On Literary Contests
Literary contests remind me of the song The Gambler. If you haven’t heard it before, here´s a link: The Gambler by Kenny Rogers. The song's message is that sometimes you win, most times you lose, but the important thing is “to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”
And these are exactly the questions I ponder every time I lose a literary contest. What is life trying to tell me? Should I stay in the game or just give up? Should I hold on or just run?
So let me tell you the latest:
I recently entered the International Latino Book Awards contest held in New York City. I was thrilled when I found out that my second novel, Más allá de la Justicia, had been named finalist in two categories: best novel in Spanish, and best popular novel in Spanish. I had always wanted to visit the Big Apple and now I had the perfect excuse. I was anxious to go to New York and claim, finally, my first place award! You see, I have been pursuing a first place for several years now, and have almost made it, getting as far as being nominated finalist.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but for some reason, this time, I was sure I would win. I had even selected the perfect spot on my wall where I was to display my award. Right here, next to my desk. I know I should not have "counted the money before the deal was done," but please try to understand. My metaphysics teacher (my sister) had prescribed a positive attitude (mind over matter). Visualize yourself holding the prize, Maria, she had counseled. And that’s exactly what I did. I saw myself with the prize in my hands. Yes. I had kicked Mrs. Doubt to the curb.
My conviction was such, that even after I got the bad news that neither of our two local artists’ organizations had approved my grant applications (requesting funds), I still decided to go. I didn’t want to miss my moment of triumph. So I broke my piggy bank, scoured Orbitz for the cheapest flight and negotiated an affordable apartment in NY. I then sweet-talked my sisters into coming with me. I wanted them to celebrate, and while at it, share expenses. When all was set, I filled my suitcase with more books than clothes and off I went, leaving my home, my job, my husband, and my dog behind.
We arrived to New York City on a Monday afternoon, and immediately learned the first survival rule in the Big Apple: if you need to get a taxi, you must resort to the same tactics employed when you were a child trying to get candy from a piñata: you push, snatch and pinch. Yes, there we were, whistling and screaming like verduleras de mercado, totally Mexican Style. You see, no one told us the trick about the lights on top of the cab (which light up when the cab is available). After a while, a taxi finally stopped, and before the driver had a chance to change his mind or drive away, we quickly tossed in our suitcases and settled ourselves in the car. Less than half a block away, the driver, of imprecise origin, asked “Do you like Obama?” We exchanged a look. “Yes. We like him,” we said. The car screeched to a halt. “Get out of my car!” he screamed. We didn't move. Really? Was he serious? Just in case, I became a Republican right then and there. “Actually, we don’t like him that much,” I said, cautiously, and he seemed satisfied, for he drove away in a vertiginous speed, Mexico City style. During the rest of the hasty drive he proceeded to pitch his political opinions over and over again. From him we learned that Obama would be visiting Manhattan soon. Apparently no one was happy about it, especially not the cab drivers. I took his coming as a sigh of good luck.
If you have never heard of the www.Airbnb.com website, I highly recommend it. It’s a great way to find affordable accommodations when traveling. Through them we found a small, but impressively clean, apartment in East Manhattan. When we arrived, two young men greeted us at the lobby and cavalerlily, grabbing our suitcases, they guided us to the elevator. I must say that our landlord did not look at all like his Airbnb profile photo, where he appears wearing a suit and tie, very professional. Before us was a young man in faded jeans, an old T-shirt and Nikes.
*Side comment: it’s a good thing this was not an online dating arrangement… actually, come to think of it, I think he would have been the most disappointed.
After countless floors, we were taken through a long dark corridor. Walking behind them I noticed that our escorts had ample tattoos on their arms, necks and God only knows were else. It was evident that they did some kind of cross fit or p90x training. They were strong. Plus, they spoke in an unrecognizable language. My writer’s mind immediately started conjuring up the possible scenarios:
- We were about to be kidnapped by the Russian Mafia
- Mexican cartels were following my twitter feed and thought I would be receiving a hefty award and not just a colorful piece of paper.
