My failure

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  • This topic has 30 replies, 13 voices, and was last updated 3 years ago by Bella.
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    Alan Rain

    Yes, it’s best to confront your failures. You can learn from them.

    My significant failure this year has been to enter 4 novel award comps, and not get anywhere at all. Not even one Long list. The first was disappointing, then the others predictable.

    At one of my agent 1-to-1s at York, I was told my opening lacked atmosphere, and maybe that also is key (voice + atmosphere). I’ve since swapped the opening chapter.

    So, what I’ve learned is that you need to ensure you have both the tangible and the intangible.


    My significant failure this year has been to have written nothing.

    I am not sure that there is much I can learn from that failure, but I have discovered that the desire to write is not one of the flash-in-the pan obsessions to which I am prone. The desire is still there, and I have valid reasons for the mojo loss.

    I am hitting the half-century next week (yikes) and hubby has treated me to a shiny new computer. So, when the man has come to transfer all my guff from the old one my keyboard will be smokin’.

    Good thread topic, Alan. Shame about the comps, but these things are subjective so not getting anywhere does not mean that the novel is no good. At least you had the gumption to enter.

    Philippa East

    @alanr, commiseration on the “failures”, but it’s never a failure to put your work out there and to try. Glad you got some useful feedback at your one–to-one and you’ve found a way to implement it

    I am excited about the new computer. I do agree that we remain writers even when not physically writing. It’s nice that you can see that your passion remains, even when things get in the way.

    My most recent failure was submitting my first ever piece of flash fiction to a mag called Ellipsis Zine. It didn’t get anywhere. C’est la vie.


    Definitely not failure if you’ve tried some comps – you had to write the bloomin’ entry first! And from experience, competitions can be a matter of luck as well as great writing – does the judge like your particular genre? Your style? I know from peer-judging comps on the cloud, my own preference for reading material comes through in the kind of thing I think is ‘better’ than anything else, even though the entries are still written to very high standards.

    My ‘failure’ is to let life get in the way too much recently and not put writing higher up my list of priorities so that I get my current WIP first draft complete by Xmas. This year, not next.

    Alan Rain

    @Bellam @PhilippaEast @Squidge Thanks for your kind words, but it’s difficult for a self-driven person not to be harsh with himself.

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 1 month ago by Alan Rain.

    Oh goodness, yes – we are our own worst critics!!

    On the cloud, we often talked about ‘failure’ and ‘success’ and how differently people perceived the definitions of them. So I completely understand that you view not being placed as failure – it was one of a whole range of responses we used to get.

    Me – I enter very few comps because I hated the huge low after not being placed. It worked against me and put me off rather than making me try harder. And yet, when I have a reader tell me they love my novels (particularly when it’s the children I write for), I am driven to continue and make my writing even better.

    There’s no right or wrong, as long as we can pick ourselves up from our ‘failures’ and get more words on the page!


    A failure of mine is to take each failure to heart while not believing that successes are real or worthy


    I’m rather good at that too. Though how would I Know? In concrete terms I haven’t actually had any writing successes.


    Oh, failure is hard! And so unavoidable. It’s a bit like the ‘slushpile’ term though isn’t it? Perhaps more negative than it needs to be for some of the things we are talking about. Things like not getting short listed in major comps, or not getting a story into a popular journal … are they really failure, or are they a lack of success? Maybe it’s semantics, but I like to tell myself there’s a grey area between those two, especially when we’ve no idea how close we were to that short list, or how another judge/editor with different tastes might have decided differently. What’s that quote – you haven’t failed until you stop trying.

    That said, I subbed a short story I was really quite proud of to 3 or 4 journals this year with no success, and am feeling thoroughly dispirited by the whole thing. Other stories of mine I didn’t think were as strong have been published, so am I subbing this one to the wrong journals, or is the story just not as good as I thought it was…Gah.


    The not-getting-shortlisted thing is tricky. I had one story that was shortlisted in a major competition. I worked on it a bit more and submitted it to a few other places…and was met with silence.

    Alan Rain

    @Raine Your view of semantics (and that of others) is a moot point. Is failure not trying, or not winning? I think I may be too inclined towards not winning, and some re-education is necessary.
    When considering success and failure, I think it’s important not to forget why writers do write. Surely, all the various reasons can be summed-up as enjoyment? Maybe that should be enough, in the same way a day by the river, and maybe landing a bigger fish than before is enough for an angler?

    With novel / story awards, you never know how that award is set up and funded, and what exactly they are looking for besides ‘voice’ and ‘engagement’.

    Regarding your short story, have you given it ‘drawer time’?
    I did this with my novel – for 18 months – while I learned formal poetry. I think this separation was an essential part of the process.


    I think with anything creative, there’s the element of personal preference. You know I arrange flowers – well, I see some designs and think ‘how the heck is that flower design?’. Especially when it’s something like a single flower head and a twig. Yet others I see are amazing feats of engineering and have flow and rhythm or colour, and I’m blown away! I’m sure it’s the same with writing, art, drama, music…very much a matter of personal taste for the person on the receiving end.


    crossed with you, Alan. Is failure not trying, or not winning? I’d say the former. Because if you don’t try, you might never win. And even if you don’t win because you never enter a comp, you have still succeeded in writing something.

