5 Tips for Perfecting Your Writing Contest Entry

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

How can I do better in contests?

  • Keep story pacing in mind
  • Use familiar characters or settings to save time
  • Go with the idea you feel passionate about

Toasted Cheese sponsors four contests each year, with deadlines at the change of the seasons. There are similarities and differences among the contests. Writers have entered the same contest for years, sometimes placing and sometimes not. Some writers enjoy the challenge of working within parameters or against a deadline. Some are trying to publish for the first time and some publish frequently.

For a lot of authors who try contests, it’s enough to finish and submit the entry. For others, winning (or placing) is everything. Placing in a contest can mean a publication credit, a prize, or a networking opportunity. So if you’re past the “it’s enough that I sent it” but you’re not placing in the contests you enter, here are a few tips based on entries we’ve judged over the years.

Background Image: 2day929/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Background Image: 2day929/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

1. Follow the guidelines

Is the contest for a specific genre? Is there a theme? Is there a word count range or a maximum word count? Does the contest happen with regularity (every month, once a year, etc.)? Are the guidelines you’re reading for an old incarnation of the contest? When is the deadline? Is there a time of day (and time zone given) that entries must be sent by?

As you work on your story, you might find it breaking through the parameters (for example, it doesn’t want to resolve within the word count). Let your story flow naturally. No matter your time limits, there’s time to edit (even in a one-hour contest). Budget your time according to the way you work. If you like a lot of prep time and planning with a little writing but a lot of editing, you don’t need to divide your available time into thirds.

If your story gets far from the contest guidelines, set it aside and try something new if you want to continue to work on something for the contest. Use the story that expanded beyond the parameters for your next project. If you’re inspired, keep working on this piece and try a contest another time.

2. Stretch, don’t break; push, don’t puncture

Judges are looking for entries that take risks, not liberties, with the guidelines. Stretch them and think in different ways but don’t stretch the guidelines so far that the judges will have difficulty seeing how you used the themes. If you feel bold, push your own limits as well as the limits of the contest. Write whatever you’re inspired to write. If it goes outside the boundaries of the contest, you can either edit it to fit or use it for a regular submission.

Keep in mind that the clever twist on the theme that you thought of in the shower is exactly the same twist that someone else has been working on since the contest was announced. It’s not enough to throw in the tweak. You have to write the best possible version of it. Don’t rest on the fact that you came up with the great idea. Someone else did too and you have to have the better entry.

3. Write fresh

Never, never blow the dust off an old story and submit it, even if it meets all the parameters. Judges always know and they don’t appreciate it. Usually entries like these are the first to come in and they reek of stale writing. If you already have a piece you think is perfect (and it’s never been published; we check that too), rewrite it. Change some character names. Change the setting. Start the story two paragraphs later. Flesh it out or trim it. Add new technology, if relevant. Add a new obstacle. Change the ending. There’s always something you can do to make your story fresh and new.

4. Edit the entire work

We see a fair number of contest entries that fall apart in the middle or the end but we very rarely see it in regular submissions. We have two theories about why this happens. One is “kissing the word count.” Writers see that the word count limit is approaching and they feel pressured to wrap it up. The other theory is that writers edit their entries more fervently at the beginning and less so in the middle and at the end. It could be that the writer is tired. It could be that that’s where the story really takes off and it’s pleasing the writer so much that she gets caught up as a reader (which isn’t a bad thing) and forgets to edit.

Our advice is to make sure you edit the entire work. Do you have as many notes at the beginning as you do at the end? Why? Is it because you stopped editing your story? Did the story really take off about 1000 words in and you didn’t have much to change? In that case, do you need to chop about half of the opening?

5. Stay true to your voice

When writing for a specific purpose or audience, it can be easy for a writer to lose his voice. He might emulate previous winners, use different language than usual, or try too hard to impress. It may be accidental or it may not. There’s no simple trick to retaining your voice. Just be aware of it. When you reread your finished story, does it sound like your other work? Could your ideal reader pick it out of a lineup?

Running a Literary Journal Part 1: Choices

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Taking a cue from one of the more oft-repeated bits of writing advice—write what you know—this will be the first in a series of articles on starting and running an independent literary journal.

