Show Me The Money!
Some people will tell you that "money always goes to the writer" and that "you should never pay a fee (for a writing contest)." The first statement is good advice for those seeking agents, contracts, sale of manuscripts. The problem with the second is that many smaller contests are run by small organizations or small SF cons (as in conventions, not cheats), where a small entry or reading fee is what pays for the copying and mailing to the judges and other expenses of the contests. Some contests explicitly tell you that these fees do not pay for the prize money, others do. Some of the anthology contests will include a copy of the anthology to all those who have paid an entry fee -- this gets uncomfortably close to the vanity press, where the goal is to get you to buy copies of your own work.
I don't have a problem with small fees, $5-$15... certainly never more than $25. After all, I am already going to be out the cost of writing time, manuscript preparation and production, envelopes and postage both ways -- no different than sending to a commercial market. And remember, I'm using the contests to force me to write, and anyways, I can't submit to all that many places in a year and keep my job (grin), so it's not going to bankrupt me.
The 800-pound Gorilla of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Contests
Without a doubt, the biggest of the SF writing contests is WOTF. Currently in its 22nd year (or as they like to say, their XXIInd year), L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future Contest has a number of laudable features.
(One of them is not the clunky web interface of their website. Sigh. I also object to layouts which force the browser to go full-screen. Excuse me, this is MY computer, not yours.)
A-hem. The laudable features of WOTF: (1) They run quarterly contests, closing on the last day every third month. (2) You almost always get the current results before the next submission deadline. (3) Winners and some Finalists are published in an annual anthology and (4) the entire run of the anthology is kept in print -- you can buy the whole thing in one order. (This isn't as completely stupid as it sounds -- some great current authors got their starts through WOTF and besides seeing how they've grown up, and each volume includes essays on writing.) (4) The prize money is big. (5) Publication in the anthology counts as a pro sale towards SFWA membership. (6) They actually pay you for publication, in addition to any prize money.
No, It's Not What You Think
Please note that this part of L. Ron Hubbard's empire or estate, if you will, has nothing to do with the side which includes Tom Cruise's religion. They scrupulously keep things separate.
Though the website has the Complete Rules, they are so simple they are worth including here:
1. No entry fee is required, and all rights in the story remain the property of the author. All types of science fiction, fantasy and horror with fantastic elements, are welcome.
2. All entries must be original works, in English. Plagiarism, which includes the use of third-party poetry, song lyrics, characters or another person's universe, without written permission will result in disqualification. Excessive violence or sex, determined by the judges, will result in disqualification. Entries may not have been previously published in professional media.
3. To be eligible, entries must be works of prose, up to 17,000 words in length. We regret we cannot consider poetry, or works intended for children.
4. The Contest is open only to those who have not had professionally published a novel or short novel, or more than one novelette, or more than three short stories, in any medium. Professional publication is deemed to be payment, and at least 5,000 copies, or 5,000 hits.
5. Entries must be typewritten or a computer printout in black ink on white paper, double spaced, with numbered pages. All other formats will be disqualified. Each entry must have a cover page with the title of the work, the author's name, address, telephone number, email address and an approximate word count. Every subsequent page must carry the title and a page number, but the author's name must be deleted to facilitate fair judging.
6. Manuscripts will be returned after judging only if the author has provided return postage on a self addressed envelope. If the author does not wish return of the manuscript, a #10 (business size) self-addressed, stamped envelope (or valid email address) must be included with the entry in order to receive judging results.
7. We accept only entries for which no delivery signature is required by us to receive them.
8. There shall be three cash prizes in each quarter: a First Prize of $1,000, a Second Prize of $750, and a Third Prize of $500, in U.S. dollars or the recipient's locally equivalent amount. In addition, at the end of the year the four First Place winners will have their entries rejudged, and a Grand Prize winner shall be determined and receive an additional $4,000. All winners will also receive trophies or certificates.
9. The Contest has four quarters, beginning on October 1, January 1, April 1 and July 1. The year will end on September 30. To be eligible for judging in its quarter, an entry must be postmarked no later than midnight on the last day of the quarter.
10. Each entrant may submit only one manuscript per quarter. Winners are ineligible to make further entries in the contest.
11. All entries for each quarter are final. No revisions are accepted.
12. Entries will be judged by professional authors. The decisions of the judges are entirely their own, and are final.
13. Winners in each quarter will be individually notified of the results by mail.
14. This contest is void where prohibited by law.
They offer a huge word count and very little restrictions on type of stories. And you're only out paper, envelopes and proper postage. Surely, even if you aren't a short story writer, and I'm not, you can cobble up four stories a year, can't you? Three? Two? ONE? You have nothing to lose and if you place high enough, you may get feedback on your stories.
Of the last eight WOTF quarterly contests, I have one Finalist, one Semi-Finalist and six Quarter-Finalists. My first four WOTF entries didn't place anywhere -- so I have improved. You can use this excuse, too.
Now, if you'll excuse me. I really have to continue to peck away at finishing the story which I'll probably mail postmarked June 30th -- hey, I've got ten days! (grin)