Contest #1 is a well-known annual contest in the Christian fiction world. It follows the pay-a-sizable-fee-and-get-a-critique model and offers no tangible prize—just a certain dubious amount of glory. I’ve entered this one before and been disappointed by the results—of the three judges who commented on my work, two didn’t seem to get it at all, and scored my entry low as a result. So why did I enter it again? Different novel, different genre, no expectations, just a vague hope of making finalist and thus getting my name on a list where it might be noticed by an editor. I entered my YA fantasy in this one.
Contest #2 is run by a secular publisher and follows the no-fee-no-critique model. This one offers a substantial prize: $5000 cash plus a critique by one of their editors. The odd thing is that they value the critique at $10,000 (which the winner will have to pay tax on). It’s hard to imagine a critique being worth that much. I certainly don’t know any editors who make that kind of hourly rate! I don’t have much hope of winning this contest, because it draws on a large field and may be weighted toward nonfiction (it lumps fiction and nonfiction together). But the risk/return ratio is favorable, and it certainly would be cool if I won. The novel my agent is currently submitting was my choice for this contest.
Contest #3 is run by a Christian publisher, another no-fee-no-critique, with the prize of a $15,000 publishing contract. That was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Here I’m hoping that even if I don’t win, my writing might catch the eye of an editor. Since entries in this contest cannot be under submission to other publishers, I chose the novel my agent hasn’t yet seen, my firstborn literary child which I revised yet again last fall.
For all these literary contests, I’m competing against other writers for the highly subjective approval of a panel of judges. I put my best effort into the writing before I sent it off, but once I’ve hit “send,” there’s nothing more I can do to influence the results. There’s not much in the way of middle ground; I either win or I don’t. If I win, someone else doesn’t. Knowing all this, I’m striving to be as detached as I can from the outcome. From here on out, it’s all in God’s hands.
Contest #4 is different from all the above in about as many ways as you can think of. It’s a spiritual contest, not a literary one. I’m not competing against others but against my own passions, my own gluttony and sloth and selfishness and pride. This contest—which is really just one phase of a larger contest that involves my whole life—won’t really have results that can be categorized as “winning” or “losing”; the results fall more along a continuum from “slipping backward” to “making good progress toward the ultimate goal.” And the results are within my control every step along the way, although it’s also true to say I can’t take a single step without the help of God. To be detached from the outcome of this contest would be insane, because the prize toward which I am ultimately working is the salvation of my soul.
If you’re a Christian of any traditional stripe, you’ve probably figured out by now that the contest I’m describing is Lent. For Orthodox Christians, it starts tomorrow and goes through April 6, when we enter into Holy Week in preparation for celebrating Easter/Pascha according to the Orthodox calendar on April 15. The tools of this contest are repentance, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, all of which challenge us to take those things that are most precious to us—our self-satisfaction, our creature comforts, our money, our time—and sacrifice them to the service of God.
The toughest writing contest pales by comparison. May God have mercy on my soul.