It’s just up to you and your flabby and flagging motivation. Nobody makes you enter a contest and nobody waits for you at the deadline, jumping up and down calling your name and spraying you with champagne as you cross the finish line. So why bother? For three reasons – at least.
Contests provide writers with the dreaded and necessary deadline. Sure, you can make all the promises you want to yourself about how many words you will write each day, each week. You can keep that list beside your desk, on the fridge, in your head. But lists get lost, forgotten, spilled on. Nothing motivates like a real-life deadline to start or finish a piece of good writing.
Secondly, Canadian literary magazines work mostly on volunteer labour and it takes them (us!) a long time to get through all the submissions we receive from around the world. It can take up to a year to hear back about your regular submission, although we all strive for a quicker response rate. Contest deadlines work both ways — the magazine you submit to will have to choose their winners shortly after the deadline and so you will know much sooner than with a regular submission if you have won, or can submit your piece elsewhere. By the way, you can always resubmit that piece to the same magazine that held the contest, as a regular submission.
Third, you can win money. Not a life-changing amount, but $500 or $1,500 is nothing to shake a stick at. And it’s better than a poke in the eye with a wooden stick. Which reminds me: root out all the tired clichés in your submissions.
But wait, there’s more! As well as the smug self-satisfaction that comes with being able to say, in mock-casual tones — “Why, yes, I did win a highly prestigious literary contest, gosh, how did you know?” — there’s the knowledge that your writing will be published and read and, bonus, everyone knows that winning one contest can open the door to future publication. A win looks nice in a cover letter, after all.
The following annotated contest list is based on information available online as of today. I have included the links to each magazine’s contest information. Check those for more details and to keep track of any changes to the contests. As far as I could tell, no two magazines have the same entry formats, so do read their instructions carefully. Some are email-only submissions, others are mail-only. A really easy way to whittle down a pile of contest submissions is for staff or judges to weed out the entries that don’t meet the explicit criteria regarding maximum word count, or page formatting etc. You want them to read you, not weed you.
Don’t be easily weedable!
Contest entry fees are in brackets. Most are around the $30 mark. The numbers I have cited are for Canadian submissions only. International fees are more and are listed on each site. Entry fees usually include a one-year subscription to the magazine. In this way, you can’t actually lose. Okay, you can not win the contest, but you will get a Canadian literary magazine delivered to your home (or nearby postal station) for a year. Some of these magazines have been going for decades and all of them are judiciously produced by talented and enthusiastic readers and writers: your kin.
Winning booty varies considerably, but all winners are also published in an issue of the magazine.
The following are listed in order of urgency. I wasn’t going to include the faraway contests — the ones with deadlines in months like “November.” Then I counted on my fingers (I did) and realized that “November” is in fact only four months away from July and probably always has been. Four months is a realistic goal for a short story started this week.
Here’s how to increase your chances of winning: submit only your best. This is the piece (pieces) that you have rewritten many times. If you belong to a writing group, they have ‘workshopped’ your story or poem. You have read it aloud to actual living humans, more than once (kids and spouses count; stuffies, not so much). You have put it away for a month and edited it again. Yes, again. And again. Then you have given it to a writer as good or better than you (they exist) and have considered their feedback. Then you have rewritten it. Again. No one has heard of your neighbour who diligently bangs out a poem a day. But the names Munro and Ondaatje are synonymous with excellent writing, two writers who have said time and again how long and labourious their writing process is. Michael Ondaatje (a Descant contributor) says that writing is in fact re-writing. And Alice Munro reminds us that yes, good writing is hard, very hard, “but no one is making you do it.” I think she means that we shouldn’t whine, that there are much more difficult things people have to do.
Deadlines require lifelines and that’s what writer friends and the broader literary community are all about.
Get your writer friends involved. Set goals as a group, a team. Afraid a particular friend might win and steal your place? Good. Make sure those people are in your group. They will give you great feedback on your own work and raise everybody’s game.
Canadian Literary Magazine Contest Deadlines: July 15 – December 31, 2014
Room magazine has a fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry competition ($35 each). All contest deadlines are July 15. The fiction and creative non-fiction entries can be up to 3,500 words. The poetry can be up to three poems OR 150 lines of poetry. First prize is $500 and second is $250.
Montreal-based Vallum magazine of contemporary poetry has a July 15th deadline ($25). They are accepting up to three of your poems “on any theme or subject,” maximum 60 lines each. First place winner gets $750, second place $250.
The Capilano Review has a Bowering Contest: “The Capilano Review invites critical discussion — in essay or other format — of any of George Bowering’s many works” (2,000 word maximum). Contest deadline is August 15th ($35) and the winner gets $500.
UVic’s The Malahat Review has several contests: “With a contest for every taste and stage of career, it’s easy to find one that matches your ambition and abilities.” The first deadline ahead is August 1st ($35) for their Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize. Entries should be a maximum of 3,000 words. First prize is $1,000. The deadline for their 2015 Open Season Awards (poetry, short fiction and creative non-fiction) is November 1st ($35). You can submit three poems, maximum 100 lines each, and a story of up to 2,500 words. Winners in each category receive $1,000 each.
Geist’s inaugural Tobacco Lit Contest is the most unusual contest in this list. They want your 500 word story about, well, tobacco. First prize is $500. That’s a buck a word! Deadline is September 1st ($20). Second prize is $250, third is $150 and even an honourable mention prize of $100. What is tobacco lit? According to their website: “Tobacco lit can be any collection of words that are (in some way) directly or tangentially about tobacco—whether it’s about those who smoke it, roll it or grow it; detailed instructions on how to use it or how to avoid it like the plague; a scathing review of its sociocultural impact on the modern world; or poetry written from an ashtray’s point of view, it’s tobacco lit.”
UBC’s Prism holds three contests. Their creative non-fiction contest deadline is November 21 ($35). Each entry must be a maximum of 6,000 words. First prize is $1,500, runner up is $300 and second runner up is $200. Prism also has a short fiction and poetry contest (deadlines are January 23, 2015).
Prairie Fire accepts longer pieces for their contest, deadline November 30 ($32). They are looking for short stories up to 10,000 words, poems up to 150 lines, and creative non-fiction up to 5,000 words. First place $1,250, second place $500, third place $250.
Atlantic Canada’s The Fiddlehead contest deadline is December 1 ($30). That’s 150 days from today! They accept short stories up to 6,000 words and up to three poems, 100 lines each.
Winners do not receive any money, but they are published in the issue and interviewed on their blog site as well. Correction! Winners receive $2,000 (one in poetry one in fiction) and runners up each receive $250 (two in each of those categories). Sorry, Fiddlehead and thanks for the correction.
Freefall’s annual poetry and prose contest deadline is December 31st ($25). If you don’t celebrate Christmas, for reasons of religion or reluctance, then this deadline will keep you busy the last two weeks of December. Who am I kidding — it’ll keep you busy the last few days of that month! Prose entries must be a maximum of 3,000 words, and they accept up to five poems per entry. For each category, first prize is $500, second is $250 and third prize is $75.