Countdown to a contest entry, part II: what’s in it for me?

Before we launch into today’s installment — which will be the first of two, by the way, but more on that in a moment — let us all rise to our feet to give a giant round of applause to long-time Author! Author! community member and inveterate commenter, Kate Evangelista, whose first novel, TASTE, was just released by Crescent Moon Press in in e-reader format. Kudos to you, Kate!

I have it on good authority (so to speak) that other formats are following imminently. I have a strong feeling that I shall be crowing about those, too, because if you couldn’t tell, I absolutely love being able to announce that one of you has a new book out. Kate is the classic hardworking, creative, enthusiastic writer who paid her dues, learned her craft, and is being justly recognized for it. And that, frankly, tickles me no end.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: it can be done, people. As I also tend to say early and often, the long, hard road to publication is a heck of a lot easier if we support one another along the way.

One way I like to do it: sharing publisher’s blurbs (and author photos) at moments like this. Take a gander:

At Barinkoff Academy, there’s only one rule: no students on campus after curfew. Phoenix McKay soon finds out why when she is left behind at sunset. A group calling themselves night students threaten to taste her flesh until she is saved by a mysterious, alluring boy. With his pale skin, dark eyes, and mesmerizing voice, Demitri is both irresistible and impenetrable. He warns her to stay away from his dangerous world of flesh eaters. Unfortunately, the gorgeous and playful Luka has other plans.

When Phoenix is caught between her physical and her emotional attraction, she becomes the keeper of a deadly secret that will rock the foundations of an ancient civilization living beneath Barinkoff Academy. Phoenix doesn’t realize until it is too late that the closer she gets to both Demitri and Luka, the more she is plunging them all into a centuries-old feud.

I know: I can hardly wait to read it, either.

On to the day’s business. Workloads for those of us who read for a living are predictably heavy in the spring: a lot of books, especially memoirs, tend to have manuscript delivery deadlines around now, and the delivery deadlines for next year’s summer reads are just around the corner. Which is to say: it’s going to be a trifle difficult for me to grab the time to post at length over the next few weeks.

Yes, yes, I know: I should have thought of that before I launched into this series on writing contest selection and entry prep. The challenge prompts me to revert to an experiment that has worked well in the past: posting shorter posts more often. I’m going to try to post a couple of times per day over this weekend, to traject us well into the meat of the matter by Monday.

Not only will that enable us to work through the, let’s face it, rather enormous range of relevant contest-related tips with greater expedition, but breaking it down into shorter posts will also render the individual sub-subjects more easily searchable for those of you who want to revisit specific topics in months or years to come.

Besides, I felt that tremor of panic when I did not post yesterday. I know that some of you are shooting for submitting to the William Wisdom/William Faulkner Writing Competition in mid-month. I don’t want to encroach too much on your entry-prep time, but don’t want to leave you hanging, either.

Let us press forward, then, with no further ado, to address a question I feel to be burning in many of your minds: yes, I would like the ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy) that a contest win, placing, or finalist status would provide, but I barely have time to write and query as it is. Is it really worth my time to stop those endeavors cold while I prep a contest entry?

The answer, as it so often is in strategizing a writing career, is a maddeningly non-specific it all depends.

And the trees outside my studio bend complainingly under the force of your collective sighs. “Not again, Anne!” you moan, and who could blame you? “Dare I ask upon what it depends?”

Funny you should ask, moaners. Last time, I laid out a few tips on how to determine whether to enter any given writing competition. I intimated, in my long-patented winsome way, that it would behoove you to do a little background research before you invest time and or so much as a cent in entry fees.

Contrary to popular belief amongst writers, there is more to consider before entering a literary contest than whether the piece you’ve chosen to submit is ready for tough judging scrutiny. Although I must add swiftly, on behalf of every current and former contest judge in North America: no piece of writing is ready to be submitted to a competition unless it has been thoroughly proofread IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and, ideally, OUT LOUD.

Yes, yes, I know: I say this about submissions to agencies, too, but actually, it’s even more important for a contest entry — and yes, that is indeed possible. How? Okay, picture Millicent the agency screener’s hyper-vigilant eye, eager to weed out 95% of queries and 98% of submissions in order to come up with the very few that her boss, the agent of your dreams, could possibly make time to read. Picture her doing it for minimum wage plus the experience.

Now picture her Aunt Mehitabel, doing the same thing to a contest entry for free. And had I mentioned that Auntie has been teaching English lit and composition at a local junior college for the past thirty-seven years?

So I reiterate: it’s impossible to overrate the importance of proofreading.

And, to be blunt about it, contest entrants often ignore the necessity. it’s rare to see a contest entry that isn’t rife with spelling, grammatical, formatting, or even coherence errors. And that drives your garden-variety conference judge positively mad.

Why, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, Mehitabel wants to find the winning entry in her assigned pile of manuscripts; it’s kind of a thrill. As a direct consequence of this quite generous and literature-loving attitude, there are few judging experiences more trying than reading a terrifically creative, well-written entry that absolutely cannot make it to the finals because the writer mistakenly used the wrong form of there, they’re, or their.

Oh, yes, it happens. More often than any of us would like to think.

It’s far, far easier to catch that type of typo in hard copy. Which, admittedly, probably doesn’t come as much of a shock to anybody who has been reading this blog for more than a month, but still, it bears reiteration. It’s also a good idea to have eyes other than your own search for grammar, spelling, and logic mistakes.

So you know how your significant other, best friend, mother, and/or next-door neighbor’s teenager who wants to be a writer keeps bugging you to read your work, but you fear (and with good reason) that your relationship to them and/or the fact that you’ve told them the story of your novel 153 times means that they will not give you impartial feedback? This is a task these well-meaning souls can perform beautifully. Put ‘em to work.

But please, I beg you, do not assume that your word processor’s spelling and grammar checker will take care of it for you. As any editor, freelance or otherwise, will rend her garments and tell you, such ostensibly helpful functions often both miss mistakes that would be caught by the naked eye and suggest word substitutions that are either inappropriate or grammatically incorrect.

Or so I surmise from the fact that the latest version of Word suggested only a few moments ago that my correct use of it’s should be changed to its.

Please, too, set aside adequate time to proofread in your entry-prep schedule — and no, just telling yourself, “Oh, I must remember to proof this,” will not necessarily do the trick. If it’s (that’s the instance Word wanted to change, by the way) half an hour until the post office closes, and your entry must be postmarked today, it’s going to be be awfully tempting to skip the part where you read it IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD. Budget at least an hour for every twenty pages of the entry.

In fact, if you’re new to the contest game, you might want to reserve a couple of days at the end (weekends are always nice) for last-minute scramblings. Prepping the average entry usually involves quite a bit more effort than merely printing out your first chapter and already-existing synopsis, you know. (Which is often all that competitions for unpublished book-length works allow a writer to submit, incidentally. Rather changes your sense of the value of the William Wisdom/William Faulkner Writing Competition‘s accepting entire manuscripts, does it not? )

It may seem as though it won’t take long to pull an excerpt that short together, but believe me, the various steps can quickly start to add up. There’s the time to find the contest in the first place, for instance, which isn’t always easy — contests for unpublished book-length works are actually comparatively rare. Competitions that accept short stories, essays, and/or poetry are much more common, but if you are trying to market a book-length work, entering these can involve embarking upon entirely new writing projects.

Then, too, it can eat quite a bit of time and energy to prepare a winning entry, as opposed to the other kind — and in case you’re interested, most contests are set up so that it would be impossible simply to print up one’s existing synopsis and first chapter, pop it into an envelope, and call it good. There are generally formatting restrictions and length requirements that render it advisable to spend some fairly serious time tailoring the pages to the contest’s standards. (Don’t worry; we shall be talking about that part later in this series.)

All of this is time-consuming, naturally. Potentially, a writer could spend so much time entering contests that she ends up with very little time to write.

Oh, yes, those of you who just snorted derisively, I’ve seen it happen. I once met a very gifted writer at an artists’ colony who had stretched two excellent and atmospheric short stories into eight solid years of contest wins, writer’s residencies, and successful grant applications.

And no wonder: of our four subsidized weeks at the colony, she was writing grants for three. Not entirely coincidentally, at the point that I first encountered her, she had been working on the same novel for — you guessed it — eight interminable years.

If her initial goal had been to live the life of a writer at minimal expense, I wouldn’t have had a serious problem with her strategy. But given that her intention had been to use the competitions to finance writing her novel, I did find myself wondering if she were going about it in the most efficient manner.

To be blunt about it, contest preparation requires time you could be using to write. Or query. Or even have a life, as I’m told that non-writers occasionally do. If you choose to spend your time entering a contest instead, make sure that the potential returns are worth the sacrifice.

Then there’s the money. Entry fees can be quite hefty, especially cumulatively, and not all contests give much in the way of tangible rewards, even to the winners, much less the finalists. A high entry fee may be worth it if, say, the judges provide written feedback or if finalists are given special access to the agents and editors who attend the contest-giving organization’s conference.

Look beyond the contest’s website for confirmation of any or all of these benefits of entry, however; not all contests are created equal, and feedback on entries varies widely. A big hint that a contest may not be all that it’s cracked up to be is a separate fee for feedback. In a credible contest, the judges should be evaluating every entry, not just the ones sent in with extra cash attached.

There is a hidden fringe benefit to shelling out the dosh for entry fees, however: systematic contest entries, like attending conferences and send out rafts of cover letters on a regular basis, are a way that you may prove that you are pursuing your writing as a business venture, rather than as a hobby.

Do I hear some quizzical huffing out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “in what context would I possibly need to prove that? Should I be anticipating some great cosmic tribunal on how I spent my time on earth?”

Actually, I was thinking of an inquisition a trifle closer to home: the Internal Revenue Service. I’m not a tax expert, and I would encourage you to consult one that specializes in writers’ (not just artists’) returns, but rumor has it that if you file a Schedule C as a writer, contest entry fees are potentially both tax-deductible and evidence that you’re actively trying to land an agent and sell your work. (Why not just any tax expert? It’s not uncommon for those unfamiliar with the rather obscure regulations governing writers’ returns to tell aspiring writers not to bother to file a Schedule C until the first advance rolls into one’s bank account. But that’s not necessarily the only option. Here’s a nice brief summary of how writers’ taxes work.)

The important thing to know for the moment is that entering contests is legitimate promotion for your book, even if it is not out yet. Like other ECQLC, it’s a demonstrably good way to catch an agent’s attention. Do be open to the idea, though, that an entry fee might not be your only writing-related business expense. Printer cartridges, for instance. Reams of paper. The most recent agents’ guide. Conference fees. And so forth. (Poets & Writers online has a good article on recognizing what your writing expenses actually are.)

Why bring this up within the context of a discussion of literary contests? Because one solid way to differentiate between the hobbyist writer and the professional is evidence of a profit motive, proof that you are pursuing your writing in a professional manner, with the ultimate goal of selling your work. As opposed to the Emily Dickinson route, in which one writes primarily for one’s own pleasure without sending it out.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. But my guess is that if you are serious enough about developing your professional skills to invest the time in either entering a literary contest or reading a series like this, you probably have some desire to have other people read your work — and pay you for it, even.

Basically, establishing a profit motive involves documenting that desire. You can hardly blame the tax folks for wanting to have some reasonable assurance that you would be selling your work if anyone showed up on your doorstep, clamoring to buy it.

What kind of proof do they like? Well, again, you should ask a tax pro familiar with writers’ returns, but high up on the hit parade is evidence that you write on a regular basis, as well as tangible proof that you are consistently trying to find an agent and/or a publisher for your writing. So not only is the cost of stamps and envelopes a legitimate writing-related expense; buying the makings of SASEs is a mark of serious, potentially taxable effort.

Another way to prove that you really are writing with the intent to sell it, honest, is thorough making demonstrable efforts to increase your professional skills. For a writer, that means not only learning better craft, but learning how to market as well. Continuing education such as going to conferences and promotional efforts like entering contests fit very clearly within the profit-seeking rubric.

I mention this not only so you can make some inquiries in the months between now and tax time, but also to encourage you to apply the concept of the profit motive to any writing-related expense you may be considering. In the case of a contest, for instance, you might want to ask: how will winning it help me get my book published? Is entering this contest an efficient way to pursue my profit motive as a writer?

And I’m not just talking about contest wins in general here: I’m talking about any particular contest you may be considering entering. The adulation and opportunities offered the winners vary so widely from contest to contest that it is almost impossible to generalize about any benefit accruing to all winners.

Other than boasting rights in query letters, of course. If you are going to hang your agent-finding hopes — and your resources — on an array of contests, it honestly does pay to be selective.

Which means, among other things, that you might want to think twice about entering a contest just because it has a large cash prize for the winner or because it is sponsored by a nearby writers’ organization. You also might want to pay attention to whether its winners go on to get published — and how strong a track record the granting organization has for continuing to support its winners.

Obviously, the ideal outcome of your winning a contest would be a situation like mine: talent and hard work recognized (if I do say so myself), signing with an agent within the next couple of months, and selling the book in question to a publisher six months after that…but I am sorry to tell you, my results were not the norm. I was, in a word, lucky. Thank you, Whomever.

Well, okay, it wasn’t just luck. I pitched to every agent at that conference who would deign to look at me for thirty consecutive seconds — and I maximized my chances of success by doing my homework before I entered the contest.

At the time, that particular writers’ association had a well-earned reputation for bending over backwards to help its contest winners hook up with agents and editors. Not only were finalists clearly and vibrantly marked at the conference with rainbow-colored ribbons so agents and editors know who they are, but the winners in each category were invited to have breakfast with all of the agents and editors, where each winner was expected to stand up and give a universal pitch. Also, the top three entries in each category were displayed in the lobby at the conference, where everybody could read them.

This level of support is unusual, however. I’ve been to many conferences where contest finalists are not identified at all, and other conference attendees are far more likely to meet a finalist than any of the attending agents.

Counter-intuitive, perhaps, since most conference-related contests actively encourage their finalists to trek to the awards ceremony — and, after all, a contest only gains in stature when its winners go on to get published. You’d think that sheer self-interest would prompt them to take the extra step of making a few critical introductions, but often, they do not.

See why it might be a very, very good idea to check out the contest’s track record of helping its winners, placers, and finalists? Like finding out a bit about a conference over and above its formal offerings before register to attend it, this basis research can help you maximize the potential return upon your profit-motivated contest entry.

True, good literary conferences are a blessing to humanity, and the volunteers who pull them together deserve candy and roses from all of us. However — are you sitting down, Virginia? — there are conferences out there that exist primarily for the enrichment and/or self-aggrandizement of their organizers.

Contrary to that pesky common belief that keeps asserting itself today, not all literary conferences — or contests, for that matter — are organized by the Muses and attendant cherubim for the pure advancement of Art. Some are — brace yourself, Virginia — organized by mere mortals with agendas. Although I hate to be the one to break it to you, sometimes that agenda is pretty transparently to permit the conference’s organizers to rub elbow patches with the speakers, agents, and editors at the expense of allowing attendees access to them.

Those of you who have attended snooty literary conferences know what I’m talking about, right? I’ve been to conferences where the glitterati were whisked away from the attendees so fast that the keynote speaker barely had time to choke down his rubber chicken at the banquet.

Call me zany, but if I’m going to plunk down the dosh to attend a conference, particularly one far away, I don’t particularly want to be relegated to the kids’ table while the organizers hobnob with the agents and editors at the Important People’s table, if ne’er the twain will meet. Or are whisked off to private parties at some board member’s house, far away from anyone who might conceivably have come to the conference to pitch. Or — sacre bleu! — where the agents and editors enjoy those parties so much that some of them just don’t show up for pitching appointments the following day.

Somebody catch Virginia, please; I think she’s just fainted again.

One hears tales — and it can be very much to your advantage to listen to them. Any of these phenomena is a pretty good indication that a conference is not as focused upon hooking writers up with the people who could help them as one might hope. Since many literary contests are directly tied to conferences, it’s worth your while to visit one of the big writers’ forums to ask former attendees about how much access writers actually have.

Ideally, of course, you’d ask someone who has won the contest in question, but if you’re looking for formal events that will bring you decked in your winner’s laurels into the presence of the agent of your dreams, you can also try calling the organization sponsoring the contest and asking about access. If that seems too direct and/or confrontational, you could always just post a question on one of the big writers’ forums. Many of them have entire pages devoted to specific conferences; asking where the agents and editors tend to hang out. If the answer is the bar, you’re probably okay.

Why? Well — chant it with me now, long-time readers — there is pretty much always a bar within 100 yards of any writers’ conference; the combined ghosts of Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald must howl unmercifully into the ears of any organizers who do not book halls in this manner. So historically, the free mingling of the insiders and the undiscovered at conference bars is one of the great democratic institutions of the literary world.

Why might this be a matter of interest to someone considering entering a contest with an eye to meeting the agent of his dreams at the affiliated conference? At a conference where the agents, editors, and speakers do not hang out at that nearby bar — i.e., in public — it’s usually a whole lot harder for a writer who wants to attempt to give a 30-second pitch to track ‘em down.

