Is it better to finish third in a major writing competition, or not to come close at all? Is it better to acquire an agent who promises great things for your novel but in the end isn’t able to sell it, or is it better to never get an agent at all? The outcome of these scenarios is the same: You didn’t achieve your goal; you didn’t win or get published. But what hurts more? Getting close and not pulling through, or never getting close at all?
A lot of athletes will tell you they’d much prefer getting blown out in a game rather than losing a close one that they could’ve won. Losing hurts. Losing when you should’ve or could’ve won rips out your heart. It’s the same with writing. Rejection hurts, but acceptance followed by an ultimate failure to get your work sold doesn’t just hurt, it lingers. Getting your hopes up repeatedly only to have them dashed can cause some writers to lose confidence. For me, coming close is validation.
When I acquired my first literary agent, I was ecstatic. The agent had sold books I’d actually heard of, and said my chances were good. I began planning my life as a successful novelist. I dreamt daily of waking up with nothing to do but write, no 9 to 5 job to take up 40-plus hours of my week. My dream of writing for a living was seemingly in my grasp. Writing for a living. What better life could there be? I could write at the local coffee shop. I could write in my bedroom. I could write at a café in France. No time clock, no uniform, no more living paycheck-to-paycheck. Those first few months were wonderful because my confidence had never been higher. Major publishing houses were reading my book. I believed in myself for the first time. Truly believed. It took about 6 months or so for my agent to throw in the towel on my novel. The hardest thing to accept regarding my novel’s demise was the comments my agent received from publishers. The novel was good, they said; the novel was well-written, they said; the novel was entertaining, they said. So why didn’t it sell? The publishers just didn’t know if it would sell. “The book is very good, but it’s not the sort of thing that’s selling these days.” Ouch. Fucking ouch. That’s when I learned that for a writer sometimes being good isn’t enough. It was a painful experience, but also an empowering one. Having had that small taste of success, I realized that I was good enough Being a writer went from just a fantasy to something tangible. I had touched my dreams with my fingertips, but failed to hold on. Next time, I’d never let go.
Not so long ago, I took part in a writing competition with some very major rewards. I breezed through the first round, did even better in the second, and kicked some major ass in the third. In the final round, there were about forty writers remaining out of nearly a thousand, and I was in the top ten. I was feeling great. I wrote my final story and thought it was the best one I’d written in the entire competition. When the results came in, I’d dropped out of the top ten. My last story was scored poorly, despite my belief that it was pretty damned terrific. After each round, when more and more writers were eliminated and I was still around, I began to dream. Why not me? Winning would mean a lot, and help my career immeasurably. The judges, apparently, were not aware that I’d already given myself the victory. Jerks. The contest lasted a few months, and I’d had much success. Strangely, losing didn’t hurt. I knew there would be more opportunities, and my time would come.
Certainly, I’ve had some success. I’m able to get paid for various writing gigs, and people tell me frequently that they like my stuff. Having my dreams crushed repeatedly doesn’t bother me, because the dream lives on. I know I’m good; when it comes to “close but no cigar,” that’s the greatest victory. I get close often enough to know I’m pursuing the right line of work.
If I’d been writing all these years and never come close, at some point it might dawn on me that writing’s just not for me. But it is. Right now, I have another agent and another story, and the dream of great success holds strong. I have another competition where I’m right there in the end, just waiting to hear the results. Even if I fail this time around, fail again, I won’t be deterred one bit.
Give me “close but no cigar” any day. I’ve sniffed success, and it smells delicious. Now all that’s left is to taste it. May we all feast.