Friday, December 9, 2011

Previously Unpublished

Writing competitions often have the requirement that the submission is previously unpublished.  Well, what does that mean exactly? Turns out it can mean several things, and it pays to make sure to read contest rules carefully.  Generally speaking, when in doubt, submit something new.

I've created my own scale for this requirement, The Competitive Writer's Unpublishimeter

Level 1 - Completely Unpublished - This is a work you have in your writing journal, or on your computer, or in your head, that has in no way whatsoever been conveyed to the public world.  This the safest and surest type of work to enter into any contest.

Level 2 - Unpublished but Privately Available - This is a work you may have completed and have it posted online somewhere, maybe Google Docs, or on an online forum somewhere.  The key here is that someone cannot just stumble upon the work, they have to have a password, or be a subscriber to the website in some way. chances are high that this would be acceptable in most contests.

Level 3 - Unpublished but Publicly Available.   These are the writings that may have won other contests and get posted on the contest website, or writings that you may have on your personal blog.  You still retain the rights to publication/copyright, but theoretically anybody can read it.  Majority of contests would allow this type of work, but I've seen contests that specifically specify that the entry cannot exist in the public domain whatsoever.  Again, carefully read the contest rules.

Level 4 - Self-published or Limited Publication.  This is a gray area.  My impression is that the spirit of the 'previously unpublished' requirement is to exclude writings that are featured in on-line or print literary journals.  But if you have a short story featured on a self-published website like Lulu or AuthorStand, I think that crosses the line, especially if the work has been disseminated at any level.  Another gray area is limited publication, this is something like a church newsletter where the featured piece will only be available for a short window and to a small audience, but after its done it isn't kept anywhere.

A couple concluding thoughts:
Some contests exclude unpublished works, they only want something that has been vetted and proven.

Dr. Yeoman over at Writer's Village advises tweaking the same story for different contests.  I like this idea, but I'd add two further rules.
1. Know what the final outcome of your story will be if you win.
2. Make sure that your tweaks are material

Say you have a story (Level 1 on the unpublishimeter) about an aspiring writer who makes a deal with the devil.  You enter a version into the Deals with the Devil writing contest.  You enter it again in the Stories about Aspiring Writers contest.  You happen to win the Devil contest and now your story becomes Level 3.  A judge in the Aspiring Writer's contest sees this work and it is very similar to one of the pieces he's reading.  Here's the moment of truth - if the story is a complete duplicate it will probably be disqualified.  If it has minor tweaks, like changing a character's name or the town it's set in, it could potentially be disqualified.  If it is materially different, you're probably in the clear.

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