How winning a literary prize can change your life

“First, it got my book published,” says Kirstin Scott, whose novel Motherlunge won the 2011 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award. “And with that, the prize gave me readers.”

There’s no doubt that winning a well-respected competition can help validate your work with agents and publishers. It proves someone thinks you’re good and helps build a more credible platform. The best of these prizes include cash awards and book publication.

I recently interviewed four writers each of whom has won a well-known contest. Here’s who they are and how their prizes changed their lives.

Four Winners

Lori Ostlund’s first collection of stories, The Bigness of the World received the 2008 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, which came with a $1,000 cash prize and publication by the University of Georgia Press.

The book also won the California Book Award for First Fiction, the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award, and was a Lambda finalist.  In 2009, she was one of six emerging women writers to win a $25,000 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award.

Will Boast won the 2011 Iowa Short Fiction Award for his story collection Power Ballads, which provided an author’s contract and publication by the University of Iowa Press.

His fiction and essays have also appeared in Best New American Voices, Narrative, New York Times and others. He’s been a Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University and a Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia in the UK. His memoir, The Pantomime Horse, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton Co/Liveright and Granta.

Kirstin Scott won the 2011 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for her novel Motherlunge, which provided a $2,000 cash award and publication by the New Issues Press at Western Michigan University.

Her short stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sonora Review, Western Humanities Review, PANK, and elsewhere.

Holly Payne won the $3,000 Grand Prize for the Writers Digest Self-Published Book Award in 2011 for her novel Kingdom of Simplicity,which also provided an all-expenses paid trip to New York City.

The book also won the Benjamin Franklin Award for Best First Book (fiction) from a new press, the $5,000 Marin Arts Council Grant, and was nominated for a national book award in Belgium where it was named to the mandatory reading list in Ghent.

Payne’s earlier debut novel, The Virgin’s Knot (2003) and second book The Sound of Blue (2004) were published by Dutton/Plume.

At what stage in your writing career were you when you entered this contest? Did you have a day job?

Lori Ostlund: I was in my early 40s and had been writing off and on for half of my life, though my stories lived in the slush pile. Not long before I won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, I said to my partner that I was going to stop being a writer and get a job that paid properly.

I had been teaching part-time and had started classes to become a paralegal when I got the call from University of Georgia Press that I had won the FOC. At that point, things moved quickly. Nancy Zafris, the series editor, helped in getting most of the stories placed in journals before the book came out.

Will Boast: I’d been writing fairly seriously for nine or ten years, and reading heavily, of course, for much longer than that. I’d published stories in several journals that I liked and an anthology, and I was living in San Francisco, having just finished a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.

Kirstin Scott: As an MFA student, I wrote short stories. I had some luck publishing them in literary journals; I won a couple of prizes; I had a well-known agent contact me, asking to see a novel.

But I felt this urgency to make money—as if, after three years of self-indulgence, it was time to get real. Part of that has to do with the fact that I have always been my family’s main breadwinner. Any time I might spend trying to be “an artist” felt like robbing my kids of my attention, my family of money. It was a painful to give up the writerly dream—for a while, I didn’t even like to go into bookstores—but I also felt like it was the right decision.

Then, after more than a decade of not writing fiction, I made a first attempt to write a novel. I’m not sure where this sudden ambition came from—a new spasm of frustration, I guess—but I started getting up extra early, aiming for a modest 300 words a day putting aside any hope that it would be good or published. It took me a year to write Motherlunge this way, another year to revise it. I loved doing it.

Holly Payne: I had been writing professionally for almost half of my life at the time, starting as a journalist when I was 17. I had previously published two novels through Penguin (Dutton/Plume) while also working as an adjunct professor in various MFA programs and running a private writing coaching practice. When I got news of the prize I had been recently married, getting through the first year of motherhood—and surviving a family financial tsunami after 2008.

Why did you enter this particular contest?

Lori Ostlund: The truth is that I knew nothing about publishing when I entered this contest. So, in 2006, I decided to go to Bread Loaf as a contributor in order to learn a bit more, and I think that it was there that I learned about submitting to prizes. So when I finally finished the collection after 10 years, I sent it to the Bakeless Prize (nothing) and then the Prairie Schooner Prize (also nothing), and then to the Flannery O’Connor Award. I was just following the annual chronology of contests, but I was particularly happy that it was the FOC that took it because the contest is so well regarded.

Will Boast: I’d known about the Iowa Short Fiction Award for a while and knew that, along with the Flannery O’Conner Prize, it was the one of the best-regarded story collection contests. I understood that story collections were, to put it mildly, a tough sell with the bigger NY-based houses, and so I thought I’d try the contest route. Funny enough, the Iowa Award was the very first place I sent the manuscript.

