Enter At Your Own Risk: The Strange, Twilight World of Writing Competitions

Absolute Blank

By Janet Mullany

Writing competitions are everywhere, offering fame, fortune, and great expectations. It’s fairly simple. All you have to do is meet a deadline, follow a few simple directions, and write something so outstandingly good that it beats the pants off dozens, hundreds, or thousands of other entries.

If it sounds like Publishers Clearing House, you’re not that far off the mark. The world of writing competitions is addictive, frustrating and exhilarating—just like writing itself. Entering a competition can be as simple as polishing your story, writing a check, and mailing both into a black hole. The only evidence that you entered at all will be your bank statement showing that the check cleared. Someone, of course, has to win. But it might not be you, and depending upon the size and prestige of the competition, the odds vary tremendously.

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“Be aware that there are tremendous odds against you,” writer Loree Lough, a judge in the prestigious Writers Digest competition advises. “You have a much better chance of placing in a small competition.”

Her category, one of the smaller ones, the Inspirational Short Story, received a mere 2,000 entries, from which she had to select 100 entries to proceed to the next round. She reports that a surprisingly large number of entries were just not ready for submission to a major competition, and even though they may have had good points, she had to toss them onto the slush pile.

Ms. Lough added: “Make sure that you’re entering the right competition for the right reason. Accept that in most competitions, you will never know the reason why you didn’t place.”

So why enter writing competitions at all, with those sorts of odds? Many offer winners a publication credit, and a competition win is one of those useful things to mention in a cover letter when you submit to an editor. As with any other submission, you must make sure your work is polished to its highest sheen, formatted correctly, and like the US army, as good as it can be. Some competitions, particularly smaller ones, do offer feedback to contestants, and that can be both valuable and frustrating. What your critique group may have loved, may leave an anonymous stranger unmoved. As with any critique, you must take what you can, and disregard the rest.

One advantage to submitting your work to a competition is that there are specific time frames to which the sponsoring organization or publication is committed. Finalists or winners will be announced—generally only those who reach this stage receive personal notification—so you escape the agony of never knowing whether your baby is working its way up the food chain of a publishing house or languishing behind a file cabinet.

One genre in which competitions play an important role is romance. Many regional Romance Writers of America (RWA) chapters sponsor competitions as a fundraising activity. Generally an entry consists of a partial—the synopsis and the first few chapters of a novel with an entry fee in the range of $15 to $50. It is implied, or at least expected, that the work is finished, although some competitions, like the Golden Heart Competition sponsored by RWA National, require the inclusion of the full manuscript along with the partial. Most, but not all romance competitions, are open only to writers unpublished in full length romance fiction.

Volunteer judges handle preliminary rounds, and each contestant receives written feedback. Very few of these competitions offer anything substantial in the form of a cash prize-some offer a token such as a pin, a certificate, or even chocolate—but finalists’ entries are judged by an agent, or an editor from a major house. Potentially this could lead to a request for a full, an offer of representation, or a contract. More likely the reward will be euphoria, something to mention in cover letters, and then back to work. If you don’t make the final cut, you will at least get feedback and a scoresheet from people seeing your work for the first time—not always a pleasant or positive experience, but one from which you can learn something. At the very least, you can add to that extra layer on your skin that writers need to survive.

So what sort of competitions are good to enter? Just about any, so long as you win. The ideal competition does not charge any, or exorbitant, entry fees, offers feedback—and prizes are always nice, too—and a publication credit for at least the first prize winner, with copyright reverting to the writer at some point. A final piece of advice from Writers Digest judge Loree Lough: “Go into it hoping you’ll win, disregard mean feedback, and view it as a source of valuable free information.”

Janet Mullany is currently a finalist in the Missouri Romance Writers’ Gateway to the Rest Competition, and will shortly judge the first round of another RWA competition. So far her short story competition prizes include a mug, a t-shirt, and a book she gave away. She still uses the mug and the t-shirt.

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