06 July 2020

Second Best

Anybody remember a golfer named Craig Wood, big in the 30s and 40s? He was the first golfer--maybe still the only one, in fact--to come in  second in all four major championships (Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship) by losing a play-off. He eventually won two of those tournaments, too, and finished with 21 career victories.

He once said, "It takes a pretty good guy to come in second."

Besides bartenders, who remembers the guy who comes in second?

Writers do.

In 2006, my daughter told me about a short story contest she heard about from, of all people, her ex-mother-in-law. I'd never heard of the Crime Bake Writers Conference or the Al Blanchard Story Award, but mere days before the deadline, I sent them a story.

A few months later, Leslie Wheeler, the coordinator of the contest, emailed to say my story placed in the top 10. She urged me to send it to Level Best Books the following year because that fledgling publisher, which featured the Al Blanchard winner in their annual volume, would surely take it. I did, and after 356 rejections for various novels and short stories, that story became my first published work.

In 2007, I entered another story in the contest and won Honorable Mention. That meant neither money nor publication, but I attended the conference and got my picture taken holding the cool certificate. Over the next year, I sent that story to 21 other markets that turned it down. Then I sent it to Level Best again and they grabbed it.

I hate the way I look in pictures, especially when they shoot before
I even know they're going to do it.  
 In 2008, I entered another story in the contest and won another Honorable Mention. I sent that  second-best to 22 markets, and they all turned it down again.

Are you sensing a trend here?

I sent it to Level Best (again) and they took it (again). At that year's awards ceremony, Leslie announced that I'd placed in the top ten three years in a row. Level Best published my first four works to see print. Since then, I've sold stories and novels elsewhere, but the consistent close calls show how subjective judging is for prizes, or even for regular sales. Once you get beyond basic grammar and formatting, it's all a matter of taste.

Fourteen years later, I have published three stories that won Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard, the third appearing in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. That story was also accepted for an anthology that I withdrew from because the contract rang alarm bells. Everyone liked that story, but most of them not quite enough. Go figure.

I've had other near misses. Last winter, I got a letter telling me my third entry in the Black Orchid Novella Award competition (My first two both won) earned--you guessed it--Honorable Mention. I didn't get a certificate (How is that a mention?) and was left with a story nearly 17,000 words long. That's going to be a hard sell somewhere else, but who knows? Opinion and taste, right?

In 2013, Blood on the Tracks won Honorable Mention for the Writer's Digest Self-Published Novel Award. It finished in the top ten of over 1500 entries, but all I received were the judge's glowing comments. No money, no mention in the magazine. I did sell four copies of the book over the next two months, though.

That same year, MWA named me a finalist for the Edgar for Best Short Story. At the banquet, I met Dennis Lehane and Karin Slaughter, who were in the anthology with me, and they both autographed my copy of the book, which made the trip worthwhile all by itself. Lehane, whom I'd met before, won the Edgar for Best Novel that year. Slaughter turned out to be even more fun than Lehane, even though she beat me out for the short story award. There are worse fates than losing a writing award to Karin Slaughter.
I hate this picture even more than the other one, but Karin Slaughter
was fun to talk to. So was Teresa Soldana, who lost to her, too.

The following year, I asked Laura Lippman for a blurb and mentioned my near miss. She told me that my Edgar nomination was "huge" and that I would surely find someone who was in a position to help me out.

The next year, I was a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel, a category that no longer exists. I lost there, too, but that book sold three copies in the next two weeks.

Since 2006, I have been short-listed for nine awards that I have not won. Seven of those stories sold somewhere else eventually, and the other two are still floating around in submission purgatory. One is that Black Orchid novella.

I currently have stories entered in both the Al Blanchard and the Black Orchid contests. I need one more certificate to fill the top of my book case. And, who knows? Maybe Laura Lippman or Karin Slaughter is dropping my name somewhere...


  1. Level Best books have been a great addition, taking good stories that were not a perfect fit in the bigger magazines.

    Good luck with the Al Blanchard and Black Orchid- Maybe this will be your year.

  2. Steve, your post is familiar to a lot of us who collect rejections between the acceptances. Few writers win them all or even most.
    The point is to keep going, keep writing and submitting.

  3. Steve - yeah, just gotta keep going, keep submitting, keep trying. And eventually - the work will find its place!

  4. Susan, you, Kate and Ruth founded Level Best and published my first three or four works. Thanks for giving me that early boost.

  5. I think it's both encouraging and a bit heartbreaking to place or get honorable mentions several times, but never win. I admire your persistence and cheerfulness. Good luck with Al Blanchard and Black Orchid. I hope BOTH give you great news!

  6. Although my experience isn't necessarily writing-related, I have found that being second is sometimes a good thing. I was second choice twice during job searches. In one case the first choice didn't ever show up for work, so I was offered the position. In the other case the first choice did show up, was unable to actually do the job, and was let go about a month later. Then they called me.

  7. Steve, I thought I was doing pretty well in the "best of the losers" department, being the second-youngest person ever published in EQMM, a finalist-but-not-winner for the Best Short Story Edgar (for, full disclosure, a story I translated, not one I wrote), and the second-place finisher for the 2018 EQMM Readers' Award, but your accomplishments put mine to shame.

    It's bittersweet getting so close but not quite closing the deal. Still, though, second place and finalist finishes are an acknowledgment of the high quality of your work, so congratulations!


  8. Years ago I saw a comedian perform (might have been Jake Johansen) who had won the big comedy competition they held in California. Second place? Robin Williams! On the other side of the coin; When I was in college, I was the first person to get the internship with a local TV station! But the other student made such a fuss, the school asked me if I'd go second. Figuring I'd get the internship after the first guy got the bugs out of it, I said "sure." Turns out the first kid made such a prima donna of themselves, the station cancelled the internship before I got mine! And that's partly why I wound up bussing tables for a few years instead of using my Communications degree!


  9. It may be some comfort that Sophocles' Oedipus Rex took second place when it premiered. The play the beat it is lost forever

  10. Steve, you're in there pitching and you don't give up. Who can beat that!

    Plus I've learned women take far better pictures than us leathery guys.


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