Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Are you expecting to lose?

On my last night at RWA Nationals in New York , I attended the award ceremony for the Golden Hearts and RITAs.

It’s pretty much like the Academy Awards for romance writers, though I was disappointed to discover attendees did not receive schwag bags stuffed with diamond tennis bracelets.

We did have the pleasure listening to 22 authors squeal and sob with excitement over winning the prestigious awards. It made me proud and joyful and a little sniffly to watch the whole thing unfold.

But it also made me oddly uncomfortable.

I’ll preface this by saying I’ve never stood in the shoes of an author accepting an award like that, and I’m well aware that the first words out of your mouth as you step up to the mike may not be what you mean to say. If I’m lucky enough to ever win a RITA, I'm certain my speech will begin with copious amounts of cursing and a declaration that I forgot to don underwear.

Nevertheless, I was disheartened that well over half the award recipients chose to begin their two-minute acceptance speeches with some variation of the following:

“Ohmygosh, I totally didn’t expect to win, so I didn’t prepare anything to say!”

Really?

Maybe it’s a form of modesty. Certainly it would be off-putting to have someone grab the mike and shriek, “you guys, I totally knew I'd kick everyone’s ass!”

But what I fear is that they really didn’t expect to win.

That makes me sad.

Believe me, I know the urge for self-preservation when it comes to rejection. I’ve been there many times, hoping for an offer from a agent, or eventually, a call from my agent to say the book deal was finally, FINALLY going to happen. I know the feeling of not wanting to believe the good thing might happen because it would make the letdown that much harder.

But no matter what, I always hoped it might happen. That hope was generally enough to drive me to imagine what I might say, do, and drink when presented with honors ranging from a book deal to a Nobel Prize.

That's not to say my imaginary speech would go off without a hitch. I'm certain the cursing and stupid comments would come spurting forth like man chowder from a pork sword.

But the one phrase I can never imagine myself uttering is “I didn’t expect this.”

Shouldn’t we always expect it, at least a little? If you don’t plan the details of your future success, aren’t you setting yourself up for failure?

Feel free to disagree with me on this. I certainly don’t mean to disparage any of the award winners, and lord knows I don't claim to always say the right thing. Just see the “man chowder” comment above for evidence of that.

So what do you think? Er, not about man chowder. Have you heard people accepting awards with the caveat that they expected to lose and therefore, didn't prepare anything to say? Have you done it yourself? What prompts this? Please share, I'd love to know.

And for the record, I am wearing underwear. At the moment, anyway.

28 comments :

Matthew MacNish said...

Hmm. On the one hand I think that humility is an important virtue for any creative person. I mean we're all tortured, in some ways, by the forces that drive us, and if we weren't we probably wouldn't be very creative.

But, on the other, I don't think it's all that wise to admit to having nothing prepared in that kind of situation. I mean it just feels like a bit of a cop out. Not that it's that big of a deal, but I'm sure everyone there knew they were flattered, surprised, and altogether giddy.

I don't know. I'm not very organized or professional, so I've really no room to judge.

Sarah W said...

I don't know. I'd like to think I'd have it together enough to say, "Wow! Thank you! I thought it was a buzz to get nominated, but this is a rush!" But who knows?

Quick, someone hand me an award, and we'll see!

One of my favorite awards speeches was given Robert Downey, Jr. -- I think for SAG? He got up there and said something like, "My wife kept saying that Matt Damon was going to win, so it's her fault that I have no idea what to say." And then he went on the say so cool stuff.

Laura Maylene said...

It's a form of modesty, an attempt to be a gracious winner, and is also perhaps rooted in insecurities. It's also something women are much more likely to do than men. Men are more likely to just accept the award and say "thank you" and feel they deserved it.

I used to do the whole "Oh wow I didn't expect this!" routine too, or at least I did when I won a really big writing prize at my college graduation. (My blog post about that is here.) I now regret acting like it was such a shock that I won. Yes, I really was shocked, and honored and humbled and in disbelief...but of course I had hoped I'd win and thought I had a chance.

I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote: "I know the feeling of not wanting to believe the good thing might happen because it would make the letdown that much harder." That's how it was for me and the prize, too; I wanted to convince myself it didn't matter, that I didn't have a shot anyway. So I think those acceptance speeches are a combination of not wanting to hope and then trying, even if subconsciously, to not appear full of yourself when you win.

If I am ever lucky enough to win another big writing award, I am going to try avoid the "Wow I didn't expect this!" routine...but, frankly, if that's the worst thing that I do/say, it would be a relief.

Laura Maylene said...

Ha, Sarah. I like your take -- let's all get prestigious awards and see what what happens.

