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A Frequent Winner's Advice

Read more from G&A: The Contest Blog

A blog from: Poets & Writers Magazine

Posted by Prize Reporter on 10.28.09

If you’ve read our Recent Winners pages over the past few years, you've likely come across the name of fiction writer Siobhán Fallon. A graduate of the MFA program at the New School in New York City, she is the recipient of short story prizes from Meridian, Roanoke Review, and Briar Cliff Review, a residency from the Millay Colony, and, most recently, the Alexander Patterson Cappon Fiction Prize from New Letters for her story "Inside the Break." Since she has seen her stories receive a number of honors, we asked Fallon to share with us her take on submitting to writing contests.

How many contests do you estimate you have entered? And how many did you enter before winning your first award?
I have entered about a hundred contests in the past decade, maybe more. I must have entered about twenty contests before winning my first one—that sounds so bleak, but it gets easier!

What do you look for in a contest?  
I look for a contest run by a magazine and/or university that I recognize, or perhaps a judge’s name that is familiar. I also try to submit to contests with fees below twenty dollars, which helps me limit my otherwise limitless waves of submissions.

How do you select a piece to submit to a competition?
By now I am familiar with most of the magazines that I submit to so I am aware of the style they are looking for. There are magazines that like very realistic fiction—adjectives be damned—and those that prefer something more fantastical in plot or language. I try to tailor my submissions to the tastes of the magazines. If I’m not familiar with the actual journal, I try to read anything and everything the magazine has online.

Do you have an organizational strategy for tracking award deadlines, submissions, and honors received?
I have a battered little notebook that I write all of my submissions and rejections in. And I scribble the heck out of Poets & Writers. I try to keep a story out at one or two contests at all times. Then if I get a rejection letter, I know that that same story is waiting to be read at another magazine, and therefore there is still hope.

What is the most rewarding aspect of receiving an award?
Knowing that the story is done. No more editing or rewriting, no more cover letters and SASEs and bon voyages out into the literary unknown. Knowing that story is a success, finally, and therefore so are you.

What award has been of the most value to you?

My first award, from Crab Orchard Review, was amazing. The editor, Jon Tribble, was very hands-on. He spoke to me on the phone numerous times, seemed to genuinely love the story, and made me feel like a star. It was the perfect beginning. And my latest win at New Letters has been extraordinary too—New Letters sent out press releases to all my local newspapers, as well as my undergraduate and postgraduate alumni magazines. We writers spend so much time alone with our writing, unsure of how well we are doing, that any and every shred of praise feels divine.

Have you ever had a negative experience as a result of winning a prize?
I won a prize once that was a little less than satisfactory. I received an e-mail saying I had won, but I never actually spoke with a living person, nor did I get a chance to look at galleys. I just got the check and, eventually, a copy of the winning issue in the mail. They didn’t even mention the win on their own Web site. However, it was because of this win that Jennifer Barber, the excellent editor at Salamander, read my work and requested my stories. And then my agent, Lorin Rees, picked up a copy of Salamander in Boston and liked my story enough to track me down and sign me. So all in all, the win, though in itself it lacked a bit, ended up really helping my career.

What piece of advice do you have for writers looking to contests as a way to get their work into the world?
At the New School for Social Research MFA program, our professors often emphasized that submitting to contests was a better gamble than submitting to an ordinary slush pile. Unless I have a connection with an editor or am sure that a literary magazine is looking for stories very much like my own, I only submit to contests. I think this philosophy has served me well. Sometimes it is hard to come up with the fifteen dollars over and over and over again as the rejection slips pile up and wallpaper your entire bedroom, but remember that your submission fees are supporting the arts, and one of these days a portion of those accumulated fees will end up in your pocket. And usually a magazine subscription or the prize issue is included [in the entry fee], so when you submit again you will know what that particular magazine looks for. As an added bonus, when you win a contest, you get top billing in the award winning issue, your name is mentioned in Poets & Writers, and of course you deposit the prize in your emaciated bank account! There isn’t the same triumph associated with placing a story in a magazine through the regular submission path.

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