Interview with Lenore Myka, short story contest winner

Lenore Myka, winner of the 2013 Cream City Review Fiction Contest and the 2013 Booth Story Prize, was considerate enough to sit down with one of our interns at Leapfrog Press to discuss the ins and outs of submitting to short story contests. Here she shares her process of reviewing work, sending it off, and advice to writers old and new.

Why did you enter a writing contest?

I enter writing contests for a variety of reasons. Besides the financial incentive (which lots of standard submissions aren’t able to provide), my sense is that writing contests provide an alternative in terms of how works are assessed. Oftentimes, journals have thematic focuses or a specific esthetic they are seeking which might automatically exclude my work from publication. My impression (rightly or wrongly) is that contests are less concerned with theme and esthetic, thus giving works a more objective review. Of course, in the end it still feels as arbitrary as anything else because it is the tastes of sometimes a single judge that determine the results. But I’ve had good luck so far…

Where did you hear about the contest you entered?

It is likewise my perspective that contests draw attention to you as a writer, especially if the journals do a good job of promoting the contest. With the case of the Booth Journal prize, this was certainly true for me. In addition to publishing the story in print, Booth posted it to their website and made announcements on New Pages, FB, etc. As a result, I received a message from an agent interested in seeing more of my work and received a couple of lovely emails from readers, which is always encouraging.

Have you ever submitted the same work to more than one contest at the same time?

I submit to contests the same way I submit standard submissions: a lot and with abandon. This may raise the hackles of some editors, but I do simultaneously submit. Writing is too long, slow, and arduous a process to add waiting for upwards of a year (or forever!) for a response (rejection) from an editor. There have been contests I’ve submitted to and never received a notification announcing the winners; instead I had to do my own sleuthing. I’ve gotten comfortable being aggressive about it, but am also aware this approach isn’t for everyone.

How did you decide which contests to submit work to?

I have a standard list of “target” contests just as I do “target” journals, but I’m always adding new names to both lists. Booth had been on my radar for a short while but Cream City Review came to me through my MFA alumni list; I was happy to be introduced to it not only because of my success but because I think it’s a compelling journal putting some good work out there.

About how long after you submitted work did you hear back from the contest?

In the cases of both Cream City and Booth, I heard within a couple of months that I was a winner. Booth had the added bonus of notifying me that I was a finalist first and providing information detailing when the winner would be awarded. I’m big on communication–the more the better–so I loved this aspect of Booth’s process. In both instances they provided the judge’s feedback and Booth made a personal telephone call to me to give me the good news–a nice added touch in this age electronic communication.

What should one do after they send a submission? Keep writing, take a break, revise their work, etc.?

As with all of my writing, I write first, submit later. My writing isn’t driven by the desire to submit to a specific journal or contest; it’s after I’ve written something that I make decisions about where I might want to submit it. Likewise, writing and submitting (and revising, etc. etc.) happen simultaneously. When my agent began to submit my collection to publishers, a mentor of mine warned me against putting the rest of my writing life on hold lest I get mired in the inevitable rejection of the process and lose sight of why I started writing in the first place. It was sage advice. It’s important for me to keep writing regardless of external validation. While it’s always rejuvenating to get that vote of confidence, and can certainly be a strong motivator (momentum always is), it wasn’t the reason why I put pencil to paper thirty years ago when I first started writing stories. I think it’s dangerous for artists of any kind to hang their hats solely on external validation; ultimately you need to believe in your own work, even when it seems no one else does.

Did you prepare your work months ahead of time with this specific contest in mind, or did you submit closer to the deadline? Do you think it makes a difference?

I don’t think it matters when you submit to contests. I think I just got in under the wire with Cream City’s contest while Booth I submitted well in advance. What matters is what you submit. Is it your strongest work? Have you gone over it again and again, revised and rewritten, edited and rewritten, proofread and rewritten? What people say is true: Submit your best work. Period.

Should one respond to a rejection letter or e-mail?

If you get a personal letter or email of rejection, if there is a name attached, a smidge of encouragement in its contents: Jump on it! The first story I ever had published was the result of such an exchange–an editor rejecting my work but asking me to send more. My guess is editors wouldn’t bother if they didn’t mean it; I know I wouldn’t.

What advice would you give to writers who have never submitted work to a contest before?

Advice I’d give to writers who have never submitted to contests: I think this is true for contests and standard submissions alike: choose places you admire and would be proud to be a part of. Also: Aim high. You just never know.

 

Lenore Myka’s fiction was selected as a notable short story by The Best American Non-Required Reading of 2013 and a distinguished story by The Best American Short Stories of 2008. She was the winner of the 2013 Cream City Review and Booth Journal Fiction Contests, a finalist for the 2013 Glimmer Train Open Short Story Contest, and a semi-finalist for the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Contest. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Iowa Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cream City Review, Booth Journal, West Branch, Massachusetts Review, H.O.W. Journal, Upstreet Magazine, Talking River Review, and the anthology Further Fenway Fiction.

