Copyright © 2017, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.
Last year I posted an article titled "Observations About Literary Contest Submissions" after being asked to read and score five manuscripts submitted to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's 2016 Literary Contest. In my posting, I outlined six guidelines and truths about submitting to literary contests, hoping the advice might help new writers who are tempted by a contest. As a two-time finalist and former winner of this contest, I thought maybe I have learned something along the way.
I put my own advice to the test again this year (2017), submitting two entries: a novel and a short story. Both received positive critiques from the first-line readers. And, the novel was chosen as a finalist! I found out in late July that I, unfortunately, did not win this time.
Being a finalist again got me thinking about the guidelines in my earlier posting, and the math involved in contests. In my article, I postulated that simply and precisely following the contest rules, and a cleanly formatted manuscript, would jump you ahead of half the others. Maybe that's an exaggeration, maybe not. But following all my six guidelines may do that and more.
Imagine if you're in a category, like Mystery, with 100 entries. If half of those fail the contest rules and neatness test, your competition drops to 50. Of those, many will fail to write a proper synopsis, maybe 10 of them. Another 20 may fail due to poor writing, such as too much backstory, mundane dialog, no description or scene setting, or a languid pace. So, maybe that 50 now drops to 20 or 25. They are your remaining competition. If the Mystery category has eight finalists, your odds become maybe 1 in 3, versus the original 8 in 100 (about 1 in 12).
Now, my numbers here are pure speculation, but are based on experience having been a reader/scorer for the PNWA contest three times. So, I've seen for myself how often author submissions fall into that bottom 75% where glaring mistakes doom their entries.
So, if you want to greatly increase your odds of being a finalist in a contest, paying attention to the details, and the experience of others, is a good start.