Can a writing contest be reverse engineered?

The Kenyon Review has re-opened its annual short fiction contest. It looks good: emerging writers only (you can’t have published a book), 1,200 words maximum, March 1st deadline, an 18 dollar entry fee which grants you a year’s subscription to the journal. If you’ve got eighteen dollars and a very short story you can finish this month, give it a shot.

What’s also interesting is that the contest page displays the winners and runners up from the past five years. Because the entries are so short, the winning pieces can all be read in a morning (I did this yesterday), and so it’s theoretically possible to see if there’s a certain type of story that tends to win.

There’s two ways to think about such a test: one is the mechanical option–literally creating a set rubric of story qualities, then trying to write something to match it. That’s probably impossible for most people’s creative facilities.

The other option, instead, is to let a sense of the various stories build up in your head, and use that inchoate feeling to inspire you. Or to focus on the stories that impress you the most, and try to write something similar. I was really impressed by “The Boy in the Lake,” for instance, and “Death Threat.” The first, for its suspenseful build up, and the second for its atmosphere and language.

But if I were actually to attempt to produce a list of qualities the contest seems to like, I’d firstly note how few characters appear in most of the stories. It’s usually one character thinking about another. There’s a compression of character and setting that, I think, helps to increase the emotional impact of such short pieces. Lacking time for a full scale plot or a sequence of dramatic scenes, most of these writers get up close to their protagonist, and use a lot of summary and exposition to make the situation seem real. “Home,” for instance, very skillfully blends one continuous scene (a bomb has gone off in Karachi) with sections of exposition.

Secondly, several end in a kind of epiphanic surrender, with the protagonists disappearing into water or sand, giving up to their situation and thus seeming to achieve a kind of unity with it. I think this technique appears so often, in these entries, because it lets the writer move from the initial portion of reflection and exposition to an act, by the protagonist, which feels final or summational. “Sculptures” is perhaps the most distinctive example of this move.

But these may just have been the noticeable qualities in the stories I liked. Have a look! If you do write a piece for the contest, I’d love to run a blog post on your creative process.

Best wishes

Daniel

13 thoughts on “Can a writing contest be reverse engineered?

  1. Interesting to think about any contest’s process…more writers should be thinking about and objecting to “contests as the main road to publication” in their art’s genre. It fails to respect the intentions, hard work and wonderful results of literary artists.

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      • Hi – I regret that I had to enter contests to find publication but I have to admit that having people I respected choose my work was encouraging. It bothers me that when we don’t “win” we “lose” (we certainly feel like we lose) and I lost lots of contests before I won some. I see writers who seem beaten down by the process. The day my first full-length one I had to write 30 letters to other contests it was in so pull it. That’s a lots of $20 checks. I just wrote check after check and tried not to think about it. The prizes were not so big int hose days – they just about paid back what you’d spent in entry fees, and I had a good book of poems.

        And of course I “finaled” many times too…that’s a sort of hybrid thing. I remember BH Fairchild saying to me that he was excited the first 6 times he was a finalist…it was said with a wry smile, meaning “finaling” is not so meaningful as you think when it happens.

        I think if all the entry fees paid in a year in this country were added up and made public we would all be horrified but I’m not sure of another way to do this either. I think I favor small groups getting together and funding the publication of their own books. That’s psychological shift that’s difficult. The “Big Time” has such allure – I can feel that too.

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        • Hi Deborah,

          I agree that contests are expensive and are effectively silencing to everyone who doesn’t win. It’s true, too, that finalist places are good to write on a CV, and maybe not much more, although it’s important, I feel, to be able to build a sort of slowburning buzz around your work, and it’s nice to be able to report regular bits of good news to your friends, colleagues, social media correspondents.

          I suppose the bigger question, for me as a fiction writer, is: what is short fiction for, these days? Lots of people imagine a ladder–get stories published in literary magazines in order to get an agent for a novel… But if our goal were simply to get the fiction in front of paying readers, would we write it differently?

          Are many people successfully promoting and selling short fiction on Amazon?

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          • Daniel – I bet there’s a way to research that via amazon authors – I’ll give it some thought. Known and less known writers are publishing “kindle singles” which are short stories. Looking a them, they seem to be a promotional tool to sell novels, either by getting the author’s name out there – or often by introducing characters that are also novel characters. It may depend on who you hope to be writing for. If you want to be a New Yorker fiction writer – that’s long road and requires lots of accolades from the literary establishment. If you want to sell fiction to readers – accolades from literary sources won’t help as much as reader reviews from people who like the work.

            As for contests – one reason I think they exploit writers is that you need to enter many (at least most of us do) to have a real chance at winning. If you can only enter 10 contests (already you are out $250?) then your statistical chances are slim. So much has to go your way – good first readers, good second readers, a judge who likes the kind of think you write. So you may have just thrown $250 into the wind.

            When I was entering contests I did it like a business – there’s a way to work it. If you ever want a blog on that let me know. Deborah

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  2. Gene’O, you raise some good issues here. Btw, I got a set of Story Cubes™ for Christmas from my sister, and have already written one poem using them… Have you used them for anything, or is this just for illustration purposes?

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    • Hi Annette,

      I have used them, several times. I got lots of starts, but nothing that led to a full story. I think I need some triangulation method, before they’ll be really helpful to me–like, a way of clarifying what will happen to these interesting images I’ve rolled, a plot.

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      • Makes sense. Writing poetry works slightly differently and they may be better suited for short texts like that. They do make expansion packs (although if you play by the rules of that game, you’re supposed to trade some of the original dice for some of the ‘expansion’ dice, which technically makes them not an expansion…)

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