Picking the right contest, part V: The fringe benefits

I have been writing for the last couple of posts about entering literary contests, and how to maximize your entry fee dollar. There are basketfuls of good reasons to enter contests in general – the writing resume candy, the query letter boasting rights, and the opportunities to promote yourself to conference-attending agents, to name but a few – but not all contests are created equal. Some will help you more than others, so it is very much to your advantage to choose your contests wisely.

This is particularly true for novelists and nonfiction writers who enter contests; poets, essayists, and short story writers have exponentially more contest venues, and entry fees tend to be correspondingly lower. If you write in any of these shorter formats, you have only to open any issue of Poets & Writers to find dozens of contests just crying out for your work – contests that often include publication as part of the prize. The greater scope of opportunity renders these contest wins a trifle less valuable in the eyes of agents and editors, but still worthwhile.

True, the adulation tends to be greater for winners of categories rewarding entire books, but the fact is, the vast majority of contests ask for short pieces, for the simple reason that it requires much, much less effort on the sponsoring organization’s part to process them. Book-length writers have many fewer contest fora at their disposal, and those that exist tend not to ask that the whole book be submitted, but only the first chapter and a synopsis, at most.

Writers whose ideas expand beyond 25-page limits can feel discouraged by this, or even discriminated against, and with reason.

Writers of book-length pieces also enjoy the considerable comparative advantage of being paid astronomically more for their work when it sells – you’d have to place a tremendous number of poems in paying venues to make ends — so don’t feel too sorry for them, writers of shorter works. But the fact that the contest universe is hugely biased toward producers of shorter pieces makes it significantly harder for novelists and such to chalk up a contest win.

If you write in the longer formats, yet are comfortable in the shorter, you might want to consider polishing a single short story, poem, or essay to a high luster and sending it on the contest circuit, to try to rake in a win you can add to your credentials list. No one is going to hold it against you that the credential you used to catch an agent’s attention was for a gorgeously terse poem, while the book you were pitching was a three-volume work of science fiction.

There is an unfortunately pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit that every agency screener in the land has been instructed to toss any book-pushing query letter that contains reference to poetry, even if it brings up a major contest win, directly into the trash. This is not true, and as nearly as I can tell, has never been widely true: it’s an exaggerated way of saying that poetry contest wins are not an automatic entrée into the publishing world.

Which makes some sense, actually: being able to write a good poem does not necessarily translate into being able to write a good book.

Personally, I feel that the short story and the novel are also quite different art forms, as different as painting in oils and sketching in charcoal – witness the number of writers who publish several short stories in venues like THE NEW YORKER, and publish them in collections, only to find after they have signed a novel contract that they don’t have a novel in them. Short pieces are about the surprise of instant revelation; novels (and book-length memoirs, and nonfiction books) are about character and argument development. Mastering the skills of one does not necessarily prep an author to produce the other
I know a lot of writers disagree with me on this subject — including, I should mention, virtually everyone who has ever taught in an M.F.A. program — so you should feel free to try your hand in more than one format. However, if shorter work is not your forté, it probably is not worth the expenditure of energy and angst to stop writing on your longer work in order to pull something short together for a contest.

But if you do, make sure that anything you enter in a contest is your best writing.

If you are the kind of writer who sticks single-mindedly to a long project until it is finished, it is a good idea to look upon contests not merely as rolls of the dice to try to win the jackpot of recognition (and, the common writerly fantasy goes, an agent and major book deal immediately thereafter), but as tools to learn how to improve your work. Because – and I’m letting you in on a literary judge secret here – most of the time, contest judges are not so much judging the quality of the writing in an entry as assessing its marketability.

Yes, you read that correctly. A great idea with huge market potential, presented in a clear and professional manner, will often edge out a beautifully-written piece aimed at a tiny market niche.

Someone pick Virginia up; I think she has fainted again.

Marketability is not the primary orientation of every contest that accepts book-length work (or portions thereof), naturally, but it’s true more often than not. It’s not unusual for the final judges of a contest to be the exact same agents and editors who appear at the attached conference – and if there is anything that THEY’re looking for, it’s marketability. Great writing is always a plus, but to win a contest, it isn’t always enough.

Knowing this can save you a LOT of grief at contest time. If your work is not particularly mainstream, select contests that cater to your niche, rather than hoping your work will fly in a more general contest.

Look up on it as a learning experience. If you ultimately want to make your work appeal to the largest segment of the reading population as possible, select contests where the judges give feedback on entries – it’s some of the least sentimental, least punch-pulling marketing advice you will ever receive. If you approach it in that spirit, you can learn a great deal – especially if you are new to querying and aren’t sure why your work keeps getting rejected.

Which brings me, at long last (phew!), to the last on my list of questions to ask yourself before entering a contest: does it have advantages for non-winning entrants?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but almost no one wins the first contest he enters. Contest entrants experience a fairly sharp learning curve, for reasons I shall be covering later in this series; there are many, many simple mistakes that frequently disqualify inexperienced entrants outright, even with otherwise well-written entries. Even if your entry is a monument of precision and contest-rule adhesion, you may have to enter a few times to learn the rhythms and preferences of a contest before you win.

So it is very much in your interest to make your first contest entries ones that will help you even if you don’t win. For instance, if you are new to the game, it is a better use of your contest-entering buck to go for contests that recognize semi-finalists, as well as finalists. That way, you maximize your probability of garnering boasting rights from those entries.

Contests that offer significant feedback to contest entrants are very, very useful when you are first starting out, as you may use them to learn how to polish up future entries. PNWA contest judges, for instance, have to fill out a questionnaire about every entry they read, explaining precisely how they thought the entry did or did not meet the contest criteria. The entrants receive these forms after the competition is ended, so they may study them for hints on how to improve their entries.

In other contests for novel-length work, an entrant would need to engage in serious bribery to obtain that type of information.

To sum up: there is a whole range of benefits that can accrue from contest entry beyond winning the grand prize. By selecting the contests that meet your current needs, rather than entering blindly or with an all-or-nothing attitude, you can maximize the good entering will do you.

And, of course, you might win!

I’m going on hiatus for the next couple of days, because I have a novel revision that an editor at a major publishing house would very much like for me to pop in the mail on Tuesday, but after I’ve accomplished that (phew!), I shall give you some tips on navigating the waters of contest requirements successfully. In the meantime, enjoy the holiday weekend, and keep up the good work!

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