Writing Awards and Prizes

A word about writing contests…

Most literary magazines have an annual award for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — there are at least a hundred of them. Mostly they are for a single story or essay, but there are also many for books (collections of stories, or essays, or a novel, etc.), which I haven’t listed here. The contests usually have fees of around $15-25 per submission and are anonymously judged by a guest judge, usually a well-known writer. Winners are published in the magazine; runners-up are sometimes published, too. Deadlines are often in the fall, though there are many in the spring, too.

One advantage with these contests is that, because they’re judged anonymously, there’s no way for the editors to favor already established writers, which unfortunately does happen a lot (at least with fiction), so it can be easier for someone who isn’t named Joyce Carol Oates to get a story into print anonymously. And if you’re just looking to have something to talk about in a query letter to a literary agent, even placing as a runner-up or finalist can be helpful.

Some to look at (please note that there are scores of awards like these that can be found at Poets and Writers), and the deadlines vary wildly, but many are in the fall or spring:

Bellingham Review Literary Contests

Genres: fiction, poetry and nonfiction.

Prize: $1,000 and publication

Black Warrior Review Writing Contest from the University of Alabama

Genres: Poetry, fiction, nonfiction and flash fiction.

Prizes: $1500 in fiction, nonfiction and poetry and $800 in Flash category. All include publication. 

Boston Review Aura Estrada Short Story Contest

Genres: Fiction.

Prizes: First prize is $500 and publication. Runners-up will also be published. 

Colorado Review Prizes

Genres: Poetry, fiction.

The Colorado Prize for Poetry: $2,000 honorarium and publication of 500 copies.

Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction: $2000 and publication in the Colorado Review.

Crab Orchard Review Writing Prize

Genres: Fiction, literary nonfiction and poetry.

Prize: $1250 grand prize and publication


Fish Short Story Prize

Genres: Fiction.
Prizes: First prize: €3,000, and 5-day Short Story Workshop at the West Cork Literary Festival. 2nd prize: €300 and a week at Anam Cara Writers’ Retreat.  3rd prize: €300. Sevent Honourable Mentions €200 each. The Fish Anthology will publish the top ten stories.   

Florida Review Editors’ Awards

Genres: Fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction.

Prizes: $1000 and publication in The Florida Review.

Gulf Coast Contest

Genres: Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Prizes: $1,500 and Gulf Coast publication for the winner in each genre. Two honorable mentions in each genre are awarded $250. 

Indiana Review Fiction Prize

Genre: Short story.

Prize: $1000 + publication.

Iowa Review Awards

Genres: Poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

Prize: $1,500; first runners-up receive $750. All are published the December issue.

Los Angeles Review Literary Awards

Genres: Poetry, short stories, short-short story and essay.

Prizes: Four $1,000 prizes and Los Angeles Review publication.

Mississippi Review Prize

Genres: Poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.

Prizes: $1,000 and publication in the Mississippi Review. 

Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors Prize

Fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

Prizes: First place in each category receives $5,000.

New Letters Awards

Genres: Poetry, essay, fiction.

Prizes: $2,500.

October Fiction Award: $750 and publication.

October Fiction Award: winner will be published in New Letters and $750.

Nimrod Literary Awards

Genres: Fiction and poetry prizes, plus a special category/contest for new writers.

Prizes: First prize: $2,000; Second prize: $1,000. Francine Ringold for new writers: $500 in fiction and poetry. All include publication.

Rosebud Poetry Awards

Genre: Poetry.

Prizes: $500 for the best poem; Three runners-up will receive $100; all will featured in Rosebud.

University of Georgia Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award

Genre: Short fiction

Prize: $1,000 and publication

Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Competition

Prizes: First prize is $1000, second prize is $50, and third prize: $250. Prizewinners and honorable mentions are considered for representation by top literary agencies.  









Wait, Do I Really Need a Literary Agent?