If you’ve spent any time at all online or in the writing section of your favorite bookstore, you know there’s no shortage of advice available for prospective writers. This series is aimed at prospective editors, who don’t have nearly as much advice to wallow in. Specifically, it’s aimed at those of you who want to found your own unaffiliated journal, since that’s where our expertise lies. In it, I and my co-editors will share what we’ve learned over the past decade as editors of Toasted Cheese.

In this first installment, I discuss some questions you should try to answer prior to putting out your first issue.

Background Image: Adam Burke/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Why do you want to start a literary journal?

In journalism, the question of ‘why’ is traditionally left to the end of the article. However, when contemplating starting an independent literary journal, I think this is the question you should start by asking yourself.

In a nutshell, the only reason to take on this job is because you love it—and are good at it.

You won’t become rich editing an independent journal. (In fact, you’ll probably lose money.) You won’t become famous. Editors, no matter how good or how prestigious a publisher or publication they work for, maintain fairly low profiles. Accolades come mostly secondhand via the writers and pieces you publish.

At a bare minimum, you should have an interest in the kind of work you’ll be publishing (Do you read other literary journals? If you don’t, why do you want to start one?) and some skill at assessing quality. Are you able to identify a good piece of writing from one that is not so good—and explain the difference? Are you able to give constructive criticism?

An editor is part curator, part coach. These days, any writer can slap a piece of writing up on their blog. They continue to submit to journals because of the value added by the editorial process. As an editor, you’ll need to be selective and constructive, to choose pieces that are suitable—in quality and style—for the journal and to work with writers to polish those pieces as necessary.

As an editor of an independent publication, “editor” won’t just be a title on a masthead—you’ll actually be editing. And that can mean everything from reading slush to making decisions about what pieces work together or best fit the journal’s aesthetic to copy-editing to substantive editing to decisions about design and layout. You’ll inevitably end up doing things that editors at major publications would consider “not my job,” like taking care of correspondence or maintaining your journal’s social media presence.

But, of course, getting to wear all those different hats is part of the fun of it.

How are you going to manage the commitment?

Once you’ve expressed your desire to work long hours for no pay (yay!), the next thing you need think about is how you’re going to fit that commitment into your life.

Think of running a literary journal as a volunteer job, not a hobby. With a volunteer job other people are counting on you. In this case, the “other people” are all the writers who submit to your publication. If you say writers can expect to hear back in X days, they will expect to hear back in X days. If you say you’ll publish in month Y, writers will expect to see an issue in month Y.

While you might start your journal when you have lots of free time to devote to it, keep in mind, if it lasts, your circumstances will change. Work and school, relationships and family, illnesses and injuries, your own writing projects, even your hobbies—all of these things will compete with your journal for your attention. If you want your journal to weather these changes, be realistic about how much time and money you’ll be able to commit to it—not just right now, but in the future.

There are many ways of keeping the workload manageable, for example, publishing less frequently, limiting the types of work you accept, and taking on more staff.

One big decision you’ll have to make early on is whether or not to pay contributors. If you do, and this money is coming out of your own pocket, how long can you keep it up? What might be manageable when you start your journal may not be a year or five into the future.

Non-paying markets don’t have to worry about where the money’s coming from, but will tend to receive fewer submissions than paying ones. While this can be a drawback in terms of missing out on submissions from more established writers, it can also be a benefit in terms of a more reasonable time commitment.

Who will be on your journal’s staff?

Of course, how much time and money you have to commit to your journal will depend on how many people are involved in its operation. Will it just be you, Jack– or Jill-of-all-trades, or will it be a team effort?

Having a group of people involved is generally a good thing, as the workload can be shared and one person’s crisis doesn’t equal a crisis for the journal since the others can cover as needed.

If you’re assembling a group, it will be advantageous to have people on staff who can handle the technical (coding, design, layout, etc.) and marketing aspects of publishing, as well those with a talent for editing. While it’s great if people can do double duty, your web guru and publicist don’t necessarily also have to be editors.