Danica Avet said...

This was my second award ceremony and it was the same as last year. I don't mind, for the most part.

Probably because I know if I won, I wouldn't be able to speak coherently. Hell, I wouldn't even make it to the stage to accept the award. I'd trip over my feet, crack my head on the steps, and have to be taken to the hospital where I'll babble to the attending physicians about my awesome award. Next thing you know, I'm never invited to another conference again.

Jen J. Danna said...

I agree that we should always expect it, at least a little. The drive that gets us this far is what will give us that expecation. We've worked hard, surely we deserve the recognition? Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that conceit and overconfidence are called for. But a little piece inside us has to be pushing for success or we'd have thrown in the towel long ago. This profession, and the battering that ensues from it, would have beaten us long ago if we didn't have that drive to succeed and that little voice inside whispering 'you can do this'.

I'm such a coward when it comes to public speaking that I'd never take the change of having nothing prepared. But that may be just me...

Patty Blount said...

You make an excellent point - we SHOULD expect great things. But I can tell you it's a hard road to travel (yes, i said hard) because it leads to so much disappointment.

Take me, for example, I entered SEND and my last book in the Golden Hearts. I think SEND is my best book to date and my scores? They were EXACTLY the same as last year's. This was such a major let-down for me, so much so, I vowed no more contests.

If I may post unsolicited advice in response to the whole public speaking thing - Dale Carnegie. Dayjob sent me to a Dale Carnegie class and it truly helped me overcome my paralyzing fear of speaking in public. In fact, I've gotten quite good at it.

Patrick Alan said...

When I win my RITA, I am totally going to snub the other nominees and say, "let's be honest, we all knew I was going to win, because I and my book are just that awesome. Kudos to you for acknowledging that."

And then I will tear my shirt off and flex for the remainder of my allotted speech time.

Patrick Alan said...

Also - it is unfair that you can put "manchowder from a pork sword" in a conversation and everyone thinks you're cute, but if I was to say such a thing....

Jennifer Harrington said...

My favorite acceptance speech was when Emma Thompson won for best screenplay for Sense and Sensibility. (I forget whether it was Oscars or Golden Globe--it's an extra on the DVD, however.) She read a lovely speech prepared as though Jane Austen had written it. It was entertaining, gracious, and thanked all the people she wanted to thank. A role model if I ever find myself receiving an award!

Kari Lynn Dell said...

For me, it's a superstition thing. I'd be afraid preparing a speech would jinx me. Like when I'm at a rodeo, and I refuse to look at the trophy buckles before I rope. Except with the speech I'd be so anal about being cool and composed I wouldn't be able to resist planning something, so I'd have the whole thing memorized in my head anyway, so I might as well write it down, right? Except maybe it's the actual writing it down than would jinx me...

It sucks when my phobias start butting heads.

Becky Taylor said...

I think they did expect it--they just lied in an attempt to pull off the whole humility, gracious nod to the other noms, "wow, really, me?" thing. Personally, I think it is IMPOSSIBLE to pull off anything in life if you don't first believe in it, next, work like a dog for it, and then, expect it to happen. Even then, it doesn't mean it will. And I'm not saying that those receiving the awards were not being genuine, I'm just saying they didn't know how to genuinely say, "I wanted this! I wanted this so much!!" Without the fear of sounding like greedy, outcome oriented hand rubbers. Honestly, most writers I know have been so humbled by the whole publishing process that when they smile, you can see the gaps where they've had their teeth knocked out. So when they finally get an AWARD! They say stuff like, "Wow, I didn't expect this..."

Of course you did. You had to in order to even get here. Personally, I don't think it makes you a bad person to want recognition like that.

Crystal Posey said...

Patrick's comment wins!

I wasn't even there and even I noticed this through the RWA tweets. All I kept thinking was, am I the only one who runs her kids out of the kitchen so she can act out her acceptance speech. Oh yes. I do. Often.

Lisa Ahn said...

I agree with what Jen wrote about about needing to have faith in ourselves to carry us through the bumps. I can't comment on the actual speeches because I wasn't there, and I am no star at public speaking either. But, the larger issue for me is the practice of imagining success, the goal I want to achieve. It's a way of creating my own story, the narrative I want to unfold ahead of me. It's easier to work towards a goal that I have clearly in my mind. Plus, honestly, it's fun to imagine what I'd say to Oprah . . .

Jeannie Moon said...

I think if we don't believe we can be the BEST, why do it? When I write, my goal is not to be a midlist author, it's to be a bestselling author and I want to win a RITA someday.

