Novel Fridays: The Contest Approach
Greetings, novelists! I hope you’ve had a productive week. Today we’re going to talk about one of novel writing’s more practical considerations, namely: I’ve written this thing, rewritten it, revised it…now what do I with it?
It might be that you’ve decided to self-publish, submit to agents, or–for select presses–send your unsolicited manuscript during an open reading period. However, some of you might be considering an alternative method, AKA, contests.
(Please don’t worry if you’re not at the stage to start thinking about such complicated questions. And if you think reading this post will trip you up, feel free to bookmark and return to it when submitting your novel feels like something you might actually do. But if you’re the type who prefers to think a bit into the future, read on!)
Contests in any genre can be a bit tricky to navigate, but especially so with novels. For one thing, there are definitely fewer of them and for an extremely practical reason: how many presses have the time? For that reason, the few novel contests you will find often ask for a sample and an synopsis instead of the whole book, much the way agents do.
But the big question is, of course, are novel contests worth it? Answer: it depends.
One of the most exciting aspects of contests is: you know your novel will be read. Unless you’re dealing with some shady operation–more on those soon–your entry fee guarantees you consideration. Happily, you will also know when to expect a response. Many contests only ballpark response times, as they are also at the mercy of their judges, some of whom read faster than others. But several also provide specific weeks or dates when they will make announcements. Furthermore, many contests run by presses include publication deals and/or an opportunity to interact with industry professionals. Some even extend the latter opportunities to shortlisted authors, i.e., even if you don’t win, you may benefit. Depending on the notoriety of the competition, by the way, winning or being a finalist may get your manuscript a closer look when you send it out.
The first disadvantage of any competition is that most of them require entry fees–and the ones for novel contests tend to be hefty, as in the $25-$50 range, and the prizes are often the same as those typically seen for single short story or poetry contests. And indeed, many writers and editors still debate the efficacy of the contest system. I’ve heard it suggested more than once that the money writers pay towards contest fees is better spent on buying books and literary magazine subscriptions. There may be some truth to that, especially if we consider that novel contest fees don’t generally cover a year-long subscription as poetry or fiction entry fees so often do. There is also the issue of finding a reputable contest. Most are aboveboard, but scams do abound online so it’s always worth investing before you send your work. Whenever possible, you want to look for members of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, as they are required to follow the CLMP code of ethics regarding contests.
First and foremost, do your research before submitting to any contest. The search “[contest name] + scam?” is never a bad idea. Make sure you read the terms and conditions carefully before submitting your novel, even to a ethical contest. Know what you’d be exchanging for your work and what the press would be permitted to do in the happy event that you win. Secondly, make sure it’s the right contest for you. Eyeball previous winners, read samples from them or even the whole book if you can. Most importantly, make sure your novel is ready. Have people read and talk to you about it. Don’t just ask for proofreading, but also substantive criticism. Revise. Don’t spend contest money on a first draft. There’s no point in rushing this process–be patient.
A Few Options
If you do decide the contest route is the one for you, here are some places to start:
- Black Balloon Publishing’s Horatio Nelson Prize
- The Black Lawrence Press Big Moose Prize
- Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize
- The James Jones Novel Fellowship Contest
- Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel
- The FC2 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest
- The Ruth Stone First Book Prize
Have you submitted a novel to a contest? What was your experience? Tell us in the comments!
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