For reasons best known to himself, my SO has taken to filling our household with Top 40 hits from the late 1960s and early 1970s. And that’s a problem for your humble correspondent, not only because my taste for music from that period tends to lean toward the esoteric (would it kill him to resurrect some early Art Neville?), but also because I associate the bouncy music of that era with adults imploring me to go to sleep. I can usually remain conscious throughout an entire Beatles album (although Yellow Submarine instantly conjures up images of the bars on my playpen), but I must confess, even a few bars of Burt Bacharach is, for me, the greatest soporific known to man.
Which is perhaps why I feel compelled to open this post with the following image:
That established, let’s get back to the topic at hand: maximizing your contest entry dollar. For the past couple of posts, we have been discussing applying that excellent principle to contest selection (and, in some cases, the decision whether to attend the sponsoring organization’s writers’ conference. Today, I would like to turn the question on its head and talk about what a writer can get out of entering a good contest other than Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy.
In other words, would it ever be worth your time, energy, and, let’s face it, what can be a fairly substantial entry fee to enter a writing competition that you do not have a reasonable chance of winning?
Spoiler alert: the short answer is yes. I would encourage you to look upon each potential contest entry as not merely a fresh roll of the dice to try to win the jackpot of recognition (and, the common writerly fantasy goes, landing an agent at the awards ceremony, major book deal within the week, and a spot laughingly discussing your new release on The Daily Show by the end of the year), but as an exercise to learn how to improve your writing.
Oh, stop rolling your eyes; I’m casting even the remotest aspersions upon your talent. In fact, I’m complimenting your intelligence: I assume that you are more than bright enough to be able to figure out the advantages of winning or placing in a reputable literary competition unassisted. The undoubted ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy), the writing résumé boost, the opportunities to promote yourself to conference-attending agents, and so forth are already widely and justly celebrated..
As I’ve been pointing out for the last few days, however, not all contests are created equal. Entering some will help you more than entering others, so it is very much to your advantage to choose your contests wisely. This is particularly true for novelists and nonfiction writers who enter contests; poets, essayists, and short story writers have exponentially more contest venues, and entry fees tend to be correspondingly lower.
Proof: if you write in any of these shorter formats, you have only to open any issue of Poets & Writers to find dozens of contests just crying out for your work — contests that (prepare to turn bright green with envy, long-form writers — often include publication as part of the prize. Due to this quite significant perquisite, just a couple of wins in these categories, even in tiny contests, can add up to a serious upgrade in ECQLC.
Ditto with online contests: they often come without entry fee (or, not entirely coincidentally, significant prize money) and limit entry to short pieces, but publication tends to await the winners. True, it’s generally online publication, but hey, a publication credential’s a publication credential, and a juried prize is another.
On the down side — and I could feel those of you with online credentials already taking a deep breath preparatory o shouting this by the middle of the last paragraph — the greater scope of opportunity tends to render those contest wins less valuable in the eyes of agents and editors. Of course, online publication and awards are no longer greeted with the snorts of derision Millicents used to heap upon them even five years ago; while some folks in traditional publishing circles were slow to wake to the reality that an established online audience might potentially buy some physical books, the rise of the e-book has had a rapid educative effect. It’s still true, though, that a print credential — or an award from a writing competition that’s not primarily web-based — usually carries quite a bit more weight as ECQLC.
Yes, yes, I know: the quality of candy is not generally estimated in pounds. Let’s glide past that metaphor with averted eyes and move on.
It’s also true, though, that any contest credential (or, to a lesser extent, publication credit) for a short piece or poem tends not to impress Millicent the agency screener as much as than winning or publishing a longer piece. In general, the adulation is substantially greater for winners of categories rewarding entire books.
Okay, you can roll your eyes now. As we have discussed, there are comparatively few contests devoted to unpublished book-length manuscripts. (Which is why, in case anyone out there remains in doubt on the subject, I have been running this series as a lead-up to the May 15th deadline for the William Wisdom/William Faulkner Writing Competition: it’s one of the few that accepts book-length entries. It also has a Novel-in-Progress category, should you happen to be interested.) And with very few exceptions (see last parenthesis), the ones that do exist ask entrants to submit only a tiny fraction of the book being judged.
How tiny a fraction? On average, 15-25 pages, inclusive of synopsis.
