More thoughts on Contests…

There was a post in May, by Mike van Horn, called “Writing Contest Rant.”

That post stuck in my head for several reasons. I enter contests. I never expect to win, at least in the traditional sense. I find his rant entirely valid, as well as the ensuing comments from everyone else. I even posted a rumination on my blog about whether I should contest, or not. 

Yet, I still enter contests. Why?

After that post, and agreeing with all of his points, I re-evaluated why I still wanted to enter contests. What was I getting out of it? I’m writing full time now, so it’s not like I need an incentive to write. In fact, I now have enough writing projects to keep me happily engaged daily, not to mention the challenge of building and maintaining my own websites. 

Why waste my time on a useless pursuit then? 

At the same time I’m questioning my judgement, I also realized I lacked motivation for keeping up with my personal blog. Then I got the idea to use each contest to write the chapters of a story. Each contest would provide one chapter. Once I complete the story, I will post each chapter on my blog. I still write within the constraints of the contest parameters, but add the twist of how it relates to the rest of the story. 

I now have six chapters into a story that has been a lot of fun to write. Now when I get the feedback from the contest, I admit I feel a bit smug, like I’ve manipulated them to my purpose and they have no idea. I also feel like it has ratcheted up my writing skill a notch. 

At some point, though, I will reach a moment where I decide the whole exercise is pointless. I regard the challenge of writing within the contest parameters to be fun. But as I spend all day writing (and painting) I find I need that sort of challenge less and less. Also, the story that has evolved from these contests may be larger than the amount of contests I will enter. 

One final observation. In my personal writing journey, I struggle/d with endings and writing less than thirty thousand words. The contests have helped me learn the art of less is more. It helped me smooth out my revision process. 

While I understand contests are not for everyone, as a person who wanted to be a full-time writer, but had to concentrate on my day job first, they became a helpful skill building process. Especially when I removed any hope of winning from the equation. I still have a long way to go. But at least I’m honing some skills along the way. 

While contests lack the merit of reward for writing well done, they serve as a tool to improve aspects of an individual’s skill. Like all tools, they don’t work in all situations and, like some tools, they just need a new purpose or alteration to make them more useful.

At any rate, I’ll likely continue with the contests I enjoy until they become drudgery. Then I’ll know I played along as long as I could and then let them go.


59 thoughts on “More thoughts on Contests…

  1. “I got the idea to use each contest to write the chapters of a story.”
    Great idea! You could even continue to write short stories like “Multiverse Anthropologist” for Show Case and collect them into a book of your short stories.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. When I saw your post, I thought you were writing to me because I’m getting a short ready to submit to a competition (free). Of course, competitions are easily rigged, but one can hope. I’ve only won one thing in a raffle; a monster wood-fired pizza oven. One day, ages after I forgot about filling out the little slip of paper, a lady called. “You’ve won an oven,” she said.

    “That’s nice, but I already have one.”

    “This is an outdoor oven, and it’s coming tomorrow,” she continued.

    “Okay, great.”

    And then it arrived in a giant truck which hoisted the ten hundred-pound pieces to the ground. And for two days, my children and I constructed ramps and pulleys to move the pieces into place. We toiled like the Egyptians building a pyramid.

    And the pizzas are great.

    So, you never know when an oven might materialize in your garden. But I suspect that the relative/friend, the intended winner, refused the offer because pyramids aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Oh wonderful! Pizza is the most perfect food … it has everything you need in one pie!
      Yes winning things in raffles etc actually happen but not usually on the 10k lb grand style. My most notable win was an Air Canada T-shirt. I won it for logging in to my computer at work. I had no idea I was even in entered in to a contest. I had only been with United Airlines for a month. Apparently we had just joined some sort of partnership with Air Canada. Who knew! After that I just won a bunch of weird nonsensical grief for thinking airline work was my calling.
      Good luck on your current contest endeavor. May the feedback be worthy. That’s my favorite part.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I think anyone with a website can sponsor a contest. The problem is that anyone does. Too often the judge’s only qualification is that they’re in charge of the contest. Those are the contests I would avoid.

