Literary Liaisons

A blog about writing and all things story…

Entering a Literary Contest? Read this first:

It’s spring, and often spring is contest time for the summer writer’s conferences. If you’re considering entering a contest, and I strongly urge you to do so, then read this article from my friend Steven Houchin, first. Steve knows a thing or two about writing and about contests; his second novel, Double Fire, won the 2007 Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s Zola Award and he was a PNWA contest judge in 2009 and 2010.

Louisa’s Cafe
So, You Want to Win a Literary Contest? by StevenHouchin
When you enter a literary contest, the goal is usually to win, or at

least make the cut as a top finalist. If that happens, it can bring recognition to your writing, open doors to literary agents, and
serve to enhance your writing resume. But, with so many other
writers throwing their manuscripts into the contest pile, what can you do to increase your chances of success? Here are some tips.


1) Follow the rules. Completely. Every contest publishes strict rules for entries. This usually includes a page count/word count limit, a deadline date, entrance fee, a SASE, a synopsis, and genre/topic/category provisions. Many submissions are tossed out simply because the author missed or ignored the rules.
2) Submit a clean manuscript. No pink paper. No legal pad ink-and-pen scrawls. No coffee stains or baby’s regurgitated strained carrots. No handwritten corrections. Think, Perfection. The contest rules usually specify the required formatting, such as line spacing, font style and size, paper size, and page headings. These can be quite detailed, such as no page number on page one, and numbers in the upper right on all others. Yes, MS Word can do this for you. A sloppy manuscript lands in the circular file or, at best, offends the judge’s sensibilities making you look amateurish.
3) Write a persuasive synopsis. If the contest requires a synopsis (common for novel submissions), give it a lot of thought. Write it to captivate and inform, which ain’t easy. The judge will use it to determine if your novel has been fully thought out and has an appealing, viable, believable plot. He/she will evaluate the main characters’ motivations and actions. Tell the story, but leave out subplots and minor characters. Yes, you do give away the big surprise ending.
4) Polish the submission. Make sure the chapters/stories you submit have been critiqued, read, edited, reread, and reedited. No typos. No misspelling. Eliminate mundane language. Instead, use action verbs; vivid, clever descriptions; meaningful dialog.
5) Draw the reader in. The judges are your readers. They’re hungry to be impressed, but are jaded skeptics on page one. You are guilty of lousy writing unless you prove otherwise. And they’ve seen plenty of lousy from your competitors. So, don’t open your book with the main character’s life story. Don’t spend pages on the lovely scenery. Don’t give the whole history of your fictional Planet X or the Black Shadow warriors. Instead, have your main characters do something that matters, tell us where they are, let us know generally when the story takes place, and hint at what big thing is at stake. Subtle can be better, where the judge exclaims, “Ah-ha! It’s the Middle Ages.” Or, “Oooh, there’s a ticking sound in the trunk of a ‘38 DeSoto.”


If you do these things, chances are your manuscript will leap past 80% of the other contest submissions. Who knows, you might even win.
Guest blogger, Steven E. Houchin. Steven’s second novel, Double Fire, won the 2007 Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s Zola Award

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2 comments on “Entering a Literary Contest? Read this first:

  1. Mindy Halleck
    June 13, 2012

    Well Tom, congratulations for submitting and getting some good feedback. You can't ever make everybody happy. Great attitude! Don't let anyone knock you off your path. Mindy

  2. Anonymous
    June 13, 2012

    I followed those rules exactly in my submission to the 2012 PNWA literary contest. To be sure, a judge's reaction to item 5 depends on many things. I received my two critiques yesterday and one absolutely loved it and the other hated it with a vicious passion. I'm still trying to gauge the value I got out of the experience. Did I learn anything? I'm not sure yet. None of it will knock me off my path, though.Tom

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