I love writing contests. When I hear of one or come across a contest on the Internet, my heart starts racing and ideas flood my mind. My competitive spirit kicks into high gear. I may never run a marathon or win a ballroom dance competition, but give me a theme and a deadline and I'm up for the challenge.
Short stories are a terrific way to start a career in writing. Just ask Stephen King. It hones writing skills and forces writers out of their comfort zone. I wrote a story about a sumo wrestler for a contest called “The X-tra, X-tra, X-tra Large Detective.” I've written about a soldier from the Iraqi war, as well as a rock-'n-roll musician for an anthology based on the seven deadly sins. I even tackled the Hispanic fable of La Llorona. None of those stories are a part of my culture or experience.
Many writers back away from the whole idea of writing contests because there's usually a fee involved. I have no problem with shelling out $15 for the entry fee. I compare it to betting on a horse race—and I'm the horse. I'm in to win, place or at least show. I put out the very best story I can write. If some other writer beats me out of the prize, I have to give them credit because I know I've given them a run for their money.
Another reason writers are hesitant to go into competition is because they suspect a scam. They feels publishers are out to take their money and then coerce winning authors to buy a book for every relative. However, the cost of producing a book includes editing, printing, storage and distribution. It exceeds the amount taken in by entry fees. Short story collections are usually produced as a labor of love and rarely make a profit. The option to purchase is the author's decision.
There is also the fear that a contest is rigged, that winners are people the judges know. Most contests are done by blind entry. Stories are assigned a number before being handed off to the judges. Judges are never given the name of the author and must judge the story on its own merits.
The final fear, and the silliest, is that the author's precious words will be ripped off. Get real. Who wants to be sued over a short story? And no, stories don't have to be copyrighted. In fact, authors retain their rights if the story wins and doesn't get into print, or first American rights are returned after a reasonable time frame.
An aspect fledgling writers don't consider until too late in the game are writing credits. When I finished my first novel, I presented the publisher with five pages listing my published stories. With the cost of book production, no publisher can afford to invest in a new author who lacks proven experience in the field.
Personally, I consider entering and winning writing contests as a litmus test of my skills. How else to decipher whether the writing is as good as friends and relatives assure me? Trophies from strangers lets me know where I stand in the world of scribes.
If in doubt, there's a website called Preditors and Editors that rates contests, as well as agents, publishers and a wide variety of concerns for writers. Try Ralan.com for open contests and anthology call-outs. Write brave and go for the prize!