Winning isn’t everything, but it’s something

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You think by now we’d be over it. How many times have we been told, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game? That we play for the love of the game, that even reputedly “very talented” teams can hit a losing streak?

Still, don’t we all still love winning? Aren’t lawyers paid to win? I can’t help myself — I get a thrill when I win.

Except lately, I’ve been on a run of “runner-ups,” and as a result, I’m redefining “winning” to include top three, top eight, top 10, even top 43 (out of a field of 1,300).

Just this month, I received an e-mail telling me that a story, “When Walls Weep,” which is excerpted from a novel I hope to publish in 2016, “One for the Ark,” was in the final three for the Editors’ Prize given by The Florida Review.

Less than 24 hours later, I was notified that the story would be published by the journal in September as a finalist. Not the winner.

Still, it’s about the best finish a story of mine has ever had in a contest, and I am happy for the forthcoming publication. But it did make me wonder, again, why in the past 12 months, I entered eight different stories in a total of 25 different journals, for a total of 37 contest entries, at an expense in excess of $400. Sure, there’s ego involved, but it’s also part of the game.

Most of the journals to which I sent my contest entries would also accept submissions for consideration for publication outside of the contest arena. (Some contests pay cash; for many others, the top prize is publication and a few copies.)

Because of this, many writers think the contest route is a scam, designed only to make money. Fees for short story contests range from $8 to $20, but the contests I enter are sponsored by nonprofit literary journals or foundations dedicated to identifying quality writing, not profit-making endeavors.

Like in any sweepstakes, I have the idea, probably unfounded, that “making a purchase” will indeed increase my chances of “winning.”

In 2014, I entered four complete and two “in-progress” novels in 20 novel contests (from $25 to $50 each) in hopes of generating interest from a publishing house and for the sake of having a blurb for the cover if and when those novels are published.

(My experience with “Warming Up,” which did well in several national contests, was that “winning” gave an imprimatur to self- and indie-published work. Readers wouldn’t have to take my word for it — there was some outside endorsement that it was worth a reader’s time.)

Publication and/or winning a prize is not only an ego boost, it is also a resume builder and can bring your work to the attention of a literary agent or an editor.

One of my writing coaches encourages us to excerpt stories from novels we are already working on, and if an excerpt wins or is published, that can help generate interest in the larger work. Once in a huge while, a short story is optioned for a movie, and then the possibility of a movie generates editorial interest in the novel.

On the other hand, now, winning isn’t losing. The odds are so long and the criteria so subjective, the same story can place in the top half, the top 10 or not at all, only to win the umpteenth time it is entered.

So not winning doesn’t mean very much, and in any event, the mere act of preparing a manuscript for a contest makes it better. I do, however, try to increase my chances of being a “winner” by only entering contests that are generous in publishing lists of “almost winners” — long-list and short-list finalists instead of naming just one winner out of a thousand entries.

It’s better for the ego to call placing at all “winning.”

Bottom line, it’s all a crapshoot. One thing might lead to another or not, and literary taste is notoriously subjective. I try to submit entries only when I have become acquainted (usually online) with what the journal is already publishing or when the call is for stories on a particular subject and I have one that fits.

One final “trick” when entering contests: When I look at my little list of stories that were “runners-up,” I am struck by one common feature: They are the quirkiest of my stories.

Odd situations, oddball characters. Quirky seems to be a key to placing well in these things.

I encourage you, if you have a story or two that you think is as good as you can make it — and maybe is a little quirky — to enter a couple of contests in 2015. Poets & Writers publishes (online as well as in hard copy) a monthly calendar of upcoming deadlines for contests in poetry, short stories, novels, essays, memoirs, etc., and most journals require submission, even for contests, via Submittable.

You open a free account, and you upload your entry and pay your fee online (you can use PayPal) and Submittable keeps track of the entries and their status. When you receive notice that a journal wants your story, you go in and withdraw the story from other contests you may have entered.

It’s way too easy. Easy to become addicted to the possibility of balloons, roses and an oversized check at your door. But, at worst, you support a struggling (they’re all struggling) literary journal, and at best, you’ll have the thrill of winning, or, like me, almost winning.

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