Tuesday, July 19, 2016

How to evaluate contests

Is there a way to check how well known a prize is? Is the standard - I haven't heard of it in multiple places so it must not be a thing? I ask because some of this is crowd dependent. Living in CT, where there are a lot of successful authors, I recently learned about an award that is big locally - they get ten or twelve agents and editors to jury it. But aside from people who've been judges, I'm not sure if anyone's heard of it. Is there a quick google test? (Not that I've won the Tassy award, nor a I querying yet; this is a classic cart before horse question.)

When a person queries me and mentions they've won "first place in the Carkoon Garden Show Writing Contest" I look up the contest.

I look for the following things:
1. Number of categories. A contest that has eleven hundred categories is no contest at all.

2. Who's nominated: If I haven't heard of any of the books on the short list, I'm less likely to value that contest.

3. Who published the books that are nominated: If I haven't heard of any of the publishers, I discount the contest entirely.

4. The entry fee: if it costs more than $25 to enter I'm less likely to consider it a good contest. Contests with steep entry fees are often very profitable for the people who run it, not so much for the people who enter or "win."

5. Contest footprint: If I google the contest and the only thing that shows up is the contest website, that's a problem.  If people aren't talking about the prize, or lauding the winners, it's less valuable.

Let's look at the contest you mention: The Tassy Award

1. There are five categories for this award. They're all categories that make sense. I've seen contests that have a category each for suspense, mystery, thriller, procedural, private eye and zombie detectives. The purpose is to get more entries (and money) not to honor one particular book as outstanding

2 and 3. Here's a list of winners. They provide a link to the author's website which is helpful.
I don't know any of these authors, but I know the trade publications that are talking about the books. That's a good sign.

 4. The entry fee is $20. That's reasonable for an organization like this.

5. Here's the google search. It's clear that it's pretty well known. Not the Pulitzer, but not everything can be.

So, if you enter and win this, I'd definitely list it in your bio. When I google it, it's clear that this contest should be taken seriously.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Well, now what is known as local just went national. This question, and your answer, now elevates our little corner of the world and what we do here.

Though the Tassy is not my thing it's great that you have positive comments regarding a vehicle esteemed by local children's' authors.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

It's nice to know what to look for when evaluating a venue for submission.

I've never heard of the Tassy award before, but some of the winner's names look familiar, I think. Granted, the categories are not typically what I read, though my time at the library has left me with pockets of knowledge in a variety of genres/age categories, which is boosted by the fact that I'm now the one who orders (at the director's directive), receives, and processes pre-barcoding all of the library's books.

Though I'll say, writing contests are fun/exciting in theory, but not typically so fun/exciting as Flash Fiction Friday at the reef can be (I apologize for not entering lately, I'll get back to it I'm sure. The novella I planned this month is apparently more novel sized and I wrote more than 10k over the weekend.)

Anonymous said...

Janet is it possible that a one hundred word flash fiction piece could be so well written as to entice you to ask a writer if they have written anything more?

I read consistently that the writers on your, "blog response threads," are very good. You say that the writers are "so good that they make it hard for you to choose a winner in your contest".

I believe we all use you as the standard measurement of what a great agent is and should be. Having said that it goes without saying that your advice is not only taken but considered best among the rest.

So in gauging contests, could it not be said that if you win a Janet Reid Flash fiction contest that, you are worth the read because Janet Reid's success paints a picture of the contest winners potential?

I aspire to one day write a piece that, not only engages you, but that you can say, "that was well written and you should read it because it was a great piece of writing".

Theresa said...

What really caught my eye here was the bit on entry fees. It's good to know that a certain amount is considered reasonable.

Cindy C said...

I love the detailed explanation of what you look for in contests. I'm not OP in this case, but could have been. The number of contests out there is daunting, and other than a few well-known national ones I had no idea how to tell which are legitimate and which weren't. This helps.

Colin Smith said...

I'll add my thanks for this, Janet, especially for exemplifying your answer with reference to the Tassy awards. Those who have contest wins can now much better evaluate their worth on a query.

I think I mentioned before (I say a lot on here--sorry!) that I'm not, as a rule, entering contests right now, except for Janet's flash contests. It took some thought and a couple of Janet's comments on here for me to draw the conclusion that, while contest wins are valuable, getting a short story published would be more so. Not only is it free to submit stories, but if you get published in a respected mag, a) it's publishing experience--you're now a published writer, b) you get street cred with agents, especially those who rep that genre and are well acquainted with the mag, and c) you (often) get paid, which makes you feel like a professional writer. Also, getting paid for your work is meaningful beyond the check in the bank. It means someone thought your work valuable enough to compensate you for it, and good enough to have monetary value.

The accolades that come with contests are wonderful, heart-warming, and affirming. And much good can come from a contest win--people have gone on to publication from a contest win (even some of Janet's own). But it's easy to applaud and cheer someone's talent. It's another to like their work enough to part with hard-earned money for it.

