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Seven Ways to Write Better Stories by Failing

Help! They’ll hate my story. I can hear them now. ‘It’s lovely and so… you!’ Yes, they hate it. 

Even if they say they don’t, can we believe them? At least, the verdict we get from an agent or competition judge will be honest. But honesty is cruel. No wonder new writers shudder when entering a major contest.

Since 2009, many of the 3500+ contestants in the Writers’ Village* fiction award have asked me ‘Please be kind!’ Their terror is real. Why?

If readers reject our story, they stomp on our soul.

Here are seven defences against the terror of rejection.

1. Join the club!

Virtually all authors who have left an enduring legacy were scorned in their debut years. It took Agatha Christie 23 attempts to get her first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles into print. Every publisher in London laughed at William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies.

Even J K Rowling had her new novel The Cuckoo’s Calling turned down by ten publishers before they discovered who had written it.

Tell yourself ‘early rejection is the sign of fame to come’. Logical? No, but often true.

2. Blink away the fairy dust.

Few novels get published today by writers who want to ‘express themselves’ or ‘write their lives’. If you set out to write solely for yourself you will write garbage. Write what the market wants then you can be as individual, within those constraints, as you wish.

Salman Rushdie didn’t start by writing Literature. He honed his skills as a copywriter for the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather. Only then was he qualified to embark on Midnight’s Children, which won the 1981 Booker Prize.

Be realistic about what publishers today will publish.

3. Welcome rejection as a free lesson.

A failed story is a great story if it teaches us something about our craft. If our writing hasn’t succeeded yet, it’s because we haven’t failed enough. What’s more, early success is dangerous. Next time, our novel might not earn out its advance. And our confidence collapses.

But if we have lived with failure for seven years, we sigh. We carry on. It goes with the territory.

4. Know the odds - and play the game regardless.

Can pessimism be a positive emotion? Yes, if it encourages us to persist against the odds. And the odds of a new writer being accepted by a reputable agent are around one in 2500, or so a top agent Luigi Bonomi once told me.

Accept the odds and soldier on.

5. Start with low-risk projects.

Don’t embark on a novel from day one. Chances are, you won’t finish it. Learn your craft with short stories. That’s how Joyce and Hemingway did it. Enter them systematically in short fiction contests. In each one, try out a new technique.

Soon you’ll get a feel for what judges look for - and agents too. Every submission teaches you a new craft skill.

6. Be content with small successes en route to stardom.

When you do embark upon that novel, agents will be genuinely impressed if you’ve won a dozen major awards. Your first paragraph might actually get read. But if a story fails to impress a contest judge, improve and submit it elsewhere. Eventually it will win, because every submission has refined your skills.

7. Keep yourself motivated by reading the latest best sellers.

Stephen King once gave this advice to newbie writers: ‘Read the latest best seller. Then ask yourself “How come this garbage was even published?”’ With some notable exceptions, popular novels are not distinguished by literary talent. Only by the persistence of their authors.

Those authors succeeded because they learned early on, that Failure is a Good Thing. But persistence is better.

(*Archived link - contest, enrollments, and downloads are no longer available.)

Dr John Yeoman passed away in 2016. He held a PhD in Creative Writing, judged the Writers’ Village story competition and was a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. Prior to getting his doctorate degree, he spent 40 years as a commercial author and chairman of a major PR company. His Writers’ Village short story contest drew 1500 on-line entries each year from all over the world. Some of his blog posts are archived here, (however the writing class enrollment and downloads are no longer available).


  1. This is an excellent discussion of failure, success, and the art of persistence. Learning from failure involves setting ego aside and embracing the lesson. Success in some degree often follows application of lessons learned. Persistence develops, shapes, and hones perseverance. Oh...and don't quit your day job quite yet.

    Love this post, John. It's the gentle kick in the backside that so many of us need. :-)

  2. Thanks, Linda. I often wonder why new authors complain that they're getting rejection slips, though they've only been working at their craft for a few months. In the days of the medieval craft guilds an apprentice was expected to take seven years to learn their craft. Why should creative writing be different? Seven years? It J K Rowling ten years... We just need to hang in there!

  3. Excellent post, John. Reacting to disappointment, or failure, Kristen Lamb said, "Suck it up, Buttercup." She was saying that to people who whine about all the negatives in the writing game. Failure doesn't define us. What we do with failure does. Linda was so right is saying we should set our ego aside and embrace the lesson that comes from a failed attempt at something. And above all, don't wallow in the disappointment.

  4. Those who succeed are primarily those who are not afraid to fail. Fear paralyzes. I always ask myself, "What is the worst that can happen?" and "Can I live with it if it does?" The worst thing that can happen in writing is that no one will read it. If you enjoyed the time writing it and learning from the process, then I see no downside. :)

  5. For some reason, people assume writing is easy--after all, we all learned to read and write in school. I find I can lump books I'm reading into 2 main categories. The ones, as you said, that make you say, "If this guy can get published, so can I" and then there's the other kind--the ones that say, "Dang it all--I'll never be able to write like that." Sometimes it's better to stick to the "bad" books because there's more encouragement there.

    A now best-selling author, who had just sold her first book when I met here, advised finding the bright side in those rejection letters--if they come back with a generic, "Dear Author" she'd say, "Hey! They called me an author! How great!"

    (I will say, when we moved, I didn't pack up my thick stack of rejection letters, though.)

    Terry's Place

  6. I love #3. Rejection is a free lesson. Such a powerful truth, if emotions can be held in check enough to learn from it.

  7. The very first story I ever wrote was immediately published in a very reputable American journal. from the first word on-screen to holding the published book in my hand took about 5 months. It was not a good beginning... my expectations were raised to a ridiculous level and I spebt the following year submitting to other journals that were way out of my league. Early success can actually hamper one's learning, just as John says above.

  8. And of course IF your rejection letter says they like your writing, that's a plus.
    If they invite further submissions, that's....umpteen pluses!

  9. Failure for me means: I have not brought out the best in me, it means I can go futher and do better. Because if I succed easily why must I work again. Failure mean I have not put out the best of myself. Success at the first instance is dangerous. It can make one lazy and take things too simple and if you fails at this point , it can be catastrophic because you never thought you can. Nevertheless, perfaction is the result of all corrected mistakes of graet inventors of all time. Failure becomes failure when one fails to correct a failed mistake.

  10. I don't mind the rejection, I just want some construction criticism instead of "it doesn't fit our needs at this time."

  11. I don't mind the rejections, if I can learn from them. However, "These aren't quite the right fit for us, but thanks for letting me have a look!" really doesn't help me much to learn what I need to change.

  12. Dr. John, you wrote, "At least, the verdict we get from an agent or competition judge will be honest."

    Pardon us, but when do we ever hear from an agent or competition judge?

    I never have. No matter how many times I've entered, and sent in my money, that's the last time I ever hear from them, until their next "pay us" contest.

    An agent reply? Please, you've got to be kidding. A rubber stamp, "not accepting submissions" is their usual reply.

    Sorry, but I don't agree that wasting enough money to buy a new car on postage and contest entry fees is the way to go. Buy a lotto ticket. You'll at least have honest feedback.
    You lost.

    Dan Frost


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