G&A: The Contest Blog

Annual Journal Sponsors Obama Contest

Don Williams, the editor of the annual literary magazine New Millennium Writings, recently established a new contest that offers a thousand dollars for the best creative writing on the subject of president Barack Obama. 

After receiving an outpouring of response to an essay about the newly inaugurated commander in chief that he posted last month on his own Web site, Williams decided to accept online submissions "for a once-only special contest to mark this moment in our still-young millennium." The Special Contest on Obama is open to poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers. One winner, who will receive a thousand dollars, and at least three runners-up will be published in the next issue of New Millennium Writings and on the journal's Web site.

Writers may submit as many poems, stories, or essays as they'd like, but the entry fee for each is $17. Work that has already been published elsewhere, either online or in a magazine with a print circulation under five thousand, will be accepted. The deadline is March 1. Complete guidelines are available on the New Millennium Writings Web site.


 

Entertainment Weekly's Oscar Poetry Contest

Okay, so this contest doesn't offer literary fame or fortune—or much of anything, really, beyond a little fun. But if you're into poetry and movies, Entertainment Weekly is holding a contest in honor of Hollywood's biggest self-congratulatory party—the Academy Awards—that might be of interest.

After the editors of the popular culture magazine received a letter in the form of a poem celebrating Oscar season from a reader in McHenry, Illinois (who somehow manages to reference Revolutionary Road, Milk, Gran Torino, Frost/Nixon, My Bloody Valentine, Fantasia, Slumdog Millionaire, Marley and Me, Liar, Liar, Yes Man, The Wrestler, and The Dark Knight, all in thirty-four lines) they posted it on Entertainment Weekly's Web site and invited poets to submit their own Oscar-themed verse.

So go ahead, put your film critic's hat on and submit a poem before those little gold statues are handed out on February 22.

 

 

Update: Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

As we wrote about yesterday, this week is the submission period for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and it seems the occasion has stirred up debate about the merits of the award.

Yesterday, Mediabistro's GalleyCat posted a defense of the success of last year's winning book, Fresh Kills, in response to snarky reader comments. Another Galleycat post yesterday linked to an article published in N1BR, the new online book supplement to lit mag n+1, written by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, one of last year's award judges. And, today, GalleyCat posted a correction to Wellington's article submitted by Jane Ciabattari, president of the National Book Critics Circle. Let's see what tomorrow brings.

 

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

The submission period for the second annual Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award began yesterday and ends on February 8, or until ten thousand entries have been received. The grand-prize winner will receive a publishing contract with Penguin Group, including a $25,000 advance.

Entries may be uploaded through a link on Amazon’s site, which also includes information about the multi-tiered judging process. Amazon readers will vote for the winner from three finalists. During the finals, an expert panel—made up of novelists Sue Monk Kidd and Sue Grafton, Penguin Press editor in chief Eamon Dolan, and literary agent Barney Karpfinger, whose client list includes Bill Loehfelm, winner of last year’s Amazon Breakthrough Award for his book Fresh Kills—will post comments for customers to consider while voting. The winner will be announced on May 22.

Also included on the site are tips for submissions, such as this one about the importance of choosing an excerpt to post on the site: “The first ten pages of your book are some of the most important that you will write. Imagine a reader looking through the first few pages of a book to decide whether or not to purchase it: Something special needs to happen at the start—whether that's a sharp plot twist, the introduction of a fascinating character, or a beautifully crafted opening scene—to make the reader want more. When you select your excerpt text, choose where to stop judiciously: It doesn't necessarily have to be at word 5,000. Quality counts. Be careful that you don't leave readers hanging mid-sentence.”

The award is given for an unpublished, English-language work of fiction, between 50,000 and 150,000 words in length; there is no entry fee.

Finalists Chosen for National Book Critics Circle Awards

The National Book Critics Circle announced the finalists for its 2008 awards at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in New York City on Saturday night. The winners in each category—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, criticism, and biography—will be named on March 12 at an awards ceremony at the New School. 

The finalists in poetry are:
August Kleinzahler for Sleeping It Off in Rapid City (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Juan Felipe Herrera for Half the World in Light (University of Arizona Press)
Devin Johnston for Sources (Turtle Point Press)
Pierre Martory for The Landscapist (Sheep Meadow Press), translated by John Ashbery
Brenda Shaughnessy for Human Dark with Sugar (Copper Canyon Press)

The finalists in fiction are:
Roberto Bolaño for 2666 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Marilynne Robinson for Home (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Aleksandar Hemon for The Lazarus Project (Riverhead)
M. Glenn Talyor for The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart (West Virginia University Press)
Elizabeth Strout for Olive Kittredge (Random House)

The finalists in autobiography are:
Rick Bass for Why I Came West (Houghton Mifflin)
Helene Cooper for The House on Sugar Beach (Simon & Schuster)
Honor Moore for The Bishop’s Daughter (Norton)
Andrew X. Pham for The Eaves of Heaven (Harmony Books)
Ariel Sabar for My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq (Algonquin)

The nonprofit organization composed of seven hundred book critics and reviewers from across the country also announced on Saturday that the winner of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award is the PEN American Center; Ron Charles will receive the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

Last year, Mary Jo Bang won the NBCC Award in poetry for Elegy (Graywolf), Junot Díaz won in fiction for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead), and Edwidge Danticat won in autobiography for Brother, I'm Dying (Knopf).

