Tuesday, December 15, 2009

thoughts on contests

INTERN got a very thoughtful and pleasant e-mail from a reader yesterday, asking INTERN's opinion of writing contests. It boiled down to this: "are there any contests within the reach of a novice writer that are also impressive enough to catch an agent's attention?"

INTERN's answer was pretty much "no, unless you're a novice writer who wins the O. Henry prize."

In INTERN's (limited and certainly not authoritative) experience, most of the writing contests writers cite on their query letters are not impressive and, at worst, make the writer in question look like a small fish. If Jack Kerouac was writing a query letter, would he list "2nd place Boonsville Writer's Association Flash Fiction Contest 1951" as a credit? Would Harper Lee have been better off if a promising but incomplete first draft of "To Kill a Mockingbird" had won a prize at a writing conference?

Maybe it's an outdated and romantic notion, but INTERN believes it's better to toil and toil and toil and revise and edit and moan and spend years in obscurity and create something truly world-exploding than it is to toil a little bit, then get a little prize, then toil a little more, then get another little glimmer (perhaps a false one) of non-obscurity, and inadvertently build up a sense of (INTERN fears) complacency.

Ask yourself: will this contest will really challenge me? Will this contest will really be of value to my development as a writer? Will anyone besides the judges actually read and be moved by my story/poem? If the answer is "no," then it's better to keep on toiling, contest-free, until the right one comes along. It's the difference between investing in one sturdy, well-made can opener like your grandma used to have versus buying a dozen flimsy inexpensive ones that work for a few months but have no lasting value: it's worth keeping an eye on Quality.

Not that contests don't have value. In many cases, the funds raised from writing contest entry fees help keep small literary journals afloat. And for lots of people, a contest deadline is an incentive to actually finish a story or poem. Participating in contests can give you a sense of urgency and belonging, and winning can provide much-needed encouragement to keep going. At the same time, flattery is dangerous, and those contest deadlines can make otherwise thorough writers submit work that hasn't yet reached its full potential.

In other words...............it takes a very level-headed and insightful person to reap the benefits of contests without being mislead, flattered, or injured by their hidden downsides. So maybe what's in order isn't a wholesale rejection of contests, but a discerning and realistic approach.

INTERN so serious this afternoon!

Good day, sirs and ladies! You look fantastic!

>Update: Thanks everyone who commented with very good points about the value of contests! INTERN doesn't mean to say that there are no meaningful contests or that you shouldn't list good, respectable contests as writing credits...just that not all contests are created equal, and that they can have downsides.


  1. Intern, I must say I agree with you. There are *very* few contests for writing that mean anything as credits, and your chances of winning them are slight. By which I don't mean don't enter. But writers should certainly do their research before paying the fee, signing the sheet, whatever. Not only are there worthless contests out there, there are scam contests.

  2. Okay, then here's the follow-up question: have you any advice for us to separate the wheat from the chaff among internet publications? Yes, being paid for one's work is usually a sign that the publishing entity is to be accorded some respect, but surely there are some somewhat-prestigious-yet-low-or-no-paying markets out there?

  3. Intern, does this also apply to online short story markets? I think many people use those as a quick way to get pub creds, but they don't seem to add much...weight to ones creds. Would you say toil and toil and toil and try for Agni or VQR or Glimmer Train as opposed to get pubbed in a bunch of online journals hoping that will get you into Agni or VQR or Glimmer Train?

  4. Intern, I love your blog, but may I respectfully disagree? Maybe a contest win can't get an agent's attention, all right, but I know for a fact it can get an editor's attention. After I won the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Contest, many of the editors I queried were willing to read my novel manuscript, apparently on the strength of my braggin' about it winning the contest. And one wonderful editor bought it.

    True, it's not To Kill A Mockingbird, but it's a sale.

    The contest is free and the children's author for whom it's named, the author of the "All Of A Kind Family" books, also got her break through a writing contest. IMHO contests are one of the few open doors for novice writers, though I wouldn't advise people to enter contests which charge fees.

    Of course, there are also free contests for which the prize includes a book contract, and those are definitely worth entering.

  5. One of the two contests I've ever entered was the Writer's Digest one, which costs $15, but you break even if you get in the top ten of any of the categories. Plus, the Grand Prize actually does include agents.

    The other contest was put on by the National Library of Poetry (which advertised in the Sunday comics). I was pleased they accepted my poem for their anthology, but when they told me how much it'd be, and how they could emboss my name on it, it was obvious what the contest was about.

    The next year I sent in a poem dictated by my four-year-old nephew (Throw the rock! / Just throw it! / Wow, that was a BIG splash!), and six months later his mother called to say he'd gotten an acceptance letter from a publisher and would I happen to know why?

