Tips on How to Win Writing Contests

Since this blog is for the underdog, the yet-to-be-discovered, the unpublished or occasionally published writers, we really need to start talking about writing contests.  While at this stage everything would be a “big break” in your writing career, winning a writing contest has a couple extra bonuses:

  1. Writing contests usually have a bit of money attached.  Getting paid for writing is a nice and (at this stage) rare experience.  It can help with the bills, help pay for a writing conference you really want to go to, and at the very least allows you to brag at the next family reunion that you’re a paid writer who won a writing contest.  (Which will give them pause before asking–again–when you’re going to get a “real” job).
  2. Winning a writing contest is huge bragging rights on both query letters and cover letters.  Once you win something, literary agents and literary magazine editors will start looking at your manuscript and short story submissions more seriously.  It’s like the snowball effect.  Once you get published somewhere or win a contest and your accomplishments start building up, literary agents and editors start taking notice and, provided your short story submission is some strong and impressive writing, you’re going to get published and win contests more and more.

Once you win a writing contest once, it’s only a matter of time before you win again!

So, after me explaining how awesome and useful it is to win writing contests, you’re wondering how the heck you do that.  “I’ve submitted to a hundred writing contests and haven’t won one yet!” you’re probably lamenting.  I know that I submitted to–and lost– dozens of writing contests before getting a little smarter about where I was submitting and what I was submitting.  If you follow the tips below, I promise your chances will improve!

Tips on How to Win Writing Contests

  1. Work on your writing.  Make sure the short story you’re submitting is the best as it can possibly be, plot-wise and grammar-wise, before sending it off.
  2. Read–and then re-read–the submission guidelines.  Don’t disqualify yourself from the contest because of a dumb mistake like having your name on the submission when they want it to be anonymous, or sending it snail-mail when they only accept email submissions.
  3. Search for literary magazines and literary journals that are selective for some reason or another.  For example, they might only publish female writers, or writers from a certain geographical region, or only undergraduate students.  This narrows down the submission pool, making any contests they hold slightly less competitive.
  4. Submit to writing contests that have small prizes.  If you’re just starting out this whole process, don’t start submitting to the $1,000 1st prize writing contests.  It is very unlikely that you’ll win one of the big contests with a big literary journal (who can afford that kind of prize) as a new writer.  Go for the smaller ones, with 1st prizes that are only $100, or where you only win a few free copies of the publication.  You’ll be completing against less big-name, established writers.

Since I think that it’s really important for writers to submit to writing contests, I’m going to start posting a writing contest–one of the small ones that you have a better chance of winning–every Friday.  Today I shall highlight Literary Laundry.

Literary Laundry Writing Contests

Awards of Distinction:  $500 for best poem; $500 for best short story; $250 for best one-act drama

Undergraduate Awards:  $250 for best poem; $250 for best short story

Though they accept submissions from everybody and anybody, if you’re an undergraduate, make sure you mention it in your cover letter because it uniquely qualifies you for their Undergraduate Awards AND their Awards of Distinction.  Check out the rest of the submission guidelines here.

Type of Journal:  Online

Deadline:  December 1st, 2011

Official Submission Response Time:  Unknown

While you’re waiting, read their online journal and find out if your writing fits their style.

Do you know of any other small contests that you’ve won or think people should submit to?  Feel free to share :]

Good luck!!

(Image, Creative Commons)

Elementary: You Don’t Need to be Sherlock Holmes to Figure Out What’s Wrong With Your Manuscript

You just need to be Extremely Patient.  In the Ungodly Long-Term sense.

I have this middle-grade historical fiction novel about Joan of Arc that I’ve been working on for what feels like forever.  I researched for a year and a half.  Towards the end of that research process, I simultaneously wrote the first draft in a couple months.  Then I rewrote it and extended it from its original 75-page form to a more genre-appropriate length of 113-pages, again requiring a few months effort.  Since then, I’ve set it aside, reread it, edited it, rewrote and rearranged chapters several times.  After each really serious overhaul I consider it strikingly flawless and take a break to type up a few query letters.

