Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, March 26, 2007

When Should You Give Up?

I have a great deal on my plate at the moment (said dish is heavier than Charles Barkley's plate at Thanksgiving), and I guess I didn't realize I was blogging on a punctual basis until people started e-mailing me this afternoon wondering about my well-being. I'm ok! Heh heh, if the San Francisco Police Department is reading this, I swear I wasn't the one who put out an all points bulletin requesting that all available assistants in the San Francisco area to please report to my office. That was a prank. From some other literary agent.

One of the questions I often get is: how many query rejections one should suffer before enough is enough. Is there a magic number? With apologies to Sean Lindsay at the hilarious blog 101 Reasons to Stop Writing (who would probably answer "immediately"), when should you stop writing queries?

This isn't one I can answer (which is why I chose to blog about it on a busy day). You have to answer it for yourself.

To be sure, there are some finite limitations here. There are only so many reputable agents out there, and that's further limited by the necessity of finding someone who represents your genre. But aside from that, it's up to you -- if you are no longer enjoying the process, if your personal life is suffering, if you have been called out in 101reasonstostopwriting.... maybe it's time to call it quits.

I'm not someone who says "never give up." If the process of trying to find an agent is getting you down, if it's interfering with your happiness, maybe you should shelve your novel to focus on rejoining the world. Maybe put it in a drawer and focus on writing another one that's even better. But one thing I tell people who are getting down by the business side of writing is to stop playing the "if only" game.

The "if only" game goes something like this: "If only" I had an agent I would be happy. Then that inevitably leads to the next step: "if only" I had a publisher I would be happy. "If only" I sold X copies I would be happy. Which leads to "if only" I were a bestseller I would be happy. And so on and so on. Happiness is always just over the horizon.

In my opinion, the only way to be happy in this business is to somehow avoid playing that game and appreciate every step. There's not a bed of roses waiting for you after every hill. Try to focus on enjoying each step as much as possible -- if it's not making you happy, then maybe you should put down the pen respond to my APB requesting immediate faxing assistance at..... Oh wait. That wasn't me, I swear!


original bran fan said...

The first sentence, "I have a great deal on my plate," sounded--at first--as if you had a wonderful publishing deal in the offing. I was ready to congratulate you. Only after I re-read it did I realize that you meant that you had a whole lotta stuff going on and you were really busy.

Anyone else read it wrong at first?

Nathan Bransford said...


Ha! Good eye. I originally meant that I'm busy, but I'm hoping it becomes a double-meaning very soon.

Scott said...

This post brings up another question I've had for a while and never thought to ask anybody.

How long are agents' memories?

Let's say there's this hypothetical writer with initials something like, oh, I dunno, let's say M.E., who, as people probably always do, started trying to market his first book too soon and most likely wrote the worst queries ever. And then let's say he did more work, learned more about the industry and querying, joined a better critique group, and revised like hell for a couple years, or maybe three.

Would requerying some of those early agents be a bad thing, or would he (could be a she...) most likely have been totally forgotten by now?

Nathan Bransford said...


As a general rule I don't re-consider something that I have already passed on. As you can imagine, I receive quite a few queries, and I don'to have the time to reconsider re-queries on top of that. Even if you did revise, the quality of the pre-revised material might not have even been the issue -- it just might have been a topic that didn't strike my fancy.

So I have to say, officially, that I don't reconsider queries.

However, my memory isn't that long, and if you really truly have revised, and you waited at least six months I might not remember (and especially if you mentioned my blog I might be blinded by the personalized query letter that I wouldn't notice). You didn't hear it from me.

Heidi the Hick said...

This is a great post!

I'm still writing because I have to. If I ever stopped for any length of time my brain darn near exploded, which isn't nearly as much fun as it sounds.

If only I could be a normal person and hold down a real job...ha ha!

Jennifer McK said...

I've come to believe (in the great religious epiphany kind of way) that if I give up, it's because I've defeated myself.
I also believe that if I can't improve what I'm doing, I'm wasting my time anyway. I'm not one of those writers that sits there and insists everything I write is gold and toucheth it not!!!!!!
And congrats if the double-meaning comes to pass.

Laurel Amberdine said...

I follow the "Inuaysha Rule" for determining when I can give up. I have to keep querying agents for a single novel for the time it takes to watch one season of Inuyasha.

So, when I get bummed at a few rejections, I watch a couple episodes. Jazzed by some nice requests? Don't watch for a while. I have an end in sight, but it's totally up to me.

Yeah, I know it's silly. :)

I'm near the end of the first season now, and there are seven seasons. That's going to be a lot of novels...

Dave said...

My eye doctor said I'd go blind if
I watched InuYasha.

But seriously, I always have to remind myself that you are "Out West" and consequently not on the same time schedule I am.

After all, when you are quitting work, I'm sitting back stuffed with food and wine and contemplating Wheel of Fortune.


Therese said...

What about, "If only I didn't have to deal with the tedious business of trying to find an agent or publisher, my writing life would be perfect."

Tracy said...

Enjoyed your blog. Recently I stumbled upon the quote, "Try, try and then try something new," as one of the keys to success. I'll check out the 101 Reasons later on when I'm not busy trying something this blogging stuff!

Sean Lindsay said...

Nathan, the correct answer is 37.

The most recent conference of the International Association of Agents And Editors Who Are Sick of the Slushpile (IAAEWASS, never to be pronounced aloud) decreed that the number of queries any one writer is allowed to make is 37. That's altogether, not per story/novel.