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I wrote a book. Do I really need to find a literary agent?

The short answer is: Yes.

It’s almost impossible to be published by a major publisher, or even a small press, without a literary agent to champion your work. Some, but very few, small presses accept un-agented submissions. So to understand why you need an agent, you have to understand why you want your book to be published by a traditional publisher (as opposed to self-publishing).

A literary agent gives access to publishers like Random House (or even a smaller press like Melville House ) who will pay you in advance (no take backs if the book doesn’t sell well). A publisher handles all of your book’s publicity, marketing, cover art, layout, and their sales reps can speak on your behalf to Amazon and regional bookstores. Your publisher will handle distribution, warehousing, and countless other unseen aspects of book production and sales.

If don’t find an agent and self-publish instead, a freelance publicist alone could charge up to $15k to get the word out about your book (and they’ll only work on it a few months). But you must print your own “advance reader copies” (there’s another few thousand dollars out the door), and of course your book will never be sold in Elliott Bay or any of the other thousands of bookstores in our country. Even with a freelance publicist, major reviewing outlets – such as the Washington Post – will almost never review a self-published book. A handful of reviewers will cover a self-published book, for a fee – but those reviews are for trade publications and aren’t often seen by everyday readers.

A few exceptions: Few poets have agents, and it can be difficult to get agents for short story collections, but there are lots of contests for story collections (winner gets a little money + publication). Some so-called “hard genres,” such as fantasy and science fiction, are suited to self-publishing because the readers already have a strong dedicated community that thrives on word-of-mouth. But the author is expected to be already invested in that community, not waltzing in with a novel.

So for most adult fiction, YA, or memoir – traditional publishing with an agent’s assistance is the best option, and you should exhaust all of your options in that direction before going your own way.

Why You Need a Literary Agent

A literary agent is your representative in the publishing world, and good agents open doors otherwise inaccessible to you. Agents have personal relationships with decision makers within the publishing houses – after all, they attend the same parties and have lunch together.

In fact, a good literary agent knows specific editors at specific publishers that your book would appeal to. If an editor’s recently adopted a dog … and is now crazy about dogs – your book about a dog is a perfect fit for that editor.

A literary agent will be able to help you edit your work and ready it for submission – then help you articulate what’s appealing and valuable about your novel, in a way that “sells” the book to publishers, who want to make money from your book.  A literary agent is able to get the attention of publishers in a way that you, as a stranger, would never be able to do.

Real literary agents only take 15% of the proceeds from the sale of your writing. They don’t get paid in advance, and they don’t ask for money from their authors. If an agent asks for money from you, run.

Ultimately, agents need to pay their New York City rents, so they need to sell books and make a fair amount of money doing so. They must be savvy and selective, which means sometimes rejecting a book they enjoy on a personal basis – but isn’t commercially viable.

Writers of memoir, fiction, novels and other genres do need a literary agent.

Once you have an agent, be respectful and professional, and understand that they’re drowning in e-mail every day. You want to keep your correspondence brief and infrequent, unless you’re in the midst of a book launch.  As a general rule, literary agents are very busy people.

Literary Agents Negotiate On Your Behalf

Bad cover art. A poor advance. Missing royalty checks. A literary agent not only sells your writing to publisher, but they also negotiate on your behalf, because you’re a writer, not a contract expert, and it behooves you to remain on good terms with your publisher. They have all the uncomfortable conversations, so you don’t have to.  

With regards to film rights and foreign market rights, your agent has co-agents around the world and colleagues in Hollywood specializing in book-to-film adaptation sales. With these film deals, your agent usually gets 10%, while the film agent gets 10% -- but Hollywood film deals are so spectacularly complicated that many film agents also have legal backgrounds.

