Picking the right literary contest for you, part II, in which we discover, distressingly, that I STILL do not run the universe

Why do I have the nagging feeling that I was supposed to remind you all of something? It’s on the tip of my tongue…if only I had left myself some kind of subtle reminder…

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Ah, yes: in case you’ve been reading the blog with a blindfold on all week, I am going to be giving a talk onThe Multiple Myths of Philip K. Dick, this coming Saturday, January 26th, at Harvard.

To be specific, it will be at Vericon, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association’s annual SF, fantasy, and gaming convention. Admission to an entire day’s events runs from $10 – $20, depending upon when you register, and kids under 14 get in free, so I hope to see many of you there.

Now where was I? Ah, yes.

Yesterday, I horrified the innocent Virginias of the world by pointing out that in the average literary contest, the impartiality emperor might, to put it delicately, be under-dressed. Today, I shall give you a few pointers on how to figure out which contests are most likely to serve you best.

You’re going to want to look for a reputable contest — one that is, at minimum, blindly judged. In a credible contest, entrants are asked to leave their names off the submission’s pages (i.e., no last name in the slug line, no name on the title page), so that there is no possibility of a contest judge’s looking an entry and saying, “Hey, I know him. I owe him a favor — I’m just going to slide it into the finalists’ pile unread.”

Last time, if you’ll recall, I brought up the possibility that not all contests are blindly judged — and in those that aren’t, it can be awfully hard for even the best writer who isn’t already known to the judges to make it to the finalists’ round.

Don’t LOOK at me like that, Virginia. The last time I checked, I did not run the universe, nor do I manage any of the many and varied contests out there for writers in the English language.

If I DID run either, contest entries would be free; every contest would provide each non-placing entrant with supportive and useful feedback; finalists would be given a tutorial on how to approach agents and editors before and after the winners were announced, and every time a writer finished writing a good paragraph, a sugar-free, fat-free, calorie-free chocolate cupcake with a cherry on top would appear on her desk, as a reward for virtue.

If you haven’t noticed any of these things happening lately, it’s fair to say that I still am not in charge of very much of the writing world.

Speaking of woebegone faces, I shall never forget the looks on the faces of everyone at the awards ceremony of a QUITE respectable Southern conference when the teenage daughter of two of the contest judges carried off the Young Writer award — and, as I recall, a not insignificant check, derived, no doubt, from the entry fees of hundreds of trusting high school students whose parents were not regularly having drinks with the judges.

Had Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Bob the Builder all been hauled out of the room by DEA agents for peddling narcotics to kids, the attending writers’ expressions could hardly have expressed more shocked disgust.

Now, to be fair, in that particular year, the winner’s parents had actually been judging in other categories, not their daughters, but since they had been her first readers and were rather chatty people, it would require a faith in human nature so childlike that it would border on the infantile to believe that the judges in her category would not have had SOME inkling which entry was hers.

I’m not saying that the contest was rigged, per se; I’m just saying that the teenaged winner’s mother won in the nonfiction category.

A good tip for avoiding this type of situation: enter contests sponsored by organizations, not cliques. The writers’ grapevine can really help you here. Ask other writers about particular contests before you spend time and money on entering them.

Poets & Writers magazine, which lists literary contest deadlines in each issue, does a pretty good job of screening, so if a contest seems a bit shady to you, check if it is listed there.

And, of course, if you check out a list of the last few years’ winners (and you should), and you see the same last names recurring, or see that the judges themselves seem to carry off prizes on a fairly regular basis, you might want to think twice about sending in your entry check.

The next question you should ask yourself before mailing off your submission is: how good are your chances of winning?

Yes, any contest win or place will look nice on your writing résumé, but obviously, some contests are more prestigious than others. Less prestigious ones can actually be a better bet, if they are legitimate.

“Has not ruling the universe finally unhinged you?” I hear some of you exclaiming. “Isn’t bigger ALWAYS better?”

Not necessarily. You might be better off with a less well-known contest your first few times out.

For an exceedingly simple reason: your odds of making the finals are significantly higher in a small entry pool than a large one. Big-ticket contests attract stiff competition; contests with large cash prizes attract a higher percentage of professionals amongst the entrants.

Also, your chances of winning are higher if your writing resembles that of past winners. This is true for another exceedingly simple reason (they are abounding today, aren’t they?) — contest judges tend to be loyal folk, returning to the task with a tenacity a spawning salmon would envy. In most writers’ organizations that offer contests, the first round of reading is performed by volunteers.

