In her previous post for this blog, Deborah Bogen explained how, before she had written a novel and published it with Amazon Direct, she had been a multi-contest-winning poet. After that post went up, Deborah mentioned to me that she would be happy to explain how to approach poetry contests “like a business.”
Obviously, I was excited to hear about this, and so I asked her for another post.
Here is her system for researching, entering, and winning contests. It is sobering stuff: steady your faint heart now. But it does provide aspiring poets with a method for getting their work into books.
If You Want to Win a Poetry Contest
Disclaimer – this is from my experience – I did not do a study. But here’s what I learned and how I won three book contests.
Let’s assume you read a lot of poetry. A lot. You buy books, a few more than you can actually afford. You review books of poems because you understand that’s one of the best ways to learn how to write well, because you love a particular book, because you are a good literary citizen. You’ve been making word art for what’s starting to feel like a long time (if you have not been writing for a long time stop reading this now and go write some more.) Somehow you have accumulated (created, given birth to?) eighty or so poems that seem worthwhile to you. You’ve sent them to journals and many of them have been published. Every now and again someone asks “Hey, how’s your manuscript going?” You mumble and wonder if you have a “manuscript.”
If this is you, welcome to the “how do I get a book?” world. Whether you need or want a book is a serious question but that’s another topic. Today you have a clutch of poems that seem to want to hang out together. There’s some sort of conversation going on and you decide to put together the manuscript. How and when you should do that is another serious question – again for another day. Today we will assume you have a manuscript and that it is pretty darn good.
You may have an avenue to publication that does not involve winning anything. If so, it’s a good idea to take it. Your friend has started a press. Your second cousin’s friend has started a press. A lady you met in line at the supermarket is starting a press. They are looking for manuscripts so you have an edge. Send them yours. But if, like many of us, you are not so connected you are probably facing the contest situation. So how do you navigate those waters?
These are some things I found to be true over 10 years of poetry contest experience. I wish they were friendlier facts but leaving you in the dark is really no favor. Here goes.
To win a contest a lot of stars have to line up – at least for most of us. You need to have a good manuscript that really is a manuscript and not a bunch of good poems. You have to get the right first readers, the right second readers and the right judge for your manuscript. That’s a lot of things that have to go your way – how do you optimize your chances.
First thing you do is split yourself right down the middle. Half of you can be the poet who loves her manuscript, the one who has labored long to create art from language. She’s important so don’t stop being her. But you must also become her investment advisor, her record keeper and her menial slave. Yes, her slave, and I mean a pretty much fulltime slave during the contest winning phase of a bringing your book to the world.
This part of you needs to do a lot of work. She needs to identify many contests that are ones you might win. That takes reading – more reading. You need to know your presses because presses have personalities and preferences. If you’re smart you can figure out what they are. You need to make lists of presses (with contests) who put out books that seem like they might be good shelf-mates for yours. If you’re fifty, stay away from contests where the winners are all young “about-to-be- the-next-big-thing” poets. If you do not write “almost erotic” work don’t go for a press with all red dresses and spike heels on their covers. If you have not had a lot of prestigious publications don’t go for a press that publishes a high number of poets whose work has been in the top ten literary mags in America. That will still leave a lot of presses and a lot of prizes which is a good thing. Important – don’t undervalue the smaller contests.
The first mistake I made was sending out my “full-length” collection about two years before it was ready. I had all these poems. It seemed like it should be a manuscript. I let myself off the “high standards” hook by thinking “well, it’s a first book so it can be more a collection of various poems.” I entered contests and lost. But each time I took another look at the manuscript and improved it. I became more daring and more conservative at the same time, adding and winnowing. It took three years for me to win with “Landscape with Silos” and by the time I did it was not the same book I’d started submitting three years earlier. Think of the money and grief I could have saved myself if I’d had the discipline and courage to work-work-work until the thing was truly ready.
So you have to take your apprenticeship seriously. You can avoid my mistake and work on your manuscript till it is more than the sum of its parts. Until it becomes gorgeously articulate. You can spend your energy doing that instead researching contest rules and writing hefty checks. And when people ask you how your manuscript is coming along you can smile mysteriously and say “mmmmmmmmmmmm, not yet.” Try that – it really gets people interested in your work.
