NEWS FLASH: Before I get to today's post (and the Author Dreams: Let it Go or No? quiz), if you want to listen to the overview webinar I did with Dan Blank yesterday called Find Readers Now, you can find the link at the bottom of THIS PAGE. You will also find there the downloadable "Ideal Reader Worksheet" we discuss on the webinar.
AND until today at midnight, you get $50 off the series of three webinars Dan I will be doing in the next three weeks for SheWrites. It's $199 and you get nearly 4 hours with TWO experts who have together worked with hundreds of writers to help them connect with readers. There will be case studies, tactics and strategies for finding readers, and lots of time for Q&As. The number of participants is limited so there will be plenty of time for you to ask personalized questions. All webinars are recorded so you don't have to be present to get the benefit. Click here to claim your spot
Is it Time to Quit Writing Your Book?
I talk each week about what you need in order to finish and publish your book — the habits and practices, the mindset, the skills. What I never talk about, and what most people never talk about, is when to make the decision give it up. What if your dream of writing a book is costing you too much? What if instead of putting your head down and continuing to slog away, the best way forward is to quit? To surrender? To let go and put your energy into something else?
This may seem like a sacrilegious question for a book coach to ask, but it’s a question that comes up more often than you might imagine. Some writers, for whatever reason, are simply unable to finish their books. Other writers finish and are unable to land an agent after 30, 40, 50 tries. Or they land an agent and the book doesn’t sell. These situations are always painful, and I sometimes struggle with how to help people through them. Fortunately, I have been taught an enormous amount in the last couple years by my client, Tracey Cleantis, LMFT, author of the just-published book, The Next Happy: Let Go of the Life You Planned and Find a New Way Forward.
Tracey is a psychotherapist who specializes in helping people let go of dreams that are no longer working so they can find a way forward. Those dreams could include a business, a job, a career, a relationship, a marriage, a baby… or a book. Our culture loves to tell people to just do it, to keep on trying, to never give up, and so giving up can often feel pretty horrible. People feel like losers and quitters. They are certain they have failed in some profound way. With deep empathy and surprising humor, Tracey helps people grieve their dreams and move on.
Further down in this post, Tracey and I do a Q&A about writing and quitting, and after THAT, there’s a little quiz you can take to see if your dream of being an author is costing you more than it’s worth, but before we get there, let me tell you about how Tracey’s book came to life. It’s a great story.
The Origin Story
Tracey emailed me one day and said that she was headed to a writer’s conference for health professionals at Harvard. The event was about three weeks away, and she wanted to know if there anything she could do to prepare. I asked her what she had already done, and her answer was nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. She had a vague idea for a book that was burning brightly in her head, but no title, not structure, no pitch, no words on the page — really nothing. I think I laughed. And I said something like, “If you are prepared to do two months’ of work in three weeks, I can help you.” I thought she would say no — but I didn’t know then about Tracey’s superhuman resolve.
She did two month’s of work in three weeks. She literally worked around the clock, completing every assignment and revision I threw her way. She even express-ordered beautiful business cards from Moo.com, because I told her they would make a great impression. The result was that she went off to that conference with a fully fleshed out book idea, a catchy title, a Table of Contents, a well-honed one-minute pitch, and some sweet business cards.
At the conference, Tracey pitched to five agents. Four of them requested materials from her. One of them, Don Fehr from Trident Media, emailed her before she got home to say how interested he was in her idea. (Why was her pitch so good? She knew her point, she knew her audience, and she knew her competition. She knew that there were 1000 books on how to go for your dreams and exactly none on how to give them up.) In their first phone call, Don asked Tracey if she had a book proposal. She lied and said yes and promised to send it along the following week.
You probably know what’s coming next: Tracey did about three month’s work in two weeks as she developed a full proposal, including sample chapters. Long story short, Don signed her, they sold the book three weeks later, and Tracey had the luxury of writing her book knowing that a publisher was waiting for it.
The Next Happy was published last week by Hazeldon (to read an excerpt, clickHERE.) It received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, among other early accolades, and on the day of her book launch party last week, it hit #2 on amazon’s list of Happiness books, and #3 on the Hot New Releases. Here’s a photo of Tracey at her party (she’s the blonde at the computer) watching as the book climbed up the list. She screamed when it got bumped from #3 to #2, I ran in with my camera, and I forgot to turn on the flash — but you get the gist of it. It was a great moment!
As an author and a therapist who specializes in letting go of dreams, Tracey is uniquely qualified to talk about when to know whether it’s time to give up on the dream of writing.
Is it Time to Quit Writing Your Book?
Jennie: The Next Happy includes a scathing critique of the “never, never, never give up culture” — a culture which you explain causes an enormous amount of damage. You reference Lance Armstrong, and call him the poster child of never, never, never give up. You cite the famous Colonel Sanders story (he went to something like 1000 restaurants with his fried chicken recipe before he began his business), which Tony Robbins tells for inspiration, but you use it as a cautionary tale, urging people to consider how much destruction (financial, familial, emotional) the Colonel may have caused while he went about his quest, and reminding your readers that there comes a point where the return on following your dream begins not just to diminish, but to actually cost you, big time.
What strikes me when I think about the subculture of writers and the never never never give up philosophy is that this is a group could well be among the most passionately devoted followers on the planet — right up there with actors and entrepreneurs. We LOVE stories of writers who took ten years to write their book and get it out into the world. We LOVE stories of writers who sent their proposal to 200 agents before they found one to take them on. And writers who drank themselves into oblivion over their art? Well, they often seem to be our patron saints. Can you speak for a moment about why writers might love these stories so much? What is it about the lonely, long-suffering writer who finally made it big that we are so attracted to?
