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Failures of the Greats: Why You’re Doing Better than You Think (Plus 17 Writing Tips from Some Greats)

Before having This Side of Paradise published, Francis Scott Fitzgerald claimed he had received one hundred and twenty-two rejection letters. He then spent two months rewriting The Romantic Egoist, retitling it to This Side of Paradise and sent it to his publishers. Within two weeks he received a special delivery form the editor, reading:

“The book is so different that it is hard to prophesy how it will sell but we are all for taking a change and support it with vigour.”

This Side of Paradise then went on to sell 50,000 copies. In the early 20s, this meant Fitzgerald had struck gold.

Let’s not forget the publishers who turned down J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter. In fact it was turned down nine times before finally getting published. The rejections got quite nasty, one even stating not to quit her day job. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was actually self-published by Beatrix Potter herself, after being fed up of receiving rejection letters. In 1901 Ms Potter printed 250 copies of Peter Rabbit. Today one of the few remaining original copies is worth about £35,000. Gertrude Stein who was a mentor to famous writers of the 20s including Hemingway and Fitzgerald, received a rejection letter written in irony, mocking in her unique style. Creator of the pedantic Belgian detective, Poirot Agatha Christie – well, it  took Agatha Christie four years before getting published, and the most famous film possibly ever, Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell’s novella was rejected thirty-eight times before it was published. Papa Hemingway rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before he was satisfied.

What this suggests, ultimately, is that failure is imminent and reoccurring. What one does after, and keeps doing after that is what’s important. The writers themselves lend some words of wisdom.

“The first draft of everything is shit.” – Ernest Hemingway

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” – Neil Gaiman

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” – Stephen King

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” – Sylvia Plath

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” – William Faulkner

“You can’t edit a blank page.” – Jodi Picoult

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” – Ernest Hemingway

“Read a lot. Reading really helps. Read anything you can get your hands on.” – JK Rowling

“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” – Kurt Vonnegut

“Nothing any good isn’t hard.” – Francis Scott Fitzgerald

“Write the way you talk. Naturally.” – David Ogilvy

“The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself.” – Walter Benjamin

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde

“Write as it comes, at length, and then revise it, and above all shorten it. In the business of writing, gold is only obtained, in my experience, by sifting.” – Leo Tolstoy

“[If] you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping your eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is — excited.” – Rady Bradbury

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” – Hermann Melville

This post initially appeared on Linkedin’s What Inspires Me group

photo: Tina Hasiotis, “Jardin du Luxembourg”.

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