sense. It has since come back to haunt my mid at intervals. Those who were in my writers’ group when I started out used to laugh at my decision to call it quits. (To an extent they had point. I think the longest I stayed away from writing was two weeks.) Mid you it made some sense, since I think the original advice pertained to getting published, and when I passed eight years of trying, maybe it was sane to give up.

No one said I was sane.

This didn’t change much after I was published. Perhaps this was due to the fact that I broke in in 01. I found it enlightening to read Kris Rusch’s latest column, if nothing else for the fact that she talks about how crazy things have been in the last ten years which is, in fact, my entire time as a published novelist. (I sold my first short in 94, but didn’t actually sell a story that got published till 98, so my extent of time “in the field” is not much longer.) Made me feel a little better, because at least I knew I wasn’t the one who had gone crazy, but the entire field. (Yes, it was a “Oh, so it’s crazy in here, it’s not just me.” It also made me feel better because I’ve had that exact conversation she quotes – in variants – three times in the last two years, and it was good to know it’s not me, they’re doing it to everyone.)

In fact, when I met Dave Freer, I was considering whether the game was worth the candle. My first series had come out to unspectacular (to put it mildly) and perhaps even truthful (after reading that article, and in retrospect, who knows?) numbers, and I’d been told I’d never work in this town again.

It seemed, at the time, like a curiously stupid way to fail. First, because “try for sixteen years, publish a trilogy that fails to sell, walk away” sounds like giving up too easily. Second, because the trilogy wasn’t even within my “typical” type of writing. I’d spent most of those sixteen years writing space opera, and the trilogy was literary Shakespearean fantasy. (No, I’m not saying I wrote it just to get published. Okay, maybe a little. To the extent I loaded it with quotes it was at the publisher’s request. But writing about Shakespeare and elves were just outgrowths of having read a lot about the subjects lately. As you all know, I’m likely as not to write about whatever crosses my mind at the moment. In fact the words “I’ll never write xyz” in this house have the same karmic signature as danging around holding metal poles during a thunderstorm of – to quote Pratchett – calling yourself “Vincent the invulnerable.” However, literary fantasy had never been the pinnacle of my ambitions or the aim of my career.)

It was that”well, if I’m going to fail, at least I’ll fail at something I do more often” that kept me lurching forward through bewildering… some things that might have been successes or failures or “yes.”

Which brings me to my current position. You see, somewhere along the line the “know how to fold it” became very definite, because I – and most of you – have met people who didn’t. These are usually people who have attained some modicum of success: a book or two published; a semi-successful series. Then something went wrong and they stopped getting published by the big houses. But they’re still published by the little houses or – sigh – self published. It’s been twenty years, but they still come to all the local cons and insist on being called “a professional” and give advice to new authors on how to break in.

Most careers in SF/F don’t last forever, you see. When I broke in, Kris Rusch told me the average career lasted ten years, and most of the time the authors just gave up and disappeared back where they came from.

This seemed to me preferable, more dignified, than the living-death of minor publication and the demand of a status one no longer held. You see, in case this isn’t obvious, I have the devil’s own pride.

So, what can the problem be? I mean, I’m still being published by professional houses, but surely when I stop, then….

Well, no. Why no? Because the markers have moved. When people who are self-published are making a million dollars, when people who are self-published are getting better reviews/awards and going on to sign with a house for better careers than those of us who came up through the normal channels, the goalposts haven’t only moved, in fact. They’ve grown tentacles and are dancing a jig.

So… when is the time to pack it in? Danged if I know! I don’t even know – any longer – if that advice was right and if there is a time to pack it in. Now the whole process of publication has become, instead of an identifiable career a try-fail try-succeed sequence like the initial efforts to get published. Yeah, you might have put out twenty books with Amazon and sold ten copies a piece, but if – and this is very important – you’re TRYING and working at it, improving and studying the market, your next one could become a success.

And so it goes.

For me the marker is a little easier. You see, I don’t do this for a hobby. Writing is my job. As long as I can make from it what I could make from jobs I can easily get at my current state of abilities/being out of the market: say, teacher’s aid, or secretary – I’ll continue doing it. (Yes, I could make considerably more from free lance translation or free lance language teaching, but both of those would require an amazing amount of effort/time to get off the ground and then we’re back to “but writing might do that as well with the next book and it’s something I want to do.”) At the point that teacher’s aid or secretary becomes more profitable, writing becomes a hobby, which is given only a fraction of my time and attention.

This year will not be that year, and probably neither will next year.

So… of course, you probably agree with me that one shouldn’t harm ones family, livelihood, or children in order to keep trying. (At least I hope you do.) But after that, is there a point at which you think one should call it quits at whatever phase of one’s career in this strange new world of publishing? And if so, when would you say it is?

