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The Failed Novelist (And Why ‘Giving In’ Is Not The Same as ‘Giving Up’)

Editor’s note: The following piece is an impassioned response to a recent controversial article. Please be aware that it contains one or two instances of ‘colourful’ language!

Giving in isn’t giving up.

Everyone has been there – everyone has experienced it. That frozen moment, that heartbeat, standing on a knife-edge; step off and return to the safety you knew before, or step forward and risk cutting yourself again in pursuit of reaching ‘the point’.

Shakespeare put it more eloquently than I – heck, he put it more eloquently than most writers (unless you’re Mark Lawrence!) when he wrote the words to be or not to be’. Sure, I’m force-fitting his words to my own purposes here, but no less so than the weather forecaster saying that the ‘light-shower’ was the rain they predicted, nor the doomsayers of their respective faiths decreeing the end is nigh as the signs have come to pass (2016, I’m looking at you, buddy).

Two articles have recently caught my attention. One, a Guardian piece titled What I’m really thinking: the failed novelist, the other a blog-post by an aspiring author (and I emphasise the word aspiring for its heartening criticality) quite simply titled Not the Easiest Post to Write. Sure, both sound a little gloomy, but they are literally, and figuratively, WORLDS APART. Ultimately, they boil down to the one thing in life that EVERYTHING ultimately boils down to.

CHOICE.

And what comes with choice?

DOUBT.

With great choice, comes great doubt. (Take that Uncle Ben, you parboiled prophet. Who’s mother-f’n-spidey-senses are tingling, now?)

Will you make the right choice?

What if…?

But…?

Both articles recount the efforts of would-be novelists reflecting on their pursuit of ‘one day’ (more on this later) publishing a . . . well, a novel, as that’s what novelists do (for the most part). But this is where the similarities end.

In ‘The Failed Novelist’, we are introduced to Anonymous, who has worked and become emotionally-invested in attempting to publish a novel. They achieved far more than many aspiring authors in that they a) secured an agent, and b) said agent submitted them to publishers for consideration. The first novel was rejected, and despite a second novel being their self-proclaimed ‘masterpiece’, it too (in their own words) ‘bombed’. At this point, Anonymous gave in (the exact words were ‘gave up’, but I’ll talk about that in a moment), to save their own sanity. This was their choice.

The Choice by AjnatayaWhich brings me to the second article, Not the Easiest Post to Write’. This time we recount the tale of Sadir S Samir, who after writing a big, fat 150,000 word EPIC, has decided to put that novel away. Why? Following a round of test-reading and the work of a freelance editor, the verdict was in: it just wasn’t good enough. But rather than give up, he gave in to that novel, and moved on. He’s already 10,000 words into his second outing. And, again, why? Because this was his choice.

Everyone has a choice. Do I hit snooze or get up, now? Do I have toast or fruit for breakfast? Do I have breakfast at all and instead skip straight to Tequila (Arriba, arriba! Ándale, ándale!)? These choices require that you give in to something, but not that you give up. If you don’t hit snooze today, you can catch an extra 10 minutes tomorrow, then wash down the fruit you skipped out on yesterday with the rest of the Tequila (I mean, come on – you’d be mad NOT to choose Tequila, and I’ve made it easy for you by offering fruit (LEMON); all you need is the salt of your tears to finish the equation, har-de-harh-harh).

Giving in is different to giving up. I wholeheartedly believe that Anonymous’ article is a symptom of something much larger; and I am in no way disagreeing with their choice to give in, but I do disagree with the choice of wording in the article which states they gave up to save their sanity. No-one should ever give up, on anything. Period.

Also, and I’d like to caveat now, that there’s a reasonable chance that the ‘The Failed Novelist’ is clickbait. Well, CONSIDER ME BAITED!

Do not go gentle into that good night, rage against the dying of the light – blah, blah, blah. It doesn’t have to be about profound prose, volcanic fury, or pitch black ultimatums. It’s ok to have a tantrum about faltering dimmer switches, because so what, you stub your toe when it gets a little gloomy out there? Or worse, you’re on your metaphorical knife-edge and you can’t see where to step next to reach the ‘point’ (and there is a point to this article and I’ll stick you with it in a moment).

Part of me realises that I am ranting about semantics, and the mere choice of words. Giving in vs giving up. But we’re talking about writing here. Writing words. So I want to make my point clear. YOU HAVE A CHOICE. Write, or don’t. But don’t give up because of a silly little thing called doubt.

