Some More Thoughts on Failure

Inevitably, once I’d hit the “Publish” button on my last post, it struck me that there were a whole load of things I’d meant to say but had forgotten. Or to put it another way, the post itself wasn’t actually ready for the world. So here are a few more thoughts on the subject of failure. I’ll probably forget something important in this post too.

Anyway, what I meant to add was that as well as “the world not being ready for your story” and “your story not being ready for the world”, there are a couple of other frequent reasons for failure. First of all, there may simply be too many other really good entrants to that particular competition. Yours may simply not be up to scratch, and however hard you polish it, it still won’t ever be good enough. (Very rarely, the opposite is occasionally true: Zadie Smith famously refused to pick a winner for the 2007 Willesden Herald Short Story competition because she felt that none of the stories in the preferred shortlist was worthy of the prize.) I’ve got plenty of stories like this lying around and I know that whatever I do to them, they’re never going to win a prize or get published anywhere nice, usually because the central idea has turned out to be dull or unoriginal or (frequently) both.

The last major reason for failure is that your story is one of those ones that people either love or hate and that so far you’ve managed to pick the haters. This is particularly tricky if you’ve entered it in a competition where there are two stages to the judging process and you’ve therefore got to get it past two different judging agendas.

I checked back over the stories in DOT DASH (I have all this logged for easy access – did you know that?) and one in particular stood out: “The Amazing Arnolfini and His Wife”. The first version of this was entered in a closed competition on the much-lamented Slingink website, where it pretty much bombed, coming 31st= out of a field of 57. This is what the judge said:

Compelling and thrilling once it’s going. The opening feels a little stumbling.

So the question is: what did I change to improve that stumbling opening before the same story took second place in the 2008 City of Derby Competition? Let’s take a look:


Ah. OK. So that would be no substantive changes at all, right?

Now this story subsequently went on to be chosen for BBC Radio 4’s 2010 Opening Lines season. So presumably I made loads more changes to improve it for that, yes?

Hmmm. Looks like it mostly involved strengthening a few of the verbs:


In other words, the story that got broadcast on BBC Radio 4 was to all intents and purposes the exact same one that failed dismally in a closed competition. Now it’s entirely possible that the Slingink judge was right and that it did need some more work to sort out that opening. But it could also be simply down to a difference of opinion.

That said, I have a couple of stories where the difference of opinion has lasted almost a decade. But we’ll get there. Eventually.

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