Related Articles: Literary, All

Writing and Winning

How the hell do you win a literary contest? All sorts of tips and tricks are out there if you know where to look. Crossing your fingers doesn't hurt, either.

I recently received a letter notifying me that the first chapter of my memoir-in-progress has been selected as a finalist for the New Letters Literary Award in creative nonfiction, a prestigious international writing competition.

A few months ago, I'd never even heard of the New Letters Literary Award. In fact, I wasn't much aware of any literary award that didn't start with a "P," as in Pulitzer, Pushcart, or Pen.

But when I started work on a memoir about my adult relationship with my mother, I started paying attention. Publishers are not exactly lining up to buy mother-daughter memoirs these days. If an excerpt from my book won an award, I figured it might help my agent make the sale.

In back-cover author's bios I began to note the non-P awards and wonder how the writer earned that distinction. Did contest judges haunt coffee joints looking for writers to anoint? Did literary agents have a side business submitting their authors' chapters to mysterious committees, then take a portion of the kitty if their clients won?

It turns out writers have to do their own submissions. But I had no idea how to begin the process, much less be chosen as a finalist among 1,200 entries from all 50 states and ten foreign countries. Mother-daughter memoir writing is not my usual gig; I'm a business journalist, formerly at Fortune magazine. These days I freelance for publications such as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, and this Web site. To maintain the above career, I read two newspapers a day and 25 magazines a month, none of which is a literary journal.

Writing about the personal finances of the founder of Merry Maids hadn't prepared me too well to write literary nonfiction, so I joined a master-class writing group for career writers. Once in a while one of the group members, several of whom had been writing fiction for decades, would make a reference to something called Conpo. Conpo proved to be a double-secret Internet subscription list of opportunities for creative writers -- so secret, in fact, that I spent months chasing it down before I discovered that the list had pulled a duck-and-cover, changing its name to CRWROPPS to evade the ever-increasing masses who wanted either to subscribe or, alternately, sell Amway products to its recipients.

CRWROPPS, along with its sister site CRWROPPS2, sends you several e-mails a day detailing all the imaginable outlets for starving literary artists: Fellowships that give you a writing room of your own plus food for weeks or months at a time; journals and online lit-zines seeking submissions; and contests like New Letters, run by the University of Missouri writing program and its literary journal. Each outlet tells you exactly who can apply, what kind of pieces they're looking for, how long the submission can be, what format to use, the amount of prize money involved, and the deadline.

CRWROPPS trumps the back pages of Poets & Writers magazine as well as the newsletter for members of the Author's Guild, and it's no wonder why. Print publications can't compete with a Web site's ability to publish daily updates and last-minute deadline changes.

CRWROPPS is not the only game in town. Two gems are Anthologies Online, for submitting stories to upcoming compilation books and Winning Writers, which lists not just contest opportunities but manuscript tips, a newsletter, and warnings about scams perpetrated on unsuspecting and recognition-deprived writers (such as the "13 Warning Signs of a Bad Poetry Contest" cheat sheet).

But how do you win? Start by sending out submissions regularly to as many contests as you can afford (there is almost always a $10 or $15 reading fee). It helps to send your manuscript only to contests for which it is well-suited. Many solicitations tell you what they're looking for up-front, but others simply list maximum words counts and categories (fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction) and leave it at that. Go to the contest's Web site for more direction, and if they provide last year's winning entries, read them to see if your submission is a good fit. One site I explored made the point -- in capital letters, yet -- that the judges didn't want to see one more sob story about sad childhoods or mean moms and dads. I saved a stamp on that one.

For all I know, New Letters didn't want to see another tale of daughterly woe, either. I can only think that what makes the difference is getting away from your desk and vetting your work in front of a writing group of your peers, especially ones who aren't afraid to tell you your work is pure drivel before you waste time and energy sending it to literary contests.

New Letters was the second contest I entered, and that I made it into the finals tells me two things. One, I was damn lucky. Two, when your writing group says your story is a mere who-what-where-when skeleton of the type you've been selling to newspapers for years and needs a major rewrite, do it. Sentence by sentence, I had to bring in the kind of detail I've learned to purge from my journalism work: What I was thinking when my mother got off a plane and deliberately ignored my five-year-old to punish me for some petty grievance, how I was sweating underneath my mohair turtleneck when I confronted her about it in Ella's restaurant a few days later, the way her creepy smile in response made me decide our troubled relationship was finally over.

I wrote that story and the rest of my memoir for me and other women like me, not for the judges of the New Letters Literary Award. Perhaps that's why they chose it. But my gut tells me I was damn lucky.