Let me just tell you, my query letter must be beast because it gets some good responses.  A few agents were interested.  But after reading the first few chapters–or even the whole thing–everyone inevitably says “no thanks.”  I don’t take it too personally.  I know that many successful authors have gotten hundreds of rejection letters, to the point that they could wallpaper their living rooms with them.  I celebrate the small victories: I’ve gotten three “good” rejection letters.  However, the most recent rejection letter made me think about my manuscript a little differently.  It made me reconsider my entire querying process.

The agent claimed that it was “beautifully written,” but that they “had not connected to the story as deeply as they had hoped.”  Vague, yes.  But it gave me pause.  Is my story really not engaging?  Is it even interesting?

“Maybe I should just rewrite the whole thing again,” I said, presenting my woes to my mom.

“But I love the way it’s written,” she insisted.  “I don’t understand what everyone’s complaining about.”  (Thanks Mom).

I accepted the cup of tea she offered.  “Everybody thinks the words are pretty–they like the presentation–but apparently I suck at the storytelling part.  My sentences are well-constructed, but they don’t make readers care about the plot or the characters.”

“Just try a different agent.  Somebody else will love it as much as I do.”

[Deep Sigh]

It’s not that I’m giving up.  It’s just that, well, maybe my book isn’t good enough yet.  And spending all this time and effort sending out query letters should rather be focused upon an up-close-and-personal manuscript evaluation.  But I’ve done that before, and apparently it hasn’t been a serious enough intervention.  How to I change the way I approach the next edit so that this time it finally makes my manuscript worthy of an agent’s attention?

I brainstormed about this and came up with nothing.

Then I went on vacation.

And listened to The Sherlockian on iPod audio-loan from my local library (I love that the library lets me do that now!!!!  Continue to support the Bucks County Library System!)  Maybe it’s because I haven’t read a historical fiction novel in quite awhile.  Maybe it’s because I haven’t been able to find a good historical fiction novel in forever.  But this one was eloquent and organized; the characters multi-faceted and the mystery riveting.

I realized it was much better than my manuscript.  Obviously, my manuscript needs to take some lessons and beef up on its literary skills.  Particularly the fiction part.  Upon hearing the Author’s Note, for The Sherlockian, and learning how much was completely made up, I was shocked.  Very little in my novel is made up.  In fact, even Joan’s daily activities in the Middle Ages is straight out of some research books that I read about what a female child would do during the time period.  Every major event is documented in The Trial of Joan of Arc.  It makes the whole manuscript seem…thin, like it’s on a diet or something.  I am coming to realize that there would be absolutely no harm in fabricating a few more discussions, family disputes, and minor events as long as I stay true to Joan’s character and stay within the possibilities of the era.  It would help flesh her out a little more and provide some more connective tissue to the story arc.

It might be because I was a History and Creative Writing dual major.  The history department burned the importance of historical accuracy into me to the point that I was hesitant to fictionalize enough in my Creative Writing project.  Now it just needs a little more fiction added to the mix too.

Don’t get me wrong, I am SO GLAD about everything I learned about writing and research in the history department.  I think it’s important that my manuscript–that all historical fiction–has historical integrity.  In my opinion, historical fiction–especially for younger readers–has the responsibility to give an honest presentation because, whether you like it or not, historical fiction teaches readers.  Even if it’s only through the osmosis of setting.

Graham Moore, author of The Sherlockian, offers further input to the discussion of the ethics of writing historical fiction, if you’re interested.  I feel that it also kind of applies to the ethics of memoir writing, which has been undergoing some intense abuse recently from both the deceptive author and outraged media camps.  What do you think?  Where is the line dividing the appropriate amount of fictionalization and the inappropriate amount?

Even if your book or short story doesn’t occur back in time, some recommend that you still consider playing with the setting.

Keep submitting!