It was further decided that no more than two queries could be sent to any one agency or publisher. The 37th is a wildcard.

I'm surprised you didn't already know this, Nathan. Are your dues not paid up?

Christopher Elston said...

Give up?


Okay, I'm not a novel writer yet - I write horror short stories. However, this philosophy is universal in that personally, if I sent out a story and got say, fifteen flat rejections, then I would do one of two things.

Either take a damn good look at the story and commence re-writing and re-working it or put it away and come back to it later, whether it be weeks, months or even years down the track.

This enables my mind to be free to create new works - always raising the bar, to improve my writing (I have heaps of stories in the bottom draw) because I know in months or years to come, I can come back to that same story(s) with more skill under my belt and get the thing published.

So, I believe there are limits there. If you get fifteen rejections, then as a writer, a professional writer alarm bells should ring within you.

Peter R said...

On the one hand I’m appalled that three years of hard labour producing a novel might result in it never seeing the light of day, on the other, why do I want to be published anyway? Sure it’s confirmation I’ve reached a certain skill level – someone thinks others will want to read it, and sure it’s validation that I’ve done good, but it’s not going to make life better, and I can’t see myself giving up the day job, and anyway I do it because it’s fun. I won’t give up until I’ve exhausted all the possibilities, but at the end of the day, for me, getting published is a bonus.

Liz said...

Funny how blogs can imitate life. I just had a conversation with my hubby about this topic. When do you cut bait? When do you give up?

He pulled out the old cliche, "When a door closes, a window opens."

Trite, but true. Take those rejections and use them to find yourself a new window. Maybe it means a new story. Maybe it means a big rewrite. Be willing to change. Be willing to stretch yourself. Be willing to be honest.

It isn't easy.

Len said...

I've created a spreadsheet with 26 agents on it for consideration. Some maintain blogs; some do not. Will I go through all 26? I certainly hope not. Might I? Perhaps, although I suspect that I'll cut a couple more as time goes by. (One lady, in particular, isn't a very good fit for genre. Her loss could be another agent's gain.) Since I stopped somewhere along about the letter "K," it is possible that more will be added at some murky moment in the future. And who knows? Maybe I'll mix it up. Won't go alphabetical. Maybe I'll start with a random letter, like "B."

Roxan said...

Having never been rejected, nor accepted for that matter, I'm not ready to think about giving up.
The day they break down my house, take my computer and smack my hands saying. "No, no bad writer!" I might consider it.

Roxan said...

Of course I'd be greatly surprised if someone broke down my house. LOL

Anonymous said...

I have two answers to that question really.

1. (when taking it to mean myself personally): Never!

2. (when taking it to mean everyone else): Now!

Seriously. See, if all you peoples out there quit querying then when my query finally showed up it would look pretty good. Maybe even decently good.

Really though it depends upon how many times you have rewritten your novel. There is an equation for this: 1/2(x-1)(x+1)-x where x equals the number of revisions. This of course is the simplest equation, but it's a good place to start. For any those interested in finding out more, check out the book "The Math of Writing, Revising and Publishing".

original bran fan said...

37? 37? I dunno. Miss Snark says 100....

brian_ohio said...

If only I had read this most informative Blog some fifteen and a half years ago... I'd be happy.

Dave Wilmot said...

You give up when you stop learning stuff. I learned lots from Mr Bransford's rejection. His profile matched my agent criteria to a "T" and yet I failed to catch his interest. Why? IMO, I have a better MS than a query letter. I will cease and desist after I've gotten past queries, synopsis (not sure how to spell the plural of that)and someone has actually read the project and said "Son, pigs don't fly and this is a pig."

KingM said...

Interesting post. It was thought-provoking enough that I blogged it. My question for a lot of aspiring writers who ask if they should give up is this: how can you give up if you've never started? Three short stories and twenty pages of a memoir amount to a pretty half-assed attempt, yet I know people who have written this much and still rail against the injustice of it all.

Twill said...

The actual complete quote is "When God closes one door, he opens a window and flushes the toilet. It's up to you to figure out what it all means."

Etiquette Bitch said...

nathan-i love this post. realistic and full of sound advice and good insight. i also don't believe in "never give up." that said, i'm still crafting and pitching my NF book, but sometimes a break does one good.

i know authors with book deals - past and currently in the works -- and it's never a bed of roses. it's a lot of hard work, sometimes maddening, sometimes frustrating, eventually rewarding.

Kelle Z. Riley said...

Someone wise (not me) once said:
"You give up when something else becomes more important to you."

That game me the perspective I needed. I'm still writing.

Anonymous said...

This is going to sound like whining of the highest order, but I'm pretty close to stopping and I only started four weeks ago. I'm a journalist with one book already published that got great reviews and lots of press, but middling sales. Then my agent went out of business. A few years later, I wrote another book and needed to find another agent. I've queried about 20 and gotten about 10 requests for material, including fulls. Of the four rejections I've received (the rest just seem to be holding onto the material at their leisure), they're all along the lines of "I really loved your writing and was very intrigued by the concept and I'm probably going to regret this, but I'm passing because I'm so swamped and didn't fall five bajillion trajillion percent in love with it." This is like New York dating - you have everything I say I want, but there might be someone with just a leeeeeetle bit more I want out there, and if I go with you, that will take up time I could be using to maybe find that other thing...." I mean, I don't know how many people you have to query to make someone fall a bajillion percent in love with you. Anyway, just griping I guess, but I'm seriously thinking about throwing it up on Amazon at this rate.

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