Thursday, March 23, 2023

Better than a Poke in the Eye from James W. Ziskin

Which do you find harder to cope with, success or failure? In either event do you have ways to keep the world's view of your work from affecting your work?

Victory, 2017 Macavity Award                                     Defeat, 2017 Edgar Award

Success is easy. At least it should be. I haven’t experienced every shade of success in my writing career. My books and stories have been well-enough received critically, and I’ve been fortunate to have won a few awards, But sales have not made me rich. Even if I’m not in the writing biz to make pots of cash, I wouldn’t mind it if I did.


Failure is another matter. It’s inevitable in this and any other field of endeavor. All star hitters in baseball only get hits a third of the time. That means they fail two out of three at bats. Yet they somehow learn to be happy with that percentage. 


When I was searching for an agent fifteen years ago, I received about forty-five “declinations.” That’s the term my former agent—the one I managed to land out of forty-five—used to refer to rejections. I appreciated his attempts to soften the sting. Or perhaps ennoble it. Anyway, one for forty-five is a pretty poor batting average for a baseball player, but a damn fine one for an aspiring writer. And, of course, it took a few years—and a second book—before my agent was able to sell something for me.


Writers fail much more often than baseball batters. At least when we’re starting out. Just ask a writer how many agents rejected their work before something got accepted. The same is true for publisher rejections. But once you break through, things can get a little easier. After my first novel, I sold six more books to my first publisher until we—the publisher and I—parted brass rags and went our separate ways and I started all over again. Lucky for me, my new agent placed my latest book, Bombay Monsoon, with a new publisher and I am happy to claim that as a success.


Success and failure are opposite sides of the same coin. And sometimes a failure is a success with a wart. Or at least a blemish. I’ve been lucky enough to see my books and stories nominated as finalists for important industry awards twenty-one times. Those nominations were without a doubt successes, even when I didn’t win the day. I managed to sneak off with four of those twenty-one awards. That’s a middle-of-the-road batting average in baseball, but—again—a fantastic haul for a writer. I don’t look at my also rans as failures. That would be the height of petulance. I’m proud of those honors, even if our own Catriona McPherson stuffed the prize-winning hardware into her bulging suitcase on a few of those occasions, thereby denying me bragging rights and you all a victory dance you could never hope to wash from your eyes. Be thankful for small mercies. Congratulations, dearest Catriona.


No, I can’t complain. Rejection and failure are part and parcel of the bargain we’ve signed on for. Neither affects my work. My satisfaction, perhaps, but not my work. A success puts a smile on your face, while a failure leaves a scar. Scars can disfigure or distinguish. I like to think of my declinations, losses, and disappointments as having left marks of character on my face. For me, a black eye is a badge of honor. 


Then again, a victory is better than a poke in the eye, which, of course, can cause a black eye.





Liz Milliron said...

Baseball and meterorologists - only professions I know of where you can miss 2/3 of the time and still be considered "great."

Maybe your books haven't won as many awards, but they always put a smile on my face.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr Ziskin. I found your website…. for anybody who doesn’t know, he is also a (pretty good) French teacher at a middle school. Au revoir!!!