    However, there are legitimate contests that are worth entering for prose writers. Many of them have ties to the entertainment industry. (The three best known are probably ScreenCraft, Book Pipeline, and Launch Pad.) They tell you who the judges are and what their professional qualifications are. Often, judges are producers, editors, and agents you can research to learn what sort of writing they specialize in. And the prizes for winners and runners up are generous and include industrywide exposure and meetings with top executives. Many of the top placers go on to find representation because of the contest, and then become successful in the industry.

    But for everyone else, the most valuable aspect of these contests is the opportunity to receive feedback (coverage) from professional readers — primarily screenplay readers whose day jobs are to read and recommend scripts for consideration by producers. If you don’t write screenplays, there are contests looking for short stories or novels to adapt for TV or film.

    On a smaller scale, there are legitimate contests run by legitimately published authors that are worthwhile. Curtis used to hold the Book-a-Break Contest. The prize was a stay at the B&B he and his wife own in Provence. He recruited high quality judging help, and the editing process to be published in the anthology was thorough. Christopher Fielden has run the To Hull and Back competition since 2014/15. It’s strictly for humorous stories (which might contain dark humor or even only one humorous moment) because he loves to laugh. His website is a treasure trove of instruction, guest posts on all things to do with writing, and information on other legit contests. There’s a small entry fee, of course, but over the years, he has built such a following that he can award cash prizes not only to the top three, but to the other 24 whose stories will also be included in the published anthology.

    It’s true writing to enter contests can help improve our writing, but it might be that finding contests worth competing in is a matter of where we look.

    Liked by 7 people

    • I appreciate your insight Sue. There are o many contests out there. The three you mention, I have not heard of. I definitely will check them out. Another really good bit of practice contests provide, is submitting work to a deadline, and in one contest I have done, learning how to write a synopsis. It also provides and opportunity to really pay attention to submission guidelines, such as font, structure etc. As a novice writer, you might not know that even to send a piece to a magazine, there are requirements you must follow for formatting your piece, which may even be more important than your content. (Those I avoid, because I feel if my structure is more important than my content, then I must be entering a grammar contest instead of a story contest.)
      But I do feel each contest has a function and possibility for honing some aspect of the craft.
      There is a contest in the Pacific Northwest that I have entered a couple of times. It’s for unpublished work and it’s through PNWA, Pacific Northwest Writers Association. They are local to me and offer other professional writing services.. In fact I believe this weekend they are holding their annual conference. Their contest has taught me alot about submitting novel length work … and writing a comprehensive synopsis, which had me working harder than actually revising my novel!
      Again, I achieved my goal … learning and honing.
      The ones I do for fun are Literary Taxidermy and NYC Midnight. Both provide feedback. NYC Midnight I like for their prompts and their short fiction contests, ranging from 100 words to 1000, and their short duration contest time of 48hrs from prompt to submission. It was these contests that prompted me to consider a story in the ‘chapter by contest’ format.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Yes, I do recommend To Hull and Back. In fact, the same year Curtis published my first legitimately published story, my second story ended up in that year’s To Hull and Back. The only cash prizes back then went to the top three and an honorable mention, I believe. Mine was just one of the rest to fill the volume.

        The entry fee is small, and Chris uses it primarily for the cash awards. It also covers his Harley trip to Hull and back, weathering and bug-spattering the winner’s book, lol. His goal is to award a five-figure prize to the first place story.

        I think entry fees for legitimate writing competitions are acceptable. I wouldn’t pay anything just to have my stories read. For instance, there is no fee to have a story read and considered for inclusion in the Rabbit Hole books. That’s not a contest, but rather, an intense series of editorial judgements made by a volunteer publishing team of authors. As I understand it, book sales cover the costs and contributing authors choose either to receive a royalty or donate their share to the Against Malaria Foundation, a highly rated charity with exceptionally low overhead.

        Liked by 5 people

  4. The only writing contests I’ve ever entered were those that did not charge a reading fee. And I’ve always . . . is “lost” the right word? Failed to place. Make of that what you will.