Tracey: We want to believe that even after 1,000 rejection letters and a cease and desist letter from The New Yorker that we too could be the Colonel Sanders of writing, which, by the way, is J.K. Rowling. You know the story? JK was broke, divorced, jobless, depressed and on welfare and wrote Harry Potter and then it was rejected everywhere, until someone at Scholastic picked it up. JK became an overnight success and a billionaire. There are countless other stories of writers whose brilliant work was rejected again and again and again, only to become literary classics — think Agatha Christies and Louis L’amour. There is an entire websitededicated to all these famously rejected literary legends, because there is something terribly romantic about it — working alone, striving for greatness, being rescued in the nick of time by a publishing fairy godmother. It glorifies the creative process, which — let’s face it — is not often so glorious. It can be a long, lonely slog. And while, yes, there are the occasional JKs, there are also untold thousands of writers who went broke, ruined marriages, and lived in squalor all in hopes of being a literary legend. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen to you.
Jennie: But giving up -- I mean, it’s quitting. It’s failure. It’s admitting defeat. Writers might have to battle a belief that their second grade teacher, who told them they couldn’t write, was right. How do you suggest people face that?
Tracey: Quitting is hard, it really is, because giving up on a dream is a kind of death. It is important to realize that there will be a grieving process, and very likely grieves of old may be activated, bringing up other losses and rejections that we may be trying to avenge. It may seem counterintuitive that the best thing you can do for your creative life is to call the time of death on a dream, but it may well be true. That’s really what The Next Happy is all about. We are given all kinds of guidebooks when we are tying to pursue a dream but there are no books for how to let go of what isn’t working. A brilliant reviewer described The Next Happy as “the guidebook to surrender” and I think that’s a perfect description. It gives you a roadmap for letting go, being happy in the now, and putting an end to living in the future.
Jennie: What can a writer expect to feel if they give up on the dream of writing a book?
Tracey: A death of a dream has the same five stages as any other death — Bargaining/Denial/Sadness or Depression/Anger/Acceptance. That being said, how you move through those stages and how you experience grief will be as individual as you are. I also like to warn people to watch out for what I call the Ugly Stepsisters of emotion — shame, guilt, and envy. Sometimes we stick with the dream just to avoid those nasty feelings we know are just waiting in the wings to taunt us. But although they are ugly, those emotions are one you can feel, and then release. They are ones you can survive.
Jennie: One of my favorite parts of your book is the part where you talk about the insensitive things people inadvertently said to you when you were suffering your own grief over a loss — in your case, the loss of the chance to have a child of your own. You help give people a way to process these comments, and, in a perfect world, to respond to them. I can imagine writers would hear things like:
- So whatever happened to your great American novel?
- I always wondered why you thought you could write a great book
- I always wondered why you spent so much time sitting behind your computer
- So you’re going to get a real job now?
What do you suggest people say in response to these kinds of comments?
Tracey: You are a writer, so you get to write up a statement and decide what to say. You don’t need to tell everyone the gory details of the death of the dream. You may not even tell everyone the entire truth. Save that for your circle of trust. To everyone else, just make something up to get them to mind their own business.
Jennie: You are an advocate for knowing WHY we might be so hell-bent on pursuing a certain dream — for understanding the psychological underpinnings of what we long for. Can you explain how a writer might go about thinking about this reality? What might writers be really longing for when they long to write a great book? And what are some of the others ways they can think about getting those things?
Tracey: Okay, so you know how Freud says all nighttime dreams have a meaning? Well, I believe that our daytime dreams, no matter what they are, also have a meaning. And I believe that it is really important to understand what we believe the dream will give us. There is always an association and a fantasy of what will happen if the dream comes true. This is important. Be really and truly and brutally honest with yourself and ask yourself the following: When this book is completed and sold then_________________ will happen and I will feel ___________________? Please, I implore you to use this little writing prompt to find out what it is you really want. Ownership of your story? A right to speak your truth? A sense of control over uncontrollable events? Odds are good that there are many ways to get what you want besides writing a book.
Jennie: In each chapter of The Next Happy, you have a Movie RX section in which you make a movie suggestion to help readers better understand the process of letting go of a dream, grieving it, moving on and getting to their next happy. You prescribe Silver Linings Playbook, Ordinary People… What would you prescribe for writers facing the decision whether to stop writing?
Tracey: If I was to suggest a movie for writers who may have a writing dream that has gone toxic, it would be Wonder Boys. Grady Tripp’s life is in shambles and he is not even close to giving up. He is writing a book and writing a book and writing a book and he is so busy writing a book that he loses three marriages, wears a pink bathrobe, drinks and drugs, has his car repossessed, has dilapidated mental and physical health, and a book that is thousands of pages long and nowhere close to closure. Grady has no idea when to give up on the dream and so fate steps in and forces the time of death. It is as at that moment redemption, that he finds a rebirth and a next happy begins to emerge.
Jennie: How can a writer know when they are on the road to ruin? How can they know when their dream of writing the great American novel or the next self-help hit has “gone toxic”?
Tracey: I will never tell anyone when to give up on a dream, but I do advocate taking an inventory of the dream and evaluating it in a very honest way to decide if it is time to pull the plug. Yes, I am the Dr. Kevorkian of Dreams. That doesn’t mean I am a dream killer; rather, I am a person who has empathy for the individual who dreams the dreams. I don’t want a dream to hurt the dreamer and to cost them more than it is worth. Below is an infographic quiz with a few questions I would ask if I was bringing your book in for a dream inventory. There’s also a link, below, so you can share the quiz with your writing groups or writer friends. No one wants to admit defeat, but it helps to remember that on the other side of defeat, your next happy awaits.