how to come out swinging… again
So, your competition entry was unsuccessful. You get a polite standard email from the agent, or you check the calendar and realise that no news is bad news.
During the Olympics it’s fantastic to watch people at the top of their game perform. But don’t forget that the losers, those who didn’t make the cut, those who were pipped for the bronze, or who were off their best, all worked just as hard. They gave everything, but it didn’t work out.
“It is possible to commit no mistakes, and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life.”
Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation
What to do when that happens to you
You are not your writing, even though you put part of yourself into it. This is not the worst thing that could happen, and it doesn’t mean you are a total failure as a writer and a human being.
Make sure that you followed all the submission guidelines, met the deadline, and didn’t fall before the first hurdle.
It’s uncommon to get useful feedback. If you get any, use it. I sent a piece to a magazine once, and while they didn’t accept it, they offered feedback. I grabbed with both hands. They liked the writing but weren’t sure about the plot. I used that comment to improve, by going back and reviewing the story.
Maybe ask a trusted writing friend, or use point 1 and pretend it was written by someone else. By taking the emotional attachment out, you can see more clearly where it could be better (pro tip: it can always be better). Relate the feedback to your work, but take the useful parts and discard the rest.
If you conclude that the story is still good, it might be suitable to submit somewhere else. Keep a file of stories tagged with themes, and look over it when you’re thinking of submitting again. The judging process is subjective, and the next reader might love it.
Writing Magazine publishes a Writing Competition Guide twice a year. There is an online edition, but I like to read a physical copy with a mug of tea in hand. Plus, there is a section each month on where and what to submit, apply and enter. It’s invaluable, and keeps me thinking about the next opportunity. Other magazines such as Writer’s Digest do the same, and Google is, as always, your friend in finding options for your work.
Find a reputable information source, and check back regularly.
It’s important to have a portfolio of completed pieces, first because finishing things is essential to progressing in skill, second because it gives a sense of accomplishment, and third because one day, someone will ask “do you have anything else?” and you want to be able to say yes.
Write something new. Make it the best you can.
That’s easy, compared to the next part.
Take a deep breath, and let it go. Procrastination hides perfectionism; perfectionism hides fear, and fear is the enemy. Call it by its name. Step out of fear’s shadow and do the thing anyway.
You cannot win if you don’t enter the race.
You did it! You got in the game, and learned from the experience. Now you have to do it again, and that’s hard. Remember though, that whether they got a medal or not all those athletes have to get back out there; training, eating clean, logging the miles and gym hours, all without a guarantee of reward. And they have to perform the miracle again while the world is watching.
Pat yourself on the back. You faced down your demon and won this fight, though the battle continues. Keep a record of your campaign, take a small reward for effort. And make sure you have the right incentive in mind, a gift to award yourself for that glorious day when it all comes right and you are a winner. Be like an athlete.