A cynic might conclude from this that what these contests are actually rewarding is the ability to write a stellar first chapter and synopsis, rather than the talent to maintain interest in a story or argument for an entire book. A purist might huff that while there are plenty of people who can write a pretty opening, these contests owe it to the literary world to guard readers from the dreaded and ubiquitous mid-book slump.
A pragmatist, on the other hand, would just look at this phenomenon and say, “Where on earth would they find volunteers to read 1700 book-length entries?”
Good point, pragmatist: the vast majority of contests ask for short pieces, for the exceedingly simple reason that it requires much, much less effort on the sponsoring organization’s part to process them. The result, as those of you who have gone contest-searching have probably already noticed, is that book-length writers have many fewer contests at their disposal.
Causing novelists the world over to cry: what’s it all about, Alfie? (Darn that record player!)
Don’t feel too sorry for long-form writers, poets, essayists, and short story writers. Yes, you enjoy a magnificently wider range of contest opportunities, and no one can deny that it’s significantly easier to get a short piece published in any format than a book-length one. However, novelists, memoirists, and other long-formers enjoy the considerable comparative advantage of being paid astronomically more for their work than writers of shorter pieces. You’d have to place a tremendous number of poems in paying venues to make ends meet without a day job, after all.
If you want to pity them, base it on the fact that the contest universe is hugely biased toward producers of shorter pieces, making it significantly harder for novelists and such to chalk up a contest win at all.
If you write in the longer formats, yet are comfortable in the shorter, you might want to consider polishing a single short story, poem, or essay to a high luster and sending it on the contest circuit, to try to rake in a win you can add to your credentials list. It’s usually a fairly rapid entry to pull together, so go for it. Trust me, in ten years, no one is going to hold it against you that the credential you used to catch an agent’s attention was for a gorgeously terse poem, while the book you were pitching at the time was a three-volume work of science fiction.
It may not make as stunning an ECQLC impression as a win for an entire book, but hey, small rubies look good in jewelry, too. (Oh, you thought I was going to be able to come up with a candy parallel there? This isn’t as easy as it looks, you know.)
Some of you part-time poets have your hands raised, I notice. Yes? “Um, Anne? I’ve heard that every agency screener in the land has been instructed to toss any book-pushing query letter that contains reference to poetry — however slight, and even if it refers to a major contest win — directly into the trash. So I’m worried that I’ll invest the time and entry fee, only to end up with ECQLC that actually hurts my query’s chances.”
Ah, that old saw. It’s been pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit for years. Not only is it not true, but as nearly as I can tell, it has never been widely true: it’s an exaggerated way of saying that poetry contest wins are not an automatic entrée into the publishing world. Which makes some sense, actually: being able to write a good poem does not necessarily translate into being able to write a good book. They’re completely different types of writing.
Personally, I feel that the short story and the novel are also quite distinct art forms, as different as painting in oils and sketching in charcoal. Witness the number of writers who publish several short stories in venues like The New Yorker, and publish them in collections, only to find after they have signed a novel contract that they don’t have a novel in them.
There’s no shame in that: it’s just a different endeavor. No one who works with published writing for a living seriously believes that any given talented writer can adapt her skills to every possible writing format. Literary gifts, like agents, specialize.
Was that giant clunk the sound of myriad short story writers’ jaws hitting the floor? I get it: it comes as a surprise to so many aspiring writers that structuring and characterization across an entire book involves skills one might not necessarily have learned writing short stories, just as it often astonishes writers of articles and essays that cranking out a book proposal, memoir, or other nonfiction book requires other acumen. Often, good short pieces are about the surprise of instant revelation; novels, book-length memoirs, and nonfiction books are about character, story, and/or argument development.
To be fair, I know a lot of published authors disagree with me on this subject — including, I should mention, virtually everyone who has ever taught or been a student in an M.F.A. program — so you should feel free to ignore my opinion entirely on this point. Try your hand in more than one format, if you like, so you may enter lots of different contests. However, if shorter writing is not your forté, it probably is not worth the expenditure of energy and angst to put writing a longer work on hold in order to pull something terse together for a contest.
And a good quarter of you just jumped. You thought you were the only long-form writer to whom that strategy had ever occurred? Many a novelist has invested weeks or months in trying to bend a brain accustomed to having several hundred pages to tell a story into the contours of one that can make a salient point in 20.
