Picking the right contest, part VII: choosing to jump through only the NON-flaming hoops

Welcome back to my resumption of the absorbing topic of literary contests. Next week, I shall be going into fine detail about technical tweaking you can give your entries that will make them more likely to end up in the finalist pile, but today, I want to finish up my series of questions you should ask yourself about a contest before you invest your time, money, and hope in entering.

In my last post, I discussed the pitfalls of contests that require entrants to devote extensive time to filling out entry forms, especially those that require information that should be positively irrelevant in a blind-judged contest. (Personal references? Huh?) You can also save yourself a lot of time if you avoid contests that make entrants jump through a lot of extraneous hoops in preparing a submission.

Some of these requirements have to be seen to be believed. Specific typefaces, if they differ from the ones required by standard manuscript format. Fancy paper (three-hole punched, anyone?). Bizarre margin requirements. Expensive binding. An unprintable entry form that must be sent away for with a SASE — presumably because the contest organizers have yet to hear of the internet — and need to be filled out by typewriter, rather than by hand. (Does anyone out there still OWN a typewriter?)

Each of these will eat up your time and money, without the end result’s being truly indicative of the quality of your work. Because, really, all conforming with such oddball requirements really shows is that an entrant can follow directions.

I’m sorry to shock anyone, but my notion of a literary contest is one where the entrant proves that she can WRITE, not that she can READ. But I suppose that could be my own absurd little prejudice.

I don’t enter contests anymore, of course — most agents frown upon their clients’ entering them, and really, pros skew the scoring curve. But when my clients ask me whether a particular contest is worthwhile for them to enter, my rule of thumb is that if they can pull together a contest entry with already-written material within a day’s worth of uninterrupted writing time, I consider it reasonable. I like this standard, because the more time you have to write, the more entry-ambitious it encourages you to be.

So if a contest requires time-consuming funky formatting, or printing on special contest forms, or wacko binding, you might not want to bother. To my contest-experienced eyes, such requests are not for your benefit, but the contest organizers’.

How do I know? Because — and hold onto your hats, everybody, because I am about to reveal a deep, dark secret of the contest trade here — the primary purpose of these elaborate requests for packaging is to make it as easy as possible to disqualify entries. As a matter of simple probability, the more that they ask entrants to do to package an entry, the more ways an entrant can get it wrong. By setting up stringent and easily-visible cosmetic requirements, the organizers maximize the number of entries they can simply toss aside, unread.

Yes, you read that right: it’s so they don’t have to read all of the entries in full. Interestingly enough, many of the organizers of contests that establish these demands are quite open about its being merely an exercise in rule-following — and that they do it in order to preserve that most precious of commodities in this industry, time.

Not that you’d have to be Einstein, Mme. de Staël, and Confucius rolled into one to figure it out. Think about it: if contest organizers really only were only seeking uniformity amongst the entries, they could easily just say, “We will only accept entries in standard manuscript format.” No fuss, no bother, and besides, all of their entrants who want to get published should be using standard format, anyway, right? (If you are not already aware of the requirements of standard format, do yourself a favor and check out the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right. Manuscripts not conforming to standard format tend to be rejected unread in both contest situations and in agents’ offices.)

Instead, the organizers in this type of contest can merely assign some luckless intern or volunteer to go through the entries before the judges see page 1 of them, plucking out any that are in the wrong type of folder, printed on the wrong type of paper, don’t have the right funky margins… well, you get the idea. Voilà! The number of entries the judges have to read has magically decreased!

I find this practice annoying, frankly, and not being crystal-clear about the costs to the entrant of deviations from these non-literary requirements despicable. Over-adherence to nit-picky presentation issues provides the organization with the illusion of selectivity on bases that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. And that, my friends, is unfair to writers everywhere.

Which brings me to a specialized question aimed at those of you who are contest entries: how much of your writing time is being eaten up by contests these days? If you have been entering quite a few (and we’ve just finished a season of deadlines for contests and fellowship applications, and are about to enter another), would your time be better spent by passing on the next one?

