Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

On Writing Contests

Back when I had my “State of the State” phone call with Agent Carrie back in January of 2015, one of the things she suggested I do with my manuscript was enter it into a contest or two. The idea being that it gets the manuscript out there and that, if it won or got shortlisted for anything major, well, that’s a selling point, right? Being able to tell editors, “This manuscript is a finalist for A Major Award” would make it more appealing to editors.

I agreed to do that, then started looking at Poets & Writers. I put together word document to list the contests I thought I might enter, and started to psyche myself up…

…and did nothing.

I dusted off the list yesterday and found I had put two contests on the list, and I did nothing about either one of them (in fairness, one of them had a deadline that was maybe a week out from the date I found it). Once in a great while during the year, I would look at P&W again, but half-heartedly.

Last month, when we again had our “State of the State” call, Carrie again suggested conferences, and again I said I would look into it, only this time, I mean it! (Well, I meant it last time, too; sometimes, it just takes a while for things to stick, know what I mean?) The good thing is, this time, when I looked at P&W, I found more choices. I think last year I must have gone searching at a downtime in the yearly calendar, because I only found those two that looked suitable.

There are three problems with the whole contest thing: first is the time they take up. Each of the contests will have different requirements. This one wants the first fifty pages of the manuscript, plus a three-page synopsis. That one wants twenty manuscript pages, and a two-page synopsis. Another asks for thirty and a single page synopsis. Plus a cover letter. It’s a lot like querying agents again, pulling pieces out of the manuscript, formatting it, writing cover notes, etc., etc. And we all know what I’d rather be doing with my time.

The second thing is the money. Very few of these contests are free. It’s thirty dollars here, twenty-five there. Not much in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, not when there’s a shot at a thousand dollars (or more), and the prestige of winning one of these things. But it adds up, yes it does. We’re not so flush in cash that I can just keep throwing it out the door in thirty and fifty dollar chunks. On the other hand, I suppose I can keep track of it and talk to my accountant about it as a deduction for next year.

Finally, there’s the doubt. Of course there is, me being the Doubting Writer, after all. When I look at some of the awards and the criteria for winning, and think of the competition, I think, “there’s no way I can win.” One of the awards had over 600 entrants last year. What are the chances of my manuscript winning? They wouldn’t seem to be very good. And it’s not just a 1 in 600 chance, of course. I the manuscript were selected at random, maybe it would be worth it, but it’s based on skill, and on the writer’s ability to catch a contest judge in just the right way. Can I do that? Is it possible for me–for my manuscript–to be that much better than 600+ others? 

The doubter in me says, “No way. Don’t even try.” I recognize that I have skill, and I believe in my manuscript; but stacked up against 600 or more people? It just doesn’t seem worth the effort. But then again….


So, I’ve got my eye on a couple of upcoming contests, and I’ll jump through the ring of fire and stack my manuscript up against all the others. I don’t think I’ll hear anything back beyond, “You’re a finalist/winner!” or “Sorry, kid, better luck next time”, but that’s okay. I’m taking a shot. Maybe I’ll score.

On another note: it’s funny how people want to kill Punxsutawney Phil this week, isn’t it? Two weeks ago, everyone was all, “Rah, rah, we love Phil!” because of the no-brainer prediction of an early spring. Even with that prediction, people seemed to forget that we still had one little thing between us and spring: February.

A guy I knew in high school once called February “the armpit of months.” I think that’s a little harsh, myself, but, even with the mild winter we’ve had so far, I’m ready for real spring. Instead, I woke up to this yesterday:

Can you read it? It says “It’s fucking cold.”

That thermometer is mounted on the window frame in our pantry. It has an outdoor probe. At 6:30 yesterday morning (Sunday) it was thirty below. My dog was actually shivering when I took her outside; I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so cold.

Oh, the number on the left? That’s the inside temperature (at least measured right at the thermometer). Our pantry became a walk-in freezer for the day. Still, the sun was shining and, when the wind wasn’t blowing, you could feel it, and that’s a nice thing. Meanwhile, we’re supposed to see temperatures closer to 40 later this week, so our yo-you winter continues. Crazy stuff.

That’s it for me. Do you enter contests? What do you think of them?

11 Responses

  1. I used to enter writing contests (for unpublished writers) when I was starting out. I did it for the feedback and plus, editors and agents were the final judges, so I'd hope to final so they'd see it. Yeah, I never finaled. But I got some good feedback, which helped with the cost (because at that time I needed feedback). Now I enter published contests and hope readers will like my work. If nothing else, I've gotten more people to read my book. Haha!

    I guess you just have to determine if the end result is worth the cost of admission. I'm curious though why your agent suggested contests, but not which contests to enter. I would think she would tell you which ones to look for or which ones were more worthwhile.

  2. I hate contests. And avoid them like the plague. At the same time, I have submitted my books for reviews that ended up putting them in an award contest when they were highly rated. So stressful!

  3. I haven't entered any contests yet – that whole intimidation factor is high! Also, the time factor you mentioned. Life is wacky enough.
    We were SO COLD here for a few days too – almost -40 but we looking at that upswing too. Stay warm!

  4. -Stacy–did they actually provide feedback? I didn't get that impression from the guidelines, but maybe it depends which one. As for the second question, I'd say it's really a matter of looking at said guidelines and determining if it's the right fit for my book. There are a lot of contests out there.
    -Donna-I guess once I start pulling the trigger, it will be like querying: after a while, you start forgetting it's out there!
    -Jemi-Yeah, the feeling is like they'd be looking at the 'script and saying, "Who are you who dares enter this dreck?" As long as I don't find snippets of my book in some 'Horrible submissions we've received' blog!
    -Sheena-kay-I went to St. John once; I would happily go back there right now!

  5. My agent once told me to enter contests too. Like you, I sorta looked, but got discouraged by the fees, the rules, and the fact that many had such early deadlines. I pubbed Soul Cutter in Dec '13, and found that the Bram Stoker awards' deadline for all books pubbed in '13 was OCTOBER '13. WTF? But I'm trying to keep my eye out for some of the ones I see "medals" on e-books, like Reader's Favorite and IAN. I still may do nothing though. I feel like you do — the odds seem stacked against me. But I love the Gretzky quote, and I hope March brings nicer weather for you! 🙂

  6. -Lexa–That stinks! Regarding the odds: it's not strictly an odds-based thing, however; it's about level of competition, and quality of competition. I hope you find some for you. And weather is already improving, supposed to be around 50 today, which is good!

  7. I hear you on contests, Jeff… seems to me the biggest and most important contest is the one you win by seeing your book spine in an honest-to-goodness store.

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