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!

Countdown to a contest entry, or, yes, Virginia, I’ve got some bad news about the Easter Bunny, too

Yes, it’s that time again, campers, the period that fills aspiring writers with dread, literary conference-organizers with trepidation, and procrastinators with, well, what always fills them. I refer, of course, to the annual advent of literary contest season.

Well might you shudder, but you can’t say I didn’t warn you. Last week, I gave the Author! Author! community a heads-up: since I hadn’t run a series on prepping a successful contest entry in a while (since 2008, to be precise) and quite a few of you intrepid souls had posted questions on the subject in recent months, I am going to devote the next few weeks to discussing what differentiates a contest entry that makes it to the finals from all the others. What criteria do contest judges tend to rely upon to evaluate entries, and how may a clever writer gear that entry to cater to their expectations?

That’s right, folks: we’re going to have a countdown to a contest. Feel free to play along at home.

Why choose these particular few weeks? May 15 is the deadline for the this year’s conference — held in the hotel where Truman Capote claimed to have been born, no less — and the grand prize winners will be flown in to accept their awards.

So by using this particular competition as our lodestar — and, not entirely coincidentally, our rule exemplar — I’m maximizing the probability that I will be shaking one of your hands in November. Call me zany, but I’d get kind of a kick out of that.

There’s another, less pleasant reason that I’d like to run a post on contest-entering: even in a pursuit historically renowned for the established helping out those just beginning to wiggle their trembling tootsies onto the path to glory, writers seldom talk amongst themselves about contest entries. It’s assumed, and for good reason, that literary contests are purely devoted to art.

Why, then, would there be any reason to try to figure out a winning strategy? The best-written entries will win, obviously; it’s not like submitting to an agency or small publisher, in which market considerations will sometimes rear their ugly, snarling heads at a beautifully-written manuscript.

Oh, dear, sweet Virginia. Do I ever have some bad news for you about Santa Claus.

Not that I would ever discourage a serious writer from entering a reputable literary contest. As an author who landed her agent partially as a result of having won a literary contest of some repute I am, as my long-time readers already know, a tireless proponent for this brand of ECQLC. Indeed, contests have done a lot for me in many respects: when I first began working on my memoir, at the time called Is That You, Pumpkin? Love, Loss, and the Final Passions of Philip K. Dick, my mother initially resisted my writing it as nonfiction.

Yes, really: even in a family as steeped in literary tradition as mine, she didn’t want me writing about my childhood. She lobbied tirelessly for my telling my story in a novel. Preferably after she had joined the choir celestial.

As I had already been editing for some time, though, I knew that the book would do better — and be more honest with readers — as a memoir. So we struck a bargain: if I took first prize in a literary contest with it, she would withdraw her objection. On one condition: I could take no more than twenty-four hours to prepare my contest entry.

Talk about your stacked decks. So it was with great pleasure that a few months later, I whipped out my cell phone at the awards ceremony. “Mother,” I shouted over the applause. “I won the contest. But I have to go now — they want to take my photo.”

Ten minutes later, she called me back. “Am I to understand,” she asked quietly, “that you won for that book?”

To her credit, she’s stood by our bargain. And it hasn’t been easy: by the end of the weekend, I had 27 requests for the book proposal; seven months after I accepted the award, my newly-minted agent sold the book, and within the year, my publisher had already received the first lawsuit threat. (Not all of my extended family has been equally supportive.)

So before you dismiss my take on contests as cynical, please bear in mind that until the bit about the lawsuit, I was the mythical contest winner for whom the literary world actually did open up immediately. That was not by accident. When I took my prize, I was lucky enough to be acquainted with many past literary contest winners, so I knew both what to expect at judging time (hint: contest organizers enjoy it when those they recognize go on to get published) and after (like, say, that one is not automatically awarded an agent along with that nice blue ribbon). I had also entered writing competitions before.

I was not, in short, just popping my work in the mail and hoping for the best.

I feel strongly about passing that lore along to future contest winners — and to those that deserve to be. Having also served as a contest judge many times, I feel even more strongly that entrants and judges alike would be happier if some of the prevailing myths and mysteries were dispelled.

Like what, you ask? Well, f starters, I wish that I had realized prior to my first contest entry how heavily the potential marketability of the book tends to weigh in the judging.

Oh, I knew to check lists of past winners of broadly-defined categories in order to see if certain types of books had traditionally won. In the contest where my memoir won, for instance, the nonfiction book winner had been — and continues to be — rarely anything but a memoir, bad luck for writers of other nonfiction books. It had not occurred to me before my first entry, however, that contest judges might be using the same criteria as agencies.

Or, at any rate, what the contest’s organizers and judges believed to be the criteria used at agencies. But that’s a bit of bubble-bursting for later in this post.

But the first time I entered a contest, like virtually all premiere literary contest entrants, I had thought — possibly because the contests I was entering said as much on their promotional materials — that the only things that mattered were the beauty of the writing, how professionally the text was presented, and how compelling the story was. So when I received feedback from a judge (as some contests provide; check the entry form carefully) that said this is a great story, well told, and you can clearly write — too bad that there isn’t a market for it, I was crushed.

