Why writing contests make normal people freak out.


I have entered (and lost) a lot of writing contests over the years. But there are two that I’ve never forgotten: one was judged by Aimee Bender, and one was judged by Margaret Atwood.

Why were they unforgettable?

Because I’d found a chance to show my work to a writer I loved. In order to submit to the contest, I had to write something that I was willing to show Aimee Bender. I had to write a story that I could show Margaret Atwood!

Good lord.

That’s the real reason writing contests get people excited. Sure, there’s a shot of competition, and that turns some writers on. The prize might be a much-needed chunk of cash, or an opportunity to study writing somewhere wonderful. Of course, the deadline is also good – it makes sure you get something written.

But the pressure of writing a story and showing it to a writer you respect? That’s an electrolyte pack for your sentences.

It demands that you write something outstanding. It makes you push your limits. You sit down at your desk and get in the zone more easily than before (thank you, deadline!) and then you write something unlike anything else you’ve written.

Because this time, someone important is going to read it. If you’re very lucky, your piece might even be a literary descendant of the judge’s work. And the contest gives you a chance to send it back to the source. What if the judge doesn’t recognize it?

What if the judge does recognize it?


Use your nervousness to your advantage. Instead of backing down and skipping the contest because it freaks you out, try this: feel intimidated while you’re writing.

This will help you take risks in your work that you won’t take if you’re feeling cozy and comfortable. Trust me.

I didn’t win either one of those contests. I don’t know if my stories even reached Aimee Bender or Margaret Atwood. But I do know that I made a breakthrough in each of the stories I sent out. I’m a better writer now because I took the risk.

My advice to you: go for it.

The Little Bird Fiction Contest is judged by Giller finalist Zsuzsi Gartner this year. This is a small contest; Zsuzsi Gartner will read every single entry. Do not miss out.

*Important Note* This post was written in 2012. To learn about the current Little Bird Contest, go here, and you can read all the winning Little Bird Stories here.

The deadline is March 30th - put this date up somewhere your subconscious can see it.

Click here to freak out.


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Dispatch from San Miguel de Allende.
My secret writing device: escapism.


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