YOU CAN'T WIN IF YOU DON'T PLAY
On days when the Muse is off duty and you'd swear the chances of coming up with a viable story idea equal the odds of winning the multi-million dollar lottery, contests are the perfect way to prime the pump. Instead of agonizing over how to fill that blank page or computer screen, you'll start with the spark of somebody else's basic idea. You (and your readers) may be amazed to see where you wind up.
Don't hit "send" on your computer or reach for postage stamps when you finish writing the sure-to-win-the-prize entry. Set it aside and reach for the contest rules. Little things count. Do the rules specify a particular font and type size? Should your name appear on the manuscript or only on the cover sheet? Are there other format requirements that differ from standard manuscript preparation? If submitting via computer, do the judges want the entry copied/pasted into the body of the e-mail or submitted as a particular type of file (rich text format, MSWord, etc.)? What should appear on the subject line to keep your priceless brainchild from getting eaten by a spam filter?
One small mistake could result in all your hard work never making it to the judge's desk.
Here are some examples of my experiences with contests and links in case you'd like to compete.
The First Line (http://thefirstline.com) provides the first line of a story four times a year. Some of the prompts allow writers to fill in the blanks left in a sentence. Other sentences must be used exactly as written to start stories ranging from 300-3,000 words. Early birds can submit a multi-part story using all four sentences by the Feb. 1st Spring deadline. Winners are paid and published. After the issue is published, authors are free to submit non-winning stories elsewhere. Full submission details are available at the website. I haven't won here, but I have sold my "losers" elsewhere.
The Fiction Flyer (subscribe for free by clicking on http://www.tri-studio.com) runs regular contests for flash fiction based on prompts. My story, "Phillip's Phobias," won First Place in a recent competition with the prompt, "Write a story in which the main character suffers from a phobia. Your story can be funny, sad, weird (not too weird), or whimsical. Let your imagination soar!"
Words aren't the only prompt provided. Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine awards $25 to the best mystery story (250 words or less) based on a photograph. This contest presents the special challenge of telling a full crime story in very few words. Some writers have been published for the first time in this hard to crack market by winning the Mysterious Photograph contest. One of my stories received Honorable Mention status here.
Another of my stories, "My Grandfather Needs a New Heart" inspired by Jim Dine's painting, Putney Winter Heart 8, was one of the winners in the Delaware Art Museum competition, The Art of Storytelling. Contestants wrote stories based on a group of paintings, sculptures, and other works of art. This isn't an ongoing competition, but you can listen to podcasts of winning entries and view the artworks at http://storytelling.whatscookin.com/winners.
Here are a few places to hunt for contests:
http://ralan.com (primarily science fiction and fantasy – fee and no fee)
http://www.fundsforwriters.com/FFW.htm (all genres - fee and no fee)
http://www.fundsforwriters.com/smallmarkets.htm (all genres - fee and no fee)
Even though you start with a contest prompt instead of an original idea, the story you write will be as unique as your fingerprint. You don't even have to enter the competition to feel like a winner. Completing the story means declaring victory over Writer's Block and confidently moving on to other projects. Still, who can resist the challenge of seeing how that finished piece compares to other writers' work?
Before deciding to enter any competition, make sure the contest passes the due diligence test. Does the sponsoring entity publish on a regular basis and pay for non-contest submissions? Beware of print and online venues that seemingly exist solely to sponsor contests. If there's an entry fee, do you receive something tangible in return? Do you get a critique from a well-respected professional writer or editor? Does the contest fee include a subscription to a paying market you would submit to even if there were no contest? Does the entry fee seem high compared to the prizes offered? Avoid contests that charge $25 entry fees and award a grand prize of $100. Beware of the potential hidden costs of no fee contests. Some publish all entries online for readers to vote on. That simple action takes away your opportunity to sell first rights. Read the fine print carefully. Some contests reserve the right to publish non-winning entries without any monetary compensation to the authors.
There are no losers in legitimate writing contests. Even if you don't take home one of the big prizes or make the finalists' list, competing helps you stretch your imagination and beat writer's block. With a bit of revision, your entry might be recycled into a published story for a paying market.
Don't wait for writer's block to strike. When you do your market research, be sure to investigate contests too. The Arizona Lottery slogan applies to writing contests too. You can't win if you don't play!
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