Sunday, June 8, 2014

On Writing Contests

I love entering writing contests.  Early on in my writing career, someone told me my work would get more attention if I already had something published.  It could be anything, they said.  Enter a contest, they said.

That was when it began.  I sent a short story to the now defunct Writers’ Journal magazine.   Writers’ Journal was great.  It offered a variety of contests and published the winners.  For one particular contest (“Write to Win!”) you had to write a short story using a prompt.  I decided this was a good place to start since the direction had already been provided.  The prompt I used was “The lights went out….”. 

It was a great prompt.  My fingers flew over the keyboard until I realized I’d nearly exceed the limit on my word count and I was only halfway through the story.  Eventually I had to edit out about 80% of what I’d written.  I whittled it down as far as I could, but had very little left to work with by the end.

The ending sucked.  I cringe when I read it now.  My husband looked confused when he read it.  “That’s it?” he asked.  “It ended a little….abruptly.” 

He was being kind.  The ending wasn’t abrupt.  It was like taking a freaking leap off a cliff.  It was ridiculous.

I’d written it in a few hours and sent it in on the last possible day.  It was too late to fix it.  It was already in the mail.  I shrugged and basically forgot about it.

A few months later, I’d just gotten home from a day at the pool with my three boys.  We were still in our damp bathing suits, a little high on sno-cones and worn out from being in the hot sun.  I grabbed the mail on the way into the house, and I noticed a copy of Writers’ Journal in the mailbox.

I was confused.  I didn’t subscribe to Writers’ Journal.  I bought it in the grocery store when it came out quarterly.  I decided I must have subscribed and forgotten (not uncommon since I have the short term memory of a gnat).  I opening the magazine and leafed through it, still in my soggy bathing suit.  My kids were running around, attacking each other with Nerf guns or some other such thing.  I was ignoring them, because with three boys if I didn’t ignore most of the running around and hitting each other with projectiles I would go mad. 

And that was when I saw it.  My name on the page.  My words in print.  I’d won.  My stupid little story with the horrible ending had won first place.  It was one of the most exciting moments of my life.

My kids were terrified, mostly because I was screaming, but not at them.  They froze in the middle of their Nerf gun battle (which had morphed at some point into a wrestling match).

“Mommy, are you okay?” 

Later I realized that screaming like a crazy person might be an effective tool in getting them to stop before they killed each other, but I’ve never been able to replicate the exact sound I made that day.  It wasn’t human.  I screamed so much I was actually hoarse.  And that was when the addiction began. 

Out of the seven stories I’d entered into Writers’ Journal, I won four times.  The other wins involved less screaming and more happy dancing around the kitchen.  One of those stories (“Pretty Is”) won third place in a science fiction contest and became the basis for a young adult novel. 

I like contests.  Contests are fun (when I win, at least).  But there are a few things you should know before you enter.  These are contest caveats.

1.   Contests have fees.  Often the prize for entering is only slightly more than the entry fee, and the bigger the contest, the slimmer your chance of winning.  Don’t enter if you are purely doing it for the chance of winning the $25 grand prize and can barely afford the $15 entry fee.  Find a contest that doesn’t charge a fee (like Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award Contest), and enter that instead.

2.  Try local contests first.  I won a prize at the first writing conference I ever attended (Pennwriters) and it was one of the happiest days of my life.  I did not expect to win, but there is special joy in being found worthy when judged by your peers.  Pennwriters offers several contests, Novel Beginnings, Non-Fiction, Poetry, and Short Story.  The winners are announced at their yearly conference, which is one of the best conferences around.  Find something like Pennwriters and enter it. (

3.  When the judges provide feedback, use it.  This is one of the best parts about losing a contest, getting another set of eyes to look at your work and give you advice.  Use that feedback wisely, though.  Print it out.  Look over it carefully.  Choose what you want to use and discard the rest.  This is your book.  Make it as good as you can, but never lose sight of what you are doing.

4.  Don’t obsess over negative feedback.  If every single judge tells you that your work is crap, it most probably is crap and you should listen.  But that is normally not the case.  Most judges are fair and try to be helpful.  Every once in a while, you get a rogue, nasty judge who rips your work apart and leaves your heart in shreds, too.  Read what they have to say.  Decide whether or not it’s true, and move on.  Listen, but have confidence in your own ability.  

5.  Be thankful.  Often you are given the opportunity to write thank you notes to the judges.  You may have to swallow your pride to thank a judge who seemed to be purposefully mean, but do it anyway.  I recently thanked a judge who loved my book (easy to do).  She wrote back, and we became friends.  I feel like I’ve met a kindred spirit just because I wrote that little thank you note.

6.  Try and try again.  Winning a contest won’t necessarily mean your book will be published, but it might put it in front of the right people.  A friend of mine was recently named a finalist in YARWA’s Rosemary Contest.  She was delighted, not only because it was super awesome that she made it to the finals, but also because the judge was an editor from her dream publisher.  Look at who will be judging these contests.  If one of the judges is an agent or an editor you’d really like to work with, it’s a chance to get your work in front of them.

Contests are not for everyone.  Some people consider them worthless, but I completely disagree.  Any chance I have to share what I’ve written is exciting for me, but I have a naturally positive disposition and I’m really good at ignoring negativity (some people call it delusional, I call it being an optimist).  Know before you enter that you may not get the results you were hoping for and just do your best.  You might be surprised.  You might get published.  You might make a new friend or a valuable contact.

What do you have to lose?