I could blog on this, and I probably should instead of taking up comment space. But this is a good discussion topic if you can't think of anything to say. :)

Lisa Bodenheim said...

This is great information. Thank you, Opie, for the questions. And thank you, Janet, for the answers.

I've also felt overwhelmed by the number of contests available and how to go about evaluating them. So I take the default position and don't enter any of them except the one I'm aware of, so far, in the metro area where I live.

But (now that the caffeine is kickstarting the brain) in looking at #4, is it reasonable to assume that paying a small fee is also better than paying no fee? Or does it depend upon whether the winning author(s) receive a reasonable sum of money and recognition?

Colin Smith said...

Jason: This much I know from personal experience, and from reading this blog. If you're a contest winner:

a) Janet will visit your social media site (blog, tumblr, whatever), so if you have a book, or you're working on a novel, and you talk about it, she'll see it. She might even be looking for that, so be sure you mention it!

b) Janet will keep note of your name in the event your query turns up in her inbox.

c) Janet may or may not follow up with you. My experience is that Janet is very humble with her celebrity. She doesn't assume you want to hear from her, or that what she thinks carries any weight with you. So, don't expect her to suddenly start following you on Twitter and DM-ing fan notes to you, or emailing you for requests for your work.

And I repeat, this is based on my experience and what I've read. I'm not Janet, so I can't speak for her. But if this helps answer your question, take it for what it's worth. And if Janet corrects me, may she do it mercifully, and with a sharp blade. Those dull ones hurt like the Dickens. :)

Lennon Faris said...

Thanks, Janet! Timely with the list of contests the other day.

I know it's not exactly what's being asked here but... The 100 word FF contests have taught me two major things: to choose my words more carefully (for connotation AND brevity), and to make sure my story actually tells the story. So I can't speak for other contests, but the FF here is pretty valuable, no matter if it's resume material or not :)

2N's - I was hoping for an example of a little-known contest. Love your random comments :P

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I once won an actual Janet Reid flash fiction contest. How will I ever top that? All other awards will pale in comparison. And I don't know how I could top myself on that little piece. Not in 100 words or less. However, this weekend...

The next contest I enter will resemble the old query train and the award will be an agent and subsequent book sale to find my place in the shelves of your local bookstore just shouting distance from soon to be NYTBS Donna Everhart's myriad of terrific books. (This is a long process and Donna will have multiple books out by the time I get to those shelves). At least that is the dream.

I had best 5 days of writing I have had for years this past week. I think I have created something exceptional. I might be wrong. But it has that feeling. I am not sleeping or eating. All I want to do is write. This day job is killing me.

Colin Smith said...

Elise: I've said it before, and I'll say it again, your winning entry for Janet was one of the best I've ever seen here. Sublime. You got chops, as they say. :)

Lennon: One thing I've observed about other flash contests is that not all stipulate the entries have to be stories. I've seen some very fine writers who have won those contests get noted as "Beautiful, but not quite a story" here. Honestly, I think that requirement is the most difficult of all the rules Janet imposes.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin You are the best. Now I feel all guilty about voting you back to Carkoon. But I did vote to let you pack first. And seriously, without you...those Carkoonians get way out of control and steal all the rum.

Julie Weathers said...

As Janet said before, agents do read collections of short stories so if a person can get published there, that's a big plus. Even if the agent hasn't read it, it means, if it's a genuine publication, that an editor somewhere saw merit. I would think this is a good thing to pursue.

Contests carry various weights as to their merit. Just like all horse races aren't equal. Some are small and lesser known. And others are quite well known.

So, if you win the Pinch Journal contest, it would be worth mentioning. While it's an honor to win Janet's flash fiction contests, it might not be as impressive to list on a query.

Jason, Colin has already answered and I'm sure Janet will address this at some point. Keep in mind, as much as she loves all of her reiders, it's still business. Hence, even though she might come to my birthday party, she won't be able to force herself to read my epic fantasy. Trust me on this. If she didn't read Game of Thrones she's not reading any fantasy.


"The 100 word FF contests have taught me two major things: to choose my words more carefully (for connotation AND brevity), and to make sure my story actually tells the story. So I can't speak for other contests, but the FF here is pretty valuable, no matter if it's resume material or not :)"

And that's where their value lies aside from great writing practice. You'll notice how the quality has improved over the years. At Books and Writers, we used to have short shorts in Writers Exercises in July and December. Those months people were more busy so the exercise was cut to 500 word short stories. Each week the mod would put up a list of words and that would be our theme for the story. They were very simple words, as Janet uses.

I always included a Civil War story amongst the mix. Martha and Tilley would make several appearances. Another writer and Martin and I would have a contest to see who could do all of the stories each week and usually wrap it up with a pun war. It was quite remarkable at the variety of stories and quality from one word. Many of the stories people used as foundations to expand and submit for publication.

Learning how to write in a short space teaches a person to really use language to the fullest.

Donnaeve said...

