Eight Reasons to Quit Working On Your Novel and Start Having a Writing Career

Novelists, it’s time to give it up.

I come into contact with lots of writers’ groups and a dizzying majority of them are focused almost exclusively on people writing book-length fiction, i.e., novels. But most of the would-be writers have two things in common: not only have they never been published, but they often have never finished a novel to the degree that it’s ready to submit to an agent. They hash out their character profiles on WriterFace.com, upload chapters to Scribd and solicit feedback so often that the rest of us are numb.

So as a public service, because I care about writers not wasting their lives, and because I’m sick to death of hearing about ripoffs of Tolkien, Sue Grafton and Twilight (Jesus as a vampire, anyone?), here are my eight reasons to give up on that 800-page historical romance/zombie apocalypse story that you’ve been working on since the Reagan Administration:

  • We’re all sick of hearing about it. Finish the damned thing already or stop talking about it.  We don’t want to read your post about how you rewrote Jake McSlick, gumshoe for hire, for the thirty-fourth time.  The only person for whom the process of writing a novel is interesting is the person writing it.  If you’re Stephen King, sure, we’ll sit and listen to you talk about how you got the idea for Hearts in Atlantis while you were taking a crap (which may be why the final products of both processes were indistinguishable), but you’re not Stephen King.  If your novel isn’t at least close enough to done so we can read it, we don’t care.
  • You’re probably never going to finish it. Let’s be real.  If you have been working on a novel for at least five years and it’s not at least 80% done, you’re not going to finish it. You care more about being able to tell people that you’re “working on your novel” than actually completing it. For plenty of amateur writers, the process of completing a novel—with the endless rewrites and the terror of exposing your work to critique—is unthinkable.  Endless writing, with the implied promise that “someday” you’ll finish, becomes far more preferable.  So if you’re still plugging away, please consider giving it up.
  • It’s not as easy as it looks. Just because you want to write fiction doesn’t mean you have the talent.  That’s a hard, hard thing for some people to accept, and I get it.  I’ve met writers who absolutely hunger with all their heart and soul to be writers, to be published, and to make a living writing.  They dream of it, but that doesn’t make the dream possible.  I wanted to pitch for my hometown Los Angeles Dodgers, but I lacked a vital ingredient: talent.  Wishing doesn’t make it so.  Have you ever been told you have writing talent by someone who doesn’t care about sparing your feelings?  Have you won an award?  Had something published?  Then how do you know that you have what it takes to write good fiction?  Most writers are hacks. Most practitioners of any field are hacks. If you’re having a hard time duplicating the work of your favorite writers, you may simply lack the skill.
  • The odds against getting published are ridiculous. According to R.R. Bowker, about 300,000 books were published by publishing companies large and small in 2012.  About 25% of those, or 75,000, were fiction.  But only about one percent of the manuscripts submitted to literary agents find publishers.  That means about 7.5 million fiction manuscripts submitted.  Does your novel have what it takes to stand out among 7.5 million competitors?  That’s not to say you can’t keep trying, but do you really want to slave for years only to have your manuscript sit in a slush pile?
  • Self-publishing is really hard. Self-publishing itself is easy, especially with Amazon Kindle Books. If it was difficult, there wouldn’t have been two million self-published books in 2012.  But creating a good self-published book and knowing how to sell it?  That’s tough. Self publishing usually winds up costing the author a lot of money and time and accomplishing little.
  • You could be writing other things. When I meet an aspiring professional writer who’s been working on a novel for umpteen years, one of the things I can’t help but think is, “What a waste.  You could have been writing so much else.”  It’s true.  If you can write fiction, you can write lots more and possibly have better luck getting it published, getting it read and making a living with it.  Articles, nonfiction, essays, opinion, scripts, travel writing—there are hundreds of different kinds of writing out there. But if you focus only on cranking out that great novel, fifteen years later you won’t have written a word in any other form, and you’ll have missed a lot of opportunities.  Even if you can’t bear giving up your novel forever, at least devote part of your time to some other forms of writing.
  • There are other ways to be a writer. Many would-be authors want to be writers more than they want to write. And they think that the only way to be a “real” writer is to write long fiction, which is nonsense. But do you even love writing novels?  You’d better love it, because it’s a hell of a lot of work. If you don’t love it, why do it?  If it’s because you want to see yourself as a novelist, screw that.  There are 20 million unpublished novelists out there. What about looking in the mirror and seeing a published journalist or columnist, or a professional marketing copywriter, or a nonfiction ghostwriter?  Being a working, paid, professional writer is much cooler than being a frustrated novelist.
  • Your novel might not be any good. I hate to break it to you, but if your work hasn’t gotten some sort of notice, it might be because it’s just not good. There’s no shame in that; not everyone is a great novelist. We see the great outliers—the Jonathan Franzens and Michael Chabons and Barbara Kingsolvers—and think, “I could do that.”  But talent like that droppeth not as the gentle rain from heaven.  The law of averages alone dictates that you are probably an average fiction writer at best, just as it dictates that despite my hard work, I will never be more than an average blues harmonica player.  If you’re not gifted, why not set your novel aside and hone your craft writing something else, something that will allow you to make a living and write even more, further improving your craft?  If you still think your work is exceptional, then write a chapter or story and submit it to a critique site like The Next Big Writer. Invite criticism, and take it to heart. If people say your work is wonderful, then tell me to shove my opinions and finish your damned novel.  If the world says your work stinks, man up and try another kind of writing.  If you love words and communication, there are many forms that will allow you to reach people, be creative and even change lives.

Just don’t waste your life.  The world has enough unfinished manuscripts.