Writing Contests—Are They Worth Entering?

An email from a literary journal, announcing an extension on their fiction contest made me wonder how many of you have entered such contests over the years. I’m referring to contests for unpublished manuscripts. To my knowledge, publishing companies submit books for awards on the author’s behalf–that was certainly the case with my book.

I know many people have thoughts on writing contests. While some people think they aren’t worth the entry fee, many think that these contests can help your career along. (Of course, this would only true if you win or final in one.)

Truthfully, I have entered very few contests over the years. I often questioned the judging process not to mention that every contest requires an entrance fee. This fee could be anywhere from $25 -$40, maybe even more. This is often the subscription price of literary magazines and you also end up with a year’s subscription. If you’re planning on subscribing to a particular magazine, then entering a contest might be well worth the money.  Years ago when I was first getting my work out there, I often didn’t have the money to spend on entry fees. My kids were small and we were a one-income household. We had a mortgage. I could go on. The few contests I entered were those with very modest entry fees.

While I know some people argue the point that these contests are worth your time and money to enter, I seriously wonder how true this is. I’ve known people who have won such contests, but still had problems finding a publisher for longer works. It seems to me that publishers make their decision to publish by evaluating the submission that is before them. While having won a writing contest might look good on your bio, is a publisher going to publish your book because of some contest you won five years ago?

Here are some of my thoughts:

When we submit our work to a literary magazine it is already being judged against hundreds of other stories. I’ve had literary magazines tell me they receive 1200 + submissions in a year and publish about 30 so when one of my stories made it in their publication I felt like a winner. Whoopee! Best of all, it didn’t cost me a cent. Being in the top 30 out of over 1200 submissions wouldn’t mean I’d have won first place had it been a contest. It wouldn’t even mean I’d place. I also found that as my work improved, I’d receive valuable feedback from editors who made suggestions or told me a particular story almost made it. Let me tell you those comments were like gold.

For every contest there are winners and losers. Had I only submitted to contests, and never placed, I might have come to the conclusion that my writing was no good. I might have given up. So while entering contests may be something you love to do, I would caution you not to become discouraged if you don’t final. Failing to final doesn’t mean your story sucked.

Occasionally a contest will offer feedback on your work. This is something that could prove to be quite valuable. Let’s be honest, feedback from our friends isn’t always helpful since our friend’s judgement could be clouded. (I’m sure my mom would love every bit of drivel I wrote, regardless of how bad it might be.) If you’re looking for feedback, and a particular contests offers this, then it may be worth entering. Truthfully, the contests I entered over the years didn’t offer any feedback. So make sure you understand if feedback is being offered if that’s what you want.

What are your thoughts on writing contests, are they a good idea or a waste of time and money? Do you regularly enter them? Have you entered them in the past?

Just Write It

When you first started writing did you know immediately the kind of book you would write?

People often talk about “finding themselves” and I suppose for many of us it comes down to living an authentic life, and being who we really are without worrying about disappointing those around us.

Writers also need to find out who they are as a writer, what genre they write in, and what their own unique style is.

It wasn’t until I’d been writing short fiction for many years that I began to notice a pattern in my writing. Most of my protagonists were kids, and it felt quite natural to write from a child’s POV. Even so, at that time, I didn’t consider the stories that I was writing were intended for a young audience because they weren’t. The literary magazines that published them didn’t think so either.

Still, I had this strong need to write for kids that didn’t go away. It wasn’t until a writer (one who had just published her first young adult novel) basically told me not to worry about who I was writing the story for that I felt completely free to write. She advised me to simply write it and, once it was written, then decide if it was best told for a young adult audience.

I took her words to heart and shortly afterward began writing Bitter, Sweet. I knew I had a story to tell and I couldn’t allow myself to get caught up in a game of self-doubt. Just write it. Just write the story, my story—those words stuck in my mind.

So what happened to my writing over time?

The best way for me to describe it is to say, I slipped into a time and place that felt so utterly right for me. Right now, I’m particularly happy setting my stories during the first half of the twentieth century. That time is like a welcomed friend, one that I greet with open arms. For me, writing needs to be enjoyable, a safe place for me to explore who I am and where my writing is taking me. It is a place where I can take my characters, explore their feelings, and discover who they are as well. I don’t worry anymore what genre I’m writing in these days because so far as I’m concerned, we do not pick the genre, the genre picks us.

What genre do you write in? Do you agree with my statement that we do not pick the genre, but rather the genre picks us?

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