What To Do When You Fail: How I Handled Blatantly Losing The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest

Yesterday morning, I got the email I had been waiting for since last year: the list of novels that made it past the first round of Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award contest had been put up.

Like a high school freshman desperate to make the varsity team, I clamored onto Amazon’s website, frantically checked the list … and could downright hear the “whomp whomp” go off in the background.

I knew it was a long shot. There were almost 10,000 entries, and only 400 would survive the first round cut. That is a less than 5% chance of making it. And I was warned that the first round is a complete crapshoot; that there’s no way to really quantify why certain pitches made it and other pitches didn’t. And — between you and me — I’d like to pretend that my pitch was at least in the top 10%. Sometimes I even indulge myself in thinking that I was pitch #401.

But I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: it doesn’t matter how often you tell yourself that the odds are stacked against you – it doesn’t matter how often you delude yourself into thinking that you’re the diamond in the rough that accidentally slipped through their fingers – rejection really lets the wind out of your sails. I can tell myself that rejection is the name of the game, that at least this contest gave me a chance to revamp my manuscript, that I have so many other things waiting in the wings for me, but it doesn’t matter: I saw that list, I saw my name very much not on that list, and I just wanted to hug a puppy and eat some chocolate. The narcissist in me — the narcissist in all of us — eats rejection like a plate of rotten meat, all the while cursing the world for putting it in front of us in the first place.

I looked at all the hard work I did: overhauling that first manuscript, polishing the novel as a whole, reworking the synopsis and pitch until my fingers were downright blistering. And then I looked at my second manuscript, which is completed but only partially edited, and I felt an incredible fatigue wash over me. I couldn’t help but see how unmarketable both really were at the end of the day. I wanted to close out everything, shut down my computer, and admit defeat.

But you know what I did instead? I put on some music, grooved out as I got some very necessary housework done, took a shower, sat down, and continued to write my third manuscript. I wrote out a solid chunk of a scene, stopping only when I couldn’t figure out how the rest of the scene was going to go. I sent a few emails out and I revamped the query letter for my first manuscript. I then went off to work, singing along to whatever songs I wanted during my commute and keeping my mind on the positives.

Tuukka Rask is an incredible hockey goalie, not because he’s a brick wall that can shut out the competition, but because he doesn’t let a few missed goals throw him off balance. Anderson Silva is considered one of the greatest fighters of all time, not just because of his skill, but also his ability to come back even when he had been tossed around left and right for the majority of the fight. Stephen King used to have a spike set on his wall, so he could publicly display all of the rejection letters he used to get. I know it’s campy and overused, but it’s not about how often you succeed, but how you act when you fail – what you do to get back up – that defines your character, that shows the world exactly what you’re made of.

I was talking with my best friend last night, about all the writer friends we used to know (and when you go to college for English, all you know are writer people). How many of them had continued to write after they had graduated? How many of them still write to this day? And how many of them saw the hurdles — the writer’s block, the frustration, the rejection, the insurmountable odds — and just went along with their daily lives, their desk jobs, working for the weekend, fantasizing about an alternative reality where they’re a mega bestseller, going on Letterman to promote their newest book? How many of them decided that it wasn’t worth the extra effort and let it effortlessly fall by the wayside?

The fantasy of me being a bestseller by 25 is long gone (especially since I’m starting to toe into my 28th year *gulp*), and I am pretty sure I’m jamming up some part of Gmail with all my saved rejection emails. But I have made incredible strides forward, I am doing things that other would-be writers wish they could do, and I continue to move forward no matter what. Just because I can’t sell a manuscript, just because I can’t win a contest — it doesn’t take away from the progress I’m making.

Everything happens exactly the way it’s supposed to happen, and for a very exact reason. All I can do is have faith that I’m on the right path and believe that eventually something will click. That someday I’ll read that proverbial list, find my name, and finally join the varsity team. TC mark

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