Last week, two new short story anthologies bearing my name as editor were released for publication. Those marked my sixth and seventh time working on an anthology based on a specific theme. In addition, as a writer, I’ve contributed stories to three other themed anthologies, plus I’ve gathered some fellowships and grants for my work in short stories. In the arena of short story anthologies and contests, I feel pretty comfortable.
I love the short story form with the heat of a thousand suns. To spread the love, this week, I am posting a three-part series on writing for contests and themed anthologies.
Today, I will share my “rules” for entering contests.
Tomorrow, Nancy Day Sakaduski of Cat & Mouse Press will share her own tips for writing short stories, as well as why entering a writing contest is a good idea. Cat & Mouse Press is the sponsor and publisher of the annual Rehoboth Beach Reads short story competition and anthology.
On Day 3, I’ll share some quotes from judges who have selected stories from short story competitions or anthology submissions.
Ramona’s Top Ten Rules for Entering Contests
1. Follow the stated contest rules. 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 simply 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 switch the words. Respect the contest enough to create something appropriate, or pass.
6. If the contest requires a paper entry, 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. I have posted on this topic before, with the posts listed below. I have also written an award-winning short story, written to theme. You can read “Trust” here.