But when it is ready, when it is an intriguing satisfying literary thing, then you can start sending it to contests and here is where some important stuff comes in. Check your bank account. I hope you have saved the money you did not waste by sending work out too soon because you’re about to spend it.
This is an estimate, but you will probably need to enter at least thirty contests – maybe more – to get your book published. If you enter only ten contests (spending $250) you’re probably sending that money into the great literary contest void. There really are a lot of good manuscripts out there. Keep in mind the many things that have to go right for you to win. You have to increase your odds of that going your way and you have to do it by a bunch.
I know, I know – you know someone who sent her first manuscript out to one prestigious contest and it won. She got a lot of money and lots of press and short-lived literary fame. I read about her too (and tried not to hate her, really) but she’s the exception that proves the rule. Talk to people. Unless you have a heavy-weight poetry professor, family friend or lover who can make a call on your behalf – if you are, like many of us, just one of the pack, you must control your odds. You have to wait till your book is really, really good, and then bet the bank on it all in one year.
So how do I know this? I learned from my first mistake. The next time I worked on my manuscript I really worked on my Manuscript, not on a group of related poems. I wanted an intricately woven work of literary art ( it’s “Let Me Open You a Swan” – you may disagree with my assessment.) I built it as a book. I put it together, I took it a part, I worked with a terrific poet friend who was good enough to tell me to get rid of some of my darlings. I listened like crazy, not to any particular poem but to a book that was not yet in existence. I spent a lot of time on it and one day I thought I had it. I had it! That night I had a dream in which a wonderful poet showed up at my door and handed me a tiny folded up piece of paper. In the dream when I unfolded that paper it had been cut up into lots of pieces, and the poet said “Let me open you a swan.”
I woke up swearing. Damn! I thought I had it. But not yet. I had to start again. I went back to the book and took it apart again and rebuilt it. I got comments. I tweaked it. Then I sent it out to as many contests as I could find and six weeks later I got the call. It had won the Antivenom Prize (so named because the only cure for the poisonous process of poetry contest entering is to win one) at Elixir Press. I was happy, but I was also aware that I had to write off the money I’d spent on the other contests (they won’t give it back even though you must write each one withdrawing your manuscript.)
You might say I wasted that money, those checks for the other contests, and that I wasted all the time it took me to enter those contests – but I needed to up my odds. I needed the right first readers, the right second readers and the right judge. I just did not know where I’d find them.
There’s a lot more to say about this, about record keeping (do tons,) about being polite (always, even to jerks,) about forgiving yourself when you do send the book out too soon (part of the process perhaps,) about how to decide how much of your bank account you can spend on this venture. I was able to foot the bill and I often skipped things I might otherwise have spent money on in order to justify the checks I was writing to presses (and we had to pay lots of postage back then.) You might think I spent too much but do take seriously that if you send to only a couple contests a year you are most likely wasting the fee money. Sometimes one MFA student reading your manuscript can knock you out of the running.
Are you depressed? Don’t be. If this scenario disgusts you (and if so, good for you, I say) or just makes you crazy, think of alternatives. Get together with a group of your friend-poets and create a publishing commune. In the digital age, books can be produced cheaply on demand through Smashwords or Createspace. I really do appreciate the literary presses who put out my work and the judges whose finding did give me a sense that I was not totally out of place in the poetry world, but that was then.
Today really is a new time. And if you are at all convinced by what I’ve written here consider becoming a revolutionary and sanctioning your own work, your fellows’ work. Think about anointing each other as artists and helping each other shoulder any financial burdens instead depleting your bank account. Think about bringing your books to life with your own hands.
These are the days of miracles and wonders and they’re not all bad.
And look for me to be there with you. I’ve sworn off contests. I recently wrote a novel and was so discouraged by the legacy publishing world’s chokehold on the market that I published it myself. I had to give up the prestige of having an agent and a house, but in the indie-publishing world I have found a sense of excitement and fun that I have not seen for a long while. People help each other – all the time. We know we’ve gone off the reservation into a world where we have no Great Power to say we are “real writers” and no one to blame if our work falls short. We are taking it straight to the readers to see what they have to say. Poets can easily do the same.
But if you do decide to stay on the contest course – read this over one more time. It’s poker, baby – you have to wait for the right hand, then bet big.