Friday, November 23, 2012

Literary Contests, For and Against

There are many reasons to enter literary contests, and at least as many reasons not to.
Hundreds of literary awards exist, and many thousands of writers apply for them. Sometimes it seems as though the odds are so much against winning (the number of entries exceeds 1,000 for many first-book awards in the U.S.A., for instance) that it doesn’t seem worth it to enter contests. There have also been many instances in the United States where a prize goes to someone personally connected with the judge. Not to mention that contests can become a distraction from the real business of creating literature that is meaningful and reaches people. I can sympathize with those who refrain from participating in literary contests for those reasons, and personally, I hardly ever enter literary contests.
On the other hand, I know about fifteen writers who have won a prize in the United States that involves publication of a book, and in no case did the writer know the judge. Often the prizes in the U.S. include a cash advance and/or a reading or series of readings. The Poets Out Loud Prize from Fordham University Press, for instance, is given each year by the press to two poets. The writers get the winning manuscripts published as books, a cash advance of $1,000 each, and a reading in New York City in the Poets Out Loud series at Lincoln Center. The contest entry fee amounts to $28.
A prize that involves book publications comes with publicity and a chance to reach a larger audience—not to mention cash. All that is good for a writer, particularly a writer trying to launch a career. It’s also a good exercise to assemble a manuscript for a contest—the stakes are high enough that a writer has to take seriously the task of polishing and arranging a manuscript, a good thing whether you win or lose the contest.
So what’s the downside? I think a writer can become obsessed with trying to win awards, and spend precious time and money researching and entering endless contests. Even worse is the emotional energy writers expend thinking about prizes they do not win. 
Newer writers often waste resources entering contests at a stage when they don’t yet have a manuscript that is really competitive. Before you plunk down $25 for a contest entry fee, make sure that your manuscript measures up to the work of recent winners for that prize. If you book consists of poetry or short stories, at least a third of the work should be published in various literary journals before you enter a book publication contest, and preferably more than half of the work should already be published in magazines. The manuscript should be carefully copyedited for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
What sorts of books win prizes? In the U.S., contest-winning manuscripts usually have a very consistent style, format, and theme. Some good books fit into that category, but some definitely do not. For books that are more eclectic and varied, it seems to me unwise to enter them in contests. A commercial or small-press publisher might have a more open-minded approach and be more likely to accept a manuscript of that sort.
If the contest sponsor makes public the name or names of the judge(s) in advance of the contest deadline, I would research that before entering. Judges, like anyone, have preferences. It’s not worth entering a contest when the judge’s aesthetic conflicts with your own.
For a good listing online of literary contests in the U.S., consult the website of Poets & WritersTheir listing has the advantage of being organized as a calendar, by deadline date for contest entry. It’s also cross-listed under the name of the contest sponsor.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

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