Public acknowledgement for one’s work is every author’s dream. Perhaps even more important than sales, is the validation by one’s “superiors” (judges) for your talent, creativity, and mastery of craft. Being rewarded for the sleepless nights, hours and hours of work, and the painful launching of your literary child into the world, makes all the effort worth it. Or it should.
There are competitions for every genre, category, and region imaginable. But to enter your work costs entry money, and possibly time standing in the line at the post office. The government cuts us a break in postage, to encourage the movement of books through society, but at least at my local branch, I can plan on a minimum of thirty minutes standing, packages in hand, before one of two or three postal employees finally stamps that inexpensive, “Media Mail” stamp on each envelope. For eBooks, audio books, and other forms of submission, there is the time of wading through website instructions and navigating entry requirements.
Entry fees are usually substantial, perhaps to weed out “hobby writers.” Setting high fees can discourage writers who do not make money writing, and encourage more skilled/experienced writers—saving judges hours of wading through the proverbial “slush pile” of submissions. There are plenty of highly confident writers of all skill levels who feel their work is worthy of award so the fees do not always limit the targeted potential entries. Competition costs are tax-deductable, but most authors do not make enough business profit to need the deduction at the end of the year.
So why enter contests? Why subject yourself to many months in limbo, wondering if nebulous readers (labeled judges) will approve of your years of mental scraping that culminates in a couple hundred pages of reading, at the most?
I have sought to contribute to organizations whose contests I enter by judging and I have worked for several prize-giving organizations. Most have quite loose guidelines for evaluation. “Did you like it?”, “Did it flow well?”, “Did it make sense to you?”, “Is it well edited?”, are just a few of the less technical questions. I have never had a form that inquires about use of metaphor, simile, or the poetic timing of the prose. Vocabulary, use of narrative time, chosen story-telling model, conflict/resolution, and structure throughout the stories, is not asked about often. The actual craft of writing is a life-long pursuit of quality, but few competitions have definitive requirements for judges to adhere to. Often, judges are the only ones who answer a “cattle call” for competitions that are buried in entries. They themselves are not screened for experience or writing knowledge/education.
During my times as a judge, I have evaluated writing that goes from horrible to movingly beautiful. I often wonder if the other two judges who share the works I have (there are usually three for each submission), see the skill or lack of, the way I do. I have sought out years of education in the craft of writing and feel I can see in others’ offerings, that which I sometimes cannot see in my own. Subjectivity, author confidence, knowledge of craft, genre requirements, and numerous other considerations should be evaluated, but I often wonder if other judges are up to the task professionally. After all, this is someone’s heart we are asked to publicly pass judgment on. Why then, do authors place themselves before the jury and ask for rejection?
I seek out award-winning books to read and then deconstruct their structural qualities to understand why they won. Sometimes the author is already an established award-winner and is given another, even if it is substandard. Sometimes it appears the judge only liked and identified with the subject matter. Often, I have no clue why one book won something and another did not.
My middle-grade children’s book, The Dog at the Gate: How a Throwaway Dog Becomes Special recently won a Silver Medal in the Pets/Animals Category of the coveted 2018 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards. Two months prior it won two Bronze Medals in the Colorado Independent Publishers Association (CIPA) EVVY Book Awards in the Pets/Animals and Children’s Books Categories.
In 2016 my adult non-fiction book, Beyond Flight or Fight: A Compassionate Guide for Working with Fearful Dogs won a Gold Medal in the CIPA EVVY Awards and an Honorable Mention in the Dog Writers of America Association (DWAA) Book Awards.
In 2018 I entered my adult non-fiction book, City Dog Walking Safety & Etiquette, in a couple of genre-specific competitions, which I am waiting to hear about. I plan to continue to offer my work to competitions as each story finds its way from my head to the computer screen. Why? Every time one of my books wins an award, for me it is:
- Public acknowledgement that I am a good writer. It tells me the years of work was worth it, and that my continued efforts to hone my chosen craft will continue to increase my skill.
- It is the professional consensus that my creativity is praiseworthy; that my characters are true; that my interpretation of their 24/7 bids for freedom from my head was worth the nocturnal typing, the psychological sharing of my brain, and the cries of each character to be heard “out there.”
- Most importantly, awards and public kudos mean my themes and messages are getting across. My writing is didactic and meant to be so. Because I specialize in writing about dogs, both in non-fiction and children’s fiction, awards mean I am getting my own knowledge across. If I can succeed in reaching readers through writing competition judges/awards, to me it means more dog lives will be saved.
My mission, above all, is to save more dog lives by educating the people who care for them. That means helping adults who have the power of life or death over dogs to understand them better and to help them fit into the human world they are forced to inhabit. It also means that my attempts at the humane education of children will hopefully result in a future of more compassionate, tolerant, and respectful citizens.
If readers pick up my books initially because they have won awards, and then learn how to treat their dogs in increasingly altruistic ways, my mission will have been accomplished. If we treat our pet dogs with the respect and caring they deserve, it will become our nature to treat all living creatures with sensitivity. Therefore, the world may eventually be covered, like the old paint commercial, with the thick goo of civility, tolerance, compassion, and acceptance of all.
Today, our dogs will benefit from my awards. Tomorrow, perhaps the world will become a kinder place for every creature, human and otherwise.