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Happy News: When Our Work Surprises Us

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

The past couple months, I've been cheating on my main work in progress (a novel) by competing in a couple micro and flash fiction contests. These competitions act as a palate cleanser from the challenges of working on a long project, and they help hone skills in condensing and refining a story to its most essential components.

This past weekend, I completed the second round of NYC Midnight's Flash Fiction Challenge. Participants are assigned to groups and provided a genre, location, and object to include in a story with a 1,o00 word max that they must complete and submit within 48 hours. Based on my experience so far, I'd highly recommend participating in one of their contests if you would like a challenge and the entry fee doesn't chase you off.

Brace yourself: what follows is probably going to feel like a humblebrag, though that's not my intent. When the round 1 results were posted on Thursday, I was utterly shocked to see that I'd come in first in my group of ~35 writers. The reason for that shock was that I'd written off my prospects almost entirely. Points are awarded to the top 15 stories in each group, and I didn't expect to make that cut. My round 1 prompts were the following: genre: action/adventure, location: ravine, and object: air pump. Action/adventure is wayyyyyyy out of my comfort zone. Part of the beauty of this type of challenge is that it shoves us out of our normal writing routine in a way that can yield unexpected positive results. But I didn't feel confident that I'd nailed the genre. My pacing was off. I fell in love with the location and spent more words than I should have developing it. My first draft, which I had to break up with, was over 2,000 words and had too many characters. The second day I worked on the story, I practically started over, reducing the cast of characters to three. I still ended up with a first draft of the new version coming in at ~1,500 words. When I managed to tame that draft to under 1,000 words, it felt like its own small win, but that didn't mean I felt confident in the story. That's what I had regret about when I saw the results, how much self-doubt I'd given into. Don't get me wrong, it made the wait easier when I had no expectation of seeing myself among those who placed, but as writers we have to have confidence in ourselves and know what we have to offer, whether we execute on it 100% every time or not.

That's the takeaway I wanted to share. If we send our writing out into the world, the path is thick with rejection. If we don't have belief in ourselves that is unshakeable (let's be honest, mostly unshakable) by rejection, we're not gonna make it. As my bestie/write-or-die buddy always reminds me, we need to keep our minds focused on the best possible outcome, envisioning ONLY that. Necessary caveat: we do need to have a realistic sense of our own writing chops. We've all been in a class or contest or bar with the person absolutely sure they were going to be the next Hemingway or Faulkner (why's it always those guys?!). Spoiler: those folks are never anywhere close to that level of expertise or dedication to pursuing it. They're waiting for someone to recognize their innate genius and throw flowers at their feet. But most of us writers know that it is endless work, and a process that evolves as we gain more experience, in life and in writing.

What I want to encourage my compatriots to do is have faith in ourselves. Know what we're good at and feel confident in it, and know what we need work in and put in the time and effort to continue to improve on that front. Also, don't let our chase of perfection blind us to what's good about our writing. Only part of the process is up to us. We don't control who else we're competing against and how well their work fits the assignments at hand, and judging writing is subjective. When there's a spark of something that excites you in your work, don' t let anything snuff it out. Sometimes it's that 100th submission of the same piece that finds its perfect home. Keep at it, and happy writing!

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