Reader Question: Writing Contests

New feature!  Recently, a few people have been contacting me with questions about various aspects of publishing or writing craft.  I’m well aware that there is no shortage of websites devoted to answering publishing questions (most of them written by people far smarter and more qualified than myself).  Still, I thought it might be worth adding my drop into the bucket from time to time.

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I was wondering how you feel about literary contests for unpublished authors that require and entry fee of $25- $50 with the promise of a rather large money prize and/or publication? I am having trouble finding contests that are free.
– Connie

This is an excellent question.  First off, I should warn you that my experience with contests is pretty much limited to the screenwriting world.  The short answer is that I’m a big believer in writing competitions.  They are an opportunity not only to possibly generate some interest from seemingly-unreachable gatekeepers but also to help young writers gain confidence and professionalize themselves.  After being forced to write a million plot summaries for my scripts (all of different length, of course), I started to get a good sense of how to pitch my story … and some of that insight even helped inform rewrites.  I finally did win some contests and fellowships, which helped finance my move out to Los Angeles.  Once here, the prize money afforded me the time to write scripts … which I then submitted to competitions.  Eventually, one of those scripts made “semi-finalist”  in a major competition.  There was no prize, but even placing was enough to attract the attention of managers.1

As to your entry fee question, I’d say it depends.  Reading and sorting thousands of entries is a huge endeavor, and I don’t begrudge the organizers for wanting to fund the operation.  The problems start when the exchange is less cut-and-dry.  I know a lot of fiction contests offer some kind publication as a prize.  In general I would say avoid contests that come with contractual obligation.  To my thinking, if you’re paying $30-$50 bucks to enter then the prize should be cash (and recognition) … otherwise it feels dangerously close to you paying a publisher to publish your book.  Still, I know fiction is a tough racket to break into, and taking a lowball publishing deal might be worth if for you if it means getting your foot through the door.

Screenwriter John August has a number of valuable posts on the subject of screenwriting contests.  On the fiction side, Nathan Bransford does a good job summing up the issue.  Poets & Writers magazine has a nice database of competitions and grants, and, of course, always check out Writer Beware’s section on contests before sending anyone money.  Hope that helps!

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In the coming weeks, I’ll try to post my responses to some other questions.  If you’ve got anything you want me to answer, feel free to send me an email by clicking on the adorable little envelope:

  1. I should say that while waiting to hear back from competitions, I was also writing new scripts and building relationships with people in TV and film — winning a contest got my manager to call, but it was this other work that made him willing to sign me.
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