But I did learn something from that experience: the next time I entered a contest, I sent not my best writing, but my most marketable book concept. And I won. So I suppose I should be grateful to that curmudgeonly contest judge, in retrospect.

“But wait!” the neophyte entrant shouts. “Why should my entry be judged upon any criterion other than pure quality of writing? If not…“ and here, as you may well imagine, tears well up in the neophyte’s harp seal-like eyes, “how can we be sure that the best writing will always win?”

Oh, how can I put this delicately? How about the same way we know that the Tooth Fairy is indeed the one who filches all of those discarded teeth from under the pillows of the innocent? Or the reason that we’re convinced that the Rabbit of Springtime is responsible for chocolate eggs showing up on Easter morn? Or — brace yourselves, idealists — based upon the abundant evidence that a manuscript has only to be well-written to become the toast of the literary world in record time?

If your first instinct upon reading that last paragraph was to say, “By Jove, yes! There are some things that I am simply willing to take on faith,” then I can only suggest that you avert your eyes from what I’m about to say next. If, on the other hand, you laughed out loud, read on.

Only the cynical on board now? Good. Winning a literary contest is virtually never just about the quality of the writing in the entry. It’s about the writing AND playing the contest game well.

Of course, being lucky doesn’t hurt, either. Which means — you might want to hold onto your hat here, Virginia; this is a big one — that the best-written entry does not necessarily always take top honors. Heck, the best-written entry that meets all of the judging criteria doesn’t even necessarily win.

Why not? The intensity of the competition, partially: often, in a well-established competition, dozens of entries could technically walk off with the prize. But without a shadow of a doubt, even a brilliantly-written entry that does not meet those criteria, or that violates contest rules, will virtually never make it to the finalist stage.

Feeling faint, Virginia? Excellent. That means you understand.

For those of you whose blood has not yet drained to your knees, allow me to elaborate: in practice, a good two-thirds of the entries to the average contest never stand a chance of winning. Not because those entries were poorly written, but because contest entrants have, as a group, a less-than-admirable tendency not to read rules and guidelines very closely. Over and above technical violations, most entries are also docked points for such unromantic trespasses as incorrect formatting, misspellings, lack of a hook in the first line, and any of hundreds of other minuscule infractions.

And that’s before the aesthetic judgments are even under consideration. Anyone care to guess why contest judges generally tackle the nit-picky stuff first?

I can already my long-term readers chanting the answer: for precisely the same reason that agencies are so eager to use technical criteria to reject submissions — time. Since the overwhelming majority of contest entries are rife with technical errors, casting the technically flawed manuscripts out of finalist consideration is the single quickest way to thin the stacks of entries.

Sorry about that, Virginia. And when you’ve got a second, there’s something you ought to know about the Tooth Fairy.

Unfortunately, unless you have had the foresight to have volunteered to serve as a contest judge in the years before you enter your first contest — not a bad idea, incidentally; contests are always seeking new judges, and it’s one of the least expensive crash courses in why most manuscripts get rejected you’ll ever find — it’s rather challenging for the average entrant to learn what precisely the relevant criteria are. I’d like to make it easier.

Why? Well, if you are going to invest the not inconsiderable time, effort, hope, and entry fee in trying to generate some ECQLC, call me zany, but I’d like to see you stand a good chance of winning. Short of previous publications, winning, placing, or being named a finalist in a well-respected contest is some of the best ECQLC you can have. Millicents pay attention to that kind of credential; it makes your query letters jump out of the daily pile.

Why? Well, most queriers list no writing credentials at all, either through lack of awareness that it would help make their query more effective or, more commonly, because they have no credentials to list. The cumulative result of this pervasive phenomenon: a query that lists publication credits and/or contest wins automatically looks substantially more professional than most.

Yes, even if those credits or wins are in wildly different genres than the book being queried. Agents enjoy being the second person to recognize a writer’s talent, after all.

“But Anne,” the practical-minded among you ask, and good for you, “how does an aspiring writer know which contests will make for the best ECQLC for the buck? Because I don’t know whether you’ve been keeping track of this sort of thing lately, but writing contests are often rather costly to enter. Not merely in terms of writing a check for the entry fee, but also in terms of the time, effort, chagrin, and postage to get an entry to the right place at the right time — like, say, by fourteen days hence.”

That’s a fine question, bean-counters, and one that richly deserves an answer: as anyone who has ever Googled “writing contest” is no doubt already aware, there are a heck of a lot of literary competitions out there. Most, unfortunately, do not offer cash prizes, but many do offer publication. (In fact, contests are a not uncommon way for literary magazines just starting up to rake in a whole lot of good writing for free.) While all seem to be offering the possibility of some nice, shiny ECQLC, not all of them will strike Millicent as equally impressive.

Virtually all, however, charge an entry fee, sometimes a hefty one. And let’s face it, querying and submitting can already be pretty expensive, on a variety of levels: you’re going to want to apply your resources with discretion.

But that’s true with every type of professional promotion, is it not? There is now an entire industry devoted to offering help to aspiring writers, and like seminars and conferences and how-to books, what the contests offer writers who enter varies widely. So just as you should learn all you can about a writers’ conference before you slap down the registration fee, before you pay to enter a contest, it would behoove you to do a little bit of homework.

