How to Pursue Contest Entries: 10 Guidelines

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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.

Celebrate our finalist!

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Lisa Carroll-Lee, who’s been in one of my writing groups for more than two years, has landed another short story as a Finalist in the Austin Chronicle 2009 Short Story Contest. The Chronicle has a really lean word limit, but Lisa has made it to the Top 10 with her story, Monsters of Nature.

We saw Monsters in October at our manuscript group meeting and gave her our responses to her flight of fancy about furry children. Congratulations to Lisa, and best of luck in the finalists’ round. As they say at Oscar time, it’s an honor just to be nominated.

Lisa has made the finalist cut before on the contest. The Chronicle will publish the top three of this year’s 2,500-word gems on Feb. 13.

Winners, but unpublished

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Many things can get in the way of getting a book published. Contracts, rewrites, desire, editorial shifts. But having a contest victory in hand should give an author a better chance, right?

Right? Well, maybe not. A few summers ago I collected business cards at the 2006 Agents and Editors conference, presented by the Writer’s League of Texas. The League was once an Austin institution. Now it’s a statewide organization. The conference holds a manuscript competition. The winners in a half-dozen categories get applauded in a public presentation. In 2006 they were ushered off to meetings with agents.

I was filing business cards today and saw one from Beverly Bryant, whose card reports she’s the 2005 Mainsteam Fiction winner in the WLT Contest. I figured Beverly might have published her book Don’t Make Me Dance someplace by now.

I’m sorry to say not so, if Google and Amazon searches are reliable reporters. Same to be said for the winners in the overall category (Cold Dogs, by Richard L. Dutton) and Science Fiction-Fantasy-Horror (Travelers on the Smoke by Marjorie A. Stewart & Betty W. Hall).

I report this not because I wish any of these authors bad luck in their quest to publish. (And believe me, if you’ve been to the WLT A & E conference, plus submitted MS pages to the contest, you want to publish your book.) No, my point is that a contest victory is just one more hilltop on the mountain range of making your story into a book.

Few contest sponsors will portray their victors as the authors of ongoing projects. But you win a contest with a chapter at most. A publisher will want to see three, if your summary and synopsis will pass the eye of the editing needle.

I’m in rewrite purgatory now for Viral Times, so I’ve got less to show than even Beverly’s business card. But a contest entry (at $50 by now, for the WLT) up against several hundred other 10-page manuscript excerpts just doesn’t motivate me. Maybe you’ll find that finishing your book, then offering it to agents and editors, with a prize of being published, is the contest which you’d really like to win. Keep writing and get into a good manuscript group.

Let contests lead your writing outside

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Writing contests are a fine way to send your work into the world. Most of them charge a nominal fee; $10-15 is pretty average. Even if you don’t win, you experience the thrill of thinking your story might be chosen, because you’ve done the work to polish it up and submit it in MS format.

(That’s double-spaced, one-inch margins, page numbers with your name included. Pick a simple font like Times.)

A few contests have nearby deadlines, if you have a story ready. The first is a fiction contest, the other a much broader one with multiple categories. There’s a fine summary of even more in Poets & Writers magazine.

The $1,100 E.M. Koeppel 2006 Short Fiction Award has an April 30 postmark deadline. It’s an award for unpublished fiction in any style, any theme Awards: First place – $1,100. Editors’ Choices – $100 each. Maximum Length – 3,000 words. Stories must be unpublished.

Winning story and Editors’ Choices will be published on the literary Web site After publication, writer retains all rights. Any number of unpublished stories may be entered by any writer. $15 fee for one story, $10 for each additional story. Mail submissions to Writecorner Press, PO Box 140310, Gainesville, FL 32614.

Writecorner has complete guidelines and winning stories from previous years at

Writer’s Digest has a much bigger competition, with lots more entries expected, that has a May 15 deadline. It’s the competition’s 75th year, and giving giving away more than $30,000 in cash and prizes! You enter at their Web site.

Grand Prize is $3,000 cash and an all-expense paid trip to New York City. The magazine flies you and a guest to The Big Apple, where you’ll share your winning work with four editors or agents. 1,001 winners will be chosen. If you’re one of them, great. If not, well, at least you got that writing out there. And it’s now ready to be submitted to the journals and literary mags that are just looking for good writing — and don’t charge an entry fee.