Once, on a job interview, one of the questions posed this dilemma: I was faced with three crises at once. How would I set priorities to address each one to avoid a disaster? I must have answered well enough because I got the job.
Something like that happened last week in my writing life. A notice about a contest dropped into my email inbox. But, the deadline was two days away! This contest has been around for several years, yet for some reason, I had never been aware of it before. I had a few things in inventory that might be suitable. But, my blog was due the next day, I had scheduled a meeting with my critique partner to work on another story with a pressing deadline, and I had a dentist appointment in the afternoon. On top of that, my blog host had just introduced a new editing interface, which I was sure would entail a learning curve. So, would I really have time to tweak, reformat or whatever else was necessary to get the contest entry ready? Should I even try?
For some people, writers who have more irons in the fire, or writers with family or work obligations, this may not seem like all that much to deal with. But it still required some planning and decision-making. My first response is always to panic. Luckily, I know from experience that this phase will pass. My second response is to take a shower. It’s a well-known, but somewhat mysterious, fact that shower time generates ideas.
I came up with a plan. The contest had both fiction and poetry components. I would enter only the fiction division. Those stories were already in better shape than the poems I had in mind to enter. I had an earlier draft of a blog post that I could finish up, so I had a head start on that. Reviewing the story for my critique meeting could be done while waiting in the dentist’s office.
I was all set to go when suddenly I got an email telling me the contest deadline had been postponed for 5 days. The new blog editing page was easier than I had expected. It was all a welcome reprieve and allowed me time to prepare and send off the poems, as well as the stories to the contest. The blog post went up on time and when I reviewed the other story I was working on, I saw it was in better shape than I had remembered.
There’s no telling if any of it will pay off. I only know that I felt like a winner. Until next time.
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I belong to several online writers’ groups. One discussion that keeps recurring is: Should you pay to enter a writing contest? I’m not talking about the obvious scams or “contests” that are no more than money makers for the “sponsors” or ways to build email lists or sell books. (Writer Beware, a site maintained by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America has an excellent article about how to spot the scams. The same article also has good information and advice about all contests, bogus or genuine.)
The answer to the question of whether to pay to enter contests is easy for some writers—no, never, ever. For me, it’s on a case by case basis. Is the contest sponsored by a journal or entity I respect? Do the entry fees seem reasonable, i.e., enough to pay the judges an honorarium, plus enough to pay out the cash awards, if any? Is there some other guaranteed benefit that comes with payment, even if one is not a winner? These range from critiques or comments from judges, editors or successful writers in the field, to a subscription to the sponsoring journal or other perks. If there is no prize money, do you get a certificate, plaque, or other recognition? One of my favorite potential rewards is being included in a print anthology made up of the winning entries, even if there is little or no cash prize. There will be a greater number of winners, improving my chances, and I’ll have something to add to my shelf of published works.
Then I think about the downside. Some contests require exclusivity until the awards are announced. This means my work is tied up in the event I see another, perhaps better market. Some contests allow you to withdraw. I’d opt for the flexibility. Will developing my entry distract me from other writing actions that would be more helpful to my writing vision? Then there is the investment in time, energy and focus. Each contest has its own rules for length (will I need to cut, or add, words?), formatting and method of submission. That means that every time I enter a new contest, all that work has to be re-done. That effort is no different from answering any other call for submissions. Perhaps I’d be better off going that route.
So, there are really two questions: should you enter writing contests at all? And if so, should you enter those that require an entry fee? I have and will continue to go the contest route, at least for now, including ones for which I pay for the privilege. I have no advice for others, except to educate yourself, focus on your goals and stick to actions that foster those goals. Then, I believe, you win every day.
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