That’s right, Virginia: you do indeed feel a checklist coming on. Whip out those contest descriptions, and let’s start thinking critically about them.

1. Is there strong evidence that this writing competition is credible?

That may seem like an odd question, especially if you are in the habit of entering only well-established contests, but every year, brand-new writing competitions come flying out of the woodwork. It can be genuinely difficult for even a very conscientious writer to sift out the fly-by-night from the legitimate literary opportunities.

The first step to being a savvy entrant is to be aware of the possibility of a scam. Just because an organization slaps up a website and calls for entries does not necessarily mean that the contest in question is reputable — or that it will adhere to the timeline set out in the rules for awarding prizes. (Oh, how I wish I could tell you that slow processing is uncommon.) Sometimes, contest organizers honestly have no idea how much work processing all of those entries will be; sometimes, they do, but aren’t really in it to reward good writing.

Unfortunately, the first place I would normally send you to find the answer to such a question, Preditors and Editors, is not going to be much help. Oh, it will tell you if a contest is a notorious rip-off, but as a matter of policy, P&E will not recommend any contest that charges any entry fee at all. Which essentially eliminates contests that deal with book-length works — or that award significant prizes.

How so? Well, unless a contest is being run as a charity — which even most scrupulously non-profit writers’ organizations cannot afford to do — or the administrative details are being handled by Santa while the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Great Pumpkin frantically read entries, I’m not quite sure how even the most well-meaning contest organizers could pull this off.

A blanket disapproval of entry fees means, in practice, that the reputable contest that charges $25 to cover irreducible administrative costs (contests don’t run themselves, you know) ends up lumped in the same category as the aspiring group of friends who realized that they could rake in a whole lot of money if they threw up a website, announced a literary contest for book-length works (as I say, there aren’t many of them) at $100 a pop, and sat back to rake in the dough.

Ultimately, that the potential entrant will need to dig a little deeper to determine credibility. Like, say, digging up a few facts.

2. If a contest offers publication as a prize, have past winners indeed had their entries published? Does the organization maintain a list of past winners, so future entrants may check whether that contest’s winners typically go on to be published? Heck, were last year’s winners announced on time?

Oh, pick your jaw up from the floor, Virginia: you would be surprised how often the answer turns out to be no.

To complicate matters further, it is no secret that there are many contests out there that solicit widely for entrants primarily as a fundraising, rather than what 99.9% of the aspiring writers that send in pages believe them to be, a sincere attempt to discover heretofore unsung talent. In fact, the last few years have seen quite a bit of controversy in the writing community over how various literary contests are judged. Specifically…

3. Does this contest provide blind judging?

Blind judging, the situation in which the judges do not know whose entry is whose, tends to be better for first-time entrants. Check the rules carefully: not all contests feature blind judging. And not all contests that claim to have blind judging actually do.

I know, Virginia, I know. Just hold that cold compress to your head, and the dizziness should subside soon.

Why should a prudent entrant worry about how a contest is judged? Selective judging may render it harder for a newcomer to break into the finalists’ circle. It is not unheard-of, for instance, for organizations to solicit entries from outside their memberships, but have an established track record of awarding prizes to only — or primarily to — their own members.

Check the fine type of the contest rules. In a credible contest, entrants are asked to leave their names off the submission’s pages (i.e., no last name in the slug line, no name on the title page), so that there is no possibility of a contest judge’s looking an entry and saying, “Hey, I know him. I owe him a favor — I’m just going to slide it into the finalists’ pile unread.” It will also usually call for a cover page or entry form, so the competition’s organizers can later match the winning entry with the entrant.

“Okay, Anne,” those of you working through this checklist sigh, mopping your weary brows, “this is a lot of work — and, incidentally, substantially adds to the time I’m having to devote to entering a contest — but it’s worth it if I can be sure the competition is legit. May I go ahead and send in my entry now?”

Not so fast, Virginia. For your own protection, you might want to engage in a little more research.

4. Do the past winners’ lists reveal any patterns? If so, do they represent trends likely to assist my entry’s chances of winning?

Often, contest literature is perfectly up front about certain preferences: if a competition is only open to writers from a certain state, for instance, the rules will generally state that directly. Obviously, it would be a waste of time, money, and energy to enter a contest if you — or the writing you are planning to enter — do not meet their criteria.

That being said — and as I intimated above — not all such criteria will necessarily be listed; some contests do seem to have unspoken rules. That nonfiction competition I won, for instance: reading only the rules, rather than the list of past winners, would not have revealed a preference for memoir. It may not have been a conscious preference, even: judges are human beings, with individual literary tastes, after all.

Oh, please, Virginia. You mean that it hadn’t occurred to you that contest judges applied their personal taste to the evaluation process, in addition to objective criteria? Did you honestly expect that if your short story about your torrid fling with an airline pilot happened to be randomly assigned to a judge who had just been dumped by a navigator, he might not be completely open to enjoying it?

Naturally, a contest entrant cannot foresee a contingency like that, any more than a submitter could possibly predict whether her manuscript will happen to be in front of Millicent when she takes a sip of a too-hot latté, burns her lip, and consequently is in no mood for a lighthearted comedy. Chant it with me now, contest aspirants: luck does in fact play a role.

