Okay, okay — I’m awake. Get that spotlight out of my eyes.
It’s a good thing I’m up and about at this ungodly hour, too: for the past few posts, I’ve been discussing criteria a sensible writer might use in determining which contests make the most sense to enter and which to eschew. And friends, the clock is ticking. I imagine that by this point in the series, those of you trying to hit that mid-month entry deadline can hear it in your sleep.
Mmmm. Sleep. I remember that.
Enough night dreaming; let’s get back to work. In tonight’s post, I am going to focus upon something rarely discussed, even amongst writers who routinely enter literary contests: the widely differing time commitments necessary to meet contest criteria.
That knowing chuckle you just heard echoing through the ether was the concurrence of every literary contest winner, placer, shower, and finalist who has every walked the planet.
How do I know that they’re the source of that great cosmic chuckle? Because — wait for it — the folks who put in the extra time (sometimes in the dead of night) tend to be the ones who place best. And win.
But really, it’s hard to find a contest whose rules don’t require the investment of quite a bit of time over and above the actual writing process. It often comes as something of a shock to those new to entering contests just how time-consuming many of them are to enter. As I mentioned about twelve hours ago, the vast majority of first-time entrants simply assume that all they will have to do is fill out an entry form, write a small check for the entry fee, and pop their writing into the nearest mailbox. Writing prize, please!
Would only that it were so easy. Successful contest entries often need to be tweaked unmercifully, in order to meet the entry criteria of a particular contest.
Do I hear some unrealized wails out there from those of you who are considering entering your first contest? “But Anne,” some of you protest, and who could blame you? “I don’t understand. I’m not planning to enter a contest that requires me to write fresh material for it — I’m entering my novel/memoir/poem that I finished writing a year ago. To enter it into a contest, I just need to print it out, fill out a form, write a check, and find a mailbox, right?”
Oh, my sweet, dear innocents. To put it as gently as possible: no.
Unfortunately, there are few contests out there, especially for longer works, that simply require entrants to print up an already-existing piece, slide it into an envelope, write a check for the entry fee, and slap a stamp upon it. How few, you ask? Well, off the top of my head, thinking back over the last dozen years or so, I would estimate that the grand total would be roughly…none.
At minimum, any blind-judged contest is going to require that you prepare a special rendition of your manuscript devoid of your usual slug line — because your slug line, of course, includes your name. Translation: you can’t just photocopy or print your current MS and mail it to a contest. And anything beyond that is, alas, time-consuming.
I hate to tell those of you who write nonfiction this, but any blind-judged contest will require that you remove every reference to your name from the body of your entry as well. That can be quite a challenge, if one happens to have written a memoir or personal essay. In a novel, that may merely involve revising the slug line, but in a nonfiction piece about, say, your family, it may require coming up with fresh names for practically every character.
I speak from experience here — my biggest contest win was, after all, for a memoir. And because I love you people, I’m not going to tell you just how long that took. I wouldn’t want to give you nightmares.
Why do I keep harping on the importance of valuing your time, in the face of a publishing industry which, to put it very gently indeed, doesn’t? Precisely because the industry doesn’t. While dealing with agents who take three months to respond to queries, and editors who take a year to pass judgment on a submission, if you don’t treat your time as a precious commodity, it’s all too easy to conclude that the industry is right: writers’ time is as vast as the sea, and as easily replenished as a tidal pool adjacent to a beach.
I don’t think so.
I measure time by the standards of a professional writer: every waking minute spent away from my current writing project, or from editing my clients’ writing projects, is expensive. More expensive, I think, than the equivalent minutes in the average agent or editor’s quotidian lives, because they are not typically creating new beauty and truth in every spare nanosecond they can steal. What writers do is important, not only to the writers themselves, but to humanity.
It must be, or I would be asleep right now.
I tend to doubt that what I’m going to say next will cause any of my long-term readers to fall over with surprise, but here is my credo, in case any of you missed it: since we writers control so little else along our paths to publication, I’m a great advocate of controlling what we can. Like, say, how much time a writer can choose to invest in prepping that entry without losing too much shut-eye, yet still have a reasonable chance of winning.
The time criterion is perhaps the most important factor to consider in evaluating a contest — other than whether your writing is ready to face competition, of course. Unlike the other evaluation criteria we discussed earlier in this series, which mostly focused upon the contest itself, this consideration is about you and your resources.
Parenthetically — because I am, as my long-time readers are already aware, constitutionally incapable of not following an interesting line of thought when it comes up — isn’t it amazing, given how much uncompensated time we all invest into our art, just how often time has been coming up in this year’s posts as the single most common decision-making determinant? Such as:
* Your queries need to be pithy from the get-go because agency screeners have time to devote only seconds to each.
* Sending out simultaneous queries is essential, because your time is too valuable to expend the extra years single-shot querying can take.
* Agencies seldom give rejection reasons anymore because they don’t have the time to give substantive feedback to everyone. (I like to call this the Did You Bring Enough Gum for the Whole Class? defense.)
* If your submission (and contest entry) elicit a “Wow!” for the writing and a “Whoa!” for the pacing on page 1 — or at the very latest, by page 5 — a professional reader is far more likely to continue past the opening of the pages they requested you send than if they do not emit these delightful exclamations.
* Although your story may legitimately take 600 pages to tell, agents and editors start to get nervous when a first novel rises above the 400-page mark — or 100,000 words, to use industry-speak. Even less, in some genres.
Need I go on? Or may I cut to the chase?
Given that pattern, it would be reasonable — nay, prudent — to set aside a few minutes before you invest any time in prepping an entry, look very carefully at the requirements of any contest you are considering entering and ask yourself, “Is this honestly going to be worth my time?”?
And oh, is it ever easy to underestimate how much time it will take. Some contests rules specify certain types of presentation for an entry — while a manuscript is always unbound for submission to agents and editors, a particular contest may prefer a bound version. Or three-hole punched. Or printed on a particular type of paper.
Or it may require entrants to use only a certain typeface. Or to include an author bio, author photo, or some other element that you might not already have on hand.
For every additional requirement, budget extra time to fulfill it. And don’t forget to figure in recovery time in the days after you pop that entry in the mail or hit SEND.
Hey, a body’s got to sleep sometime.
Then, too, pretty much every contest requires the entrant to fill out an entry form, for instance — which can range from requests for ultra-simple contact information to outright demands that you answer actual essay questions. (Not bad practice for those planning to pursue a writing career: applications for fellowships and residencies virtually always include essay questions, FYI.) And yes, Virginia, misreading or skipping even one of these questions on the entry form generally results in disqualification.
Or, at any rate, in an entry’s being tossed out of finalist consideration — which, from the entrant’s point of view, amounts to very much the same thing.
I wanted to state this explicitly, because when I have brought this up in years past, a number of entrants in feedback-giving contests have sent me excerpts (or even, in a couple of cases, the entirety) of their judges’ critique, saying accusingly, “See? I didn’t follow your guidelines, and I wasn’t disqualified.”
Without exception, however, these independent-minded souls did not win, either.
Even if an entry does explicitly violate contest rules, it is highly unusual for the contest organizers to tell the entrant about it; most of the time, the entry is just quietly removed from next-round consideration. Unfortunate, in a way, because those entrants who violate the rules (often inadvertently) are thus prevented from learning from their mistakes.
But contest judges are required not to give high marks to entries that violate the rules. So if you don’t have the time to read, re-read, and read them again, modifying your pages accordingly, it’s probably not worth your time to enter the contest.
“But Anne,” I hear some of you shout, “you said only a few paragraphs ago that every contest will have some rules to follow. How can I tell if what any given contest is asking of me is de trop? ”
Good question, disembodied voices I choose to attribute to my readership. One- or at most two-page application form is ample for a literary contest; a three- or four-page application is fair for a fellowship or residency.
Anything more than that, and you should start to wonder what they’re doing with all of that information. (Seriously, check the small print to make sure that you are not signing up for something.)
A contest that gives out monetary awards will need your Social Security number eventually, for tax purposes (yes, contest winnings are taxable), for instance, but they really need this information only for the winners. I would balk about giving it up front.
I have also seen contest entry forms that ask writers to list character references, especially those contests aimed at writers still in school. It seems an odd request, doesn’t it, given that the history of our art form is riddled with notorious rakes, ne’er-do-wells, and other social undesirables who happened to write like angels? Some awfully good poetry and prose has been written in jail cells over the centuries, after all.
Personally, I don’t believe that a contest should throw out the work of a William Makepeace Thackeray or an H.G. Wells because they kept mistresses — or to toss Oscar Wilde’s because he didn’t. Or, for that matter, close its entry rolls to a shy, talented kid whose high school English teacher doesn’t happen to like her.
In practice, reference requests are seldom followed up upon, and even less frequently used to disqualify entries before they are read, but one does hear rumors of their occasionally being used as tiebreakers. Contest organizers, too, have many demands upon their time. A good literary contest is not going to go out of its way to do background checks on all of its entrants. Even if they did, they are hardly likely to refuse to read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s entry because of that bottle of laudanum he was fond of carrying in his pocket, or disqualify Emily Dickinson’s poetry submission because her neighbors noticed that she didn’t much like to go outside.
No, they’d wait until the finalist round to do that. (Just kidding. Probably.)
It’s hard to blame the judges for wanting to have enough information on hand for it to be possible for them to do a little checking on the winners, though. They invest a tremendous amount of time and energy into running their contests, you know, many of them on a volunteer basis; surely, they have earned the privilege of ruling out people whose wins might embarrass the organization giving the award,
Oh, you wouldn’t might waking up one day to read in the newspaper that your months of effort resulted in giving your group’s highest accolade to Bigfoot?
For that reason, they might well gently set aside an entry whose return address was a state or federal prison, to minimize the possibility of handing their top honor to someone wearing manacles and accompanied by a guard. It could cut the other way, though: many of us literate folk would prefer to see potential and former felons turn their entries to the gentle arts of the sonnet or the essay over other, less socially-useful pursuits like murdering people with axes, embezzlement, or arson of public buildings.
The moral: if you don’t have friends as disreputable as you are to vouch for you in a reference-requiring contest, you need to get out more — or at least graduate from high school. Join a writers’ group; we write tremendous references for one another.
Contest entry forms frequently ask you to list your writing credentials, interestingly. A trifle bizarre, surely, in contests where the judging is supposed to be blind. Again, perhaps I am suspicious, but I always wonder if entries from authors with previous contest wins or publication credentials go into a different pile than the rest. They shouldn’t, if the judging is genuinely blind.
But to quote the late great Fats Waller, “One never knows, do one?”?
I’m not saying that you should rule out contests that make such requests — but I do think that the more personal information the organization asks for, the more careful your background check on the contest should be. After all, you are giving them enough information to do a fairly thorough one on you.
I can feel some of you tensing up, but rest assured: there are plenty of literary contests — and fellowship competitions, too — out there that are absolutely beyond reproach. By keeping your eye out for warning signs before you sink your valuable time into filling out extensive applications, you will be keeping your work — and your entry fees — out of the hands of the unscrupulous.
And hey, any of you out there who may be considering committing a felony in the days to come: take my advice, and take up short story writing instead. I assure you, everyone will be happier in the long run.
There! That’s another day of crime prevented; my work here is done.
Before you realize that you’ve never seen Superman and me in the same place at the same time, I’m signing off for the night. Keep up the good work!