By far the most common question I get when I’m working with authors is “will this sell?” (Spoiler: this is impossible to answer).
The second most common is this one: “Should I keep going? Should I keep writing?”
I’m always extremely sympathetic when people ask me this because I have been there. I have asked this question too! But it’s extremely dangerous.
Don’t ever cede your dreams to someone else
These are your dreams. You’re never going to get a good answer from someone else about whether you should pursue your dreams. You’re the only one who can answer whether you should keep going or change course.
Even the best-intentioned person in the world can very easily blow you off course by projecting their own hopes and/or insecurities onto your situation. (And we’re not always surrounded by the best-intentioned people.)
You have to be the one to answer this for yourself.
Believe me, I understand the impulses behind this question. Writing is extremely hard, positive validation is ridiculously rare and fleeting, the entire process is rife with heartache and rejection. Of course we all want someone to swoop in and tell us we’re amazing and place our book at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for all of eternity, or, failing that, to accurately tell us it’s not going to happen so we can quit and take up bowling instead.
But both scenarios are impossible.
Whenever you’re tempted to ask this question, which, to be clear, you should never ask, here’s what you should do instead.
Get in tune with what you really need
If you’re ever tempted to ask the question “Should I keep going?”, chances are you’re at a critical juncture in your writing journey.
Maybe you just started out writing and you’re wondering if you’re any good. (The answer to this one is easy: you’re not good. That doesn’t mean you should stop, because you might just not be good yet).
Maybe you got stuck somewhere in the middle. Or you might be out on submission and you’re getting a series of rejections and you’re considering a revision.
It can seem weighty and difficult to answer the big question of whether to keep writing, but it’s not that hard if you get in touch with what you actually need and what’s prompting you to ask the question in the first place.
You’re probably looking for one of only two things:
- You’re looking for encouragement.
- You’re looking for an accurate assessment of your work so you can gauge how much work you still have ahead of you.
That’s it! If you’re feeling discouraged, maybe you need a pick me up. If you’re feeling daunted, maybe you need a gut check.
First ask yourself this question: Do I need encouragement or do I need an objective critique?
Ask someone you trust for the thing you really need
Find someone you trust, whether it’s a paid editor, a critique partner, or someone in your life who you trust to be honest with you.
Then, ask them for the thing you need.
If you need encouragement
Give this person your manuscript and ask them to tell you ONLY what they like about it.
This might feel a little weird to ask for, but it can actually be very beneficial. It will help you feel like you’re not crazy, that your manuscript isn’t a steaming pile of garbage, and you can lean into what’s good about your work to keep making improvements.
I did this for an author friend in the early stages of what went on to become an excellent bestselling series, in case you need proof of concept.
If you are looking for a gut check
Set aside the big question about whether you should keep going for now. Instead: seek accurate feedback.
Once you get the feedback, take a bit of time to absorb it, get a sense of the gap between where the manuscript is right now and where you want it to be, and get a sense of the scope of the work you have ahead of you.
Listen to your instincts
Once you have assembled the feedback you need: listen to yourself.
Take some time with the feedback, get in tune with your instincts, and choose the path that feels right. That might mean keeping going, it might mean putting your manuscript in the drawer, it might well mean taking up bowling.
There are no bad decisions as long as you are the one making the decision. Be brave and honest with yourself. (Though personally, I’d err on the side of “keep going”).
I sometimes joke that the first novel I ever wrote “crashed and burned,” but it’s not actually true. A prominent agent wanted me to revise and resubmit it and he gave me a lot of very good and accurate feedback.
There was just one problem: I didn’t feel up for making the changes. I just didn’t think I was good enough yet, I couldn’t summon the energy, and I had this idea I was kicking around for a novel about a kid trapped on a planet full of substitute teachers. The scope of work ahead was bigger than what I felt I had in me.
So I passed up the opportunity to work with this agent on revisions and I put the manuscript in the drawer. Instead, I went to work on what became the Jacob Wonderbar series.
It felt CRAZY to pass up the chance to work with a prominent agent on the first novel and I felt even crazier still every minute I struggled through writing Jacob Wonderbar.
But it ended up being the right path for me. Jacob Wonderbar was published by Penguin and that first novel wasn’t lost entirely, I recycled the plot for my most recent novel, which is still winding its way through the process.
It’s tempting to ask someone to wave a magic wand over your life and tell you what to do. Resist. Gather the feedback you need and chart your own course.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes (NEW!), my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: The Japanese Bridge by Claude Monet
Lauren B says
Thank you, Nathan. I needed to hear this.
