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.

Shakespeare Is Everywhere: Editorial Haiku Edition

Figures that Big Bill would infiltrate a poetry contest for editors:

Let us not

to the marriage of two clauses

admit a comma splice.

–Adriana Cloud, Winner of the American Copy Editors

Society Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku Contest

“Fie on you all! You editor folk alter wherever you alteration find!”

The 2015 Oscars: Hoorah for the Status Quo!

Okay, Academy Awards, I think I’ve finally figured out how you guys operate. It’s not about substance: it’s the presentation that counts. It’s okay to be the biggest celebration of rich white men this side of the Republican National Convention if you let other folks be presenters and sit in the theater. It’s okay to distribute exorbitantly priced gift bags to astoundingly wealthy people if the host jokes about it. It’s okay to show a bevy of women beaming supportively at their award-nominated men (and have shots of more women left behind while said men collect their awards) as long as you let one actress give a speech about how important motherhood and equal pay are. It’s okay not to nominate any actors from, or the director of, a film about the Civil Rights Movement as long as you give that film the award for best song (and a platform for the best acceptance speeches of the evening, but you don’t get credit for that one). It’s okay to have a known domestic abuser present the award for Best Picture as long as the movie (about an aging, once-famous white man becoming famous again) has a Mexican director. And it’s okay to go back to picking the usual White Man’s Epic every year (okay, okay–we might be shifting genres since “The English Patient,” “Braveheart,” and “Gladiator” won) as long as you break the pattern with something like “12 Years a Slave” every once in a while.

I gotcha, Hollywood. Thanks for helping me see the light. (And for helping me spend an evening sitting on the couch playing games on my Kindle. Luckily, I got to sit beside my husband the whole time.) Hopefully the next time I pay attention to the Oscars–maybe in ten years or so?–enough of the (ahem) old voters will have stepped aside to let new voices weigh in on what makes a truly great movie. Then again, power does tend to hang on til the very end, doesn’t it?

(And just in case you Fickle Readers out there think I’m being overly sensitive about all this? Take a look at this collection of anonymous interviews with Academy members about their Oscar ballots and see for yourself how “unbiased” members really are. It’s awfully entertaining, especially if you like seeing people try to rationalize the blatantly arbitrary. Also, have fun finding the many ways interviewees deploy the “we’re not racist, but” argument against the movie Selma.)

A Prize for New Poets (Really!): The Russell Prize at Two Sylvias Press

Hey, Fickle Readers! I’m breaking my incommunicado streak (first I was working on my very first book review, then I was sick; more exciting details to come!) to tell you all about a neat prize for poets who haven’t yet published their first book OR chapbook of poems. It’s called the Russell Prize, and it’s named after the parents of Kelli Russell Agodon, who’s an extraordinary poet herself and co-founder of the prize-awarding organization, Two Sylvias Press.

What’s cool about this award? Well, first of all, there’s no entry fee. As long as you haven’t yet published a chapbook or full-length book of poetry, you can submit your work and be considered for the award. Submission materials include three poems, a short bio, and a few paragraphs explaining how the award would help your career. (There is a more careful guideline breakdown on the web site, so please be sure to check here for complete instructions on applying.)

Second cool thing about this prize is the award itself: $500 and a small medallion. I would totally love to have won a medallion at some point early in my career, but tragically I’m ineligible for the Russell Prize. So enter this contest and let me live through you! Seriously! If you win, I’ll totally post a picture of you with your medal on my blog! Booyah!

Submissions for the Russell Prize open tomorrow, October 20th, and must be received by midnight PST on November 2nd, 2014. So get your best stuff together, Fickle Readers who are also up-and-coming poets! And good luck!!