Seven Ways to Write Better Stories by Failing
a guest post by John Yeoman
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 stamp 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.
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 learnt, early on, that Failure is a Good Thing. But persistence is better.
Dr. John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that sell in his free 14-part course at: