Last week, I failed to win an award in a writing competition. It didn’t come as a huge surprise. It’s a popular contest, which I’ve entered for the past four years without success.
Yet still, I’d marked the date of the awards ceremony in my diary.
You know, just in case.
I enter a lot of competitions. I believe the reputable ones have real benefits for unpublished writers. The cash prizes, the affirmation of your talent, and the chance to get noticed by literary agents.
There’s the motivation to finish your work to a deadline and practise putting it out there to be read. And the comradeship of other writers online. I’ve met some lovely people through entering contests.
But for those of us who tend towards the obsessive, there’s a downside. We submit our work with a mixture of optimism and trepidation. We wait impatiently for the results, refreshing the website over and over as the date draws near.
The longlist appears and we scan it, heart-stoppingly nervous, hoping against hope to see our name or story title.
And it’s not there.
We check to make sure. Nope, definitely not on the list. The adrenalin rush fades, replaced by a sinking emptiness. Despite all the truth and the passion we poured into our story, it failed to capture the reader’s imagination.
Like most rejections, it feels personal. And it’s not the first time we’ve been overlooked this way.
Anyone with any measure of self-doubt knows that this is when your inner critical voice speaks up. “You see? I told you your writing was crap, and this proves it.”
Or another voice shifts the blame outwards. “The judges obviously didn’t ‘get’ your story.” It’s easy to feel envious of the winners, or that it’s somehow unfair.
The truth is that in the absence of feedback, we’ll never know why we didn’t make the list, or how close we came. So we can’t treat it as evidence that our work lacked merit, or that it was misunderstood.
What we can do is look back over the piece we sent in, and with outside help if necessary, see if we can improve it. Or put it to one side and start on something new, and try again.
With more writers than ever entering contests, the competition is fierce. Even if we’re at the top of our game, so are a lot of other people. A well-known contest might attract a thousand entries from around the world. Maybe five percent will make the longlist.
That’s 950 not-longlisted writers, heading out to the shops to buy wine or chocolate or whatever numbs the sting. Some of those will be amazing authors who’ll go on to succeed in other contests and/or be published.
Of course no book, however beautifully written, attracts universal acclaim. The judging panel may be professionals, but they still read our work through the lens of their values, tastes and life experiences. Which is why it’s often so hard for them to agree on a winner.
Knowing all this, it’s still okay to feel upset about not making the list. We invested money and time, not to mention hopes and dreams, into the outcome. It’s natural to be disappointed.
When it becomes damaging is if we allow the hurt of rejection to destroy our faith in our writing, or to inhibit our creativity.
Exciting as they may be, contests aren’t the reason why we write. We create art to express ourselves: to share and connect. Not to seek prizes or compete against other artists.
My book may never win awards. But if it strikes a chord with even one reader, if it entertains or inspires or heals, if I feel the emotion as I write it and I’m proud of my work, then it has value.
And no one else’s judgement can take that away.