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IWSG: When to give up

Were you ever picked last in gym class?

I was. Many, many times.

For starters, the team “captains” were usually the athletic guys who spent their lives playing team sports together. And then there was peer pressure. Favouritism.

Or it might be I was a late bloomer when it came to athletics.

very late bloomer. To be fair, I still can’t run around a gymnasium while keeping a hula hoop twirling around my waist–but I’d have a fair shot at knocking out my classmates with a right cross and a roundhouse.

We all have our gifts.

Now imagine that, instead of dividing the entire class into two teams, each captain got to pick only one student. And imagine they had over 900 kids to choose from. If you weren’t picked, what would that mean? That your athletic future was doomed? That you’d failed as a human being? Or maybe that it’s damn hard to make an impression when the gymnasium is packed with almost 1,000 other kids.

I recently entered a writing contest where the odds were exactly that. The judges got to read the first chapter of my work, along with the first chapter of 900 other manuscripts. If chosen, a judge would work closely with me over the next few months, helping to get my book into better shape.

It was awesome to have a judge ask me for the full manuscript, but I still didn’t expect anything. The odds were definitely not in my favour, but now I was one out of 70 instead of one out of 900.

As expected, I didn’t win. My response was to shrug, think “Oh well,” and go back to the work in progress.

To say I was shocked by the aftermath of this contest would be an understatement. Social media feeds were flooded with posts begging the “losing” writers not to give up, to keep writing, to try their luck with another book.

I received several emails from the judges who had read my work, offering similar encouragement. I understood that they were trying to be kind, but it puzzled me. Why would I quit writing just because one chapter of one manuscript hadn’t resonated with them over dozens upon dozens of others? It didn’t make any sense to me. Not being chosen for the next level of this contest has absolutely no bearing on my writing ability or my future success–and the same goes for the rest of the hopefuls who weren’t chosen.

Contests like this can be a great foot in the door. But they’re not a measure of your talent or ability, much like my absolute failure at hula hooping didn’t hint at the success I would later find as a kickboxer. As writers, we need more than tough skins–we need titanium armour. Every time someone says no, every time someone tells you that you can’t, every time you get a shitty review, use it to motivate you, to spur you on, to succeed against the odds.

Because if losing a contest honestly makes you want to give up your dream of being a writer…

Then maybe it is time to try something different. (Or just stop entering contests for a while.)

Have you ever entered and lost a writing contest? Did it make you want to give up? What words of encouragement have inspired you?

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeThe purpose of the Insecure Writers’ Support Group is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds. To see a full list of IWSG authors, click here.

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67 Comments

  1. Henry

    Totally agree, you hit the nail on the head. Not winning should cause a person to be even more determined to keep going.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Henry. I knew they meant to be kind, but it came across as a tad patronizing sometimes, like, “I know my opinion is the most important thing ever, but don’t give up, little writer. You’ll make it someday.”

      Reply
  2. Ula

    We definitely need titanium armor. I try not to let rejections bring me down, but spur me on to work harder and improve my writing and keep going.

    Reply
    • JH

      Good for you, Ula. I’ve had a few bring me down a bit, but I limit the time for moping and pouting. Using them as motivation is a much better approach.

      Reply
  3. Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor

    That was me too – always last to be picked!! I was just thinking about that the other day. The trials and tribulations of being the smallest and klutziest one in gym class. It was inevitable that I’d be picked last and someone would get “stuck” with me.

    I’ve never entered a writing contest, but if I did, I’d probably going into it with low expectations of winning and high expectations of learning something.

    Reply
    • JH

      Hmm…I’m not sure what I learned in this case. I guess that just because you’re positive you’ll click with someone doesn’t mean they’ll feel the same way in return?

      I had one judge tell me that my 17-year-olds sounded too young. So I sent the same chapter to a 17-year-old, who disagreed. “She overestimates teenagers and the way they talk,” the teenager said. Everything is so subjective!

      Reply
  4. Mason Canyon

    I think you’re totally right about it being time to try something else if you’re willing to give up after one contest doesn’t go the way you want. You’ve just got to keep trying, the right fit will come along.

    Thoughts in Progress
    and MC Book Tours

    Reply
    • JH

      Exactly, Mason. And maybe not even contests. I suspect it’s harder to win some of these things than it is to get six-figure book deal.

      Reply
  5. Randee

    Picked last for sure! Well, OK, maybe not totally last but near the bottom third. After the “good” ones were gone.

