Picking the right contest, part II: weeding out the duds

Yesterday, I horrified the innocent Virginias of the world by pointing out that in the average literary contest, the impartiality emperor might, to put it delicately, be under-dressed. Today – my 150th post on the new blog site (and 359th since I first began blogging), another major milestone – I shall give you a few pointers on how to figure out which contests are most likely to serve you best.

What makes this particularly appropriate, of course, is that here in the Pacific Northwest, we’re experiencing an unusually blustery winter. So I actually have been writing these posts in sleet, hail, and dark of night – like the intrepid mail carriers of the U.S. Postal Service, nothing stays this blogger from her appointed rounds.

And, by the way, if you’re still casting about for your first good deed of the new year, what about thanking your mail carrier? S/he ensures that your queries, manuscripts, and other writing necessities travel back and forth in a reliable manner. And when we’re talking 8-pound manuscripts, that’s no mean feat. It’s a tough job, involving far more interaction with dogs’ bared teeth than I would be comfortable dealing with on a daily basis, and they definitely deserve to be thanked.

Back to the topic at hand, picking a contest with care. Yesterday, I brought up the possibility that not all contests are blindly judged.

I shall never forget the looks on the faces of everyone at the awards ceremony of a QUITE respectable Southern conference when the teenage daughter of two of the contest judges carried off the Young Writer award — and, as I recall, a not insignificant check, derived, no doubt, from the entry fees of hundreds of trusting high school students whose parents were not regularly having drinks with the judges. Had Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Bob the Builder all been hauled out of the room by DEA agents for peddling narcotics to kids, the attending writers’ expressions could hardly have expressed more shocked disgust.

Now, that particular year, the winner’s parents had actually been judging in other categories, not hers, but since they had been her first readers and were rather chatty people, it is beyond the bounds of belief that the judges in her category would not have some inkling which entry was hers. I’m not saying that the contest was rigged, per se; I’m just saying that her mother won in the nonfiction category.

The general rule of thumb for avoiding this type of situation: enter contests sponsored by organizations, not cliques. The writers’ grapevine can really help you here. Ask other writers about particular contests before you spend time and money on entering them. Poets & Writers magazine, which lists literary contest deadlines in each issue, does a pretty good job of screening, so if a contest seems a bit shady to you, check if it is listed there.

And, of course, if you check out a list of the last few years’ winners (and you should), and you see the same last names recurring, or see that the judges themselves seem to carry off prizes on a fairly regular basis, you might want to think twice about sending in your entry check.

The next question you should ask yourself before mailing off an entry check is: how good are your chances of winning?

Yes, any contest win or place will look nice on your writing résumé, but obviously, some contests are more prestigious than others. Less prestigious ones can actually be a better bet, if they are legitimate.

“Wha..?” I hear some of you exclaiming. “Isn’t bigger always better?”

Not necessarily. You might be better off with a less well-known contest your first few times out, for an exceedingly simple reason: your odds of making the finals are significantly higher in a small entry pool than a large one. Big-ticket contests attract stiff competition; contests with large cash prizes attract a higher percentage of professionals amongst the entrants.

Also, your chances of winning are higher if your writing resembles that of past winners. This is true for another exceedingly simple reason (they are abounding today, aren’t they?): contest judges tend to be loyal folk, returning to the task with a tenacity a spawning salmon would envy. In most writers’ organizations that offer contests, the first round of reading is performed by volunteers – the same volunteers, year after year.

And, miraculously, their literary tastes don’t change all that much in the intervening twelve months between judging cycles.

Thus, if the volunteers of a particular contest have historically favored Gothic romance, and you write futuristic fantasy, and there is only one novel category, you’re probably better off going for a different contest, one that favors your type of work. The more specialized your genre, the more it behooves you to check in advance whether a conference’s complement of judges tend to treat it with respect.

Or (to take a purely hypothetical case that couldn’t possibly refer to any contest run in my local area, or in which I might have taken a high prize in years past) if the top mainstream fiction category prizes in a prestigious competition are carried off year after year by literary fiction writers, you might want to think twice about entering fiction that is, say, particularly mainstream. But if you happened to write on the literary side of romance, or are an unusually descriptive SF/fantasy writer, you might stand a good chance.

How can a potential entrant tell what the judges’ preferences are, short of taking them all out to lunch individually and asking them? Most contests will list past winners on their websites, tucked away in a corner somewhere; check them out. If the sponsoring organization publishes winning entries – and many have small magazines — read a few. If your writing style is radically different from what has won in the past, the contest is probably not for you.

In any contest with celebrity judges (i.e., famous writers who make the final selections from amongst the finalist pool), this goes double, or even triple. If your writing doesn’t resemble the famous judge’s in form, think twice before bothering to enter.

Even if you’re lucky enough to find a celebrity judge who is well-read outside of his own subgenre – and willing to reward work unlike his own — the bigwigs virtually never read all of the entries; commonly, they read only the finalists. That means that those crusty volunteers I mentioned above screen the entries first – and all too frequently, edge out good entries that do not resemble the celebrity’s, on the well-intentioned theory that our writing tends to reflect our reading tastes. They’re just trying to save the celebrity some time.

Finally, if the contest is attached to a conference where the awards are given (and many are), are the agents who typically attend that conference ones who might be interested in your work?

I can tell you from personal experience: while having a contest win, place, or show under your belt is great query letter candy, being a finalist at most conferences confers a good deal more than just a nice ribbon attached to your name badge. It marks you out as someone with whom, for instance, an agent might want to pause and have a hallway conversation, or ask, “So, what do you write?” during otherwise pitch-free social time in the bar.

In other words, it’s a great little conversation starter. As such, you might want to target contests attached to conferences that your dream agent attends.

The internet is your friend here: pretty much every conference will list which agents they cajoled to it last year and/or those who will be blandished into being there this year. Also, the standard agents’ guides tend to list which conferences agents from any given agency habitually attend.

As I said yesterday, there’s more to using contests to your benefit than sending in a well-written entry: there’s strategy. Tomorrow, I shall turn this question on its head, talk about what you can get out of entering a writing contest.

In the meantime, happy 150th, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *