Writing Competitions: Pay to Play?

I saw a competition advertised yesterday that actually looked as if it might be worth entering -the 16th Annual Screenwriting ChallengeIt’s a well-established event (in its 16th year), and is a time-based knock-out competition organised by NYC Midnight Movie Making Madness with an interesting concept – write a short screenplay around a number of given subjects/ elements (an example given is: Drama / Fatherhood / A fast food restaurant employee)to increasingly shorter time allowances as/ if you progress through the competition.

Now I have no connection (“My name’s Paul, this is between y’all…” – hey, THERE’s a screenplay line) and I’m not promoting it in any way – but I might enter it.

It’s USD$45 early entry/ USD$55 general.  For that you get a critique (I have no idea how detailed), and you get to be a part of something – the website has a community feel and looks as if you might get something out of it – a creative challenge, a connection to like-minded maniacs, resources (there’s a host of previous winners and discussion forums that  you don’t have to enter to access, but I would imagine will be more interesting if you have a stake in the game. In summary – you get something out of it. 

I mention all of the above because I’ve once again been flooded in my inbox by invites and notifications for competitions, one more dubious looking than the next…which made me re-post this old entry…



A short one today because, well, I have a lot of writing to get done and a bunch of competitions to enter…but should I?

My Facebook feed today contained three separate paid-for adverts for writing competitions: one to submit short fiction with the chance to have it turned in to a screenplay, and two for cash-prize competitions.

I saw these ‘offers’ as I checked my social channels before continuing work on a presentation I am giving next week which will look at opportunities and challenges for new writers keen to get their work out there. Within that presentation I’ll be looking at, among other things, Vanity Publishing and associated risks/ benefits of using them (sneak peak preview: lots/ none.)

Personally, I think in the age of self-publishing and growth of small press working on new platforms the vanity publishing industry is on the way out and we should all raise a glass of whatever your poison is in celebration.

However, it seems to me that there are new gangs in town and the advent of online is giving them the chance to get out there with little outlay or commitment. I’m talking about the ‘pay to play’ offers – whether it’s a competition, a newsletter, a ‘writer’s kit’, or an agent looking for new authors and prepared to read for a ‘fee’.

Now don’t get me wrong: I know not everything in life is free, and that there are costs involved in running competitions or pretty much any other area of publishing but some of these….well, let’s just say I loves me a David Mamet movie or a Jim Thompson novel – especially when the grift is a long con that you can’t figure out any better than the mark can (check me and my confidence-man lingo out…), but in real life? Not so much.

I’m not going to name names here for two reasons:

  1. This is something which has just occurred to me to write about this morning – and to this end, I have not done the research I would for a ‘properly’ written piece.
  2. I’m not earning enough money from this writing lark to get sued yet.


When I get a promo in my inbox for a competition from a company who have a well-branded website, and some high-and-mighty promises, along with ‘accredited’ judges (i.e. they have or do work for names I recognise) and are inviting entries for short stories which can be adapted for screen, I do take a look. I’ve got some of those stories, and I think Chris Nolan or Martin Scorsese could really make those things sing…

When I read on and see that there is an entry fee I don’t flinch too much – I get it: these things take time to read, and someone has to do it (or maybe not: another promo I received today told me the company in question used the most advanced AI around to determine whether my script would be suitable for the Hollywood big time). But when I see that the entrance fee is almost $40 for an early bird entry and $60 after that I pause before signing the check and hitting the send button. When I see that the first prize is $1,000 and an ‘introduction’ phone call to some (unnamed) agents, second prize is $300 and ‘exposure of work’ and the top 5 finalists may get their story published on the company website for a limited time. I start to think that this seems like a pretty good money spinner…

This isn’t intended to single out one company – hence the reason for not naming: clearly they’re doing well and have some ‘names’ attached. (I had to google them, but hey, I’m not an industry person so my not knowing them offhand is probably my ignorance rather than a comment on their standing). I look at their ‘success stories’ and see that certainly a number of previous winners have found ‘an agent’: again, I don’t recognise many of those agents, but that’s probably me. Getting an agent should NOT be an indication of success though. It shouldn’t be a competition prize.

I had an agent for several years; at the time there was a neat little statement saying that it was harder to get an agent than it was a publisher. Well, I got me one and sat back and waited for the big time, baby. Two years on the agent had sold nothing and occasionally, just occasionally replied eventually to my repeated emails. That agent is now a freelance writer. This is not a dig at the agent (well, OK, it is a little) – maybe if I’d written something decent in that time instead of sitting back waiting for the monies to start rolling in because I’d ‘got an agent’, then he could have sold it.

Do I think competitions are inherently ‘bad’ or questionable?

Absolutely not – there are some great ones out there.

Do I think you should run from any competition charging a reading fee?

No way – prize money/ promotion/ staff/ next steps all need something to fund them and I think it’s only fair to ask for a contribution towards that – especially when some feedback, no matter how minimal, is given back to the contributor; and many competitions who truly want to get better writing out there and support new (or even not so new) writers, do that.

Do I think all competitions are reputable because they have a snazzy website and big claims?

Hell no – I’ve seen enough con-movies to know that the long-con is where the money is, and the long-con normally needs to spend money to make money…

So what’s the point of this post? Well, just to say be careful out there. It’s a cruel world and not everyone loves you – some of them even want to take your hard-earned money.

One of the things I intend to say in my presentation next week at Temperance (and this isn’t a promo for that talk: tickets – free, I hasten to add, are all gone) is the age-old warning:

Caveat emptor


This holds true as much for competitions as it does for agents, publishers, or anyone else you need to engage with in the solitary world we call writing. (Actually, I NEVER call it that but it seemed a good way to end).


A couple of places you can find out about competitions: again, this is not offering an endorsement of any of those competitions mentioned

Creative Writing Ink As well as their own Creative Writing Ink Free to Enter Competition and a Writing Prompt competition the site offers information about a large number of external competitions being offered.

Almond Press produce a regularly updated list of competitions which details the competition, fee, max word count, top prize and entry date. It’s a good resource and, while I am not patronizing the individual instances, I would suggest it might be a good place to start to look into the validity (or not) of competitions running.

Do you agree? Disagree? Have you had a positive or negative experience of writing competitions? Comment and let me know and I’ll share.

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