Contests, Part IX: Category surfing

Okay, I wrote through last-minute shopping days; I wrote through Christmas, and I’ve been writing through Hanukkah, and we’re right on top of New Year’s Eve, so it’s time to wrap up my holiday present to my readers, a lengthy series on how to improve your chances of winning or placing in a literary contest. Time to tie up the loose ends and offer those last few droplets of wisdom.

(Unless, of course, I happen to think of more good contest-related advice in the weeks between now and the end of February, when entries are due in the PNWA contest, or next week, when entries are due for the Holiday Tables contest. If I come up with anything juicy, I shall pass it along toute de suite. Or maybe I’ll decide over the weekend that I have so much more to say that I’ll keep writing through Epiphany.)

You will notice, in reading back over my advice on steering clear of crooked contests and avoiding technical mistakes likely to knock your entry out of consideration, I have spoken very little on the subject of content — other than to recommend not offending the judges. Frankly, I don’t think an honest literary contest has any business dictating content, but a surprising number of them do, either overtly (in defining the categories) or covertly (in defining winning criteria for the judges). This is yet another reason to read contest rules VERY carefully: skim a little too quickly, and you may not catch that contest organizers have limited what kinds of short story they want.

This is particularly true in short-short story competitions. It’s not uncommon for those to specify the topic outright. Read with care before you submit.

Few writers in the heftier categories (e.g., ones that accept book excerpts) write new entirely new pieces for every contest they enter, with good reason. If you are trying to fit prewritten work into specified categories, make sure to read the category’s definition FIRST, before you enter. This is not a time merely to skim the titles of the categories: get into the details of the description. Read it several times. Have a writer friend read it, then read your entry, to double-check that your work is in fact appropriate to the category as the rules have defined it.

I would LOVE to report that entries never come in labeled for the wrong category, but, alas, sometimes they do. And most contests have far too many entries for the initial screeners to recategorize the work for the careless entrant. Be careful.

Also, consider the possibility that the category you had envisioned for your work — in other words, where you had envisioned its being shelved in a bookstore or library — may not be the best category in any given contest for you. Would the first chapter of your memoir work best in the nonfiction book category or the nonfiction short piece category? Is your novel really mainstream, or is it actually romance? If the contest offers a novel-in-progress category, would your barely-finished book do better there, or against the fully polished novels?

And so forth. The goal here is to gain a win to put on your writing resume and in your query letters, not to force your work into the category you have preselected for it. Yes, there is usually more prestige attached to book-length categories, but, frankly, in major contests, that’s where the competition tends to be the most fierce. If a shorter-length category seems to offer you a better conceptual fit or better odds, it’s sometimes worth switching.

Be flexible. One of the best memoirs I have ever read, Barbara Robinette Moss’ astonishing CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS’ DAUGHTER (if you’ve never read it, and you have even the vaguest interest in the art of autobiography, you simply cannot fully appreciate the art form until you have read this book. It’s gorgeous and painful and brilliant in a way few books manage to be.), found its publisher because its downright lyrical first chapter won in the personal essay category in the Faulkner competition. That was smart contest selection — and a well-deserved win.

This is not to say that you should rush out and enter exactly the same piece in, say, both the mainstream novel and novel-in-progress categories of the same competition, or in both the genre novel and mystery short story categories. Most contests will not allow you to enter the same work in multiple categories, but some will, so check the contest rules carefully before you spend the extra entrance fee.

Truth does compel me to say, however, that it is not unheard of for authors to get away with this sort of double-dipping even when it’s forbidden, as often the bureaucratic part of accepting an entry entails merely noting the author’s name and title, assigning numbers so the judges don’t know who wrote what, sending the entry to the appropriate category chair, and cashing the check. So when an unscrupulous author, say, is bright enough to give different titles to remarkably similar entries and perhaps mail them in separate envelopes, it is highly unlikely that anyone in the front office will have the opportunity to notice that the two distinct entries are, in fact, the same work.

I would have to scold you if you did that, of course. Or if you were clever enough to revise the work just enough between entries that, say, there weren’t more than 50 consecutive words in a row that were identical. That’s maybe one word per paragraph. Ooh, I would have to wag my finger over you if you went that route. Really, I would. That would be just a shade too professional to be merely clever.

Oh, wait — I’ve just realized that I’ve forgotten to deal with an AMAZINGLY important part of any book category’s entry: the synopsis. Oh, and while a good synopsis for a query is usually a good synopsis for a contest entry, it is not necessarily always the case. And there are ways in which a GREAT contest synopsis can differ significantly from a great query synopsis…

Well, that does it. I’ll just have to come back to more contest advice next week. Come to think of it, I have enough to say to carry us through to Greek Christmas, January 6, which as you know is the deadline for entering this blog’s Holiday Tables contest (check out post of December 9 for details.)

Happy New Year, and keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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