I've always told my kids, whatever you do, strive to be the best. If you don't want to be the best, what's the point? And I do think you can aim high and be humble. The two are not mutually exclusive.

dianehenders said...

"Man chowder from a pork sword"! *Rolls on floor shrieking* Thanks for starting my day off right.

I don't know that I'd have a polished acceptance speech ready, but mine would definitely include a sincere thank you and a big grin. Not, "I didn't expect this." If I work hard and do my best, some little part of me expects to be rewarded.

Maybe so many people react that way because it's difficult for people to accept a compliment graciously. In everyday life, how often do you hear "What, this old thing?" instead of "Thank you"? :-)

Laura Maylene said...

Be right back, I'm busy contacting the Golden Hearts/RITA folks to order them to award something to Patrick next year just so we can see his acceptance speech.

Therese said...

I've also noticed these "I didn't expect..." speeches and want to yell, "then why try?"

There may be some male-female issues in this mix regarding humility vs arrogance. It was a male speaker at a workshop on success that described it as men like to choose friends who have a greater success ratio so they can tap into the, "I hang with winners so I am one." But women find comfort in a we're-all-the-same so they can commiserate about their trials and efforts, and a win kicks them out of the herd.

Jason said...

Question, because I really don't know: Was there a finite list the winners were chosen from, like the Academy Awards? If so that means each nominee had an x percent chance of winning (one out of five, 20%, for example). Then the odds are still against you yes, but high enough I would think one may want to think about the what-if-they-win scenario.

I agree that one doesn't want to come off cocky (maybe that shouldn't be paired with the pork sword comment), but I like to see a little confidence.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I'm with you on this completely. I mean, expecting to lose is like stomping on your novel and saying, 'Not good enough!' Which is sad, like you were saying. Humility is good, it really is, but I think there's also a fair amount of humility in admitting that sometimes the story isn't your own work of genius, but a great story that you were just the vessel for. That's my opinion, at least. :)

Teri Anne Stanley said...

I'm still pondering the "man chowder from a..." OH! okay. *snort*

Judy, Judy, Judy said...

I think it's sad that people aren't willing to risk a little disappointment in order to hope for a win for themselves. To me it would be such an honor to be nominated I'd feel duty bound to consider the possibility that I might win and prepare for it.
And, BTW, Tawna, if you're ever nominated, I'm going to that conference just so I can hear your speech if you win.
Can you write an acceptance speech that uses the phrase manchowder from a pork sword? I bet you can.

Mark Simpson said...

Were I ever to be graced with a Pulitzer, spurting man chowder might not be so metaphorical. But that being said, it's as good a reason as any for that sort of thing--probably better.

But I digress.

I generally believe in the principle of self-fulfilling prophecy. So while I agree with comments about jinxing yourself by being too arrogantly prepared, it isn't hard to have a couple bullet points rolling around in your head just in case. If a person has gotten far enough down the writer's road to be nominated, I see no reason for that person to not also believe they have a fighting chance to win.

As a street prophet of wisdom born in popular cinema, I present Robert Duvall in Secondhand Lions, "You believe in those things--- because those are the things worth believing in."

Christine Tyler said...

You make an excellent point!

I think Jeannie Moon hit it on the head. When I was in middle school I ran for class secretary. The leadership teacher read everyone's speech before they gave it, and somewhere in mine I said, "I'm probably not the best candidate there is, but..." and he said, "if you don't think you're the best, why are you running?"

Truth is, I was dancing around false modesty and an inferiority complex. He was right. I needed to accept the fact that I did believe I had something to offer no one else did, and that was what motivated me.

And that was okay.

Christine Tyler said...

Also, telling people how much you hate public speaking or didn't prepare is a good way to lose their attention at the get-go.

Cyndi Tefft said...

I just finished reading "The Secret Affair" by Mary Balogh and while it wasn't my favorite book, I really liked how the heroine believes that people shouldn't "want" things, because that implies they might not get them. They should instead "expect" things. I don't know if I could live that way (self-doubt and all, ya know), but there is something to be said for envisioning yourself where you want to end up. Like, say, on the podium thanking all your awesome fans.

I haven't even written a RITA-eligible novel, and I've got the acceptance speech half-constructed in my head. Never hurts to be prepared. ;)

Cyndi

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I think they say that because they don't want to look like they were so confident they were going to win that they prepared a speech beforehand. But I also think that a lot of them probably practiced what they were going to say in the mirror at home.

Claire Dawn said...

A girlfried of mine used to say (when guys asked if she'd call them):

"Expect it, but don't wait on it."

I think that's the perfect advice for writers.

I want to be a household name, at least in my genre. I won't die if I'm not, but that's where I'm aiming and what I'm expecting.