How to Fail, Part 2: Not Failing Enough

When do we fail as writers?

Logically, we fail when we don’t fail, that is, when we don’t try.  It’s like the lottery:  you can’t win if you don’t play.

The odds of winning the Powerball Grand Prize are 1 in 195,249,054.

The odds of winning the $3 ticket are 1 in 61.74.  There are a number of other options, with more money = lower odds.

Okay, I’m going to give you a thought experiment.

Here are the wealthiest writers in the world, according to an October 2010 Forbes article.  This is what they earned in one year.

  • James Patterson ($70 million)
  • Stephanie Meyer ($40 million)
  • Stephen King ($34 million)
  • Danielle Steele ($32 million)
  • Ken Follett (British) ($20 million)
  • Dean Koontz ($18 million)
  • Janet Evanovich ($16 million)
  • John Grisham ($15 million)
  • Nickolas Sparks ($14 million)
  • J.K. Rowling (British) ($10 million)

Sounds kind of like winning the lottery, doesn’t it?  At least the amounts do.

Again, you can’t win if you don’t play.

Eight of those writers (if I’m figuring this right) are from the U.S., which has a population of about 308 million.

Your odds of being a top-ten world earner, as a fiction writer, are about 1 in 38,500,000.  That’s right, you’re about 5 times as likely to get on the top-ten wealthiest fiction writers in the world list as you are to win the grand prize in Powerball.  And that’s not counting the lesser prizes, like being able to write for a living (whether you’re writing fiction or not), publishing a story in a professional market, getting paid for something you wrote, or just getting published.*

That is not to say that these writers achieved what they did solely based on luck.  Unlike playing the lottery, you can increase your odds of winning–from the $3 prizes to the multi-million jackpots, by becoming a better writer.

I know that some people are already talking smack about some of the writers on that list.  I have; some of them just don’t write what I want to read.  At all.  By a long shot.  But people must be reading their stuff for a reason, so I’m just going to suck it up, be a pro, and stop talking smack about them, at least in public.  Please do the same.  You’re writers.  When you hit it big, you aren’t going to want people to say, “Well, X makes a lot of money, but the writing is pure crap,” even if it is crap.  Granted, you’ll be laughing on your way to the bank, but it’ll still hurt your feelings.

Even if you don’t agree with the taste of the day that makes them top earners, you have to admit they have at least these traits:

  • They write.  They don’t make excuses.  They put their butts in the chair and write.
  • They submit.  They got their work out there, often after stacks and stacks of rejections.
  • They do it all over again.  They deal with criticism, bad reviews, mockery, days when they don’t get to write because they have to do paperwork, days when their private lives take over, days when they just want to have a meltdown.  And they don’t give up.

Here is how you’re going to have more success as a writer:

You’re going to play the lottery, and you’re going to do what you can to increase your chances.

You’re not going to send out one short story, get one rejection, and quit.  That is not how serious lottery players play.

You are going to play the lottery a lot.

What happens if you don’t win the multi-million lottery jackpot?  Do you fail?  Hell, no.  Nobody picks up a lottery ticket and expects to win the Grand Prize.  Especially if you’re only picking up one ticket.

No, what happens is that you buy a strip of tickets, expecting to toss most of them in the trash but hoping for something better.  You certainly don’t have a mental breakdown if you don’t win on every freakin’ ticket.

Writing is like that.  You write a bunch of stories and send them out to a bunch of markets and expect a bunch of rejections.  You hope for something better; you don’t have a mental breakdown if you don’t get acceptances every time.  You shouldn’t, anyway.  When you get a rejection, it’s not failing, it’s playing the game.

And the great thing about writing is that it isn’t based on pure chance.  You can do things that will improve your odds, and, unlike with Powerball, it isn’t considered cheating.

Next time:  Talent vs. Hard Work

*A thought: if the $3 prize on Powerball is about 1 in sixty, then maybe you shouldn’t be surprised if you have to get sixty rejections to get the equivalent publication credit, at least when you’re first starting out. (You could let that discourage you, or you could start submitting and get through those sixty rejections as fast as you can. And it does get better, the more experienced you get.)


Game Night


Thunderstorm Rachael


  1. Brilliant! You’ve convinced me. I am giving up writing and buying powerball tickets right now! Oh, that wasn’t your point? Kidding. This was an excellent post. I will not give in to my baser desire to pick on Stephanie Meyer. Yeah, it might be hard, but I will do be victorious. And instead, I will sit my ass down and write. Thanks for the motivation!

  2. Wow. I needed to see that math! Thanks!

  3. Ooo! Thanks for the numbers.
    I play the lotto and do the writers’ lotto. One or the other has to win eventually, right? (I have won a lot of $3 in both (in a way) so lady luck is winking if not outright lifting me. Right? (Back to the grind.)
    Thanks for the great post!

  4. Excellent post. I’ve been making it a point to put my butt in that chair and write every day, and I’m loving it!

  5. Just wanted to write somewhere (even though it’s eight years after the post!) that this is such valuable information. Especially what you said about being professional re: top earners. The thoughts were going through my head as I read and I felt so chastised when I got to that part, but it’s true and important! I guess if you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it, and the productivity is really something to look up to.

    Anyways, in the event that you read this, I think you really should compile this series and “How to Study Fiction” (I’m still exploring, haven’t read the others yet) into eBooks and promote them. Would you believe how hard I’ve looked to find something like “How to Study Fiction”? It’s pure gold. People would definitely buy it even though it’s up here for free (the convenience of Kindle is definitely worth paying for).

    • DeAnna Knippling

      Thank you! I will bank your support for a bad day 🙂 I am definitely planning to put it together at some point!

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