Literary contests can bring money and publication, but their intangible rewards may be just as important
Published: April 1, 2005
|Every writer-with apologies to John Donne-sometimes is an island. Writers nearly always work alone, and most wouldn't have it any other way. There are drawbacks to this solitude, however, and chief among them is that it's difficult to get feedback-especially if a writer hasn't yet published anything, or hasn't published in the genre he or she prefers. One solution? Enter a contest. They may not all offer big cash prizes, but they sometimes offer other types of benefits, such as representation, publication or residency.|
But are these benefits worth it? We interviewed five writers about their literary-contest experiences and victories, and found (no surprise) that the cash and credits were extremely welcome. The affirmation of colleagues that resulted from a win, however, was mentioned just as often and frequently at more length than the prizes themselves.
Whether novelist or memoirist, playwright or poet, contest success means the winning writer is, for some period of time, lifted out of artistic solitude, brought into the artistic community and given some form of acceptance. Acceptance that he or she has paid the dues, learned the ropes, done the time, walked the walk-all of those musty yet sturdy cliches we use to signify effort and determination.
One of the toughest things about being an artist is that only you know precisely what's gone into your work. Perhaps you wrote something quickly, but distilled into it a pure emotion. Perhaps you struggled over every line of a story, yet knew that every moment was worthwhile when you read over the finished piece. And, just maybe, another writing experience was pure delight from start to finish. Or, all three of these things and more could be true. The fact is, winning a contest means that no matter what your experience has been, it has been recognized.
Of course, not every writer can win a contest. Our winning writers all have different perspectives on the value of entering and how to enter. What they agree on is that they're glad they took the time and trouble to get their work out there in front of judges. After you read about their experiences, perhaps you'll be inspired to do the same.
The Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society annual writing contest
Lynn's first novel, Now You See It, was published in 2004 by Touchstone Books and also won the Chapter One Award from the Bronx Writers Center.
Describe contest  was the first year they had a novel-in-progress category, and on the advice of a grad school friend I sent the first 50 pages of my manuscript. It was the first time I'd sent anything from that manuscript out-so it was really a thrill to win. The prize came with money as well as a trip to New Orleans for the society's annual literary festival and awards party.
Soon after hearing I'd won the Faulkner, I got a call from the Bronx Council on the Arts, telling me I'd won their Chapter One Award. (I'd submitted the first chapter of my manuscript to them soon after submitting to the Faulkner). That award also came with money, and a reading at the Knightsbridge Library in the Bronx.
Background Before turning to fiction, I'd worked as an entertainment journalist for six years, writing about fashion, TV and film for a number of publications, including People magazine and Harper's Bazaar. But my heart was always in fiction, so in '97 I went back to grad school, at NYU, to get my MFA. I've been mostly writing fiction since then, though mixing in quite a bit of freelance and occasional teaching to help make ends meet.
How many contests attempted I think I entered three contests with the manuscript for [Now You See It] and won two of them. But I'd previously entered short stories in numerous contests and never even got an honorable mention. So, I felt as if I was sending the novel entries into a void, and it was a real validation to win, and find out I wasn't.
Benefits of winning The immediate benefit was financial, of course-every little bit of cash helps as you're trying to make time to write fiction. But there was a huge emotional component to winning novel-in-progress prizes. I'd spent two years on the novel before I won these two prizes, and it was two years of largely working in a vacuum. So to have someone say, amid all that, "Don't worry, you're not wasting your time, we see some real value in your work"-it's a huge confidence booster and really gave me the energy for the book's final push.
All of the publicity materials for the book mentioned my Faulkner win, and I think it really catches people's eye that, hey, in some way this book has been pre-approved. Most exciting, for me, was that Julia Glass-herself a former Faulkner winner (in the novella category, for the first third of what became Three Junes) -read my galley, gave me a blurb, and even came to my book party!
It's hard to quantify exactly how the awards have affected my career-perhaps I would have ended up with exactly the same publisher and sold exactly the same number of books, who knows?-but emotionally the awards provided a real comfort that I was following the right path.
