Winning Awards- David Farland

A  wonderful post from David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants newsletter. If you would like to receive his daily newsletter go to his website and create an account: Or you can go to the “writing tips” section of his website to find them.

pokalTwo people this week asked me to write about “How to Win Awards.” I think that this came about because folks had seen that my novel Nightingale has won several awards in the past year.

There are dozens of reasons why people give out awards. But where can you learn about them?

Government Awards: Sometimes governments give them out in order to foster creativity. Search online for your state and nation, to see what awards they give out. Sometimes these are cash awards, but they may also give out research grants for authors who are working on large projects. Schools also give out awards, so look for educational grants and awards.

Business Entities: Publishers will often feature contests to attract new authors. So, for example, you can search for “first novel contest” and find that Amazon or Penguin is holding a contest. You can also search for short story contests, poetry contests, flash fiction contests, essays contests, and so on.

You’ll find that many conventions hold contests or give awards in order to promote their contest, along with magazine publishers, anthologists, and so on. For example, I recently wrote a story for a contest held by a Canadian television company that wanted to publicize a new show. I also work as the coordinating judge for the L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest.

Personal Contests: Writers often set up contests to promote their own names and to help inspire other artists. I’ve set up contests a few times myself—for writers in grade schools, and in conjunction with book promotions. Sometimes, individual benefactors will set up such contests. For example, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award set up a contest that pays quite handsomely. Go here to learn about it.

Contests as Businesses: You might be surprised at how lucrative some of the largest contests can be. Not only do the contests charge money to the entrants and publishers (sometimes hundreds of dollars), but some of them charge astronomical amounts to winners for the right to put the winning logo on a book (as much as $40,000).

So the contests can exist for a variety of reasons, and I suspect that most of the time those reasons are mixed. Yes, individuals do set up contests primarily as a charitable enterprise, but the prize awards also help advertise the benefactor. Especially as contests grow in notoriety, the advertising value of the contest itself can turn it into a lucrative business venture.

How do you enter?

You have to research each contest individually. There are several ways that books and stories can gain awards recognition.

  1. Entrance by publisher only. If you have a new young adult novel, for example, in some cases it may only gain entrance to a contest if the publisher will enter it. There is often an entrance fee—as much as a few hundred dollars, so publishers usually send only a few of their best books each year. Also, the publisher has to be willing to give out free volumes.
  2. Entrance by author. Sometimes you can send in your own novel for consideration. Running contests takes money, and it’s fairly common for a contest to have an entrance fee. For example, entering a novel contest often will cost you $50 to $70. The way that I see it, all advertising is something of a gamble. You have to consider the risks vs. the reward. As advertising fees go, $50 is nothing. If a contest requires hundreds of dollars, though, it sends up a red warning flag to me.
  3. Selection by committee. Some awards are selected by a committee. For example, with the Philip K. Dick Award, committee members read from the eligible new releases, inform other judges of books that they like, ask publishers to supply books for consideration, and then nominate and select the best books that they find for awards. When this form of selection is used, if you can learn who the judges are, it is entirely appropriate to send them free copies for consideration. When books are nominated for the Nebula award, or the RITA, it occurs as a variation of this type of judging.
  4. Selection by fans. The Hugo award is an example of an award given by fans. The only way to win a fan award is to gain a large enough readership so that you have a chance. If you put out a book and get only 400 readers in a year while your competition has 2,000,000 sales, you just can’t win.

Recognize that not all writing contests are for you. Very often, contests will have a panel of judges who make final decisions, and those judges often develop their own agenda. One large contest went to their judges last year and told them to “Give us something that people will read.” You see, over the years, the judges had become rather literary in their tastes, and bookstores were complaining. So you as a contestant need to do your research, study past winners if you can, and decide if it is worth the effort to even enter. So, a little over 18 months ago, I wrote an article on how to win a writing contest. I did it in conjunction with promoting my own writing contest. I’ll attach it to today’s kick.

But at the same time, I was promoting a new novel and decided “What the heck, I’ll check into entering some contests.” I figured that I did get my start as a prize writer, and I believed in Nightingale. It’s not a literary novel, it’s a fantasy thriller. It’s not the kind of book that normally wins awards. Still, I hoped that I might win one or two. I entered eight contests total, spending about $450 on entrance fees.

