Saturday, May 4, 2013

Writing Contests: "A" or "E"

In specific reading genres writing contests abound. For the budding author the question may boil down to whether or not entering a specific contest is worthwhile or desireable. For this post that underlies the title: Writing Contests: "A" or "E," which has nothing to do with a grading system.

The "A" and "E" are vowel choices to go with the three consonants "P R _ Y."

Thus, with regard to writing contests are you faced with the prospect of  wanting or having to "pray" for a winning entry, or are you the "prey" for the contest's sponsors?

It's no doubt that contests try to sugar coat the benefits of entering. It's almost like the hoopla that surrounds million dollar giveaways. While the giveaways say you don't have to order to be a winner, that may be true for the initial contest, but, if you order, don't you keep receiving entries for future contests that a non-ordering person might not receive.

There are many writing contests. Romance Writers of America (RWA) sponsor two well-publicized contests, one for published works and the second for unpublished manuscripts. Mystery Writers of America sponsor awards that are primarily focused on already published works.  Literary magazines such as Nimrod and crazyhorse (Lower case is title of publication.) award prizes to unpublished short fiction. The difference the latter two have is that payment of the entry fee gives the entrant copies of the respective literary publications, at least for a year.

Paying a contest entry fee that comes with a subscription does seem more than fair. It provides the entrant with knowledge of and the ability to read and dissect the winning entries. And, intellectually compare the winners with one's personal entry without potential embarrassment.

Entering an unpublished manuscript to other venues brings forth other issues. If you've written a romance novel and don't wish to enter the national RWA contest because you believe it is not so much an organization as it is a company trying to make a profit, there are multiple romance chapters within the United States that run annual contests to make money. Yes, they may not say so explicitly, but ask the RWA whether or not they encourage chapters to run contests to support themselves and their websites and keep member dues low. In a moment of candor, the truth will come out. There is no doubt the RWA encourages chapters to run contests for entries are often given a discount for being an RWA member and some chapters mandate RWA membership for entries to be acceptable. Thus, the RWA has its own self-interest at heart.

But, whether or not that is so, what impact does this all have on the entrant deciding whether or not to enter an unpublished manuscript? The following could apply to any organization wishing to charge entry fees for unpublished manuscripts.

The chapters, populated by unpaid volunteers deserving credit for following their passion, run and obtain the judges for the unpublished manuscripts. The judges, even in a blind contest, may or may not be industry qualified. If you read the fine print, the contests say that the judges are "trained" and/or "published." Being either is not the sine qua non for possessing the requisite innate quality or acquired qualifications to judge writing or storytelling. From personal experience, after receiving the critique of judges the suggestions were implemented and the stories submitted the next year with the judge's changes. The score on one was lower and the comment was made that the writer seemed to have English as a second language. The other scores were no higher and the writing criticized for craftsmanship that had passed mustard the prior year. I took advantage of sending word of this to the judges (unidentified to me) via the contest coordinator. Guess what happened the next year?

From another contest I got scribbled comments from a judge willing to at least be honest when he or she said that he or she didn't like to read the category of the entry then being called upon to judge. Wow, you might say. If your first thought is how does this judge know what is of quality in this genre if they don't read it, welcome to the club that now has at least two members.

The preceding comment brings to light what should be obvious. The judges, being within the same chapter as the contest, know each other and are, more than likely, in the same critique groups. Even without names on the manuscripts, surely the judges can determine who wrote what.

Do entrants know these internal chapter dynamics?  Of course, not. That's information not provided outside the contest's inner circle.  Also secret is the number of entries. Is one given the criteria for judge selection. Most likely, not. Are you given information as to what book the judge authored? Likely, not. In some contests you are given a scorecard. If you check the scorecard criteria or divisions, you'll find they are very subjective. As in writing and an individual's reading preference, there's no dispute in this quarter that subjectivity is always present.

The bottom line may be whether or not winning a specific contest leads to greater glory. If the recent news is to be believed, the answer is no. New York publishers look for ways to make money (And, isn't that the same goal as the manuscript contests?) and they recently have been seeking out those
authors who've either gathered thousands of readers or sold their manuscripts by offering them online or through e-books channels.

Yes, this new technology seems to be the way of the future. As each day goes by, the glitter of boosting one to success via a writing contest seems to pale. You may disagree and find that entering a contest is a reasonable substitute for not having to or being able to adhere to your own writing deadline or going out and creating your own critique group. No one can tell you what value there is in your money. That's right and fair. Being in a writing contest winner's circle can be a great rush and this writer has had first hand experience.

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