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March 29, 2018

Writing Worries: Fighting the One-Hit-Wonder Problem

Darts on a dartboard bullseye with text: What Makes Us Feel Validated?

A few years ago, I wrote about the problem of feeling “validated” as an author. I’m updating that post today because… *whispers* …I have news. *grin* And gee, the struggle for validation hasn’t magically gone away in the interim…

Writers are often a neurotic, self-doubting lot. We doubt whether we’re telling the right story, whether we can do our idea justice, whether that sentence needs a comma or not. *smile*

That doubting continues over our writing journey, and many of us hope for validation as a means of overcoming that doubt. We hope to get an agent or a traditional publisher. We hope to win contests. And we hope for lots of readers, sales, and good reviews.

Of course, we never want to think about how that validation is only temporary. We might find an agent who doesn’t reject us, but we’re not likely to get an offer of a book deal from every publisher they submit our work to. We might receive a positive review, but we’ll likely receive a negative review eventually as well. And we might have a well-received book, but the blinking cursor taunts us with writing the followup.

That temporary nature of validation doesn’t stop most of us from wanting it however. The best we can do is try to create a healthy relationship with our validation desires. *smile*

My Journey to “Validation”

When I first started writing, I mostly just wanted assurance that I didn’t suck. Many can probably relate.

Of course, my first encounter with an editor (on a “submit a paragraph for feedback in a future post” editors’ blog) did the opposite. I learned I really did suck. *grin*

As the years and experience built up under my belt, I learned to appreciate the wins as they came. Others will be quick enough to bring us down if we let them.

First, I won a blog-submission contest. But that didn’t lead to anything with the sponsoring agent.

Years of query rejections followed. But at the same time, my contest scores improved. Lesson: we win some; we lose some.

How Much Validation Do We Need?

By the time I’d won multiple contests with Treasured Claim—to ensure the first win wasn’t fluke, of course—I’d reached the point that I no longer needed validation from an agent to have faith in my story. My long road to publication was no longer about my writing, but about my query (which sucked) and my genre (which was considered “dead” by the powers that be).

Multiple contest wins were the validation I needed to feel ready to self-publish instead of waiting for a good-enough traditional publishing deal. …And then I spent the next year revising and editing (despite those contest wins) to make sure I was really ready to debut.

Because still, even after all that, I worried. *smile*

Is It All Good? Or Just Partially Good?

My worries were legitimate because, after all, pre-publication contests typically judge a story based on only the first few chapters. Plenty of stories do well in those contests yet never manage to get a publishing deal because the rest of the story doesn’t hold up. I had no idea how my story would compare.

Yet now as a self-published author, the most validation I can usually hope for is a great review here and an email from a reader there. I have fewer options for finding contest-style validation, as there aren’t as many respected contests for published books.

(Notice I said respected contests. Plenty of “contests” go after the self-published-author crowd and seem mostly to be in the business of making money off entrance fees from self-published authors desperate for validation. *sigh*)

However, I did find a few published-book contests that have been respected for a while and now also accept self-published books. Even there, I was picky.

Using Published-Book Contests for Feedback or Validation

When I was a pre-published author, I looked for contests that used agents and editors (that I wanted to work with) for their final judges. But that’s usually irrelevant once we’re published.

Instead, published contests tend to fall into three categories. Some are judged by other authors, some are judged by a panel of “experts,” and some are judged by a segment of the reading community—readers, review bloggers, librarians, etc.

I decided to focus on the last option for the most part. (I still enter RWA’s author-judged RITA contest just because it’s the big Hulk in the romance-contest arena.) I figured that it no longer mattered what most other authors thought (or “experts” for that matter). I’d rather know what the reader community thought.

This past winter, I entered a couple of contests open to romance books published in 2017. These contests had been around for decades and used readers and librarians for judges. And then I promptly forgot about entering because I don’t have time to obsess over contests anymore. *smile*

Will They Like Our Work?

We all know that writing is subjective. Not every reader will like our story.

With random readers, we can (probably) accept that truth, even though it might hurt with bad reviews. But in a contest, each reader is a judge, and we’ll only do well if every reader likes our work.

Contests are, by their very nature, a crap shoot. All 3-5 or whatever judges might love our work, or maybe all but one will love it—dooming our score.

It’s good to remind ourselves of that truth when we don’t final in a contest. Not finaling in a contest might mean nothing—other than that reading is subjective. But finaling… *smile*

What kind of validation do we need for our writing? Click To TweetFinaling means something. Finaling means that all those reader-judges liked our work, so our work is at least good enough to not trigger a dislike from any member of a group of readers.

That essence of “meaning something” is true of most kinds of validation. Not being validated doesn’t necessarily mean anything negative about our work.

Our work can be great and still not appeal to agents or editors. It can still not find an audience in the over-saturated marketplace. And it can still not inspire readers to leave glowing reviews despite how much they enjoyed our story. None of that is necessarily a reflection on our work.

However, when we do get validation, that’s always going to feel meaningful. That means we overcame all the subjective, market craziness to connect with someone. And that’s awesome.

How Long Does the Validation Last?

Back a couple of years ago, I momentarily felt “validated” when Treasured Claim was a six-time finalist in published-author contests and Ironclad Devotion won the National Readers’ Choice Award. Those results—especially the win—created a “They like me. They really like me!” moment.