Kirstin Scott: I entered the AWP contest not so much because of the cash award, though I did appreciate it, but because I thought the judges would be open to literary fiction. I also liked that it was a publication prize with blind submissions, so new and established writers have the same chance.

Holly Payne: It was the only contest I found that was open to books that had already been self-published. I had been reading Writers Digest Magazine since I was a kid. It felt like a natural choice.

How did winning the prize change your life? Did it open any doors? Did it help you find an agent?

Lori Ostlund: Everything shifted when the book came out. Work still gets rejected, of course, but now editors write to me requesting to see work, so the slush piles no longer factor in the same way. I met my agent Terra Chalberg through University of Georgia Press. They contacted her about selling the paperback rights, something she had done for an earlier recipient, and though the press decided to bring out the paperback itself, Terra remained my agent, and we are now working toward a deadline of July 31st for my first novel.

Will Boast: I actually had an agent already, and we’d been working on another manuscript together, a memoir that we eventually sold to Norton. In fact, that happened because the Norton editor read and enjoyed Power Ballads and got interested in what I was working on next.

So, yes, it opened some doors. I got to do a bunch of readings and was invited to the excellent Cork International Short Story Festival in Ireland. I studied with Ann Beattie at the University of the Virginia, and she’s been incredibly supportive. Otherwise, I’m still spending a lot of time at the desk, and it’s nice to have a bit of a platform to stand on, with some previous work finished and a clear sense of what’s to come.

Kirstin Scott: Winning the prize has been so important for me. First, it got my book published, which was terrifically validating. And with that, the prize gave me readers. That experience—of feeling you’ve made a connection with someone through a book—has been unexpected, humbling, and wonderful.

It did help me get an agent, Kate Garrick, and I’ll be working with her to sell my second novel, prospects for which are considerably brightened, I hope, by having won the AWP prize. I think the prize also helped Motherlunge get some prepublication attention — starred reviews from Booklist and was even a Pick of the Week in Publishers Weekly. I’m sure that helped drive early sales.

Holly Payne: I had already self-published Kingdom of Simplicity under my own company Skywriter Books, so I would not say it helped to sell more books or changed my life my dramatically. But, I loved going to New York for the prize trip. Spending a full day in the Metropolitan Museum of Art without changing any diapers or feeding any mouths other than my own with a red devil cupcake felt life changing.

Are you satisfied with the publication of your book?

Lori Ostlund: It was actually published by the University of Georgia Press in hardcover in 2009 and in paperback in 2010. UGA has been great.

Will Boast: Yes, the University of Iowa Press has been fantastic to work with. The press itself put together a great-looking book–they let me have a lot of input into the design and made some pretty inspired choices themselves. As far as promotion goes, they don’t have quite the reach of the NY houses, but they still do a great job.

Kirstin Scott: Yes, really pleased. I’m happy the reviews have been good. I appreciate the readers who’ve responded. Sales have been good—we had to reprint the first week the book came out—and we’ve sold foreign rights to Rizzoli, an Italian publisher.

Holly Payne: Winning the Grand Prize for the Writers Digest Self-Published Book Award didn’t include publication, only the cash prize and trip to NYC.

But my experience self-publishing Kingdom of Simplicity was the most collaborative experience I’ve had so far with any of my books, including the two published by Dutton/Plume. Using my team at Skywriter Books, the manuscript went through six sets of editorial notes, 37 test readers and then into the hands of cover designers. The book also found a foreign rights agent and was sold and published in The Netherlands, Taiwan and soon China (we just got the check today!) and Turkish rights are pending.

What else has happened in your life since you won the prize?

Lori Ostlund: A lot of very good things have happened. I’ve met some truly wonderful people (who are also writers) as a result of winning this prize. So many people helped me, especially in those early days when the book was first coming out, and while this doesn’t surprise me, it still makes me very happy to know that writers tend to be a generous bunch (or at least the ones I came across).

The prize also secured me a two-year position as the Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill, which gave me some nice chunks of writing time to complete my first novel, tentatively entitled After the Parade, and a second story collection.

One of the biggest thrills was having one of the stories, “All Boy” chosen for the 2010 Best American Short Stories by Richard Russo and another, “Bed Death” chosen for the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories.

Will Boast: On the writing front, I sold the memoir I’ve been working on for some time and also did a great fellowship at the University of East Anglia, which allowed me to spend several months living and writing back home in England. I’ve also become interested in doing more journalism. Last August I traveled to Burma and wrote a feature piece about the trip. At the moment, I’m working on a move to New York.

Kirstin Scott: The book hasn’t been a financial game-changer for me, but it has allowed me to shift priorities. Since winning the prize, I feel less conflicted about spending time writing fiction.