Yes, a contest win or fellowship award looks great on your query letters, but it is possible to spend so much time on them that you are left with very little time to write. I once met a writer at an artists’ colony — we’d both won a competition to get in, one with a VERY involved application that I wouldn’t recommend anybody take the time to fill out — who spent literally three weeks of our month-long retreat there applying for other retreats, filling out grant applications, and entering contests. Apparently, this was her standard MO.

The result: a resume crammed to the brim with impressive contest wins and prestigious fellowships — and a grand total of two short stories and a few chapters of a novel completed in 9 years’ time. In her frantic quest to fund her writing habit, she had turned herself into a non-stop entering machine with no time or energy to write anything new.

There are so many literary contests out there that if you entered them all, you would never have a chance to get down to serious writing. Equally seriously, if you have a finished piece that you should be marketing to agents and/or small presses, it is very easy to tell yourself that entering contest after contest — at the expense of devoting that time to sending out queries — is a time- saver, in the long run. Unfortunately, that isn’t always true.

Yes, a win (or place, or finalist status) in a reputable contest can indeed speed up your agent-seeking process exponentially. I would be the last to deny that, as I met my agent as a direct result of winning the Nonfiction Book/Memoir category in the PNWA contest in 2004. It CAN lead to the fast track, and you should definitely enter a few for that very reason.

However — and this is a serious consideration — I meet a LOT of aspiring writers who turn to the contest route as a SUBSTITUTE for querying, and that can definitely slow the road to publication to a crawl. It’s understandable, of course — sending out query after query is discouraging, and in the current ultra-competitive writers’ market, it can sometimes take years to pique a good agent’s interest.

Not that it will take my readers years, of course. You’re one market-savvy bunch.

However tired of the querying grind you may be, PLEASE do not fall into the trap of using contests as a complete substitute. For one thing, the turn-around time for contest entries is significantly longer than the response time for even the least organized agencies: four to six months is common, and if you have a finished novel or NF book proposal in hand, that’s FAR too long to wait.

Also, if you hang all of your hopes on a contest win, even if you enter a plethora of contests, you are relying upon the quirky tastes of people you have never met to determine your fate.

Oh, yes, I know — that’s true when you send a query to an agent as well, but as I shall demonstrate next week, there are a great many reasons a submission might get knocked out of a contest competition that have little to do with the actual marketability — and sometimes not even the writing quality — of your work. To make it to the finalist round in a contest, you have to avoid every conceivable pet peeve that the initial screeners might have.

And, believe it or not, contest judges tend to have MORE pet peeves than agency screeners.

Mind-blowing, isn’t it? But true. With first readers at agencies (who are seldom the agents themselves, recall), you can at least rely upon certain basic rules. Standard format, for instance, is not a matter of individual whim, and you’re not going to have your submission tossed out on technical grounds if you follow it.

But in a contest, if you hit a volunteer first reader whose college English professor insisted that semicolons are ALWAYS an indicator of poor writing — yes, such curmudgeons do exist, and their erstwhile students abound — your work is likely to be knocked out of consideration the first time you use one. Ditto with the passive voice, or multiple points of view. You never can tell who is going to be a contest judge, so the outcome even for very good writing is far from predictable.

So please, keep sending out those queries while you are entering contests — and if you find that the time to prep contest entries are starting to be your excuse for not sending out more queries, stop and reevaluate whether you are making the best use of your time in your pursuit of publication.

If for no other reason that that I would really, really like to be able to gloat when your first book comes out. I ask for so little; humor me.

Happy weekend, everybody. Keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “Picking the right contest, part VII: choosing to jump through only the NON-flaming hoops”

  1. From my relatively unexperienced, novice writer’s point of view, I do agree that entering writing/literary contests should not be a substitute for querying. In my own experience I did find that prepping material for a contest entry pointed out the fact that more work was needed overall. I did delay or hold of on querying until I had better prepared the material.

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