22 July 2019

When to Enter

Many moons ago, I discussed why I enter so few writing contests. If there is a hefty entry fee, I stay away. If I don't know the judges or feel comfortable with the criteria, ditto.
But sometimes, dumb luck gives you an advantage, and it's true of both contests and submissions to anthologies. If you're in the right place at the right time, there are ways to get an inside track.

Several years ago, I learned about the Black Orchid Novella Award. I had a short story that never sold, and I expanded it into a novella and won. Yes, writing a good story helps, but the Black Orchid Novella Award pays tribute to Rex Stout and his detectives Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. My parents liked Stout, so I read many of his novels and novellas when I was young. We were both raised in the Midwest, so his voice and rhythm and characters influenced my own writing. In other words, writing a story that fit the contest's requirements was definitely in my skill set.

I've entered two stories in that contest, and won both times. Since it's an annual event, the submission dates are standard, which means I know when to have a story ready and have a whole year to come up with an idea (or not) and rewrite until it's worth sending. That means no rushing, important because I can't rush. I've written on demand, but it always takes me several revisions, which means lots of time.

My titles should tell you I like blues and rock and roll. Several years ago, I wrote a blog about plagiarism in rock music. Among other performers, I mentioned Led Zeppelin and their frequent "borrowing" from blues artists. That idea was fresh in my mind when the Mystery Writers of America posted a submission call for an anthology with the theme of "Vengeance," to be edited by Lee Child.

Well, Child's first novel is Killing Floor, a title taken from an old Howlin' Wolf blues classic. Led Zeppelin milked it dry for a song they called "The Lemon Song" on their second LP. Child has another novel called Bad Luck and Trouble, a line that appears in both "Born Under a Bad Sign" by William Bell and Albert King and "Double Trouble" by Otis Rush.

I figured Child was a fan of American Blues. What if I could write a story about a blues songwriter who stole a song and the results caught up with him? I called it "Hot Sugar Blues" and hoped the title would help the story get through the gatekeepers to Child himself. It appeared in the anthology and was later named a finalist for the Edgar Award.

Yes, I think it was a good story, but it still needed the right audience. You can help that happen.

Several years ago, I joined four other writers judging submissions for the Al Blanchard Story Award, sponsored by the New England Chapter of MWA. Let me share what that five-month stint taught me.

The submission time was three months, and we received 142 stories of 5000 words or less. Only a dozen came in during the first several weeks, and only 41 through the sixth week, so I read them all, Because I was used to reading lots of papers, I read EVERY story (even though I only had to read every fourth one) and took notes. (Some people have lives. I'm not one of them). I graded them all from 1 to 10 and made a spread sheet of my comments.

I didn't award any story a 9 or 10, but I gave NINETY-ONE stories a 1 or 2. That's right, nearly 2/3 of the entries earned that score, and for the same reason(s). They started with turgid--often unnecessary--backstory and most of them wallowed in description. They tended to tell rather than show, had little or poor dialogue, and a few had endings that came out of nowhere.

Don't do those things.

A whopping 41 stories came in the last day of the contest. Don't do that, either. By then, judges are in a hurry. They're looking for a reason to dump you and move on, so a typo, a badly-chosen name, or a cliche may be enough to knock you out on page one.

If a contest takes submissions for three months, I like to wait about six weeks. That gives readers time to go through enough entries to establish a personal standard of their own. They still have enough time to be flexible, though, so they'll give leeway to something a little different. When the time crush kicks in (the last two weeks), they may already have their personal favorites locked in and it's hard to dislodge them. Hit them when they're still comfortable.

Keep in mind that judging is ALWAYS subjective, no matter how specific the criteria, and no matter whether it's for a contest, an anthology, or a standard submission. Three of the five stories I rated the highest in the contest I judged didn't make anyone else's short list, but seventeen of the stories I rated a 1 or a 2 DID.

Not long ago, an editor turned down my submission because he liked the story but didn't like the golf that was essential to the plot. He never explained why. I sold the story elsewhere in two weeks. Maybe if I'd used tennis or Jai alai, it would have sold the first time out.

You never know. But some guesses are better than others.


  1. Lots of good advice here, Steve. Especially about the timing for entering. When I was judging the Edgars and Shamus short story entries, I also read everything. And, believe me, there was a lot. The ones that came in early were fine and more sparse. Then in the middle of the entry period it got heavier. But like you say towards the end came the deluge. And it was really hard to keep up with. For a while that's pretty much all I did -- was read those stories.

    And yes, I think Jai alai would have made all the diff in the world ;-) .

  2. Congratulations on two Black Orchid Prizes. All that childhood reading has paid off!

  3. Good advice, Steve--I enjoyed this column. And congratulations on those Black Orchid awards!

  4. This is great advice from both sides of the submission process. Thanks Steve!

  5. Very interesting, especially about timing. If I recall correctly, in the intro for his Best Mystery Stories books Otto Penzler points out that he WILL accept stories in the last week of eligibility (between Christmas and New Year) but HE WILL NOT BE HAPPY ABOUT IT. When I had a story in an anthology that came out late in the year I urged the editors to heed that advice and move fast.

  6. Thanks for good advice. Judging is always subjective. When I was judging the Edgars for best novel, there were many that we ALL agreed were low on the totem pole. But there were also a few that we had wildly different opinions about - some giving it top ranking and others bottom. Why that last editor didn't like golf, who knows?

  7. Steve, for the same reasons you mentioned, my strategy for a contest or anthology was and is to submit about in the middle of the submission period.

    I'll also agree with you on judging being subjective. Every judge has personal likes and dislikes, a bias one way or the other on various elements in a story. For instance, a cozy probably doesn't stand a chance if the judging panel is packed with Thriller advocates and vice versa.

    I, too, was surprised when judging the Edgars for Best Novel a few years ago with three other SleuthSayer blogmates (plus 5 other judges) to see how some books would be rated high by only a few while others rated the same books very low. But even then, the cream generally rose to the top, which made it easier to pick the Top 10 or Top 20, and from them to choose the 5 or 6 Nominees.

  8. Thanks to everyone who has chimed in so far and added more detail to my comments.

    Just as further fodder for the subjectivity issue, today I had a short story go live on the Tough online mag. "Annie Works the Midnight Shift" was rejected by five different markets in nine months, and then Tough picked it up three weeks after I submitted it.

  9. I'm with Paul… jai-alai would have done the trick. Weird, I was just researching the local fronton, not sure if it's still open or been forced out of business. A player's strike and an uncaring, even hostile county board may have done it in.

    Excellent suggestions, Steve. Thanks!


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