- Our mothers-in-law had hired some thugs to throw us out the balcony.
Inside the apartment, I discreetly placed myself right next to the door. The men proceeded to give us all sorts of instructions: how to turn on the air conditioning, access the Internet, and flush the toilet. Meanwhile, I searched the kitchen looking for knives, or at least a broomstick. After a few minutes of polite conversation they handed us the keys and they left. So, as it turned out, they were indeed who they said they were, our young landlords. And by the way, they were not Russian. They were from Israel.
The next morning, I ironed my jacket, grabbed my business cards and my bag full of books, and off I went to Book Expo America (BEA). My plan? To get an editor; someone who would adopt me and my daughters (my beloved novels) forever and ever. If I didn’t find one, then at least I’d get a matchmaker – a literary agent who would find my Prince Charming.
At the BEA, I was greeted with a surprise. As an author, I had to pay a $200.00 fee. Let me mention that the BEA is the largest industry trade show in the country. In other words, everyone that has something to do with the publishing industry is present conducting business. Good business. We are talking about bookstores, distributors, editors, printers, agents, publicists, etc.; a whole industry that revolves around people who create content, aka, the authors. Sadly, in the pyramid of revenue, we get the smallest piece of the pie. It seems that a courtesy pass was in order. I mean, just saying…
I shared my point of view with the lady behind the counter. She smiled. Then she asked for my Visa. I offered her a copy of my novel instead of payment. She politely declined. I offered to sign it for her and explained, patiently, that she was talking to the future winner of the International Latino Book Award. She chuckled. I paid.
*My advice: if you made prior appointments with editors, make sure to ask them for a pass. Alternatively, schedule the meetings in their office.
The sheer immensity of the trade show left me feeling like a tiny ant. It was madness. The booths were crammed with people. It was worse than a Christmas Posada. Everyone was pushing and talking at the same time. Even though I had a map and had carefully planned my visit weeks before in Seattle, I got lost. I circled and circled like a hula-hoop. I became claustrophobic. I even forgot my name. I fled.
*Advice: take a GPS
Once outside, the line to get a taxi circled the block. I was going to be late for my award! I took my place at the end, resigned to wait. After a couple of minutes, a man came by and offered to drive the person directly ahead of me to his destination for $15.00. The man, who was dressed in a suit, accepted the offer. The driver then turned to me and made the same proposition. I accepted. Instantly. I followed them into a black car with tinted windows. “What are you doing?” I thought, as soon as the doors of the car locked. The driver began talking rapidly on his radio in another language. I recognized one word: babushka. Grandma. He was talking about me! In Russian! I knew it! This guy was a Mafioso and the suited guy, sitting next to me, was hisaccomplice. For a nanosecond, I thought about throwing myself out the window. But it was too late. The car was already speeding down the street. Suddenly, the driver demanded his money. Yes. He wanted his $15.00. What a relief! I was pretty sure someone, somewhere, would pay more than a few bucks for my life. I opened my wallet, nervously, and I handed him my Visa. “I only take cash, lady,” he said. I searched through my purse. "Sorry, but I have no cash," I mumbled. The accomplice smiled, pulled out his wallet and paid $30.00. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I got it.” I was dumbfounded. The Russian mobster was a gallant gentleman! I was so grateful, I almost kissed him. But I was also embarrassed, so I refused his help and asked the driver to drop me off at the corner. The man, having already pocketed the money, was not about to stop. “Lady, take his money, ‘cause this don’t happen in NY too much. You know?”
*Advice: Learn Russian
We arrived at the Instituto Cervantes, where the awards ceremony would take place, with time to spare. It was such a beautiful place, with indoor gardens and an elegantly decorated cocktail room. The spread of appetizers was extraordinary. The guests were interesting and fun to talk to. I had the pleasure of meeting some of my colleagues, who, like me, had probably already found the perfect spot on their walls to hang their award. I met the organizers as well, and took the opportunity to thank them for the immense support they provide to Latino/a writers. It was then, after a second sip of white wine, that I started contemplating, for the first time, that I might not win. Amidst cheese and crackers, Mrs. Doubt slowly crept into my soul. I recognized the feeling; I felt it many times before, and I should be used to it by now - an amalgam of insecurity and hope, a sweet and sour paste. Like Mexican mole.
