Contests? No contest.

[November 2010] There are several ways to try to get short fiction published. You can respond to an invitation to contribute to an anthology. You can submit to an ongoing market.  You can submit something to an open anthology. You can enter a contest. Your odds vary with each of those markets. If you have an invitation, the editor is already favorably inclined toward your work. With an ongoing market, if your story is good and there’s no room in the current issue it can always be held over for a subsequent one. There are only so many slots available in any given anthology, and your story has to blend with the themes and tone of the previously accepted work, which isn’t so much of an issue with a periodical.

If you submit to a contest, though, your odds are long indeed. There’s only one winner and perhaps a few runners-up and honorable mentions.

I have a general policy of not submitting to contests that charge an entrance fee. In effect, the losers are paying the prize for the winner. It’s bad enough to “lose” (i.e. have your story rejected) without paying for the privilege. The odds are so long, that it seems a waste of money in a business where there’s little enough compensation as it is. I confess that I make one exception to this rule. Each year I enter the CBC Literary Competition, for which I pay the princely sum of $20. It’s a long, long shot, but nothing would make me prouder than to get even an honorable mention in that contest.

However, I’ve had very good luck with free contests. My first publication came about as a result of winning The Harrow’s Halloween contest. “Harming Obsession” took the $50 prize, was illustrated by GAK and appeared in their online magazine. I remember well the rush I experienced when one of the editors told me I’d won. Defying the odds, I’ve won Apex Digest’s Halloween contest twice. The first time, I received an embarrassment of riches as a prize. There was a substantial cash award, but a bunch of people had also contributed signed books, artwork, coupons, and other bric-a-brac for the winner. I received boxes and packages from the prize contributors for weeks after that. I also took second place at the World Horror Convention’s short story contest a few years back. All of these wins also led to publication except for the latter.

Last weekend, I was in Dedham, Massachusetts at Crime Bake to accept the Al Blanchard Award for my short story “The Bank Job.” I’ve been submitting to the contest for several years, and I’ve made a few top-10 lists in the past. One of my non-winning stories was subsequently published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which told me something about how strong the competition was, so it was a great honor to be chosen from out of 160 submissions. I received a cash prize, an elegant plaque, free admission to Crime Bank, a comped hotel room for one night, and the story was published (with additional payment) in Level Best Books’ annual anthology of New England crime stories, which launched at the convention. Hard to beat that with a stick.

I have to say that from a pure ego perspective, winning a contest pumps me up more than most other acceptances. Being one of a limited number of people who make it into an anthology is gratifying, sure. But winning a contest? Number one with a bullet. You’re the center of attention for a while, and that’s the sort of pick-me-up that inspires me and energizes me. Hell, I was even congratulated by Dennis freakin’ Lehane at Crime Bake. Talk about surreal.

So, what’s the moral of the story? As usual, I’m not sure there is one. I hope that by relating some of my experiences with contests over the years (and that first win for “Harming Obsession” was a decade ago, which I have a hard time believing) that maybe you’ll consider no-fee contests among the possible markets for your submissions. At most you risk a postage stamp (though often not even that), and the rewards are motivational if you win. I know I’m still floating on a cloud because of my experience at Crime Bake last weekend.

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