What Do Judges & Jurors Want? Part 3 of Writing for Contests and Anthologies

RamonaGravitarThe judges and jurors quoted below won’t be evaluating your criminal activities. They’ll be evaluating your mastery of the writing craft, your interpretation of theme, your narrative voice, your ability to hook a reader with a well-crafted opening, your skill at creating an emotional connection with a character.

To round out this short series, I contacted people who read submissions and select stories for inclusion in a couple of regional anthologies. Most of the folks below are also writers, so they understand the joy of acceptance and the disappointment in rejection. Continue reading “What Do Judges & Jurors Want? Part 3 of Writing for Contests and Anthologies”

Top 10 Tips for Writing for a Short Story Contest

Here comes summer, and that means beach reads!

 Cat & Mourse pressCat & Mouse Press is happily accepting work for its second Rehoboth Beach Reads short story collection, and I am happy to be one of the judges for this year’s contest.

This year’s theme is “the Boardwalk.” A connection to a boardwalk is required by contest rules, but writers do not need to be from Rehoboth Beach or Delaware. You can send a story from wherever you write!

Continue reading “Top 10 Tips for Writing for a Short Story Contest”

10 Things to Check Before You Hit Send

RamonaGravitarThe wrong place, the wrong name, the wrong page count….Much of what influences a submission’s acceptance or rejection is subjective. You can’t control the market or a particular editor’s taste, but you can make sure your manuscript gets to the right person at the right address in the right format. Double check the following before you lick the stamp or hit the Send button.

1. Names: Misspelling your own name on your own submission would be embarrassing. Misspelling the agent or editor’s name hints that you are careless. Showing your name on a blind submission can get you disqualified. Review names for spelling, but also be certain a journal or contest wants to see your name on the submission at all. Check the guidelines.

2. Formatting: Pulling out a chunk of pages for a partial submission may monkey with spacing, headers, footers, indent, and margins. Don’t assume your settings will transfer to a new document or to a submission box. Also, remember to remove the extra space Word likes to add between paragraphs, and beware of those off again, on again Widows & Orphans.

3. Contact info: Yours, that is. Do you have multiple email addresses? Does your Submittable account remember what you typed into it last year? Treat every submission as new information, or carefully check what has been stored. Don’t assume what is remembered is remembered correctly or is up to date.

4. Records: Unless it is a revision or resubmission, sending a formerly rejected piece to the same editor, agent, or publication is a faux pas. Who needs duplicate rejections? Submittable keeps tracks of each submission and its status. For other submissions, you can use a spreadsheet or a notebook or a white board and marker—the format doesn’t matter. What matters is to record where, when, and to whom your work has been sent. Don’t trust your memory. Put the piece, the date, the place, and the person in writing, and double check for repetition before you send. Every time.

5. Deadline: Meet it. That means, send off the submission before the deadline. If it’s an online submission, that means the Send button must be whacked one minute before midnight, the day of deadline, at the very latest, and only if you like to live dangerously. (Give yourself 5 minutes or a half hour. Your blood pressure will thank you if you hit a glitch.) If you are sending snail mail, a deadline may mean a postmark or a received by date. Check the guidelines. NOTE: A deadline is equal to a “firm” price at an antique shop. No wiggle room or bargaining. An extra day (hour, month) does indeed matter

6. Payment: If you are entering a contest or there is a reading fee, you do need to pay it. A paper submission will need a check (signed, made out to the right entity and in the correct amount) and attached to the submission. An online submission usually means PayPal. Most of the time, an online submission requiring a fee won’t go through until you pony up with the cash.

7. SASE: In the olden days, writers had stacks of stamped, self-addressed envelopes at the ready for the weekly/monthly/occasional trip to the post office. You may no longer descend upon the P.O. bearing multiple manuscripts, but some venues still work with paper. Check the guidelines. If an SASE is requested, send one. If you don’t, you may never hear back.

8. Cover letter: Who are you, what are you sending, why are you sending it—these three questions get answered in a cover letter. If you’ve met the contact recently, mention it. If you have a personal recommendation from a client, name drop it. If your story has been workshopped by Alice Munro or Stephen King, go for broke. Just make sure you include the genre, title, word count, and other pertinent facts so the recipient can know immediately what is being pitched.

9. TMI: Too much information in submitting means you cc (electronically carbon copy) multiple contacts, and you allow all contacts to see all other contacts. This is TMI because what agent or editor wants to be included in a mass mailing? None. If you are doing a multiple mailing, have the courtesy (and the smarts) to keep that to yourself. Use bcc (blind carbon copy) or, better, send individual emails to individual editors or agents.  Treat people in the industry with courtesy, and as individuals.

10. Guidelines: You’ve probably noticed that guidelines are important. Despite this, every time I attend a conference or a workshop and hear a discussion about submissions, someone (or many someones) beg writers to check the guidelines. Sending the wrong piece to the wrong person is a waste of everyone’s time. Don’t waste everyone’s time. CHECK THE GUIDELINES.

You may note that none of the suggestions above address the actual content or quality of the manuscript. Sending clean copy is another blog post. This one is to make sure it gets to where you want it to go, free of errors, oversights, or shots to your foot.

The Art of the Artist Statement

….wherein I explain what the heck it is, and how the heck to write one.

Not long ago, a fellow writer asked me about the benefits of applying for a literary grant. It’s not the same as being published, he claimed, so if you have limited writing time, wouldn’t you be better off focusing on your work, instead of spending valuable writing time filling out a long, complicated grant application?

