Last week I got an email letting me know that the winner of the Compass Rose Flash Fiction Competition had been chosen and it wasn’t me. I was, however, named as a finalist, and while that doesn’t get my story in print or earn me any money, it does validate my belief that the story is a good one, and just needs to find the right home.
When I first started sending out my work, I unrealistically entered competition after competition. Prestigious ones. You know, Iowa Review and the big boys. Competitions that normally have thousands of entries, from thousands of seasoned writers. I didn’t know any better. I figured my odds were as good as anyone else’s.
They weren’t. I had no idea what those competitions were looking for. Had no idea just how bad my odds were. So I optimistically sent in my stories with $15 and $20 checks, and then waited until inevitably I got the letter or email saying thanks for entering, we had lots of great entries this year, sorry yours wasn’t one of them (not really, but that’s what it felt like). Basically I was contributing to the prize funds for other writers, writers who actually did know what they were doing.
These days, I’m much more educated, and more selective, about entering fiction competitions. There are a few criteria I use to determine whether or not sending in an entry is worth my time and money. (This assumes, naturally, that the story is competition ready.)
1) Is the competition on the up-and-up? Scams are all over the internet, taking advantage of naïve writers who just want to see their work in print. Do your research. Poets & Writers is a great place for this – they have a whole section on their website for legitimate competitions and their deadlines.
2) Is this a competition that’s worth winning? What makes it worth winning? Adulation, money, publication in a great journal? A win in the Joe Blow Write Like a Pro Competition does not do much for your CV.
3) Do you have a chance in hell of winning? Is this a competition that will attract thousands of entries, including those from already frequently published writers? Look for competitions that offer the best odds, like those for emerging writers. Choose respected journals, but maybe not the holy grail of journals, like Missouri Review, at least not at first.
4) How much is the entry fee and how much is the prize fund? Is the pay-off great enough for the risk? Run the other way if you see an entry fee of $15 or $20 for a $100 first prize. This is a money making scheme, and it won’t be you who’s making the money. On the other hand, $2000 and $3000 prizes are hard to win. Competition is fierce, and the number of entries large, especially if the entry fee is low. Look at it like a business. If they’re only charging $5, but the prize fund is $3000, they have to assume they’ll get a lot of entries to cover prizes and make some money for their magazine. That, my friends, is the primary purpose of competitions.
5) What are previous winning stories like? If you write straight, simple narrative, but the past two or three winners of a competition are experimental and edgy, then that’s probably not the competition for you. Once again, do your homework.
I would recommend you start with small competitions and work your way up. Enter local contests. One of my first publications was as winner of an annual short story contest run by The HooK, a weekly newspaper in Charlottesville, VA. I walked away with a nice check and a publication credit, and was a minor celebrity in my circle of friends for a few weeks.
So, make sure the story is as good as it can be, do your research, and choose competitions with the best odds. And know that even if you don’t win, just entering does some very positive things for your writing. You’re much more likely to revise and revise again if it costs you money to submit. You spend time researching journals and past winners, which will give you a better idea of what they’re looking for when you choose to submit to them again. You learn to carefully follow submission guidelines and to take deadlines seriously. And most importantly, you’re sending your stories out into the world, believing in them. Which, in the end, is what every serious writer has to do.