The Goddamned Writing Life: Submitting to Contests When You Know You’re Going to Lose

Ah, the submissions game! That nasty sport that comes with a double-edged sword. If you’re a writer and you want to have something resembling a career, you have to participate, but you also have to be secure enough with the knowledge that you will be hacked to pieces over and over again for each chance you get to win. It’s a messy business. Usually, the more you submit, the easier it gets to take all those impersonal rejections, but then again, the process itself forces you to be vulnerable. Here is my manuscript, you say as you bend the knee to an editor, agent, or slush-pile reader. It is the best work I’ve got. I submit for your judgment and approval.

I submit, I submit.

Even when publishers and other receivers of written work are as nice as they can be about the system, the submission of a manuscript and the submission to authority are still intertwined in an uncomfortable way. And when it comes to writing contests, that discomfort increases a hundred fold–at least if you’re me.

See, I don’t like to lose. I REALLY don’t like to lose. I was one of those little kids that accumulated ribbons and certificates and teacherly praise. That was my identity in school–the winner!–and if there was no way in hell I could win (say, in P.E. class, where I was flubby and slow and didn’t like having things thrown at my face), I let other people compete and hovered near the sidelines in the hopes no one would see me.

I don’t like having to do that with my writing. I really REALLY don’t like the idea that I have to compete with hundreds of other writers–some with well-established careers and several books to their names–to get a chance to, say, publish a book of poetry, or even a chapbook. That seems patently unfair to me. I realize it’s the system, but it also seems like the reverse of vanity publishing: instead of paying a fee to get your work published, you’re paying to get someone else’s work published.

Of course, you might win the contest. You might also win the lottery or get into Harvard Medical School–your odds are roughly the same, or maybe slightly worse. Most small publishers are looking for maybe a handful of titles per year. Some are looking for only one. One out of a pool of hundreds of manuscripts–500, 750, maybe even more like a thousand. And you have to pay for the opportunity to lose big time. Christ. Why am I even thinking about going through this humiliating process again?

Well, because I have a chapbook manuscript to send out. Actually, I have two. One is arguably better than the other, but it would be nice to get something published again. And yes, I did beat the system once. Several years ago, I got published by Finishing Line Press, a small press based in Kentucky. It was a wonderful feeling to say, yes, I have a book out–a little, tiny book, but something that’s all my work. Finishing Line publishes a long list of titles per year. They have a contest, but they also choose titles (like mine) that don’t make the cut but that the editors still think are worthwhile. They are not gatekeepers and have given many writers a chance to get their work out into the world. I’m thoroughly humbled and grateful that they gave me my first break. I’m not so sure how I would have fared otherwise.

So why am I shopping more manuscripts around again, when the same clunky, resource-eating, soul-crushing contest system is still in place? Well, I guess part of it’s my eternal optimism. (Hah!) Part is understanding that, at the very least, the contest fees I submit help the publications and presses that I want to support. Just this weekend, I sent one of my manuscripts to a contest, and I know I’m going to lose. No, really, I KNOW without a shadow of a doubt that I will NOT be taking home the prize, nor will I get a mention on the list of notable entries, either. Still, I like the press, and I like the editor who runs it. So I decided to take a chance, because it’s always possible that lightning could strike, and because it’s nice to help out a good organization.

In this day and age, I don’t know if that makes me a Pollyanna-style idealist or a chump. But that’s what I did, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do until I get lucky again or run out of stamina or disposable income. That is the news from my writing world that I submit to you, Fickle Readers. Wish me luck.

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