Writing awards are an affirmation appetizer for writers. They can help a writer to know that, yes by God, I can write, and also motivate them to keep going. It's a shorter goal in the path of the longer goal to publication. An award can feed the writer, mind, body and spirit with that little bit of get up and go for their bigger project.

Having said that, I've never entered any contest except the ones here. And I agree with Colin, Elise, your FF was definitely one of the best I've read. I still remember that guard flicking the piece of ash off his sleeve. Talk about scene building in 100 words. There was another entry - I want to say it was Mallory Love's. (?) I recollect it had to do with...the cycle of life. From a child's perspective. The chicken soup recipe was a hint - b/c the child had eaten it, and was now making it, and feeding it to her mother. The last "demand" was "Sleep." And the mother did. Anybody else remember that?

Donnaeve said...

Oh, and Elise! Ya'll make me giggle with the NYTBS stuff. You and Colin both!

Colin Smith said...

Yes, Donna (stbnytba)--the ash of yesterday's arrivals. When a piece of writing, no matter short, sticks in your mind like that, you know the writer did well. Very well. And I do recall that one about the soup. I'd have to check the spreadsheet to verify who wrote it. There should be an anthology of these one day. Perhaps when Janet retires, which hopefully won't be for a long, long time. :)

Claire said...

That's very true about the motivating power of winning a contest or award, Donna.

My current WIP had been languishing in a folder on my computer for a couple of years; it was about 2000 words of notes on a couple of key scenes, nothing more. And then a short story I wrote was shortlisted in a decent writing contest, and published in an anthology of finalists. It was the single most motivating thing that has ever happened to me, writing-wise - someone else (who was not, you know, my mother) actually thought my writing was of value, and stood out from the crowd. That was huge for me. I dug out the novel, and have been plugging away on it steadily ever since.

BJ Muntain said...

Lisa asked: "is it reasonable to assume that paying a small fee is also better than paying no fee?"

I don't think so. One of the biggest contests in the speculative fiction world is the Writers of the Future contest, which has no entrance fees. Many of the winners have gone on to success in short story and novel writing.

As Janet says, large fees are simply a money grab for the contest, and you know that's what the contest is for, more than to help or honour a writer.

I've realized that literary magazines don't hold their contests to show literary worth. After all, they have their magazines for that. If you notice, you'll see that most literary magazine contests charge the same amount for an entrance fee as they charge for a subscription... then they'll say, 'a subscription to the magazine is included in the fee'. Basically, their contests are a way to boost their subscription numbers, and pay a relatively small amount of money to do that. (I entered a few of these contests back when I started, in the mistaken assumption that you started small, with literary magazines, then moved up to the big ones.)

I'm now very careful about which contests I enter (mostly because money is harder to come by these days). I'd rather be paid than pay.

And to everyone who needs motivation: The world needs to read your stories. Write them!

BJ Muntain said...

(And by 'literary magazines', I mean the small ones, usually put out by university English departments or by someone who thinks that the world isn't literary enough so wants to make more literary stories public. These don't make money, really, except through their contests. And many of these magazines don't pay the writers in them anything but copies and what little exposure that sort of magazine has, anyway.)

Kat Waclawik said...

Donna: Thank you, thank you. That FF entry was mine. I wrote it when my daughter was kicking me awake all night, and--in a moment of insanity--the thought crossed my mind that I'd sleep more once she was born.

Between baby and work, I'm often frustrated lately at how the WIP has been creeping along. Hearing that something I wrote stuck with you is just the affirmation appetizer I needed. Hopefully this evening my WIP will win the nightly battle of writing vs. sleep.

(I'm careful about not saying "I don't have time to write." I still get 24 whole hours every day, after all. But I figure I have the rest of my life to write, and not much time left to cuddle this adorable girl while she trails a finger over my face and mumbles "mamamama.")

And by the way, Donna, I can't wait for Dixie!

Barbara Etlin said...

I recognize a few names of those award winners. They write books for children and teens.

Yeah, a lot of contests aren't worth the money or effort.

Timothy Lowe said...

Another helpful post. Thanks, Janet!

Julie Weathers said...

I'm waiting for someone to write a story with a crow who steals the murder weapon.

Panda in Chief said...

While I don't remember many of the Flash Fiction stories here (because, you know, senior panda moments) I do still remember the one about the airport pick pocket who stole the bag of a woman just back from Africa, where she had been working with Ebola patients. That one has stuck firmly in my mind, even if I can't remember who wrote it. (Sorry, most of my brain cells were used up long ago on Beatles' songs and comercial jingles)

Even though I have yet to enter a FFC, I alays write the prompt words down. Someday, perhaps.

Donnaeve said...

Kat,you're so very welcome! It was amazingly precise in it's delivery (ha, no pun - okay maybe a little one - dang, there I go again). But seriously...yes, it is one of the ones I remember.

I'm so impressed by many of the entries that come from all out here. I really get myself worked up when I'm trying to put an entry together because all of you amaze me.