Why? Often, because they have heard that the only writing credentials that count as ECQLC are publications or contest wins — and all they have written (hey, it’s their logic, not mine) is one as-yet-to-be-published book. I don’t doubt that you’ve heard that, but like so many of the rumors wafting around, it’s based upon a pretty elderly conception of how the publishing world works.
In previous decades, it used to be quite common for a writer to publish a few short stories or essays prior to writing a first novel. In previous decades, however, there were a heck of a lot more magazines and journals that published such short pieces. Believe it or not, rumor-hearers, Millicent is quite aware of that sea change: trust me, the agent of your dreams already knows it, too.
So yes, the fine folks that work in agencies and publishing houses retain a respect for the published word that borders on idolatry. But today, hard copy publications are not the only possible writing credentials, and it is quite possible for a writer who has not yet published a book to rack up both a publication history and an audience by means other than the traditional short story and essay market.
Oh, you think my agent doesn’t mention Author! Author! when promoting my other writing? An established audience is, at the risk of repeating myself, an established audience.
Oh, dear — that most recent thunk sounded suspiciously like some of you had taken to beating your heads against a wall. “I’m completely confused!” you wail, and with good reason. “I don’t have time to blog — I barely have time to work on my book — but I could conceivably clear enough time in my schedule to write a short piece. How can I know whether it’s worth my time, energy, and cash to do so?”
Ah, I can offer a road map for you here. No matter where you fall on the length spectrum, adhere to the following little axiom with the tenacity of a starving leech: since it is in your best interest to make sure that every page you enter in a contest represents your best writing, it’s only worth your while to create a contest entry outside of your normal writing zone if you feel that it can showcase — wait for it — your best writing.
Not just writing that’s pretty good, or prose that you think might catch an agent’s eye. Or the first 20 pages of a novel that starts to sing by page 62. If the writing you’re planning to submit to a contest doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, cover you in goosebumps, and make you murmur fervent gratitude to the deity of your choice that you were privileged to write it, it does not belong in an entry.
I would also think twice about entering a piece that does not exhibit your best writing within the first couple of pages, regardless of whether it is a short piece or a long one. You’d be amazed at how many entries judges see that consist of perfectly adequate prose, but not writing that jumps off the page.
Out comes the road map again: if there isn’t an arresting image, great twist, or lovely sentence on page 1, even in a book-length entry, it’s probably not going to end up in the finalist pile.
I was going to insert a joke here about looking at your potential entry and crying, I know I’ll never love this way again, but really, do you need that kind of reference rattling around in your brainpan? And speaking of things rattling around in your brainpan, let me answer a question that’s probably jumping up and down there: of course, you can always rewrite a piece you already have on hand in order to move your best writing to page 1.
But how long will it take you to do it? How much new writing will it require? When it’s done, will you be able to use any or all of that new writing in your manuscript?
As if that weren’t enough to worry about before you sit down and begin to fold, spindle, and perhaps mutilate a particular piece of beloved writing to meet the needs of a contest entry (you HAVE been saving a separate copy of your original version before you tinker with it at all, right?), here’s another criterion you might want to consider: how closely do those contest criteria conform to the demands of the current literary market?
Artistically, both may seem like secondary considerations, but honestly, it might not be worth your time to cobble together a piece of writing that you might not be able to use in another context. Many established literary contests have been using the same categories for decades; are you sure you want to invest your scarce resources in producing something that might please their Mehitabels immensely, but might not translate easily to the rest of the reading world?
It would also behoove you to consider — and I’m letting you in on a literary judge secret here, because that’s what friends are for — how closely the piece you have dug out of your deepest, darkest desk drawer adheres to the literary tastes of the current market. Often, at least initially, contest judges are not so much judging the quality of the writing in an entry as assessing its marketability.
And then they worry about the writing.
Yes, you read that correctly. A great idea with huge market potential, presented in a clear and professional manner, will often edge out a beautifully-written piece aimed at a tiny market niche. That’s more frequently true for contests that recognize longer works, even if they judge those books on only the first few pages and a synopsis: Mehitabel would like to see the award go to a book that stands a strong chance of getting published now.
I know; I was disappointed when I first learned that, too. Wow, I thought, I’ll never fall in love again.
Naturally, marketability is not the primary orientation of every writing contest that accepts book-length work (or portions thereof), but it weighs heavily in the scoring more often than not. There’s a pretty good reason for that, too: it’s not unusual for the final judges of a contest to be the exact same agents and editors who appear at the attached conference.
