Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

“Quit lit” or “stay lit” — where are you?


I wasn’t going to post today, but when I ran into this item about writing in spite of “lack of success,” I had to pipe up. (I even left a comment on the article…)

Anna North begins:

Writing is scary. It is especially scary now, as advances shrink, publishers fight with Amazon, and the death of the novel is forecast with ever-increasing frequency. It’s a time when it would make a lot of sense to quit — and a time when simply not quitting is becoming its own art form.

You have to admit — and I’ve even dabbled with the idea myself — that quitting makes a hell of a lot of sense. When millions of books are published each year, the odds of one little novel making some kind of splash are humongous. That means, in a practical sense, you’re either writing for a small niche that’s easier to reach or you’re writing mainly for yourself. Somehow the latter just doesn’t feel like enough.

But slogging away for years, or decades in some cases (moi), without recognition has its downsides. Stinkin’ thinkin’ is easy to fall into. Too much drinkin’. Abandoning your standards to write what you think readers want. Taking it out on your dog. Ultimately, coming to doubt your own talent, which is the kiss o’ death for a writer. Sure, we’re all insecure, but we also believe in ourselves or we wouldn’t be able to face that blank white page.

Given all that, you’d think quitting would be easy.

As Russell Rowland, a novelist experiencing hard times professionally, says in the piece, “The desire to write, it seems, is a sickness for which there is no cure. Except writing.”

I met Russell back in 2003 when my novel, Parts Unknown, came out, and his terrific book, In Open Spaces, was on the shelves. We both read on a panel of “Emerging Voices” at the BEA that year. He’s a talented novelist and his work ought to be on awards short-lists, yet his agent dropped him a while back because of poor sales and he can’t seem to get his stuff read by traditional publishers anymore. In Open Spaces was critically acclaimed; the cover has a quote from Ha Jin, National Book Award Winner: “Charged with dramatic tension, a joy to read.” And yet.

North’s piece is a welcome reminder that we are not alone in our writing struggles. In fact, statistically, writers who get to the top are more like lottery winners than anything else. Maybe they make it look easy, but to a man/woman they got some ungodly breaks along the way.

The rest of us? We just have to keep on truckin’. Savor the process. Savor the delight in words and language. And savor the camaraderie with others in the same boat.

As I always say, Disce pati. Learn to endure.


BTW, here’s the article Russell did for The Rumpus, which prompted Anna North to grab a quote. Word has it that because of this piece, an editor is now looking at one of Russell’s manuscripts.


17 comments on ““Quit lit” or “stay lit” — where are you?

  1. ericjbaker
    June 10, 2014

    A writer friend of mine (one I acquired pre-WordPress), said (and I’m pretty sure she was restating a thing said by someone else): Writing a novel with the hope of earning a living is like spending 2 years carving a lottery ticket from a tree trunk.

    I enjoy literary and commercial fiction, so long as it’s well written. I don’t mind writing something I consider commecially viable, either, because I enjoy a good concept as much as anyone, and because I can still do my best to make it work. It’s easy to get discouraged and to want to give up, but you can’t sell the book you didn’t write.

    That’s all I got. Lottery ticket. You have to buy one to win.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 10, 2014

      You got that right. Question is, how many tickets should you buy, and should you mortgage the house to buy ’em?

      • ericjbaker
        June 10, 2014

        You just ask your rich relative to bankroll you. We all have one, don’t we?

  2. sknicholls
    June 10, 2014

    I was pushing myself to write prose that I know would not sell. For me. But truth is, we all want readers. I am writing more genre fiction now. Flanked by masses upon masses of popular and not so popular competition. I am hoping to fall into a reader niche. Not so much for the money as for an audience. I don’t envy those trying to make a living in this right now. It is tough.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 10, 2014

      True, if you go into this expecting to support yourself, you have a rude awakening ahead. It’s a classic labor of love.

  3. francisguenette
    June 10, 2014

    In the words of one of our favourite ex-pat CND artists, Neil Young – I just got lucky, Louie. It’s all a bit of a crap shoot, isn’t it?

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 10, 2014

      Oh yeah. But like Eric says, you gotta play to win.

      When does a smart gambler walk away from the table, though? Hmmmm.

  4. Phillip McCollum
    June 10, 2014

    I like the Robert Heinlein quote – “Certainly the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you; if you don’t bet you can’t win.”

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 10, 2014

      Good advice. And the earlier you recognize the game is rigged, the better!

  5. John W. Howell
    June 10, 2014

    One thing you did not mention. We have each other in this lotto game. (Of course that’s like having friends in a psycho ward)

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 10, 2014

      “And savor the camaraderie with others in the same boat.”

      I thought that covered it, but it’s worth repeating…

  6. Dave
    June 10, 2014

    Nice post, Kevin. Despite the somewhat dreary (ok, very dreary) outlook for the novel and those of us who work so hard at writing them, I found that I wasn’t disheartened by what you had to say. I think it’s because for me, it’s all about a journey of self-discovery and, eventually, a niche audience. And frankly, an audience of a couple would be just fine for me 🙂 Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind being the next big breakout author, but as you and others have noted, it really is like hitting the lottery, which is like getting struck by lightning, and I don’t see that happening any time soon …

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 11, 2014

      Thanks, Dave! You know, one positive thing about all this is that it’s easier to keep expectations realistic. When someone gets a book published traditionally, it’s really tough not to let the imagination run a tad wild and think about two-book deals, six-figure advances, and movie options. Some people actually get those things, but they are the exceptions.

      Understanding that attracting a few readers and making a little money can be very rewarding is a step in the right direction.

  7. 1WriteWay
    June 14, 2014

    This is what keeps me writing (when I find time to write): “Savor the process. Savor the delight in words and language. And savor the camaraderie with others in the same boat.” I’m currently in a battle with myself over what to write: stuff that seems to draw readers but that my heart isn’t really into, or stuff that I really want to write even if only two or three readers like it. Life is so short. I understand why writers may choose to go the commercial path, to up their odds of at least having their books bought if not critically acclaimed (hello, Jennifer Weiner!). But even in my commercial endeavors, I want my writing to stand out, to be the best (much as Eric says in his comment). My act of writing should be an intrinsically valuable experience, an existential joy (albeit often riddled with anxiety and angst). I probably have better odds of winning the lottery than I do of ever seeing my writing traditionally published, much less critically acclaimed. Yet, I don’t play the lottery. I write.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 14, 2014

      It’s true, we don’t have a hell of a lot of time to do this, and since it takes a while to craft a decent novel you have to believe in it. At this point in my evolution, I really need to enjoy the writing. If I’m not all abuzz as I write something, it’s pretty much the kiss o’ death.

      • 1WriteWay
        June 14, 2014

        Buzz is good even if it’s only in your head 😉

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This entry was posted on June 10, 2014 by in Writing and tagged , , , .
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