I blame Camelot. And not simply the King Arthur sword-from-the-stone myth, whereby he became the divinely ordained savior of Britain. I also blame all the royal myths, and all the stories about someone raised to greatness. You know, the tales about the young farmhand who is secretly a prince or princess. Or the endless films in which “the chosen one” is groomed until the chosen, usually after some reluctance, accepts their fated place as the hero of all humanity.
Unfortunately, this mythopoetic belief that any of us at any time can be plucked from obscurity and ascended to the throne of greatness is alive and well. And no where is this belief more evident than among writers.
Part of this is because of the nature of writers. We worship at the altar of dreams. We believe in the life blood of stories. So it’s a natural transition from such ideals to believing that one day we’ll also be chosen to ascend the literary heights.
It’s also a major reason why so many writers love writing contests.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not knocking writing contests, which can provide needed attention to new writers, just as publication of a writer’s work in books, magazines, and online also brings attention to the writer. I even ran for many years an annual writing contest called the Million Writers Award, which honors online-published stories. For over a decade the award has brought needed attention to up-and-coming authors, which can be only a good thing.
And there are many great writing contests out there. A prominent one is the Writers of the Future (WOTF) contest, which has been the first professional recognition for many genre writers. The science fiction and fantasy contest gives large amounts of prize money to new writers, publication in an anthology series, and the chance to study under well-known SF/F authors.
Contests can also stimulate the imagination and act of creation. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as the result of a competition among a group of friendly writers to see who could create the best supernatural horror story. As a result of this same informal contest John Polidori also wrote “The Vampyre,” a short story which inspired all of what we today call vampire fiction.
Not a bad outcome for one little contest.
Writing contests also have a long history. Among the first documented contests are those revolving around the ancient Greek festivals of Dionysia and Lenaia. Beginning in the 5th century BC, annual contests were held at these festivals where theatrical performances of dramas and comedies competed for recognition and the prize of a wreath of ivy.
In an attempt to keep political maneuvering from influencing competition, judges for these Greek contests were selected by lottery, although audience reception also mattered greatly. But despite this, there were many cases of political scheming to determine the winners. According to the Greek historian Plutarch, famed playwright Sophocles won his first competition in 468 BC only after political leaders decided against selecting judges by lot and instead picked the winners themselves.
Other early examples of writing contests can be found in Chinese poetry. For example, one of the first poems from famed Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu describes a poetry competition dating to around 730 AD. Considering that humans love competitions and contests, it seems likely there were many more poetry and drama contests than survive in the historical record.
But despite this long history and the benefits of writing contests, my first instinct toward them is to be suspicious. With so many people wanting to be authors, quite a few writing contests turn out to be merely scams. One of the most infamous was the International Library of Poetry, which continually ran poetry contests and claimed to publish the best poems in their anthologies. However, in reality they published every poem sent to them and charged poets high prices to purchase crappy books containing their poems.
A general rule of thumb on writing contests is that writers shouldn’t pay entry fees. The Million Writers Award, for example, has no entry fee; neither does the Writers of the Future contest (although there has been some criticism of the contest for ties to L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology religion). If you must enter a writing contest that charges a fee, make sure the contest has a reliable track record and that it offers enough prize money and recognition to make the fee reasonable.
Yet even if writing contests can be a great thing for authors, that doesn’t address my overall concern with why writers embrace the contests. Call it the Camelot syndrome. There is a deep human yearning for some higher power to pluck us from our obscurity and raise us to the heights of achievement, and this urge naturally also exists among writers. And writing contests are seen by many as a great way to scale the literary heights.
But as in so much of life, instant success is rarely a good thing. Who hasn’t heard of lottery winners who, after claiming their $100 million dollar prize, spiraled out of control and eventually rued the day they won the money. This likewise happens in the literary world. We all know of authors who wrote a great first novel or story but never again wrote anything comparable. Or the authors who hit the heights of popularity with a certain type of novel and from that point on their writing stopped developing and growing.
The reason this happens is simple—the path to becoming a great writer is long and continually turns upon itself. The struggle to become a better writer is what results in you actually becoming a better writer. Nothing can short-circuit this process, which takes different amount of time for each author.
So yes, writing contests can be a great thing and may help advance authors toward their goals. But don’t believe in the Camelot myth of writing contests. They are not there to raise you to the literary heights—and even if they do, that may not be the best path to take as a writer.
Jason Sanford is a Nebula Award nominated author whose science fiction stories have been published in a number of magazines and books, including Interzone, Asimov’s and Analog. His website is www.jasonsanford.com.