The workshop for humor writing, human interest writing, networking and getting published

Erma Bombeck Wrighters' Workshop Banner

The math of writing contests

Entering literary contests is a lot like playing the lottery.

You plunk down the entry fee, hoping to be the lucky dog that wins the first-place pay-off of $40 (big money for writing contests!). Never mind that 150,000 other writers with more experience, creativity and contest-submission savvy are entering, too. This is fun, you chuckle to yourself.

The first steps down this slippery slope are reading a call for submissions, and remembering that dusty piece you’ve had stashed, homeless, in a desk drawer for six months. Calculating that an obscure topic (Emily Dickinson: Role Model for Writer Networking or The Upbeat Prose of Franz Kafka) will enhance your chances of winning, you hone and polish the article, cramming it into an envelope with a check, or if your husband hid the checkbook, cash.

You succumb to the notion that multiple submissions will increase your odds of winning. Entering five poems requires a $15 fee. Postage will cost you a buck-fifty. First place pays $40. If you win, your take will be $23.50. That will cover the cost of entering one, maybe two, more contests. You notice that this would be an excellent “story problem” for an elementary math text and decide to research the Writer’s Market for potential publishers.

One magazine I subscribe to has this racket down to a science. This rag doesn’t alert you by mail if you are a winner — you must scan the issue published three months after the contest deadline. You continue to take the magazine to see if you won. Subtract the subscription cost ($22) and your winnings are now down to $1.50. Since you write at the local coffee shop, subtract another $2 for the soy latte and the magazine owes you 50 cents (they ignore your letters to that effect).

You know you’ve got a “contest problem” when your family hints that they’re gathering  for an intervention. Maybe you morph into Count Dracula while wrestling your husband for the mailbox key to check for the latest issue; or perhaps, like me, you’ve worn through your second copy of The Little Train that Could, your favorite inspirational title. It has pictures.

Literary contests take us through the same stages of grieving. Denial, the first, darkens our judgment before entering (I know the odds are in my favor this time) and reappears upon receipt of the issue announcing the winners (there must be a misprint!). That poem you’ve entered for the short story contest does tell a story, doesn’t it? Well! If the judges are going to be that narrow minded… The second stage, anger, bubbles up when you’ve scanned the back half of the magazine for the umpteenth time, line by line without finding your name. You throw the second-rate publication against the living room wall and swear off literary contests. Again.

Next, you bargain with God (you’ll tithe if only…), your husband (stalwart in the face of sexual blackmail) and the magazine editors ($3 bribes don’t go far). This strategy fails when God arranges that your child (nicknamed Pigpen) moves back home to save money to buy a house, your husband gives you that smug stubborn look and shakes his head no, and the editors send a carefully worded note to suggest professional counseling. You lie in bed, depressed.

Finally, you reach acceptance. But what part of the experience do you accept? The lie that you must be the worst writer on earth? No, you accept that the judges are all idiots…

No wonder so many writers drink. Hey, can I get a shot of something stronger in that latte?

— Cynthia Washington

Cynthia Washington is a freelance writer living in the rainy northwest. Despite the rain and clouds, she finds humor and joy in everyday events. Published in multiple magazines and online venues, Cynthia still believes she will make money at writing, but not through writing contests. She is teachable.

Reflections of Erma