At which point do you, in the words of Simon and Garfunkel, cry “out In his anger and his shame,
“I am leaving, I am leaving.”” And does the fighter still remain?

(A note, added to this pre-written post — Yesterday I got word my novel Darkship Thieves won the Prometheus award.  My thoughts on the matter are here: For the Win, though there will hopefully be more and more coherent.  This post is, as usual, crossposted at According to Hoyt.)

12 comments

  1. I’m not sure there’s a clear cut time/sign that it’s not working, not any more. Heck, I’m not sure there’s one that it IS working.

    Maybe in ten years I’ll have an answer for you, although Hamlet may be more apt: “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them?”

  2. Sarah, I know how you feel. We are all sitting back watching them move the goal posts, take them down and change the rules in mid play. The prize seems to be surviving!

    It’s lucky writing is intrinstically satisfying.

  3. Kate,
    YES! Anyway, I just thought it was interesting I spent SO MANY years sure there was a “time to walk” and that the signs would be clear and now it’s a “wait, what?”

  4. Rowena,

    Intrinsically satisfying? Is that what they call it these days? I thought it was like an itch in the center of your back, that spot you can’t quite scratch.

    And yea, keep on surviving, my friend.

  5. If the rest of your life is more fun than writing, stop writing.

    You know, unless you’re actually getting paid well *laughs hysterically*

    I am so grateful to my parents for being encouraging of my writing but never once believing it would become a full-time job. Talent and hard work are all very well, but the element of luck does play a part – both before and after publication.

    Saying “no” to writing means saying “yes” to something else – a family, an income, a gardening hobby, etc.

    Louise Curtis

    1. Yes, Louise, but conversely “saying yes to something else means saying no to writing” and personally that’s a deal breaker for me. I also — though I didn’t have supporting parents for writing! — took a degree to have another career. It turned out, though that writing paid better than the work I could get. Hours were about as crazy. And the advantage is I could stay home with the kids. Of course, this is ten years later, so… Some stuff has shifted. But writing is still paying and though i get a little antsy at times, I have no reason it believe it won’t.

      Now, here’s the thing — if my profession (multilingual translator) hadn’t been one of overwork and trouble establishing yourself, I might never have pushed to write instead. I’d have wanted to. I just wouldn’t have put up the work. … but I did, and I am where I am. To each his own and to each his path.

      1. I’m still writing too – clearly. But I do think a lot of people would be better off not writing, and encouragement isn’t always the kindest thing to give. That’s all.

        Louise Curtis

  6. It wasn’t clear to me when I should start writing, or what I should write, or how I should write it, or who would show me how (as a I don’t have any writer friends). I am as certain as I can be that the same will be true for when I should stop.

    That is, unless my writing turns into the grumpy, annoyed-with-everything kind of writing old men sometimes get into. Then, when no one wants to read or buy it, I’ll be forced to stop and take up cartography.

    1. well… see, I sort of assumed since I read that book when I was a “baby writer” that there always came a time to stop. Now I’m not so sure.

  7. Luckily, I only write because my daughter’s cat likes my stories … not entirely true (the cat is actually a heartless critic), but close enough. The stories are going to happen anyway, whether I just tell them to the steering wheel during my commute, or to the tile walls of the shower. Writing them down requires effort, because I only bother with “the good parts” when I’m only doing them for myself. But I enjoy it. The fact that I’ve managed to sell a few pieces is pure icing.

  8. Some years ago, Fujio sensei talked to me about tea. At that time, he was quite a bit older than I was, and kind of a character.

    I mean, imagine an older Japanese gentleman, completely bald, wearing Japanese robes and old-style wooden sandals, charging across three lanes of rush-hour traffic in the middle of Tokyo to say hello to my wife and I. And then happily dragging us off to a restaurant where he was greeted by the waitresses and chef, and we were seated immediately.

    He laughed and told us this was a result of him taking his students out for dinner in large groups during the New Year’s holidays. When we cautiously asked how many students, he looked at his wife and said, “About 120, 140 this year?” She nodded.

    His students were masters of tea. He in turn, was the masters’ master? Although I don’t think he would say that.

    Anyway, at some point he asked me just how old I was. I told him, and he said, “That’s a good age to start seriously studying tea.” I shook my head and said, “Why?” He said, “Well, you have to understand that no one is an expert at tea. But in about 10 years, you’ll begin to understand what you don’t know about it. And in 20 or 30 years, you’ll begin to understand tea. That’s where I am.”

    As far as he was concerned, everyone is a student of tea. Some people more actively than others. But no one is really a master.

    Maybe the question isn’t when to call it quits, but just how hard you want to play the game?

    Would you like a cup of tea?

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