You can, however, do a bit of checking to rule out competitions that might not favor your work. Let’s posit, for example, that a particular contest has historically favored Gothic romance. You, on the other hand, write futuristic fantasy, and there is only one category for novels. Think you’d be probably better off going for a different contest, one that favors your type of work?

If your answer was an unqualified, “By God, yes!” help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash. The more specialized your genre, the more it behooves you to check in advance whether a conference’s complement of judges tend to treat it with respect.

Nor is that all you can do. A quick scan of the hometowns of the finalists and semifinalists of years past, for instance, can be quite informative: if they cluster too much, geographically speaking, wonder if the locals have an edge. By the same token, if that competition that says it is open to writing in any fiction category, yet it has never displayed fiction in your chosen genre on the finalist lists, you might want to think twice about entering.

It’s also not all that unusual for contests ostensibly intended to recognize the unpublished to allow published writers to submit their work-in-progress for judging alongside the work of the less experienced. Again, check the rules: often, they will specify that the writing being submitted will not have been previously published, not that the entrant has not.

Sometimes, though, the rules are a bit vague on this point; it often does not seem to occur to the lovely people kind enough to run a contest that an established author might want to crash the party. A good tip for figuring out how crashable it is:

5. Check last year’s winners’ list for the already published and moderately well-known, as well as the year before. Does this appear to be a contest that consistently rewards writers at your level of professional development?

I know, I know: this might seem like a silly thing to do, but if ten minutes of checking can save you a week’s worth of contest prep and a hefty entry fee, it will more than pay for itself. If the contest’s website is filled with rhapsodies by recent winners about how their dreams came true, chances are that this is a contest that does indeed gear its judging to non-professionals. If, on the other hand, John McPhee has won their short story category any time since 1955, they’re probably not too careful about keeping out those with hefty publishing credentials.

Oh, you may laugh, but it does occasionally happen. During the recent publishing slump, it has not been unheard-of for established authors to enter contests ostensibly for the as-yet-to-be-discovered. A few years back, a local writers’ organization awarded a minor prize to a thriller author whose name had several times graced major bestseller lists. (And whose name you might well recognize, by the way, so pardon my being cagey.) I guess he just wanted a bit of author bio decoration, even if it came at the expense of some struggling writer’s ECQLC.

That’s the kind of thing one might hear on the writers’ grapevine, right?

6. Don’t rely entirely upon what the contest’s organizers say about it. Google past winners, to see what they have to say about the contest; do a quick online search for articles on the organization itself.

Did that last part make you giggle, Virginia? It’s actually not a bad way to check for a scandal. The publishing industry boasts quite a few publications focused upon the life literary, and they often employ reporters quite good at their jobs. About ten years ago, for instance, a major writers’ magazine happened to notice that the students of the writers who were judging contests seemed to be winning major awards on a fairly regular basis.

Ready for another shock, Virginia? After the scandal broke, absolutely nothing bad happened to the judges who were favoring their students in competition. Heck, some of them are still regularly judging contests. Obviously, this kind of pseudo-blind judging is grossly unfair to the other entrants, but the moral of this story is not that not all contests are squeaky-clean.

The subsidiary moral: let the entrant beware.

Don’t look at me like that, Virginia. The last time I checked, I did not run the universe, nor do I manage any of the many and varied contests out there for writers in the English language.

If I did run either, contest entries would be free; every contest would provide each non-placing entrant with supportive and useful feedback; finalists would be given a tutorial on how to approach agents and editors before and after the winners were announced, and every time a writer finished writing a good paragraph, a sugar-free, fat-free, calorie-free chocolate cupcake with a cherry on top would appear on her desk, as a reward for virtue.

If you haven’t noticed any of these things happening lately, it’s fair to say that I still am not in charge of very much of the writing world. I shall never forget shocked silence that ensued at a normally quite respectable conference’s awards ceremony when the teenage daughter of two of the contest judges carried off the Young Writer award — and, as I recall, a not insignificant check, derived, no doubt, from the entry fees of hundreds of trusting high school students whose parents were not regularly having drinks with the judges.

Had Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Bob the Builder all been hauled out of the room by DEA agents for peddling narcotics to kids, the attending writers’ expressions could hardly have expressed more disgust.

Now, to be fair, in that particular year, the winner’s parents had actually been judging in other categories, not their offspring’s, but since they had been her first readers and were rather chatty people, it would have required a faith in human nature so childlike that it would border on the infantile to believe that the judges in her category would not have had SOME inkling which entry was hers.

I’m not saying that the contest was rigged, per se; I’m just saying that the teenaged winner’s mother won in the nonfiction category. Neither she nor her husband judged that either. A good tip for avoiding this type of situation:

7. Enter contests sponsored by organizations, not cliques. Ask other writers about particular contests before you spend time and money on entering them; if you can’t find information about a contest, post a question on a reputable writers’ forum.

Again, the writers’ grapevine can really help you, if you’re willing to invest the time. Yes, you might end up with fifteen complaints from past entrants annoyed because they did not wind, but you also might hear from people with good things to say about the contest.

If you’re so shy that the very idea of posting a question makes your chest seize up, do not despair. You can also glean this information from an impersonal source.

