Submit to Contests–Or How Submitting to Literary Contests Is Better than Playing the Lottery by Brad Windhauser
Playing the lottery is a complete waste of time. The odds are so clearly stacked against you that you might as well hand your money to a homeless person—at least then it can do some good. However, if you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t win. So, although the odds are clearly against you, there’s always a chance—albeit ultra slim—that you might hold the number they draw. So as long as you don’t count on winning, you might as well try it every once in a while—just don’t quit your day job.
Submitting to story contests is similar, in that the odds are likely against you (against everyone), but someone has to win, so it might as well be you. So you should submit.
But entering writing contests isn’t about the feeling you get by “beating” other writers. Sure, there is perhaps some joy (though fleeting) in having your work singled out. But the real prize is what these contests can lead to: getting your name and work on more people’s radar. Some contests carry a prestige that stands to enhance your career—all of a sudden someone notices you who likely would never have heard of you simply because another editor or an agent pays attention to who a particular journal anoints in a particular contests.
Doesn’t this happen when a person get published outside of a contest? Sure, to some degree, but contests can be a bigger attention draw than your average Fall issue.
So pay attention to which contests are more notable. A simple Google search can locate this information. That doesn’t mean these are the only ones to enter, just the ones you might aim for—now or one day.
But you shouldn’t approach submitting to these contests—whichever ones you enter—like you would the lottery: I hope my story gets picked! Sure, luck and chance are factors. However, unlike playing the lottery, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances at snagging a prize and seeing your work in print next to “WINNER.”
First, just like submitting work outside of a contest, you should consider the outlet: does your story fit with the type of story they usually embrace? If a journal/magazine tends to favor short, “quirky” works, your true-to-life serious drama might not be a good fit. So don’t submit just to help you feel accomplished for the day. As a writer, you’re likely to endure a ton of rejection—don’t add to this pile by aiming for an outlet that is likely to stop reading at page one because your story is a bad fit.
Second, since a number of contests announce the judge or judges, do your research. What type of story does this person write? If this writer likes strong women protagonists in urban settings, you might reconsider the story you have about a woman who is a weak country housewife who is a doormat for her husband. That doesn’t mean that a particular writer only likes what he or she writes but what you can learn is what type of fiction speaks to him or her, the type of story he or she thinks lends itself to being told by fiction. Chances are that this is the type of story he or she likes and would therefore be more likely to warm to (i.e. select for a short list of contest entries). This of course doesn’t mean a judge wouldn’t like something different than their own interests, but it does increase your odds of making a cut.
As long as you choose your contests wisely (and my fellow 5Writer Ron Hayes offers some good advice: http://bit.ly/1fx17PW), enter these. If you’re feeling like you’re work is above a “contest,” you should reconsider. I’ve been talking to a few friends lately, some of whom have a number of disparaging things to say about this seeming glut of competitions on TV, encompassing everything but writing: singing, design, cooking, dating, etc. These people (the contestants) think they can win their way to fame, the usual criticism suggests, as if with winning they would not have to work hard or that their success would somehow be tainted like Alex Rodriquez’ baseball career. If this is your thinking for competitions in general, this mentality should not apply to writing contests. A contest won’t make your career but it just might open the door to one. That’s their best function.