Updated: May 13, 2020
I like to learn the hard way, sink or swim, by jumping in with both feet. Okay, maybe I'm a glutton for punishment, but it's a hard and fast way to learn. When starting out, I took part in seven separate writing competitions in my first six months, most of which had a fee. After that eye-opening experience, I researched another fifty-odd writing contests and markets. I learned a lot in a very short time.
First off, writing competitions are everywhere. Every day I see another anthology, award, contest, or publication advertised online; the writing community's appetite for which seems endless. That makes it both easier to apply and harder to place since there's, well, more competition! Applying for and taking part in competitions takes a lot of time and/or money, both of which are in short supply for most writers. So, reap the benefits of my experience and read on: my advice is free.
1. Pay What You Can Afford to Lose
Along with a ton of competition, pulling a judge who likes what you've got is as uncertain as humanity's future. It's a subjective world out there: One big grey sky masking a horizon of judges' likes, dislikes, biases, and prejudices. Fair? Maybe not. But that's life, baby, and that goes quintuple for writers.
Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way; but then, if you recall, I am a glutton for punishment. What was I getting at? Right: Odds are you'll lose your money without any return, monetary or (ugh) spiritual. Keep that in mind when signing up for a competition. How much is the experience itself worth to you? Are there any benefits for those who don't place?
Assume you aren't going to win anything, then decide.
2. Manage Your Expectations
It's a horrific no-one's-land out there scattered with the corpses of a million authorial ambitions. There are just too many writers streaming over that contested patch of muck. Many write better than us. Others are well connected. Some are plain lucky. No story, strategy or plan can account for the morning a reviewer has already read two similar stories and just found out that their cat died.
Once you've thrown down and entered the ring--particularly when you've paid for the privilege--you get sucked in: it's human nature. Most of us start out nonchalant but the closer that deadline looms, the more you feel like you can win; are going to win! But like any lottery, the odds are never in your favour. So tuck away that mockingjay pin and braid your hair because . . . well, you get the reference.
It's hard to hear, but its the truth. The most successfully prolific of my writer friends are those who compete almost robotically. Enter, write, mourn the loss, edit, submit ad nauseam until the story finds a home. Because they compete and submit so regularly they have a ton of stories and many find a home. Those that don't get picked up are retired but often revived later. Their secret? They've managed their expectations. They're playing the brutal game we're obliged to fight in the writing arena.
3. Read About It
Not all competitions are created equal and not all of them are a good fit for you. Sometimes you won't realize this until after the judging process; you know, when you read the winning stories and find out what the judges were actually looking for!
Me: Bitter? No-ho-ho! 😅
Submitting to competitions can be a drag. You need to read their rules thoroughly, reformat existing stories, make sure you've included all the little bits they call for or face elimination on a technicality. Does your style fit the competition? Does your preferred genre?
Before going through all the necessary rigmarole, make sure the competition is a good fit. Browse the site and read prior winning stories, because the tone of a call out or nature of the writing prompts might be misleading. Some might scream "fun and frivolous" but the judges actually want literary drama.
Don't waste your time and certainly don't waste your money!
4. Know Your Rights
Remember that horde of writers charging over the crater-strewn field, cash in hand? Most are shouting, "Read me, publish me--for the love of God, tell me I'm good!" I know because I'm one of them. Sadly, where there are desperate people, there are morally ambiguous flimflammers waiting to take their money.
That means there are an awful lot of sharks--wrong metaphor--hostiles in literary no-one's-land: Enemies who want your money, story and every right they can think of. Read their Terms and Conditions before clicking that checkbox and submitting your piece. If you can't find them, ask. If they won't give them, run!
One final note: Many writers just want their stories published, not caring for remuneration even if a market makes money off their story. I get it, I totally do. Just know what you're giving away. Some of those stories are really, really good.
5. Never Give Up, Never Surrender!
Easier said than done, right? I like to think that's kind of the point. Unless we're very talented AND lucky (right time, right place, yada yada), we're going to need to claw our way over those ambition-corpses and through the barbed wire--and I understand that's just to get to second reading!
(But) If we're diligent, open to constructive criticism, able to self-assess, and willing to mercilessly edit our work, our odds of eventually placing, getting an honourable mention or winning actual money can only go up. I've seen a lot of my colleagues make it, beta'd many a story that placed or won and thought, as one does, that my work is at least as good and helped them earn that win. Honestly, I think that's the secret.
It's going to be a long, hard fight. Pace yourself and use your resources wisely. Do your research, only pay for opportunities you have a shot at winning, be your harshest critic and biggest supporter all at once. But more than anything else: try to carry on.
The world needs more good writers, some of whom just made it over the wire.
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