Fiction writing contests are fun. They give you a concrete deadline, supply a good starting point in the form of a topic or prompt, and bear prizes that range from nice to mouth-watering.
The trick, of course, is to win them.
Here are some tips about that.
1. Watch Out for Scams
Before you enter a writing contest, make sure it’s legitimate. Read the rules carefully and look for telltale signs:
- Is the contest hosted by a well-known body, like a long-standing magazine, a fund for writers, or something along these lines? If so, you’re likely good to go. Skip to the next section.
- Is there an entry fee? If so, make sure it’s proportional to the prizes. Small prizes (up to $500) do not merit an entry fee. Entry fees above $25 should raise questions unless they’re offset by substantial prizes. (What is a substantial prize? Upwards of $0.05 per word of the winning entry, which is the minimal “pro” writer’s fee.)
- Are the winning entry or entries published in print or online? If not, why? An organizer could easily fabricate some winners and simply keep the prizes to themselves.
- Are the non-winning entries also published in print or online? If so, heads-up! The contest organizer might be trying to get the rights to your story without paying you a dime. Only winning entries should be published.
- Does the prize consist only of publication in print, as a standalone story or as part of an anthology? Watch out! The organizer might hinge your “prize” upon your purchase of the anthology, which is nothing other than a vanity publishing scam.
Armed with this knowledge of scams and questionable habits, you’re ready to choose a legitimate contest to enter.
2. Choose the Right Writing Contest for You
If you want to maximize your chances of winning a writing contest, make sure it’s a good fit for your skills, age, country, level, and available time.
First, make sure you’re eligible to enter. Read and re-read any eligibility clauses in the rules.
Second, avoid contests with too-pressing deadlines. You’ll need the time to produce your best story. (Of course, if tight deadlines make you squirm with excitement, that’s another story.)
Third and most important, choose a contest that plays to your strengths. Do you write heart-wrenching alien angst? Don’t go for a contemporary romance contest.
Found a contest? Great! Time to get a feel for the terrain.
3. Research, Research, Research
Read the contest rules until they’re indelibly etched on the inside of your eyelids. Or, at least, until you’re sure you’ve understood them completely. Getting disqualified over a technicality is a royal pain.
Unless this contest is running for the first time, go read the previous winners. Get a feel for the level of writing required to secure the first place in this contest. Be honest with yourself: can you pull off writing at that level? If the answer is no, maybe you should save your creative juices for another contest.
Find out who’s doing the judging. Research the judge or judges. What kind of stories do they like? What do they dislike?
4. Brainstorm a Story Plot
Now that you know the judge(s), it’s time to craft a story that will appeal to them. Short story contests don’t give you too much wiggle room with the word count, so choose a simple but powerful idea that can be conveyed in as few as 3-4 scenes.
Make it original. Choose surprising characters, location, or conflict. Choose unlikely developments. When you manage to surprise your readers, the judges, you earn yourself a fleeting opportunity to touch their hearts. Use it.
5. Write as If Your Prize Depended on It
6. Polish like There’s No Tomorrow
This is why I advise choosing a contest with a relaxed deadline. You’ll need that time to let the story stew, so you can come back to it with fresh eyes and edit it well. Don’t hesitate to bounce your story off beta readers and/or professional editors. It’s a good use of your money: even if you don’t win the contest, you’ll have a good, polished piece to sell to magazines.
Take your time with the editing process. You can always submit just before the deadline, but if you find a way to improve your story after you submit it (and you will), you’ll be agonizing over an early submission.
7. Read the Rules Again
This time, look for rules regarding the submission process. Nail every single rule about your submission. Again, getting disqualified over a technicality is a royal pain. Submitting your story as requested shows the judges that you respect them, and they will return that respect when they read your submission.
8. Just Hit “Send”
In the end, gather up all your courage and submit your entry according to the rules. You’ll do fine, and even if you don’t win, you now have a good, polished story to submit to other contests and/or writing magazines. Now that’s success.
Best of luck!