By Lynn Chandler Willis-
Several years ago, I spent ten days in Las Vegas on business. I allowed myself only twenty dollars to gamble with and am proud to say I broke even. After my home state approved the lottery, people lined up to buy the prized tickets. Not I. I can probably count on one hand the number of lottery tickets I’ve bought. I’m just not that much of a gambler. But the one time I did gamble, it paid off in a big way. A very big way.
I had this completed manuscript titled Wink of an Eye gathering dust in my file drawer when I saw a notice in FundsForWriters for the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best 1st PI Novel competition. The manuscript met all the criteria for submission so I stuffed it in an envelope, scraped together the thirty dollar entry fee and mailed them off. To others, thirty dollars may not seem like a lot, but at that time I was unemployed and on the last weeks of collecting unemployment. It was a week’s worth of groceries. But I took a chance, crossed my fingers and said a prayer.
Time went by. Then more time went by. I eventually stopped obsessing, and finally I resigned myself to the fact it didn’t make the cut, and I, the non-gambler, could kiss that thirty dollars goodbye. I could get two meals out of a box of mac and cheese, so all was good.
Then one day many weeks later, there in my inbox was an email from St. Martin’s Press. They were pleased to advise me Wink of an Eye had been chosen as a finalist for the competition. I remember being super excited that it could garner a publishing contract or some other kind of notice as a second place, third place, or honorable mention submission, because surely it wouldn’t win.
A week later, I received another email from St. Martin’s advising me my manuscript, Wink of and Eye, had won the competition. The prize was a ten thousand-dollar advance and publishing contract. Not a bad return on a thirty-dollar investment. I’m still not much of a gambler, but I will take a second look at contests with big prizes now. If you consider entering your work in a contest, there are a few things to consider.
First, is the entry fee fair in relation to the prizes? I saw a recent call for submissions where the entry fee was forty dollars with a hundred-dollar prize. You do the math.
Secondly, winning a contest does not mean your winning entry will be published, unless the prize is publication. In that case, you still must read the contest rules and regulations, and contract if offered, thoroughly, to determine if the rights taken and means published fit your preferences.
And lastly, entering your unpublished work in a contest should carry the same polish as if you were submitting to a publisher. Revise, edit, proofread. Repeat. The process should be the same whether it’s going to a contest, small press, or big house.
Not all contests are equal, but there are some really good ones out there. And they can be an excellent way of getting your foot in the door and reaching an audience, if you’re willing to take the gamble.
Lynn Chandler Willis is the author of the best-selling true crime book, Unholy Covenant, and the Grace Award winning novel, The Rising. She is the first woman in ten years to win the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best 1st PI Novel Competition. Her winning entry, Wink of an Eye, will be released by Minotaur Books in November 2014. She shares her home in North Carolina with Sam the cocker spaniel.