One of the things I love about writing is entering competitions. There’s something about a contest that tickles me pink, sets my jello, and makes my socks roll up and down. Somewhere inside me dwells a coupon-clipping, sweepstakes-entering, percolated-coffee guzzling, curlers-in-her-hair housewife who cannot resist the chance to WIN BIG PRIZES.
Besides, for an emerging writer like me — and I have learned the term “emerging” is the polite way of saying “newbie” — entering contests can be a great way to start broiling my professional chops. And I honestly find the process fun: researching the competitions, checking out the guidelines, choosing which of my pieces might be a good fit or writing something specifically for that competition. I feel a rush as I complete my submission, polish up my cover letter, and hit “send.”
Yes, my work will be judged. The odds are that it won’t win. But that’s another advantage to the process: it strengthens my I-can-take-the-rejection-no-problem muscle, vital to any working writer. I figure every rejection, including every contest entry that gets a “thank you but nah” response is another notch in my belt, another step toward a big yes.
And hey, you can’t win if you don’t enter, right? I know, I know, that kind of thinking is responsible for mega jackpots in Powerball and we all know our chances of getting hit by lightening while being trapped inside an elevator with George Clooney are way better than winning Powerball.
But a writing competition is not a lottery; at least, the credible ones aren’t. If you follow the submission guidelines carefully, your work will actually be read and evaluated by someone. A built-in win, in my opinion. In a very few cases, you may even get a critique, or at least an opinion, of your piece. Also huge for us emerging types, or, really, any writer.
Having said that, it’s important to exercise good judgment. There are competitions and competitions, you see. Some are legit and some are scams, and writer beware. Some contests charge entry or “reading” fees, anywhere from $5 to $50, and while there are perfectly legitimate and highly-regarded contests that do so (Glimmer Train, one of the most respected and prestigious competitions out there, comes to mind) it’s best to be wary. Do your research before you fork over your work or your money.
How, you ask? Thankfully, there are some very helpful websites and organizations that can point you to legitimate competitions, although the ultimate responsibility always rests with you. I’ve listed three below as a for-instance.
Writer’s Digest Competions — Every writer’s go-to resource, Writer’s Digest sponsors a number of annual contests, with very attractive prizes that can include cash, publication, and even attendance at their annual conference if you really hit the jackpot with a grand prize. Entries do require a fee, but they’re reasonable and sometimes will even come with a bonus such as free attendance in one of their Writer’s Digest University webinars.
And this is where I get to brag: my short story Stuffy won First Prize in the Young Adult category of the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards in December, 2015. I can’t tell you what a boost that’s been to my confidence and what a fabulous antidote it’s proven to be for what I like to call “submission reluctance.”
Poets & Writers — P&W, another mainstay for writers both pro and aspiring, offers an excellently vetted month-by-month calendar of competitions from publishers, literary journals, and magazines. A lot of the contests tend to focus on literary fiction and, of course, poetry rather than genre fiction. A great place to start researching.
Cathy’s Comps and Calls — A wonderfully useful listing of competitions and calls for submission, all of which can be entered for free online. Whoever Cathy is, she is my new BFF. I think she’s in the UK, and many of the listed opportunities are UK or Europe-based but even so they’re usually open to us Yanks. She posts opportunities in three categories: competitions, submission with deadlines, and submissions without deadlines. And she cautions us to research carefully, as her info may not be up to date. It’s a great resource, and I’ve found lots of submission opportunities by checking out her site.
In fact, that’s how I discovered the Binnacle Short-Short Story Competition. The Binnacle is the literary journal from the University of Maine at Machias, and to the best of my understanding its general submissions are usually only open to students, faculty and alum. This contest, however, is open to all. The challenge is to submit a story of 150 words or less.
A hundred and fifty words? That’s crazy! I couldn’t resist the dare. So I offer you my entry, Toro, which clocks in at 146 words including the title, below:
The bull paused, its sides heaving, blood streaming from its nose. Its head bobbed; the barbed banderillas had shredded its neck muscles.
The crowd hushed. The matador readied his long sword.
The mantilla-draped woman sitting ringside lifted her hand. The matador’s peripheral vision caught the strange gesture: a blessing? He stepped forward, flourishing the scarlet muleta.
The bull charged. The sword flashed, the woman wove her spell, and things changed.
The matador stumbled on all fours, neck and shoulders throbbing, breathing labored. He staggered toward the poised figure. With agonizing effort, he raised his massive head enough to glimpse the suit of lights, to recognize the face as his own.
Except for the eyes. In their liquid depths he saw the bull regarding him as it raised the sword.
The kill was clean. The woman lifted her mantilla, smiling as the crowd roared its approval.
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Win or lose, writing that piece was a great exercise in concision and distilling a story down to its essentials — both challenges for me. So, bon chance to me, and to you too!
Jan M. Flynn