Writing Contests

I'm going to take a break from books this week to talk about writing competitions. I mentioned recently that I judged a novel contest, which was more taxing than the poetry and essay contests I've judged because I had to include feedback for the authors.

Submitting work to contests makes up an essential part of a writer's marketing strategy. An author's bio should include at least a couple of awards, especially if the author has not yet published very much. Not quite as uncertain as playing the lottery, contests hold out the hope of a possible win with all the associated recognition. In a contest you can be sure that your work is at least read, something agents and editors cannot promise. However, the fees can mount up quickly and, depending on the contest, can match you up with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of competitors.

The trick, then, is to choose your contests carefully, perhaps starting with smaller, lesser-known ones where you have fewer rivals. Weigh carefully the size of the fees, which vary, against the possibility and prestige value of winning. Look for contests where the judging is blind, so reputation is not a factor. Enter free contests; what have you got to lose? And accept that the wins will probably be slow in coming while you are learning your craft and infrequent after that.

Contests represented a critical element in my strategy for selling my memoir, Innocent. With no credentials as a nonfiction writer, I needed to show that unbiased judges thought the work good. I submitted excerpts to a number of essay contests and almost immediately won first prize in a small, regional competition (notably, though, not the region where I lived). Lest my head get too large, I also received a blistering critique; I'd paid an extra fee for this, assuming I wouldn't win and hoping for constructive criticism. The reviewer, obviously not one of the judges, said it was a hopelessly bad piece, and I needed to take an Introduction to Creative Writing class. What a great lesson for me! The same piece was worthy of first prize and hopelessly bad! I went on to win more contests, though certainly not every one I entered, and eventually sold the book to Apprentice House.

I heard this week that I won first prize in a free poetry contest. Sponsored by the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks in association with the CityLit Project, it was organized in honor of Ruth Garbis (nee Rochkind), a previous winner of a similar contest, by her daughter. The theme of the contest was “Baltimore – My City – My Home.”

I wrote this poem a while ago. I'd moved back to Baltimore, supposedly for just a year or two, and had just accepted that for a number of reasons I would be staying for the foreseeable future in this city that seemed poised between ruin and recovery. I had also been laid off from my job as an English teacher in the city's middle schools and had started—with some trepidation—a training program to become an electronics technician. The program was expensive, and I was unsure if it would lead to a good career for me. Troubled by an uncertain future, I headed down Falls Road, near the Trolley Car Museum.


Driving on a deserted road
forgotten when the highway came through,
lined with factories dropping bricks into the river,
a river that rushes around debris:
rocks and branches and bricks and boards.
Beyond, the railway embankment rises:
dark stones walling up the earth.

This is my city, my hometown, my home.
A dull grey city morning but the sun—
just up, still hidden by houses and hill,
up ahead just before you round the corner—
the sun hits the embankment's stones
and gleams there: bright enough to hurt or wake you.

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