    PS. Over a decade ago I read a short story of mine (“The Final Flight of Major Havoc”, revised version published in BLACK GATE magazine) before a public jury of three professional writers (midlist names in the industry) and one editor (John O’Neil: editor of BLACK GATE). To say that the writers hated the story is to be guilty of gross understatement. The writers screeched like snake-bit monkeys and in their derisive, mocking commentary all but flung their poo at me. One writer, in fact, went so far (on the sealed-envelope written assessment) as to cross out the “1” rating in various categories and pencil in zeroes. In case, I suppose, I failed to get the message: For the love of god crawl off into a hole somewhere and just die already, you no-talent, tone-deaf, insufferable hack! (Well, that’s what reading that destructive criticism felt like.)

    Here’s what I learned from that experience: Never, ever submit to a public juried critique. And if you do submit to such a trial-by-snark, do not attempt to salvage your dignity afterward by speaking to the judges. They wish you gone: post-haste. Exit stage-left in stoic silence (I wish I had done).

    Also: Use any insult and/or injury to your ego to fuel your writing. Vow to get so good they can no longer ignore you. Keep reading. Writing. Living. Learning.

    PS. I reeled home numb with shock and dismay. Literally trembling with psychic horror and self-doubt. This was my big break . . . and I had totally face-planted. In public! With friends watching every excruciating moment of my humiliation.

    My guts were a contracted ball of ice. I tasted bile: bitter on the tongue as vile poison. I sat down before the computer that very night and rewrote the story, working from midnight till dawn, tearing the guts out of the tale. I eliminated 80% of the story. In fact, I threw out everything except the climactic ending.

    John O’Neil bought and subsequently published the revised version of this tale. It was my first professional sale. (To this day I remain the only writer to have published science fiction in BLACK GATE: a fantasy magazine.)

    PPS. Kurt Vonnegut’s Rule #3 of Good Writing: “Start as close to the end as possible.”

    PPPS. If any of the regulars (you are now a trusted regular, Sandy!) wish to see this tale (out of curiosity) I will email it to you privately. GD and Susan have my email address. All feedback welcome. (Trust me–nothing you could say could possibly be more excoriating than the criticism I initially received on this story. Heh!)

    Liked by 6 people

    • “For the love of god crawl off into a hole somewhere and just die already, you no-talent, tone-deaf, insufferable hack!”

      How many times are we tempted to say something similar to some poor schmuck who’s just trying to be a writer and is brave enough to subject their work and their egos to criticism — especially publicly?

      Your story is a perfect example of why no one should ever tell any writer that they should give up writing, no matter how horrendous their work might be. People with your resolve in the face of such performative assholeness can use the negative to feed their will to succeed.

      That doesn’t mean they should receive falsely positive feedback. No trophies for participating. Honest critiques can fuel improvement without humiliation.

      Congratulations to you, Carl, for making a cruelly inflicted lesson work for you. Not everyone has that strength, and although I’m sure it helps, I don’t believe every writer should need that strength to survive the growth process.

      P.S. I’d like to read that story. You have my email address…

      Liked by 5 people

    • Oh Carl!
      I have no words for that sort of humiliation! I just felt a need to throw lots of alcohol and bandaids at you to ease the pain and staunch the blood flow!
      Glad you were able to get up and use those weapons to your advantage. Yes I’d love to read it!
      The only time I’ve endured that low of human behavior was when flights canceled and I had to rebook angry people. Eesh.
      I appreciate your recounting of the tale. You have humbled me brave man.

      Liked by 5 people

      • Well, from their perspective (imagined thought balloon): “We saw no merit or craft in your tale. Should we lie? And tell you otherwise? Afterwards: When you approached us to clarify certain points of criticism and we told you ‘read writer x; read writer y’ we did not intend this as patronizing, supercilious dismissal; we simply assumed you either hadn’t read these writers or were incapable of imitating the masters. As to your stammered protestations that you HAD read the cited writers but intended something different in your text, well… didn’t we just tell you… at some length… that your story was absolute shit? We have already wasted hours of valuable personal time on your dreck, only to realize that you are incapable of learning from criticism. You want to be a pro? Learn to take the dues-paying critical savaging. It comes with the territory.”

