I’m singing the blues today. There’s redemptive stuff at the end, if you can’t handle that. TL;DR: Losing sucks, for some substantive reasons. It’s worth being sad about. But there are often other ways to get what you wanted to get from winning.
I lose, and I do it a lot, so I feel I’m fairly well qualified to write about losing, what it means, and specifically why it sucks so bad.
For those just getting here, I lost my ninth consecutive writing contest on Tuesday night. This one was the biggest of all the social media writer contests, called #PitchWars. I was not selected as one of the 125 winners of the contest. I’ve lost it before. I daresay there’s a fair chance I’ll lose it again. That isn’t the problem.
When I was a kid, I sucked at basketball. I remember my mother telling a coach of mine, who was calling to get info on me prior to practice, that I would hustle and play defense as well as I could. That sounded to me like “he sucks, and don’t expect anything,” so I determined that I would never hear her say that again.
I went out, picked up a ball, and wore through that one and two more in the next twelve months shooting on our garage hoop, a thousand shots a day. The hoop was only 8’6″, and the backboard was warped. It didn’t matter. The next season I averaged 16 points a game and the season after that I led the league. I kept shooting until I didn’t suck any more.
Now I’m trying to build a career as a writer. Many of the same rules apply. Put the work in. Go to conferences, talk with other writers. Submit and be prepared to lose. Got all that. I’ve written over 520,000 words of new fiction this year, well over a million in the last three. Seven novels. Thirty-nine short stories. I enter contests in plenty. I chat with writers and go to their conferences. I keep writing.
But here’s the biggest difference: I suspect, but cannot prove, that I’m getting better as a writer. It is possible that I’m not improving. This is possible because I can’t see the hoop.
In practicing basketball, the feedback was immediate and specific. I shot, I missed. Therefore shoot again, a little differently. Even if you never get good form (I didn’t–my coach always said I had a K-Mart jump shot), you’ll learn to score. If your shooting percentage goes up over time, you’re getting better. Having the visible goal and relating the action to the achievement of it is how you learn.
With writing, I don’t have that. Almost no beginner does. I haven’t had a novel edited by someone who was better at that kind of thing than I am. I don’t have critique partners, not really. I certainly don’t have one that is a published author, or an editor for one. #PitchWars allows the winners to have that experience, to take two months of shots and see, every shot, whether it went in. The losers, however, don’t get that. It’s a prize valuable enough to suffer for. We, the 1500 losers, suffered for it, but we didn’t get it.
That’s the hardest thing about writing. Putting words on the page is hard, but honestly, hundreds of thousands of people do that. Some of them get better by doing so, by reading, by studying books, etc. What gets people to really improve, though, is direct specific feedback from a knowledgeable coach. Losing a contest gets you neither of those things. Well, okay, it does give you one kind of feedback: you aren’t good enough. That’s only so helpful. It’s like practicing basketball with no vision of the hoop, and no other information about how you’re doing until the end of the game. Then they’ll tell you if you won or lost. That’s it.
I daresay most basketball players wouldn’t be even close to as good as they are if this is how they practiced the game.
Most of the advice being given the “unchosen” from #PitchWars is a variation on two themes: one, that PitchWars isn’t the only path to publication; and two, that we shouldn’t be discouraged, but just keep going, and we’ll get there.
The first is absolutely true. If you entered PitchWars as a means of getting published, and you didn’t win, you’ll just have to go about it the old fashioned way, or one of the alternative methods, if that’s a major life goal for you. Almost no authors got agents through PitchWars. It doesn’t have to be done that way.
But the second is–at best–only kind of true. It might, in fact, be false altogether. We can’t know. Maybe we should be discouraged, because maybe we’re not very good. NOTE: by “not very good” I mean “as compared to those who are published”, which is a small fraction of the people who seriously attempt to get published, which is itself an infinitesimal fraction of the people who write. Most PitchWarriors are better than all but a handful of serious writers. That, sadly, isn’t enough to get successfully published these days. END NOTE
Maybe we should keep going, and maybe if we do we’ll get there, but maybe we shouldn’t keep going, because we don’t know where we’re going wrong. Some of us entered PitchWars for that precise purpose, to have a chance to work long and hard with a published writer who had been through the editing process and knew how to take us through it as well. Not getting that is a double loss: we don’t get the win, and we don’t get the prize, which would help us win later.
And that’s nine hundred depressing words, so let’s end with a couple hundred resolute ones. Knowing that I’m not good enough to win this contest does tell me something useful, and that is that I should bend significant effort to get better. If I can’t work with a published author, I can work with people that are at least way better than most: other PitchWarriors. Most of us lost. Most of us are hungry. We can probably help each other.
That’s why I’m all in on @megangrimit and her #CPMatch Twitter party, coming up September 12. This is for anyone–you don’t have to be a loser to participate–who wants to find a quality critique partner and at least increase the odds that you’ll get the advice you need to get better. It’s not quite seeing the hoop yourself, but it’s at least someone shouting “good” or “nope” when you shoot. I’ll be looking for a couple of hotshot new writers, the nastier and hungrier the better. I want to work on my own stuff, and I want to do work for others. I want to be so good I can’t be ignored, and I’m looking for someone sadistic enough to force me to get there. Never having published a novel, I’m not the best you could get as a partner, but no one will work harder to help you than I will.
If that sounds like you, I hope to see you in a couple weeks. Or, heck, why wait. I’m at @cjlehi and firstname.lastname@example.org. Come find me.
P.S. One reason to enter PitchWars is the chance that you’ll get feedback even if you lose, which I did, courtesy of Hayley (H.N.) Stone. She’s a gem. I also made friends with Kellye Garrett, among a few dozen others, which is a gift that keeps on giving. It is, at the very least, a helluva consolation prize.