Sunday, July 21, 2013

Writing Contests: You Can't Lose

     As a kid, writing was the one thing I knew I could do well.  There weren't many opportunities for me to shine, until I discovered writing contests. 

     Ironically, (for someone whose first published book was a historical fiction set in Civil Rights Era Mississippi), my first writing award was courtesy of....of all things....the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  In eighth grade I came in second place in a city-wide essay contest. The subject? General Peter Alexander Stewart, a fairly obscure Confederate officer.  Trust me, in those pre-Internet days, it took several weekends of camping out in the reference section of the library before I dredged up enough information for a 500 word essay. On Awards Day, I proudly skipped to the auditorium stage to collect my five dollar prize.

     Five dollars equaled ten hours of babysitting.

     Winning was good.   I was hooked.

      I was blessed to have grown up when Mississippi had an annual state Arts Festival.  Along with a multitude of other arts related events, there was a statewide junior writing contest for high school students.  I won the short story contest  my sophomore year. My prize?  Fifty bucks and lunch with Willie Morris. I had no idea who Willie Morris was other than the former editor of Harpers.  (Later he would write My Dog Skip and I would come to admire his talent.) Then I just knew he was an Important Writer from Mississippi.   I later found out that my hometown writing idol Eudora Welty had been one of the writing contest judges.

     Fifty bucks = One hundred hours of babysitting.

     Winning was good.

     Winning gave me confidence.  Having conquered Mississippi, I didn't think twice about entering a contest sponsored by the Girl Scout magazine, American Girl (not to be confused with the magazine sponsored by the Pleasant Company and the American Girl dolls.) Winning the top short story prize made me positively cocky. I actually got some fan mail, plus a strange phone call from a Baptist youth group in Florida, who wanted to know the "story-behind-the-story."

      The prize? A ridiculous amount of money (to a sixteen-year-old) for something I banged out in study hall one day.  My math skills could no longer translate it to babysitting hours.

     From American Girl it was a short hop to the Grandmama of junior writing contests...the Seventeen Magazine short story contest.  Seventeen Magazine was our fashion-beauty-dating bible. In between the  pictures of Christie Brinkley in hot pants and floppy hats and the Bonnie Bell Lipsmackers ads, there were at least two short stories per issue by nationally recognized authors. (One that made a huge impression on me was by Pulitzer winner, Annie Proulx.)  I entered the contest, hardly believing my own daring.  These girls were good.  They went to fancy Eastern private schools.  Could I compete? I could and I did.  I came in second behind a teenage Joyce Maynard who had just published her first book at 19.

     So what's my point?  My point is that I was allowed to experience early success and gain confidence through these contests.  Even thouh there was a decades long gap between winning my last contest and selling my first book, I never lost that winning feeling, that confidence that deep down, I had what it took.

     I no longer enter contests.  Most of them aren't open to me as a published writer.  The last one I entered was 25 years ago when Delacorte Press still had their First Middle Grade contest.  However, I recommend entering contests for several reasons.

     1.  A deadline.  When you are still a pre-published author, writing can get shoved to the bottom of your priority list. After all, the only person who expects you to write is you. There isn't a publishing deadline, no editor emailing you for revisions.  A contest deadline makes you accountable for getting the work done.

     2.  Honing your craft.  Contests not only have deadlines, they have rules. Word counts. Specific genres, formats, subject matter.  Working within contest parameters disciplines your writing.

     3.  Winning.  Winning isn't always about publication or money.  Sometimes the prizes are a conference scholarship or a free critique.  Whatever the prize, it is usually something that will help you in your quest to become a better writer.  (A caveat: I am wary of contests from entities I don't know that charge an entry fee.  Some of these are just plain scams.  When in, doubt check Predators and Editors.)

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Amy Benoit said...

Thanks! Now I'm off to find a contest to enter!!!

mary ann rodman said...

Amy--I think that was the fastest I've ever had someone comment on a post...I was still doing corrections! Thank you, and good luck with your writing in general and contests in particular.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

I love hearing how Contests affirmed and celebrated my fellow TA's! :)
And, for our Young Writers out there,
check out the Chicago Tribune Read and Write program for children ages 5-16, inviting them to submit book reviews for their summer reading.
Deadline is August 15.

Carmela Martino said...

Mary Ann, I didn't know about your winning so many contests as a young writer. Wow, coming in second in the SEVENTEEN contest! I didn't even have the nerve to enter that one.
Though, I shouldn't be surprised at your early success, given the awards you've won for your published picture books and novels. :-)

jan godown annino said...

WOW - I love this post & what it can mean for connecting young people to writing opportunities.

Such great references here - Willie Morris, Eudora Welty. Huge talent, recognized early & validated by those already arrived.

Mary Ann your child writing honors are similar to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, did you know?
She won writing contests beginning at about age 13 (Washington Post, McCalls magazine. ( Info in my world becasue I sleuthed her child days for a p.b. bio I'm working on ) Impressionable years influences can be such catalysts.

Brava to your child writing & current writing.