        Liked by 3 people

    • Carl, you’re being too harsh. You need to imagine your bully’s point of view:

      There’s nothing better than coming home after a hard day’s bullying to relax to a perfectly chilled carafe of the very best pinot grigio and realize you’ve single-handedly kept the riff-raff at bay. As the delicate flavors swirl in your mouth, you recognize that you’ve maintained your imagined tentative foothold of superiority for another day.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Heh! I empathize with them, however. Two of the three writers were simply giving their opinion (and playing a bit to the crowd–it was a juried critique taking place in a bar, after all). But the third writer? Drawing a slash through the number ones on a 1-10 scale and penciling in zeroes on the written critique? That was . . . a bit much. I sure got the message, though!

        Liked by 2 people

  5. mimispeike says:

    I have entered three contests and got no feedback from any of them. It never occurred to me that I would get feedback, except for, possibly, no thanks. I didn’t even get that.

    The first was a contest by a Hartford Sunday supplement, thirty+ years ago. The second was that Flomp Humor contest, held yearly. I paid to enter that one. The third, I’m fairly sure there was a third but I can’t recall it at the moment. After that I gave up.

    You’ve gotten feedback? I guess they may give feedback to the top handful of contestants.

    Liked by 3 people

    • It totally depends on the contest Mimi, and like I said for now they serve me. There will come a time where I won’t see the point. I also used to do Nanowrimo, every November. It was really helpful because my airline life took up so much time and energy that writing for fun was a luxury and an escape. Nano provided such an outlet for me. I actually have some fun novels from that era of my life. Perhaps to one day be dusted off and used. The biggest thing I learned about my own craft was that I could write 50k in thirty days.

      Liked by 2 people

    • In the contests I mentioned that offered feedback, it was an option you could purchase at entry and again at each level your work advanced through. Progressing from quarter-finals to semi-finals seemed also to involve more experienced professional readers. The feedback turnaround time was only 5-8 days, which allowed plenty of time to revise before the next judging cycle.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Perry Palin says:

    Sandy makes some good points in her post about contests. I’ve been there.

    In past years I entered a few local or regional contests and won some modest prizes. Most of the time my stories were not chosen.

    I entered an annual national contest with a $25 reading fee, with the proceeds going to a not-for-profit. It was a pretty good story, in my opinion, but it didn’t make the cut. I thought I hit the target of the contest, but my story was too subtle, perhaps, for the judges to see it.

    Subsequently, I’ve gotten emails every year inviting me to submit another story to the contest, or the same story if I don’t have another, along with the money. Well, no. If it’s a not-for-profit I believe in, maybe I’ll just send the money.

    Liked by 6 people

  7. mimispeike says:

    “Then I got the idea to use each contest to write the chapters of a story. Each contest would provide one chapter. Once I complete the story, I will post each chapter on my blog. I still write within the constraints of the contest parameters, but add the twist of how it relates to the rest of the story.”

    I am interested in seeing how you handle this, for this is essentially what I am doing with Sly and Showcase.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I’m joining you in adding to work in Showcase … MvA (Multiverse Anthropologist) I think is a good story for writing to prompts. The other story I am writing is called Cosmic Chalk. So far my Mom is the only one who has gotten to read it. In some ways I think it is a story about her. I know she loves the story. So hopefully it’s a worthy. It’s definitely a story that has me writing out of my comfort zone.
      Mimi, check out Literary Taxidermy. Their contest is unusual. I think you might find the concept fun.

      Liked by 3 people

        • I agree Mimi, I’m totally enjoying the Showcase prompts! The Literary Taxidermy is once a year. I’m on their email list so I know when they gear up for the next one. You usually get about three months to write for that one and the fee is $10 US so pretty reasonable. Just this year they started giving feedback to everyone. I’ve done this contest three times now… still waiting on this years feedback, but it has become chapter three of Cosmic Chalk. The first year I did it I missed the deadline by a week … I had gotten the date mixed up in my head …. but I got a fun story out of the deal. That one may actually be posted on my website. If it is, it’s called M.A.T.T. My brother was my main inspiration for that story. The First and last lines were from “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. Really a fun write.