It’s not important that everyone involved contribute the same amount. What is important is if someone says they will be responsible for a particular task they do it without having to be reminded—and that they don’t flake out on you. You should feel confident that if extenuating circumstances arise for someone or if they no longer want to be involved with the journal, they’ll inform the rest of the staff so alternate arrangements can be made. In other words, you want your staff to be reliable and considerate.

The drawback to a group endeavor is that levels of commitment will vary. With any volunteer activity, people will often express enthusiastic interest in being involved or even participate for a brief time and then—without notice—disappear. If someone you don’t know expresses interest in getting involved, get to know them before inviting them to join your staff. At TC, for example, we have an expectation that new editors will have been hosts or regulars at the forums first. Choose people you know you can count on.

What type of content are you going to publish?

It’s a good idea to establish your core staff first, because their reading interests will determine the direction your journal is going to go content-wise. There’s no sense focusing on content your editorial staff won’t enjoy reading. If your staff’s usual reading choice leans to science fiction, they’ll quickly tire of a steady diet of sonnets (regardless how good).

First, think about what genres you want to include. Will you be publishing poetry, fiction, essays, creative nonfiction, articles? What about reviews, translations, interviews? Will your issues include art?

Once you’ve decided on the general scope of your journal, narrow it down. Fiction, for example, is a big category. If you’re going to publish fiction, what kind of fiction? Will yours be a genre magazine, dedicated to a specific kind of fiction like fantasy or mystery? If it’s a popular genre or there’s a niche waiting to be filled, you can restrict submissions to a specific sub-genre, as with Shock Totem (dark fantasy and horror), 14 by 14 (sonnets), or Brevity (essays under 750 words).

Another way of narrowing the scope of submissions is geographically. For example, Zyzzyva is only open to writers from the west coast and The New Quarterly only publishes writers living in Canada or Canadians abroad.

While it might be tempting to say you’re open to “anything,” there are two major drawbacks to that approach. First, your staff is likely to be overwhelmed with the quantity and variety of submissions. And second, “anything goes” will make it difficult for your journal to develop a cohesive aesthetic, which in turn will be confusing to potential submitters who are trying to determine whether their work would be a good fit.

Where will your journal’s home base be located?

Once you’ve assembled your staff and decided what kind of material you want to publish, you need to decide where you’re going to publish. That is, will you be publishing a print journal or an online one? In neither case do you need to have a physical headquarters, but keep in mind, for some purposes you will need to provide a mailing address.

Despite the “print is dead” refrain, print journals still do have a certain cachet with writers, but print brings with it various logistical considerations. Unless you take a do-it-yourself approach and produce a zine, i.e. handmade magazine, you’ll likely need to invest in desktop publishing software and have someone on staff who knows—or is willing and able to learn—how to use it.

A traditional print-run will require some up-front funding, a physical location to store boxes of journals, and a plan for mailing them out. Print-on-demand may solve these issues, but you’ll still need to decide what service to use and make decisions with respect to the size, quality, and format of the journal. Furthermore, deciding to go the print route doesn’t mean you can forget about having a web presence. Your print journal should still have a website with, at a minimum, some background on the journal, submission guidelines for writers, and information on where readers can purchase copies.

Compared to print, online journals are relatively easy to set up and low cost to produce. If you decide to take the online route, your first major decision will be whether to purchase your own domain or start out on a free hosted site, such as WordPress.com or Blogger.

If you choose to obtain your own domain, you’ll have to decide how you’re going to build your website. Many online journals have shifted from traditional websites (which require the person updating to have some knowledge of HTML, CSS, etc.) to content management systems like WordPress, which make it easy for anyone to update. The drawback to using a popular CMS is that your journal will tend to look like all the other websites using the same software unless you use a custom theme.

While many journals do start out at hosted sites, if you have a bit of money to spend, securing a domain for your journal is a good idea, even if all you do with it for now is set up a redirect to your hosted site. Think of this domain as your journal’s virtual headquarters—especially important if it doesn’t have a physical one.

When (how often) will you publish?

Finally, before you open your literal or metaphorical doors to that first wave of submissions, you’ll need to decide on a publishing schedule.

