why every story you write is a guaranteed failure

Why Every Story You Write Is a Guaranteed Failure

Why is depression so often associated with writers? I mean, seriously, it’s become a morbid joke how many classic authors were alcoholics and committed suicide. But it’s really no joke. Very few of you are going to escape those bouts of frustrated depression in which you’re sure every story you write is a guaranteed failure.

You know how it goes. One minute you’re flying high and having fun. Your story is a delight; your characters are your best friends. The words are zipping from your fingers to your keyboard and into immortality. With everything in you, you genuinely believe agents, editors, and readers are going to eat this thing up.

Then you come back to the story to read it a few weeks later, perhaps after someone has gently suggested some improvements. And, suddenly, the joy has fizzed right out of you. This story isn’t beautiful. It’s a big fat mess. No reader is going to enjoy this. In fact, anyone who reads this is going to immediately know the author is a hopeless wannabe hack with shallow, silly daydreams.

Sound sorta familiar? In How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, Orson Scott Card comments on this ubiquitous phenomenon:

Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things:

The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English.

The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.

Writing Lows Are Not Logical

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about, not just improving my writing, but dealing with the highs and lows of the writing life. I’m happy to tell you, they do get better. There comes a point in your career when you can look at what you’ve accomplished and take comfort that there’s a body of proof to counterbalance your doubts of your writing worthlessness.

But that doesn’t mean the lows go away.

Feelings of insecurity hit writers of every personality type and skill level. In general, I’m pretty even-keeled. I’m a fix it or forget it kind of person, not a wallower. I don’t usually freak out over problems, even catastrophic ones. But writing lows are about the only thing in my life that truly knocks the wind out of me. As someone who, in general, is pretty unemotional, this great big swirl of emotion always leaves me groping for logical answers.

But as someone who’s been around this merry go-round more times than I like to count, I’m here to tell you writing lows are not logical. In the first place, the subjectivity of art makes it darned hard to dig down to any kind of solid truth about the quality of your writing. And even if you can objectively say your writing is awesome, you’re never going to get around the fact that some readers are still going to hate it. (But, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, having readers dislike your work doesn’t actually make your writing a failure.)

No matter how many great facts you may come up with to prove your latest story isn’t a failure, you’re never going to kill the demon of doubt. Know why?

Because your latest story is a failure.

Why Every Story You Write Is a Guaranteed Failure

Writing isn’t like baking a cake. You can’t just grab the chocolate mix off the pantry shelf, throw in some eggs and milk, stick it in the oven for the required amount of time, and—voila!—another perfect cake. Unlike appreciative gourmands, readers are never (let me say that again: NEVER!) going to smack their lips, roll their eyes in bliss, and say, “I don’t believe it! Another perfect book! How do you do it every single time?”

They’re not going to say that because you’re never going to write a perfect book. There’s no such thing. The fallibility of humankind aside, the very subjectivity of art denies any hope of perfection.

No wonder we get all “woe is me” on occasion. No wonder we’re never 100% happy with our stories. We’re drinking ourselves into early graves because we’re mad at ourselves for not being able to accomplish the impossible.

And you know what’s really ridiculous? Readers don’t care. Aside from a few inevitable jerks (who, inevitably, have their own problems at the core of their behavior), readers will not think the less of you as a person for writing a book they don’t like. In fact, they might not even think the less of your book! Just a few minutes before writing this post, Marie Hogebrandt on Twitter commented,

I’ve been reading two of my favourite authors. One of them is prone to info dumps, the other likes “you probably won’t know …”

These authors messed up. They committed what many of us consider flagrant “newbie” mistakes. And, yet, did you catch the key word there? These authors are still her “favorites”! Readers are rarely going to be harder on us than we are on ourselves. And they’re certainly not going to melt into depressed puddles just because a story isn’t spot-on. They leave that to us, while they go on with their happy lives, probably not giving us a second thought.

The Guide to Guaranteed Authorial Happiness

The next time you’re feeling depressed about a story and convinced you’re never going to be the next William Faulkner, ask yourself the following question:

Question: Why do you believe your story is terrible?

If your answer is “I don’t knoooooww! It just iiiiiiissss!” then see Solution 2.a.

If your answer is “Because this and this and this aren’t working” then see Solution 2.b.

Solution 2.a: Chin up. You have no good reason to feel like a failure.

Solution 2.b: Chin up. You already know how to make your story un-terrible.

You’re never going to write a perfect story. Stop trying. Seriously. You’re just making yourself miserable.

But you can write a better story than you wrote last time. Keep learning about the craft, but, most of all, have fun. Make every story the best you know how to make it and don’t worry about the rest. Perfection isn’t the name of the game. Effectiveness is. And, believe me, many a broken story has charmed readers, earned millions, and even, on occasion, changed the world.

Tell me your opinion: What is discouraging you about your current story? How do you overcome that discouragement?

why every story you write is a guaranteed failure (1)_edited-1

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Excellent advice. I’ve been told that when I get down in the dumps, I just need to go read a few reviews from people who absolutely loved my work. It’s enough to get me motivated to make the next thing even better. Here’s to improving with every endeavor, eh?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s also strangely cathartic to go read the bad reviews of authors *you* love. Reminds you that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

  2. Ankoku Teion says:

    i write poetry as opposed to books so my stints are shorter, i can only write in certain moods so im spared the merry go round as you call it, however that mood is slightly miserable so…

  3. I get depressed about my books a lot, but I also have a lot of good, high times with them as well. I worry that I’m not experienced enough or that my writing is terrible or my main character is bland or the plot line is cliche, etc. etc. but usually I get over it.