When selecting a literary agent, there’s a trade off between those agents who have a lot of clout and can sell books for serious amounts of money to senior publishing folks – but they tend to have less time for their clients/authors, and it’s harder to get their attention. More junior agents may be less solid with publishing houses, but they’re also hungrier and enthusiastic, willing to work with you until a deal is done. As well, there are agents who are older and still newer to the agent side, but may have worked as an editor at Doubleday for 20 years. Janet Silver and Tina Pohlman are two examples – and Janet Silver’s first author after switching? A woman by the name of Cheryl Strayed.

NOTE: this Sunday (June 2, 2019) I’m teaching a Publishing Intensive at Hugo House with Karen Finneyfrock and Theo Nestor, find out more here:

Fall 2019 Classes in Port Townsend, Washington (Oct 12-13)

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This fall I’ll be offering two classes at The Writers’ Workshoppe in Port Townsend, Washington. Space is limited, so sign up soon! More info HERE.

Start a Book You Can Finish

SATURDAY, OCT 12 / 10am-4pm

Maximum 12 students / $150

 This full-day course prepares you for success by focusing on the writing process, craft and feedback. First, we examine early and crucial creative decisions that help set your book on an exciting and healthy trajectory, as well as common pitfalls that can derail a book. We also discuss different processes and creative habits, and look at tested systems for accountability. Finally, you'll describe your book idea and read the opening of your book to the class (if you've already begun) and put classroom concepts into practice, ensuring that your novel, nonfiction or memoir work is sturdy enough to weather the long voyage from page one to “The End.”

This class is open to writers of all levels. Please come to class with 13 copies of a document that has a 2-3 paragraph description of your book, followed by the book’s opening 2 pages (note: the sample is optional, but please come with the synopsis).

Finish Your Book and Sell It

SUNDAY, OCT 13 / Noon-3pm

Maximum 12 students / $100

Every year, thousands of first-time authors are paid in advance for their debut books. In this one-day intensive we’ll focus on the complex work of preparing your book for submission, including sourcing the best literary agents, building a platform, and the fine art of query letter writing. Students will come away.

Writers Connection Interview

The following is an interview that appeared in the Writers Connection Newsletter in March, 2019.
E.C. Murray with Peter Mountford

ECM: First, thanks so much this interview. I find writing fiction extraordinarily difficult. Most challenging is establishing depth of character. George Lucas wrote seventy pages before he came to the beginning of Star Wars. You've written that you know "oceans" about your characters; that "you inhabit them." How do you do that?

PM: Character development can be extremely hard, or else it’s the easiest thing in the world. I think there are basically two methods of really getting to know a character: one is to have them be based on yourself and/or someone you know very well. Sometimes I take someone I know, and put them in the body of an actor who I’ve seen on screen. Then they’re very easy to see.

The other method, which you probably have to do anyway, is to really research their life. Go find their elementary school, and the house they grew up in, and where do they live now. It’s as if you’re going to write a feature article about a real person, you have to do similar work. I often find real places on Google maps now—and choose a house for them. With a new character I’m working on, I just tried writing a pages intake session for him with a psychotherapist. I wrote it in first person with lots of his interior thoughts and perceptions. The scene will not be in the book, of course. But it was very informative for me. What does he do for fun when he’s not working? How does he see his childhood? I have my students in one of my yearlong classes at Hugo House doing the same for their characters.

Elizabeth George spends more than a year studying her characters in this way, learning everything about their compulsions and psychological makeup, their needs, desires and eccentricities. Then you can put that character into a situation and you understand how they see the situation, what they will do, and so on. 

ECM: Many aspiring writers start and restart their manuscripts, getting so bogged down they never finish. Do you have a linear process for tying together your research, plot, and character development? Some people use note cards, some sticky notes on a white board, some pen and legal pad. Some absorb their research, some go back and forth between the manuscript and their research notes. What do you do?

PM: Like a lot of people, I love writing that first 50-70 pages of a book. There’s little to no prep—it’s fun and free and anything’s possible. It’s a lot like the beginning of a relationship. Infatuation. No one is worried about who takes out the trash. There is no trash in a new relationship! Lorrie Moore once said something about how a short story is a wildly exciting love affair, and a novel is a marriage. With a novel, at some point it’s time to get serious…like are you going to move in with this novel and live with it? How is this actually going to work?

So I do that first 50 pages and then I pause and explore characters deeply, and thoroughly. I map out the major turning points. Five or six of them. I’m working on a detective novel now, and that’s a slightly different thing, because you need to know from the outset who the killer is and lots of other information that the reader won’t know until the final 10% of the book. You need a collection of suspects and red herrings. I don’t really believe in taking a full outline too seriously, since you don’t truly know what will really happen until you’re on the ground, so to speak. You can plan the next 8-15 scenes with some degree of accuracy, but the further down you’re planning the more it’s just a bit of a guessing game, because while you’re on the page things come up, opportunities and so on. You have to respect the plan but also respect the information that emerges in the moment.

Editing or re-writing can be a procrastination tool for writers who are afraid to exit the comfort of that carefree first 50 pages. To commit to the book. I often open a new document called “ACT II” or something and then I’m forced to proceed, because the original pages aren’t in front of me anymore. Also, revising on a computer is dicey, people become cavalier on the computer. It’s better to print and make notes with pen and then if they’re really that valuable you can input them later.    

ECM: Many writers claim there’s a difference between writing, publishing and reaching readers in New York versus Seattle - that writers in Seattle are at a disadvantage. What are your thoughts? 

PM: Knowing people in publishing does help. Of course relationships matter—it’s a fact of any business. And 90% of publishing is in New York. I’d say that attracting the attention of these gatekeepers by attending lots of Paris Review parties or whatever is actually a labor-intensive and limiting approach. Better to get on their radar through publishing essays or stories that these people read and admire.

Ultimately, publishing begets more publishing. If you’ve had stories in Tin House (RIP!), and A Public Space, and Southern Review, then any agent will pay close attention to whatever you send them. Roxane Gay, for example, didn’t spend years hobnobbing in New York, but instead spent years writing and publishing fiction and nonfiction constantly, building a lively social media presence, and in time she was well known and admired by the gatekeepers, and was signing major book deals. Anthony Doerr has lived in Boise his entire career and it’s going pretty well for him. You write stuff that people will notice and they will, in fact, notice.

 ECM: Your prose, like many writers I admire, is precise and lyrical. Do you have suggestions for writing strong, poetic prose?

PM: Lots of cutting. Also, read it aloud and imagine there’s a sizeable audience in front of you. Now how do you like that sentence? I spend upwards of 10 hours a week working with clients as a writing coach and manuscript consultant and I also often read my clients’ work aloud to them. It sounds awkward but it’s not. I pause whenever something occurs to me. Could be as simple as “oh, that’s a great detail,” or, “I’m confused by this,” or, “I like how you organize the tension here, making it really clear, but this metaphor is taking me away from the specificity of this situation.” People’s writing improves quickly this way. There’s nowhere to hide. And they begin to see what a person will actually experience while reading their work.

I’d discourage lyricism for the sake of lyricism. It’s like a long guitar solo in a song that doesn’t need it. The prose style has to be organic to the character and the point of view. If you’re writing from the POV of a 12-year-old boy, he’s probably not going to be admiring a stand of poplar trees, or whatever, or deploying canny metaphors. You don’t have to strip away the charm and descriptiveness, but you also want to honor the basic framework for the character’s perspective.

Generally speaking, selecting very apt verbs and nouns does a lot of work, also a natural but varied syntax. Generally avoid describing emotions—they’re abstract. As William Carlos Williams said, “No ideas but in things.” There are some fairly straightforward techniques that can help make your prose feel alive.

