The Contest Conundrum

Sunny FrazierReturning guest blogger Sunny Frazier, whose first novel in the Christy Bristol Astrology Mysteries, Fools Rush In, received the Best Novel Award from Public Safety Writers Association, explains why all those aspiring authors who don’t take advantage of writing contests are missing out on a great opportunity.

I jump-started my career by entering and winning short story contests. After my first mystery story picked up a trophy, $100 and publication in the now defunct Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine, I was hooked.

Nearly every mystery short story I’ve written has won some sort of prize. I was dubbed “The Contest Queen” by members of the Short Story Fiction Society. Many of my stories ended up in anthologies.

Now I’m in charge of the annual mystery contest put on by the publishing house I’m part of, Oak Tree Press. This is a chance for some lucky author to sidestep the query process and go straight to publication. Every year we shake it up a bit; this year, in addition to our popular Dark Oak Mystery contest we’ve also got something called Police Blotter and Mystic Oaks. For Police Blotter, we’re looking for fiction or non-fiction police procedurals with law enforcement as the good guys. No holds barred at Mystic Oaks where we will allow vampires, werewolves and other strange concoctions that we usually avoid.

I’ve contacted every group I can think of in my vast network. Every Sisters in Crime group, online groups, writing groups, asked people to pass the message on to struggling writers. The response? Seven entries.

I’ve heard the backlash, the trash talk about contests. They’re scams. Never enter anything that costs you money. Your chances of winning are nil. Someone will rip off your manuscript. Contests seem to have a bad reputation—especially by writers who have never entered one.

Okay, let’s address the concerns. Yes, I suppose some contests are scams, although I’ve never come across one. But, I like the fact that this myth is floating around because that’s how I picked up approximately one to two hundred dollars a story. I even made $300 for a 500 word story.

Contest fees—be practical. If you can’t afford the fee, pass up the contest. If the reward isn’t worth the fee, pass up the contest. If you’re pretty sure you aren’t going to win, pass it up. However, I see the fee as similar to betting at the racetrack, only in this case, I’m the horse. I’m betting my story is better than anyone else’s entry. That’s confidence. If you believe in the quality of your work, then you’re in the wrong business. If someone else takes the prize money then I know how hard they worked at their craft because I know how hard I worked to come in first. I can respect anyone who beats me out. I know I’ve given them a run for their money.

Seven by SevenThe chance of winning? In the case of Oak Tree Press’ contest, very good. I teach workshops on how to win writing contests (yes, there can be strategy involved) and I know people will talk themselves out of participating, or they don’t follow the rules, or they don’t put out their best work, or they miss the deadline. Those mistakes closes the gap of eligible entries. I took 3rd place in one of Writers’ Digests contest, the Olympics for writers. The judges informed me there were 19,000 submissions. It was a long-shot that paid off.

Someone will rip off your manuscript. Seriously? Do you think a contest is interested in lawsuits?

The fee for the Oak Tree contest is $25. Considering that it costs about $200 to put out a book, we’re looking at $600 out-of-pocket for the three winners. Runner-ups get e-book contracts which often wind up as trade paperback. That’s a lot of bang for the buck. Plus, authors don’t have to go through the vetting process of the acquisitions editor (me!) who can be pretty tough. Thankfully, I’m not a judge.

And don’t think only losers go this route. At least one of our authors took home a Lefty, one of the highest awards in the mystery genre. But, what we’re really looking for is the author who wants a break, a chance to break into print. This business can be brutal. Why not accept a little help along the way?

I have no idea if I have changed any minds. But, in case I have, the contest ends Sept. 1 and the guidelines are at