Authors, start your engines

At one time I would never have thought of entering a contest for which I would have to pay an entry fee. What was the point of that? I thought. If you didn’t win, you were out money – and you could be out a lot of money.

Well, yes, if you take the scattershot approach to contests. Just as with markets, you have to look at contests for their fit with your work. Recently I found a contest for a first young adult novel. This is a fee-free contest with a cash prize and a publishing contract. (For those of you who are now salivating, find it here.)

I won’t be entering it, juicy as it sounds, because they want contemporary settings only. It would be a waste of time, postage and trees for me to enter. Am I downcast? No – there are lots of contests.

In my second year of serious short-fiction writing, I entered a contest run by Polar Expressions. My piece made it to the finals, but I didn’t win one of the three cash prizes. What I did “win” was publication in a hefty anthology, and the opportunity to buy it at the cover price of thirty dollars, with no GST or shipping. I bought a copy for my files, gritting my teeth and cussing as I did so.

I took the lesson; this was a cheap way to get an anthology filled, plus a whack of almost-guaranteed sales. Authors can hardly ever resist buying a publication in which their work is included, and they often buy copies for their parents and so on. After that, I came up with Elizabeth’s Rules for Contest Entry.

1 – Does it fit your work? Don’t even bother if it doesn’t.
2 – Are the fees reasonable in comparison to the prizes? Different people have different rules of thumb, but I think the prize should be at least five times the entry fee.
3 – Are you signing over permission to publish when you enter? See my experience. That story is now considered published – that means I can’t sell it to a paying market. Think twice.
4 – What are the timelines? When will the results be announced? Chances are your story will be out of circulation until the judging is over. Two months after the closing date for entries is a very reasonable timeline for short fiction.
5 – Do you get a complimentary copy? If part of the prize is publication in an anthology, do you get a copy along with your prize? As many anthologies pay about one cent a word, buying a copy can put you seriously in the hole.
6 – Finally, What else might you gain from this contest? Even if you don’t win, if you place well, people notice.
My flash fiction “Companion Animal” came in twelfth in a field of over eight hundred. You can bet that’s on my writing CV.
Maybe the contest judge is a literary agent; the contest entry is your chance to pitch. (Believe me, from what I’ve read about pitching and getting an agent’s attention, that’s worth having.)
When I paid my fee to do the Three-Day Novel contest, I knew that even if I didn’t win, I’d get my first draft done. That was worth it to me.

You’ll come up with your own rules; these are mine. Contests can play a significant part in a writing career, and even boost your income. Just choose them carefully.

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