    I never compared it to writing. I think I entered one writing contest once, because the judges promised feedback even if you weren’t selected, and that feedback was both encouraging and valuable. But I generally don’t do contests — I just aim for the magazines with short fiction and publishers with novels. Part of it is the reading fee that usually comes attached.

    But to your final point, yeah, the whole “don’t give up” mentality: It is TOUGH. You are not likely to have your work beloved the first time you send it out. Or the third. Or the tenth or the … whatever. Losing a contest/not getting a particular agent or publisher means only that — that one outlet didn’t think your work was right for them at this time. And you want someone who’s passionate enough to say GOD YES THIS IS MINE as if you were the fastest human engine on the ball field.

    Reply
    • JH

      I use those reading fees as valuable write-offs. But yeah, they definitely add up.

      Agreed–when you are picked first, let’s hope it’s a captain who actually wants you on the team, and not just because the teacher “encouraged it” or your mom knows his mom and she told him to be nice.

      Reply
  6. Alex J. Cavanaugh

    I was never great at sports either.
    If a writer can be knocked out by losing that kind of contest, then they’ll never make it as a writer.

    Reply
    • JH

      I agree, Alex. I have to admit, I was shocked that anyone would take losing a contest that hard. Sure, it’s disappointing, but that’s about it.

      Reply
  7. Heather M. Gardner

    Great analogy you made here.

    So many writers fail to realize that we are competing with thousands of other writers!

    I entered a contest and made it to round 2. I was mad, but more that my work wasn’t what the judges wanted, not at the judges. But, I won’t change the way I write or what I write to fit into a mold either.

    Keep moving forward!

    Heather

    Reply
    • JH

      Congrats on making it to round 2! It’s almost worse to make it to the shortlist, isn’t it? Gets your hopes up more. I guess I should take it as progress, but still–grrr.

      Reply
  8. CD Gallant-King

    Becoming a published writer is 10% talent/skill, and the rest is luck, perseverance, marketing and begging other people for their praise and validation. Your exact mix may vary, but you have to be willing to indulge in all of them.

    IWSG September

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for commenting, CD. Is begging other people for praise asking for blurbs?

      Reply
  9. Chrys Fey

    I imagine many writers could take a rejection from any type of contest as a reason to give up. And some do. It is unfortunate, When I get rejections from agents, they say the same thing. The thing is, I’ll never give up on my book. Even when some experienced people say that if you get so many rejections for one MS, it’s time to put it away, I say “No!” I’m working on other projects, etc., so it’s not like I’m hanging all of my hopes on that one MS, as I know some writers do. They stop writing when they are submitting and getting rejected. But I’ll never give up on that book. Not ever.

    Reply
    • JH

      Good for you Chrys! I once “gave up” on my book, wrote another and began submitting it. But I also kept submitting the other one, just five queries a month.

      And it was that book which got me an agent. You just never know.

      Reply
  10. Madeline Mora-Summonte

    I’ve entered and lost more contests than I can even count. I’ve submitted stories and been rejected over and over and over. I’ve come close to different creative and writing goals only to fall short. And. I. Still. Write. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Good for you, Madeline. Never give up! You need those rejections to make your success story resonate.

      Reply
  11. Tamara Narayan

    I have lost several writing contests and have won a small few. There’s no telling what judges are looking for and you are right. It’s a waste of energy to let it get you too down. There will always be other contests and journals and anthologies to place a story. The real prize is getting readers.

    Reply
    • JH

      I agree, Tamara. When I was a kid, I won every writing contest I entered, so I approached contests as an adult with perhaps misplaced confidence. I don’t think I’ve won one yet, though I’ve made short lists and received honourable mentions.

      It can be frustrating, but a reason to give up? Never!

      Reply
  12. Bonnie

    First of all, congratulations on making it through the initial slush to having your manuscript requested. That’s an achievement to celebrate. As far as contests go, they certainly shouldn’t define anyone’s writing career. They’re fun and, like a lottery, the chances of winning are low, especially in a contests with so many entries.

    There are so many reasons to keep writing that have nothing to do with contests. I do think it’s sweet of the judges to encourage people to keep going.

    Reply
    • JH

      Oh for sure, Bonnie. I know the notes were meant to be encouraging, but as one can expect, they were also form letters. And they were a tad over-the-top. I don’t know if previous rejectees have threatened to quit writing or what, but it felt like someone breaking up with me and then yelling, “Don’t commit suicide! You’ll find love again!” Um, thanks…I think?