Give in to doubt if you have to – because sometimes it’s trying to tell you something – but always move on. And, if you have NEVER published before, don’t write to publish. You DO NOT KNOW publishing yet – yes, you’ve read the books, the blogs, the bloomin’ yearbook, but not only do you not know publishing yet, but PUBLISHING DOES NOT KNOW YOU. So instead, write what you want to write. Write what you enjoy – because if anyone is going to enjoy reading something, they’re going to enjoy reading something that someone else enjoyed writing. They’re not going to swear servitude at the altar of a writer who bled their way, step-by-step, along a sacrificial knife of their own miserable making.

And, for argument’s sake, let’s remove emotion from this. Straight to business, no pulling punches, heavy-hit after heavy-hit (go on Westwood, saaaan). No more ‘write what makes you happy’ as there’d be shit-all plot, and the biggest conflict in your manuscript would indeed be ‘toast or fucking fruit for breakfast’, and ‘oh shit you drank all the tequila and there’s nothing left but salt from your tears and dried lemons’. If you’re doubting, do better. JUST DO IT! (Swoosh). It takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something – or so it’s said. DO IT! DO IT! DO IT!

It’s not about standing on a knife-edge, nor is it about putting that damned thing away before you hurt yourself.

It’s about learning how to wield that knife; risking drawing blood in the process, picking-up scars that sometimes no-one else can see, and one day – maybe not today, not tomorrow, or maybe not at all – maybe one day you might have the chance to plunge that blade home into the heart of the one thing holding you back from achieving your dreams (here it comes)…

DOUBT.

Rip its fucking throat out.

Your Choice is your Way by Osokin

Title image by Ajnataya.

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5 Comments

  1. Now that is an ‘in your face’ post. Excellent – I need to rip the throat out of the doubt that constantly rides my shoulders. At the moment all I can do is shrug it off a bit every now and then so I can breathe, then back it comes. I’d like to imagine grabbing that knife edge I walk and turning it on my doubt and gutting it…maybe one day. Meanwhile, I’ll plod on along that razor-line for a while more

    • I know the feeling! Sometimes it’s just nice to read something that puts a positive spin on something. Words that fire you up, instead of dragging you down deeper into Self-Pity Bog.

  2. As much as I admire the rousing call to arms…I completely recognise Anonymous’s “giving up to save my sanity” choice. Life doesn’t stop and wait while you “DO IT”, trying to achieve something that thousands of others are doing, and where even good work doesn’t get published or attract sales, and even “successful” authors don’t make enough to quit their day jobs. Sometimes you can’t afford to continue to fool around on your dreams when it’s not going to get you anywhere even if you do make it. Some of us have only so much blood for the knife to take…

  3. I completely agree with your sentiment in here — and your post is very nicely written! Inspiring even 🙂 I think everyone who attempts writing ANYTHING goes through a period of realizing their pet project for the last xx years isn’t the masterpiece they dreamed it would be. I know I’ve “reshelved” several of my own projects over time — partially because I’ll admit that I’m a little chicken, but mostly because I have matured so much as a writer that I no longer feel a sense of ownership over those projects in the way that I used to. And I think that is natural. The first time I decided to move on and walk away from a WIP I felt this sense of giving up, when really I was just freeing up capacity (both in time and brain-power) to work on bigger and better things. Thanks for writing this! 😀

  4. Wastrel says:

    Respectfully, ff you’re going to make it about, as you say, semantics, you should probably explain what difference in meaning you’re talking about. You think people should say “give in”, rather than “give up”? OK, but WHY? What difference in meaning are you imbuing that choice of a preposition with – and are you really confident that that’s a difference that’s equally applicable in every dialect and register?

    To me, the difference betwen “giving in” and “giving up” is that you give in TO something, but you give up something itself (or ON something). So you might give up alcohol, or give up on a friend, but you would give IN to pressure to stop drinking. In the case of someone who stops trying to be a writer, they are giving UP (on) their ambition or plan to be a writer.