Advice I honestly feel lucky to have won. It's a game of chance-they get so many entries, and each judge's taste is different, so there's no way to predict who will win any given contest. It's important not to beat yourself up if you send dozens of entries out and don't even get a bite. The next one, or the one after that, may fall in the hands of the judge who finally has the right sensibility to connect with your work. It's really a matter of stamina and luck. And having a lot of envelopes and stamps on hand.
New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship
Bakhtiar is completing her first novel.
Describe contest I won a NYFA fellowship in fiction in March 2004, an award of $7,000. As part of my fellowship responsibilities, I am expected to do some literary-related community service. I am presently teaching a 10-week fiction-writing course at The International Center in New York, which is a nonprofit organization geared toward helping new immigrants to this country. I am working as a lawyer now but I would definitely like to eventually become a teacher.
Background I have been writing poetry ever since I was a very young child and have always been a voracious reader. I studied comparative literature and philosophy in college, and wrote poetry and worked as an associate editor for the college literary magazine.
I went on to law school afterward because law, at that time, seemed fascinating to me. I enjoyed law school, but I knew when I finished that I wanted to become a writer. I took a job as an attorney and started writing in my spare time. I wrote stories, rhyming children's books, two children's novels, poems, etc. I worked as a lawyer and then I worked for a while in magazines as a fact-checker and wrote some journalistic pieces for Web sites and magazines. Eventually, I went back to law because I was offered a part-time job as a lawyer that paid pretty well, allowing me to pay my rent while having more free time to write.
How many contests attempted Every once in a while, over the past five years, I would send a short story in to a short-story contest. I would apply to four or five contests a year, and I never won any one of them. NYFA was the first writing prize I won for fiction. I remember when I got the envelope in the mail. I was absolutely shocked. I ran inside to show my mother, and when she looked at the letter, she burst into tears, squeezed my cheeks with her hand and said "I'm so proud of my daughter" in her thick accent. (I am the eldest daughter of immigrants-my mother is Colombian, a social worker, and my father is Iranian, a surgeon.)
Benefits of winning It gave me a big boost of confidence and resulted in my attracting the attention of several agents. I am so used to working in a vacuum, to writing and sending things out and getting rejections in the mail. Now I have agents writing me.
One agent in particular sent me a letter saying she had read my work (I believe someone from NYFA showed her a sample) and wanted to see what I was working on. This was thrilling. I sent her half of my novel and she read it and said she liked it a lot and wanted to see the entire novel when it was finished. This gave me an extra edge in finishing my novel because I knew someone was going to be reading it when it was finished. I have finished it now and am in the rewriting stage. Also, the prize brought me into the organization of NYFA. I love teaching at the International Center.
Advice Keep writing and keep applying to contests. You never know when you will succeed. The more you write, the more your writing improves over time. This was the first fiction piece I ever won an award for and, in my opinion, it was also my best work to date. It was much better than the stories I was writing three or four years ago and sending out to literary contests.
The Hennessy Cognac/Sunday Tribune Literary Award
Traynor's debut novel, The Myth of Exile and Return, was published in 2004. He has won numerous awards and fellowships in his native Ireland.
Describe contest The winner is selected from six stories that appear in the Best Emerging Fiction category in the New Irish Writing page of The Sunday Tribune [in Dublin]. I got [about $130] for publication, and [about $260] for the award.
Background I was born in Dublin, and hold BA and MA degrees from University College, Dublin. I've lived and worked, in various guises, in Holland, America, Italy, England and Spain. Now based back in Dublin, I write about books, film, theater, music and travel for many Irish and international publications, including The Irish Times, The Sunday Independent, the Irish Studies Review and many others, and also broadcast film reviews on RTE Radio and theater reviews on Anna Livia Radio.
My short stories have appeared in anthologies, and I recently completed the [master of philosophy degree] in creative writing at Trinity College, Dublin. (I won the Alumnus Award for best critical essay, and have also had other academic papers published.) More stories and another novel are on the way.
How many contests attempted None, although [the winning story] had been rejected by a couple of magazines.
Benefits of winning It is a prestigious award in Ireland, and many writers who have gone on to greater things have either won or been nominated for it. By the same token, some have never been heard of since.