      Perhaps once a person enters these contests enough, the skin gets a bit thicker. I just thought the overreaction was amusing.

      Reply
  13. Anna

    Funny that. I enter contests because you never know who judging it and I want to make my bones. You may not win, but you might still be remembered. 😉

    Anna from elements of emaginette

    Reply
    • JH

      Good point, Anna. I honestly hadn’t thought of that.

      Reply
  14. Lisa S.

    Super cool that you made the short list. I agree with your idea that many of us put too much stock into contests, when there are so many other factors at play beyond our control. My band entered the International Songwriting Contest one year but we didn’t win. I remember having that brief ‘darn it’ feeling when I read the list of nominees, but that ended after 5 minutes. Quell the passion? Never!

    Reply
    • JH

      Oh, I didn’t know that, Lisa. Sorry to hear! I know that feeling very well. I’m glad it didn’t discourage you.

      A “darn it” is the only response it’s worth.

      Reply
  15. Rebecca Douglass

    I agree about the condescending tone of that encouragement! I don’t enter contests (not willing to pay the fees), but certainly would take a “failure” there, even less than a rejection from an agent, as a reason to give up. Any writer who gives up after a single effort, or even many efforts, doesn’t have what it takes.

    Reply
    • JH

      YES! Thank you, Rebecca. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who felt that way. It seemed a bit silly to me. If I was a mentor, I’d never think that my not choosing someone would make them quit writing altogether! If I honestly thought that, I wouldn’t be a mentor. That would be almost 100 budding careers I’d destroy, just like that.

      Reply
  16. Ryan Carty

    When I graduated from University, I decided to apply to MFA schools for graduate work. I thought I had a solid portfolio, decent grades, great letters of recommendation. Surely, one of the schools would see my talent and choose me for their program.

    Nope.

    I was young in my writing life, and it shook me, I wrote nothing for almost a year. The more mature writer in me would never quit at a rejection, and I honestly can’t understand why anyone with the dream would quit. Then again, I remember that kid and how devastated he was. He fought through it eventually, but man, it was a tough road back.

    Reply
    • JH

      Sorry to hear, Ryan. I think those setbacks do hit us harder when we’re younger. I know things got to me a lot more at that age too, and now I’m, “Meh” about them most of the time.

      One good thing that comes with getting older!

      Reply
  17. Samantha Bryant

    In my heart of hearts, I probably too arrogant. It’s a characteristic that has tempered as I’ve aged, but I’ve always had a healthy (or maybe overhealthy) belief in my own talent. So, I’m with you in that a rejection certainly wouldn’t make me quit. If anything, it will make me shake my tiny fist and swear I’ll prove them wrong.

    But I can see how, if you were *really* invested in a particular opportunity, how you might lose heart. But, yeah, if you can give up a dream that easily, maybe it didn’t mean that much to you in the first place.

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

    Reply
    • JH

      When it comes to writing as a profession, it’s probably good to be “too” arrogant, as long as it doesn’t stop you from learning. We definitely have enough people trying to tear us down–a strong ego will help combat that.

      Reply
  18. C. Lee McKenzie

    Then after publication you have the review gauntlet to run. There’s always a hurdle and choosing to go around it isn’t a bad option at all. Loved the post.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Lee. I was lucky in that my publisher did most of the heavy lifting for me in that regard, but I know it won’t always be that way.

      I received my first negative review 20 minutes after my book came out: “I would not recommend this book to anyone for any reason.” It still makes me laugh.

      Reply
  19. Liesbet

    Your experiences and words are very encouraging, Holli! And, you are self-secure and believe in your abilities, which is something we can all learn from. I’m sure you have those doubtful moments as well, though… I have only entered writing contests to win a trip somewhere and always failed. It does put me off a bit, and when I read the winning entries, I know why my entry didn’t win (which helps to agree with the judges) and realize I have a long way to go, or that it will never be meant to be!

    Reply
    • JH

      Me? Secure?

      Ha ha.

      Hah hahahahahahahaha.

      I’m in the Insecure Writers’ Support Group, aren’t I? 🙂 I’ve just learned to not take this stuff as a judgement of my talent, abilities or potential. And it’s easier said than done some days–a constant struggle. But if you want to succeed, the first thing you need is to believe in yourself. So I’m trying!

