The Politics of Writing Contests

A few years ago I learned a lesson obvious in hindsight yet difficult to foresee. The nature of this lesson, an instruction in fairness, is inseparable from the circumstance in which I learned it. I am appreciative of and grateful for this general lesson; summed up, what is true isn’t always fair, and what is fair isn’t always true. The political component is succinctly phrased as, you aren’t going to win money in a regional contest if you don’t live there – and that is as it should be, since that is actually completely equitable.

In July 2018, I had entered the Loudoun County, Virginia, Library writing contest, doing so blindly and without expectation. There was no entry fee and small cash prizes were offered. I entered a short sci-fi story that I really liked but hadn’t been able to sell. At only 775 words it is flash fiction and one of the first stories I wrote when I decided to focus on shorter works. My reasoning was that flash required less time to write and would perhaps be an easier sale than longer works.

I didn’t know anything about Loudoun County. I had lived in Blacksburg, Virginia, a long time ago, but Blacksburg is farther south and more central. Loudoun County seems to be a bedroom community of the DC Megalopolis, and it turns out that I have visited, albeit briefly. I had landed at and marveled at the size and spent several hours at Dulles International Airport in 2001 while awaiting a flight to upstate New York.

I live in Ohio now and the idea of entering the contest felt vaguely inappropriate. Being so distant made me feel like an intruder. The first, second and third places had cash awards. Additionally, there were ten honorable mentions. I was really just looking for a writing credit, putting my ideas and words out into the marketplace. I also wanted feedback and comment on my work.

But I felt guilty if arrogant about maybe “taking somebody else’s prize money.” Cash was not my primary motivation, but it served as further encouragement. I was not especially confident or convinced that I would win. But the mere possibility made me feel like a carpetbagger. I was truly rather pointlessly conflicted. Since my story was science fiction and I expected that the genre alone might limit its appeal. Further, it was also a Christmas story. Most editors want evergreen content that does not have time sensitivity. Cold comforts, really, thinking that I probably won’t win. But the shape of the outcome was already known.

A few months later, in October 2018, the winners were announced. I received a package in the mail. Inside was a certificate of honorable mention and a new spy novel. Around the same time, I received an email with a pdf attached containing all the winning stories included in a magazine fashion. I was one of ten honorable mentions. The top three winners were all from the immediate area of Loudoun County, and not until the honorable mentions are there more distant winners, Massachusetts, Ohio (me), and Serbia.

A writing contest that has a geographically distant winner would be a poor contest, disappointing to the local participants and kind of pointless. Turned around, if my local library held such a contest, and awarded the cash prizes to writers from Tucson or Dubuque or Ottumwa, perhaps even to the exclusion of locals, I would be puzzled and feel vaguely hurt, even though this might be an even more impartial awarding. There are levels of fairness, and “local gal wins short story contest” is in a way more equitable than “best story wins the contest.” That said, I am well satisfied with my honorable mention.

What is true isn’t always fair, and what is fair isn’t always true. I was not impressed with the winner and didn’t think it was an especially good story. I actually thought that the third-place story was better. And whether it sounds arrogant or not, I do think my story was superior to both. Mine was better written, with more effective structure, and was more assured and less self-conscious.

But I am not a contest judge, and even if I were, my opinion is only that, an opinion, and not a demonstrated truth. Even more significantly, the contest objective is not to seek out the next Hemmingway or Fitzgerald or Shakespeare. The intent seems to be both broader and yet more focused, to create engagement and encourage effort. Awarding prizes locally creates excitement and interest. Sending local monies to far off winners creates puzzlement and disappointment. These are the politics of first place.

I do not know if the winner’s story is a one-off, or if she is a more “serious” writer. But a couple of hundred dollars is a pleasant affirmation and positive feedback, and I tip my hat to her earned win and wish her all success.

An editing course I attended emphasized the celebration of rejection slips, as they represent ongoing effort. I would add, equal to this, is to always seek to target work to the best possible audience.

As to this contest, knowing the total number of contest entries would be useful. Were there two hundred or two thousand? I sent an inquiring email but received no response. But this is probably just vanity on my part. I wanted a writing credit and the honorable mention gives me that credit. I consider that a win.

Also, surprisingly, there is no link on the library website to download past pdfs of winning stories and winning contests. This seems a missed opportunity, to not have the stories immediately and readily available. However, the contests seem to be annual and ongoing, sometimes aimed at younger people, sometimes inviting poetry rather than prose.

And for myself, as always, on to the next challenge.

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