Now, the reason that I did it was not to win money, but to try to gain credibility for a new book. You see, if I provide cover quotes from big-name writers, then people will say, “Ah, he’s just getting quotes from his friends.”

Getting quotes from major reviewers at Publisher’s Weekly and places like that isn’t even possible in some cases. They won’t look at books unless they’re coming out from major publishers. And of course if you use quotes from bloggers, once again, people will figure that you’re going to friends and fans. So I figured that winning a couple of contests where the book was judged blind, even small contests, might just get people curious enough about the book to pick it up.

I figured that if I won in my category, Young Adult, that it was a good solid win. If I placed as a finalist, it was “close but no cigar,” a near win. And if I won a grand prize, then that would be more than I expected.

So I placed or won in seven of the eight contests that I entered:

Next Generation Indie Book Award, finalist. This is a very large contest, with over 6000 entrants. Compare that to other awards that I’ve won, such as the Whitney (365 other novels) or the Philip K. Dick (20 other novels), and I had a lot of competition.

I entered right at the deadline, which is a mistake for a book contest, since it doesn’t give the judges time to read the story. (The one contest that I didn’t place in at all was also one that I entered on the deadline.)

As I recall, the winners this year tied for first place, and both were women. It made me wonder if the panel of judges was mostly female, and thus had a slightly stronger interest in female protagonists and authors.

In other words, you need to recognize that even the “best book of the year” is simply a matter of taste. There are always several excellent novels in any given year, and comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges. One may be literary and stylistically brilliant, while another deals with compelling themes, or a third creates convincing and powerful characters. Different judges are swayed by different strengths. So you need to be good in order to win a contest, but you also need to be the “right kind” of good to impress your judges.

International Book Award, Best Young Adult Novel of the Year. This contest was also enormous, with over 3000 entrants, I believe, accepting books in several languages. This contest is for books that deserve “more international attention.”

Global Ebook Award, finalist. I rushed to enter this contest, even though I didn’t think that my ebook was in prime condition. This award doesn’t just reflect a good story, but also looks at the beauty of the presentation—the artwork, design, and so on. I’d hoped to enter with the enhanced novel version, but I don’t believe that they even accepted manuscripts for the iPad, and my iPad version wasn’t finished until months after the contest ended. So I was happy just to be one of the three finalists for my category. With all of the publishing going on in ebooks, I suspect that the number of finalists was massive.

Hollywood Book Festival, Best Book of the Year. This is an award for books that deserve more interest from Hollywood. It paid a cash award for the winner, and I beat out all other books in all categories in this one, which really got me stoked. The cash award wasn’t huge, but it did pay for all of my entrance fees—and it paid most of my expenses to go to Germany to promote the book to foreign publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Southern California Book Festival, New England Book Festival, and the London Book Festival were all places where won first place in the young adult category each time, and had at least a thousand competitors.

The question is, of course, was all of this worth it? That’s a question that I won’t know the answer to for years. Did it create an instant bestseller? No. Did I earn my entrance fees back and gain some wider recognition? Yes. Will it promote the series in the long run? I think so. Would I do it again? Yep.

So here is my advice on how to win a writing contest:

How to Win a Writing Contest
By David Farland

I’ve had a bit of experience with writing contests. When I was a college student, I wrote a short story for an English class and turned it into the teacher. I got an A, and the professor suggested that I enter it into a short story contest. I did, and won third place—about $50. I got to thinking about it. I’d spent seven hours on the story, so I’d made about $7 per hour. That was twice what I’d have made flipping burgers.

I reasoned that if I’d worked harder, I might have won a larger prize, and I decided to try to win first place in a writing contest. So I began writing stories, and six months later, I sent out a few. To my surprise, I didn’t win first prize in a contest, I won first prize in each contest that I entered.

