Contests, Part II: But what’s in it for me?

Today, I am continuing with my holiday present to my readers, an ongoing discussion on how to improve your chances of winning literary contests. I had anticipated only a week’s worth of posts on the subject (ho, ho, ho), but having chatted with several major contest winners since I posted my last, I suspect I might have gleaned enough wisdom on the subject to take us to New Year’s Eve. If the information can assist you, I want to post it here.

I had written yesterday about how to determine whether to enter any specific contest or not. I suggested that you start asking yourself a few questions before you invest time and money in entry fees. Entry fees can be quite hefty, especially cumulatively; if you enter many, have a chat with your tax advisor about establishing your writing as a small business. Contest entry is legitimate promotion for your work. (Contrary to popular belief, you don’t necessarily have to make money writing in order to take tax deductions on related expenses. The IRS changed its thinking on the subject, recognizing that many talented writers NEVER break even; what they look for, I’m told, is evidence of a “profit motive” — which includes professional education efforts such as going to conferences and promotional efforts like entering contests. Not all tax specialists are up on the rules for artists, though, so talk to a specialist before you begin writing things off.)

I suggested yesterday that before you plunk down the green, you do your research. Is the contest credible? If it’s run by an organization, does it have a track record for awarding outside its membership? Do the judges win their own contests? Is it plagued by scandals? How good are the benefits for the winners? Would winning or placing in this contest give you notoriety or resources that are worth the investment of entering?

In short, I suggested yesterday that you begin to think of entering literary contests as an investment in your future as a writer. There are good investments, and there are bad investments, so select carefully.

Third, ask yourself: how will winning the contest help you?

The adulation and opportunities offered to the winners vary so widely from contest to contest that it is almost impossible to generalize about any benefit accruing to all winners OTHER than boasting rights in query letters. If you do some basic checking in advance, you can save yourself quite a bit in entry fees by avoiding the contests that will not help promote you and your work.

Obviously, the ideal outcome of your winning a contest would be a situation like mine: talent and hard work recognized one second, signing with an agent the next… but I am sorry to tell you, my results were not the norm. Contests that support their winners to the extent that the PNWA does are EXTREMELY rare. I was, in a word, lucky.

Well, okay, it wasn’t JUST luck. Since I had done my homework before I entered the 2004 contest, I had learned that the PNWA bends over backwards to help its contest winners hook up with agents and editors. Not only are finalists clearly and vibrantly marked at the conference with rainbow-colored ribbons so agents and editors know who they are, but the top three entries in each category are displayed in the lobby at the conference, where everybody can read them. (Actually, if you are agent-hunting, one of the best places to troll is at this reading table between 7 and 9 a.m. on the morning after the award ceremony.) The first-place winners are invited to have breakfast with all of the agents and editors, and each winner can stand up and give a universal pitch.

This, however, is unusual. I’ve been to many conferences where contest finalists are not marked at all, and other conference attendees are far more likely to meet a finalist than any of the attending agents. This is counter-intuitive, as most conference-related contests actively encourage their finalists to trek to the awards ceremony; you’d think that they’d take the extra step of making a few introductions, but often, they do not.

If the entry fee to a contest tied to a conference is high, I would advise checking out the contest description very carefully, to make sure it is worth your while. There is no rule against dropping an e-mail to the organizers before entering and asking politely if there are secondary benefits to being a winner or a finalist.

A sneakier way to find out how winners are treated in a conference-tied contest is to talk to NON-finalists who have attended the conference in question. Where the winners are treated extremely well, other attendees tend to notice — sometimes to the extent of being unhappy about it. If your mole says, “My God, the agents there wouldn’t give the time of day to anyone who didn’t have a top ten entry!” it’s a good bet that the winners get some perks. I’d enter that contest — but not attend unless I was up for a prize.

Also, check out the list of winners from two years ago or more: how many of these writers can you find on a basic web search or by checking Amazon? In other words, are this contest’s winners getting published afterward? (Checking last year’s winners is not entirely fair, as publication seldom occurs in less than a year after a book deal is signed.) How past winners fared is an excellent indication of how you will make out if you win.

An organization that supports its contest winners will usually be proud of them, so this information tends to be quite easy to obtain. (Anyone happen to notice how the PNWA describes yours truly on its website? In terms so flattering that they make my mother blush — it’s great!) If you can find a chatty volunteer in the organization’s office — most of them will return phone calls and e-mails — see if you can elicit boasting about their post-contest success stories. Ask who their favorite winner was, and why. Ask if the organization sponsors readings for the winners, publishes excerpts, or offers other goodies to successful entrants.

All of this research will help you determine whether the contest is worth the entry fee and your prep time. As a writer — especially as a writer with a full-time job — you need to treat your writing time as precious. Three days or a week spent agonizing over a contest entry is necessarily time taken away from your actual writing, and the more expensive contest fees tend to run around the same amount as a good writing seminar. Weigh your options carefully.

It may seem a bit odd that I, of all people, should argue caution to those about to fling themselves into the literary entry ring, but I — and every contest winner I know, and I know some big ones — entered many, many contests before winning our first. We’ve all encountered contests that were worthwhile, contests that were scams, and everything in between. If you are going to hang your hopes — and your resources — on an array of contests, it honestly does pay to be selective.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about evaluating the benefits contests offer non-winners — which, like the contests themselves, vary wildly. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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