Increasing your contest chances: broadening your category search

Yesterday, I took up the seldom-discussed topic of finding the right category in which to enter your work. You would be astonished — at least, I hope you would — at how often writers send work in apparently willy-nilly, trying to force their pages into a category where by definition, their chances of winning are close to zero. This is just inefficient.

So, once again: read every syllable of a contest’s literature very, very carefully.

Also, consider the possibility that the category you had envisioned for your work after publication — i.e., where you had envisioned its being shelved in a bookstore or library after you are famous — may not be the best category in any given contest for you.

Did I just hear a collective gasp out there? Haven’t I been the long-time advocate of labeling your work in the industry’s favorite terms?

Yes, and that’s still true when you’re approaching an agent or editor. However, contests often divide the literary world differently than publishing professionals do: frequently, they use categories that have not been current since Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer. (Quick, tell me: if it were being marketed now, would THE AGE OF INNOCENCE be mainstream fiction, literary fiction, or women’s fiction?)

Pick the category that makes the most strategic sense, regardless of your book’s formal category. Remember, the label you give the entry today is not going to stick with the book for the rest of its life, and there’s absolutely no reason that you should send agents precisely the same pages that you enter in a contest.

So take a little time, and be imaginative about it. The line between memoir and first-person narrative, for instance, can be notoriously thin. Heck, even the fine folks at Random House didn’t seem to be able to tell the difference with A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, did they? (A book that was, as I understand it, originally marketed as a novel, not a memoir.)

And there can be a very good reason to consider other categories for your work. Not to tell tales out of school, but in most contests that accept book-length works, the fiction categories tend to get more entries than the nonfiction ones. Sometimes as in five or ten times as many, which obviously has a direct bearing on any individual entry’s chances. But mum’s the word, okay?

So why not take a good, hard look at your first chapter of your novel or memoir and ask yourself: how much would I have to change this to enter it in the other category as well? What about the nonfiction short piece category? Is your novel really mainstream, or is it actually romance? Could it be entered as both? If the contest offers a novel-in-progress category (as the Wisdom/Faulkner competition does, incidentally; they also have a novella category, if you’re interested), would your barely-finished book do better there, or against the fully polished novels?

And so forth. The goal here is to gain a win to put on your writing resume and in your query letters, not to force your work into the category you have pre-selected for it. Yes, there is usually more prestige attached to book-length categories, but, frankly, in major contests, that’s where the competition tends to be the fiercest. If a shorter-length category seems to offer you a better conceptual fit or better odds, it’s sometimes worth switching. Or multiply submitting.

In a word, be flexible. Get the win on your resume however you can.

One of the best memoirs I have ever read, Barbara Robinette Moss’ astonishing CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS’ DAUGHTER (if you’ve never read it, and you have even the vaguest interest in the art of autobiography, you simply cannot fully appreciate the art form until you have read this book. It’s gorgeous and painful and brilliant in a way few books manage to be.), found its publisher because its downright lyrical first chapter won in the personal essay category in the Faulkner competition. That was smart contest selection — and a well-deserved win.

This is not to say that you should rush out and enter exactly the same piece in, say, both the mainstream novel and novel-in-progress categories of the same competition, or in both the genre novel and mystery short story categories.

Again, READ THE RULES. Most contests will not allow you to enter the same work in multiple categories, but some will, so check the contest rules carefully before you spend the extra entrance fee.

You didn’t hear it from me, of course, but it is not unheard-of for authors to get away with this sort of double-dipping even when it’s forbidden, if the pieces have different titles. Of course, this is terribly, terribly immoral even to consider, but often, it works.

Why? Well, most of the time, the bureaucratic part of accepting an entry entails merely noting the author’s name and title, assigning numbers so the judges don’t know who wrote what, sending the entry to the appropriate category chair, and cashing the check. So until the pieces land on the various category judges’ desks, it’s possible that no one will have read them. And it’s not as though the judges in one category discuss the entries they are reading with the judges in another.

The utterly despicable result: when an unscrupulous author is bright enough to give different titles to remarkably similar entries and perhaps mail them in separate envelopes, it is highly unlikely that anyone in the front office will have the opportunity to notice that the two distinct entries are, in fact, the same work.

Totally unethical, of course; I would have to scold anyone who did that. Or anyone clever enough to revise the work just enough between entries that, say, there weren’t more than 50 consecutive words in a row that were identical. That’s maybe one word per paragraph.

Ooh, I would have to wag my finger over anyone who went that route, boy oh boy. Really, I would. That would be just a shade too professional to be merely clever.

And that’s all I’m going to say on the subject. Keep up the good work!

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