One of them was the Writers of The Future Contest, the largest contest in the world for beginning writers of science fiction and fantasy. As part of the prize, I went to the World Trade Center for an awards ceremony, where I won the Gold Award for Best Short Story of the Year. There I got to meet some of my writing heroes—People like Robert Silverberg, Orson Scott Card, Gene Wolfe, Fred Pohl, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Roger Zelazny, Andre Norton, Tim Powers, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Mark Hamil (who played Luke Skywalker in Star Wars).

As a result of that award, I received a three-novel contract with Bantam books within a week. My first novel, On My Way to Paradise, won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language,” which I thought was a rather over-the-top boast. It hit high on the science fiction bestseller list and remained there for five months.

Two years later I was asked to be the lead judge for the Writers of The Future Contest, a position that I held for nearly a decade. In that capacity, I read through the manuscripts and passed the finalist stories on to other judges. I’ve judged other contests, too—for short stories, novels, poetry, and many for scholarship competitions. Now that I’ve judged dozens of writing contests and studied tens of thousands of short stories, I’ve created some tips on how to win—not in any order of importance.

1. Look neat and professional. You’d be surprised at how many stories can be rejected based on looks alone. I’ve seen manuscripts covered in cat urine, reeking of dope, and written in orange ink on orange paper. In some cases, I tried to give the author the benefit of the doubt and read the manuscript anyway.

I no longer read such manuscripts. Careless people won’t bother to write well enough to win a contest.

Check your spelling and grammar in your submission. Read through it carefully several times. Make sure that you say exactly what you want, the way that you want to.

If you are sending it in as a paper submission, make sure that the paper is clean and bright. A nicer quality presentation—one with a heavy bond paper—will feel more substantial in the judge’s hands. (Note that the East India Press Short Story Contest only allows electronic submissions.)

2. Follow the rules. Very often, people would send stories for a competition that just didn’t fit. Either the sex was too graphic, the language was perverse, or it was in the wrong genre. I’ve had people send me letters detailing their childhood traumas. I’ve had people sending in stories set in a Star Trek universe, or using song lyrics. (We couldn’t publish those stories, since they violate copyright laws).

Please note that for the East India Press Short Story Contest, we’re allowing people to set their stories in the world of my novel Nightingale. In fact, we encourage it, since the story will be published at the back of the electronic book.

One rule that you need to follow is to send the story in “standard manuscript format.” Learn what that is. (You can Google it.) Basically, your story should be in a 12-point, Courier font, double-spaced. Too often, new authors try to cram long stories into a tiny space and hope to fool the judge. We’re not fooled.

To make it easier for the East India Press Short Story Contest, we provided a link so that you can upload a properly formatted document where you can simply fill in the blanks.

3. Give me a “promising start.” This means that you promise me a story. That promise might be delivered through a simple hook: “I looked into Johah’s eyes, and saw my own death staring me down.” That line promises me that this is going to be a life-and-death story. Once you make such a promise as a writer, remember that you have to deliver on it.

But there are other ways to make a promising start. A beautifully written description, a startling phrase, a terrific voice—all of them can promise to the reader that you’re an author who is to be taken seriously.

4. Show your genius. Always strive to write beautifully if you’re out to win a contest. Spend some time on creating vivid images, using poetic diction, and finding just the right metaphors. But be careful that you don’t overload your story. You don’t want to call too much attention to yourself.

Now, there is one thing that lies beyond your control: what other writers enter into the contest. No matter how brilliant and original your story concept is, someone else might come along and blow you away.

Or if your style is beautiful, the next Shakespeare might come along and embarrass you.

Just remember that there are dozens of things that you can do to impress a writing judge.

Let’s say that the next Shakespeare does enter the contest. Maybe his use of language floors the judges. How can you beat that?

Maybe you could handle pacing better than he does. Maybe your story might be more original. Maybe it could have more emotional power. If you do enough, if you impress me on several levels, chances are good that you’ll edge out even Shakespeare.

In fact, as I entered contests, I found it helpful to make a checklist when I was writing, and then to go back and look at my short story from every angle. I couldn’t hope to be the best in every way, but I could strive for excellence on a dozen fronts.