ECM: When I start a work of fiction, an idea comes to me and I feel I absolutely must write that story. Is this true for you, or do you start with a larger purpose - a theme  - you'd like to explore? It seems one theme, or stream, you write about is that no matter how hard you work to make the right decision, you cannot predict the outcome. If this is correct-that you aimed to explore this idea, where in your process did it come?

PM: Yeah, I feel that too. With short stories in particular, it’s often just a character in a situation. And it’s so alive with conflict and engaging thematic potential, and then it’s a lot of fun to write. The thing writes itself, in a way. I love that. But generally I find the theme while writing, and that organizes my revision. Halfway through, I say oh, this story or novel is about x and y and z. Then I have to go back and make sure that it’s really about that—everything that is extraneous to that theme is omitted, and characters and situations are re-imagined to add pressure to that theme, or make it do something interesting.

Like my Modern Love column about a table and chairs I inherited. While I was working on it I realized that the table was a metaphor for connection and community and embracing your past, even the difficult flawed parts of your past. Once that theme was clear, I just went through the piece and removed anything that wasn’t bolstering that theme—the first draft to the final draft was a radical change, but it wasn’t hard. The first draft felt like an episode of Antiques Roadshow, or something, fun, sure, but ultimately frivolous.

ECM: We all know our writing shouldn’t be boring. Do you have any tricks to make your writing “un-boring?” Riveting, scintillating, engaging? 

PM: Absolutely, and I talk about these in my classes at Hugo House, and with my coaching clients. A lot of what’s crucial is to put the source of tension in front of the reader more or less immediately. A lot of students and clients of mine have taken the idea of building mystery and assumed all mystery is created equal, and that’s not quite true. Some unproductive mystery would be like who is this person and what do they care about, or what do they want. That can sap heat from a story. Is this person old or young? Are they inside or outdoors during this scene? Those questions are distracting and create confusion. A reader needs to see need to see those things as quickly as possible.

Very often in their zeal for writing scenes, people forget the importance of simply coming out and saying something to the reader. They spend a page getting the reader into a very situation that might be interesting, sort of, but in the process they’ve neglected to tell us anything substantial about the characters or the situation. Often you have to let a narrator narrate a bit more—a little more telling and less showing. 

My essay called “The Laughter Club” which appeared in The Sun a couple years ago opens with the following two sentences: “If you happen to survive base-jumping with a bum parachute in Montana, or make it through a gory woodchipper mishap in Alaska, Harborview Medical Center—the only Level One Trauma Center in the Pacific Northwest—is where you’ll end up. My job there was to collect anesthesia records—crumpled yellow sheets covered with doctors’ scribbles—and determine how much patients owed for their life-saving, if temporary, failure to feel.” The relevant information is right there. 

ECM: What are a few elements that contributed to you being the writer you are today? What tips do you have for aspiring writers? 

PM: My main thing was that I like the act of writing, the experience itself. And it was helpful to realize that publication and so on is a way to buy time to write. My goal is to have at least 20 hours a week to do the thing I love to do. Publication is a means to that end.  

The other thing is that a piece of writing is an offering to a reader. It’s for their benefit. It has to grab their attention and sustain their attention, or else it’s not a very kind offering. You want something that they will appreciate in some way, whether it’s upsetting or funny or thrilling or fascinating or some combination of these qualities. Once I realized that the bar for engaging a reader’s attention is actually quite high, I was able to stop writing stories in which nothing happened—where it was just people sitting around the dining room table having subtext-rich conversations about their subdued conflicts.  

Also, finally, respect the process, even though the process often requires quite a lot of a attempting and re-attempting before something works. Failure is good. Really. It helps you get better and find the thing that’ll work next time. My writing habit is the only aspect of my life where I manage to apply sustained attention (I have terrible ADD). I’m hugely impatient in most other ways, but when it comes to working on a book, say, I am relentless, because I love the experience of being inside a story as it comes alive, so I don’t want to stop and do something else.

For more information about The Writers Connection and E.C. Murray, check out: and