Contests are a great way to get your writing finished enough to share with the world. In the early days of my quest to learn fiction, I entered more than a few. I started by entering contests run by well-known literary publications. It might have gotten the writing completed (my short stories), but the fees would be used elsewhere now, after what I’ve learned.

I have 10 guidelines I like to have a contest meet. You can score your contest prospects along these marks. It’s really hard to get a 10. And you will want to submit in a passionate way to overlook the entry fee, the Number 1 guideline below. It’s your tuition, after all — you learn something from everything you do to support your writing. My guidelines:

1. I like an entry fee of under $20. Anything higher feels like fundraising to me.

2. I like a contest that completes and will anoint a winner in less than six months. Three is better. Life is short. Just decide, already.

3. I like a contest where I have a good idea of the number of first-round judges, and who they are. Otherwise, it’s usually grad students who volunteer. Not to be dismissive of less-practiced writers, but I never was crazy about 24-year-olds judging my stories.

4. I like a contest where I don’t have to be someplace to receive the prize. Travel costs money too, and I want to use my money for book research trips.

5. I like a contest with a cash prize, not a book contract. Publication in a lit journal Of Note might be worthwhile, too. If your goal of entering a contest is to get your writing noticed.

6. I like a contest where there’s some limit to the number of entries; this can be hard to determine. Why wallow in a field of 10,000 entries? Even a 0.1 percent chance of winning  would require 10 submissions from you.

7. I like a contest that’s focused on the kind of book I am sending. Fantasies about Moldovia shouldn’t be alongside a novel about murder in New England, if you ask me. Or at the least, have some categories to cover subject matter. And no, general literature, or mainstream fiction, are not categories.

8. I like a contest with a reputation, if possible. Then there’s accountability to the writers to be impartial, and that’s not automatic

9. I like an application I can complete in under 5 minutes. Again, life is short, and doing an app is writing. Online forms = much better.

10. I like a contest run by a publication. They seem to know how to handle things for the writer who’s as much genre as literary.

Just as example, Ploughshares has opened its annual writing contest for emerging writers. It meets some of the above criteria, but it’s got some issues.

1. You need to register in a database to enter — not a show-stopper, but time-consuming
2. It’s not going to publish the winners until a year from now.
3. You don’t know much about the judging, but it’s Ploughshares. They have established lit journal credibility.
4. It’s lacking focus on entries. Fiction. Non-fiction. Poetry. That’s it.
5. The limit on entries is based on a two-month window of submission time. There will be thousands in this contest.

I would have entered Ploughshares’ contest awhile back. But Viral Times, my first novel, is now in print. I’m not emerging any more, not in the way they describe.

There’s pretty good contest advice from Poets & Writers: It has a searchable database and a great blog on contests and grants

Best wishes in your submitting. This can be a good and important step to publishing — get it out there, within your budget and time limits.

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