How to cope with writing failure and competitions

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The sad image of a crying writer ... and I'll cry if I want to

This is the first entry in my wannabe writer's blog, and it's driven today with the frustration of failure. You see:

I submitted my first ever entry to a Flash Fiction competition... and I did not win.

Just to stop you worrying: this isn't one of those rants about 'fixed' judging, or the feverish moans of a sore loser, it is instead an exploration of how I feel about it, and what I've learned about how to cope with losing a writing competition.

The competition was a simple one: write a flash fiction piece of 250 words, or fewer, about the topic "Water". For a number of months now I've known that competitions are a great way for writers can give their C.V. an important lift, and I've received positive feedback from established writers who agree that even small competition successes look good on any cover letter to an agent, and can certainly give you a healthy ego boost. This particular competition appealed because it prevented me from the lazy course of submitting work that I'd previously created, and demanded that I "write to order". Obvious to you, and many others, but I had to come to this conclusion myself. Anyway, that's all just back story - the point is that I wrote the story and submitted it (along with a cheque, naturally).

If you're interested, here's the story I submitted - which I'm providing here for completeness, not in any attempt to highlight how amazing it is, and how wrong and unfair the judgement was. If you do have any opinions I'd be more than happy to read them.

What's important, and certainly interesting, is that when the deadline for the competition was over, all us entrants were given a figure: the total number of entrants. Yes, interestingly it was given to us that there were around 150 competition entrants. I'm not ashamed to say that my first thought was:

"Hey, that's not too bad. My chances of at least some success seem reasonable."

I was wrong.

The results of the competition were posted today: there were three winners, each receiving cash prizes. None were me. There were also twelve other people who were shortlisted on top of that. Also not including me. Ah. Oh dear. That makes fifteen people (honestly, I've double checked my maths) who were definitively better than me. So, out of 150 people... I'm not even in the top ten percent.

The top ten percent - an evil figure that upset me

I have a friend. He knows my dream and he's always supportive. He's often espoused his belief that my skills will eventually see me triumph because, according to him, I am always going to be in the top ten percent of anyone who submits anything to a judge/agent/publisher - and what happens after that is largely going to be down to the tappity-tapping of little leprechaun feet, ie. it'll be down to luck.

But in this case I quite clearly didn't even make the top ten percent. I've not achieved what I'd hoped was a base standard for my success. Damn. I'm quite upset, I confess, and though the competition wasn't and isn't a particularly big deal in the grand scheme of things, it's still always unnerving to find out that you're efforts haven't been good enough.

So - out of all of this I'm trying to draw some conclusions. I'm not someone who throws the towel in easily (after all - this is my dream we're talking about) but I'm also someone who does take defeat badly. It's going to take some soul searching to see how I can overcome the emotional setback, but I believe I also have some genuine lessons that I can take away with me. These might also serve as good tips for yourself, either if you're thinking of entering a writing competition, or you're looking ways to console yourself after losing a competition you've allowed yourself to think you have a good chance of winning.

  1. If you're going to enter a competition, don't rely on a single piece.

    If possible (and I guess this isn't always going to be), write a number of pieces for a writing competition, possibly up to three or four, and choose from that range which one you're willing to submit.
    Many competitions do allow you to submit multiple entries, but this could be costly, and is certainly more than I can afford.
    If you have people that you can ask to read your work then DO IT. Get feedback - even if you only ask them to vote on which one they prefer!

  2. Accept the fact that you are not the only one out there who is good at what they do.

    There is huge competition (so to speak) in this business, and perhaps a higher proportion of those involved are as good or better than you on any given day. Accept it, or cry daily.

  3. If you're going to bemoan losing a competition, at least make sure that your writing was the best you could come up with.

    This is the one that perhaps rings truest for me, but at the same time I think is going to be the hardest to follow through on. I don't believe that my entry for the flash fiction competition was the very best I can do, but I'm also not sure how I'll ever get anything submitted if I have to force myself to wait long enough until I am confident in my work.

  4. Have patience.

    To be honest, I haven't really learned this lesson yet. I am impatient. But it's still on the list.

That's about it for today. Finding success in writing is a really slow and painful business. The chances to receive positive feedback are few and far in between, and hopefully the slings and arrows will soon stop aching from this most recent failure.

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