8. Check to see whether someone else has already done this homework for you.

Yes, this could be read as a continuation of the last one, but not all sources of information are informal. Poets & Writers magazine lists literary contest deadlines in each issue, does a pretty good job of screening, so if a contest seems a bit shady to you, check if it is listed there.

All of that, believe it or not, is just to weed out the contests that will be a complete waste of your time and money to enter. But that’s not the only issue here, is it? You’re also going to want to ask yourself another question before mailing off your submission:

9. Don’t let a large prize sway your judgment. Consider carefully whether a particular contest will help advance your book’s publication process — and whether it is likely to reward an entry like yours.

Yes, any contest win or place will look nice on your writing résumé, but obviously, some contests are more prestigious than others. As a spot of research in a well-stocked bookstore will tell you, the same prizes tend to be named repeatedly in the dust jacket author bios of first- and second-time authors. If that’s the case with your chosen book category — especially likely to be the case if you write mystery, romance, or literary fiction — it’s a better use of your entry time and resources to enter those contests than others. You already know that being a finalist in one of those contests will impress a Millicent in that category, right?

That being said, though, the big contests often garner thousands of entries. Less prestigious ones can actually be a better bet for a first-time entrant — presuming, of course, that they are legitimate.

“Has not ruling the universe finally unhinged you?” Virginia exclaims. “Isn’t bigger always better?”

Not necessarily. You might be better off with a less well-known contest your first few times out, for an exceedingly simple reason: your odds of making the finals are significantly higher in a small entry pool than a large one. Big-ticket contests attract stiff competition; contests with large cash prizes attract a higher percentage of professionals amongst the entrants.

10. Take a realistic look at what you are planning to enter and ask yourself: does this writing bear some resemblance to past winners’ entries?

This is a slightly different question than the one about genre preference: in many, if not most, literary contests, the winning entries tend to be stylistically similar. This is true for another exceedingly simple reason (they are abounding today, are they not?) — contest judges tend to be loyal folk, returning to the task with a tenacity a spawning salmon would envy.

Why is that significant at entry time? In most writers’ organizations that offer contests, the first round of reading is performed by volunteers. Typically, the same volunteers, year after year after year.

And, miraculously, these sterling souls’ literary tastes don’t change all that much in the intervening twelve months between judging cycles. Go figure.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many, many contests tend to favor more literary writing — which is not, if you will recall, necessarily synonymous with good writing. Every book category has its own standards for excellence, after all. Literary fiction is a category designation, not a value judgment: it is experimental or character-driven storytelling aimed at a college-educated audience, filled with closely-observed details and lovely phrasing.

It also does not conform to the standards of a particular genre — or, if it does, it does so in a manner atypical of that genre. So when an aspiring writer says, “Oh, I write literary fiction,” and then proceeds to give the plot of a thriller, Millicent is likely to conclude that the writer simply does not understand the distinction very well.

It’s an understandable confusion, though: it is fairly common for agents and editors to use the term literary to describe the writing of a book in another category: “It’s a personal memoir with literary sensibilities,” for instance, would mean something specific to the agent of your dreams: the manuscript in question is nonfiction, autobiographical, has a large vocabulary, and the writing style is sufficiently complex and polished that someone not necessarily devoted to memoir might read it for the writing alone.

Come closer, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: unless a contest is specifically known for recognizing plain-spoken writing or genre fiction, its judges will probably lean toward the more literary-voiced entries. How can you tell? Once again, by checking the lists of past winners: if the top mainstream fiction category prizes in a prestigious competition are carried off year after year by literary fiction writers, you might want to think twice about entering fiction that is, say, particularly mainstream.

If, however, you happened to write on the literary side of romance, or are an unusually descriptive SF/fantasy writer, you might stand a good chance. Getting the hang of it?

Are you shifting uncomfortably in your chair again, Virginia? Spit out your concern, please. “I can see why checking this might be a good idea,” she says carefully, “but I have no idea how to go about it. How can a potential entrant possibly tell what the judges’ preferences are, short of taking them all out to lunch individually and asking them?”

Good question, Ginny. Most contests will list past winners on their websites, tucked away in a corner somewhere; many writers, aspiring and established alike, maintain websites, too. I would advise Googling the past few years’ worth of winners and placers in the category you find most appealing, to see if they have posted any writing samples.

If the sponsoring organization publishes winning entries – and many sponsor small magazines — read a few. If your writing style is radically different from what has won in the past, the contest is probably not for you.

11. If the judges for the finalist round are listed, and they are writers, take a gander at what they write. Is the writing in your entry stylistically similar?

Yes, individual tastes do vary, and every contest has its own stated and unstated judging criteria, but the writing style with which the finalist judge is most conversant tends to be a fairly reliable indicator of what kind of writing he is likely to reward. In any contest with celebrity judges — i.e., famous writers who make the final selections from amongst the finalist pool — this goes double, or even triple. If your writing doesn’t resemble the famous judge’s in form, give that fact some serious consideration before bothering to enter.

I can feel you wincing, Virginia. Crunching a few dry crackers should help with the nausea.