    I always have my worries, but most of the time if I can think of something unique and fresh about my book I can get over it. I try to think of the details (adding more little things about my characters to develop them, looking at individual scenes and the more intricate twists instead of the big picture, acknowledging that first drafts are usually not all that great, and taking things one individual step at a time).

    Another things that I find helps me is calming down and taking a break from my writing and thinking about other things for a day or two. It clears my head and I can come back with a fresh perspective on my worries.

    Thanks for the simple, but amazingly effective advice!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a good approach. The only way to fix the big problems is to start with the little ones.

  4. I just discovered you and have been absolutely loving your pod casts. Its so great to listen while I do other things, dishes, chase my 2 yr old daughter around the house etc 🙂 But I had to stop, take a moment, and say THANK YOU for this particular pod cast, it really hit home for me. Very uplifting! I love your no nonsense, logical approach. It really helps weed through the emotions that take over at times while writing a book. This is my first book, and I absolutely love your website and blog entries.
    Thank you for the inspiration!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for listening! Emotion and logic work best when we can harness them together. Definitely makes our lives as writers easier!

  5. This is another great post KM Weiland. You’re right. Writing is not like baking a cake (although I’m sure some bakers experience failure even though they’ve followed the recipe).

    But as long as we write for ourselves and not try to be somebody else, then perhaps the judgement of failure will only be borne by ourselves

  6. Christy Moceri says:

    After three years slogging through my first novel with no real clue what I was doing, I’m so used to the mental highs and lows (mostly lows) that I barely acknowledge them anymore. Yup, another day where I feel like my writing is crap. On we go. I found Stephen Pressfield’s Book “The War of Art” to be helpful in accepting that the only real duty of a writer is to write. As I’ve opened my works to critique by other writers, I try to take the attitude that my only goal is to be a better writer. Probably one of the hardest parts about sharing my work is figuring out what to take and what to leave, but it’s always the same motivation: get better. I’d rather have a spot-on, harsh critique, painful as it is, than bland words of encouragement.

    I am not suggesting it’s easy. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever faced.

    My current stress is the marketability of my work. It’s science fiction but only marginally. The emphasis is really on a relationship between two people. And it deals with some dark themes — which isn’t to say it’s pointlessly depressing, but at least in part, it’s an attempt to capture the reality of experiencing, and learning to cope with, severe trauma. It’s gritty, violent, unapologetically sexual, but with a strong undercurrent of hope. It feels like a misfit in the cutthroat world of publishing.

    But I am going to start pitching it despite my doubts. First at the Detroit Writer’s Workshop in March. I have writer friends who believe in the work, and it helps. I can only comfort myself with the knowledge that I couldn’t write anything else. I wrote it because I had to. I wrote it because I love writing. That has to be enough.

  7. Batmansbestfriend says:

    I made peace long ago with never writing a perfect story…whatever the **** that would be if anyone ever did. Anyway, the point is not to write a story that is universally seen as the glowing light of perfection here on earth. The point is to write a story that you believe is perfect regardless of what anyone else says. You want to be able to stand confident knowing that for you the story you wrote is as close to perfection as you can get.

    If you’re proofreading and saying “whatever, no story is perfect,” then you know you have a spot to fix, you know it’s fixable, and you’re just going to leave it? You want your story so well done that you cannot find anything to fix (this comes after the beta reader and editing stages). Sure, readers will point out things they don’t like, but that’s personal opinion. If a reader finds a misspelling or a blatant plot hole…oops. There’s a definite skill to work on for your next book. However, if a reader says an scene moves to slow and it’s just s single, or possibly some readers, while others love the writing, then who cares? Maybe work on your pacing, sure by all means, because selfimprovement isn’t a bad thing, but hey, don’t stress over a few bad reviews. No matter what you do, if enough people have an opinion about it a minimum of one will be negative.

    If you’re unsure about a scene or word choice, run it by a few readers, nothing wrong with that. I had a scene where I thought the subtext was too subtile. Then someone asked me why it was important that the woman (a secondary character) was a lesbian…they didn’t even question whether opr not that was the subtext…they took it for granted that it was what I (the author) intended. Oh, the reader got it. I worried that it would go unnoticed, it didn’t. Sometimes , as readers, we’re so close to our work that we’re the absolute worst critics. Our critical skills are necessary to determine what things we should let flow from out brains, through our fingers, and out into the world…but once they are out in the world it’s up to others to let us know if it’s any good. Sure, we’ll know crap when we see it, but sometimes we’re not looking at crap and we STILL see it, you know?

  8. What if God doesn’t give us the gift to write but we enjoy doing it anyways? What happens if you truly suck at something you have loved to do all your life? Like you love to paint or write fiction but your work appeals to no one, no matter how hard you try? Right now I am facing this reality. I’ve finished a novel and all my readers are giving me pretty negative feedback, even on the revisions. All agents have turned me down. I just love writing for fun, but it looks like being published is not going to be a reality, unfortunatly.

  9. I came across this post this morning and I love it—thank you! I’ve been vigorously writing since I was able to quit my job a few years ago and have had plenty of those “Why am I doing this? No one’s going to be interested in my silly little story” moments/days/weeks. I have this page bookmarked to refer to as necessary.

    I found your blog about a year ago and cannot put into words how helpful and inspirational it is for me. I’ve learned vast amounts about structure and craft from you (your books and outline software program are terrific). You offer such practical and motivational information and advice. Thanks for what you do.


  1. […] Why Every Story You Write Is a Guaranteed Failure K.M. Weiland on Helping Writers Become Authors blog about how to get past writing lows. […]

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