LET’S TALK ABOUT QUITTING.
(I know, I’m just full of sunshine and daisies these days.)
“When do I walk away?” is a question everyone faces at some point in their lives. Whether it’s a troubled relationship, a crappy job, a grueling education track, or anything else, there comes a time when you have to make a decision: do I push through and try to make this work, or do I let go of it and move on?
In the context of a creative life, we might encounter this question in a variety of contexts. Should I keep working on this flawed piece or manuscript, or should I call it a loss and try something new? Should I keep trying to master this new method/medium/genre even though I’m not so great at it, or should I stick to what I know I’m good at?
And then there’s the one that has been most pressing and given me the most angst in my creative life: when do I stop submitting this piece?
I have developed a rule of thumb answer to this question: when, overall, it’s taking away more than it’s giving me.
That may sound like a pretty simple calculation.
Costs and Benefits and What Lies Between
For one thing, there are many things we do that suck up our time and energy without any reward for long periods, only to pay off later. Earning a university degree is one example. You’re pulling all-nighters and stressing for years before you get that reward; how do you know it’s going to be worth it? You don’t, actually. You have no way to know. It might be the path to a lucrative and fulfilling career… and it might end up being next to useless in the grand scheme of things.
For another thing, sometimes it’s a matter of attitude. That’s what this blog is for, really. I can’t change the reality of your situation, but I can offer you a new perspective that may help you find a healthier way to cope with it. If each rejection is taking a ton from you, whatever it may give back over time may not be worth it; and on the other side of the equation, if you manage to reap whatever you can from the process itself (such as cultivating hope and celebrating courage), it may not matter how much and whether it pays off in the end.
Part of creative resilience is learning how to reap those benefits from the process itself–while staying aware of where your limits are. Because sometimes you’re not going to be able to work up the energy to be positive about the process. Sometimes the daily battles with the self-doubt and fear and anger will be too much to justify staying the course. That doesn’t make you weak or a coward. It makes you a hero for being willing to stay true to yourself and honor your boundaries. Yes, sometimes we need to push ourselves in order to grow. But we also have to know when to stop pushing, and that takes no less courage.
It’s Not About Numbers
When I was querying agents with By Light of Hidden Candles, I read several articles that stated that you shouldn’t give up querying until you’ve sent at least 100 queries. So I set 100 queries as a milestone, at which point I would reevaulate and decide what to do next. Now, since my interview with Kaelan Rhywiol I’ve come to understand that not everyone sends queries like I do. I very carefully research each agent and obsess over the query until it perfectly matches their guidelines–and then worry that I missed something. I don’t think I’ve ever sent more than 4 at once. So sending 100 queries was not a simple task for me. It took about 18 months, and when I passed the 100 mark, I decided to keep going and sent something around 40 more. I still had a couple out when Kasva Press offered me a contract.
I’ve heard stories about people finding an agent with their 140th query. And I’ve heard–and posted interviews here–about people who didn’t find an agent even after 300 or 500. I’ve also heard stories about people giving up after 50 or so, and at first, I would turn up my nose. “Only 50? Ha! Amateur.”
It was only in my recent round of queries that I started to realize the problem with that approach.
When I stumbled into querying with Disengagement, I was repeatedly getting alarm bells that it wasn’t right for me. They came in the following forms:
- A heavy, jaded feeling whenever I started researching agents
- Lack of enthusiasm
- A reluctance to query unless the agent seemed like a 100% perfect match
- A general increase in anxiety, irritability, and lack of patience
- That same heavy, jaded feeling whenever I checked my QueryTracker page–alongside an urge to check it obsessively
I wavered between listening to these signals and deciding to stop and take a break from querying, and deciding I needed to push past them and keep going. It’s a tough call, you know? What if this is all self-doubt demon talk and if I just do the brave thing anyway, I’ll finally get an agent? On the other hand, what if this is all self-sabotage and I’m destroying my mental health for a goal I don’t even really know that I want that much?
There were a few times I made a decision to leave things as they were and not query anymore, and I think the most important sign was this one: I felt good about that decision. But several times, I second-guessed myself, and forced myself to go back into querying because I didn’t want to cheat myself out of a chance to succeed and achieve my big dream.
Furthermore… there was shame. I’m the self-proclaimed Rejection Survivalist, am I not? Me, give up after 20, 30 queries? Aren’t I supposed to be the expert on how to keep going and stay strong in the face of rejection?! How could I be giving up so quickly?!
So here’s my new insight about it:
It’s not about the numbers.
It’s about knowing what’s right for you.
Listen to Yourself
This isn’t some kind of masochistic competition to see who can rack up the most rejections. That’s the opposite of what this blog is supposed to be about. This blog is about building resilience by listening to yourself and honoring your needs.
At this point in time, I’m in a place where I am content to continue publishing with a small press. I’m also in a place where apparently, researching and querying agents causes me more emotional agony than anything else. I still have full manuscripts out with 3 agents, and who knows, maybe one of them will offer representation. I’m allowing myself to hope that one will. But I also have my feet firmly on the ground. I know that getting an agent is not the end of the journey. I know that even if I do get an offer, I won’t necessarily get a book deal; and if I get a book deal, it won’t necessarily be a good one; and if it’s a good one, it won’t necessarily be everything I dream of, etc. etc. etc. And at the end of the day, how important are the advantages of having an agent to me? Big 5 book deal? Movie rights? Foreign rights? All nice, but worth putting myself through the emotional agony of querying when everything is clearly signaling to me that it’s not right for me now? No way.
