The Contest Ploy for Literary Credibility

The Warren Adler Short Story Contest, which started online in 2006 and continued until 2011, was an outgrowth of my three brief years running a short story contest for the Wyoming Arts Council when I lived in Jackson Hole.

As with all literary contests of this type, the idea was to encourage the writing of short stories and reward the authors of the best submissions on the basis of literary quality; a subjective assessment at best, requiring a panel of judges who have spent their lives contributing to a standard based on contemporary and historical sampling, and study of enduring varieties of the form.

Because I felt charged with such a serious assignment that could affect the career, and hopes and dreams, of those dedicated to creating short form fiction writing, I recruited well-qualified judges who had been teaching college level writing courses and were writers themselves.

We diligently read every submission. Wyoming was a small state, and the entries were manageable. For the first two years we discussed the submissions, pondered over them carefully, judging them on the basis of skill of presentation, emotional impact, style, narrative drive and other writing standards; knowledge jointly accumulated by the chosen judges over many years of reading, write and teaching as well as their familiarity with works that have endured.

Alas, submissions in the third year of the contest were of such poor quality that the judges, after wrestling painfully over each submission, decided that not a single submission was worthy of the grand prize. It was a painful outcome, but we felt that we could not sanction a winner that did not conform to the qualitative standards that we had set. Arbitrarily rewarding one of the submissions would subject the contest to ridicule and denigrate its purpose.

I was subsequently rebutted by the Wyoming Arts Council. The bureaucracy had decreed that a prize had to be awarded despite any standard. They were charged with giving a prize, and a prize, regardless of submissions' quality, had to be awarded. Case closed.

Nevertheless, the first two successful years of the contest inspired me to open up the contest to the Internet -- a contest totally financed by me out of a genuine desire to resurrect the short story, which had been in decline during the latter half of the 20th century.

Whether you call it a noble act or an exercise in self-promotion (take your pick), I was determined to promote a high standard and encourage authors to submit their work, and once again, I carefully picked experienced judges who would take the time to choose the best of the crop.

The one sacrosanct rule and discipline was that every submission was to be read carefully, discussed by the judges, and the cash prizes would be awarded on the basis of unanimous approval. The annual contest ran for seven years, and I eventually published the winners in e-Book volumes available via Amazon. Frankly, I loved the whole process, enjoyed reading the submissions, and I felt that I had picked judges who were dedicated and thorough, and that I was genuinely promoting the short form of fiction writing.

Yes, it was costly, but as with all noble grand gestures, I'm not sure I made a dent in the promotion of the short story as a literary art form, even though I felt satisfied that the winners picked were terrific practitioners of the art.

Has it helped promote the careers of the writers? Maybe. It was a not-for-profit objective, and in retrospect, sincere and heartfelt. I was very moved by the number of submissions and their quality. You may want to judge the quality of the winning entries for yourself at Warren Adler Short Story Contest Winners.

So why did I suspend it?

No good deed goes unpunished, the old chestnut asserts. The Internet is now awash with so-called "literary" competitions. There are now writing contests in novels, short stories, poetry, plays, screenplays and every genre in the publishing field known to man. All operate on a similar business plan, designed to produce revenue or to serve as a promotional avenue for the publishing business and its various offshoots.

Few, if any of the promoters of these businesses announce the names of their judges, and one suspects that those that do are merely window dressing rather than working judges.

Most, if not all, entries must be accompanied by an "entrance fee." The contests are designed to attract the hopeful, the naïve and the serious aspirant, eager for praise and a measure of credibility that they hope will enhance their career plans, find readers and give them a leg up on their aspirations.

Indeed, there is an explosion of these "contests" all over the Internet. My purpose in this essay is not to cast aspersions on the motives of those who organize these contests, whether for profit or promotion, but to offer a warning to those who believe that their submission will bring them the magic bullet for fame and fortune.

The question I pose is not their legitimacy, nor am I implying some predatory motive. It would be an easy ploy to write these contests off as "credibility mills." Indeed, the primary purpose of any writer is to find readers by hook or by crook. Any path to discoverability, whatever the cost and whatever the quality of the drum to beat the message, has its place in spreading the word.

Let this little essay be a shot over the bow of an emerging writer's naturally overeager aspirations. Before they leap into entry into these contests, I would like to offer some words of caution in a universe where competition is cut throat and open to cynical exploitation.

I urge all entrants to ask the following questions before entering any literary contest offering a prize for artistic merit.

Who is behind the contest? Is it a business for profit? Who are the judges and are they credible? What is the method of their selection? Are they just window dressing to give the contest legitimacy? Will they actually be reading all submissions, or will they have an army of advance readers to screen entries? Who are these advance readers, college students or English teachers? What are their credentials? Will they copy the method of Hollywood readers' concept of checklist coverage by so-called first readers? How will the winners be promoted? Will winning a prize enhance their reputation? What has been the experience of past winners? And on and on.

Considering the difficulty in today's expanding publishing universe where books both, self and traditionally published, will eventually reach the multi-millions with discoverability, an increasingly elusive objective, writers must be even more creative in marketing as they are in their writing skills.

If one detects a note of skepticism in this essay, I commend them for their insight.

Warren Adler has just released his 33rd book "The Serpent's Bite."

For more information on Warren Adler and to download his free e-book of the week visit