March 17, 2009

A friend recently wrote to say she was depressed and angry after her debut novel failed to make the shortlist of nominees for this year's Lambda Awards. Here is my response:

Dear ____

Now you're sounding like a real writer.

I felt exactly the same after my book got bumped from the shortlist of another prestigious award. I felt worse when I saw the books that made it to the list, and far worse when I read the book that won. And then it got really bad when a colleague told me one of the jurors had hated my book and given it a terrible review.

The truth is, your novel was funny and touching and well written, but that's no guarantee it will be a prize winner. The Great Gatsby didn't win any prizes and received mostly bad to mediocre reviews when it was published. Then Fitzgerald had a shitty life and died at 44 thinking himself a failure. Gatsby eventually went on to become a major bestseller and one of the most beloved novels of all time. So who's laughing now? (I don't know either, but it ain't Fitzgerald. That much I can tell you.)

All of which is to say, getting your book published is a little like winning the lottery. It doesn't happen to everyone. And even if the world doesn't care, it should be a big deal to you. Enjoy the fact that people bought your book, and were touched or cheered by it, or maybe were just impressed by the fact that YOU ARE A PUBLISHED AUTHOR. You now belong to a small but select group, and that in itself is an achievement.

In future, when you win your award for whichever book you write that manages to attract the tastemakers of whatever year it gets published in, do yourself a favour. Remind yourself that no matter how good or popular it is, it is probably not the best thing you will ever write. And then get going on the next one. It's all in the work.

Most so-called overnight successes take years to get to the top, and most of the real instant successes are forgotten tomorrow anyway. Just write the best you can and always-always-be thankful for your talent. You won't take the prizes or the money to the grave with you, but you can live knowing you accomplished something remarkable.

That may not cheer you up, but it should give you a little perspective on what kind of territory we work in. It's not always nice or kind or fair (in fact, usually it's not.) But we can hold our heads up knowing that we're the sort of people who live with integrity and respect for our talent. And that's something.

Now gwan -- get writing.


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