"I confess I enjoy paying fees to enter writing contests. One of the decadent pleasures of my week is cuddling up with my checkbook on Friday afternoon and doling out my meager earnings to literary journals in ten-and fifteen-dollar increments. I have been entering fiction contests relentlessly, if not compulsively, for the better part of two decades--and over time. I have garnered my modest share of first-place finishes and an even greater number of honorable mentions....I have also lost my share of contests--hundreds of them, possibly thousands--including many to which I have submitted my work, years after year, since my college days So as a battle-scarred veteran of the contest circuit, nothing disturbs me more than those naysayer who chronically deride participation in these literary competitions, which I continue to believe present one of the most rewarding and fair opportunities available to emerging writers.
"The critique often goes something like this: In no other creative enterprise are aspiring artists expected to fork over money for an opportunity to have their work considered by a self-perpetuating band of aesthetic gatekeepers. Up-and-coming composers don't send their original scores to the Boston Pops with entry fees enclosed. Including a money order or certified check will not convince the New Yorker to publish your political cartoons. So what right do literary journals have in asking young writers--many of whom can hardly pay their rent or feed their pets--to dish out hard cash for the mere chance of publication?
"The greatest selling point for contests is that they level the playing field in two distinct ways. First, in all but a few competitions, they offer each contestant an assessment of the work by a judge who does not know the author's identity. To paraphrase the caption of the celebrated Peter Steiner cartoon, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," in the submission pool of literary contests, nobody knows you're not Alice Munro or Joyce Carol Oates.
"Occasionally I am asked--usually by a student--if there's a trick to winning writing contests. After all, the names of the same emerging writers appear frequently on the list of winners of various contests, suggesting that these individuals must be doing something right. Most likely, I imagine, they are writing good poems and stories that deserve to receive accolades and inquiries from agents. At the same time, I do believe there are a few rules of thumb that increase the one's odds to taking a bow in the winner's circle. My best advice is that one should submit to contests early and often. The benefit of submitting early is that many competitions read and evaluate the work as it arrives, yet most of the submissions show up within days of the final deadline. For these competitions, the advantage of submitting at the first opportunity is a well-considered and thorough read by a judge who is not yet downing in entries. The reason for submitting often is that tastes differ widely and a story or poem that appeals to one judge may not suit the appetite of another."
Stay tuned for more excerpted appearls tomorrow.