In a recent short story contest, I had the pleasure of coming in…I don’t know what place, because only the winner was announced. Which means I could have placed Second or Third. Or 250th, but who’s counting? The point is, I was not the winner, so why am I calling it a pleasure? Because the contest was sponsored by a magazine I enjoy, judged by a writer I respect, and won by a story that was light-years better than mine.
Most importantly, I wrote a new story to enter into the contest. Even though it didn’t win, I was happy with that story. I sent it through my critique group for pummeling and polishing and now it’s in my story bank. I can submit it elsewhere. Without the contest, I would not have written it. So although I lost, I really won.
I’ve blogged before about the value of applying for an artist grant or fellowship. This post is a cousin to that one–some nuts and bolts about entering contests. Lately, several of my editing clients have mentioned contests, so I thought I’d share some ideas and points to keep in mind for those brave souls frantically getting their entries ready.
To verify my street cred on this topic, let me announce that I won my first writing contest in the fifth grade–a patriotic poem competition sponsored by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars. My winning entry began like this:
“The grand ole flag of the USA, Flies in the wind of a windy day.”
Yes, it drips with the hokey, but the VFW didn’t mind, and I won over every other patriotic fifth grader in the state. I was invited to an awards dinner, where I was presented with a framed certificate and a $50 savings bond. (My first paying gig!) I also had to read the poem aloud. (My first public reading!) No one warned me about this, so I had to do it cold. (My first panic attack!) BTW, I brought along my dad. (My first date! :-))
What I recall most is walking away from the podium on shaking knees, and a kind-hearted vet stopping me, shaking my hand, and telling me that he’d fought in the Battle of the Bulge, but I was braver than he was for reading in public. I’m sure he was BSing me, but I appreciated it at the time (and still do.)
I’ve entered and won and lost other writing competitions. My prizes include cash, medals, engraved Revere Ware bowls, certificates, free critiques by the judge/s, comped tuition to conferences, gift certificates, a sterling silver page marker (that I cannot use without thinking would make an excellent murder weapon) and my personal favorite, publication. Most of the time I enter myself; sometimes, my story or article gets entered after it’s been published. Sometimes I write new; other times I enter a story in my story bank if it fits the contest.
I only enter a few times a year, which means I lose much more often than I win. If I were a mathematical type of person, I might figure out my win-loss percentage and be discouraged by the dismal number. Luckily, I’m not a mathematical type of person, so I ignore the odds. If I see that a publication I like is hosting a contest, I enter. Win or lose, I’ve never regretted the effort, so there really is no such thing as losing.
So that’s the pep talk. How about some pointers?
Ramona’s Top Ten Rules for Entering Contests:
1. Follow the stated contest rules. Duh, you say, but there’s a reason for deadlines, word counts, number of copies and so on. An easy way to get disqualified is to break a rule, or send to the wrong email address. For snail mail, double check if the deadline is a date received or a postage date. If the reading is blind, make sure your name is not on the entry. Don’t make a mistake that will waste your time and effort and get your entry kicked without being read.
2. Make sure your entry is appropriate. In other words, don’t send a genre story to a literary magazine’s contest. Don’t send an adult novel to a contest for juvenile fiction. Don’t send a whodunit to a magical realism contest. Don’t send a poem to a prose contest….you get the picture?
3. Research past winners. Many contests will post links to past winners on their websites. Read those stories. Don’t try to imitate winning stories, but you can enhance your chances if you can get a feel for what the publication or sponsor likes.
4. Research the judge/s, if posted. Same as #3. Don’t try to write like the judge/s, but do see if you can figure out what kind of writing the judge/s like.
5. If the contest has a stated theme, write to the theme in a meaningful way. For instance, if a contest has a “water” theme, don’t just set your action at a river bank. Try to incorporate the theme in the story as more than setting. Water has purifying powers, but water also erodes the earth. We can’t live without water, but we can drown in it. Also, don’t try to plug a theme into a story unless it truly fits. If you are entering a contest with a theme of “alienation,” don’t pull out a story you wrote about cancer and just switch the words. Respect the contest enough to create something appropriate, or pass.
6. Make your entry pretty. By pretty, I mean no coffee rings, crumpled edges, and such. But don’t make it too pretty, a la scented pink paper, unless it’s the Elle Wood Story Contest. (I made that up. There is not, to my knowledge, a Legally Blond Writing Contest.) Clean copy, white paper, readable font. ‘Nuf said.
7. Make sure your entry is polished. No typos. At all.
8. For a novel contest, send a beginning. If you are not confident enough in the beginning of your novel to enter it into a contest, it’s probably not strong enough to engage a reader to buy it. A grant app or contest might ask for a “writing sample.” This does not mean samples of your writing, as in a page of this, a few pages of that. The judges want to see that you can sustain the narrative of your choice. Send the best beginning of your best work that is appropriate for the contest.
9. If there is a page or word count limit, send as close to the limit as you can. For example, if there’s a 10 page limit, 5 pages is too short; 8 or more is better; 10 is best. Try to stop in a logical place that either brings a scene to a close or leaves off at the precipice of something interesting. Likewise, for a short story contest with a word count limit, send a full story. Crop if necessary. If the contest is for 10 pages, don’t send 10 pages of a 12 page story.
10. Be brave! Try something new and different. Judges will be reading lots of stories. How can yours stand apart? One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received came via a contest judge. She liked my story (and I was awarded) but she said that it would have been an even better story if I had not ended it quite so neatly and cleanly. She said to think of what would happened to the characters if the problem I’d written had not been solved. I thought about it and changed the ending–to a much better one. That judge, and the above mentioned veteran, are two people who’ve helped me to be brave about writing.
Those are my Ten Rules. Anyone have others?
Also, if anyone needs some well wishes for a contest, let me know and I’ll jab my voodoo doll with a white pin on your behalf.
Enter away–and bon chance!
UPDATE: I am receiving questions about where to find contests and contest fees. Next week, I will revisit this topic with those questions in mind. Stay tuned!