Okay, so. There’s this contest that I routinely submit to, and while said contest shall remain nameless, you can probably figure out which I’m talking about through context, but since this rant isn’t about the contest, it’s in regards to something else tangentially related, there shall be no names named.
Now, I’ve been prowling this contest’s forum board looking for updates ’cause I was one of those fools who submitted via paper and post rather than online submission form ’cause tradition and what have you. Due to that choice, I’m waiting for the results to go live on the site, since I likely won’t get a rejection notice.
Anyway. While on this forum, I stumbled on a thread, and while reading this thread, I’d come across this little tidbit of advice that set me to boiling:
That you NEED to win this contest if you want to make a career in writing speculative fiction, specifically in the sci-fi and fantasy spectrum. That if you’re involved in that community, you truly must believe that this is the only way.
And I call bullshit.
See, I fell for that same very attractive line of reasoning. For easily three years, I submitted nowhere else, because I was entirely convinced that the only way to make it in my field was to win that contest. And because I was submitting something to someone, I also managed to convince myself that I was on top of things and doing everything I could to start building toward publication. And then, after awhile and so many rejections later, it became so easy to just… stop. Stop submitting, stop putting things out there, stop hitting submit buttons.
And that piece of advice, at least to me, looked very much like a variation of the same pit I’d managed to dig myself into. If we’re just going with numbers, the likelihood of winning that contest is pretty slim, not because a writer isn’t “good enough” for it, but because there are just. so. many. submissions. We’re talking thousands. Out of those thousands, there can be only three winners. Of course, there’s various ranks of winning beneath those (finalists, semi-finalists, honorable mentions, and so on) but it’s still only three for final publication, and as I’ve been reminded countless times, publishers don’t care how many honorable mentions you’ve had. Because winning that contest isn’t always just about getting the credit; it’s also about winning the opportunity to connect with people in the industry and a chance at name recognition.
It’s said that there are many paths to publication. This is true, but I also wish to introduce a secondary metaphor: be a farmer.
If you plant only one seed for one tree in your vast plot of land, banking on the hope that that one seed not only takes, but flourishes, there’s a great risk there of stagnation.
There’s a chance you’ll be submitting for years to one market, and placing all your bets on one editor/slush reader clicking with what you write. Or (and this has also been advice on the boards) change what you write to fit what they like. And that… strikes me as so problematic, especially for a contest that is designed for those just starting their publishing journey*. This is a choice, but not the only choice.
And it’s not constrained to just this contest. I’d once come across someone who was convinced the only way to publish a book was with a particular imprint of a particular Big 5 publisher, and because of that, submitted nowhere else, not even to agents. I’ve met people who insist the only way to publish a novel is to get a short story published in a pro-level market, and maybe win an award or two. I’ve met people who insist the opposite, that short stories are a waste of time and the only chance of success—big, career-making success—is to sell a book. This is still the equivalent of planting your one seed and hoping it sprouts.
Or you can go scatter-shot. Throw as many seeds as you can. Of course be strategic about it; don’t go throwing seeds on concrete and be pissed when nothing happens. But the more seeds you’ve planted, the greater the possibility that something will grow, something will flower, and when you have trees with fruit, there’s a chance that some of those fallen apples will yield more seeds.
And maybe that first tree is the one that makes your career. Maybe that first tree is the one that leads to so many opportunities. But maybe it’s the fourth tree or the eighth tree or the fifteenth. And maybe while you’re pruning and tending tree number ten, tree number one had a growth spurt when you weren’t looking. Maybe multiple trees start flowering all at once and you feel like you’ve hit gold. Maybe only one flowers, but it’s enough to start you on your path**.
I also find that being a farmer about my submissions allows me to spread my attentions (read, obsessions) and hopes, so that when I do get that inevitable rejection, it becomes a shrug-and-keep-going thing, instead of a world-ending-all-my-dreams-are-dust thing. If that one tree isn’t growing the way I’d hoped, or that batch of seeds didn’t take, that’s okay.
I have other trees to tend.
* This is not wrong. I want to point out this isn’t a wrong approach, and can be (and is) perfectly legitimate. When writing for hire or for existing IPs, being flexible is often a bonus, as your writing might have to adapt for the desires and needs of the IP’s readership.
** Paths which, from my observations, are rarely straight, rarely well-maintained, having multiple branching forks that can take you down unexpected detours and to new destinations, and they never look like anyone else’s. Maybe the metaphor should be less “path,” like garden path or forest path or bike trail, and more like “wading waist-deep in swamp water.”