The Book Contest Dilemma

OK, I get it. I do.

It can seem like a racket. You spend your $25 (or so) to submit your poetry or short story book manuscript to a contest. You know that the judges are likely to receive, depending on the prestige of the competition, somewhere in the hundreds of submissions. Say there are 500, and say you come in second. What do you win?

Nothing, usually. Maybe you get listed as a “finalist.”

Your odds are so low, in fact, that you decide it’s just not worth it.

It’s easy to feel that way. But here’s the thing: contests have been very good to me. Four of my seven books have been published through contests. Plus, the publishers have mostly been wonderful. They have worked hard to produce beautiful books and to do what they can to promote them.

I have also been involved over the years with judging book contests. For the past few years I have been an early reader for the Michael Waters Poetry Prize (Southern Indiana Review Press), and this summer I served as the finals judge for the 2019 John Ciardi Prize in Poetry (BkMk Press, University of Missouri-Kansas City). Congratulations to Dara Yen Elerath for The Dark Braid!

So what have a learned from these experiences about how to increase your odds of winning?

First, let me dispel a myth, one I believed for years. Whenever I imagined entering a book contest, I would tell myself that at least half of the entries were probably not very good, so I was really only in competition with the other half.

Simply not true.

In my experience, the vast majority of entries are nicely written, thoughtful, and professional. They are clearly written by writers who are working hard at their craft.

The real reason, then, that most of the manuscripts are eliminated (and probably in the first round of reading) is pretty brutal and simple: THEY SOUND LIKE ALL THE OTHERS.

Most of the poetry book manuscripts I have read for contests are first-person meditations about the speaker’s life. In other words, they deal with the everyday wonders and frustrations of being human. I like books like that—I do—but there are so many of them being entered in contests that they begin to blur together.

Manuscripts that stand out, then, are often (not always) on subject matters that are less common, less expected, and that somehow rise beyond the personal to say something larger about the world. Perhaps they explore a particular cultural heritage, a particular social issue, or a particular history. Or maybe they tell stories about multiple characters, or the book is focused by a surprising storyline or a complex philosophical idea.

In addition, manuscripts that stand out have original and unexpected voices. In practice, I think, that means taking whatever is distinctive in your poetic or prose style and EXAGGERATING IT. The more your voice sounds different than the others, the more the manuscript will be memorable enough to reach the next stage.

And, of course, make sure you have some really strong poems or stories to start the manuscript. First impressions matter.

Finally, be ruthless in cutting the weaker works from your manuscript. Judges are looking for reasons to say no. Don’t give them one.

Does this guarantee success? Of course not. But I think it helps. And I do think that, as frustrating as book competitions can be, the phone call or email arriving to say you’ve won more than makes up for it.



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