Even if you’re lucky enough to find a celebrity judge who is well-read outside of her own subgenre — and, even better, willing to recognize work unlike his own — remember the bigwigs virtually never read all of the entries. Commonly, they read only the finalists’ submissions. In practice, that means that those crusty volunteers I mentioned above screen the entries first – and all too frequently, edge out good entries that do not resemble the celebrity’s, on the well-intentioned theory that everyone’s writing tends to reflect his own reading tastes.

The first-round judges’ intentions are good here, honest. They’re just trying to save the celebrity some time.

I hear you groaning, Virginia, but the two-tier system is followed in practically every literary contest, celebrity-judged or not. Almost invariably, the first rounds are evaluated by a different group of people than those who ultimately pick the winners. Sometimes, the judging criteria are not coordinated across rounds as well as one might hope.

Which is why, in case those of you who have heard contest judges grumbling in the bar after awards ceremonies had been wondering, the entries that really wow ‘em in the early rounds often do not win or place. Usually, it is only within the power of a first-round judge to recommend that an entry make it to the finalist round. What happens thereafter is generally under someone else’s control.

Why set it up this way? Well, final-round judges are often established authors — or chosen from amongst those agents and editors who are committed to attending the conference attached to the literary contest. They agree to read a certain number of entries.

There’s another reason, though, one that’s significantly to the advantage of a first-time entrant: a two-tiered (or even three-tiered) system also makes it significantly harder to rig an outcome. And if it’s not clear why that might be desirable from an entrant’s point of view, you might want to re-read that anecdote about the judges and their daughter.

12. If the final round judges are agents or editors, check out what they handle. As part of the benefit of entering such a contest will be that these people might be reading your writing, are these people who might realistically work with you in future?

This may seem like unnecessarily long-term thinking, but it can help a savvy writer choose between two equally appealing contests, if deadlines are looming. Since you’re going to want to attend a conference if you are a finalist in the contest it sponsors (who is going to be more impressed by your achievement than someone already familiar with that conference and its tastes?), you might also want to check out the conference’s planned speakers.

Why? Glad you asked.

13. If the contest is attached to a conference where the awards are given (and, as I mentioned above, many are), try to find out in advance whether the agents who typically attend that conference ones who might be interested in your work.

I can tell you from personal experience: while having a contest win, place, or show under your belt is great ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy), being a finalist at most conferences confers a good deal more than just a nice ribbon attached to your name badge. It marks you out as someone with whom, for instance, an agent might want to pause and have a hallway conversation, or ask, “So, what do you write?” during otherwise pitch-free social time in the bar.

And that, as they say, is nothing at which you should be sneezing. It’s a fabulous little conversation starter — and that could be a very good thing, if your dream agent happens to be in attendance, couldn’t it?

In case I’m being too subtle here: you might want to target contests attached to conferences that your dream agent habitually attends.

How can you find this valuable information? Believe it or not, the standard agency guides often list this information. (If you are unfamiliar with how agency guides work, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category on the archive list at right.) The Internet is your friend here, too: pretty much every conference will list which agents they cajoled to it last year and/or those who will be blandished into being there this year.

Why, yes, all of this will add a few hours to your contest-entering process, but at the risk of repeating myself — I can do that, right, now that the structural repetition series is behind us? — there’s more to using contests to your benefit than sending in a well-written entry. There’s strategy. Trust me on this one: unless you are planning to enter a contest purely for practice in following rules (not the world’s worst idea the first time around, actually), it’s a waste of your time, effort, and resources to enter a contest in which you do not have a realistic chance of garnering ECQLC.

Yes, Virginia, even if you happen to be the most gifted prose stylist in the world. There’s a contest out there that will recognize your talent — but not every contest necessarily will.

Next time, I shall turn this question on its head, talk about what you can get out of entering a writing contest. Keep your eyes on the prize, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

Still more on contest entries: the ins and outs of category selection


After yesterday’s epic post on the various means contest entries tend to annoy the average judge, I’m going to try to limit myself to merely waxing mildly poetic today. It’s going to be hard, though, because I’m continuing the seldom-discussed but vitriol-stained topic of finding the right category in which to enter your work.

I hear some snickering out there already. “Vitriol-stained?” some head-shakers out there are murmuring. “Just a tad melodramatic, isn’t it?”

Actually, it isn’t — at least, not from the perspective of a conscientious contest judge, the kind who volunteers because gosh darn it, s/he wants to be there when the next Great American Novel is first discovered.

Wipe that smirk off your face. Being a contest judge, particularly for the first round, is typically a great big time commitment, and the stalwart souls who embrace it often do it for the love of literature, community, and humanity. Or an unvarnished affection for jumping upon those who mangle the English language.

Either way, there’s usually a passion for the written word smoldering under those judges’ robes. Which is precisely why it’s so darned disappointing when a beautifully-written entry knocks itself out of finalist consideration by being submitted to the wrong category.

Now, I’m the first to admit that it’s not unheard-of for judges to harbor some kind of squirrelly ideas of what does and doesn’t belong in a particular contest category. This is not altogether surprising, particularly for fiction, as it’s far from unusual for even the pros to disagree upon what book category would most comfortable house a particular book.

If you doubt this, you probably haven’t tried to establish a book category for your opus. For those of you who don’t know, book categories are how the industry thinks of potentially publishable work, the conceptual containers into which it is sorted — or, to put it another way, the shelf where the book would rest in a local bookstore. (For how to tell which is which, as well as where this information is likely to be found on a published book, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES listing at right.)