          Liked by 3 people

        • Thanks! I think naming things is one of my favorite parts of writing… I really should have gone in to philology… oh well took a different turn somewhere… fortunately still ended up writing…and naming things 😂


  8. I look at these things statistically:

    Total entries = α = 2000
    Total awards = β = 5
    Fluff percentage (kids, and others who are learning) = ε = 0.2
    Fluff genius factor (kids that are brilliant) = γ = 0.1
    Judge bias = λ = 1.5
    Current fad bias = σ = 2
    Economic-political news bias = ω = 3

    Formula for the likelihood of winning = 1/(( α/β – ξ(α/β) + γ(ξ(α/β)))λσω)

    So in my contest the calculations would follow:

    α/β = 2000/5 = 400
    400 – (400×0.2) + (400×0.2)x0.1 = 328 x 1.5 x 2 x 3 =2880
    With a 1/2880 = 0.000347 percent chance of winning.

    Wait a minute! I should at least have a 1/2000 = 0.0005 percent chance. I think the world is bias!

    Liked by 5 people

    • Unfortunately I had a math teacher who believed teaching math involved lobbing missiles at any student who asked questions (typically books and chalk) therefore I stopped being curious about mathematics in the 10th grade… consequently I was lost by your second chapter! 😂
      I know I’m missing a wonderful area of study…
      I wish I had a better teacher…

      Liked by 3 people

      • Math is definitely overrated and over-hyped. Sometimes a simple guess is better than the most overly complex of formulas.

        As a former, very short-lived high-school math teacher, I found the problem of student engagement far more difficult than trigonometry. I may have raised my voice occasionally, but I don’t remember ever demonstrating ballistic trajectories with a student target. Certainly an interesting approach.

        Liked by 4 people

        • What’s sad … I absolutely loved physics and later on mechanical kinesiology… what held me back was the basic algebra and geometry needed to do well in those classes. Just like learning language there is more than basic grammar, but if the grammar isn’t properly taught the rest is much harder to understand…

          Liked by 4 people

        • Lol, John! I think there are any number of scientists who would argue that math is not overrated and over-hyped. Without math, we’d never have gotten to the moon or beyond the edge of the solar system. Or telescopes that see billions of years into the past. Or architecture. Or simple flight. Or making change. Or retirement accounts. Or almost any invention and forward progress the human race has made.

          Liked by 2 people

          • I definitely agree, Sue. I think I’ve added my small share of confusing equations and logics to the field of neuro-computing, and indeed, of all the sciences (engineering even more so), math is the queen that rules them all. There are just times when it seems too much, like mashing potatoes with a bulldozer. And I try to follow the axiom; to avoid calculus nightmares, simple solutions are better, but not always possible.

            Liked by 4 people

            • Your comprehension of neural networks, both artificial and theoretical, utterly eclipses mine. Is your goal to design them to replicate the human brain? Simplify it? Surpass it? I’m fascinated by the possibilities of quantum computing, though I have only the most tentative grasp of its most basic concepts. And here you are, one of the guys leading the way. I am impressed.

              I have one unshakable insight into math: We did not invent it, we merely discovered a language to describe existing relationships. Who knows how many more relationships there are yet to describe?

              Liked by 4 people

              • Hi Sue,

                I’m certainly not leading the way more like following along and pointing out the trampled flowers.

                My goal isn’t necessarily to replicate human thought, although that would be a surprising and not unwelcome side effect. That’s assuming the machine doesn’t turn Terminator on us. But I think we have a long way to go before that happens.

                For all the hype and proclamations, machine intelligence, or artificial intelligence, is just statistical regression and inference with mathematical techniques devised over the last 300 years and using heaps of data. The intelligence is in the formulas, not the machine. Machine recognition algorithms would be a less sexy marketing ploy for this supposed intelligence.

