Thursday, June 16, 2011

Winning, not what I expected.

Right, so this is going to sound like a cross between a public service announcement and an after school special. Feel free to check out if you aren’t interested.

We’ve all heard the adage “Winning isn’t everything.” Growing up, I always assumed this was one of those annoying things adults tell children to make them feel better about coming in second place at nationals. It’s what we always try to tell ourselves when we play on the team that loses Every. Single. Game. I can just imagine poor Charlie Brown sitting in his bathtub after a baseball game.

I’ve been on the team that only scored two goals in a season (one of the goals was because the goaltender was laughing too hard to mind the net), and got mercied every single game. I thought I knew what that stupid saying meant. I thought it was a reminder to spend my time enjoying the game, not focusing on the score, but now I’ve seen the other side. Last night my beer league hockey team won our championship game. In fact, we’ve won every game this season, except our first which ended in a tie. 

Since January, we’ve done nothing but win. This team was like a force of nature. They were, in fact, so good that it didn’t matter what I did. I spent weeks where I worked hard all week long and brought my A game. There were weeks I was so sick that I barely managed to skate. Still we won. My performance didn’t matter at all. So when we won our championship game, I didn’t feel like I’d earned it. I felt like a fraud. 

Undeserved praise is much worse than getting none when it’s due. It feels hollow, and it eats your insides. It’s more soul crushing than stacks of rejection letters.

In those moments where I fraudulently accepted praise for a “well played game,” I realized something important. This unearned-trophy toting feeling was bad when it was tied to hockey, but how bad would it have been if I’d felt that way about my writing? 

With hockey you show up and the outcome is delivered: either you win or you lose and the time and personal investment is much smaller than even a short story. I could see what it would be like to have written a novel that was sometimes my A game, but mostly my pass/no pass game. What if that phoned in novel went on to do great. It would be the worst feeling ever. I could barely face the five fans at the hockey game, how would it feel if droves of fans came out for a book signing in a book that I felt didn’t deserve praise? Yikes. 

So yeah, winning isn’t everything, especially in writing. 

Failure has brought me a lot. Yeah, I know, this is just the sort of thinking espoused by losers, but seriously, failure has taught me more than if I’d landed a hole in one with my first query letter, got an agent and a book deal right out of the gates. From “losing,” I’ve spent more time researching the publishing industry. I know what a query letter needs to do. I’ve made a much better list of agents to query for the future. I understand what real revising means. I understand voice. Yes, I know my blog sounds like me, but my query bait sounds like a casual version of my academic writing: dry. When I wrote it, I thought my job was to get out of the way of the story, but I can see that was a mistake. I made a lot of mistakes. I think I’ll post about that pretty soon. Failure has challenged me to dig deeper, find my voice and pull stories out of myself when I didn’t know I could. 

I won’t lie, my WIP has been hard. I never saw this story as well as my query bait, but I’m out of the saggy middle. I know how it’ll finish. If it had been easy, I wouldn’t have learned anything. But when I finish this WIP, I’ll feel like I earned it—good, bad or otherwise—I’ll own it. It’ll be mine in a way that stupid hockey trophy never will be.

Right, public service announcement/afterschool special is over now.


  1. A rough first (or second or ninth) draft isn't failing. If you finish anything, you're not failing. Failing is what happens when you give it a mediocre effort and call it a day. So you're very wise not to equate your writing with an allegedly-undeserved trophy.

    And... in case you haven't heard it in a while, I freaking love Accidental Godmother. Just saying.

  2. For the record, I freakin love the Accidental Godmother too. In fact, I love it enough to know that what it needs to be ready for prime time is help, the professional kind. In short, at this point, I don't think it will be the novel that gets me an agent, but when I do (oh, did you see that? that was a rare glimpse of the confident female in her natural habitat), I'll know to ask her/him about their feelings on such a project. I'm afraid it needs a rewrite into first person.
    Oh, and I'm taking part in this contest( ) because I'm a glutton for punishment, and any opportunity for feedback is worth a shot. But just in case that, or my queries, don't pan out, I've got a couple of novels in the oven. (And I'm very excited about those!)


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