The writers’ grapevine can be very informative about this. If the agents and editors are not available because they are cloistered in private meetings with aspiring writers, or because they are having breakfast with contest winners like you, that’s one thing; that might be a good reason to enter the conference’s contest. But if they’re nowhere to be seen because the local bigwig thriller writer has carried them off to his beach house the moment they stepped off the airplane, or because there’s a party in a locked hotel room that paying attendees know nothing about…well, let’s just say that the writer who takes second place in the literary contest will probably have a harder time introducing herself.

Especially if the entry fee to a conference-affiliated contest tied is high, I would advise checking out the contest description very carefully, to make sure it is worth your while. Remember, there is no rule against dropping an e-mail to the organizers before entering and asking politely if there are secondary benefits to being a winner or a finalist.

This is not being pushy; it’s being prepared. If your name badge at the conference will be delivered to you pre-marked as a finalist, for instance, you might want to bring your own big blue ribbon to attach to it.

A sneakier way to find out how winners are treated in a conference-tied contest is to talk to non-finalists who have attended the conference in question. Where the winners are treated extremely well, other attendees tend to notice –- sometimes to the extent of being unhappy about what they perceive to be biased treatment.

I’m quite serious about this. If your mole says, “My God, the agents there wouldn’t give the time of day to anyone who didn’t have a top ten entry!” it’s a good bet that the winners get some enviable perks. You might want to enter that contest — but perhaps not attend the attached conference unless you were up for a prize.

That’s not being pessimisitic; that’s marshalling your resources wisely. There are plenty of conferences that will demonstrate your profit motive in pursuing your writing equally well, where you will get more out of the experience.

And, honestly, didn’t all of us experience enough negative contact with cliques in junior high school to last us a lifetime? Why cultivate more?

It’s also a good idea to check out the list of your category’s winners from three or more years ago: how many of these writers can you find on a basic web search or by checking Amazon? More to the point, do any of them show up as clients on agency websites? Or, for more recent winners, as debut book sales on Publishers’ Marketplace?

How past winners fared is an excellent indication of how you might make out if you win. However, try not to be over-judgmental: expecting last year’s winners, or the ones from two years ago, to have books out already is not entirely fair, as publication seldom occurs in less than a year or two after a book deal is signed.

Information about the subsequent successes of past winners is generally quite easy to obtain: an organization that supports its contest winners will usually be proud of them. If the sponsoring organization does not have a website listing member and past winner triumphs, try to scare up a chatty volunteer in the organization’s office.

How might a shy person go about inducing chattiness? Ask the volunteer what she writes, and if she has ever entered the contest herself. If she has, you’ll probably get an earful; it’s a safe bet that anyone who volunteers for a writers’ organization writes, but almost nobody thinks to ask.

This same logic applies at most political campaigns, by the way. Practically everyone who calls wants to speak to the bigwigs, but for organizational guidance and behind-the-scenes gossip, you can hardly do better than chatting up the dear white-haired retiree who devotes four hours per week to licking envelopes.

Many contest-running organizations have a volunteer or staffer return phone calls and e-mails as a matter of course — see if you can elicit boasting about their post-contest success stories. Ask who their favorite winner was, and why. Ask if the organization sponsors readings for the winners, publishes excerpts, or offers other goodies to successful entrants.

Do I hear some of you groaning out there? “But Anne,” protesting voices cry, “when are you going to stop with the research assignments, already? You want us to hunt down who represents what, the writing norms in our individual genres, and now the track records of contests in getting their winners’ work published. When will it end, oh, Lord, when?”

Okay, okay, I’ll cop to it: I do advise doing a heck of a lot more homework than your average writing guru. In the long run, investing the time to target submissions — be it to a contest, agency, or small press — actually shortens the path for an agent-seeking writer. It minimizes the expenditure of energy pursuing leads that turn out not to be all that helpful.

As a writer — especially as a writer with a full-time job — you need to treat your writing time as precious, profit motive or not. Three days or a week spent agonizing over a contest entry is necessarily time taken away from your actual writing, and the more expensive contest fees tend to run around the same amount as a good writing seminar. Weigh your options carefully.

I’m not going to throw you into the research pond without a paddle, however. Next time, I shall talk about evaluating the benefits contests offer non-winners — which, like the contests themselves, vary wildly. Keep up the good work!

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