In the past year, I moved with my family to Mexico — the fulfillment of several years of planning. I work remotely in my job as a medical writer, my husband does volunteer work, the kids attend a Mexican school. Also, I work on my second novel, about a gynecologist named Ajax. I hope to have a rough draft done by the time we come back to the U.S. in July.

Holly Payne:  I am very grateful for the recognition and the cash prize that came with this award, but I was also a bit shocked by how poorly publicized it was through Writers Digest. I couldn’t find anything on the internet, anywhere, that actually announced my book as the prize winner – although it had been indicated it would be.

What about you?

Have you thought about entering your book in a literary contest? Have you already? If so, what happened? I’ll watch for any questions here in comments.

10 Responses to How winning a literary prize can change your life

  1. Paula Cappa

    I have entered a few small contests with no results. I’m finding that unless you have an MFA or are a student in MFA program, you are not received with much attention. I see this because the winners are almost always MFA grads or students or have “literary” credentials. What if you are a genre writer? What if you write supernatural shorts and novels? None of the contests mentioned above would even consider a horror novel; sometimes they specify “no genre fiction.” I know “literary dark novels” are a new subgenre that is gaining respect, but I think the contests above are not open to all categories of writing. Would someone here like to suggest a worthy competition that is open to supernatural fiction?

  2. Alan Rinzler

    Paula

    Given the quality of the judging and broad spectrum of writers that contests recruit, I believe they’re looking for the best work in any category, including genre writing.

    In addition, there are reputable contests for supernatural fiction. DarkMarkets.com has a listing for horror and science fiction. Writer’s Digest has annual contests for science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. Also check out davidbarrkirtley.com/teenwriter/Contests.html for an excellent listing. And there are others you can find by searching online. Good luck and keep at it.

  3. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    I used to enter contests years ago and have stopped when some contests I entered the snooty judge wouldn’t pick a winner. And the contests judges that did pick a winner always seemed to pick the entry of those who were connected to the college teaching circuit. I always wondered about that.

  4. No Wasted Ink Writer’s Links | No Wasted Ink

    [...] How winning a literary prize can change your life [...]

  5. Tom Learmont

    Winning a South African award for an unpublished novel in 1998 did not change my life one iota. Except for the validation, which can be a powerful motivator at times when you wonder why you’re wasting your time…

  6. JLOakley

    I entered my self-pub novel into the 2012 EPIC ebook awards and won first place in historical fiction. It won grand prize for Chanticleer Book Reviews. While these may not seem heavy hitters in the lit contest world, winning the EPIC has helped the novel. So has the Chanticleer. It got high marks in the Writer’s Digest contest. Very good review in PW Select. In all cases, I know that many eyes looked it over. I can always add such reviews and awards to the back copy of the novel. Its prequel will be coming out soon.

  7. Alan Rinzler

    JLOakley,

    These prizes do indeed provide external validation of your book’s excellence, which is crucial for all books, but especially those self-published. The more eyes the better. And extending this first success into other titles in the same series is just what readers love.

    Keep on.

  8. Vicki Hopkins

    I’ve entered a few contests. Last year I was an award-winning finalist in the fiction/romance category for the USA Best Book Awards through USA Book News. I was very excited over the recognition.

    However, it didn’t skyrocket me anywhere except being spammed by agencies wanting money for advertising. I’ve used the award to market the book to readers. In addition, it received a five-star top pick from a popular romance website.

    All in all, my sales did not increase substantially from it. I entered the same book and another in the Self-Published Book Awards with Writer’s Digest this year. The WD awards are worth the entry just to receive a judge’s commentary about your work even if you don’t win. I entered my debut novel a few years ago and appreciated the feedback.

    I had hoped that the USA Best Book Award would draw interest from agents and increase sales but it has not. What it did though, was give me validation that mainstream industry reviewers thought a self-published book was noteworthy. The competition included entries from traditionally published authors as well so there was substantial competition.

    In the end it was all about validation, but I still wish it would have generated more interest.

  9. Alan Rinzler

    Vicki,

    Sorry to hear that winning these contests hasn’t generated more interest, but keep using the prizes in your self-marketing, and I predict the interest — and sales — will increase over time.

  10. worldwidewebster

    I think the majority of readers see that something is self-published and assume (fairly or not) that if it were any good, it would be published with a “real” publisher. Therefore winning a contest that is ONLY for self-published books might not be perceived as much of an endorsement, as it could be viewed as the best of a bad lot. Again, these biases may be unfair, but they exist nonetheless. The only way to guarantee you will be taken seriously (irrespective of sales) is to publish with a well-known press. That means being very patient, of course, as you will have to survive a lot of rejections.

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