    Turns out someone else has done the same. Yew gotta larf at "Yew Gotta Larf." (And the Dave Barry bit can be found here.)

  6. I agree that winning local or regional contests isn't likely to impress an agent; however, such contests, because they have DEADLINES, can provide the requisite kick in the butt to a writer. I have won several local and regional contests. All have helped me hone my skills, as has participation in critique groups, sending manuscripts to book clubs for pre-query feedback, and cranking out revised page after revised page.

  7. Very good points about the contest. I always used to think they would make me look more impressive rather than actually develop skills.

    Kate xx

  8. Wow, I'd never thought about it this way :). Thanks for the insight, Intern! I'd always wondered how much agents cared about this type of thing, and found this very helpful.

  9. This can sometimes depend on the field you're writing in, though. For instance, in speculative fiction there's the Writers of the Future contest that carries quite a bit of prestige with it, even though it's only for novice writers and there's no guarantee of publication resulting from a win (though they do publish anthologies of award-winners from time to time).

    Also, some awards come with prizes like having a well-known editor read and comment on your manuscript, or the prize can even be publication, especially for a short fiction or poetry contest.

  10. Thanks for all the pro-contest points, Karen et. al! You have good points. Yes, some contests are awesome!

  11. Well, I agree, totally - except...

    Our RWA chapter runs a contest every year where all entrants get a detailed scoresheet and critique from three different 1st round judges, at least one that is a published romance novelist.

    Yes, our contest has grown and makes lots of money for our chapter. However, every author that enters gets something of merit, 3 different anonymous views of their writing/story with specific points where improvements/changes could be made according to that judge's opinion. So it's not a vanity contest, it's a working writer's craft enhancer type contest for serious writers who want a career as a romance novelist.

    Now if all contests were run to benefit the writer - instead of flattering the writer to be included in a Vanity Press publication - things would be different. But, alas, unless a contest offers something of merit to every writer who submits - bypass it.

  12. The magazine Minnesota Montly has an annual writing contest and in my 15 years living here many of the winners go on to publish via local MN publishing houses of which we have several. I think the contest is the Tamarack Award

  13. I'm kind of iffy about them. I did enter quite a few over the summer, but mostly to see if I could push past the slush pile (and get a feel what people thought of the writing). It did work for me as I ended up winning 3 of them, which in turn led to an offer from a publishing house, which in turn led to offers of representation from three different agents.

    However, I should note that the agent I went with I had cold queried previously and she was going to offer me representation before she knew about the publishing offer. That being said, she's sending the MS out for wider submission anyway.

    I think this is an exception to the norm, though.

  14. Last contest I entered I was in the middle of some nice wine, and the agent was a hottie so I couldn't resist. I threw together something at the last minute... I do feel sorry for contest judges. It's got to be worse than the slush.

  15. Intern,

    Good thoughts. How, may I ask, do you feel about small publications--like single poems or stories in magazines and literary journals? I'm just asking because that also takes toiling a little bit and (maybe) getting a little glimmer of praise for it in return.


  16. I look at it this way, if my writing is good enough to win presitious contests, it's good enough to be published wherever it fits. No need to toot my own horn in a bio in a query or proposal. When they're singing my name from the rooftops, I'll know certainly I've arrives. All or nothing, no middle ground.

  17. After my agent was unable to sell my book and dumped me, I entered a few contests--something I hadn't done before. I finaled in the St. Martin's Malice Domestic and the RWA Daphne du Maurier, which definitely cheered me up. But I won't mention these bridesmaid awards in a query. If anything, all they do is point out the manuscripts didn't make it to the altar.

  18. @ Anonymous Dec. 15 1:33

    Publishing in lower level mags will not get you into glimmertrain. Submitting a good story to glimmertrain is what will get you in.

  19. My guess is that, if your manuscript is winning legitimate contests, it would probably fare well in the whole query process, anyway. Even without the contests.

  20. Depends on your goals. If you're entering contests thinking you can land an agent by winning then you're going to be disappointed. If the reason you're entering contests to gain publishing credits with small literary magazines because you want to teach in academia then such contest wins are very useful ... on a resume, not a query letter.

  21. Would you say toil and toil and toil and try for Agni or VQR or Glimmer Train as opposed to get pubbed in a bunch of online journals hoping that will get you into Agni or VQR or Glimmer Train?

    Getting published in a bunch of online journals has zero impact on your likelihood of being published in VQR. Not only do we not care where submitting authors have been published before, but as individuals I know most of us here take more pleasure in finding authors who are previously unpublished. We don't care if you've been in the New Yorker a dozen times—either your story is good or it's not. If you look through the names of some of the authors whose story stories we've published recently, I promise you'll find a lot of authors whose credits prior to us are slim to none—certainly more of those sort of authors than well-published ones.