On Giving Up

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Once upon a time, I gave up on writing. 

In high school and college, I was always one of the best creative writers in my class. It’s fair to say this skewed my perception of what my writing success in the adult world would be like. Never once did it occur to me that it’s not hard to be the best in your class when most of the other kids are there for a graduation requirement and don’t give a shit about writing. Nope; I just thought I was that good. 

I wasn’t ready when I started submitting short stories to magazines as an adult and the rejection slips started arriving in the mail. They weren’t always pleasantly bland form rejections either; a couple of them sounded like they came from editors who hated my guts for daring to submit to them.

So I enrolled in an evening creative writing class in Georgetown. That was the class in which the instructor showed everyone what he thought of a story draft of mine by throwing it in the wastebasket in front of everyone. 

That’s about when I said “Fuck this.” 

I wasn’t making a lot of money at work. That class wasn’t cheap. Submitting work anywhere was a labor-intensive and not-inexpensive prospect back then. I had to buy the latest edition of the Writer’s Digest annual short fiction directory (also not cheap), send away for sample copies of publications that interested me or buy them at a nearby bookstore, and then pay for postage (and the famous self-addressed stamped envelope) to mail my work off. I could sneakily print things out at work and make photocopies, but even that was something of a pain in the ass. 

(I don’t mean to get all “In my day we had to walk uphill in the snow both ways…” but let me tell you: The process of locating markets and agents and submitting to them is SO MUCH EASIER than it used to be. I am so thankful I never had to mail an actual printed novel draft to someone.)

I was going to a lot of time, effort, and expense for something that was bringing me little but verbal abuse and embarrassment. My early 20s were not a fun time in general, and this did not help.

And thus, in my early 20s, I quit writing fiction. A few years later I turned to posting nonfiction blog entries on the Internet. I was good at ranting, and my online journals got the positive reception I’d been looking for.

The Internet brought me back to fiction. I heard about NaNoWriMo via people’s online journals, and I found the Absolute Write Water Cooler and saw all these people having fun and success doing the thing I’d enjoyed so much once upon a time. In my late 30s I started writing short fiction just for myself, just to see if I could even still do it. In 2011, I wrote an entire novel for NaNoWriMo. It wasn’t a good novel, but it was good practice for what came later. 

Thanks to the crew at the Weekly Knob on Medium, I found supportive writer friends without ever leaving my house. Tidepool was still several years away, but that’s how I got back on track. 

I have to admit I don’t feel entirely positive about all the years I was away from writing. I’ve wondered more than once where my career would be by now if I’d stuck with things. There’s nothing I can do about that, of course. At the time, I think it was the right thing to do. 

But I’m also very glad I didn’t give up on Tidepool when it failed to land me an agent after the Pitch Wars showcase. A general sentiment rolling through Pitch Wars discussions online was that if your PW novel failed to land an agent after you’d been querying for a while, maybe that novel wasn’t the right debut book for you and it was time to shelve it and write another, better book. 

I kept a diary of my entire 2017 Pitch Wars experience, from July 2017 when I first decided to submit through the long post-showcase period in late 2017-2018 when Tidepool got one rejection after another. I reread it a few days ago and discovered that I came much, much closer than I remembered to trunking Tidepool when no agent wanted it. (This entry from 2018 gives a good picture of my mental state at the time.)

But every time I reread it, I thought “No, this is a good book. Pete and I worked too hard on it to let it die. If I can get it out to people, I think they’ll like it.” Sorrow Hamilton wanted her story told. Part of the problem I faced was not understanding how radioactive horror was (and still is) to a lot of agents. It took several agents saying “I like this, but just don’t know where I could sell it” before I finally clued in. 

And so I rethought my goals: Agents were and are important, but I was willing to go without one if it meant seeing Tidepool in print. I’d read enough about the business over the years that I believed I could identify a shitty publisher and avoid them. I wrote off agents for the time being and started querying small presses. That worked out beautifully, first when Parliament House signed Tidepool and then when Dilatando Mentes contracted it for a Spanish translation. 

Tidepool earning a Bram Stoker Award nomination tells me I was right to keep believing in this book even when it seemed like nobody wanted it. And I got an agent with my next book. 

This is why I can’t wholeheartedly recommend giving up. 

But I know how hard this business is. If the mental toll rejections and bad news are taking on you is getting to be too much, or if your life is chaotic and something’s got to give and writing is the easiest thing to stop, it’s fine to let writing go. 

You are not a failure if you give up. Taking care of yourself is the most important thing. And writing will still be there when you’re ready to pick it up again. 

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