Contests, Part V: Is it worth your time?

I’m going to be a trifle terse today, campers — even as I write this, I am supposed to be constructing a croquembouche for a Christmas Eve shindig. A croquembouche is often used as a wedding cake by the French: it’s a pyramid of cream puffs filled with liqueur-laced whipped cream, drizzled with caramel syrup, and stacked into the shape of, well, as Christmas tree. Except I think I’m going to make mine in the shape of a pagoda. It is not, in short, an endeavor to be entered into lightly, and I need to get cracking.

But first, I want to pass along another installment of my holiday present to you fine people, a series on how to make the most of literary contests. Next week, I shall be going into fine detail about technical tweaking you can give your entries that will make them more likely to end up in the finalist pile, but today, I want to finish up my series of questions you should ask yourself about a contest before you invest your time, money, and hope in entering.

This one is a corollary to the questions I have been asking all week: how much of your writing time is being eaten up by contests these days? If you have been entering quite a few (and the late fall is a very common deadline choice for contests and fellowship applications), would your time be better spent by passing on the next one?

I once met a writer at an artists’ colony (we’d both won a competition to get in, one with a VERY involved application) who spent literally three weeks of our four-week retreat there applying for other retreats, filling out grant applications, and entering contests. When the time came at the end of our sojourn to share what we’d written during our stay, she ended up reading a piece she had written several years before. In her frantic quest to fund her writing habit, she had turned herself into a non-stop entering machine with no time or energy to write anything new.

There are so many literary contests that if you entered them all, you would never have a chance to get down to serious writing. Equally seriously, if you have a finished piece that you should be marketing to agents and/or small presses, it is very easy to tell yourself that entering contest after contest — at the expense of devoting that time to sending out queries — is a time saver, in the long run. Unfortunately, that often isn’t true.

Yes, a win (or place, or finalist status) in a reputable contest can indeed speed up your agent-seeking process exponentially. I would be the last to deny that, as I met my agent as a direct result of winning the Nonfiction Book/Memoir category in the PNWA contest in 2004. It CAN lead to the fast track, and you should definitely enter a few for that reason.

However — and this is a serious consideration — a LOT of aspiring writers turn to the contest route as a SUBSTITUTE for querying, and that can definitely slow the road to publication to a crawl. It’s understandable, of course — sending out query after query is discouraging, and if you do it one at a time, it can take years to pique a good agent’s interest. (This is the main reason that I advise my clients NOT to send only one query out at a time. If you keep good records, you can easily have ten out at the same time. Contrary to writers’ conference myth, agencies do NOT insist upon single submissions; in those rare instances when they do, they list this preference in the standard guides to agents. Sending one, waiting weeks for a reply, then sending the next only after all hope is gone on the first, merely squanders your precious time.)

However tired of the querying grind you may be, please do not use contests as a complete substitute. For one thing, the turn-around time for contest entries is significantly longer than the response time for even the least organized agencies: four to six months is common, and if you have a finished novel or NF book proposal in hand, that’s too long to wait.

Also, if you hang all of your hopes on a contest win, even if you enter a plethora of contests, you are relying upon the quirky tastes of people you have never met to determine your fate. Oh, yes, I know — that’s true when you send a query to an agent as well, but as I shall demonstrate next week, there are a great many reasons a submission might get knocked out of a contest competition that have little to do with the actual marketability — and sometimes not even the writing quality — of your work. To make it to the finalist round in a contest, you have to avoid every conceivable pet peeve that the initial screeners might have.

With first readers at agencies (who are seldom the agents themselves), you can at least rely upon certain basic rules. Standard format, for instance, is not a matter of individual whim, and you’re not going to have your submission tossed out on technical grounds if you follow it. But in a contest, if you hit a volunteer first reader whose college English professor insisted that semicolons are always a bad idea, your work is likely to be knocked out of consideration the first time you use one. You never can tell who is going to be a contest judge, so the outcome even for very good writing is far from predictable.

So please, keep sending out those queries while you enter contests — and if you find that the time to prep contest entries are starting to be your excuse for not sending out more queries, stop and reevaluate whether you are making the best use of your time in your pursuit of publication.

Off to bake cream puffs now. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: Don’t forget to take notes over the next week to inspire your entry to the Holiday Tables Contest! The deadline has been extended to January 6, so keep those entries rolling in! While the prize of posting your work here, posting it on a highly respected literary fiction website, AND being able to boast that you won the contest may not seem as sexy as a contest that offers more tangible prizes, it’s a lot of bang for your entry time: two legitimate publication credits and a contest win. Check out my post of December 9 for contest details.

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