So I’d look at my tale and ask questions like: Is my world so real that the reader is transported into it? Does my story excite at each of its plot points—in the way that the story twists and turns? Does the reader remain “engrossed” in the story—riveted to it intellectually, emotionally, and bound to it by the senses? Are the basic concepts and images unique? Do my characters come alive? Does the dialog pop and sizzle? Does my narrative voice deliver information in a way that the judges and editors will admire? Do I use imagery—metaphors and similes—in a way that is original and evocative? Does my use of poetic elements—consonance, alliteration, and stress—enhance the tale? Does the story deliver a strong emotional climax? Is it a story that judges will remember an hour after reading—a day after, a year later, at the end of a lifetime?

If I can answer yes to all of those questions, I’ll probably beat out my competition—not because I have a single overwhelming strength, but because I have a well-rounded story, one that exhibits many strengths.

5. Know your audience. Who is your audience with a contest? As writers, we’d all like to imagine that “Everyone will love my story.” That isn’t true. I’ve never seen a story that everyone loves. Even the best stories have their detractors. Decide who your story is for.

In the case of our contest, if you set your story in the world of Nightingale, you could imagine that it’s a young adult story. But there’s someone you have to worry about, the gatekeepers, the contest judges.

Note of course that every publisher has its gatekeepers. They’re called editors.

Who are those people? Well, for our Nightingale contest, I was the first judge. If you make it past me, you’ll have to deal with some of my professional friends.

Since most of our judges for this contest were men, you might look at the story from the angle of, “Would those gentlemen like this?” Knowing the age and gender of your audience is valuable.

But since this story will be published in a young adult novel, I wanted to see contestants write a story that was aimed more at young adults. So you have to please a couple of audiences.

What’s even more valuable than knowing the age and gender of your judges is to know the TASTES of the judges. You can find that out by doing a little research. For example, when I was going to enter a contest, I’d see if I could find books or articles written by the judges. If a judge used a lot of memorable similes, I’d make sure to sprinkle in a few. If he loved to have characters make powerful arguments, I’d look for opportunities for my characters to argue. If he was big on plot, I’d make sure that my plot had more twists than an anaconda.

In short, the judge’s own works gave me a standard to strive toward.

6. Use all of your space. If an author writes a super-short story, one that shows his or her genius a couple of times, I might like the story.

But the truth is that a longer story, where an author shows his or her genius fifty times, will carry more weight with me as a judge.

7. Be creative. Most stories that don’t get published languish because the author suffers from “failure of imagination.” The author hasn’t thought enough about his characters, world, or plot, or the way that he will tell the basic story. Maybe he uses tired metaphors, or approaches scenes in the way that they’ve been handled a hundred times before. Be fresh and original.

8. Bring the story to a powerful conclusion. Years ago, a young man won two contests for the Writer’s Digest back to back—a remarkable feat. His advice was this: “Make ‘em cry.” Ultimately, a story with a strong emotional impact lingers in the reader’s memory. There is more than one way to make your reader cry. You might have her weep in joy because a love story comes to a great conclusion. The audience might cry at the injustice of the world, or in elation that a lovable protagonist has earned a well-deserved reward.

I’ve read beautifully crafted stories that I couldn’t recall the next day. Why? Because despite the high quality of the author’s style, the story itself wasn’t emotionally moving. That’s why most contest judges, after narrowing down the entries, will mull the decision over for a day or two, to see which story plants itself firmly in their memory.

I once had an editor reject a friend’s story, then write back three months later to ask if it was still available. He found it unforgettable.

If a story is supposed to be adventurous, I want my heart to pound. If it’s a romance, I want to fall in love with your characters and wish them a happy life together.

When you consider entering a contest, don’t get discouraged. Don’t tell yourself, “There are so many great writers out there, I can’t win.”

More people are defeated by their own attitudes than by competition.

A few years ago I judged a contest that was open to children ages 8-14. I got hundreds of entries, but the contest was won by an eight-year-old girl, Morgan Barron. There were a lot of older, more practiced writers who entered, but this young lady polished her manuscript, going through it some forty times, and she beat them all.

Believe in yourself. Approach a writing task with cautious optimism.

Good luck!

You may also like...

What are your thoughts?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: