April 22, 2013

Getting the Ball Rolling: Why We Enter Writing Contests

The latest issue of Poets & Writers has hit our mailbox, and the cover has a big shiny red ball on it. A dodgeball? A bosu ball? The red pill Neo popped? It’s hard to tell. No matter what it represents, the new issue is focused on writing contests: what it means (and doesn’t mean) to win, how things change (and don’t), and what agents and editors think of contests (continuing a PW trend of “all things lead to acquiring an agent”).

Last week, my publishing class discussed online submission fees and poetry book contests. We read David Alspaugh’s essay “What’s Really Wrong with Poetry Contests?” and discussed his contention that these book contests are bad not just for poetry itself, but also for building an engaged audience that actively reads poetry. He was much more enthusiastic about single poem contests that literary journals award: they look for excellent work, add to the overall quality of the journal, and give readers access to a range of poets rather than a single voice.

At first, it struck me as an odd time for Poets & Writers to feature contests. After all, many (not all) contests have autumn deadlines. On the other hand, we’re on the verge of summer, with the weather hopefully sparing us snowstorms for a few months, and that’s the time many writers are able to slip away from academia and find the time to write. Which is kinda important: the one thing that every contest article in PW was focused on was the fact that you must write the best story, or poem, or essay you possibly can in order to win.

Our Editors’ Prize is now open, so if you have a snazzy piece of literary writing already written, regardless of the genre, we’re ready to read it. The deadline is October 1st, however, so if you need the summer to get cranking on new work, there’s plenty of time. Over the next few months, we receive lots of questions about our contest, and so in the slim hope of addressing the most common ones and saving you a few minutes, here are three of the biggest issues that we’re asked about.

Discounted Subscription: Most contests have an entry fee, not just in the literary world, but for almost any competition you can imagine. Entry to our Editors’ Prize is $20, which gets every entrant a one-year subscription to our magazine. Our typical subscription rate is $24, so there’s more than a fifteen percent discount on your subscription to a quarterly literary magazine. Plus, you’ll get the opportunity to read all the writers we’ve published in a given year.

After all, isn’t the reason we write in the first place because we love to read?

Fairness: One of the worries many writers have is about the fairness of the contest. A tip that PW suggests is to know something about the contest judge. The Editors’ Prize is judged by our editors rather than an outside judge. Every year, we receive questions about the fairness of our contest, with the implicit suggestion that who the writer is rather than what the writer has written is what matters. Skepticism is understandable.

In 2009, Seph Murtaugh was our winner in nonfiction. He had no book publications at the time and still doesn’t. This was followed up by John Hales in 2011, and Terry Ann Thaxton in 2012, two long-time writers who are probably not well-known outside literary circles. In poetry this passed year, we selected Katie Bickham’s work; she’s a young emerging poet of immense talent. Brand spankin’ new. The year before? David Kirby, who has published over twenty books of poetry. In fiction, 2011 winner Yuko Sakata’s story “Unintended” was her first published story; the year before, Anna Solomon’s “The Long Net” was selected … and just a few months later, her first novel “The Little Bride” was published by Riverhead Books.

There’s no pattern in the stage of a writer’s career or how famous (or infamous) a writer is or is not. We don’t care. We care about the work. Don’t trust us, however. Ask our writers. Here are real quotes from our Editors’ Prize winners:

“Winning the Editors’ Prize was the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. At least in recent memory. Actually, you know, my flag football team won the championship last fall. So, you guys are second place. That’s cool, right?” – Rachel Yoder, fiction, 2012.

“Publishing my essay in TMR was the accomplishment of my lifetime. Until I got engaged. And became a Democratic councilman representing Ithaca, New York. Say, are you a registered voter?” – Seph Murtagh, nonfiction, 2009.

“Five thousand clams buys a lot of books. Oh, and that publishing my poetry thing? That was pretty sweet, too. Yeah, you Missouri folks are all right. You know. For Midwesterners.” – Jude Nutter, poetry, 2007.

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing people he does not exist. Don’t think I forgot that, you rabblerouser. Anyway. Columbia is a lovely town. That bar with all the bourbon? I dug it.” – David Kirby, poetry, 2011.

“I’ve never heard of The Missouri Review and I refuse to answer that question.” – Philip Roth.

You see? Our Editors’ Prize winners love us! All the more reason to enter the contest!

Top Prize Money: Most literary journal contests award prizes in the range of $500 to $2000. Which is great. But for the same entry fee, there’s an opportunity to win $5000 from The Missouri Review. Five thousand. Which is nothing to sneeze at. Because, really, who wants a bunch of hundred dollar bills with snot and mucus all over ‘em? That’s just gross.

If you’re not already a subscriber, go out and snag a copy of the latest Poets & Writers. It’s a good one. And once you’re done reading all their articles and tips and good stuff on contests, push that magazine aside and get cranking on a contest submission to TMR. We’re eager to read it.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

About Michael

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review. His writing has appeared in Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, Kenyon Review, and New South, among others. His first story collection, STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION, is available on Queen's Ferry Press. Visit him online at mpnye.com

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