Advice It's difficult to generalize, because of the specifics of each and every competition, except to say that most of them, from the grandest to the most humble, are just lotteries. Who are the judges, how many of them are there, what kind of thing do they like, which one is the most powerful, will it be a committee decision (in other words a compromise, and not really any one judge's first choice) etc., etc., etc.
The Hemingway Award for a First Novel
Murphy's books include The Hope Valley Hubcap King, The Finished Man and his latest novel, The Time of New Weather.
Describe contest I won the award in 1999; it doesn't exist any longer. I almost didn't want to enter because of the $45 fee; I really balked at that because it was the highest of any of the contests I was entering, and it was a lot of money for me at the time. The award was for $5,000 and included a year of representation by an agent. As it happened, that agent-Peter Rubie-and I really got on, and he still represents me. But the first book we worked on together wasn't my novel; we both decided it needed a rewrite. Instead, we worked on One Bird, One Stone: 100 American Zen Stories.
Background In 1986, I went on a long, cross-country global-disarmament walk and tried to write a book about it, but even after several attempts found I couldn't write a nonfiction book on that subject. Eventually, when I gave up, the ideas starting coming to the surface-and that became the book that won the Hemingway contest, The Hope Valley Hubcap King. I got my MFA in creative writing from The Naropa Institute and lead writing workshops (some with Natalie Goldberg), in addition to teaching writing and literature at the University of New Mexico at Taos.
How many contests attempted I placed in four contests before winning this one-a third place in 1998 for the Green River Writers Award; a semifinal place in the 1998 Dana Awards; and placed two years in the Chesterfield Writers Film Project fellowship for segments of the novel. I'm not a naturally disciplined person, and to track several dozen contests wasn't natural for me, but I pushed myself through the process of entering lots and lots of contests systematically because I felt that was the best way to give myself a chance.
Benefits of winning Well, it was a great thing for me because I got a great agent-and sold a book I hadn't written yet to him! My relationship with Peter has worked out well, but even if the award hadn't included representation, I think winning a good award helps to get you to the next stage regardless: The contest acts like a filter, or a funnel, and agents rely on them.
Advice Contests are such a good shortcut for people; it sure beats having to look for agents and people who will read your work! In comparison to that, it's fairly easy to enter contests. If you enter systematically and get no responses, then that's important information. If your work is strong and you enter systematically, you'll get results. Unless, of course, you're so far ahead of your time that nobody understands you!
Southern Playwrights Competition, Jacksonville State University, Alabama
McGranaghan's coming-of-age drama Blood of the Bear was produced off-off-Broadway in 2004. She teaches drama at The Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.
Describe contest There's a $1,000 purse, but the main prize is that they choose one play which they produce in their following year's season. The competition is open to the entire South, from Virginia to Texas and everything in between, and your play has to be both unpublished and unproduced.
Background I've been a poet and playwright since my Carnegie-Mellon degree, which combined a humanities track with a fine arts track; I received my MFA in fiction writing from Trinity College in Dublin and published stories in college newspapers and in the Trinity anthology Dogs Shot From Cannons. Blood of the Bear is my first "published" play. I previously taught at Duquesne University.
How many contests attempted I entered Blood of the Bear in the Marc A. Klein playwriting contest before entering the Southern Playwrights Competition, but that was all. I was really looking for a contest that would include production, because the chance to see your play on its feet, and to see how it works and to meet all of the other people involved-that was the real "win" to me.
Benefits of winning I did a big mailing to contacts after the win, and that resulted in my getting the play produced off-off-Broadway in the summer of 2004. The publicity helps to build your resume, bit by bit, and every little bit helps your career.
Advice Everyone who wants to enter playwriting competitions should check out Dramatists Sourcebook for contests. It's good to get out there and to get people reading your play; that's one thing about submitting-you're assured of at least a read. Once you've gotten production, too, the exposure you receive will take you on to the next step. #
Bethanne Kelly Patrick
While she has never won a literary award, Bethanne Kelly Patrick considers being able to write frequently about authors, books and publishing a great reward. She lives in Arlington, Va.