Failure First, Success Second

April 8, 2014 | By | 16 Replies More

I failed at getting my first novel published and I stopped writing.

Ryann Dannelly

Writer Ryann Dannelly has drawn from her experience as a college basketball player for her novel.

I wrote a young adult science fiction novel while also playing Division I college basketball at the University of Richmond. Writing helped me cope with the various pressures and expectations in athletics and academics. Working on that story allowed me to escape when I needed to.

The novel mirrored my darkest thoughts of entrapment and loss of control during the hardest months, when basketball seemed to almost swallow me entirely. I removed those feelings from reality and placed them in my own world to make sense of them.

I finished editing the novel right before graduation.

Quite naively, I can say now, I jumped right into the task of finding a literary agent. I was ready to prove myself as a writer, and at the time, that meant through outward validation. Without truly knowing anything about the publishing process, I pushed forward, determined to find success.

I made spread sheets of potential literary agencies before barreling blindly ahead. I became single-minded in my efforts to secure an agent, terrified that if I wasn’t successful, I would be a colossal failure.

That thought terrified me more than anything else. The fear of failure pushed me.

Ryann Dannelly Playing Basketball in College

Ryann Dannelly Playing Division I college basketball at the University of Richmond

Over the next sixth months, I sent out query letters and sample chapters. Three agents asked for the full manuscript, but none of them signed my work.

I was devastated, frustrated, even humiliated. I viewed myself as weak and inadequate. A drowning wave of self-doubt overtook everything. That failure was poisoning everything, defining me, defeating me. I stopped writing.

For a while, I floundered, uncertain of what my next move would be. I was afraid to write again. Afraid to become emotionally attached to another story, only to have it slowly die as no publisher accepted it. I didn’t think I could handle another experience like that, so I did what no one should ever do.

I did nothing.

Nothing will fix nothing. Nothing will come from nothing. But still, I did nothing.

It was during this highly unproductive phase of nothingness that two truths dawned upon me.

For so long, I had operated under this pulsating fear of failure, afraid of what would happen if my first novel wasn’t signed. I feared the rejection I ultimately received. All the reasons I was no longer writing stemmed from this need for outward validation.

Strapping on my big girl pants, I stopped being stagnant and addressed why I had failed the first time around. I reopened the document of my first novel and read through it with an analytic eye, dissecting where my writing had been most effective and where it had slipped.

I became a critic, stripping down my writing style. I went back to the basics, studying the craft of storytelling. I devoured literature from an analytical point of view. I became a true student of the art form again.

Ryann Dannelly's Manuscript-450

Ryann Dannelly’s young adult fiction manuscript “Nothing More than Height”.

During this reinvention period it hit me. I did in fact have a story to tell: college basketball, the inspiration behind my first novel.

Now removed from the college athletic sphere, I could tackle that subject matter directly. I did not need to turn reality into fantasy. The reality of balancing Division I athletics as a college freshman was enough of a story.

The narrative was already fully fledged. It only needed writing.

Because I had spent time redefining my writing style, when I took a chance and wrote again, my writing had changed for the better. I felt liberated. The writing felt strangely confessional. Capturing the words on the page freed me. No longer craving outward validation, the constraints and reservations were gone.

I simply wrote.

When it came time to look for a literary agent again, I saw the second truth: I still knew next to nothing about the publishing world. I didn’t understand what went into getting a book published.

The first time, I hadn’t been truly invested in the process. My excitement in having actually written a novel had pushed aside the truth of that matter. Before querying the second time, I made sure to properly do the research.

Now I could see how comical my first approach was. I’m surprised that any literary agents took an interest in my first novel with the haphazard and uneducated manner that I had gone about formatting my query letters. I had even queried a couple of agencies the first time around that didn’t represent the genre I had written!

This time when I began to query about my young adult contemporary novel, I had a different confidence because I took the time to really research the process. I know what I’m doing now.

But equally important, I’m no longer burdened by a poisoning fear of failure. I’ve already failed and it didn’t defeat me.

I’m now embracing not only the idea of failure, but also the act of failing: using failure as a teacher, not as something to shy away from in humiliation. That’s real freedom. That’s success.

Ryann Dannelly is a 22-year-old writer, living in Maryland.  While attending the University of Richmond, she discovered her passion for words.  When she wasn’t sweating her way up and down the basketball court, she could usually be found in the library.  Currently, she’s trying to find a home for her young adult contemporary novel about a teenager balancing freshmen year with Div. I college basketball.  To keep sane during the literary agent querying process, she’s working a slew of jobs, including working at a preschool, coaching a high school basketball team, training athletes, and freelance writing and blogging.  Her blog can be found at  Come and say hello!

