life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

No “Formula” for Winning Writing Contests

In the Christmases of my youth, my dear (now deceased) Aunt Martha always bought me a yearly subscription to a very popular writing magazine. Novice scribblers religiously scoured its pages for insights to getting published, receiving recognition, and of course, winning those all-important writing competitions. Article titles included such enticements as: “10 Secrets to Crafting a Contest Winner” and “Win That Award! Top Writers Tell You How.”

In the body of such articles, glittering generalities and pseudo-motivation reigned. Typical promises: If inexperienced writers simply use Times New Roman 12-point font, keep their cover letters brief, and “write with their heart,” they will magically become gold-medalist poets/short story writers/novelists/whatever. Other suggestions included such wisdom as, “Be sure to center and boldface your title” and (perhaps my favorite) “Don’t thank the contest sponsor or judge; it shows a lack of confidence.” Gee, thanks.

The unfortunate truth is, no one approach (or set of rules) will guarantee a contest win — ever. The world of publishing is incredibly subjective. What one editor or judge loves, another will hate (and vice-versa). You can “always submit your best,” as the old saw goes, and still come up empty-handed when the laurels are passed around. Such is writing life.

Just as writers learn to expect rejection, we also learn to live with losses. Defeat is especially disheartening if you paid a big submission fee. Of course, the good side of this issue contains another truth: Stick around long enough, and sooner or later you’re bound to win a few. Even little contests feel big when your work has won, and it’s gratifying to learn that someone somewhere (even at the tiniest of journals) has appreciated your work enough to award it.

I’ve been writing “real” poetry for about 20 years now, and in that time, I’ve had the joy of being nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times. My 2014 book, Middle Class American Proverb, was nominated for both the American Book Award and the Florida Book Award. Yet for all these nominations, I’ve never quite ascended to the winners’ platform. I guess I could throw myself a pity party and moan, “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” but truthfully, I appreciate just being nominated. In retrospect, a small-town poet like me getting Pushcart nods and similar tokens is a pretty big deal. Sure, I’d like to win one day, but poetry is a marathon, not a sprint or a dash.

And of course, this isn’t to say I haven’t won my fair share of contests. Going all the way back to 2002, I won the Wesley Ryals Writing Award for Poetry from my first alma mater, Florida Southern College. Later on, I was among the winners of the Robert Frost International Poetry and Haiku Contest put together by The Studios of Key West. My work has won me scholarships and partial scholarships to places I would never have traveled otherwise. I’ve also been a runner-up in America magazine’s Foley Poetry Contest. So, I’ve done all right. And if you stick around, you probably will, too.

Another advantage of time: I’ve served as a journal editor and a contest judge over the years, and those roles allowed me to see things from the viewpoint of a decision-maker. It’s tough to cull out writing that is “soooo close,” but inevitably it happens. Here again, what I liked wasn’t necessarily what others liked. The things I rejected would have been accepted by someone with different tastes. But in the end, someone has to be declared winner. Sometimes, just knowing you’re a finalist, a semifinalist, or an honorable mention can be motivation, and that happens quite often when your work is satisfactory.

Keep going, writer. Don’t get seduced by “secret formulas” or “sure-fire ways to success.” There’s a reason that the magazine my Aunt Martha gifted me every year recently filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. The allure of pretty-sounding logical fallacies and empty promises can only be sustained so long. For the devotee of words, everything will eventually happen the way it’s supposed to. That includes winning contests, getting published, and achieving other milestones. Don’t quit. Persist. That’s how you win.

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poetry, Uncategorized

The Obligatory “Writing Resolutions” Blog Post

notebooknpenIt’s a bit of cliche to write a post entirely about “what I resolve to do in 2013.” However, that’s not stopping me from doing it. Disappointing, I know. But all the cool kids are doing it. So, here you have it: John Davis Jr.’s list of writing resolutions for the new year:

1. I have a book manuscript that has been sitting on my hard drive now for the better part of a year. I’ve submitted it around to various publishers and contests, revised it and polished it countless times, but still haven’t landed any “bites” yet. I resolve to get this book published in 2013.

2. In connection with resolution #1, I resolve NOT to self-publish said manuscript. Been there, done that, friends. It wasn’t a positive experience the first time around, so why would I intentionally subject myself to that negative encounter a second time?

3. One magazine publication per month, or at least 12 publication credits total in (fairly) reputable outlets. Sure, some months are more publication-heavy than others, and expecting to publish in at least one journal like clockwork every month would be unrealistic. However, seeking to publish at least 12 times over the course of an entire year is doable. Last year, I garnered about 10 publication credits total in magazines and online zines that are pretty good, so this year, I plan to up the ante a bit. If I fall short of the goal, it won’t be for lack of trying.

4. Enter at least six writing contests. My general rule is this: for every five magazine submissions I send out, I try to enter one contest. Some of these are respected and renowned competitions, others are fledgling. But no matter the prestige or the status, entering contests yields its own rewards: subscriptions to magazines, feedback from judges, and name placement are just a few of the perks that come with contest participation.

5. Build the network. By being in the MFA program, I have a number of great associates who provide candid, well-thought-out responses to my work. With that being said, I like hearing from people from all walks of life within the literary field. Editors, publishers, and professors are just a few of the folks whose opinions and thoughts I would like to encounter more. So, with that in mind, I plan to build out my writing network to include more people whose critical eyes are sharpest.

I think five resolutions should about do it — some believe in more, others believe in fewer. For my purposes at this juncture, however, these five goals should give me plenty of work for 2013. Here’s hoping that all my readers have a wonderful new year, as well. May it be filled with the pleasures and wonders that our world has to offer: Faith, Family, Friends, and incredible experiences. Happy New Year!

poetry, Uncategorized

You win some, you lose some…

Some days you have to ask yourself, “Is it really worth it?”

 

 

Recently I received a letter in the mail informing me that I had (yet again) not been selected as the winner of a recent writing contest. Not a great surprise; I’m pretty used to getting bad news from publishers. This particular one, though, had my hopes really high — the contest judges were known for favoring my type of poetry, I had closely studied past winners and their work, and in general, I had prepared myself to take on this contest with the dead-level best of my abilities.

So much for that. In response to this letter, I took some of my own advice and revamped the manuscript, added in newer, even more high-quality works where they best fit, and spruced up the formatting a wee bit. I don’t anticipate that these changes will ensure my victory over 500 or 1,000 other entries, but at least I feel better about the whole situation. I am, by the way, submitting the manuscript to two other contests in response to this news also. Down, but assuredly not out.

I suppose the point of this post is, if you’re going to be a poet, you have to take the bad with the good. As my mentors would say, be persistent and don’t get discouraged. When you know your work is good, it’s bound to find a home somewhere. Pardon me while I go get this beautiful collection ready for its next journey. I’ve got work to do.