The Pros & Cons of Writing Contests, With Apologies to Stuart Smalley

It’s tax time, time to give my accountant a list of expenses incurred in connection with my so-far-not-profitable business as a writer. One category of deductions is entry fees for writing contests, and I’ve been pondering the deep question of whether writing contests are worth the money and aggravation they entail. If I look just at the money, dollars spent entering (several) and dollars won (a few), contests probably aren’t worth it. But if I consider the money I spend entering contests to be similar to the money I might budget for a trip to Vegas or Atlantic City, it makes sense to keep entering–I know I’m going to lose the money itself, but what I’m purchasing is the hours of entertainment I’ll get from playing the slot machines and black jack tables.
Here are some of the things writing contests have done for me, besides every decade or so earning me some money. I’ve had four short stories published as a result of contests. I’ve made the finals or semi-finals in some novel contests that I could brag about in the query letter I send to agents. I’ve gotten my name in the paper, which marketing experts say is a good thing for budding writers to try to do. Perhaps most importantly, placing in a contest, even if I don’t win the grand prize, is validation that I’m producing good work, and that I shouldn’t give up–that I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.
Recently, my novel, Solace Fork, made the quarter-finals (top 500) of the Breakthrough Novel contest. I’ve heard people criticize this contest for being too much like American Idol and for trying to channel wannabe authors toward Amazon’s print-on-demand division, but I think it’s a good contest. For one thing, it was free to enter. Also, quarterfinalists got two “editorial reviews” of their work from people who review lots of books for Amazon, and mine were generally positive, so that was a nice perk. And whether I proceed any further, I get a review by Publisher’s Weekly, which I assume I can put on the back of my book cover if I end up self-publishing, with ellipses replacing any unflattering parts. So I’m happy. And if I do proceed to the semi-finals (top 100), it will be one more thing I can put in my agent query letter.
I’m talking to the members of the Flatiron Writers about our group sponsoring a short fiction contest, with an actual monetary prize. We have to work out the particulars, like, how many stories can we realistically read, what kind of prize can we afford to offer, what “celebrity” writer can we convince to be the final judge, and things like that, but I think it would be great. Keep watching our website for details. You may be our winner.
Copyright 2009 by Heather Newton

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