    In a way, ‘give up’ seems much more positive. After all, when you give up on something, it’s at least your own choice – whereas giving in is putting someone else in charge. Giving in to advice, giving in to demands, giving in to fate, the way a roof gives in to snow, or glass gives in to the blow of a brick… It’s all very… resigned. Very broken – you give in when you can’t hold up. Whereas you can give up of your own volition. Sometimes giving up is good, even. People give up unhealthy things for Lent. People ought to give up practices that aren’t good for them – I’m always trying to give up bad habits. And if you give up, you’re still in charge, you’ve just decided a certain fight isn’t worth it – but because you gave up while you could, before you had to give in, you can take it up again later.

    Give up, sure – give all sorts of things up. Better than giving in. Give up because of doubt? Great idea! Giving up because of doubt is what doubt is for – it’s why our species has survived. Humanity is, we might say, the species defined above all else by giving up. It’s why we have brains as big as we do. The less intellectual animals, when they know what they want, they keep on trying to get it – again and again and again, even if what they’re trying is impossible. We humans have to good sense to give up. Giving up on a tactic is what lets us think of a better one. Giving up on a goal is what lets us discover a superior alternative. We have clothes because we gave up trying to withstand the cold by ourselves; we farm, because our hunters and gatherers gave up on finding enough food in the wild. We went to the moon on a rocket, because when we saw that getting there by magic wasn’t working we gave up; chemistry is what happens when the alchemists give up. Our wars end because eventually we all give up – diplomacy exists to let us all give up when nobody is willing to give in, and peace exists because the generals give up.

    Animals don’t give up – but they often give in. Break a wild horse and it will give in and be tame. Perhaps sometimes people have to give in too – it’s useful if you don’t want to be fired – but it doesn’t seem something to aspire to. Better give up and be resourceful than give in and be tame. Whether that’s a resourcefulness of finding a new way to do something, or a resourcefulness of finding something new to do – a new way to write, or a new way to get published, or a new way to be happy without being a novelist. Giving in is what the shadows do, when they run and hide in terror from the light; giving up is what the sun does when she decides she needs to rest for the night, but carefully sets her alarm clock.

    Anyway, you’re the word guy, obviously, being a writer. But it just seems strange to me to get so angry and violent-worded over a difference of one preposition, and yet not to explain what you think that difference is exactly. After all, if you’re going to say “you shouldn’t have said this, you should have said that”, it would be more persuasive if it came with some description of how this and that differ – and not just in your own instincts, but for readers as a whole. Writing, after all, only exists in the presence of an audience (even if the only audience is the writer themselves), and words mean what they mean by collective consent and by common practice. Dictionaries, after all, say that, in the intransitive, both expressions mean “admit defeat”, with “give in” also meaning “collapse, fall” and “droop the head” (which to my mind doesn’t make it sound any more positive!). Whereas transitively “give up” means “cease” or “relinquish”, which are much more agentive than collapsing or drooping. So if you think there’s a really important difference here that the dictionaries don’t depict (which is certainly possible, of course), and that the writer of the article in question doesn’t understand, it would be great if you explained what it was, and why we and the anonymous writer of the article should accept your version of the difference rather than any other.

    [I must also confess I don’t really follow your sanguine metaphors toward the end there. I’m not sure how to turn “just do it” into a practical plan of advice for someone who may be struggling to feed their family, for instance. After all, when something inherently requires the assistance of others, you pretty much by definition CAN’T “just do it” yourself. Whether it’s in bold, or in italics, or even written in scarlet. And doubt, I hope, can survive your attack, since nothing could be more valuable for a writer, I’d have thought. A writer who cannot find an audience desperately needs to doubt – without doubt, there can be no retreat, and without retreat there can be no redeployment. If my writing isn’t working, it’s no good not doubting it – if I don’t doubt myself today, I’ll never be better tomorrow. And even for a succesful writer – their success almost always owes more to luck than they would like to imagine, and their own prodigous artistry is almost always less masterful than they will be tempted to believe. Doubt is what makes the succesful writer worry about repeating themselves; doubt is what fills them with the fear that their success might go away at any time, that keeps them honing their skills against the moment that the fickleness of crowds, of fortune, or of publishing executives ceases to smile on them. Because of doubt, we give up. Because we give up, we can move on. Because we move on, we progress. Doubt can, of course, get out of hand – fear can become paranoia. Too much doubt can cause us to give up on something that actually is working. So keep doubt in hand. But always keep doubt alive – because doubt is what keeps you alive (both in literature and, of course, in life).
    But again, I’m probably just missing something here.]

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