On my arduous and prolonged journey to a traditional book publishing contract (think ant lugging a Samsonite), I often turned to writing contests to keep me from utter despair, and from a fall-back career as a car wash sign twirler. As critical as contests were to my psychological well-being, they also became an avenue to other unforeseen opportunities.
Though I cannot claim a direct line of descent from contest to lucrative book contract, I can make the case that writing contests were instrumental in my eventual success as a writer. Contests can result in publication, publicity, a little swag and, most importantly, swagger — something, come to think of it, resolute writers and twirlers alike possess.
First and foremost, writing contests hold writers’ feet to the fire. Deadlines are powerful motivators, the Sword of Damocles suddenly hanging over our heads when, instead of writing, we’d rather have one more go at Minute Mahjongg. A contest can be a jolt of adrenaline if the desire to write flags, or stalls altogether. It can drive us back into the saddle, engaging in our craft, honing our skills, and maybe reclaiming the mojo that made us want to be writers in the first place.
And then there’s the wait-see…otherwise known as hope. As all writers know, hope is the opiate of our madness. Years or even decades may pass before a writer gets a break. A chance at a contest win, place, or show may mean the difference between hunkering down or bailing out. An actual win, no matter the size or import, is heady affirmation. Even better is how that initial success can set wheels in motion.
Most, but not all contests, offer a cash prize. That’s certainly incentivizing, but should never be the sole impetus to enter since many contests are winner take all, and the prize is rarely enough to cover even a single month’s rent. Imagine how many contests a writer would have to win in a single year to earn a living wage. A better reward is publication. At this point, writers begin to build a portfolio, and a reputation. The winning story, if contest rules allow, can be entered in other contests, which could lead to further exposure and gravitas. A case in point: In one twenty-four-hour contest, my story scored an honorable mention and a free ebook. I subsequently sent that same story to another contest, and it was named a top ten finalist. I was awarded a $25 gift card, publication on the host website, and an interview with an affiliated writers’ blog.
Those award-winning stories can find homes elsewhere, outside the contest stream. After a short story I entered in an online magazine was named a quarter-finalist, I self-published it as a Kindle eBook. It made a little money before being picked up for publication, and a $25 stipend, by a print-only literary journal. On the heels of that, the story had been short-listed in a chapbook contest, and was in contention for the finalist stage, if it were still available. It wasn’t, of course, but I felt like the catbird, or its seat, or some combination thereof.
Successful contest ventures entitle writers to bragging rights. They should be displayed on vitas, social media profiles, authors’ web pages, and in email signatures. My latest novel, which has found a traditional publisher, was originally a finalist in a respected competition. At the advice of an industry professional, I touted that achievement in the second sentence of every query letter I sent to agents. Two months later, I was offered representation and, not long after that, a book contract.
Contests are not the be-all and end-all of a successful writing career. But, they can be manna when the cupboard’s bare, a leg up to a window of opportunity, or that golden ticket to Hollywood. Oh, wait. That’s American Idol.
Denise Heinze’s second novel, The Brief and True Report of Temperance Flowerdew, will be launched September, 2020. Heinze’s publications include numerous short stories, creative non-fiction, articles, essays, book reviews, a scholarly book on Toni Morrison, and her first novel, a satirical eco-thriller, Sally St. Johns.
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