Picking the right contest, part VI: hanging with the disreputable

I’m shifting gears today, from the slow and steady pace appropriate to successful querying to the adrenaline-pumping deadline panics and nail-biting award-announcement waits endemic to contest entry. To ease the transition, today I am going to talk about the widely differing time commitments necessary to meet contest criteria.

It often comes as something of a shock to those new to entering contests just how time-consuming many of them are. Some allow you just to pop your work in the mail in pretty much the same form as you would use to send it to an agent; some require you to fill out extensive forms to accompany the work; some specify such stringent formatting requirements that you cannot use the work submitted to them for any other purpose.

Today, I’m going to give you some tips on navigating the waters of these requirements without eating too deeply into your hard-won writing and marketing time.

The time criterion (see earlier posts in this series for other criteria) is perhaps the most important factor to consider in evaluating a contest — other than whether your writing is ready to face competition, of course. Unlike the other criteria, which mostly focused upon the contest itself, this consideration is about you and your resources.

Parenthetically – because I am constitutionally incapable of not following an interesting line of thought when it comes up, apparently — isn’t it amazing, given how much uncompensated time we all invest into our art, just how often time has been coming up in this blog as the single most common decision-making determinant? You should sent out simultaneous queries because your time is too valuable to expend the extra years single-shot querying can take; agents don’t give rejection reasons because they don’t have the time to give substantive feedback to everyone (I like to call this the Did You Bring Enough Gum for the Whole Class? defense); your queries need to be pithy from the get-go because agency screeners only spend seconds upon each.

And now, as you’ve probably figured out, I’m about to advise you to look very carefully at the requirements of any contest you are considering entering and asking yourself – before you invest ANY time in prepping the entry – “Is this honestly going to be worth my time?”

Why do I keep harping on the importance of valuing your time, in the face of a publishing industry which, to put it very gently indeed, doesn’t?

Precisely because the industry doesn’t. While dealing with agents who take three months to respond to queries, and editors who take a year to pass judgment on a submission, if you don’t treat your time as a precious commodity, it’s all too easy to conclude that the industry is right: writers’ time is as vast as the sea, and as easily replenished as a tidal pool adjacent to a beach.

I don’t think so.

I measure time by the standards of a professional writer: every waking minute spent away from my current writing project, or from editing my clients’ writing projects, is expensive. More expensive, I think, than the equivalent minutes in the average agent’s or editor’s quotidian lives, because they are not typically creating new beauty and truth in every spare nanosecond they can steal. What writers do is important, not only to the writers themselves, but to humanity.

So there.

Since we writers control so little else along our paths to publication, I’m a great advocate of controlling what we can. Unfortunately, there are few contests out there, especially for longer works, that simply require entrants to print up an already-existing piece, slide it into an envelope, write a check for the entry fee, and slap a stamp upon it.

How few, you ask? Well, off the top of my head, thinking back over the last dozen years or so, I would estimate that the grand total would be roughly…none.

At minimum, any blind-judged contest is going to require that you prepare a special rendition of your manuscript devoid of your usual slug line – because your slug line, of course, includes your name. Translation: you can’t just photocopy or print your current MS and mail it to a contest. And anything beyond that is, alas, time-consuming.

Pretty much every contest requires the entrant to fill out an entry form – which can range from requests for ultra-simple contact information to outright demands that you answer actual essay questions. (Applications for fellowships and residencies virtually always include essay questions, FYI.) And yes, Virginia, misreading or skipping even one of these questions on the entry form generally results in disqualification.

I hate to be pedantic here, but it does need to be said: do be aware that every time you fill out one of these forms, you are giving tacit consent to being placed upon the sponsoring organization’s mailing list. As with any information you submit to people you do not know, be careful not to provide any data that is not already public knowledge. Every piece of information you share here is subject to resale to marketing firms, unless the contest sponsor states outright on the form that it will not do so.