Both print and online journals can be published in issues. The usual commitment for a volunteer-run journal is anywhere from one to six issues per year. More often, and the time and financial commitment will likely be too onerous for the average volunteer; less often, and people will begin to wonder if your journal is still operational.

An advantage to publishing in issues is that you and your staff get some predictable downtime each cycle. This can be good for the longevity of your journal, as there will less chance that people will burn out. Another benefit is the anticipation and excitement associated with the release of each new issue. Many journals, especially print ones, throw launch parties to celebrate.

Of course, online journals aren’t limited to publishing in issues. Online, you don’t need to wait until you have a batch of material to publish; you can publish individual pieces on a more frequent basis—once a week, every weekday, even daily.

There’s something to be said for taking advantage of the medium, but be realistic as to what you can manage long-term. As many bloggers have found, once the initial thrill wears off, daily publishing can be a grind. A very frequent schedule might not be the best idea if it’s just you running your journal. Do you really want to work on it every day? What happens when you get sick? Go on vacation? On the other hand, a frequent publishing schedule can be a great way to build readership if there are enough people involved with your journal that you can take turns spelling each other off.

In Conclusion (for now…)

If you like to read, write, and edit, running your own literary journal can be an extremely satisfying endeavor. However, it’s also a lot of work, and as soon as you put out that first call for submissions, writers will be counting on you to follow through on the promises you make. Think about whether you really want that responsibility before you leap into publishing.

In future installments of this series, I’ll explore each of the areas touched on in this article in more depth.

Final Poll Results

Editing and Abandoning

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Poet Paul Valery said, “An artist never really finishes his work. He merely abandons it.” Once the creating is over, the editing begins. It doesn’t end until you bring yourself to “abandon” your work. And sometimes not even then.

Background Image: Vasile Hurghis/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

First Offense

There are some basic editing “tricks” you can use to strengthen your work and reduce the chances of rejection. There are exceptions to each of these. At this point, it’s the writer’s choice as to how to edit the story.

  • Correct typos

Running your document through Word’s spell check is a good step, but it isn’t enough. Print yourself a hard copy and give it a once-over with a red pen, if necessary. Make sure names are spelled consistently. Check your punctuation.

  • Read aloud

It might seem silly, but it helps. If you’re too embarrassed to read it aloud, mouth it. Doing so forces you to slow down. It also lets you listen to the cadences of your work and the music of your words. If you must stop to take a breath, your sentence is too long. Anything that makes you cringe should be changed.

  • “Pay yourself by the period”

In Sin and Syntax, Constance Hale relates a story about newspaper editors telling green reporters they are “paid by the period.” What does this mean for prose and poetry writers? Get rid of your conjunctions. Simple, straightforward sentences are more powerful than several ideas strung together.

  • Passives

Search and destroy “was” “were” “am” “are” “is” “be” “been” wherever possible. Use your “find” feature to do this.

Maintain your sentence structure variation while making your writing as active as possible. I had a newspaper editor once tell me, “A headline is a subject and a verb. Anything else is extra. But you have to have those elements and in that order.” For example, “Noise ordinance passed by council” is not as active a headline as “Council passes noise ordinance.”

Word can also check for passive sentences. Make sure the “check grammar” box is ticked on your spell check. One of the stats you get at the end of your spell check is “percent of passive sentences.” If you just want to check a single sentence, highlight it, then do a spell/grammar check. It’ll ask you if you want to check the rest of the document. Choose “no” and you’ll get the stats just for that one sentence.

  • Trim fat

If it has no bearing on the plot, remove it. Dump asides to the reader and superfluous information. If you have a grandiose word, consider replacing it with something simpler. You don’t want to send readers looking for their dictionaries mid-story.

We all put things in our first drafts that are just for us. It could be background that never goes anywhere or a character we meant to make more interesting. Remember: it’s easier to cut than write more. When faced with the dilemma, chop it.

  • Hook

Does the first line make you want to read the second? Does the opening paragraph put out promises that the story delivers? Are characters from the hook relevant or will the reader wonder throughout the piece “what happened to Skip from the bait shop?” Grab your reader from the start and refuse to let her go until the ending.

  • Ending

Have you tied up some loose ends but not all? Have you raised new, unanswered questions in the closing paragraph? Endings should be satisfying but they need not be neat.

