My nine-year-old daughter just entered two writing contests. “I hope I win,” she told me yesterday.
“So do I,” I said. “But the odds are that you won’t. And if that happens, it doesn’t mean your story isn’t good.”
One of the contests is run by the American Library in Paris, and I have no idea how many entries were received and how good they were, but I imagine the competition is stiff, and I told her so. The second contest I have more insight into. I am 1 of 12 judges, so I know that 161 entries were submitted and only 30 can win, fewer than 1 in 5. I also know that most of them are competently written. I couldn’t just sort them into “good” and “bad” because so many were good. I had to use a different kind of filter.
When you read so many pieces, especially when they’re all on the theme of Asia, they tend to blend together. If most people write a fairy tale beginning with “once upon a time,” the first person who doesn’t will get my attention. If nearly everyone has a panda or dragon (or both) in the story, the first person who writes about a hamster or a ham sandwich (or anything besides pandas and dragons) will earn my gratitude. If half the entries include a quest with a riddle, then the first one that doesn’t will seem like the solution to my every problem. And if you tell me something I don’t know (for instance, that kindergarten girls in Tokyo take the subway to school by themselves, with GPS devices embedded in their backpacks) I will follow you anywhere on the planet, for pages and pages, to learn more.
Maybe it was harsh of me to tell my daughter her chances are not good. But 1 out of 5 is much better than the odds I face. For example, when I received an acceptance letter from the journal Pleiades, the editor told me they publish 5 to 10 stories per year and receive over 5,000 submissions. The odds are 1 in 500, at best.
What I learned, as a writer, from this contest can be summed up in two words: Surprise me.
What I learned, as a person, is more complicated. Did I choose the best stories and poems? Yes, if “best” means the result of one idiosyncratic person’s subjective filters. No, if “best” means all the others are not as good. I rejected stories that other people will like more than the ones I chose. I couldn’t choose all that were good enough to win.
I’ll explain this all to my daughter once the results are announced. I’ll also try to remind myself, next time I’m rejected. It’s a useful thing to know. Not just for writing, but for life.