Literary Competition Season

 Make a List and Stick to It

I have a checklist, much like an old friend, Eddie, had when he took his seat in the cockpit of his small plane and prepared for take-off.  Everyone who knew Eddie casually–that is, anyone who had not been flying with him–thought of Eddie as an almost careless individual who lived life spontaneously. He embodied cliches like on-the-spur-of-the-moment,  on-the-fly, by-the-seat-of-his-pants. Eddie was an adamant opponent of planning of any kind.  I recall vividly the first time he took me up in the plane.  He pulled out a yellowed card on which someone had written a checklist with a small diagram next to each brief, numbered instruction. Eddie’s reading skills were minimal.

I am a retired English teacher. I read with the best. I am one of those mostly undisciplined people who give the impression of great order in my life and, to preserve both my reputation and my sanity, I make lists. I am, in fact, a compulsive list-maker, a person who can rewrite a list several times a day because it has gotten messy or to add a new task to the bottom of the list every time I cross off one at the top.  This is a terrible way to live, especially given my total dependence on those lists. If I don’t write it down on my list, it doesn’t happen.

In the case of the entry process for the high-end literary contests, these omissions can eliminate you from the competition before the judges even see your manuscript.  There is one contest in particular that I entered last year–honorable mention, only–that issues veiled warnings like,

“It is important to label your documents properly. Unlabelled documents will not be opened.”


So, with a deadline of May 1 looming, I now have a completed novel, proofed and edited several times, still needing some tinkering but a clean manuscript and, I believe, a good piece of writing.  I am girding up my loins to read this year’s instructions very carefully, as I have been reminded of the importance of tracking down those misplaced commas because,

“No judge wants to read your errors!”

I recall asking myself a year ago, “Is this really worth it?”  The answer, of course, is yes.

Below you will find my personal checklist, to which I adhere slavishly:

  1. Create a new folder on your computer for each competition.
  2. Choose the first competition you’ll enter and, if possible, work on only one at a time.
  3. Read every word of the competition’s guidelines and requirements. Read them at least twice.
  4. Copy and paste the instructions specific to the submission of your manuscript into a Word document.
  5. Print those instructions and the required forms and read them again, highlighting the essential regulations.
  6. Go ahead and create a Word document for your manuscript.
  7. As you do your last editing, copy and paste one chapter at a time into the document that you’ll submit.
  8. If at all possible, find at least one reader for your manuscript.
  9. Read the manuscript out loud with your reader.
  10. Carefully re-reading the requirements, continue to transfer one edited chapter at a time into the document you will submit.
  11. Double-check details. Last year, I did everything precisely and correctly and, on the form for payment, I transposed two digits on my credit card number and it took a couple of weeks to get it sorted out.
  12. Final check that you’ve followed their directions.
  13. Keep good records, to include your own list of contests entered, with the dates you entered, and the emails you receive acknowledging your submission and your payment.
  14. Send it off, take a 24-hour break, and move on to the next competition.

At this point, I am not quite halfway through the list. I have two people reading and editing. When I get a chapter back with notes, I read it again, out loud, then move it to the form for my first contest.  I am about as obsessive about having a system as it’s possible to be, and I circle each number as I complete it.

My first competition is the very one that gave me the most trouble a year ago, including my credit card error.  The process is difficult and confusing. The payoff is impressive, both in prize money and in prestige. I expect I will re-submit last year’s revised manuscript again.


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