 

 

A Frequent Winner's Advice

The name Cynthia Lowen may ring a bell with those readers of our Recent Winners section. Lowen has won the “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize and the Inkwell Poetry Competition, among other awards, and was recently a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Since she’s met with continued success, we thought we’d ask her about her experience entering writing contests.


How many contests have you entered? And how many did you enter before winning your first one?

I’ve entered dozens of contests—most of which, it goes without saying, I did not win. With my most recent work, I actually started the manuscript with the goal of having ten new poems to send out to contests, after finishing up with my MFA, with the notion that this was a good way to get some new poems generated under a sort of deadline. As it turned out, these first poems about Oppenheimer and the making of the atomic bomb were positively received by the editors at Tin House, on the basis of which I was selected as winner of the Tin House/Summer Literary Seminars Kenya prize. So I feel I was fortunate in having a positive reception of this work early on. At the same time, for every rare phone call or e-mail of congratulations about having been selected as winner of a contest, there are numerous trips to the mailbox to find those slim envelopes containing notes saying, “Better luck next time,” which I think is good—you can never take for granted having your work recognized with so many talented writers out there.

What do you look for in a contest?
The first thing I generally look at is who is judging it. Is it someone whose poems I admire, whose poems share some sort of kinship with my own, who I think might like my work? Or, if it is a contest sponsored by a magazine or press, where the editors are selecting the winner, I try to get a sense of whether or not my work would appeal to them based on the other work they publish. You know, if journal X is only publishing sonnets, I probably wouldn’t enter its contest, as I don’t write too many sonnets that see the light of day. But if a magazine I love is holding a contest judged by a poet I can’t get enough of, I’ll probably enter its contest, in the hopes that the reason I love the magazine and the judge have somehow informed the choices I am making in my own writing. When it comes to fellowships and grants, I generally apply to things I have heard positive things about from other writers.

How do you select a piece to submit to a competition?  
I try not to send my newest work but pieces I have sat with for several weeks. Because the poems in the manuscript I have recently completed tend to inform each other as a series, depending on how many poems a contest is accepting I try to send a selection that fits together within the manuscript or that can best stand alone. I’ve found that, when writing a book-length series, it can be really hard when you can only send three to five poems to a competition, because I often feel like the poems need each other to make sense or be complete. Therefore, I tend to favor those contests that allow you to submit more poems, as I think a wider selection better reflects the arc of my work.

What award has been of the most value to you?
I think the award that was probably the most meaningful for me, because of its history, was the Discovery Prize. To give a reading at the 92nd Street Y, a venue where so many writers I deeply admire have read, and to receive an award that so many poets I love have also received was an amazing honor.

Have you ever had a negative experience as a result of winning a prize; any horror stories?

Fortunately, I’ve never had any sort of negative experience as a result of winning a prize. I can’t even imagine what one might be. Perhaps there was the morning, waking up in Masai Mara, in southern Kenya, to find the whole region flooded, looking forward to a seven-hour bus ride back to Nairobi through it. That was not absolutely ideal—but it was incredible, that through poetry and the Tin House/SLS prize, I was able to have this kind of fantastic adventure.

What piece of advice do you have for writers looking to contests as a way to get their work into the world?

One thing that I would encourage writers to do is to use contests as a way to challenge themselves, outside of the structure of MFA programs or other sorts of support systems, to get their poems to a point where the work feels finished and where the writer can feel confident about having it read by others. When I send work out to a contest I really admire and don’t get the award, it’s a sign to me that I have to go back and push my work harder, and reapply next year in the hopes that the growth in the poems will be recognized. This was what happened in the case of the Discovery Prize, and also the fellowship I received to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which was also a huge honor: The first time I applied I did not get the award or the fellowship, but the next year I reapplied, with different poems or subsequent drafts of the poems, and did. I think the most important lesson I’ve taken from contests is to not get (too) discouraged by not winning them, but to use contests to make my work better.

The Story Prize Finalists

Julie Lindsey and Larry Dark recently announced the finalists for the Story Prize, and you have to hand it to them: They picked a pretty eclectic group. Lindsey, who founded the Story Prize in 2005, and Dark, the director of the annual award honoring short story collections, chose Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, Demons in the Spring by Joe Meno, and Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff as the final three from among seventy-three story collections.

Lahiri, whose third book, Unaccustomed Earth, was published by Knopf last year, became the youngest writer to win the Puliltzer Prize when her first book, the story collection The Interpreter of Maladies (Houghton Mifflin), was so honored in 2000, when the author was just thirty-two. "Interpreter stood out because it didn't try to stand out," wrote Matthew Solan in a profile of Lahiri in the September/October 2003 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. "There are no 'shock plots'; she instead focuses on the uniqueness of ordinary life. You can relate to her characters because their plights could easily be your own—a young couple trying to stay together after losing a baby; a housewife yearning to be more independent. Beneath the surface, though, her fiction takes the pulse of first- and second-generation Indian Americans trying to bridge the gap between the country they call home and the heritage that defines them."

