Short Fiction Contest Guidelines…Wow.

I mentioned last week I have been looking more seriously at short fiction contests between now and the end of the year. I’ve already submitted to two of them, one a flash fiction contest, and another for “regular” sized short fiction, if you will. Today I picked the next contest I’ll submit to, and which story I will polish up for same.

One thing that surprises me a bit as I research appropriate contests in just how specific they can be. In fact, guidelines of staggering specificity may just outnumber those that call for simply a genre, or simply a length.

I can understand genre and length. Those are basic nomenclatures that weeds out many possible stories from the start. Sponsors may only have expertise in such genre, or have time for such lengths of entries.

Other perimeters I found are almost as understandable to some degree. Contests accepting only Jewish-centric stories, for instance, or those limited to women authors. That’s a tad exclusive to me, but given the overall underrepresented status of many minorities in the fiction world in this country, I can sympathize. A leg up in potential exposure is understandable.

However, when contest start getting into say, five or more demographic requirements for one’s submission to be considered, I think it may do a bit more harm than good.

“The Jacques Noble’ Short Fiction Award considers the year’s best unpublished cozy mystery novella (minimum of 18,000 words and a maximum of 40,000 words) with a distinctly New England setting by Catholic authors.”

I made up that award to make a point, and so as to not mock anyone’s contest. Yet if you conduct your own search for fiction contests I’m confident that in a short time you’ll find some with guidelines very near that specific.

Is there an attempt here to represent the cozy-mystery writing New England Catholic population that is not well represented already? Or is that demographic so tiny when weeded down that far, it by definition it can’t be underrepresented?

Not that I have a great problem with fiction that checks so many boxes before one even reads a single word. There must be enough of such writers to justify the award’s existence. But I can’t help but wonder if by being so specific if the contests are consigning themselves to future oblivion. I also wonder if by doing this, contests for the best fiction are placing anthropology over quality of fiction, thus cutting qualified writers of excellent fiction out of consideration right from the start.

It also makes those who do not fit into so many boxes participate in, dare I say it, the “Everyone, everywhere” type of contests, which of course are the most populated, and probably least likely to be won.

Now, would I submit to a contest whose requirements stated that all entries must be set in the world of theatre, come in under 10,000 words and be written by Progressive Marylanders? Damn right I would. Me, and the other four. Yet I’d gladly do without such a contest, (and believe me, I do) if it meant a few more accessible and affordable contest that were far less picky about content before quality was even considered.


  1. Laura W.

    I think those extremely specific guidelines are probably signs of a locally-run contest that is seeking to cater to and showcase writers of a highly specific, local demographic. Because it’s so small, or because it’s based in a local setting, it may be the first exposure those writers get. Resume-builders, as it were. However, if the contest calls for murder mystery submissions from African-American lesbian women who are originally from Baltimore, that demographic may not be as small as one might think. So perhaps ultra-specific parameters cater to an ultra-specific audience, but maybe they also mean that there’s a bigger audience that fits those parameters and they’ve had success with it.

    It reminds me of the scholarship hunts I went through in high school. Some are super extremely specific because they want to target a specific audience who won’t win a more general scholarship. Contests with one parameter may have been set up by someone who wanted funds to go only to a certain type of contest, so they might be legally limited by who they can accept. But yeah, one does wonder if by narrowing parameters contests put their longevity at risk. But, if you’re local, perhaps building a super-specific readership or submission base is the best thing? I don’t know.

  2. You’re probably right; such narrow categories probably have more readers than they appear to upon first examination. And certainly much of it has to do with a hyper-localized nature of a contest.

    It makes me wonder; though I still think some contests get a bit overboard with criteria, perhaps my real issue, (if it can be called that) is that I haven’t found many hyper-categorized contests into which I would fit. I am of course a male SWASP, so any such contest would probably have to dip into aspects beyond demographics. I’ll keep my eyes open, though.

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