A Frequent Winner's Advice

For poet and prose writer Gregory Loselle, 2009 has been a banner year in the realm of writing competitions. The high school language arts teacher from Michigan garnered several honors this year, including the Pinch Literary Award in poetry and the top prize in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition.

Loselle, the author of the poetry chapbooks Our Parents Dancing (Pudding House Publications, 2009) and Phantom Limb (Pudding House Publications, 2008), has also received the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Award, three prizes from the Poetry Society of Michigan, and the William Van Wert Fiction Award from Hidden River Arts, among other honors.

In addition to the year’s bright spots, Loselle encountered a couple of rough patches, as well. He shared with us that he was disqualified from two contests this past spring, and not unavoidably. One lesson for prose writers: be careful to follow word count guidelines to the letter. Loselle went over the stipulated length of a story—which was selected to receive a prize, but then pulled from competition—when using a word processor that didn’t give an overall count. “I should have been more careful,” he says.

In April he received word that a poem had won the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation Poetry Prize, but it was the same poem that was selected for the Pinch Literary Award only a week before—the two submissions had gone out simultaneously. While simultaneous entries aren’t always restricted, if a piece is accepted for an award, writers should be sure to notify any other venues to which they’ve submitted, as Loselle did.

Since Loselle has met with continued success in contests, despite some misfortunes, we asked him a few questions about his approach to entering writing competitions.

How many contests do you estimate you've entered?

I'm sure I've entered several dozen—if not more than a hundred—contests over the years.  I have been very fortunate, throughout the time I've dedicated myself to always keeping something in the mail, to have won something at least yearly, if not several times a year.  

What do you look for in a contest?

Because a contest generally brings publication and a cash prize, I'm happy to enter any contest for which I have a suitable manuscript. Nothing ventured. . .

How do you select a piece to submit to a competition?
I look at the requirements of the competition first, and I always make sure that I have a group of works in different genres and of different forms to keep in active rotation. At the moment, I'm hoping to publish a book of poems I've completed, so I not only send out that whole manuscript every chance I get, but I also submit individual poems from it to keep the work active and eventually establish salability. So far, with this one book, about a third of the poems have won or placed in competitions.

Do you have an organizational strategy for tracking award deadlines, submissions, and honors received?
Seriously?  I rely on Poets & Writers!  When the competitions list is published every other month, I read through it with an eye to what I have on hand to submit, and then I enter everything I think has a reasonable chance of winning.

Organizationally, I've developed a spreadsheet of contest addresses, indexed by monthly deadlines, which helps to cut down on the repetitive work of packaging contest submissions.

What is the most rewarding aspect of receiving an award? What award has been of the most value to you?
Since I am unaffiliated with any university writing program or professional group, I receive very little feedback on my work.  Even carefully thought-out rejections are therefore valuable—but the real rush comes from knowing, when I win a competition, that someone out there “got it” about my work, that I was understood and that my words struck a chord with a receptive reader. That's wonderfully fulfilling.

Value is an unusual thing to assess in contest terms, but two things stand out: As a graduate student, I won four Hopwood Awards at the University of Michigan, which told me that I could, in fact, take myself seriously as a writer. More recently, winning the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition was a huge boost—not only for the enthusiasm for my work that it revealed to me, but for the upcoming publication of the story, "Lazarus," in the Saturday Evening Post.

Another positive experience I've had more than once this year is that two poems which had consistently not won awards—after many, many tries—and which I was thinking of “retiring” from submission, turned out to be prize winners. I would suppose that it's just a question of the work finding its destined reader—and of not giving up hope.

Have you ever had a negative experience as a result of winning a prize?
I can't say that I've ever had a directly negative experience as a result of winning a prize, but I do notice that some editors or contest administrators have a rather cavalier attitude in telling winners what to expect when it comes to delivering the award; it's very disheartening to be told of having won a competition, which is of course a great thrill, then be left hanging—sometimes for months, in my experience—with no communication as to when the award will arrive.

What piece of advice do you have for writers looking to contests as a way to get their work into the world?
Frankly, entering contests is not the most effective way to do that. An award is a one-time event, and may bring many readers, but publication is a more sure way to reach readers over time.