    Not sure ‘enjoyment’ comes into my reason for writing – it’s something that can feel like a chore at times! And there are almost as many reasons for writing as there are ways of measuring success!!


    I am not sure what I feel about this. On the one hand, Alan, I don’t think you should term not getting long listed in four novel competitions a failure. (Actually I am impressed you managed to find four to enter – I never can find any that seem suitable.) We just don’t know enough about what the judges are looking for. And trying to second guess them is counterproductive. And when you think about some things that get successfully published, and clearly I’m not going to mention any names here but we all know the kind of thing I’m meaning, success doesn’t have to equate to quality writing at ALL. On the other hand, it’s disheartening to send off your work and receive a deafening nothing in return. So I try to divorce the writing from the publishing, and think only in terms of the former. It’d be cool to have something out there, being read, of course, but the main thing, for me, is that it exists, rather than it’s read. Or published. Or “successful”.


    Mad Iguana

    To be honest, Alan, that the very act of having written something complete enough to be able to send it out to comps is a success, so I’d start off by saying Congratulations on that massive success before worrying about the relatively small “failures” that followed.
    That said… It’s far easier to say these things than do them/feel them. My failure this year, like Bella, is in not writing enough. And it all stems from a similar feeling of failure from last year in getting some criticism that led me to question whether there was any point in keeping writing when I’ve got plenty of other stuff on my plate (work, family, etc.) that’s far more immediately rewarding, visibly at least.
    But then, thinking like that is a sort of failure too, isn’t it?
    And so the circle continues to spin.

    Alan Rain

    @Stellaolivetti Bath, Bridport, Yeovil, Blue Pencil.
    There are two more with end dates coming soon: Grindstone and Caledonian.

    Yes, it’s disheartening when you see newly published books by celebs (assume that’s what you mean). My local bookshop recently had on open display a ‘crime thriller’ by Ronnie O’Sullivan (the snooker player). No further comment necessary. ‘Home’ by Skylark was hidden behind Dan Browns – until I moved it.

    We’re all so different. Criticism fires me up, and I welcome it. I always ask for readers / critiquers to be as harsh as possible, but they always seem to hold back.

    I’ll look at flower arrangements will new insight now.

    Good luck to those who are struggling to write, never mind taking part in comps. And good luck to those who will eventually succeed.


    I will look at the two comps you mention. Bath, that’s interesting; I am dithering about entering the children’s competition, I think the end date is December. It’s 25 quid though which is a lot. I rationalise it to myself by reminding myself I don’t smoke. And yes, celebs, although I was really thinking of a famous comedian who’s started writing children’s books so bad they make my teeth hurt …



    At least the ghostwriting of books like O’Sullivan’s thriller will be keeping an author somewhere in gainful employment – and probably earning much more than if they had published it under their own name. If I’d got that gig I’d call it success

    Alan Rain

    Stella, I believe the Grindstone ends very soon, so suggest you hurry.
    I don’t know about the Bath children’s award, but agree they have a steep entry fee. It’s also £25 for the novel award.
    The novel award is highly regarded, and all the winners have ended up with a deal. (For a male writer, though, it’s worth knowing the award is female-administered, has always had a female judge, and always had a female winner. These are simple statistics – I’m not reading anything into it other than women have outperformed men.)

    My greatest expense this year has been my novel: a professional critique, then FOW18. If I don’t have success with it, my greatest expense will be alcohol.


    Me too

    Philippa East

    I really like this thread. It feels quite cathartic to have a place to vent about “failures” and to reflect on how we define and learn from them.

    It’s amazing how easy the thought “I’m a terrible writer” can come unbidden into our minds. I had this exact thought today, just because there is an element of my book I haven’t figured out yet. What are we like?

    I have to say, two quotes about failure (and success) which I often come back to, to keep me sane, are:

    “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
    – Samuel Beckett

    “…If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/
    And treat those two impostors just the same…”
    – Rudyard Kipling

    John S Alty

    As Ricky Nelson sang “You can’t please everybody so you gotta please yourself”


    @AlanRain — the Bath Novel Award, like pretty much all writing competition is judged blind, so there are no names or identifiers on the extracts so readers and then judges do not know the gender, age or race of the writers. I suspect that a lot more women than men enter which means a greater chance to make it through.

    I have a bipolar relationship with my writing which means that at least twice a month or more I think that my writing sucks, and it’s a complete failure, what am I thinking, etc… followed by short periods when I think it’s maybe not that bad.

    Alan Rain

    @Elle Yes, I’ve heard this, and that judges aren’t able to say who wrote any particular extract. Women writers just seem to be far more active than men. Certainly, at FOW18 on the day I was there, women clearly outnumbered men.

    I wrote my own novel for a worldwide audience, for both genders, and for any age. My characters are of mixed ethnicity, and don’t belong to any ‘class’. The genre itself is genderproof. So … if a ‘blind’ reader was able to identify my stats then I would be disappointed.

