On Giving Up Writing

This post comes from our guest blogger Paddy Kelly. Paddy is Irish but lives in Sweden as a consequence, he says, of a “romantic accident”. He’s had stories, poems and articles published all over, in places ranging from The Irish Times to Analog Science FictionVisit Paddy’s WordPress blog, follow him on LinkedIn and visit his Amazon store page.

Paddy Kelly

Writing has to be among the more stupid, self-damaging and downright psychopathic of human activities. Top five, at least. Because being a writer is a practically guaranteed (and very long) path to complete failure.

Occasionally, you hear about now-famous writers and how long it took them to get published. “She sent it to eight publishers,” the article or TV slot will inform you, placing emphasis on the “eight” as if this were an inordinately large number, close to being unbelievable. And while that might elicit the desired reaction from non-writers – Eight? Wow, that’s so many! – we unhappy few who’ve been there and done that will sadly shake our heads. Eight refusals? Only eight? Then she got off lightly. Try thirty. Or fifty. I have an unaccepted piece I’ve sent to so many people that some of the earliest receivers aren’t in the business any more, and a few are, in fact, dead. Refusing me from beyond the grave.

There is a widespread impression – probably caused by movies (and therefore by writers – thanks, assholes) – that success in writing is inevitable, that the hardest part is getting the thing written, and from then on the sailing is plain. Sure, it might take you some time to find the person who’ll love your work and see your vision and champion every line from your tippy-tappy fingers, but once you have them, you’re in. The door is open. Your genius, seen.

So excuse me while I curl up on the floor and laugh, but mostly sob. 

Attempting to be a writer is madness. I’ve been trying since the age of fifteen, when I became heavily addicted to fantasy gamebooks and decided to make my own. How hard, after all, could it be? So I wrote one. It was pretty bad. And I sent it off – the original pen-on-paper copy – only to get it back a couple of months later with a kind, handwritten refusal. Which was, I was to later discover, unusual. Not only did publishers not send material back, they usually didn’t bother with a handwritten note, or a typed note, or any kind of response at all.

I own international reply coupons. Do you even know what they are? Do you? Wait there. Ruffles in drawer, dumps paper rectangles on table. Here. See them? In the days before publishers accepted emails, you would pop one of these into your printed-out paper submission, so the person on the other end could use it to buy a stamp to put on your refusal letter, the envelope of which you also had to provide. A way, basically, to pay for your own humiliation.

Paddy Kelly's stamps and an International Reply Coupon
Paddy’s stamps and an international reply coupon

There were other pitfalls, so many. I often printed out material to send to US magazines and publishers. Once I sent a whole book, printed out in double-spaced A4, costing over thirty dollars to post. Only years later did I discover that America didn’t even use A4, but its own wacko standard paper sizes. So A4 submissions, not being of the correct size to be neatly filed in the shelves and folders of an US office, were generally binned unread. 

Okay, but I was learning. I just had to work at it, take the setbacks on the chin, become a better writer. I’d get there, right? Others had, so could I!

So, over the decades, I’ve done all these things. I’ve been to the conferences, the workshops, the writing circles. I’ve mercilessly expunged my adverbs. I’ve shown and not told. I’ve given characters a distinctive voice, a clear personality, a thing they want and a thing they need. I’ve killed my darlings. I’ve murdered those darlings, mowed them down and spread their corpses on fields for the crows to pick at. I’ve nuked those motherfucking darlings from orbit. 

And did it work? Unfortunately, kind of. You see, the worst of all things happened – I scored some minor success. A story here, an article there, a poem in that other place. Just enough to keep me suffering and on the hook. Still, that’s good, I hear you say. Some success, some money, not so bad, right? 

Money? MONEY? Hahahahahahaha. No. In this delightful business, you’re supposed to count yourself lucky if they take your stuff for free. Your exposure, my dear, is in the mail. So much exposure! Just look at all the exposure in my bank account. I mean, the exchange rate is not great right now (one dollop of exposure = 0.0000 dollars) but hey, it might swing, right?

Once I did get actual payment, from a prestigious American magazine who liked and bought my story. The excitement! Then they sent me a check – a CHECK – as if that were a totally normal thing to send internationally. The check was for forty dollars. And do you know how much it costs to cash a US check in a bank in Sweden, where I live? Do you? Well, let me tell you. It costs forty dollars. 

Paddy Kelly's dollar cheque payment
One of Paddy’s dollar cheque payments

So I pinned the check, uncashed, to my wall. And then that story was picked up again, in a magazine that did reprints, a magazine owned by the same publisher, who sent me a further forty-dollar check. I made a space beside the first uncashed payment, and up on the wall of despair it went.

I gave up writing for a bit, but then drifted back in. Always, when I’ve moved away from it, some carrot is dangled to make me think there’s a point. I happened to meet a lady from a large audio book publisher and sent her my self-published novel. “I love it!” she said. I exploded with joy. Surely, things would take off from there! That’s what the movies had told me (thanks again, movie-writing assholes). But no. Liking a writer’s book is one thing, but seeing a space for it in a publishing lineup, and believing it can be successfully marketed there, that’s something else entirely. So nothing happened.

But then, thanks to that rekindled spark of hope, and with fresh ideas swirling in my dumb head, I started another novel. And writing novels is lunacy. It takes bloody ages, a year, a dozen drafts, and even when it’s done and polished, you still have to write a query letter. “So what,” you might ask. It’s just a letter. Allow me to laugh hysterically, and grab a drink. Then another. Okay. Listen up:

Writers without agents fret more about writing the query letter than about the actual book. They spend years – years – and pay good money just to learn how to scribble a half-page greeting to an agent which will entice that agent to keep reading past the first line. It’s basically one step away from learning how to best assemble a burnt offering for a very picky and easily bored god.

It’s madness. So I’ve stopped. I don’t go to workshops anymore to hear the same advice I’ve heard a million times. I no longer buy book after book of writing advice just to let them gather dust on my shelves. Because the longer you’re in this game, the more you start to see what the rules really are. AND WHAT ARE THEY? I hear you beg. Well my friend (cracks knuckles) they are the following:

1) Write something that will be easy to market.

2) Be lucky.

That’s it. It also helps if the thing is competently written. But less than you’d think. Just bash out a crime thriller with a few nice flourishes, and you’re halfway there. Do not under any circumstances write something hard to categorize, or too weird. Not unless you’re Jeanette Winterson or James Bloody Joyce. Are you Jeanette Winterson or James Bloody Joyce? No? Then don’t bother.

So have I given up writing? Yes. Finally, I have. My desire to write is prone on the floor, blood pooling around its head, a bloodied hardback copy of Bird by Bird lying beside it. My family thinks I can’t give it up, that I’m too invested. Obsessed, even. Well, watch me. You and me, writing – we’re done. Time to empty the drawers, toss the notebooks, unstick the post-its. The game’s over, and the other side won. Now I can get on with my life. Do other things. At long last.

Although …hmm. A writer murdered by a writing advice book, now that is a good premise for a novel. Perhaps her writing circle is involved. Or her long-suffering husband or slippery agent. Maybe she has a great and secret unpublished manuscript in a drawer – no, wait! She inherited the manuscript from a dead uncle who’s a famous writer, yes, that’s it, and it turns out that…

Book shelf showing the spines of various of Paddy Kelly's writing advice books.
Paddy’s writing advice book shelf

If you enjoyed Paddy’s post, you may also like Michael’s I Wrote a Book, Does That Make Me Cool? Or maybe Jos’s post, Why Start Writing?

5 Comments

  1. What a brilliant post! It made me laugh out loud with so many relatable experiences.

  2. Like Gail, I laughed out loud – (not easy when you are suffering an extreme allergic reaction which has your nose running like an overworked sewer and sneezing ten times a second). But my cynical other half said how lucky Paddy was only to be asked $40 to cash a $40 cheque. He sent a cheque to pay a Canadian software producer once long ago, for the equivalent of 25 Canadian dollars, but the producer sent it back with apologies that it was going to cost him 30 C$ to cash it. So Mark opened a dollar account and sent a new cheque for $25 dollars – but the Canadian bank wanted to charge $C30 to cash that too!
    He did solve it, though, and Paddy might ask the publishers to try this. Write and explain that it would cost the same to cash the cheque as it’s value. Mark took the $25 in cash from the bank and put it in an envelope and sent it to him!

    • Thank you! Unfortunately that check has passed its use-by date. It does look very nice on my wall, though!

  3. I fear, Paddy, that this malady may be genetic, and we’re living proof that it hasn’t skipped a generation. But what’s really scary is this: I’ve never attended a workshop, but I’m about to give my third.
    Beir búa, a chara.
    Uncle Neil.

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