How Much?

Do you believe in your writing? (No, this is not "believe in" like the Easter Bunny. This is "believe in" as in "believe in the value of.")

No, really. Do you believe in your writing?

How much, in actual dollars, do you believe? If it's hard to quantify, think about some other concrete item--say, grande mochas.

Would you be willing to forego 2 grande mochas, or pay $10, to enter your story (poem, script) into a contest?

Then go here, to the contest sponsored by the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop, and do so.

Disclosure: I'm on the Executive for NOWW. I am not involved in administering the contest, and I'm not entering it. As we used to say in the South, back when we wuz rockin' on the porch 'n' spittin' watermelon seeds, I don't have a dog in this fight. (Okay, we never said that, and nobody I knew in real life ever said that, but Southerners in movies do.) (However, I have been known to sit on porches, to sit in rocking chairs, and to spit watermelon seeds, though never all at the same time.)

Back to contests: I carefully pick and choose the contests I enter, because I'm interested in getting feedback on my writing. From some contests, the only potential feedback is "no," and I can get "no"-related information, delivered with glee and in excruciating detail, from my critique group. For free! (They love me, really they do.)

So here are the criteria I use to evaluate contests, and why I recommend the NOWW contest.

1. Affordability: Can I afford the entry fee? Most of the contests sponsored by literary magazines include a year's subscription in the ($30 to $40) entry fee--an excellent investment in literature and in the development of your own writing career, if you can afford it. (It is illuminating to read an entire year's worth of issues of a literary magazine.) But if you can't afford it--there's no shame in being realistic about finances--here's a consideration: The NOWW contest costs $10 to enter. (In Canada, that's two grande mochas.) You can enter two pieces per category. If you're a person with talents in multiple categories, consider joining NOWW for $35; that way, you can enter 2 stories, 2 poems/cycles, and 2 scripts (a $60 value) and save $25.

2. Return on Investment: What is the potential payoff? I don't enter contests that give one award. I just don't. What are the chances that my (e.g.) short story is "the one" that some judge somewhere is going to like the most? Not good. What are the chances that my short story is one of the three best that the judge will see? Better. The NOWW contest gives three prizes in each category. Money prizes. Cold hard cash. More than $10, too. Did I mention money?

3a. Company (as in, what company am I keeping?): Who are the judges? Judges for the NOWW contest are well known Canadian writers. These are people whose writing you should get to know, too. Good company, in other words. This year, Anne Compton (poetry), Fred Stenson (fiction), and Dave Carley (scriptwriting) are doing the honours. Shouldn't they have the opportunity to read your work? Previous judges have included Lorna Crozier, Pasha Malla, Betsy Struthers, and Gordon Korman.

3b. Company (as in, what company am I keeping?): Who has won this contest, anyway? The list of 2010 winners is available at the link above. A few winners from 2009 are posted to give you a sense of the kind of writing the contest attracts. All of which gives you a sense of whether your writing is competitive in this environment.

So there you go. If these criteria sound a little cold or business-like, that's because they are. I am not independently wealthy. I therefore choose to invest my money, as well as my time and energy, as wisely as possible. That sometimes means saying "no" instead of "yes."

BUT after I look at these criteria, I go back to the writing itself. I ask myself questions like these: Do I like this (e.g.) short story, am I proud of it, is it the best I can make it right now? All of which are sneaky ways of asking DO I BELIEVE IN THIS? (If I'm thinking about a contest at all, the answer had better be "yes.") Okay, then: How much do I believe in this?

Because there's one other, hard-to-quantify criterion that may be the most important criterion of all: what will entering this contest mean to me? It's actually the shadow form of the "payoff" criterion (#2 in the list above).

Your actions about your writing demonstrate your beliefs about your writing--not only to the world, but to yourself. Every time you struggle to bring a piece into existence, to make it its own best self, or to send it into the world, you tell yourself that your writing is important. Maybe it's important only to you--so what? Aren't you worth two grande mochas? (And by the way: If it's not important to you, why are you doing it?)

One of the most important reasons to enter a contest is to remind yourself that you are a writer. Your most important audience, for this act, is you.

So, if you have $10, consider entering your most darling beloved creation, which you have revised and polished, in this contest. (What, it's not darling and beloved? It's not revised and polished? You still have two weeks!) And then, pat yourself on the back--for taking your writing seriously.