The bridesmaid, dressed in peach chiffon with a giant bow on the back of her gown, is not the one everyone in the room is gawking at. The groom smiles at his bride; the wedding guests snap photos of the bride. The bridesmaid is sitting off to the side sipping a bit too much champagne wishing it was her special day. That’s how it feels in the literary contest world to be in the place of runner up, honorable mention, or a finalist: almost, but not quite. For about seven years I’ve been submitting to literary contests. I’m tired of being the bridesmaid. I want a big silver or gold sticker on the front of my book like UAA Professor Linda McCarriston has on the cover of Eva Mary. I want to be a prize winner like Derick Burleson, Anne Caston, and Ernestine Hayes.
For me, the problem always was money; literary contests fees are expensive. I started sending stuff out when my husband and I were both poor-starving-college-students. I spent a couple hundred on submission fees and postage. That time, I didn’t even get an honorable mention. I tried again a couple of years later. Again, not even a mention.
Then I noticed that some contests offered a subscription to their literary journal or a copy of the winning book. I figured if I entered those contests at least I’d get something in return for my investment. Typically, a book contest entry fee (reading fee) costs between $20 and $30 dollars. A chapbook contest runs around $10-20. And a single poem contest can be around $10. At one point, I only sent my work to single poem contests because ten bucks for a reading fee wasn’t so bad. But I never won. I’m a perpetual bridesmaid. I received honorable mention in the Harold McCracken poetry contest at UAF. I was a finalist (twice) for the Joy Harjo Poetry Award. I was a finalist for the Winning Writers War Poetry Contest and received honorable mention in Boulevard’s Emerging Poetry Award. Is the literary contest route worth it? Sometimes a writer can spend years and a ton of money entering contests.
Here are some of my literary contest tips:
1. Only enter reputable contests (CWLA’s Kathy Tarr sends out contest information to students, and contests are regularly announced in Poets and Writers magazine, AWP's The Writer's Chronicle, and on www.newpages.com).
2. Check to see if your university offers a contest or if a regional journal or writers group has a yearly prize. Often they don’t have a “reading fee.”
3. Enter “first” book contests not “first or second book” contests.
4. Enter contests for students in MFA programs.
5. Enter contests that offer you something in return: a literary journal subscription, a copy of the winner’s book.
6. When you are first starting out, enter short story, novel excerpt, or poem contests. Those reading fees are easier on the wallet.
After entering hundreds of contests there was one thing that changed my mind about being a bridesmaid in the literary contest world: writers often credit their stint as bridesmaids. Wait a minute, I thought, the writing life must be similar to life in Hollywood where actors and directors claim they “almost” won: an Academy Award nominee. What a great idea! After this year, I can say that I am a Pushcart Prize nominee. Definitely, the writing life has its advantages over other professions. Where else can people brag about their near misses? I don’t think I want to know if my doctor almost won a prestigious prize. I’d wonder why she wasn’t competent enough to win in the first place.
Eventually, entering contests did pay off —I won first prize. No, I didn’t get a book prize, I received a Ray Troll autographed t-shirt. I had submitted a poem to Alaska 49 Writers’ Ode to a Dead Salmon Contest and won first place. Now, whenever I wear my Ray Troll t-shirt I don’t feel like such a bridesmaid. I’m a grand prize winner!
After my MFA is finished this year, I might try the literary contest circuit again. I think I have a strong manuscript and I do have experience in rejections. Also, the internet makes it easier to enter with Submishmash and the push of a PayPal button. When I first started entering contests I had stack of manuscripts and manila envelopes on my kitchen table. But the real reason I’ll continue to enter literary contests is that I can still imagine myself dolled-up in my peach chiffon gown blushing at a podium as I accept my newly published book with the shiny gold star on it.
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