Thank you for this, which is encouraging and practical. I’ve wanted to ask this question, but my insecurities keep me from doing so. Your tips on what to ask for instead are helpful. Thanks for your posts!
(PS–I’ve been reading that using words like “crazy” when we mean ridiculous, unreal, or unbelievable can be harmfully perpetuating stereotypes and stigmas about people with psychological diagnoses. Hope I’m not way off for mentioning this. Thanks!)
Neil Larkins says
I believe you made a good decision, Reina. As well, people use the word “psycho” when they mean those same things you said. This is usually from ignorance. Just like people may not know how hurtful it is when they use the word “spaz” for someone who made a wrong move, or said or did something odd. Ignorance again, or deliberate meanness. In that case they’re usually beyond help.
Thanks, Neil. In becoming more aware of these words, I keep seeing them, and also catch myself sometimes when I could say other words that would be more accurate and not hurtful. I’m thankful for people, like The Radical Copyeditor, who bring attention to these issues.
Neil Larkins says
“Radical Copyeditor.” I’m remembering that one. Thanks.
Wendy Peterson says
Yes, I agree, Nathan, A professional editorial assessment is the only sure-fire way to gauge our progress at that time. Friends and colleagues are terrified of offending, and if they’re not writers, themselves, how can they know if the work has real potential? For example, if the genre is not something they resonate to, their opinions might be swayed by that.
I’ve had the weirdest experiences over the last two years with my work. All my adult life I’ve dabbled in writing and music composition. These were hobbies I’ve always been passionate about. I’ve always been drawn to creative things as, for me, it’s easier to pull ideas out of the air then to sit down and work something out according to strict rules.
Nearly four years ago, I was able to buy into a small retail business in a popular tourist area. People who knew me then thought this was a recipe for disaster. But my creative output had slowed down over the previous years as I’d been looking after my mother, full time. During that time, and afterwards, I’d stopped composing as I thought the music sucked, and each song took ages to finish…if ever. At any rate, no one who heard the music seemed to think much of it. Not even my mother. However, after a year of working in retail, I pulled out the fully orchestrated compositions for a listen at home on a state of the art Sony speaker and was amazed by how good they sounded. I hadn’t thought they sounded that good before…? Although it had been almost several decades since last hearing them.
As the music made me feel so happy, I decided to take some into work to play in the background. A few of these songs I’d bravely sung parts of which, as I’m not a singer, was all I could manage even after multiple recordings. Pitching was always an issue. Seeing as I was for once feeling proud of the music, I let slip that the songs my staff had been hearing were my own compositions done years ago. And, of course, I was curious to know what they thought. Did they enjoy it?
Their reaction was gob-smacking. One girl said suspiciously, ‘You play guitar, you sing, you compose. How come you’re not famous?’
I wasn’t sure what she meant by this. Was it a back-handed compliment? Was she accusing me of being a musical imposter?
The staff only knew me as a business woman, so to them it seemed incongruous I also had creative outlets. To this day, they seem to think I have delusions of grandeur.
So the moral of the story is we can’t trust other people’s opinions. If we’re enjoying what we’re creating, passionate about it, this is its own reward. If we show others we know, they could dampen our enthusiasm with faint praise or buoy our hopes beyond what is currently realistic. Joy in this world can be fleeting, so let’s grab with both hands any pursuit that gladdens our heart and distracts our mind from whatever drama is currently playing out. It doesn’t matter if we become ‘successful’ or not. The joy we receive is the best reward we can have. I believe that Vincent Van Gogh only sold one painting while alive. Today, his work is regarded as almost priceless for the beauty and colour the paintings radiate plus the empathy and compassion of his compositions.
Neil Larkins says
Wonderful story, Wendy. Moving and encouraging. Best of luck to you in all your endeavors…and hopefully one day we will hear your compositions on a bigger stage than your business. That is, if you ever care to publish them. Thanks.
Wendy Peterson says
How kind–thank you, Neil.
Neil Larkins says
Rock solid advice, Nathan. Thanks.
And thank you for what you said about a manuscript that is going nowhere and you’re not up for major revision: Put it in a drawer. I’ve heard the advice to “kill your darlings” and I’ve never been sure that’s a good idea. (You may have said this in the past, but not here.) Look at that manuscript later and the revision it needs might get done because you now have the time, energy and motivation it takes. If not, back it goes in the drawer.
Remember: It’s not tragic if everyone gives up on you, but it’s certainly tragic if you give up on yourself.
Ken Hughes says
There’s a simple reason nobody can tell us if we should keep writing: the question is really “How important is writing to me?” And that’s too personal for anyone else to guess.
What people can help us with is clarifying some other sides of what we have to weigh. Which is where specific questions like yours come in.