I’m obsessed with the Olympics. I don’t know where this comes from, as I’m a lot less likely to win a gold medal for anything athletic than, say, watching Veronica Mars seasons one through three back to back in a weekend.
Like when I was growing up—I was never the kid who came in first in gym class. I was the one won a t-shirt from the geography teacher for designing an imaginary country’s flag. Once, in middle school, I read more books in a six-week period than any other student.
I guess that’s not what they’re looking for at the Olympic Training Center.
Maybe you won’t be surprised to hear that the most important competitions I’ve ever entered into were writing contests. I’ve lost my share, and of course we all lose the ones we don’t enter. Some beginning writers question whether contests are worth entering. The odds. The entry fees.
Having won a couple, though, I can say entering writing contests changed my life.
In 2010 I won the first fiction contest Good Housekeeping magazine had ever had, and my story was published in their 125th anniversary issue. It had Michelle Obama on the cover. I picked up a copy in the O’Hare Airport on the way to the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Denver. I felt like a bad ass, I don’t have to tell you. From this win—chosen from 5,000 entries by Jodi Picoult, what’s up?—I got to talk to some agents, figured out that my book wasn’t ready for publication, abandoned that book in the drawer, and started writing a new book. The new book became The Black Hour.
Oh, and Good Housekeeping has a readership of 26 million people.
Twenty-six. Million. And I got a check for $3,000.
This was all good. But when I think about how the competitive spirit might have formed my writing life, the contest I think of won me $25.
My high school’s annual creative writing club held a contest every year for stories, essays, and poems. My sophomore year, I won the fiction prize. To do so, I had to triumph over the senior who had won the year before, a very good writer with a novel draft already written. A friend of mine, too. The story was read by about twenty-six people, total.
But—that very good writer friend of mine, Christopher Coake, went on to become one of Granta magazine’s Best of Young American Novelists in 2007.
Back up and read that again.
The other high school student I beat in a writing competition when we were 17 and 16 respectively topped a first-time novelist’s list less than twenty years later.
And it’s a good thing for me that he did, because when his first book, a set of stories you have to read to believe called We’re in Trouble, was published, I got the fire under my butt to start writing again.
Not just a fire. An Olympic torch-level flame of simultaneous pride and jealousy that catapulted me into action. Into actually writing instead of just talking about it. Into sending stories out to magazines and to contests.
Turns out I don’t mind being in the game, as long as no one’s making me sweat.
So when people ask if submitting to contests is a good way for a beginning author to spend his or her time, I have to say yes. Competition can give you focus and a deadline to meet some of your lifelong goals. That’s what these Olympians used their competitive drive to do. Maybe it’s your turn to run with the torch for a while.
Photo from Twitter account for Andy Murray’s dogs