I won the first real writing contest I ever entered. In 11th grade, I submitted a poem hastily translated into French, to the Long Island Language Teachers Association’s annual competition, and took first prize in my age group (much to the chagrin of a certain unnamed classmate who expected to be victorious). It was a little slice of teenaged angst that sounded much better in French, as most things do, and I still have the silly little medal that commemorated the honor tucked away in my trunk of bittersweet childhood memories.
I won the second real contest I ever entered, which was Shelf Unbound’s inaugural Best Indie Book Competition – the contest is now open again, and I urge you to enter it – and while I didn’t get a fancy shiny medal for it (what gives, Margaret?), I did get a sense of accomplishment and pride that continues to sustain my budding writing career to this day.
I’ve been accepted to all (but one) of the colleges where I’ve applied based on the strength of my essays, and I’ve received close to the highest marks possible on my SATs, AP tests, and even my GED. I was a competent scholar in high school and college, though I wasn’t much of a shining star…except when it came to the written word, and I have been made used to the idea, through the praise of teachers and others, that what I write will be successful. Period.
You may think I’m boasting right now, but bear with me for a moment, because I’m about to come crashing back down to earth.
My first rejection by an agent made me cry. It wasn’t a single tear that rolled down my cheek as I scratched the name off my list and moved on to the next one. It was a real, blotchy, heaving little tantrum, and I thought I’d never recover enough to write another word again. I was mortified and disgruntled and shocked – shocked, I tell you – that someone didn’t like what I could write. It’s more embarrassing to talk about how upset I was than the fact that I received a very polite ‘no thanks’ from someone who didn’t pick me out of the slush pile. But you can’t talk about being a writer without talking honestly about rejection.
And that brings me to ABNA. It isn’t the first contest I’ve lost (I’ll never see the $100 bucks I spent on losing the Writer’s Digest contest again), but it is the biggest. I had high hopes for it from the beginning, and just about every step of the way, those hopes were dashed. I didn’t win the big cash prize. I didn’t win the smaller one. I didn’t make it to the semi-finals, as I found out on Friday. I didn’t even get the Publisher’s Weekly review I was hoping for, which I discussed in greater detail here.
I barely got anything I wanted out of the contest, and yet I didn’t have an ugly cry on Friday when I read the short-list and came to the end without seeing my name. That’s not because I’ve somehow acquired a godlike stoicism that elevates me above all other mortal beings. It’s because I’ve been rejected again and again since that first agent passed on my novel, and you know what? I’ve built up a bit of a tolerance to it.
Whether you’re submitting to an agent or a competition, putting yourself up for offer is a stressful, difficult thing. It makes your heart hurt and your throat tighten up, often for long periods of time as you wait and wait and refresh your email and wait and wait and check your phone. They’re not fun, and neither is the fact that most of the time, it’ll all be for nothing. I love to hate them, as I would love to hate going to the gym if I had a membership and/or the willpower to pay as much attention to my self-care as I do to characters living in worlds that don’t exist.
Contests and submissions are a necessary form of exercise for anyone who wants to keep their writing career in good shape. You can’t keep eating cake to celebrate your stunning achievements and then not expect to get a little chubby if you never have periods of deprivation to balance it out. You have to keep working harder to make the successes all the sweeter, and that’s part of the fun.
Rejection sharpens the brain and works out the kinks in your muscles to keep you fighting fit next time you head into the fray. And there will always be a next time, because just like physical exercise, the endorphins are addicting. Just like athletes, writers need to test their limits, and just like in sports, someone or other is always going to come up short. Someone is always going to feel a little battered and beaten for a while, but that’s the nature of the game.
And it is a wonderful game to play, even when parts of it kind of suck. I feel lucky to be a part of it, and I wish I had started earlier, both with my successes and my failures. If I’ve learned anything from ABNA, it’s not to venerate contests too highly, and not to shy away from them, either. Complacency and stagnation are the enemies of creativity, and a good wallop to the ego every now and again can shake you up and make your work more impactful (once you’ve finished a bottle of wine or two).
Will I enter ABNA again next year? I don’t know. But will I enter other contests in the future? You bet I will. With my new series on the way, there’s likely going to be plenty of random one-star reviews and dismissive comments to go around. I will do my best to take them in stride, because you can’t please everyone all the time, even if naïve little teenaged Jen might have gotten that impression with some early successes.
So with just a few regrets, I say farewell to ABNA and its promises, and hello to whatever’s next. Onwards and upwards.