Joe Meno's first two books, Tender as Hellfire (1999) and How the Hula Girl Sings (2000), were published by commercial publishers, but with his third, The Hairstyles of the Damned (2004), he moved to the independent Punk Planet Books, and he's been with small or university presses ever since—Demons in the Spring was published last year by Akashic Books. (Later this year, however, he's back in the big house: Norton will publish his novel, The Great Perhaps, in May.)

Tobias Wolff has been a consistent presence in the contest arena for the past thirty years, having been honored with the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award, the O. Henry Award, the Rea Award, and others. He's also been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Our Story Begins, which was published last year by Knopf, gathers the best stories from three previous collections: In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (Ecco, 1981), Back in the World (Houghton Mifflin, 1985), and The Night in Question (Random House, 1996). "Something always happens in a Wolff story—something troublesome, something violent, either literally or emotionally," wrote Joe Woodward in profile of Wolff in the March/April 2008 issue. "Indeed, so much violence to the human spirit hasn't been seen in a short story collection since Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find."

Story Prize judges Daniel Menaker, Rick Simonson, and Hannah Tinti (who last year won the ten-thousand-dollar John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize from the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction for her novel The Good Thief) will choose the Story Prize winner, who will be announced at an event on March 4 at the New School in New York City. The winner will receive twenty-thousand dollars and the other finalists will each receive five thousand dollars.

Who do you think will win?

 

The Dune Shacks

For those writers who don’t mind roughing it, imagine this: A week of nothing but writing, reading, and staring at the sea from a shack nestled in the dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore, plus $500 to spend on supplies in the nearby artsy village of Provincetown, Massachusetts, home to the Fine Arts Work Center and galleries galore.

Weeklong residencies at the C-Scape and Fowler Dune Shacks will be offered this year to two writers beginning in April. The shacks have a notable history, having hosted creative types since the 1930s, including authors such as e.e. cummings, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Mary Oliver, and Eugene O'Neill and painters Willem de Koonig and Jackson Pollock.

But be forewarned, the shacks are rustic—no electricity, no running water, no telephone. Just plenty of solitude.

There’s no fee to apply, and the deadline is February 15. Click here for submission guidelines.


Cave Canem's New Book Award

Scan any listing of contests open to poets and you'll likely find a whole bunch given for first books. The Walt Whitman, the Honickman, the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize, the Cave Canem Poetry Prize—the list goes on. And that's great: Debut poets need all the help they can get. (Check out our Pass-Along Poems chapbook.) But far fewer awards are given specifically for second collections. The James Laughlin Award and the Barnard Women Poets Prize are among the standouts, but once you've published your first book, the number of contests to which you may submit your manuscript plummets. Well, now we can add one.

Earlier this month Cave Canem, the literary nonprofit founded in 1996 by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, announced the inaugural Cave Canem Northwestern Press Poetry Prize, a second book award for African American poets, that will further the nonprofit's commitment to "cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets."

The annual award was created through the partnership of the Cave Canem Foundation and Northwestern University Press. The winner will receive a thousand dollars, publication by Northwestern University Press, fifteen copies of the published book, and a reading. African American poets who have had one full-length book of poetry published by a professional press are elegible. (Chapbooks and self-published works do not qualify.)

Judges of the inaugural prize will be Reginald Gibbons, Parneshia Jones, and John Keene. The reading period begins January 1, 2009. The deadline is March 1. Guidelines are available at the Cave Canem Web site. Poets may also e-mail Camille Rankine for more information.

 

Welcome to Our New Blog

For the past twenty years, Poets & Writers Magazine has delivered a reliable, comprehensive guide to writing contests through the print version of our Grants & Awards section. This year we launched a Grants & Awards database that users can search with ease, and now, we introduce G&A: The Contest Blog.

G&A is the place to visit for weekly posts about the awards we include in our magazine and database. Here we’ll announce new awards that didn’t make it into our pages, changes to upcoming deadlines, news of awards that have been suspended, interviews with frequent winners, plus many more behind-the-scenes glimpses into how the writing contest process works—and, sometimes, doesn’t work—all in an effort to help you discern which awards have the most value to you and your writing.

We thought we’d begin with a look back at the literary statistics of the past year to get a sense of the writing contest environment. In 2008, based on the information included in our Grants & Awards section, $11,337,228 was award to a total of 1,012 poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers. Of those, 562 were women and 450 were men. To add a little perspective, in 2002, $6,757,101 was awarded to 904 writers, 494 of whom were women, and 410 of whom were men. That’s an increase of over $4 million over six years!

Let’s hope the new year brings more rewards for writers. Check back next week, and every week going forward, for another dispatch from the world of literary competitions. And post a comment letting us know what you’d like to hear about in this blog.

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