In recent weeks, we have talked about approaching agents and book publishers to get your book published. Another path to publication is by entering contests. Many university presses and small independent publishers, especially those who do literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, hold contests in which they will publish the winning books. This can be a huge honor and a stepping stone to greater things in your career, or it may turn out to be much ado about not very much, a handful of copies that no one but you will ever see.
You can find contests in many books and websites. Here are a few: Funds for Writers, Moira Allen’s Writing to Win: Colossal Guide to Writing Contests, Poets & Writers, Writers Digest, Freelancewriting.com, and the Creative Writing Opportunities list at Yahoo groups.I So, you read the listings and find some that sound good. Now you need to answer some questions.
Who are these people?
Who else have they published? Do you like the books they put out? Would your book fit in? Go to their website, take a look at their books and see if it feels right. Then study the guidelines. Do you and your book fit their qualifications? Many contests look for authors who have not published books before or at least not in that genre. Some have requirements for age, ethnicity or place of residence. Others only want to see books that have already been published.
What do they require for entries?
Usually they’re looking for a finished manuscript. Will yours be ready by the deadline? Will it be the right length? Do they want hard copies sent by mail, email entries, or entries fit into a form? Do they want your contact information on the manuscript, or does it need to be anonymous with a cover sheet explaining who you are. You can lose a contest in a hurry by not following directions.
Is this contest worth it to you? Nearly all contests have entry fees, often ranging from $20 up. If you enter several contest, the fees add up. What will you get if you win? Is there a cash prize? Do they guarantee publication? How many copies will they publish? What rights will they take? Will they pay an advance or royalties? Will they help with marketing and distribution? Are there secondary prizes for runners-up and honorable mentions? Do they offer critiques for non-winners?
If you’re thinking entering book contests sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. It is. But if you win the right contest with the right book, it can be the best thing that ever happened to your career.
You can’t enter a book contest without a book, so …
Now go write.
If you read any of the many publications for writers, you’ll see information about writing contests. Most offer money and an opportunity to have your winning prose or poetry published. Sounds good, right? Well, it can be, but let’s look at what it entails.
Why do publications and writing organizations offer contests? Certainly it gives them a chance to find and reward good writing. It also brings them publicity. For groups, it draws attention to their conferences and workshops and may attract new members, especially if membership is thrown in with the entry fee. For publications, contests can be a way of finding the best writing for their pages. But for most folks who sponsor writing contests, it’s mostly a money-maker. It helps pay the bills.
That said, let’s look at the pros and cons.
Winning a contest can boost your ego and your career, especially if it’s a big contest. You get published and you get publicity in everything from the contest website to your local newspaper. Sometimes you are invited to read your winning entry at an awards ceremony. It looks great on your resume.
You get money, sometimes a lot of money.
Your work gets published, which could lead to it being picked up for an anthology or being noticed by an agent or book editor, which could make you famous. Probably not, but it might.
Even if you don’t win, the contest deadline forces you to finish a piece of work and get it ready to submit.
Some contests are thinly veiled schemes to get writers to pay to have their work published when they could have it published elsewhere for free.
The fees add up. Most contests charge at least $15 to enter a story or set of 3-5 poems. For book-length works, the fees average around $25. Sometimes you get a magazine subscription thrown in, but how bad do you want that magazine?
The biggest contests attract thousands of entries, so what are the odds they’ll pick yours? Meanwhile, you have to either keep the work you enter off the market for months while the judges choose the winners or send it out with the risk that if someone buys it and you do win, you’ll have to withdraw from the contest.
A writer can waste a lot of time entering contests when she might be better off simply submitting her work.
What to do?
I’ll be honest. I enter contests. Sometimes I win; mostly I don’t. But one big win could really boost my career, so I do it. Each of us needs to figure out whether it’s worth the time and money to enter contests, then do so with our eyes open. For example, I won’t enter a contest that doesn’t pay at least $1,000. I won’t enter if publication is not included. I also don’t enter contests sponsored by journals or organizations I’ve never heard of. Even if I won, what would come of it?
If you do decide to try contests, the most important thing is to follow the guidelines. Submit online as directed or by mail if that’s what they want. If they tell you not to put your name on the manuscript, make sure it doesn’t appear anywhere, not on the front page, not in your headers, not in the text. Meet their requirements for length and formatting. Read winning entries from the past to see if you write the kinds of things they like.
You can find contest listings in lots of places. Poets & Writers Magazine has one of the best-known lists, which you can find in the magazine and at its pw.org website. Writer’s Market has a whole section of contests. Funds for Writers offers lots of contests and other opportunities in its online newsletter. CRWROPPS, Creative Writers Opportunities List, a Yahoo group, sends daily lists of contests and submission calls. If you search for “writing contests,” you’ll find more possibilities than you handle.
Writing contests can be great, but before you enter, consider the pros and cons. Remember, the most important thing is to write. Don’t let contests or anything else take you away from that for too long.