Saving Money on Wedding Gifts: Wouldn’t It Be Great If People Accepted Prose, Wrapped with a Bow?

This couple will!  They would love for you to gift them your small prose!

I have no idea who these people are, but I am re-posting this because I sincerely like the idea (and I’m a sucker for weddings).  Also, I can imagine being really happy curling up with a future husband, newly married, and reading through beautiful short stories composed in celebration of our new marriage.  In my mind, it’s like showering them with rice–wishing them well–but with words instead.  (DON’T throw rice at your wedding!  It could get lodged in your ear, get infected, force you to cut your honeymoon short, undertake an uncomfortable surgery and come out of it with a pierced eardrum and a lifetime of deafness, like it did for poor Juliette Gordon Low, founder of Girl Scouts.  True story.)

Anywho, here’s their plea:

Kaspa & Fiona are both on a mission to help the world connect with the world through writing. They are also getting married on Saturday the 18th of June.

For their fantasy wedding present, they are asking people across the world to write them a ‘small stone’ and post it on their blogs or on Facebook or Twitter.

A small stone is a short piece of observational writing – simply pay attention to something properly and then write it down. Find out more about small stones here.

If you’re willing to help, we’d love you to do things:

1) Re-post this blog on your own blog any time before June the 18th and give your readers a chance to hear about what we’re doing. You can simply copy and paste the text, or you can find the html here.

2) Write us a small stone on our wedding day whilst we’re saying our vows and eating cake, post it on your blog, and send it to us.

You can find out more about our project at our website, Wedding Small Stones, and you can also read our blog at A River of Stones.

We also have a July challenge coming soon, when we’ll be challenging you to notice one thing every day during July and write it down.

Thank you for listening, and we hope we’ll be returning from our honeymoon to an inbox crammed with small stones, including yours.

Kaspa & Fiona

It’s a good way to get you inspired and writing.  And even though it’s not official submissions, it’s always nice to share your writing with others.  Besides, wouldn’t this make the BEST wedding story to tell their kids in years to come?  Help them have a good story.

An Occupational Hazard: Why Writers Resent Holidays

Let’s be honest.  We always become really committed to write, to create, to finally-put-that-great-story-idea-on-paper the exact moment that we can’t; namely, when we have other commitments be they to family, friends, traditions, dirty dishes, school, our bodies.  It’s convenient.  It’s certainly easier to glower and blame an early morning sunrise service, a parade, or a required family feast for intruding upon our precious writing time than to accept that there are a billion other vacant hours we could use for writing that we simply waste instead.  If we just empowered ourselves to push the power off button on the TV more often…

Fellow writers, don’t resent the fact that the kids have off from school today, that the pleasant weather is calling you outside, that you’ve been invited to a super time-consuming backyard barbecue.  Go do it, enjoy it, and–if it makes you feel better–know that you have another experience to file away in your pack-rat of a brain to use in future writings.

When you recommit to writing and submitting on Tuesday, consider today’s spotlight journal, Cicada Magazine.

Quick Info about Cicada

What they want:  fiction/non-fiction (up to 5,000 words), “Expressions” (350-1,500 words), poems (up to 25 lines).  The magazine is aimed at an audience of readers age 14 and up, so the material must be appropriate (some minor curse words allowed, but keep to a minimum; no suicide or rape) and applicable to readers’ experiences.  They’re interested in pretty much everything–realistic, contemporary, historical, humor, mysteries, fantasy, and science fiction–and are particularly craving some humor submissions.

How they want it:  snail mail or email.  Check out the website for further submission guidelines.

When they want it:  rolling submissions, anytime throughout the year.  Subject to change, though, because sometimes they close submissions for a few months.

How long they say it takes to get back to you:  within 12 weeks, faster if email submission.

