Picking the right contest, part IV: But what’s in it for me?

If I had to pick a single piece of advice to summarize yesterday’s blog, it would be this: if you are going to hang your hopes – and your resources – on an array of contests, it honestly does pay to be selective. In this series, I have been going over what you can do to figure out which contests are and are not for you.

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. Thank you, Whomever.

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 has a reputation for bending 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 winners are invited to have breakfast with all of the agents and editors, and each winner can stand up and give a universal pitch. Also, the top three entries in each category are displayed in the lobby at the conference, where everybody can read them.

(Tip to all PNWA attendees: one of the best places to troll for agents is at this reading table between 8 and 9 a.m. on the morning after the award ceremony: after the breakfast, the hallway is generally packed with grazing agents. The fact that each winning entry is in a clearly-marked folder gives you an automatic conversation-starter: “Oh, I read that genre entry – wasn’t it terrific? Since you’re interested in my genre, may I give you my 30-second pitch?”)

This level of support is unusual, however. 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 critical introductions, but often, they do not.

This is why it is a very, very good idea to check out a conference over and above its formal offerings before you attend it. Because – and I hate to say this, because good literary conferences are a blessing to humanity, and the volunteers who pull them together deserve candy and roses from all of us – there are conferences out there that exist primarily for the self-aggrandizement of their organizers.

Call me zany, but if I’m going to plunk down the dosh to attend a conference, particularly one far away, I don’t particularly want to be relegated to the kids’ table while the organizers hobnob with the agents and editors at the Important People’s table. Or are whisked off to private parties on some board member’s yacht, far away from anyone who might conceivably have come to the conference to pitch.

I’ll get down off my soapbox in a minute, but first let me say: the free mingling of the insiders and the undiscovered at conference bars is one of the great democratic institutions, and I am always sorry to see pernicious exclusivity sap its vital energy. Long live ice-fueled conversations.

Back to practicalities. If the entry fee to a conference-affiliated contest tied is high, I would advise checking out the contest description very carefully, to make sure it is worth your while. And 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. Or if your name badge at the conference will be delivered to you pre-marked. Should bring your own big blue ribbon to attach to it?

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 what they perceive to be biased treatment. 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 enviable perks.

I’d enter that contest – but not attend the attached conference unless I was up for a prize. Because, really, why? There are conferences that will demonstrate my profit motive in pursuing my writing equally well, where I will get more out of the experience.

And, honestly, didn’t all of us experience enough negative contact with cliques in junior high school to last us a lifetime?

It’s also a good idea to check out the list of your category’s winners from three or more years ago: how many of these writers can you find on a basic web search or by checking Amazon? More to the point, do any of them show up as clients on agency websites? Or as debut book sales on Publishers’ Marketplace?

In other words, are this contest’s winners getting published afterward? How past winners fared is an excellent indication of how you might make out if you win. However, try not to be overzealous: checking last year’s winners, or the ones from two years ago, is not entirely fair, as publication seldom occurs in less than a year after a book deal is signed.

An organization that supports its contest winners will usually be proud of them, so the successes of past winners is generally quite easy to obtain. If the sponsoring organization does not have a website listing member and past winner triumphs, try to scare up a chatty volunteer in the organization’s office.

Hint: ask the volunteer what she writes, and if she has ever entered the contest herself. If she has, you’ll probably get an earful; it’s a safe bet that anyone who volunteers for a writers’ organization writes, but almost nobody thinks to ask the receptionist. (This same logic applies at most political campaigns, by the way: everyone who calls wants to speak to the bigwigs, but for organizational dirt, you can hardly do better than chatting up the dear retiree who devotes four hours per week to licking envelopes.)

This may seem pushy, but most contest-running organizations will have a volunteer or staffer return phone calls and e-mails as a matter of course — 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.

Next time, 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!

One Reply to “Picking the right contest, part IV: But what’s in it for me?”

  1. My experience as a winner was wonderful, but I did hope for a ribbon of some sort on my badge to identify myself (No time for modesty). I was ready to pitch anything.
    Most likely, they didn’t think I’d come to the conference after winning, but I came because I really wanted to hear a particular novelist speak. I think that was one of my conference evaluation suggestions.

    Gearing for another lit contest.

Leave a Reply

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