Due to this pervasive mindset, a writer needs to be able to say up front into what category her book would logically fall in order to query, pitch, or submit successfully in the U.S. market.

Why? Well, since generalist agents are very rare — it would be flatly too time-consuming to establish connections for more than a few types of book — book categories enable them to avoid wasting time upon submissions they do not already have the connections to place successfully.

If an agent represents only mysteries and SF/Fantasy, it would be a waste of good stationary to send him a query for literary fiction, wouldn’t it?

While contest categories tend to be far broader than the industry’s, lumping a handful together, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have the publishing world’s standards in mind. There’s an awfully good reason for this: final-round contest judges (the ones who read only the finalists’ entries) are often agents, editors, or authors who work on a daily basis with a particular category. The early-round judges, aware of this, tend to weed out entries that don’t fit neatly into the applicable book categories long before the finalist round.

That way, the logic goes, the final-round judges will be presented only with works that stand a fighting chance of getting published as sterling representatives of the best current writing in their respective categories.

If the contest of your choice does not actually list the book categories that belong within each of its contest categories, contact the organization and ask for such a list. Or — if you have already firmly categorized your work in industry terms, give your category and ask which part of the contest would best fit for it.

(Hint: you’ll probably get a substantially friendlier response to this question if you DON’T give a three-minute summary of your book — and DON’T ask it four days before the entry deadline. This is research best done well in advance, and armed in advance with a one- or two-word category description.)

It may seem pushy to ask for this information, but if a contest-throwing organization is serious about seeing its winners get published, this is an important question. After all, from the entrant’s point of view, a contest win is only as valuable as the connections it can bring.

What do I mean by that, you ask? Ideally, you want to win a contest that is recognized in the industry as a stellar judge of writing in your chosen book category. If, for instance, the organization’s definition of genre fiction doesn’t include Action/Adventure, not only is even the best Action/Adventure entry unlikely to win — agents and editors who sell that book category are not likely to be aware of the contest, either.

Think about it: which credential is going to do your book more good on your query letter, being a semifinalist in a contest that any agent in your book’s category would have known about for years, or in a contest of which the agent of your dreams has never even heard?

Trust me, if a contest has a good track record for identifying wonderful work within a particular book category, the agents and editors who handle that kind of book WILL have heard of it.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you with complex books offer timidly, “I thought you said just a couple of minutes ago that there’s often disagreement amongst the pros about the right category for a particular book. If a contest category is nebulous, isn’t there likely to be even greater disagreement?”

In a word, yes. In five words: it happens all the time. Let’s face it, category standards along the lines of we accept good fiction of every type aren’t that helpful to the writer trying to determine which contest to enter, are they?

Most contests are more specific than this, thank goodness — but it does pay to be aware that when a description refers to a particular book category, it’s seldom doing it idly. Don’t be mislead by a general category heading like Genre Fiction into thinking that any genre is welcome; this is seldom the case.

Again, read the description underneath that heading very carefully: it will probably mention the book categories that the contest organizers are expecting to see.

Because, frankly, in most cases of poor category fits, it’s not a near miss so much as trying to cram a size 14 foot into a size 6 shoe. 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 an inefficient use of an entry fee.

To put it another way, this is not a situation where playing rules lawyer — “But Category 5 was entitled FICTION! How was I to know that didn’t include haiku? Both came out of my imagination!” — is at all likely to help you. As I mentioned a few days ago, there isn’t a court of appeal here: if a judge thinks that your entry doesn’t fit into the category where you entered it, you’re just out of luck.

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

I’m not just talking about those ultra-brief definitions that tend to grace entry forms, either. Take the time to read EVERYTHING that a contest’s website or literature says about your chosen category, to make sure that your book is, in fact, admissible.

Fair warning: what I am about to say next is extremely likely to drive literal-minded readers completely nuts, but why not 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 — might not be the best category in any given contest for you?

Did I just hear a collective gasp out there? “Who are you?” I hear the hyper-literal cry, “and what have you done with Anne? Haven’t you been the long-time advocate of labeling your work as accurately as possible AND in the industry’s favorite terms? Should we check your basement for pods?”

Well, yes — and defining your book with precision still the best strategy when you’re approaching an agent or editor.

However, as I mentioned above, 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?)

Here’s a radical idea: pick the CONTEST category that makes the most strategic sense, regardless of your book’s MARKETING category.

Honestly, this prospect should not make you hyperventilate; agents do this to their clients’ work all the time. Remember, the label you give the entry today is not necessarily 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.

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.

As in SUBTANTIALLY more entries. Sometimes as in five or ten times as many, which obviously has a direct bearing on any individual entry’s chances of making the finalist round.

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, in case 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 résumé however you can.

One of the best memoirs I have ever read, Barbara Robinette Moss’ astonishing CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS’ DAUGHTER, 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. (Seriously, this is one of the books that made me long to write memoir in the first place. I certainly did not fully appreciate the art form until I read it. It’s gorgeous and painful and brilliant in a way few books manage to be.)

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.

Well, darn: it doesn’t look as though I could manage to be brief on the subject today, either. Keep up the good work!