And if there is anything that those lovely people are looking for, it’s marketability. Great writing is always a plus, but to win a contest, it isn’t always enough.
Knowing this before you enter a contest can save you a LOT of grief — and a lot of wasted entry fees. Let’s unfold the road map again: if your work is not particularly mainstream, select contests that cater to your niche, rather than hoping your work will fly in a more general category. Alternatively, if your work is an absolute dead-on fit for its genre, you might not want to waste your time, energy, and resources on a contest that has traditionally rewarded very literary writing.
If you are unsure where your work falls on the spectrum, you might want to select a contest where the judges give written feedback on entries — it’s some of the least sentimental, least punch-pulling marketing advice you will ever receive. Believe me, if you’ve mislabeled your work, they’re going to let you know about it.
If you approach a feedback-generating contest in that spirit, you can learn a great deal — especially if you are new to querying and aren’t sure why your work keeps getting rejected. Which brings me, at long last (phew!), to the final question to ask yourself before entering a contest: does it offer advantages for non-winning entrants?
Don’t make that face at me; you’ve had this entire post to get used to the idea. Didn’t your mother ever warn you that your face might get stuck that way?
Okay, okay, let me speak to that scowl: you don’t think it could possibly be worth your while to enter a contest if you do not win, am I right? I hate to be the one to break it to you, scowlers, but almost no one wins the first literary contest he enters.
Why? Well, most contest entrants experience a fairly sharp learning curve, for reasons I shall be covering later in this series. There are many, many simple mistakes that can, if not actually disqualify inexperienced entrants outright, at least minimize the probability of their making the finals.
Yes, even in otherwise well-written entries. And that’s over and above the problems any given entry might encounter by not being written in the contest’s preferred style, voice, or genre.
“Huh?” I hear those new to the game cry. “It’s becoming harder and harder to cling to my previously-cherished belief that all I have to do is print up what I already have written, write a check, and send it off to a contest.”
You will probably be happier if you do let go of that belief, unfortunately. And you’ll certainly be more likely to do well in any given writing competition.
Why? Well, a variety of reasons. Most first-time entrants are unfamiliar with the strictures of standard format; while not all literary contests require submissions to be presented completely professionally, most judges who have been at it a while will respond better to a book entry that would not require major renovation before being submitted to an agency. Just think about all of those entrants out there who share that cherished preconception: when you first began writing, would what you printed out have looked like a professional submission?
even if your entry is a monument of precision and contest-rule adhesion, you may have to enter a few times to learn the rhythms and preferences of a particular contest before you win. I wish this weren’t the case; life would be easier for virtually every contest entrant on the planet if stylistic preferences were simply expressed openly, rather than the usual contest rhetoric about rewarding the best new writing out there.
Best is subjective, after all.
Yet it’s rare to the point of jaw-dropping for a contest to state up front in its rules, look, you may be a brilliant writer destined to wow millions, but if you don’t use adverbs exactly the way Annie Proulx does, don’t bother entering. Or we vastly prefer close third-person narration; sending us anything with multiple perspectives will only end in tears. Or even in case you haven’t noticed, we have never given a major award to a writer who wasn’t already a member of our organization. Other people’s entry fees may be regarded as a donation to our group, and don’t think that we are not grateful for it.
I say a little prayer for you nightly, in the hope that this will change.
Until conditions do, it is very much in your interest to make your first contest entries ones that will help teach you something even if you don’t land in the winners’ circle. For instance, if you are new to the game, it is a better use of your contest-entering buck to go for contests that recognize semi-finalists, as well as finalists. That way, you maximize your probability of garnering ECQLC boasting rights from those entries.
Yes, contests that offer significant feedback to contest entrants are not particularly common, but they can be very, very useful when you are first starting out: you can use that feedback as a road map to polish future entries. In contests for novel-length work that don’t provide feedback, an entrant would need to engage in serious bribery to obtain that type of information.
And in the overwhelming majority of contests, even hefty bribery would not elicit it. I love that about the literary world: it tends to be a haven for integrity.
It also tends to reward writers who take the time to learn the ropes. By selecting the contests that meet your current needs, rather than entering blindly or with an all-or-nothing attitude, you can greatly increase the probability that entering will do you good.
And, of course, you might win! But if you do, will you still love me tomorrow?
Okay, I’m going to retire the record player for the day. I shall be posting again on this fascinating subject in the dead of night, so those of you courting insomnia might want to check in a bit later. Keep up the good work!