The ceremony began and my anxiety grew as the names of the winners were called. I looked at the program and learned, for the first time, the identity of the authors who were finalists in my categories. As a rule, I never want to know, mostly to avoid disappointment. In the Best Novel – Spanish category, which was the one that mattered to me the most, I spotted the name Javier Sierra, the Spanish author of El Angel Perdido. Right then I realized the prize was not mine. Javier Sierra is a literary contest addict. He is also one of Planeta Editores authors, with many titles to his name.
It is difficult to unravel the storm of emotions I felt, all at once, that very moment. Here is my best attempt:
(1) Surprise - are you sure you read that name correctly? (2) Disbelief - did I really lose again? (3) Fury - that sucks! (4) Envy - why would she get that prize, her book is unreadable! (5) Contempt - I knew it! Contests are always pre-arranged! (6) Humiliation - now what the heck will I tweet or post on Facebook? (7) Self-hate - you are such a fool, did you really think you would win? (8) Sadness - Dear God, don’t You think I have done my part here? (9) Depression - I give up! And YES, I know “when to walk away and when to run,” and the time is RIGHT NOW.
I wanted to run. Badly. Leave on the fly, like Cinderella, before anyone noticed that my carriage was, in fact, a pumpkin and my dress (a loaner), only rags.
That was the worst: having to remain. I was not going to make a scene. I was not a poor loser. No. Cinderella was to smile and congratulate the winners, thank everyone for their kindness and even dine with friends and celebrate, because, after all, it was just a contest, something trivial, unimportant... Actually, I have to say, that was the worst, the condolences of well-intended people. Did not want to hear them...
*My advice: don’t go to award ceremonies. Just wait at home for the phone call, with the good (or bad) news.
I allowed myself that night to "lick my wounds." Not a minute more, and not a minute less. The next morning, over our first cup of coffee, I asked my sisters to entertain me, to sing, dance, or tell jokes. Anything that would make me laugh. “That’s why I brought you,” I said, “You are my anti-depressants.” And this is exactly why I love my sisters with all my heart, because that is what they did. From that moment we laughed so hard that we cried. In fact, this is when the true New York adventure began. Like we say in my country, we let it all hang loose.
*Polite request: Please do not tell our husbands or our mothers-in-law. What happens in NY stays in NY.
In less than three days we gobbled up the whole city: Broadway, the Financial District, Times Square, the 9/11 Memorial, the Statue of Liberty, Little Italy, Chinatown, The Met. We ditched our diets and ate everything we could think of: hot dogs, chocolates, pasta, cupcakes, cookies, you name it. We shopped, we played, and we celebrated in every which way we could think of.
*My advice: bring your sisters everywhere you go. They will sweeten your adventures way more than any chocolate on the pillow ever could.
In conclusion, I am not sure if participating in literary contests is a good thing to do. The debate goes on and on amongst writers. Some believe that it is a waste of time. Others, like Javier, would die before missing one. If you want to learn more about the pros and cons, here you have the well-informed opinions of either Estrella Cardona Gamio or Raul Silanes
As for me, I have decided that I will continue to go after my first place. Only next time I will go about it differently. First, I will ask my sisters which country they would like to visit. Then I will enter a contest in that place and this is where we will go, to win, or to lose. If we get invited to the award ceremony we will send our regrets. Instead, we shall celebrate (or not) the results on a beach, over mango margaritas.
On my wall, right next to my desk, I placed this photo, which I am now sharing with you. Someday, I hope to replace it with a first place award that will come, without Mrs. Doubt, with the next novel. Meanwhile, here I am, likeThe Gambler, still betting.