Swimming in the agent sea

When I heard my name announced as the winner of the NF/memoir category at the PNWA conference last year, my first conscious feeling was naturally elation. My second conscious feeling was complete and utter doom. Yes, I know that sounds ungrateful, but it’s true. What had I done to myself? To recap, I had just won a major book award for a book I had not yet written. There was a slight possibility, I felt, that people would now start asking to see the book.

Let me backtrack a little and talk about what it is like sporting a rainbow-hued finalist’s ribbon at a conference. First, everyone stares at your stomach, all day, every day, because that’s where the ribbon tends to waggle. A lot of sweet people will come up and congratulate you, which is very nice indeed; a significant minority will edge away from you, scowling. And the agents and editors will notice you in a crowd. When you stop an agent who is walking down the hall in order to try out your pitch, she will generally act as though she is pleased to meet you. It’s a revolution in manners for all concerned.

(Have I said enough yet to convince you to try your luck in next year’s contest? Read on.)

When you win one of the top three awards in a category, and you are issued a blue, red, or white ribbon to tickle your stomach, all of the attention paid to your abdomen roughly triples. And if you win the first place award (along with the snazzy gold Zola pin), it’s like walking around all day in the glow of a very hot spotlight. Suddenly, agents and editors can recognize you from across the room – and often will come over to talk to you, just as if you were a person.

There is a good reason that they recognize the first-place winners – and since so few of my PNWA friends seem to know about these perqs, I’m going to talk about them here. The primary benefit is the winners’ breakfast at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m. on Saturday, the morning after the award ceremony’s late-night partying. Basically, they throw all of the winners into a room with some croissants and all of the agents and editors for an hour or two.

If you happen to be good at giving your pitch while choking on a stray piece of pineapple, this is the venue for you. Otherwise, it’s rather like giving a press conference while being mauled by affectionate lions. The moral: eat before you get there. In fact, eat heartily before the awards ceremony on Friday, because trust me, once you win and for the next two days, every time you try to stave off starvation, some perky soul will appear in front of you and ask to hear all about your book. Pleasant, of course, but hell on the blood sugar.

My memory of the event may be skewed, of course, because I had only slept about two hours the night before – Cindy Willis, the wonderfully talented winner of the novel category, and I had been whisked off to a party with such precipitation after the award ceremony that I had to give my mother the big news on a cell phone while dashing down a hotel hallway. At the party, our significant others were mysteriously kidnapped and held outside our range of vision, and Cindy and I were each asked to give our pitch about 45 times while people kept handing us food and drink that we were never allowed to consume. We were both so stunned that we clung to each other like the Gish sisters in ORPHANS OF THE STORM.

This is what I remember best about the aftermath of winning: sleep deprivation and being asked to repeat my pitch anytime food came within half a foot of my mouth. Fortunately, I’d had friends who had won these awards before, so I just kept repeating like a mantra: “Of course you can see my book proposal. But not exclusively.”

Even through my haze, I could recall what had happened to my friends who had promised exclusives to the first agents who approached them after they’d won contests. It’s not true every year or at every conference, but there is often a certain amount of rivalry amongst the agents about who is going to carry off the major category winners. The rivalry over one friend’s brilliant humorous novel reached such a pitch that one of the agents started crying because she had granted a faster agent the first exclusive. Other winning friends were asked to overnight an entire manuscript to New York, only not to hear back for a month; to rush home, print out a copy of the manuscript, and deliver it to an agent’s hotel room in the dead of night, only to learn weeks later that the agent in question did not even represent that genre, and to promise to refuse to talk to other agents at the conference, lest the writer be blandished away. And these instances were all at PNWA, which is known as one of the more genial conferences nationally.

Being sought-after by a gaggle of agents sounds like an odd situation to fear, I know, but the inter-agent competition does not necessarily work to the benefit of the author – and actually, these competitive foibles underscore a problem most writers have at conferences: judging how sincere an agent or editor’s interest is in your work. How can you tell from a fifteen-minute conversation with a total stranger if this is the right agent for you? What is the difference between liking an agent personally and seeing in her an instinctive connection to your work? Your gut, hopped up on adrenaline (and possibly operating without other sustenance), may not be the best barometer in the moment.

So I just kept repeating my pitch and my mantra, parrot-like, collecting cards from agents and editors and scribbling notes about what each wanted to see on the back. Cindy did the same, once I was able to fill her in on the strange stories of yore. All the while, our significant others lurked in a far corner of the room, waiting to carry us off to grab a couple of hours’ sleep before the 7 a.m. lion-mauling.

The advice of my formerly winning friends turned out to be right on the money: about half of the agents asked for exclusives. Because we had declined, Cindy and I both ended up sending our work to a broad array of agents simultaneously, which truly worked to our advantage. Not every agent asked to represent it, of course – put their initial interest down to competition-induced hysteria – but enough of them did that both of us had the wonderful luxury of choice. And that, in a world where it’s so hard to get an agent that good writers often search for years to hook up with the right agent, is luxury indeed.

So I have good reason to have infinite respect for the writers’ network word-of-mouth wisdom. Let’s all help one another in every way we can.

Your day will come. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

–Anne Mini