But as time went by and my writing and publishing schedule slowed down due to my multiple health issues, I wondered if my best days were behind me. I wondered if all my struggles and the interruptions had caused me to “lose my touch.”

Maybe that year-plus gap between releases meant that whatever lightning I’d caught in the bottle for my successes died out. Maybe I’d lost the rhythm and style of my voice due to disuse. Maybe my focus on the publishing process in 2015 meant I’d forgotten how to be creative for writing.

Or maybe… Maybe I was a one-year wonder

My Newest Validation…until Next Week *grin*

This year, I once again entered my latest release into those well-respected published-author contests. I won’t hear back from most of them for another month or so, but the RITA finalists were announced just the other week. And I wasn’t on the list.

That’s okay. I wasn’t seriously hoping to final in that contest because it is so big (2000 entries!). Every entry I read as a judge was somewhere between very good and nearly perfect, and not a one of those stories I loved finaled either.

Then I heard back from the other early-announcing contest—The Carolyn Award…

Stone-Cold Heart cover

Stone-Cold Heart is a finalist in the 2018 Carolyn Readers Choice Award, sponsored by the North Texas RWA chapter, in the Specialized Romance category. Yay!

So that means three of my four novels have finaled and/or won published-book contests. That means I didn’t completely lose my touch or my creative spark during my health-driven interruptions or focus on publishing. That means my earlier contest finals and wins weren’t a fluke.

That means I’m not a one-year wonder.

Yeah, I can’t lie. That kind of validation feels good. Really good. *smile*

How Important Is Validation?

I don’t know how long this good feeling will last, but I’ll hold onto it while I can. Validation might not be necessary, but we all like receiving it, even (or maybe, especially) when it’s hard to come by.

There’s always another rejection or negative review waiting around the corner because that’s life. Our journey doesn’t end at a destination.

We’ll probably never get the sense that “we’ve arrived.” There’s always a new challenge or a new speed bump to overcome.

I like that aspect of writing—that we can always improve. But it’s nice to see milestones of progress along the way too. *smile*

How important is validation to you? Where do you get your validation? What type of validation means the most to you? What type of validation would you like to receive that you haven’t gotten yet?

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What do you think?

17 Comments on "Writing Worries: Fighting the One-Hit-Wonder Problem"

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Mike L
Mike L

My first short story submission to a contest made the finals. Really. It was a thrill and a half getting there because the judges were professional writers. But I crashed and burned when the readers took over to select the best when my story took fifth (last place). Validation is a two-edged sword.

“… we can always improve.” What one how-to book would you recommend to your readers who want to be writers? (No hedging ;o)

Angela Ackerman

Jami, congrats! I am over the moon for you. And boy, this post hits me in the feels because a few days ago on FB I wrote a giant post admitting to self-doubt myself, and my struggle to kick it to the curb. (In my case, I finally realized how stupid I was for storing books in a cupboard rather than displaying them on a shelf…and so 6 years late, I did what every normal author does and moved them to my bookcase.) *lights self-doubt on fire*

You have an amazing skill with a pen, and I know you’re only just getting started. Keep rocking it, woman!

Stephanie
Stephanie

Hey, congrats! That’s awesome!

Deborah Makarios

Yay for you! I think everyone else knew you wouldn’t have lost your touch, but at least now you know they know – and they know that you know that they know. 🙂

I got a tasty tidbit of validation yesterday when Restoration Day got a good review from a stranger (Bob Docherty of Bob’s Books Blog).

I’m still looking forward to getting a review or two on one of the big sites like Amazon. But I must remember that the important thing is that I do the work that is mine to do – not basing my contentment on factors I can’t control.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Well done and I wish you luck for the final stages.
I entered a few short story contests, and journalism contests, got some awards, don’t have much time any more. I always advise people not to enter ones where you have to pay, or just to enter a couple of them to see how they run matters. That helps you know if a contest is well run or not (like blind reading of material).
Sadly most book contests I’ve seen don’t want books which are published and don’t want authors who are not published in paperback by major publishers who deal with book warehouse distributors.
However, I have to say that the awards I got made not an iota of difference to publishers, because publishers do not even open your submission letter / mail. As far as I can judge they only want to publish their friends, and nowadays they only want to publish friends who have twenty thousand social media followers and whose books are guaranteed to sell because the last three did.
Your experience may of course differ.
But as I told someone recently, a trad published book is on the shelf for six weeks to three months, typically. My books are always on the shelf, all of them. Longterm, independent publishing is the way to go.

Jocelyn
Jocelyn

Thanks for sharing your journey, Jami, from the earliest apprehensive beginnings, to the view a few twists and turns down the road. It is encouraging and educational to those of us (me) that haven’t even reached the ‘hit’ objective yet.

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Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

Woo, congratulations on the multiple contest wins! ^^

Interestingly, writing is one of the very few areas in my life that I don’t feel insecure about. XD It might be because I’ve had a lot of praise from professors, teaching assistants, other teachers, classmates, friends, and others on my writing. One of my favorite compliments was from a cognitive science course. A friend said that she didn’t understand the philosophy part of the course; but after reading my paper, she finally understood the philosophy component!! The tutor of this course also said that he kept giving me good grades because my writing is easy to read and understand. ^_^ I’ve gotten a number of compliments over the years that my writing is organized, clear, and easy to understand, so I’m probably a bit full of myself now. XD

So I definitely don’t disagree that validation feels good, lol.

Click to grab Stone-Cold Heart now!