I would rather be the sort of person who walks away from opportunities when I know that’s the healthiest course for me, than a superstar author who ignores her own needs.
You are more important than your dreams.
Be Warned: People Are Going to Annoy the Hell Out of You
Listen: walking away is not fashionable.
It does not “look” brave.
I’ve written before that sometimes giving up is the bravest thing you can do, but most people aren’t going to see it that way.
You’re going to get people screaming “DON’T GIVE UP!” in your ears and forwarding you annoying memes with puppies and sunflowers and quotes from annoying famous people who haven’t been rejected nearly as many times as you have. They’re going to send you articles about people who became bestselling authors after being rejected 396,734 times or who were rejected exactly as many times as you and landed an agent after just one more query. They’re going to insist, “But how will you know if you don’t try? THE NEXT ONE COULD BE THE ONE.” And you’re going to have to admit that you have no proof that they’re wrong on that one, and the self-doubt demons will start rioting.
You’re also going to get people on the other side: “The publishing industry is such BS. Why even bother with them? Just self-publish, it’s so much better! VIVA LA AMAZON REVOLUTION!” These people are not going to understand what you’ve been through or the excruciating difficulty of the decision you’ve made. (You can just send them a link to my post, Why Submit to Publishers & Agents When You Can Self-Publish?, in response. You’re welcome.)
STAY STRONG. Plug your ears and repeat to yourself: “I AM THE ONLY ONE WHO KNOWS WHAT’S BEST FOR ME, AND THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I’M DOING.” They can take their memes and their articles and their opinions and their gushy success stories and go jump in a lake. You’re doing what’s right for you, and that’s what matters.
But Remember–It’s Not All or Nothing
The decision to stop submitting a particular piece doesn’t really mean you’re “giving up”.
It means you’ve stopped pursuing that particular path and have decided to invest your energies elsewhere.
That could mean working on your next thing to submit, or finding an alternative market for that same piece. It could also mean taking a break from your craft and “filling the well” by engaging with other pursuits that are important to you. (These 5 Creative-Resilience-Building Pursuits That Have Nothing to Do with Your Art, for example.) Those things are not giving up at all.
Furthermore, the decision to put a piece away for a while doesn’t mean putting it away forever. You may decide to stand down for a while, regroup, and get back to it later. Maybe you’ll dig it up in a few months or years and get some new ideas, or just find that you’re in a better, more motivated place and ready to try again.
People will tell you to stop obsessing over this one piece and get working on the next one. It’s not terrible advice, but it just can’t work for some of us. You do not have to be working on your next piece. Don’t let people pressure you into moving on to your next project before you’re ready.
So How Do You Know When It’s Time?
How do you know when something is truly taking away more than it’s giving you?
I think it’s probably different for everyone, and I’d love to hear what warning signs you start to notice when you’ve been pushing yourself to do something that’s not right for you. For me, the strongest signals were that heavy feeling, a lack of enthusiasm and motivation, a general increase in anxiety, a sense of burnout, and feeling good about the decision to stop.
What about you? How do you decide when it’s time to walk away?
Good and valuable post. I generally move on from something – be it a job, relationship or project – when I have no real hope left that the situation will positively change. There is something inside of me that just cracks and I can no longer fool myself that my partner will change or that I’ll get that promotion or that my book will sell etc. Once I lose that kernel of genuine hope for positive change my self protective instincts take over and I move on.
Daniella Levy says
Thank you for sharing, Kensi. Given the important role of hope in the process of recovering from rejection or criticism, it makes a lot of sense that the loss of hope would signal that it’s time to move on.
Rebecca Klempner says
This is such a touchy topic for me, but one that I circle back on all the time.
There’s all the facets you mention–the mental health toll of one rejection after another, the outside pressure to “Keep it up!”, the second-guessing, the way you start hating your job instead of loving it–but there are others, too.
For example, if I’ve spent X number of hours on a job, I hope to be paid for them. I do editing work, too, and if someone hired me for 10 hours of editing, I’d expect to be paid for those hours.
But I’ve spent I have no idea how many hours on one of my novels. Like, I was working on it off and on for almost 6 years. On some level, walking away from that is like saying, “Hey, I’ll just skip collecting my paycheck, okay?” And it’s not just for me, it’s for my FAMILY. Like, my husband gives me the space to write and encourages me, but I could have been spending time collecting a paycheck for other work to cover the bills.
Also, sometimes it’s not just a matter of publishing or not publishing. It’s publishing in a paying venue or publishing in a well-regarded but unpaid venue. Or seeking publication in a prestige publication vs. the safe and less prestigious one. Or publishing a novel vs. breaking it apart and turning into separate stories (I did that with my first full-length novel–I broke it up into three parts, published two of them as short stories, and hopefully will circle back to publish the “third part” at a later time.)
It’s all so confusing, and frankly I sometimes wish I could turn to a prophet or something and they’d tell me what to do.
Daniella Levy says
Creative writing is, without a doubt, the worst-paying job in the planet. But we do it because it’s a different kind of investment. I don’t think it’s helpful to think of it as unpaid work; that way you’ll always feel resentful and guilty. Instead, I think of it as self-care. I need to write in order to thrive. The time I’m investing in it may one day result in some material profits, but I can’t focus on that because I have so little control over it.
By the way, publishing parts of a novel as a short story doesn’t mean you can’t later publish it as a novel. On the contrary, sometimes the fact that excerpts from it have been published in a respectable publication gives it more credibility.