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Short fiction contests allow writers to compete to win cash prizes, publication, and additional exposure for their works. Many different publishers will hold yearly short fiction contests; the most common are those that regularly publish literary magazines. Some colleges and universities will host them as well for students to enter. Many contests require a nominal fee to enter; experts generally recommend avoiding contests that require a large fee or the purchase of a book, since really the person submitting the fiction is just paying to publish the book. Some contests require contestants to submit a piece of writing from a particular genre or of a particular length, but others are more open.
Most short fiction contests require writers to keep their submissions under a certain length, simply to ensure fairness to all. Otherwise, it would likely be too difficult, and take too much time, to judge the contest. Submitters might be required to submit a complete short story; other contests may allow them to simply submit a portion of a story, such as a chapter of a book. In some cases, writers may even be allowed to submit poems for the contest, but generally poetry contests are conducted separately from short fiction contests.
Occasionally, short fiction contests will have even more stringent requirements. Some will require writers to keep their stories under a certain number of words, or to take up a certain amount of time when read aloud. Some may even require all submissions to begin with the same first sentence; for example, a somewhat tongue in cheek contest once required that all stories begin with the infamous, "It was a dark and stormy night." Writers may also have to keep their story within a certain genre, such as fantasy, science fiction, or romance in order to qualify for particular competitions. These are just a few of the different types of fiction contests that may be hosted by various publishers or schools.
Writers will be required to submit their piece by the deadline. Often, it is free to submit a piece to a short fiction contest, though a small fee may be charged in other instances, often to simply narrow down the submission pool a little bit, or to cover the cost of the prize. Winners may then receive a cash prize for their work, and it will then usually be published on a website, in an anthology, or in a literary magazine. This can be a great way for new writers to get exposure for their work, and potentially make valuable contacts for later publication.
It's amazing how many different kinds of contests there actually are when you start looking around. I know of one where the prize is that your short story will be interpreted in dance on the stage if you win it. There are others where the prize is to have your story broadcast, or illustrated or to have to given to top publishing agents.
The thing is to make sure that you don't pin your hopes on a contest. Remember that the judges are always going to be subjective. They will like what they like and it's not always going to be yours.
It's important to make sure you don't have "golden word syndrome" where you think that your work is
perfect and should win at everything, but it's also important to have pride in your work and not to dismay if it doesn't win. These judges might not like it, but others may. And it has worth, even if it isn't a prize winner.
@browncoat - Well, if you can afford an entry fee, though, I think it's worth entering that kind of contest as well, every now and then. In general, the free contests don't have that much prize money and they take a lot longer to get back to you, simply because the judges usually aren't paid and are doing it on a volunteer basis.
And then, everyone in the world thinks they might as well enter, because there's nothing to lose, so you are competing against hundreds or thousands of other entrants. With an entry fee, you know at least that's going to cut half the entries out.
I don't think you should enter every competition with an entry fee, especially since
some of them are obviously scams. If the entry fee is $20 and the prize is $100 then run in the other direction.
But if the entry fee gets you a subscription to the magazine or editorial notes, or it's simply a prestigious contest, then I think it's a good idea to give it a go.
I made myself promise a long time ago that I would never enter contests that require a fee. I mostly keep to this promise, although occasionally I'll bend it in special circumstances.
There are just too many competitions which don't need a fee in order to enter them, to bother entering those that do need a fee. And the fees can be horribly expensive. I've seen some that were over $100 although those are usually for judging a full novel.
I can definitely see why some competitions need fees, to pay the judges and the organizers and even make up the prize. But, I enter a lot of competitions. If I paid even three dollars for each of them I'd
be going broke very quickly.
So if you aren't well off I would definitely try to avoid paying fees on writing competitions. You'll still have plenty to enter, believe me, and there are lists online of contests without entry fees if you need a place to start.
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