Hand It Over

Have your eyes gone blurry from editing? Are you sick of your characters? Good. This means you’ve been working hard and your deserve a break. Whether you’re staring down a twelve-line poem or a 120,000-word novel, how do you know when you’re ready to abandon it?

You don’t. You hand it over to a willing party for shredding, even while you hope they’ll say, “It’s gold!”

This person doesn’t need to write; she only needs to read. Once published, your work will be seen by people who don’t write as well as those who do. So any second opinion will do at this point. Her job is to “proofread,” not to edit; editing is for you and for the editors. That’s how they get the title after all. A friend who simply enjoys reading can point out flaws in timeline or motive. Friends are wary of hurting a writer’s feelings and will give you the praise you’re looking for.

Another writer will probably alternate commiseration and brutality. “I like the main character,” he might say, “but her dialogue stinks.” He understands that you need a little criticism along with a dose of praise. If you want to get the piece published, he understands and has an understanding of what it will take to get your work to that point.

How do you find other writers to give you feedback? Check the bulletin board or schedule of activities at local bookstores, colleges or libraries. Sometimes the same critique group meets at Borders one weekend and at Barnes and Noble the next. Meeting in public places and posting notices indicate they are willing to accept new members. Hide in the “personal growth” section and pretend to read while listening to the group. Listen to their feedback and interaction; decide if you might want attend.

Maybe face-to-face critique isn’t for you. Or maybe it’s inconvenient to get to the meetings. Toasted Cheese offers critique boards and a writing buddy exchange. You can give and receive feedback when it’s convenient for you. Weigh your available choices for critique and get as many opinions as you can.

Repeat Offenders

Now that you’ve had a break from the piece, go through the steps again. Look at it with fresh eyes. There’s more editing afoot.

  • Get rid of adverbs

Good reasons for an adverb are few and far between. Sometimes one must stay, for clarity. Use the “find” feature in Word and do a “search and destroy” on “-ly.” Pick the best possible verbs and let the adverbs fall away.

  • Trim adjectives

Like adverbs, some adjectives have their place, but imagine how much more compelling your work would be with better-chosen nouns. Watch out for participles, where an -ing makes the word look like a verb. “Galloping horse” is an example. “Galloping” is an adjective, not a verb, and it’s a predictable word choice anyway. A gerund is an -ing word functioning as a noun, like “incessant nagging” or “constant editing.”

  • Metaphor, simile and metonyms, oh my!

Similes are comparisons using “like” or “as” (“She’s pretty as a picture” “I’m as corny as Kansas in August”).

Metaphors have the same function but do so in a more direct way, usually using a form of “is” to link the two ideas (“He’s hitting his head against a brick wall” “The landscape was a blanket of snow” “They’re a pimple on the face of humanity”). Be careful not to mix metaphors, like “I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it” or “If you let that sort of thing go on, your bread and butter will be cut right out from under your feet.”

Metonyms are comparisons that substitute one idea for another to which it is closely related. (“The pen is mightier than the sword”). One kind of metonym is the synecdoche, which substitutes a part for a whole or vice versa (“our daily bread”)

When using a simile, metaphor or metonym, be as original with them as possible. If you’ve heard it before, it’s not original. Use them sparingly, increasing the power of the ones you keep.

  • Detail

With all this cutting, you have wiggle room to add some detail. Take a moment to show us what else is going on, physically and emotionally, with your characters. Have you forgotten to add anything that could be important to the story or to the reader’s mental picture?

  • Symbol

If you use symbolism, keep your symbol constant. If you use circles as a symbol for entrapment, take note of every circle in your story. If the symbol isn’t appropriate, remove or change it. Assume your reader will pick up the symbolism on his own and don’t be too obvious or beat him over the head with it.

Have someone proof it again. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the original reader or someone new. At last the story is cleaning up and turning into something you can abandon.

Round Up the Usual Suspects

Ah. It’s finally edited, polished and ready to go. Now what?

If you write for publication, editing is a fact of life. The fun of creating is only a tiny step toward your finished, printed piece. If you’re lucky enough to have an editor accept your work, you might get a note back with some editing suggestions. Some go ahead and edit the piece themselves. You might even read it over and wish you’d changed a bit of dialogue or come up with a more original metaphor.

