I used to treat writing contests like I was holding a hot potato. QUICK—fling the manuscript at them before I lost my nerve. Entering writing contests was a challenge I gave myself as a writer, but the odds of winning seemed as tiny as a grain of salt on that hot potato. Writers are by nature living in a world of our own, so competition often feels incomprehensible.
Then, amazingly, my manuscripts began to make it into contest finals, starting with the 2013 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize. My almost-winning streak continued as a finalist in the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction; the 2014 First Annual Permafrost Book Prize in Fiction; 2015 New Rivers Press Many Voices competition; as well as semi-finalist in the 2014 Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize from Black Balloon Publishing. So close, yet so far from book publication.
Well-meaning people (who didn’t understand writers at all!) asked how I could keep submitting when I kept losing the contests. I even wondered if it made me look bad in my bio to list all these almost wins. Writers know the thrill of a good rejection, though. When an editor writes a personal rejection and says We loved it, but we’re not publishing it. Please send us another story, it’s a great day.
I had to admit to my non-competitive self that I really wanted to win and get my book published. But how in the world could I get over the almost-winning hump? Here’s how I did it. Of course there’s no magic bullet, but I offer these tips to fellow writers, with immense thanks to the editors, judges, and fellow writers who so generously shared so much of their experiences and advice with me:
- GET OUT THERE
Two breakthroughs for me were attending the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) Conference. At Bread Loaf, I connected deeply with fellow writers, one of whom became my dear friend and an invaluable mentor. I would never have met her if I stayed home in my office. At AWP, I attended a panel, “Eye on the (Book) Prize: Submitting Short Story Collections to Contests.” Many of the tips I am sharing came from writers who presented there.
Take the time to read the winning short story collections from publication contests. You don’t have to buy them all. Your local public library, even the smallest branch or town library, offers interlibrary loan service so if they don’t have the books, they can get them for you. Reading will help you decide which contests most closely match your writing style and themes, so you can submit smarter.
- GROW YOUR MANUSCRIPT
Write new stories and believe in them enough to include them in your manuscript. You don’t have to wait until they are published by a literary journal. If you love them and feel they are ready, add them in so that your collection is fresh and updated every time you submit it.
- EDIT YOURSELF
If you drop that hot potato, you can begin to coolly evaluate your own work. It’s really about taking yourself seriously enough to slow down and focus on it. You may want to print it out and physically re-order your manuscript, as if you were a reader. Try shuffling the stories into a different order. Does it start with a pop and end with a bang? How is the flow? Where is the drag? As you add fresh new stories, consider your older ones. Is it time to drop them? My first manuscript contained practically every short story I had ever written, as I struggled to meet the page minimums. As my collection grew, every story had to earn its place so I dropped the ones that didn’t hold up as well over time. No matter how much I loved them, I let them go.
- FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS
As a reader for theatre companies and writing contests, I am shocked at how often people are disqualified for not following instructions. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by sending in your manuscript in its present form. Study contest instructions like they are treasure maps leading you to the prize. Which they are.
Persistence trumps talent every time, in my book. We’ve all heard of noted writers who persisted and triumphed in the end. When you need a boost, read stories of literary rejections and realize the importance of carrying on your work. I persisted. Finally, my manuscript won the 2015 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize. I’m thrilled that they are publishing my short story collection, Bull: Stories, in early 2016.
Kathy Anderson is the winner of the 2015 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize. Her short story collection, Bull: Stories, will be published in 2016. To follow: Kathyandersonwriter.com; @anderson_kathy; Facebook