Be sweet and take a look at Ryann’s Facebook page:
Follow her on Twitter: @RyannDannelly

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, US American Women Writers, Women Writing Fiction

Comments (16)

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  1. Ryann:

    Thanks for telling your story. What may have seemed like failure at the time was not… it was part of the learning process…. there is the writing … there is the compelling stuff that makes your writing stand out, and there is the business of writing. All take time and energy to learn.

    So glad that you dealt with your fear of failure … because without slipping a few times, we never would have learned to walk. Best Wishes!

  2. As a D1 softball player and writer, this article hits very close to home for me. My experience with the first novel I queried was exactly the same—a haphazard slew of queries resulting in ultimate failure. But it’s a process. I am now editing a new project that I know is much better than the previous one. Whether it is published or not, it is a definite improvement, and I know the next one will be an improvement on it.

    Thank you for the wonderful article. It’s always nice to hear about others whose journeys are similar to my own. Best of luck with your new project; I’ll be watching for it on the shelves.

    • Victoria,

      That’s so great to hear! Thank you so much for those kinds words! Keep pushing forward with your writing, as well–only great things can come if you do so. Writing is an endless series of growth opportunities. Even when one project doesn’t pan out on the querying front, it was still a vital step in the growth of your craft. Your writing changes and evolves each time you sit down to work on it. It’s a journey worth fighting to continue, if you as me.

      Best of luck to you too! I’m sure the hard work and perseverance will pay off in the long run. Keep writing! Ryann

  3. Great blog post! I needed the reminder about failure and repositioning today.

    I’m so glad that you decided to continue writing. Isn’t it amazing to go back and look at those older stories and see how much your writing style has developed?

    All the best to you in your journey.

    • Thanks Mary! It’s definitely all about approaching it with the right mindset.

      Even if you don’t reach the “end goal” of getting an agent or getting published with one project, your writing will have inevitably improved in the process. And isn’t that really all you can hope for as a writer?

      A couple weeks ago, I went back and read an early (and painfully rough) chapter from my first attempt at a novel and compared it to where I’m at now. The progress was insurmountable. It makes all of the trials and failures and endless hours writing and reading and editing worth it. It was a great feeling!

      I truly belief that failure is one of the best teachers. I’m glad the post helped you in your writing journey. Keep writing!

  4. Wow! What a great article and so timely! I can relate. I also wrote a fiction novel back in 2006, embarked on the process of sending hundreds of query letters to potential agents, only to be rejected at every turn. That rejection hurt so much that I stopped writing fiction and dove into grant and technical writing in 2007 and gave up fiction all together. Just recently I’ve decided to go back into fiction. I realized that I love to write – anything – and that fiction is my first love, so appropriately trying to make it a career in the immediate was bound to break my heart. Much like rejection in dating, I’ve decided to get back into the fiction writing ‘dating game’ only this time, I’m not wearing my heart on my sleeve – though I am writing for the love of it. Check out my latest fiction venture, Castleview Hills: An Internet Soap Opera at:

  5. Kris Mehigan says:

    Thank you for sharing your inspiring words. Your growth is evident and I hope it results in seeing your manuscript in a bookstore someday.

    PS- Go Spiders!

  6. Hi Ryann, It was good to read about your experiences. I too ploughed into gaining representation for my first novel and, like you, three agents asked for the full manuscript but none of them took it on which felt like such a huge blow when I believed in it so much. I am now working on my second novel and now, with the benefit of hindsight, feel like I’m going into it with a different level of maturity and understanding. Maybe the 1st one was just warm-up for me. Best of luck with your new novel! 🙂 Rebecca

    • Rebecca, that’s great to hear! I’m finding that many writers just starting out have quite similar experiences in trying to great into the industry. Getting that close to being signed is crushing, but eventually, that feeling became the fuel to spur me onward. Write, write, and learn from your writing, at least that’s what I’ve learned from my experiences so far. 🙂 Best of luck with your new novel as well!

  7. HenriEtta Tharpe says:

    Great article. Wish you had gone on our spring break & blogged it. Look forward to reading more

  8. Hanna says:

    Great article! also very applicable to situations outside collegiate sports or the writing world, everyone can relate! Keep up the great work.

  9. The ability to move forward is one of the defining personality traits of a professional writer. But isn’t that also true about a successful athlete? Keep practicing your craft, learning from your mistakes and reaching out beyond your comfort zone. If nothing else, it’s a formula for growing and learning and feeling good about yourself.

    Congrats on taking the first steps. And good luck with this book and any others that you develop.

    • Thanks, Sally! You bring up an excellent point. The ability to move forward, learn form your mistakes, and exist outside of your comfort zone is so applicable to everything in life. It’s what allowed me to eventually find success as a college athlete.

  10. hannah says:

    Thanks for opening up and sharing your story! It’s often difficult to see the big picture.

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