Picking the right literary contest for you, part V: just walk on by

For reasons best known to himself, my SO has taken to playing the music of Dionne Warwick, she of the Psychic Friends Network, repetitively in our shared abode this evening. It’s not that I have anything against Ms. Warwick’s oeuvre, but the music of Burt Bacharach has always made me just a trifle, well, sleepy. It’s a tad hypnotic.

Which is perhaps why I suddenly feel compelled to share this with you:

The way to San Jose.

That established (phew!), let’s get back to the topic du semaine: maximizing your contest entry dollar. Ideally, I’d like to convince you to look upon each potential contest entry as not merely a fresh roll 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 an exercise to learn how to improve your writing.

There are basketfuls of good reasons to enter contests in general — or, to be precise, to win them: the undoubted ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy), the writing résumé boost, the opportunities to promote yourself to conference-attending agents, to name but a few.

As I’ve been pointing out for the last few days, however, not all contests are created equal. Entering some will help you more than entering 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.

Proof: 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. So just a couple of wins in these categories, even in tiny contests, can add up to a serious upgrade in query letter decoration.

On the down side, the greater scope of opportunity renders these contest wins less valuable in the eyes of agents and editors than winning for a longer piece. In general, in fact, the adulation tends to be substantially greater for winners of categories rewarding entire books.

Which is kind of ironic, as there are comparatively few contests devoted to unpublished book-length manuscripts — and with very few exceptions, the ones that exist ask entrants to submit only a tiny fraction of the book being judged.

On average, 15-25 pages, inclusive of synopsis. And contest judges tend not to reward entries with super-short synopses, either.

A cynic might conclude from this that what these contests are actually rewarding is the ability to write a stellar first chapter and synopsis, rather than the talent to maintain interest in a story or argument for an entire book.

A purist might huff that while there are plenty of people who can write a pretty opening, these contests owe it to the literary world to guard readers from mid-book slump.

A pragmatist, on the other hand, would just look at this phenomenon and say, “Where on earth would they find volunteers to read 700 book-length entries?”

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. The result, as those of you who have gone contest-searching have probably already noticed, is that book-length writers have many fewer contest fora at their disposal.

Causing novelists the world over to cry: what’s it all about, Alfie?

Don’t feel too sorry for them, poets, essayists, and short story writers — writers of book-length pieces enjoy the considerable comparative advantage of being paid astronomically more for their work than writers of shorter pieces. You’d have to place a tremendous number of poems in paying venues to make ends meet without a day job, after all.

If you want to pity them, base it on the fact that the contest universe is hugely biased toward producers of shorter pieces, making it significantly harder for novelists and such to chalk up a contest win at all.

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. Trust me, in ten years, 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 at the time was a three-volume work of science fiction.

It may not make as stunning an ECQLC impression as a win for an entire book, but hey, those of us with small rubies look good in our jewelry, too.

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 — however slight, and even if it refers to 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.

Why? Well, often, good short pieces are about the surprise of instant revelation; novels (and book-length memoirs, and nonfiction books) are about character and argument development.

I know a lot of writers disagree with me on this subject, though — including, I should mention, virtually everyone who has ever taught or been a student in an M.F.A. program — so you should feel free to ignore my opinion entirely on this point. Try your hand in more than one format, if you like so you may enter lots of different contests.

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 no matter where you fall on the length spectrum, adhere to the following little axiom with the tenacity of a starving leech: make sure that every page you enter in a contest represents your best writing.

Not just writing that’s pretty good, or prose that you think might catch an agent’s eye. Or the first 20 pages of a novel that starts to sing by page 62.

If the writing you’re planning to submit doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, cover you in goosebumps, and make you murmur fervent gratitude to the deity of your choice that you were privileged to write it, it does not belong in an entry.

Seriously — you’d be amazed at how many entries judges see that consist of perfectly adequate prose, but not writing that jumps off the page. If there isn’t an arresting image, great twist, or lovely sentence on page 1, even for a book-length entry, it’s probably not going to end up in the finalist pile.

I was going to insert a joke here about looking at your potential entry and crying, I know I’ll never love this way again, but really, do you need that kind of reference rattling around in your brainpan?

There’s another criterion you might want to consider in deciding whether it’s in your best interest to enter a particular piece of writing in a contest: how closely does it conform to the demands of the current literary market?

Artistically, that may seem like a secondary consideration, but in practice — and I’m letting you in on a literary judge secret here, because that’s what friends are for — most of the time, at least initially, contest judges are not so much judging the quality of the writing in an entry as assessing its marketability.

And THEN they worry about the writing.

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.

I know; I was disappointed when I first learned that, too. Wow, I thought, I’ll never fall in love again.

Naturally, marketability is not the primary orientation of every contest that accepts book-length work (or portions thereof), but it weighs heavily in the scoring more often than not. There’s a pretty good reason for that, too: 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 BEFORE you enter a contest can save you a LOT of grief — and a lot of wasted entry fees. 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 category.

Alternatively, if your work is an absolute dead-on fit for its genre, you might not want to waste your time, energy, and resources on a contest that has traditionally rewarded very literary writing.

If you are unsure where your work falls on the spectrum, select a contest where the judges give written feedback on entries — it’s some of the least sentimental, least punch-pulling marketing advice you will ever receive. Believe me, if you’ve mislabeled your work, they’re going to let you know about it.

If you approach a feedback-generating contest 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 again!), to the final question to ask yourself before entering a contest: does it offer advantages for non-winning entrants?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but almost no one wins the first contest she enters.

Why? Well, most 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 can, if not actually disqualify inexperienced entrants outright, at least minimize the probability of their making the finals.

Yes, even in otherwise well-written entries. And that’s over and above problems any given entry might encounter by not being written in the contest’s preferred style.

“Huh?” I hear those new to the game cry.

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 particular contest before you win. I wish this weren’t the case; life would be easier for virtually every contest entrant on the planet if stylistic preferences were simply expressed openly, rather than the usual contest rhetoric about rewarding the best new writing out there.

Best is subjective, after all.

Yet it’s rare to the point of jaw-dropping for a contest to state up front in its rules, look, you may be a brilliant writer destined to wow millions, but if you don’t use adverbs exactly the way Annie Proulx does, don’t bother entering. Or we’re POV Nazis; sending us anything with multiple perspectives will only end in tears. Or even in case you haven’t noticed, we have never given a major award to a writer who wasn’t already a member of our organization. Other people’s entry fees may be regarded as a donation to our group; thanks very much.

I say a little prayer for you nightly, in the hope that this will change.

For these reasons, it is very much in your interest to make your first contest entries ones that will help teach you something even if you don’t land in the winners’ circle.

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 ECQLC boasting rights from those entries.

Contests that offer significant feedback to contest entrants are very, very useful when you are first starting out, too, as you may use them to learn how to polish up future entries. In contests for novel-length work that don’t provide feedback, 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 greatly increase the probability that entering will do you good.

And, of course, you might win! But will you still love me tomorrow?

Keep up the good work!

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