And The Winner Is…

I’d been stuck for a topic for a new post, until I got a small slew of writing contest announcements in my inbox.

First, a bit of background: like many aspiring writers looking for a big break, I entered a TON of contests early on. I never won a single one, but I was pleased to see my name popping up in lists of quarter-finalists, then semi-finalists, and on occasion finalists. Small stuff like that can bolster your self-confidence quite a bit.

Earlier this year I received an announcement that one of the contests I’ve entered annually for many, many years was accepting entries for this year’s competition, and I did something unusual: I deleted the e-mail without entering. There was no extended period of consideration, not a moment of introspection, I just sent the e-mail to the great electronic beyond and moved on.

Afterwards, for whatever reason, I wondered why I did that. At first I thought it was because I wasn’t comfortable forking over the entry fee — money is tight for me too — but then I hit upon a theory: the list of past winners included in the pitch e-mail? I did not recognize a single one of them.

Out of curiosity, I went onto IMDb and started looking for their names. The first name on the list, his screenplay was turned into a movie that he directed, which garnered tepid reviews. This particular winner had already been active in Hollywood on and off as a director and producer since 1998 — nearly a full decade before he won this screenplay contest. Why did someone working in the industry enter a screenplay writing contest?

Another winner, from 1997, had his contest-winning horror movie script made into a film that was scheduled for release last year and is still on the shelf.

One gent won the contest and received three big writing assignments with three big studios for three big directors. As best as I can tell, each and every one of these projects fell into Development Hell and collapsed.

One of the very first winners had his script made into a movie that got poor reviews among the few people who saw it, and has done nothing since. Another doesn’t even show up on IMDb, even though the contest organizers boasted he landed a writing assignment with a big-name director.

I could go on — and on and on — but the point is this: the winners of this contest have, with very rare exception, never really gone anywhere. I did find one winner who has published two well-received, if not wildly successful novels in the past two years, and another pair who went on to direct one of the lesser entries into Will Farrell‘s very uneven oeuvre, and another who was part of a pig pile of screenwriters who turned out three lame thrillers that their big-name stars probably don’t even list on their resumes.

In other words, those few who did succeed did not succeed impressively.

After discovering all this, I felt vindicated in my decision to forgo the contest. Why waste my time prepping for a contest that, statistically speaking, has produced a lot of winners (small “w”) and, really, no Winners (big “W”)? Fame and fortune are never a guarantee for any aspiring writer, but it costs me a lot less to e-mail a query to a prospective publisher or agent than it does to enter a big writing contest.

The contests were good for me in the beginning. They kept me motivated, kept me focused, and on occasion gave my ego a shot in the arm, but I think I’ve outgrown that phase of my career. I’m looking for a sustainable career, not a one-time and very fleeting taste of faux success.

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