Story Salvage: Finding the Opportunity in Failure

By Jeff Somers

It’s often noted that in baseball, making an out 70 percent of the time is considered all-star play(1). Although every writer’s experience will be different, writing often seems to offer a similar success ratio in terms of failed stories. Sometimes that failure also comes fast, which gives you the opportunity to start over, but when a novel or other work collapses much deeper into the process, it can be brutal. You wake up in a cold sweat one night and realize the grim truth: The book can’t be saved. You’ve revised, re-worked, and re-imagined. You’ve rounded it through your beta readers and covered an entire wall of your house in post-its and notecards like a crazy conspiracy theorist, but the book simply doesn’t work(2).

A failed book stings, but the healthiest thing you can do is to see failure for what it truly is: an opportunity. There’s probably a lot of good material that can be salvaged if you know how. Here are five strategies you can try on any failed story.

Extract a short story

Okay, so your planned fifteen-volume epic fantasy has a million words, a hundred named characters, and nothing even closely resembling a coherent plot. You’ve already lost your youth and some of your sanity to this project, so consider carving out some of the best scenes and character moments and shaping them into short stories. There’s a thriving market for short fiction in almost every genre, so if you can pull a few particularly sharp sections out and polish them up, you’ll at least have something to show for your efforts—and perhaps a few more publishing credits to your name.

Trim to a novella

Sometimes a novel starts off hot and you write a terrific early section, and then you fall off a creative cliff and the rest of the novel is a terrifying process of grabbing at every conceptual branch that swoops up towards you(3). An obvious strategy is to surgically remove that first section and see if you can revise it into a novella(4). The key here is to ensure that your novella has a shape to it, that it has a real ending and doesn’t read as the first part of a longer story.

Mine it for the basis of another, better novel

Failed novels aren’t monolithic slabs of bad writing. They’re a complex mix of good and bad writing. If your story launched with an exciting buzz of this might be genius and is currently hovering at this might be the worst thing I’ve ever written(5), take a breath and go through the story to identify the good stuff—the ideas that make you excited all over again—and reconceptualize them.

Combine it with another project

If you’re like me, you have more than one novel that dissolved into gelatinous goop (bursts into angry tears). If some of your failed novels share themes and style, you might be able to jettison the parts that aren’t working from two (or more) of them and fuse the rest together into a sturdier story that keeps the best parts of each. I’ve done this with an unpublished novel and it’s sometimes amazing how well two different novels work together, almost as if my subconscious already knew they were the same story or universe(6).

Revise in a different genre

Sometimes what’s ruining your story is pretty fundamental: You’re working in the wrong genre. Sometimes you’re trying to fold a murder mystery into a space opera because you’re not confident in your ability to pull off an unfamiliar genre, or a cross-genre story should be brilliant but simply doesn’t work. Recasting your original premise in a different genre, or ejecting the genre conventions altogether, can sometimes clarify what’s really working in your story.

Every writer, no matter their level of success, experiences failure from time to time. The key is to make failure work for you.


(1) I know this because I was so bad at baseball as a kid, making an out just 70 percent of the time was a goal.

(2) Unlike all the times when conspiracy-theory visions boards do work.

(3) In retrospect, I realize this makes failing to write a novel sound a lot more exciting than it is.

(4) What’s the difference between a novel and a novella? No one knows. Seriously: No one knows. My first published novel was 40,000 words long, which is 10,000 more words than Of Mice and Men.

(5) Which is still better than “This novel is so bad it opened a hellgate in my basement.” True story.

(6) Or possibly because I’m just writing the same novel over and over again.

Jeff Somers began writing by court order as an attempt to steer his creative impulses away from engineering genetic grotesqueries. He has published nine novels and over forty short stories, including “Ringing the Changes,” which was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2006. He writes about books for BookBub, the craft of writing for Writer’s Digest (which published his book Writing Without Rules), and everything else for Lifehacker. He lives in Hoboken with his wife, The Duchess, and their cats. He considers pants to always be optional.