A little over a year ago, I was informed I was a finalist in the Dogwood Literary contest and they wanted to publish my story. I was gratified the story was to be published, but when they told me in April that the story was the fiction prize winner for 2016, I was even happier. Although I had other stories published, I’d long ago given up thinking I’d ever win anything for my writing. When I picked Dogwood to submit to, I had no intention of entering the contest, but since the contest fee was only $10, seven over their normal fee, I figured what the heck? I was hoping that entering might garner a closer read, not necessarily a win.
If this wasn’t the first contest I’ve entered, barring those attached to writing conferences, it was the first in a very long time. Ten years? I wasn’t sure that contests were the way to go. My ultimate goal is to have a book picked up for publication, and I’d read enough places that mentioning you’d won a prize wasn’t impressive to literary agents unless it was a major award.
The day before I was given the go-ahead to announce my win, I had a discussion with my neighbor about luck. She told me about her son’s girlfriend and how she came to know a number of important people who helped her land a prestigious scholarship and position as a summer intern. Later that same day, I spoke to a friend who told us his story of luck. He played football in high school. I asked if he’d been recruited many places. He said not really, only the local state school had showed interest. This was before the days of heavy recruiting, and he had also decided he wasn’t going to play in college. It just so happened that a recruiter for Dartmouth was in his area, and although this recruiter had ignored my friend’s high school in the past, this time he decided to check it out and asked the coach if he had any players with good enough grades who might make the team. The coach recommended my friend, but he needed to take the SATs—he was from the midwest and had only taken the ACTs. The day this recruiter spoke to him was the last day to have the application for the next SAT testing in the mail. He filled out the application and took it to the post office. When he got home, he realized he’d forgotten to stamp it.
He called the post office, which was closed, and spoke with an employee who agreed to dig through the mail, find the letter, and affix a stamp. How was that not luck? So many steps could have gone wrong, something as small as the phone not being answered, or the person who answered in a hurry to go home, or someone who did not care about a kid and his college career. His life might have been different, because he did go to Dartmouth and play football and later received an advanced degree from Harvard.
This win was luck for me as well. I might not have entered, or I might have entered a different story. But part of it is making your own luck, or more exactly, propelling your luck along. I’d read the judge’s books and many years ago I met an editor who had published him in a national magazine well known for its fiction. His story was about a pregnant woman and this editor was pregnant. He probably didn’t know that, and maybe she wasn’t pregnant at the time the story was accepted but was contemplating it. Could the editor’s pregnancy have influenced her reading of his story? And picking it to publish?
When I first started writing back in the eighties, I took a workshop with the writer/judge. I got a B. I saw him around town every once in awhile but then heard nothing about him. I knew he was of a certain age, and I thought possibly that would make the story I entered appeal to him. I’m quite sure he didn’t have the slightest idea who I was. I used a different name back when I was in his class, and the submissions for this contest were blind. There was no way he could have known I’d been a student. I did disclose that I’d taken his workshop to the contest officials. The rules stipulated you couldn’t have a “substantial relationship” with the judge, and other than rejecting a story or two of mine for the journal where he is currently the fiction editor, I had no relationship with him.
It is now more than a year since I was notified I was a finalist. Has it changed my life? Other than falling victim to the assumption that if you win one, you have a chance to win another, no. No offers to read my novel have come my way and mentioning the win in a cover letter for other submissions hasn’t seemed to sway many editors.
Overall, the win was a vote of confidence, and it is a nice addition to biographical notes, but I know I need to immerse myself in my writing if I’m to make more progress toward my goal of a published novel or publication in a “prestigious” journal.
And I know if I want to make my own luck again, I need to produce more pieces to circulate than the current three I have out.
Wish me luck.