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.
Once a week I am offering three quick tips that you can take and use right away. For those of us who would rather be writing than reading blogs, this is a place you can grab something useful and get back to work. If you have suggestions, please share them in the comments section.
Looking for funding for your writing career? The PEN America website offers an extensive database of contests, grants and awards for writers. The site also provides all kinds of free information, plus tools for teachers and translators, and news about writing from all over the world.
Are you writing about a character who is mentally ill? Want to give him the right symptoms for the right illness? Want to know what kind of therapy he might have or what drugs he might be prescribed? Are you writing an article about mental illness? Even if you just want to know for yourself, you can get all the facts in The Writer’s Guide to Psychology by Carolyn Kaufman, published in 2010 bv Quill Driver Books.
You’re sitting at a stoplight with another car in the lane next to you. Take a look at the people in the car. Note as many details as you can. Now, based on what you see, go park somewhere and make up a story about these characters, inventing names, lives, and problems to be solved. Who are they? Where are they going? What are they talking about? What’s playing on the stereo? Are they arguing? What about?
You do have a notebook with you at all times, right? Even better, record it on a portable voice recorder. This will make sitting in traffic much more fun.