How long I say it took for them to get back  to me:  27 days for a “good” rejection letter last time, currently waiting 14 weeks on two poetry submissions (upon realizing that it’s much longer that their promised wait time just this very second, now I’m worried that maybe they lost my poetry submissions.  Perhaps I should email them and check.  If I don’t hear anything from them by Tuesday night I’ll email them Wednesday morning.  Maybe the holiday messed with their reviewing schedule.)  All my submissions to them were via email.

Do they pay?  Yes!

I HIGHLY recommend (as I would with every magazine and journal) reading several copies before submitting.  Some local libraries have subscriptions, but if you can’t find any free copies, you can subscribe for not too much of an expense.  If you are committed to young adult writing, you really must be familiar with this journal because it’s one of the leading literary journals for the age group.  Don’t worry, you can always write it off on taxes.

Also, if you really like writing for children, but for a different age group, consider getting familiar with the whole Cricket magazine family:

Concerning their particular plea for humor of any brand, if you have it and you know it fits the age group, send it in!  Because they really need it, your story has a better statistical chance than general submissions for getting a big friendly acceptance.

Their website also has this awesome thing called the Slam where you can submit short excerpts of your writing to get posted and critiqued online by other writers and readers.  It’s competitive and not for the “faint-of-heart,” but you get good feedback and the magazine publishes the best of the Slam in one of the issues every year.

While you’re waiting to hear back about your submissions…distract yourself with a sunny parade.  Happy Memorial Day!

Listen to Your Mother: Waiting By the Phone Never Gets You Anywhere

Sixty-five unopened emails greeted me.  Not a single one was about my submissions.  An awful great amount were from Victoria’s Secret and Barnes and Noble, warning me about last-minute sales.  Lame.  One was The Honors Review, announcing that the print version of this year’s issue are heading out in the mail this week (!!!)  So, I guess it’s not all bad news; I’ll get to see my name in print soon.  But after seven whole days away from the computer, I was expecting to have some rejection and/or acceptance emails waiting for me.  A reward, of sorts, for being Patient and Technology-Free.  Apparently, that award has been officially retired, so I’m glad that I didn’t spend vast portions of the past week pining away, refreshing my email and compulsively checking literary journal websites (which I’m off to do right now).  Even forgetting about the EXISTENCE of the pot of water on the stove didn’t make it boil faster.

On this day upon which I cannot look forward to any responses at all because everybody in the literary and mail delivery world is sleeping in (or at church) I am still waiting upon…

  1. Painted Bride Quarterly (date submitted: January 4th; what submitted: 1 fiction, 1 non-fiction)  TWT (Total Wait Time): 5 months, 5 days
  2. Cicada (date submitted: February 16th; what submitted: 2 poems)  TWT:  3 months, 2 weeks, 4 days
  3. matchbook (date submitted: March 7th; what submitted: 1 short short fiction)  TWT:  2 months,  3 weeks, 6 days
  4. The Susquehanna Review (date submitted: March 14th; what submitted: 1 fiction, 2 non-fiction)  TWT:  2 months, 2 weeks, 6 days
  5. Zahir (date submitted:  April 25th; what submitted: 1 fiction)  TWT:  1 month, 6 days
  6. Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle (date submitted: May 11th; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)  TWT:  2 weeks, 4 days
  7. Brevity (date submitted: today, May 19th; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)  TWT:  1 week, 3 days

Please forgive me if I counted up the TWT wrong.  Math isn’t my strong suit.

How long have you all been waiting to hear back?

P.S.  Tybee Island and Savannah, Georgia, were awesome.  I highly recommend you visit if you enjoy the beach, seeing a brick wall pockmarked with cannon-ball holes, lighthouses, seafood, ice cream, dolphins, reading historical plaques attached to big tall monuments, or were ever a Girl Scout.

There’s Absolutely Nothing New or Interesting in the Publishing World

Or at least, if there is, I don’t know about it.

I’m on vacation in Georgia this week with the best boyfriend in the world and it is a complete vacation.  I refuse to be chained to my computer or worry about all the NYU publishing institute homework I should be finishing up.  In fact, I left my computer at home and this week’s blog posts were pre-written and my super sister is publishing them on the appropriate day.  (Don’t expect this to be a habit.  I assure you, every week but this one will be chock-full with fresh, interesting, current information.)