      Reply
  20. Lexa Cain

    I entered first-page competitions when I first started writing, along with some of my CP group. We often got agent/judge feedback or feedback from the other contestants (like on Miss Snark’s First Victim), and that was very helpful. The best thing I ever “won” was a full edit from a big-league editor. I learned so much. Now I never enter contests because I realize winning is just a matter of taste, so it’s better to publish books and find that niche audience of readers who’ll pay for your books because you are their specific taste. But you can be proud of 70 out of 900. That’s awesome!

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Lexa! I was genuinely happy to make it that far. It didn’t bother me at all not to win–I was lucky to get the more in-depth look.

      Congrats on entering Miss Snark’s contest! I used to read that blog. Offering yourself up to her took real guts.

      Reply
  21. Roland Yeomans

    Rejection never feels good, but it is part of the process we have all chosen. I remind myself that I asked for this. Ouch!

    It is not our successes that show who we are, but our failures. We learn endurance if nothing else.

    John D MacDonald and Raymond Chandler ironically both were driven to write even better with each rejection, saying they would prove the earlier editors had been wrong. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Exactly. I’ve gotten to a point where rejection rarely bothers me. It’s scan, discard, move on. Maybe trying to collect 100 rejections a year has changed my mindset–each rejection is like another gold star.

      Reply
  22. Michelle Wallace

    Congrats on making that list. You are a FABULOUS writer!

    In the writing department, I’m a late bloomer. 🙂
    I’ve come too far in a short space of time, to give up now. Plus I think as you get older, your thick skin comes more naturally…
    Happy IWSG Day!

    Reply
    • JH

      Aw, thanks for the kind words, Michelle. From your lips to an agent’s ears, I hope.

      Getting older definitely helps, as does realizing the only person who has the right to tell you what to do with your life is you.

      Thanks for commenting! Happy IWSG. 🙂

      Reply
  23. Nick Wilford

    It’s nice that they were being encouraging, in a way, but it does sound a bit OTT. Like you say, it’s not going to decide your future as a writer. I’ve entered a few contests and I’ve not won any, but that’s not going to stop me. Writers need to be made of sterner stuff! It’s a numbers game, and there’s always going to be more high quality entries than can be shortlisted. Entering contests is just one aspect of being a writer too.

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome, Nick! I agree on all counts.

      I don’t mind the encouragement–I was just surprised by the tone it took, which suggested people often think about giving up writing after not being chosen as a mentee. That flabbergasted me.

      Reply
  24. Sheena-kay Graham

    Never giving up on what you truly want is important. Maybe someone went overboard trying to be encouraging to writers. There is sometimes a fine line between encouraging and babying people. Plus it is also important to know when to move on from a project if it just isn’t working. You might need to come back later or just do something different.

    Reply
    • JH

      For sure, but not winning or placing in a contest is never going to be an indicator to me that something isn’t working. There’s just too much competition, and contests are too subjective for that.

      Welcome!

      Reply
  25. Mary Aalgaard

    I entered last year’s IWSG anthology contest. I didn’t win. I would have been surprised if my story was chosen. That wasn’t my usual genre, and I didn’t spend enough time on the story. I’ll try again, though. I used the story I wrote for the contest as a start of a play that I had kids add to and perform in my theatre workshops. So, it was a win after all.

    Reply
    • JH

      You and me both, Mary. Actually, that was the one contest fail this year that got to me a bit. I was so hopeful about being chosen that it made me really sad when I wasn’t.

      But, like you, I took risks with my story and once I saw what they actually chose for the anthology, I realized what I wrote didn’t fit with the theme at all.

      Reply
  26. Susan

    Great post J.H. thanks. You put exactly the right emphasis on this. I’d be concerned about all those doing the judging going totally overboard in their sympathies etc to to 899 who didn’t make it. sounds fake…

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks Susan. Even better was the, “But guess what? You totally get a discount on my editing services, you lucky person you!”

      Smh. Not an ethical way to get new clients at all.

      Reply
  27. elizabeth seckman

    I used to get picked last all the time. Until I got boobs. Then I got picked pretty quickly, but no one would ever throw me the ball (there is a dirty pun in there, which I will avoid…it’s off point). And my point is…you’re so very, very right. You can’t give up for that. Winning a contest is like a lottery win…wonderful if you do, but don’t bankrupt yourself trying (they all seem to cost money too- a big reason I never do them).

    And sometimes…it may not be the best writing that gets attention. It could be the boobs.

    Reply
    • JH

      I love this comment so much, Elizabeth. 😀 Thank you, and welcome to my blog. Please use that as the title to your memoirs, I beg of you:

      Elizabeth Seckman: Could be the boobs.

