I heard about the Utah Arts Council Original Writing Competition from one of my grad school professors. This was in 2007–I’d been writing novels for seven years. I had five novels drafted and had been sending books out for years and receiving form rejections.
So when I heard about the Young Adult Novel category, I didn’t have high hopes. But my policy was to send things out because books that sit in drawers don’t get published (or win awards), so I shipped off the manuscript, made a note in my submission-tracking spread sheet, and forgot about it.
Several months later my phone rang. I still remember where I was standing–I was outside the door to my apartment, and my fiancé had just arrived to pick me up. I answered my phone while he opened the door to the car, and the nice man on the other end of the line told me that I’d won first place.
I must have sounded dazed. My policy was to send things off and not think about them again until the rejections came in, so I had quite literally forgotten about the submission. And here was the kind person from the Utah Arts Council, telling me that my forgotten unpublished novel had been chosen as the best submission they received that year.
The category is now a first-novel contest, but at the time it wasn’t. That meant that the judges had a pool of novels, some of which had been written by published novelists.
And they picked mine.
This was my first success as a writer.
Think about that.
I wrote books for seven years, without one single success. Nothing got published. No one paid me. I believed in my work; I believed in what I was writing. But standing outside my front door that day, watching my fiancé open up the car, I received my first external validation that what I was doing wasn’t just a waste. That my writing, which meant something to me, could be plucked out of the slush by someone with power and chosen as best.
There was a cash prize, which represented the very first money I was ever paid for my work. More important than that was the editorial letter I received from one of the judges, offering suggestions for how I might improve the book for publication.
But most of all, what this represented to me was hope–hope that if it happened once, it could happen again.
And it did.
Winning that writing contest was like a step through the doorway into the publishing world. A few months later, I received an email from an agent who had offered representation to the previous winner of that same contest and promptly combed the list of winners, looking for potential clients.
I signed with that agent a month later.
The journey for that book has been long. It’s only now, another seven years later, that Everything’s Fine (with a shiny new title) is at last available to readers.
Publishing is a process–a slow one. So the best thing you can do for yourself and your work is to take advantage of every opportunity that comes along.
You never know which one will mark your first success.
See also Janci’s October 2012 New Voices interview in celebration of her debut novel, Chasing the Skip (Henry Holt). Peek: “I had a deadline last Thanksgiving, so I wrote in my in-laws’ basement. I’ve written in the car on road trips, and at parks, and at the library. I’ve found that where there’s a will to fit in some writing, a space can be discovered in which to do it.”