Welcome back to my resumption of the absorbing topic of literary contests. Later this week, I shall be going over how to write the synopsis that virtually every contest that accepts book-length work requires. After that, 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?)
I neglected to mention, however, a potentially time-consuming side effect of entry that usually takes its toll long after the judging is over: 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. And that many, many nonprofit organizations (as runners of literary contests and conferences tend to be) scare up additional scratch for their operating expenses by selling their mailing lists.
Oh, come on — did you think those offers from Writers Digest and The Advocate just found their way into your mailbox magically?
The moral: just because a contest is literary doesn’t mean that its organizers aren’t making money on it. If you don’t want to be placed on mailing lists, add a letter to your entry saying so.
Also, 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.
But that is a minor consideration, and a long-term one; we were talking about the up-front costs of entering a contest, weren’t we?
Here’s a good rule of thumb: you can 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. In the last year, my aged eyes have beheld demands for:
Specific typefaces that differ from the ones required by standard manuscript format.
Fancy paper (three-hole punched, anyone?).
Bizarre margin requirements, such as two inches on the left and 3/4 inch on the right — or vice versa.
Expensive binding, binders, or printing that a writer could not perform at home.
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 needs to be filled out by typewriter, rather than by hand.
Does anyone out there still OWN a typewriter?
Even if you do, 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 to such oddball requirements truly demonstrates is that an entrant can follow directions. (Which, admittedly, is something that an agent or editor might legitimately want to know about a writer s/he was considering signing.)
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, like my belief that gravity should make things fall down, not up.
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 yardstick is this: 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 so? 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 knock entries out of finalist consideration.
As a matter of simple probability, the more that contest rules 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 their 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? Manuscripts not conforming to standard manuscript format tend, after all, to be rejected unread in both contest situations and in agents’ offices. (If you are not already aware of the requirements of standard format for manuscript, do yourself a favor and check out the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS category at right.)
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! Shades of Millicent, eh?
I find this practice annoying, frankly, and the surprisingly common corollary of not being crystal-clear about the costs to the entrant of deviations from these non-literary requirements close to 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 currently embroiled in preparing 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?
As I intimated earlier in this series, 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. It would be kind of pointless for me, of all people, to deny that, as I met my agent as a direct result of winning a contest. It CAN lead to the fast track, and you should definitely enter a few for that very reason.
Yet, contrary to many, many entrants’ expectations, it doesn’t ALWAYS lead to landing an agent, even if you win.
True, a contest credential almost always moves your submission up in the pile, and sometimes even allows it to jump the Millicent screening stage entirely, jumping directly to the agent’s desk. But a contest judge’s idea of what is marketable at the moment is often a bit outdated; an agent or editor might not agree. And most contests feature many categories that do not correspond to the interests of the agents and editors invited to the conference where the winners are announced.
Word to the wise: entering contests probably should not be your only agent-seeking strategy.
It’s an understandable choice, 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 querying. 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 for a single response.
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.
Do I sense some disagreement out there? “But Anne,” some disgruntled voices mutter, “isn’t that true when you send a query to an agent as well? You spent a significant part of your time here demonstrating the difference between the things a writer can control and those we can’t, and unless I’m very much mistaken, this is one of the latter.”
Well, sort of. Just as there are certain dependable agents’ pet peeves that seem to transcend space and time (hel-LO, topic for March!), there are a great many predictable reasons a submission might get knocked out of a contest competition; I shall be talking about those later this month. But in contests, there can also be considerations that have little to do with the actual marketability — and sometimes not even the writing quality — of your entry.
To be blunt about it, 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, your garden-variety contest judge tends to have MORE pet peeves than Millicent the agency screener.
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 while some rogue agents may prefer some slight variation upon it, you can bet your next-to-last nickel that if you follow it, 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 lose its shot at the finalist round 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 not always predictable.
So please, I beg of you, 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.
Keep up the good work!