Now go write.
Here I offer three quick tips you can read and use without taking too much time out of your writing. If you have suggestions for books, websites or writing prompts, please include them in a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Shy Writer Reborn by C. Hope Clark. Are you an introvert? Do you find that you’re comfortable at your desk but would rather get your teeth cleaned than go out into the world to sell your writing? In this all-new edition of an older book, Hope Clark, the Funds for Writers.com guru and author of the Carolina Slade mystery series, tells us how to work around our fears to succeed at the writing business. Lots of good advice here.
Diane Lockward’s “Blogalicious: Notes on Poetry, Poets and Books” offers a fabulous list of literary journals that accept submissions in the summer.
Start with the words “Ask me” and continue writing a poem, essay, article, short story or whatever comes to you. Thanks to William Stafford’s poem for the inspiration.
Now Go Write
The freelance life is difficult, what with sporadic income, disorganized editors and the need to be perpetually self-disciplined. Perhaps you’re thinking about getting a staff job on a magazine or newspaper.
There are certainly advantages to having a job. High on the list are steady income and benefits. Also, you can concentrate on writing instead of marketing, you have deadlines to keep you going, and you become part of a work family. You can learn valuable skills without paying for classes or training programs. A job can also help you make connections that will help in the future if/when you return to freelancing.
On the negative side, staff writing jobs can suck up all your time so that you have nothing left for the fiction, poetry or creative nonfiction that makes you happy. You can do both, but it’s hard. You also might have to relocate to find a good job. Where I live, in a small town on the Oregon coast, the only staff option is the local newspaper, which pays barely above minimum wage. I tried it and went back to freelancing. Are you able to transfer your life to another city or another state?
Balancing jobs and writing is a puzzle I’ve been trying to solve for oh, about 40 years now. I spent many years working as a staff writer and editor at various newspapers and magazines, but I always wanted to freelance. When I was freelancing, I often yearned for the security of a job. The grass is always greener on the other side, right?
But if you have to earn a living from your writing and you haven’t yet made it into the national publications that pay $1 a word or more, you might not have a choice. You need a job.
It’s honestly not a good time for magazines or newspapers. Both have cut pages and staff drastically in recent years. If you study the bylines, you may find they use more freelancers than staff writers. Odds are better in public relations, corporate writing or advertising. But you can find a job if you really want to.
It helps to have a degree in journalism, English or a specialty in something like science, business, or technology. It helps to have strong computer skills. These days, staff writers often find themselves designing pages, writing for web sites, or blogging. You’re also going to need some clips and people willing to give you good references.
Where do you look? Some online outfits that promise to find you writing jobs charge a fee and never find you anything that’s suitable. If it sounds fishy or an ultra-traditional person like my dad wouldn’t approve, it’s probably not a real job. Good resources for jobs include: www.journalismjobs.com, www.mediabistro.com, and your state newspaper association—search for _________ Newspaper Publishers Association. For magazines, try www.foliomag.com, where you can read industry news and post your resume. Also try the Public Relations Society of America at www.prsa.org, which posts jobs and resumes. In addition, you can find some job listings at www.fundsforwriters.com, www.writing-world.com, and other writing sites.
The best resource may be your telephone book. Look under publishers and see what’s listed. Then find copies of their publications to determine whether you’d want to work for them and contact the office to find out if they’re hiring. If they don’t have an opening right now, ask if they’re open to freelance work. Being a reliable freelancer is often a good first step into a full- or part-time job.
Good luck in your search.
When I heard the word, everything just clicked into place in my mind. Nikki Price, editor of Oregon Coast Today, a local weekly newspaper and webzine, was speaking to our chaper of Willamette Writers. It was a Tuesday night, so she was in the middle of her deadline, and she roped us into working on headlines and cutlines for this week’s issue. But she also talked about her history of newspapering and what’s she’s looking for in stories for her paper.
They don’t take much freelance, Price says. One reason is money. They can’t afford to pay much. But the other–and this is the one that hit home–is that too many writers don’t understand their mission. Every story must be “actionable,” meaning it gives the reader information which enables them to take action, whether it’s to attend a show, visit an interesting site, check out a new business, take a class or whatever. News you can use, I often call it.
That doesn’t allow much room for creative writing, but that’s the reality of her newspaper and of many others. So, next time you get an article idea, think about whether it’s actionable. What can the reader do with it?
Continuing our series of sites where you can find writing work, have you been to fundsforwriters.com? Publisher C. Hope Clark offers two versions, plain old Funds, which is free, and Total Funds for Writers, which has more information and costs $15 a year. In addition to jobs, she lists freelance markets, publishers and agents, contests and grant opportunities. Give it a look at http://fundsforwriters.com
While you’re buying books, have you gotten your copy of Freelancing for Newspapers? It’s loaded with useful information for all kinds of writing.