This month I officially quit the most successful thing I’ve ever created, and I’m really excited about it.
I started Short Fiction Break after a job interview. I was in a living room with four people answering questions about my work history and personality. The job was for an anti-human trafficking organization. I was excited about joining the leadership team. They had approached me seven months earlier about the job. To prepare for it, I’d started serving in the organization as a volunteer. It all felt perfect. Wendy and I were certain this was the right next step for our lives.
In the middle of the interview, they asked about my writing. I had a feeling my blog might be a problem. I’d been blogging for three years. Mostly I wrote about my personal struggles around working for a church. In the interview, it was pointed out that the organization was funded by churches, and that if I was going to be one of the faces of the organization, sharing my ethical dilemmas with our primary funders wasn’t cool.
I completely understood and I agreed, however, for the first time in my life, I was enjoying writing, so I asked, “How do you feel about my fiction?” At this point, I had just started experimenting with fiction. I’d written nine or ten short stories, and my imagination was coming to life.
The people in the room didn’t see a problem with my new hobby, so that night, after the interview, I shut down the blog I’d been using, and launched a new one devoted to fiction. I called it Short Fiction Break.
Being a student of Seth Godin and knowing this thing would grow faster if several writers shared their tribes to make it happen, I put up a submission page that said, “If you write fiction and you want to do this with me, I’m looking for some regular contributors.”
Great writers from all around the world appeared and started posting their work to the site. I was amazed. A strong leadership team had formed. We re-branded ourselves as an online literary magazine, and the site grew. We began taking guest submission, and the site grew some more. We published an anthology, and the site grew even more. We ran a contest, and the site exploded.
At the same time, my “real” life was hard. After four months with the anti-trafficking organization, I was surprised to hear that, while I was doing good work, my personality was not a “good fit” for the team. It was a dark moment. With my fifth child a month away from entering the world, I had just moved my family into a new house, and I was jobless with no prospects. Thankfully, I only had to look for work for a month before a friend called and offered me a job. During that month, throwing myself into Short Fiction Break saved me from the silence of sleepless, anxiety filled nights.
As the site grew, so did my time commitment to it. At the eight month mark, we were running a new short story every day, had ten regular contributors, and over 500 subscribers. In addition to writing my own stories, I was dealing with tech issues, and submissions, and scheduling problems, and routine maintenance; so I created systems that helped relieve the pressure. We built an editorial board. We set up a Post Calendar. I wrote out my expectations for the Regular Contributors and shared them routinely. Yet still, the small, day-to-day tasks filled more and more of my writing time.
Even though Short Fiction Break thriving, I was frustrated. My laptop was filling with spreadsheets outlining novels I hoped to write “someday.” I found myself pulling out my phone at random moments of the day and recording voice memos about characters or plot twists I wanted to bring to life. But there was never time. After giving hours to my wife, my five kids, and my job, at the end of each day I was being forced to choose. The remaining hours could be spent between discovering what I might be capable of as a writer, or taking care of the beast I’d created.
One night, after spending two hours answering email about Short Fiction Break and reading submissions, I wrote an email to Seth Godin. It was a simple cry for help. “This beautiful monster I’ve created is eating me.”
Although I’ve never met Seth, because he is awesome, he responded. His reply was beautifully simple. “Ah, the Dip. It’s a mystery. But at least you know you need to decide. Good luck.”
I’d read the Dip years ago, but I didn’t remember much, so I went and pulled out my old copy off the shelf and read it through again. That night, everything became clear.
When I originally launched Short Fiction Break, my goal had been to experiment with fiction. Now, sixteen months into the project, things had changed. I had close to forty short stories under my belt. I was in the midst of writing my second novel. Short Fiction Break had accomplished its mission. Fiction was no longer an experiment. It was a safe place I dearly loved.
So I took a step back and reevaluated. Based on the Dip, I started with a new question, “When will I quit this?” I set three personal goals of what I wanted to see from my time investment in Short Fiction Break, and I began to measure my progress.
Short Fiction Break continued to grow. At month 18 we reached the 1000 subscriber mark. The site was growing faster than ever, but because of the goals I’d set, I knew it was time for me to quit.
When the time comes to walk away from something, my ego says, “Well, you’ll have to kill it, because there is no way it can survive without you.” But I’ve heard that voice before, so I knew it was a lie. Short Fiction Break didn’t need me. It had been my privilege to see it born. Knowing this, my question became, “How can my leaving make things better?”
I spent a few nights praying and thinking, “Who could run this thing a thousand times better than I could?” I didn’t just want to close Short Fiction Break down. I wanted to give it to someone who would make it more than I ever could. Only one person came to mind. The next morning, I reached out to a friend and mentor, Joe Bunting, and I asked him to take it over. To my great joy, he agreed.
Over the past few months, I’ve been transitioning ownership of Short Fiction Break over to him. Joe’s team is incredible. Already, they’ve made changes to the site that have taken it to a new level. They’ve shared some of their plans with me, and I’m astounded. When people review the history of the publication, I’m proud that they will say, “It really took off after Jeff stepped down.”
With the site in the hands of a team far more capable than me, I now have time now to explore different types of writing. My first urban-fantasy novel will be released in September. It will launch a series I think has incredible potential. If everything continues as planned, book 2 will be released in December, and book three in June of 2017.
It feels weird to say that in order to grow, I needed to quit the most successful thing I’ve created, but that is where I find myself today – and I have no regrets or doubts, only joy about what is to come.
Side Note: I plan to continue submitting work to Short Fiction Break. It’s an amazing community. If you write short fiction, I recommend you check it out.