Oh, come on — did you think those offers from Writers Digest and The Advocate just found their way into your mailbox magically?

How do you know if what is being asked of you is de trop? Well, a one- or at most two-page application form is ample for a literary contest; a three- or four-page application is fair for a fellowship or residency. Anything more than that, and you should start to wonder what they’re doing with all of this information.

A contest that gives out monetary awards will need your Social Security number eventually, for tax purposes (yes, contest winnings are taxable), for instance, but they really need this information only for the winners. I would balk about giving it up front.

I have seen contest entry forms that ask writers to list character references, especially those contests aimed at writers still in school. It’s an odd request, isn’t it, given that the history of our art form is riddled with notorious rakes, ne’er-do-wells, and other social undesirables who happened to write like angels? Some awfully good poetry and prose has been written in jail cells over the centuries, after all. I don’t believe that a contest should throw out the work of a William Makepeace Thackeray or an H.G. Wells because they kept mistresses…or to toss Oscar Wilde’s because he didn’t.

Or, for that matter, close its entry rolls to a shy kid whose high school English teacher doesn’t happen to like her.

In practice, reference requests are seldom followed up upon, and even less frequently used to disqualify entries before they are read, but they are occasionally used as tie-breakers. A good literary contest is not going to refuse to read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s entry because of that bottle of laudanum he was fond of carrying in his pocket, or disqualify Emily Dickenson’s poetry submission because her neighbors noticed that she didn’t much like to go outside.

No, they’d wait until the finalist round to do that.

I have questioned contest organizers why they ask for references, and they claim they do it solely so they can rule out people whose wins might embarrass the organization giving the award – basically, so they do not wake up one day and read in the newspaper that they gave their highest accolade to Ted Bundy. So they might well gently shove aside an entry whose return address was a state or federal prison, to minimize the possibility of handing their top honor to someone wearing manacles and accompanied by a guard.

Call me zany, but personally, I would prefer to see potential and former felons turn their entries to the gentle arts of the sonnet or the essay over other, less socially-useful pursuits like murdering people with axes, embezzlement, or arson of public buildings, but evidently, not every contest organizer agrees with me. Again, I’m not sure that they have an ethical right to limit entries this way but as I believe I have made clear in the past, I do not run the universe.

The moral: if you don’t have friends as disreputable as you are to vouch for you in a reference-requiring contest, you need to get out more – or at least graduate from high school. Join a writers’ group.

I must admit, though, that my suspicious nature rears its paranoid head whenever I see requests for references; back in my contest-entry days, I tended to avoid these contests. If an entrant lists one of the contest judges as a reference, is the entry handled differently? If I can list a famous name as a reference, are my chances of winning better?

Only the conference organizers know for sure.

Contest entry forms frequently ask you to list your writing credentials, which I find bizarre in contests where the judging is supposed to be blind. Again, perhaps I am suspicious, but I always wonder if entries from authors with previous contest wins or publication credentials go into a different pile than the rest. They shouldn’t, if the judging is genuinely blind.

But to quote the late great Fats Waller, “One never knows, do one?”

I’m not saying that you should rule out contests that make such requests – but I do think that the more personal information the organization asks for, the more careful your background check on the contest should be. When I see a request for references, for instance, I automatically look to see if the listed judges and/or their students have won previous competitions. A lot of the requesters are indeed on the up-and-up, but there is no surer waste of an honest writer’s time, talent, and resources than entering a rigged contest – or one with a demonstrable bias.

But do not despair, dear readers: there are plenty of literary contests – and fellowships, too — out there that are absolutely beyond reproach. By keeping your eye out for warning signs before you sink your valuable time into filling out extensive applications, you will be keeping your work – and your entry fees – out of the hands of the greedy.

And hey, any of you out there who may be considering committing a felony in the days to come: take my advice, and take up short story writing instead. I assure you, everyone will be happier in the long run.

There! That’s another day of crime prevented. Keep up the good work!

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