The worst thing you can do for yourself is to submit a great story in an unprofessional manner.

  • Know the publication

Research the journals you’re interested in. Read their current and archived issues. If your story is “genre,” make sure that it fits with the publication (example: don’t send erotica to Reader’s Digest).

If the stories seem heavy and long, consider sending that snappy flash fiction somewhere else. There are many journals that “subspecialize” in genre, length and so forth. A good place to begin scouting for possibilities is at Mustard and Cress.

  • Include a professional cover letter, even when electronically submitting.

An electronic submission should get the same respect as a hard copy submission. Address the editor(s) by name when available. In lieu of a street address, include the submission e-mail.

Open your letter with the name of the story and your intention for it (publication, a contest entry, etc.). Give the story name, word count and a brief bio, including any writing credits. If you don’t have any writing credits, don’t bring up the fact. Tailor your bio to fit with the story and the publication. Don’t write a funny bio to go with your death poem or a 200-word biography to accompany your flash fiction.

Some writers also like to add how they heard about the publication or contest (newsletter, search engine, workshop, someone’s website, etc.). Depending on your style, you might also want to include a two or three sentence story synopsis.

Include your email address in your signature or in the body of the letter. If you use a pen name, sign your real name and add a parenthetical (writing as “___”) or include the information on a new line below your name.

Do not suck up; editors have a great b.s. detector. They don’t care if you’re a lifelong reader or a fan of their own work. They care about what you’re sending them for their publication.

Example of an e-submission cover letter:

George Langadoon, fiction editor
Electric Mayhem

Dear Mr. Langadoon,

I am submitting my short story “Yes Dear” (1000 words) for publication consideration in “Electric Mayhem.”

My most recent fiction has been published in Toasted Cheese and Frank’s Little E-Zine of Joy. I live in Brisbane, Australia with my two maladjusted cats.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Erma McThirsty
Writing as “Max McHungry”

An example of what not to do:

Hi! My name is Erma McThirsty and I’ve been writing all my life. I’m not published yet but I’ve dreamed of seeing my work in print. My story is called “Yes Dear” (attached).

I think it would be perfect in “Electric Mayhem.” I’m a real fan of your magazine and would love to be a part of it. I’ve read it for years and I love the stories you choose.

Let me know what you think!
“Max McHungry” (wink)

  • Follow submission guidelines

If a journal does not take simultaneous submissions, do not assume your story is so wonderful that they will make an exception.

Do not send your story in an attachment unless the guidelines deem it acceptable. Because of virus concerns, attachments almost always go unopened.

Many journals allow more than one poem per submission but only one prose or non-fiction piece. If the magazine wants only one piece per submission, comply with that request.

Put your story in a standard font face and size. For safety’s sake, stick with 12 point Courier, Arial or Times New Roman. If the guidelines are specific, respect that. A cute font will not get you noticed; it will get you sent to the slush pile.

  • Respect the reply time

Some editors reply to a submission on the same day. Some take up to three months. The site or auto-reply should tell you when to expect to hear about the story. Do not write to the editors and pester them about it. If you are in the “maybe” pile, doing so could put you in the “no” pile.

However, if an unreasonable amount of time goes by and you still haven’t heard, you have every right to ask, “What’s up?” Submissions do get misplaced, so inquire in a professional, courteous manner.

The same holds true when a story has been accepted but not yet published. You have the right to update your writing credits in a timely fashion. Go ahead and list the credit; you might consider adding a note that the publication is “pending.”

Case closed

If you write for publication, editing is a fact of life. The fun of creating is only a tiny step toward your finished, printed piece. If you’re lucky enough to have an editor accept your work, you might get a note back with some editing suggestions. Some go ahead and edit the piece themselves.

After it’s sent or published, you might even read it over and wish you’d changed a bit of dialogue or come up with a more original metaphor. This is natural. The important thing was that you sent out the best work possible at the moment. You were brave enough to abandon the project and send it into the world. Many who write don’t get that far. Be proud of your work and yourself.

Final Poll Results