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?


  1. Great article Wende. I like contests too. I agree, you really need to see what you'll get it you win, or even final. Often the best part of a contest is that your manuscript will be seen by a particular editor or agent you'd like to work with. It's a great opportunity to put your work in front of them.

    1. Thank you, Sheridanjeane! You are absolutely right.

  2. I'm with you, Wende. Writing contests are great ways to motivate yourself to write. Even if you don't win a particular contest, you've come out ahead because you wrote a story!

    1. I also like having an unbiased, objective opinion about my manuscript. Even if the submission is only the first few chapters, it gives me an idea if I'm going in the right direction. I have to thank you for motivating me, Ramona. I wrote this post during our sprint this morning. ;)

  3. I've entered and I've judged. I almost rather judge. *LOL* The manuscripts I finished and entered into contests did...poorly...and there were judges who wrote interestingly scathing things to me. The one that quoted scripture at me, comes to mind; I was not writing an inspirational. The one contest I won--and placed first--and even got a request for it--yeah, I'd written 8 chapters and I'm a pantser sort and couldn't finish it. In fact, I didn't much care for the story by the time the contest was done being judged. Now I am back to entering things I've finished.

    When I judge--because I have been judged--I try to remember that not all stories are to my taste (though I do usually get a genre I usually read) but that doesn't mean they're a bad story or poorly written. I've had stories where I was like, "This story is so weird, what am I going to say?" and then by the end of the entry I totally got it and loved it a great deal, could see what the author was doing. (Not your story, Wendy; yours I got right away.) I remember thinking at the beginning of the story I wouldn't normally pick that book to read, but by the end I was all, "This book needs to be published soon so I can read the rest of it." Yeah, judging is more fun. *LOL* Though I did squeal and freak out quite a bit when I won that contest. *LOL*

    They're both fun.

    1. I think it's really hard to judge something that isn't in your genre or to your taste. That happened with one story I entered into a contest, but the judge was fair. She said, "This isn't something I would typically read, but you are doing it right." She mentioned several times in her comments that my genre was not a genre she typically read or enjoyed, but she judged based on skill, voice, and content, not on whether or not she liked it. It's difficult to do, but she did it well.