    I hope you try to banish those negative thoughts whenever and wherever they occur. Good quotes.

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 1 month ago by Alan Rain.
    Mad Iguana

    I’ve entered the Bath Novel Award four times and been longlisted twice, but no further than that. It’s a good award, and well worth entering – there’s an excellent community around it if you have the time to engage.
    Alan, it is judged completely blind, so there’s no favouritism going on, but it’s unavoidable that the judges of any award will favour a particular “style” over another. For example, I’ve never expected that my Fantasy novels would win anything there, or in any “literary”-type awards, but it’s still a buzz to enter.
    As for criticism, I’m normally reasonably Ok with it. I think in this case it was just particularly to the point – it hit exactly what my weaknesses were/are (which is what is supposed to happen), I just wasn’t sure how I could address it without becoming a totally different writer, and I didn’t think I had the energy to do that.
    On the other hand, perhaps the break was what I needed to recalibrate myself!

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 1 month ago by Mad Iguana.

    ‘Failure’, like ‘rejection’ is such an emotive word. Whether or not you feel you’ve failed may depend on what you set out to do. Did you set out to win? Well, I suppose in terms of entering comps, we do set out to win/be placed. But I would not say it’s a failure if that doesn’t happen. Is it failure if you’re not ‘satisfied’ with your story/poem/scene? Well, in a sense, but, to me, failure sounds final. As if there’s nothing more to be done. But there is. Try again. Revise. Write something else. Keep going.
    A few years ago I managed to hook an agent for a couple of picture books. He worked with me for a while, (which felt, mostly, very positive) and then tried to sell the books. He didn’t succeed. Did I fail? It was disappointing, but on the whole I regarded it as a hugely positive experience.
    On personal taste in writing comps: a story of mine was recently placed in the Bath Short Story Award. It had previously made it to a longlist in another comp, and was not placed at all in another one. Also – a flash piece made it to the shortlist of Bridport one year, having come nowhere the year before. Subjective. How can it not be?
    So, keep going, everyone (yes, you too, Bella!) and let’s keep encouraging one another. That’s one of the best things about communities like this one.

    Andrew Wille

    All of the above! Failure is such a loaded word. So much depends on expectations, which easily snowball out of control. How many jobs have we applied for and straightaway daydreamed ourselves into that new role, all the way down to the new commute/desk/coffee mug and what we’d do with an increase in salary every month?!

    I often encounter the idea of failure in writing in terms of writers submitting to agents and publishers and getting turned down, but it’s the same for contests and pitching matches. Though winning is lovely, I often think that getting shortlisted is the real honour. The selection of the winner among books that are often equally accomplished in craft and style is so often so subjective – it just depends who’s on the judging panel this year. It’s about taste.

    Also, sometimes it’s one of the runners-up who’s written the book that gets picked up – it’s not unknown for the full manuscript of a winner to fail to achieve the same effect as the short selection shared in certain contests or pitches. Even greater disappointment there!

    I did a post on my blog about being declined, should anyone be interested: Rejected, Or Declined? (Is it okay to post links like that here?)

    All the same: there’s still a lot to gain and learn from all of these experiences. Especially ‘learnings’ (whatever happened to ‘lessons’?) to carry forward to the next book.

    Alan Rain

    @hilary No, I didn’t expect to win, (but still had dreams.) Before I entered I knew I’d be delighted with a shortlisting, and more than happy with a longlist. I hope my posts now don’t sound defeatist – I’m a long, long way from that, and don’t see a time in the near or distant future when I would be down and out.
    Well done for your successes at Bath and Bridport.

    Well done, too, for your LLs at Bath.

    I read your blog about being declined rather than rejected, and I like it. Yes, I’m full of positivity, but even so I’m ready for my declination / refusal to accept letters.
    Definitely read your other blogs.


    Interesting perspective, Andrew. It seems to me that an awful lot of ‘failure’ is not necessarily a failure in the writing, but a failure to direct the writing to the best audience – whether it be a competition, a magazine, an anthology (in short story terms), or an agent, a publisher or competition etc in novel terms. And a lot of that is down to luck, but I get the impression that a lot of ‘rejections’ are more because the writing is not what the recipient is looking for. Good, but not what floats their particular boat. It’s not failure so much as a temporary misalignment.

    Andrew Wille

    @Daedalus – that’s exactly what I am getting at. It’s often about a mismatch. And there can often be luck involved, too, though also we can all create some of our own luck. A lot of writing that does not get taken is not picked up because it’s not yet at a professional standard in terms of craft and technique, or because it’s simply unlikely to rouse readers – it’s a bit too flat or unexceptional, or it’s just not where the market seems to be at the moment. Who can predict the market, though? There are often surprises no one really predicted.

    – being positive, and realistic, is important. Creating some of our luck also means being at least a bit cheerful some of the time – no one in any workplace wants to work with a misery-guts! There really can be an element of professionals taking an interest in the writing because the writer seems like someone you like and someone you want to work with. Still need that magic project to let the talent shine, of course.

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