But today?  I choose to lay on the beach and take a nap instead.

To keep you busy while you wait, though, check out Writer’s Relief.  The website is an endless network of helpful and encouraging articles.  Also, if you’re interested, they are a company who–for a small fee–will submit your work for you.  If all you’re getting is bad rejection letters, maybe you’re submitting to the wrong places.  Writer’s Relief might be able to help.

A Compressed Response Time at The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts

It’s new.  It’s flashy.  And they’re wicked fast.

I submitted at 1am on Tuesday, May 17th and I got a response by 11am on Thursday, May 19th (it was the good rejection letter I mentioned earlier on this blog).  In the world of literary journals, where the wait ranges from 6 weeks to 6 months, that is an impressive turnaround rate.

Associated with the Rosemont College MFA program, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, a strictly online publication, has debuted within the past month and is accepting fiction and non-fiction submissions until August 15th.  They are publishing a favorite submissions on the website every week during that time.  They’ll be accepting poetry later in the year.

The only catch?  Prose has to be sub-600 words and poetry will also have to be extremely compressed.  As they like to phrase it:  “We publish (very) tiny, compressed prose creations of 600 words or less. We use Submishmash for all submissions.  We value form, character, and words that fit to both.  Experimentation is interesting.  Experimentation for the sake of appearing experimental is less interesting.  We like close reading and close writing.  We like to feel what we read before we understand.”

So visit their website to see what kinds of works they’re choosing and get a feel for what you should write, compress, and submit.  Every email they send–even the automated message confirming the receipt–is warm, friendly, and makes you fall in love with this new journal a little more.

If you’re tired of waiting and want to hear some news immediately, submit right now!

Mythbuster: The “Good” Rejection Letter

Believe it or not, there are two types of rejection letters:  bad ones, and good ones.  The bad ones are form letters, one that the editors obviously composed and mass sent out to authors, merely filling in the blanks for name and perhaps the title of the submission.  Good rejection letters, on the other hand, are very personal and specific to you as a writer and your submission.  These usually contain extra-heartbreaking details like that they loved it, but they don’t have room in the journal, or it was well-written and entertaining but not quite “dovetailing with current editorial needs.”  Sometimes they ask you to submit again in the future (make sure you do, because editors don’t say that lightly!)  Though it hurts more because you were just that close to getting published, it should also make you feel awesome and accomplished!

On Thursday, I got two rejection letters.  One was good, the other was bad.  When I read the good one, I was disappointed because I’m really fond of the journal and thought it was the perfect place for my short story.  But the editor had such nice things to say, explaining how many of the review board members really enjoyed it and “wanted more,” it kind of softened the blow.  But it also taught me two things:

  1. I know that my submission was close to what they wanted, so I’m better informed about what to submit next time
  2. Obviously, they thought the story was good, just not quite for them, (having someone’s opinion besides mine, my mom’s, and my sister’s–which are all heavily biased in my favor–who thinks it’s a good story is always reassuring!)

And guess what that means?  I definitely must submit it elsewhere because it’s only a matter of time before it finds the right home.  When I skipped out back to tell Mom, who was stained green from cutting the grass, I was excited.  “I got a rejection letter,” I shouted over the lawnmower.  “But it was a good one.”  I read it allowed to her and she was excited too.

We did not have a similar happy dance for the bad rejection letter–a totally impersonal form one–I received later in the afternoon.

So if you’ve gotten a rejection letter–good or bad–make sure you submit it somewhere else, immediately.  Don’t wait around, moping.  Even though waiting to hear back from a journal is about as enjoyable as plucking your eyebrows, waiting to get published without actually submitting stuff is much much worse.  And it makes the wait a lot longer.  As soon as I got the good rejection, I sent the story to Brevity through submishmash.  But now I can wait, and look forward to a letter from them.