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Interview with David Armstrong, committing to contests

We’re happy to share an interview with David Armstrong, author of “Hear It” in our newest issue of Crossborder, conducted by Nate Worrell, writer and creator of the blog The Competitive Writer.Armstrong shares some insight on submitting and winning the annual Leapfrog Fiction Contest in 2012.

What does winning the Leapfrog contest mean for you?
It means a great deal. It’s my first book, which is of course a kind of milestone. I’m just glad the editors at Leapfrog and the contest judge, Lev Raphael, saw something there worth publishing as a whole. I’d received some good responses (publications and contest wins) to individual stories, but I’m always plagued by a nagging feeling I might be returning to the same waters too often. I tend to obsess over a few certain philosophical and psychological questions, as writers are wont to do, so I often worry that all my stories are iterations of a few narrow concerns. Having the book selected tells me that I managed to push each story into new territory—enough that the folks at Leapfrog saw it as a complete collection, with thematic elements holding it together, as opposed to a dozen versions of the same story. In general, I guess the win tells me I’m working with a sufficient degree of breadth, an expansiveness for which I consistently strive.

How has winning this contest, or others, boosted your career as an author?
The Leapfrog contest win is quite recent, so, other than a lot of congratulations from all of the wonderful and supportive people in my life, the substantive result has yet to play out. The book itself, which I hope is the true measure by which I’m judged, is still over a year away from publication. Hopefully there’s a good response once readers see my work as a whole.
My other contest wins are also very recent, less than six months old. But it’s been an overwhelming six months. In that time, I’ve managed to have thirteen stories picked up for publication, nine of them winners of contests. I just started seriously writing short stories about two years ago, and only last year started testing the waters of contests. I began to receive good feedback—a few were finalists and Honorable mentions for contests held by publications like The Cincinnati Review and Glimmer Train—so I knew I was at least in a certain realm of consideration for the editorial staffs. But it’s been within the past six months that I started to see more significant results in the form of wins.
Because of the relative newness of all of this, many of my stories aren’t even published yet. Anything I might have to say about contests and their impact on my career is purely speculative. What I hope is that the contest wins serve as a little validation. I see a lot of stellar writers that I respect ending up on the finalist and honorable mention lists. When I’m a finalist for a contest, I tend to take pride in the fact that I’m even being considered alongside some of these folks whose work I admire.

How did the experience with Leapfrog compare to other contests?
The Leapfrog Press staff were wonderful. One way the actual contest stood out to me was the way it was conducted. With most contests you send something in, you keep writing, you try not to dwell on it. Meanwhile, the brave editors tackle an enormous pile of manuscripts and slowly whittle them down. Finally, you hear the results. With Leapfrog, they let the contestants know when the manuscripts were all in, how many there were, when the judging began, and, in my case, the point at which finalists had been chosen and how long it would be before a final decision was made. This may not sound like a huge thing, but that kind of consideration for the contestants shows that the staff at Leapfrog know what a big deal it is to individual writers to be considered for publication. That kind of thoughtfulness, I think, is evidence that Leapfrog has their writers’ best interests at heart. I’ve since heard from other writers who’ve worked with Leapfrog and who have very positive things to say about their experiences, so I think it bodes well for our future working relationship.

Related to that, this work is a collection of shorter pieces. Talk a little bit about how this compilation came together.
In first writing the short stories that ended up in this collection, I didn’t set out to link them. I didn’t have an overarching plan. In fact, one of the most appealing aspects of working in the short form, for me, is the capacity to experiment with varying concepts, characters, styles, and ideas. But the intriguing thing I found, after writing enough stories, was that, inevitably, there were themes that emerged I couldn’t have predicted. I began to form the collection in such a way that each story was linked through these themes. You learn a lot from having to go back over your own work. In some ways it can be distressing to see, as I mentioned, that you’re obsessed with story elements or character attributes or even details that you had no idea were even in your mind to begin with. But because of this new awareness, I also think you can grow as a writer. I think, because of it, I was able to make sure each story offered something all its own to add to the collection.

What role should contests play in a writer’s development?
No idea. Writers develop their craft in all sorts of ways, so I’d never prescribe a certain path. I only know that my experience with contests has been an extremely fortunate one. Personally, contests have played a distinct part in my own development, at least as far as publishing short stories is concerned. As I mentioned above, I had a number of stories that, because they were finalists or honorable mentions, I knew to keep sending out. In terms of talking to anyone thinking about entering contests, I’d point out that those contests can tell you a lot about where you stand in the overall pack of writers submitting to them. Being a finalist, even if it doesn’t result in a win, can at least let you know that your work is being considered at some level beyond the initial reader. You don’t always get that kind of feedback with straight submissions.
A friend once told me that to be a finalist in a contest, you have to be good, but to win, you have to be lucky. I like that. Certainly, there’s a very subjective aspect to winning. It relies on some person at the end saying, “I just like this one the best.” But having a specific story do well (be a finalist, semi-finalist, honorable mention, etc.), that tells me there is something of quality to which people are responding, and maybe I just need to keep sending it out until it gets “lucky.”

David Armstrong’s story collection, Going Anywhere, is expected to be released at the end of 2014. To read the entire interview, visit www.competitivewriter.com.