      Reply
  28. Birgit

    I’m late to this but you write wise words. Oh I was always picked last and whe one of the teams had to pick me they would say “you take her. No you take her. I don’t want her….” It did not bode well for my psyche. I think when one writes or creates any artistic work, it can feel disheartening when your work is not picked because you put a part of your soul in each piece but one has to overcome this. Many famous writers now we’re rarely picked and were actually told to stop…thankfully, they didn’t listen.

    Reply
    • JH

      Oh, that’s horrible Birgit. So cruel! I’m sorry you had to go through that. Kids can be so mean.

      Reply
  29. Toinette Thomas

    I entered a similar type contest a while back. I didn’t win either, but I got feedback on what I submitted. I never considered quitting. I was just happy to get the feedback. I’ve considered not publishing before, simply because of the time and, sometimes, financial investment, but I’ve never thought to stop writing altogether. For those times I considered not publishing, I’d just go back and look at the few positive reviews I have and tell myself, “those people never would have had a chance to like my work if I hadn’t put it out there.”

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s a very good point, Toi. And I completely understand the occasional urge to quit publishing. It’s a tough road…I’m sure everyone has considered quitting that particular aspect more than once.

      Reply
  30. Dianne Salerni

    It is odd that anyone would expect 899 people to give up writing after not winning a contest. I suppose there might be some writers who were on the edge of giving up anyway and this might be the proverbial nail in the coffin. But if that were the case, I’d think the writer had issues other than this one contest.

    Reply
    • JH

      Exactly, Dianne. Agreed. It just seemed a little patronizing to me…”I’m sorry I didn’t pick you, but you’re still worthy of breathing! Honest, you really are! Don’t give up.”

      Reply
  31. Crystal Collier

    I totally commented. I did. Your blog doesn’t like mine for some strange reason. *sigh* And what I had to say was brilliant! But the brilliance is gone, replaced with cheese-head. Regardless, contests are hard. We compare ourselves to others when the only thing that matters is how we reach our readers.

    Reply
    • JH

      So true, Crystal. Welcome back! I’m so sorry my blog ate your comment–perhaps it tasted like cheese? But I’m beyond happy to see you back here!

      Reply
      • Crystal Collier

        LOL. That’s it. My blog has too much cheese on it. What can I say? It’s good to be tasty. 😉

        Reply
  32. Denise

    When I was young I had dreams of being a writer. In seventh grade we were told to write a short story for a newspaper competition. Mine included a door in a cave that would move and open by touching rocks in a certain order. My teacher said it was the dumbest idea ever and made no sense. Imagine my surprise many years later when I watched Indiana Jones doing that in a movie. I found I do not have the patience required to write, but teachers, parents and friends can be important factors in our career paths. Even in my chosen career my mother was a deterrent though I chose to ignore her.

    Reply
    • JH

      Wow, that’s terrible, Denise. There are too many bad teachers in the world, and they have no idea how destructive they are (or maybe they do–scary thought.)

      I had a teacher talk me out of psychology and into journalism. Though I’ve had an amazing career, I’ve often wished I’d never listened to him.

      Reply
  33. Loni Townsend

    Egads, I’m so slow at playing blog catch-up.

    It’s great that you’re confident in your writing. I’ve struggled with confidence this past week. I wrote a short story. I loved it. My husband read it. He loved it. I got feedback from four critique partners, they liked it (along with pointing out where the flaws lie). Tested it out on my coworkers. “Wow!” I got feedback from a couple of local friends… “It doesn’t work. There needs to be more of this and less of that. I mean, it’s passable as a story, but…” Spend two days depressed and hating everything. Tried my best to appease them. Got lukewarm responses. Husband didn’t like the story as much as before. Said screw it, went back to the CP-revised version he liked, and submitted it. Now it’s up to the editors if they like the story or not.

    Sometimes, its the words that kill your enthusiasm. At least I have my husband’s praise to bolster me.

    Reply
    • JH

      I used to show tons of people my stuff before I submitted it, but like your experience, I often found it hindered rather than helped. Everyone had different opinions.

      Take today–I got the first peek at the cover for my new book. It’s gorgeous. I loved it instantly. Then I asked for feedback. Almost everyone had something critical to say, so I asked the designer to make some changes. I instantly saw her original design was better. I decided to go with my initial gut feeling and keep everything the way it was in her first proof.

      Good luck with your story!

      Reply

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