I am presently waiting on:

  1. Painted Bride Quarterly (date submitted: January 4th; what submitted: 1 fiction, 1 non-fiction)
  2. Cicada (date submitted: February 16th; what submitted: 2 poems)
  3. matchbook (date submitted: March 7th; what submitted: 1 short short fiction)
  4. The Susquehanna Review (date submitted: March 14th; what submitted: 1 fiction, 2 non-fiction)
  5. Zahir (date submitted:  April 25th; what submitted: 1 fiction)
  6. Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle (date submitted: May 11th; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)
  7. Brevity (date submitted: today, May 19th; what submitted: 1 non-fiction

Has anyone out there submitted to any of these places and heard back recently?  Are you experiencing similar wait times?  Lets keep each other company while we wait.

And for those of you who’s feelings are still hurt about rejection letters, at least you weren’t rejected with a post it note.

The Best Writer’s Block: A Vacation

Just letting you all know that I shall be leaving for Tybee Island and Savannah, Georgia tonight at 11pm.  It’s a week-long vacation and I won’t have access to a computer or internet so I won’t be blogging.  However, I’ve pre-blogged for the week the three posts I would normally put up.  My fabulous younger sister will be publishing them on the appropriate days, so forgive any glitches or belated posts.

I promise to bring back inspiring pictures of the South and blog about some specifically Southern journals that I’ve submitted to.

While you wait, keep submitting!

The One Downfall to Being Published Electronically: You Can’t Sign a Kindle

Personally, I started out being rather iffy/stand-offish/old-fashioned about the whole e-book revolution.  Give me a physically bound book or give me death, I cried over-dramatically.  I was particularly fond of Meg Cabot’s continued complaint that ebooks are not bathtub friendly (not that paper books are really very compatible with getting wet either, but at least they don’t carry the threat of electrocution should they be dropped in the tub*).  But then my boyfriend’s parents gave me a beautiful beautiful kindle for Christmas and I realized how awesome it was.  One of the main benefits is that I do not have to drive to Barnes & Nobles the day a book came out in stores.  I can buy it in my own home, for less money!  (And by home I totally mean my bed.  In my pjs.)  Also, I could downgrade to a smaller purse because I didn’t need the space for three books at any given time anymore.

The moral of the story is that e-books are now formally a BIG DEAL and I’m really glad that I jumped on the bandwagon.  They’re such a big deal in publishing that, in mine and others opinions, they significantly change the entire view of self-publishing.  For a long time, the perception was that everything self-published was so personal and completely unedited that only immediate family members were going to buy it.  There are some exceptions, of course.  John Erickson, author of the Hank the Cowdog series, self-published and sold thousands of copies out of the back of his pickup at rodeos.  His books became so popular that a traditional publisher proposed a traditional book deal.  So if you’re struggling to self-promote right now, stay committed!  It might pay off big.

Obviously, though, self-publishing requires a huge time commitment to self-marketing.  However, with publication avenues like Kindle that offer a national audience, it’s becoming easier and self-published 99cent books are becoming best sellers.  Which choice is best for you?

There were lots of developments with magazine apps and the iPad this week, if you want to keep updated.  Also, if you have an iPad you might want to check out Nomad Editions.  How long before literary journals follow suit?

It might be awhile before that happens, but there’s definitely an increase in online literary publications.  If you’re hesitant about being published on the internet, something to consider is that, statistically, you have a better chance of getting published.  Think about it.  If a print issue only has 40-pages, they are bound to that space limitation.  But the internet can have endless amounts of pages.  Philadelphia Stories, for example, prints some stories on their website that they didn’t have room for in the print copy.  And Painted Bride Quarterly offers the unique opportunity to get published on their website through their monthly Sidecar.

On a separate note, for those of you going through the critique and editing process, you’re not alone.

*I actually have no idea whether or not e-books emit electricity when drowned.  They plug into wall outlets like a hairdryer, though, so I worry.