How to Get Past Failure

by Dori Jones Yang

Are you your own worst critic?  I know I am.  Sometimes I say things to myself I would never tolerate hearing from a friend.  Among the mildest: “You idiot! What did you expect?”

So when the rejections come piling in, it’s easy to see that others agree: I’m a failure.

That’s how I felt in August 2007, when my agent forwarded me the last rejection from the 22 publishers who had considered the manuscript for my historical novel. My agent said there weren’t any more places to submit it. I had come to the end of the road.

After working on this novel nearly full-time for six years, I took this news badly. After all, I had already published two books. Shouldn’t the third one be easier? The sky collapsed. Darkness smothered me. The future withered.  Maybe you know the feeling.


When I talked to my writing mentor, Brenda Peterson, she told me I should delete the word “failure” from my vocabulary.  I think this is excellent advice, and I recommend it to you. But it’s easier said than done.

So what do you do, after the 22nd rejection – or the 50th?  Or, for that matter, the first?  Here’s what I recommend:

1.     Wallow in self-pity  -- but for a limited time only. This is a human reaction, so don’t kick yourself for feeling this way.  Set yourself a time limit; then stop.

2.     Silence that inner critic – the one that keeps calling you a failure. If you have trouble with this, I recommend the book Taming Your Gremlin: A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way, by Rick Carson. (link: He teaches you to call your inner critic a gremlin, give it a funny name and a silly outfit, and learn how to de-fang it. Mine is “Virago” and she wears fish-net stockings and spike heels. (And she is mortified that I just publicized that.)

3.     Consider your options. Rewrite and re-submit to the same agent or editors? Try a different agent? Work with a mentor or coach? Hire a seasoned editor? Join a new critique group? Take a class? Re-write for a different genre? Gently place your manuscript in a bottom drawer and work on another idea that’s tugging at you? Find a small specialty publisher? Self-publish?  No matter how bleak things look, you do have options. Give yourself some time to think this through and realistically consider the options that make sense to you. You might want to discuss this with experienced writer friends. If you don't have any, find some!

4.     Put your options in order of priority and try them, one by one.

I know it’s a cliché to say, “Learn from your failures.” But the alternative is grim: “Don’t learn from your failures” – or, worse, “Let your failures beat you down.” 

In my case, my agent suggested I rewrite my novel for the young adult market. At first I resisted this idea, mainly because I had specifically set out to write a novel for adults. Although my main character is sixteen years old, she would have been considered an adult in her era. I didn’t know much about the young adult market, so I needed to read up on it and get a better sense of it. The more I read, the more I liked.

After trying a few other options, I realized I had two choices:

1.     Rewrite the novel for the young adult market  - OR -

2.     Self-publish.

Of these two, I preferred the first, but I was fully ready to pursue the second. So I gave myself three months, January through March, to rewrite my novel as young adult. I read some great youngadult novels. I cut my story in half, to make it about 300 pages. I streamlined the plot. I softened some of the hard edges. I did not dumb down the language. 

By the time I finished rewriting it, I liked this version better than the original. It felt right.

My agent liked it, too. He sent it to several publishers. Five days later – five days! – an editor at Random House made an offer on my book. She turned out to be the ideal editor for me.

Daughter of Xanadu came out in January 2011, published as young adult historical fiction, from Random House/Delacorte Press.  It’s getting great reviews, and I’ve had some terrific bookstore readings, including one at Elliott Bay Book Co.  A happy ending.  An overnight success! – that took nearly ten years.

I’m really glad I didn’t take failure as the last word!  I prefer this one: perseverance.

*I recommend reading her whole speech.

A former Business Week journalist, Dori Jones Yang's new novel, Daughter of Xanadu, was published by Random House in January.  She welcomes you to visit

Dori Jones YangComment