And the same volunteers, year after year after year.

And, miraculously, their literary tastes don’t change all that much in the intervening twelve months between judging cycles. Go figure.

For the sake of example, let’s posit that the volunteers of a particular contest have historically favored Gothic romance. You, on the other hand, write futuristic fantasy, and there is only one category for novels. Think you’d be probably better off going for a different contest, one that favors your type of work?

If your answer was an unqualified, “By God, yes!” help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash. The more specialized your genre, the more it behooves you to check in advance whether a conference’s complement of judges tend to treat it with respect.

Or (to take a purely hypothetical case that couldn’t possibly refer to any contest run in my local area in which I might have taken a high prize in years past) if the top mainstream fiction category prizes in a prestigious competition are carried off year after year by literary fiction writers, you might want to think twice about entering fiction that is, say, particularly mainstream.

But if you happened to write on the literary side of romance, or are an unusually descriptive SF/fantasy writer, you might stand a good chance. Getting the hang of it?

How can a potential entrant tell what the judges’ preferences are, short of taking them all out to lunch individually and asking them? Most contests will list past winners on their websites, tucked away in a corner somewhere; check them out.

If the sponsoring organization publishes winning entries – and many have small magazines — read a few. If your writing style is radically different from what has won in the past, the contest is probably not for you.

In any contest with celebrity judges — i.e., famous writers who make the final selections from amongst the finalist pool — this goes double, or even triple. If your writing doesn’t resemble the famous judge’s in form, think twice before bothering to enter.

I can feel you wincing, Virginia. Crunching a few dry crackers should help with the nausea.
Even if you’re lucky enough to find a celebrity judge who is well-read outside of his own subgenre — and, even better, willing to reward work unlike his own — the bigwigs virtually never read all of the entries. Commonly, they read only the finalists’ submissions.

In practice, that means that those crusty volunteers I mentioned above screen the entries first – and all too frequently, edge out good entries that do not resemble the celebrity’s, on the well-intentioned theory that everyone’s writing tends to reflect his own reading tastes. They’re just trying to save the celebrity some time.

The two-tier system is followed in almost every literary contest, incidentally, celebrity-judged or not: the first rounds are evaluated by a different group of people than those who ultimately pick the winners. Sometimes, the judging criteria are not coordinated across rounds as well as one might hope.

Which is why, in case those of you who have heard contest judges grumbling in the bar after awards ceremonies, the entries that really wow ‘em in the early rounds often do not win or place. Usually, it is only within the power of a first-round judge to recommend that an entry make it to the finalist round; what happens there is generally under someone else’s control.

Why set it up this way? Well, since final-round judges are often chosen from amongst those agents and editors who are committed to attending the conference attached to the literary contest, it’s mostly intended to save the final-round judges reading time. But a two-tiered (or even three-tiered) system also makes it significantly harder to rig an outcome.

If it’s not clear why that might be desirable from an entrant’s point of view, you might want to re-read the anecdote at the beginning of this post.

If the contest is attached to a conference where the awards are given (and, as I mentioned above, many are), try to find out in advance whether the agents who typically attend that conference ones who might be interested in your work.

I can tell you from personal experience: while having a contest win, place, or show under your belt is great ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy), being a finalist at most conferences confers a good deal more than just a nice ribbon attached to your name badge.

It marks you out as someone with whom, for instance, an agent might want to pause and have a hallway conversation, or ask, “So, what do you write?” during otherwise pitch-free social time in the bar. And that, as they say, is nothing at which you should be sneezing.

In other words, it’s a fabulous little conversation starter — and that could be a very good thing, if your dream agent happens to be in attendance, couldn’t it?

Here’s an idea: you might want to target contests attached to conferences that your dream agent habitually attends.

How can you find this valuable information? Well, I wish I had a clever tip to pass along, something nifty that would give my blog’s readers a competitive edge, but the fact is, the standard agency guides often list this information. (If you are unfamiliar with how agency guides work, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category at right.)

The internet is your friend here, too: pretty much every conference will list which agents they cajoled to it last year and/or those who will be blandished into being there this year.

As I said yesterday, there’s more to using contests to your benefit than sending in a well-written entry: there’s strategy. Next time, I shall turn this question on its head, talk about what you can get out of entering a writing contest.

Keep up the good work — and wish me luck in Boston!

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