                I’m more interested in overcoming the physical limitations of current circuit designs and logics. However, my interests are purely theoretical. Chip design has reached such a state of miniaturization and density that the classical electronic states can be quantumly compromised.

                Of course, tons of research focuses on utilizing these quantum properties for computation. But bringing the quantum down to individual logic circuits is haunted by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, where your observation alters the outcome. Quantum computers, so far, are limited to being fast, expensive, and not overly small statistical inference machines.

                My latest interest is in the possibility of using photonic crystals as circuits. These could use classical wave interference and quantum properties to produce logical outputs. They could also avoid the massive heat buildup of electric circuits and operate at light speeds.

                So watch that space…

                Liked by 3 people

            • This responds to your explanation further down that states, “The intelligence is in the formulas, not the machine.” Are any of the machines capable of creating their own formulae after gathering massive amounts of data, in order to discover statistical relationships? (I can imagine some bizarrely unlikely relationships they might deduce.) Or do the machines depend on humans to provide the formulae and instructions for what kind of data to use in it? If an algorithm is a set of instructions, is that what tells the machine what data to gather and plug into the formula, or is the algorithm an essential part of the formula? Or are they the same?

              You mention “Fluff percentage (kids, and others who are learning) = ε = 0.2” and “Fluff genius factor (kids that are brilliant) = γ = 0.1” in the formula for figuring out your odds of winning a contest. Are those statistics real? If so, how do we know they’re accurate? Why would they be included in your calculation?

              Inquiring minds want to know…

              Liked by 2 people

              • Fluff is purely an educated guess, and I think it’s a reasonably good guess.

                In machine learning, the algorithms stay the same, but the configuration parameters (weights) are changed according to training outcomes. In essence, the algorithm describes a collection of weighted nodal connections. In training, the strength or weight of the connection is changed to fit the data. And the weights can be adjusted to a statistical average with multiple training sessions.

                There is such a thing as self-modifying code, usually used to adapt a program to a particular environment or operating system on startup. But, I think configuration files are a safer option to control program behavior. And there is still a formula to set the bounds and limits of self-modification.

                Computers are just programmable math machines invented by mathematicians to do many tedious mathematical manipulations.

                And it’s awfully convenient that now these machines fit in our pockets.

                Liked by 4 people

  9. Sandy, the Night Cafe site is fun! I read an article recently about a similar program. The example it showed was the computer’s response to “knitted sailboat.” It was decent if you can’t tell knitting from crewel work on a plastic mesh, and didn’t mind that the ball of “yarn” behind the flat sail boat wasn’t a twisted strand, but a bizarrely braided one. As John suggests, the intelligence is in the formula, not the machine, lol.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I friend of mine (who thinks in math and code) showed me some A.I. pictures he created and got me interested in checking it out. What I find interesting is crafting pictures with words … which is what we attempt to do when writing description, so I find that sort of program intriguing. Just like using A.I. to listen to what I wrote … makes me wonder if I can use A.I. to paint my paragraphs lol. Then again, I doubt it will quench my own desire to paint my words … just hoping my artwork gets better lol

      Liked by 1 person

  10. As you know, John, quantum entanglement is not hard to understand:
    Socks come in pairs. If you put a sock on your left foot, the other sock of the pair instantly becomes the “right sock,” no matter where it is located in the universe.

    Liked by 4 people

    • mimispeike says:

      The Ralph Lauren socks have a tiny polo-guy embroidered above the outside ankle. Putting a left-foot sock on a right foot (that I sometimes do in a hurry) does not make the remaining sock a left sock.

      Liked by 5 people

        • Perry Palin says:

          Our oldest granddaughter (now 13) does this unless she’s dressing for volleyball or softball. Prior and very popular Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak was always well dressed but never wore two socks of the same color, because, he said, he had more important work to do than to match socks. It was a thing with him to wear mismatched socks. I wanted to ask him if it wasn’t just as much work to mismatch his socks as it was to match them, but in my role in the city I didn’t want to appear impertinent.

          Liked by 2 people

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