I agree that writing time is a precious commodity not to be wasted. (Have I mentioned I finally gave in and became a Facebooker this week?)  However, the idea that applying for a grant is a waste of time, I do dispute.  I’ve posted previously about the value of entering contests, so this is a close cousin to that:

Winning a literary grant is good because:

…..It validates you as an artist.

…..It supports you/your work on a particular project.

…..It offers an opportunity for public performance.

…..It supports the grant system to aid and abet artists.

…..How can I put this? Oh yeah–

As in my prior post, winning is best, but applying is good, too:

….Applying forces you to prepare a polished work sample.

….Applying makes you to update bio and resume information.

….Applying makes you develop a project description.

….Applying gets you to write an artist statement.

….Applying doesn’t cost any of this:

All that being said, one of the bugaboos I hear from writers who avoid the grant process is that numbers 2, 3 and 4 above are tedious. This is true. Most writers I know hate writing about themselves. On the other hand, you have to put on your big girl (or boy) panties (or boxers) and master the boring stuff in order to give your work the exposure it deserves.

So, lesson #1: How to Write an Artist Statement.

First, let’s define the term. An Artist Statement is a group of “I sentences” that explain your artistic hopes, dreams, ambitions, philosophy, direction, growth, evolution, plus how this grant will patently help you to achieve all of that. More simply, and practically, put, the Artist Statement tells the grant administrators what your hope is for this project, how you will be affected by working on the project, and how the support of the grant will help you to achieve that.

Second, let’s talk about what an Artist Statement is not. It’s not your resume or CV; it’s not a  list of publications, awards, honors; it’s not your personal background; it’s not a project description.

Third, let’s figure out the purpose of the Artist Statement. While not all grants are administered in the same way, in general, the grant agency (state division of the arts, or arts council) will employ an out of state judge to read and score the work samples. The Artist Statement is a document the grant agency uses to allow the artist to give voice to how the grant will help their career or work. It is also often used as a PR tool.

Fourth, and finally, how do you write one? Here we go:

An Artist Statement can be from 500-1,000 words, or so. In that space, include some/all of the following:

….What is your philosophy as an artist, in relation to this particular project? For instance, if this is a family memoir, do you believe that art is a means of examining and exploring your personal history? Is it a way to heal, or celebrate? Is this work meant to be a tribute, to set the record straight, to capture for posterity events that have impacted you and yours?

….How will you grow as an artist through this project? Are you trying a new medium? A new voice? Fictionalizing reality? Creating an entirely new world? How is this project different from your prior work?

….What message are you trying to convey?

….How is your work, and this project in particular, a reflection of you? If you are writing about a culture, are you tied to it? Is the project trying to satisfy a curiosity? Trying to recapture or examine something you have lost?

….What is your goal, specifically, for this work? Do you plan to complete a novel? Write X number of short stories?

….Stylistically, what is special about this project? Is this a departure for you? A new venture into an entirely new genre?

That’s a lot to cram into the small box on the grant app.What is comes down to is explaining what you want from this particular project, and how it fits into your goals as an artist. The Artist Statement is your way to make the grant people understand you. It gives you a chance to express your heart.

What’s so great about writing the Artist Statement is that it makes you think about the questions above. In your daily life as a writer, how often do you think, concretely, about your goals as an artist? Do you ever stop to recall just how you chose this medium, and how it has impacted your life?

The Artist Statement makes you examine yourself as an artist. Who are you? What do you want? What are you trying to say?

It’s that simple. Really.

Bonne chance~


P.S. As mentioned above, find me on Facebook.


It’s all about Winning

Wherein I report on how to get a new short story, a writing getaway, a little self-promotion,  and a visit an indie bookshop, all out of one little writers conference.

Last Sunday, I reported that one value of participating in writing contests and/or competitions is that, win or lose the contest, you can end up with a new story. So, even if you lose the contest, new writing is always a win.

In the spirit of the Olympics, I’m continuing this winning attitude.

In December, in preparation for the Bay to Ocean Writers’ Conference I entered the Eastern Shore Writer’s Association writing contest. My story was not selected as the winner. But, I added the story to my story bank and I can send it elsewhere so, again, I lost, but I won.

New Story = Win #1.

On Saturday, my writing friend and I drove through the bucolic, snow-covered fields of rural Maryland to attend this conference. It was great. Workshops about plotting, about social networking, about Internet writing opportunities, about the changing landscape of publishing. I learned a lot.

Studying craft = Win #2

Between sessions, I set out some promotional materials and, throughout the day, chatted up some fellow writers about working with an independent editor.

Pimping my biz = Win #3

Rather than drive back at night, my friend and I stayed at a nearby hotel.  We spent the evening and the next morning indulging in some quiet writing time.

Mini-Writers Getaway = Win #4

Before returning home, we took a side trip to the town of Oxford, Maryland, which sits very prettily on the edge of the Chesapeake. It is a most charming town, and is blessed with a most charming indie bookstore called Mystery Loves Company.

Indie bookshop visit = Win #5

So now, a day and a half later, I’m home, with workshop notes, new friends to email, some fresh business prospects and a bag full of mysteries to read.

Can I get a “win win” here?

Any one of these wins would have been great. The fun is cramming as many into a short space as possible. Judging by my level of brain death, and that I’m smiling while writing this, I think 5 wins is pretty good for a single weekend.


And the Loser is…Me.

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgIn 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.

Right? Right.

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!