Winning Words: How a “Win A House” Essay Contest Inspired My Novel

Is the pen mightier than a realtor's "For Sale" sign? My next novel, AT WAVE'S END, features a "Win-A-House" contest.
What’s the key to Win-A-House contests? In my next novel, AT WAVE’S END, a woman gambles on a hardscrabble inn.

Photo: Peaches&Cream

What if a few hundred well-chosen words and a nominal entry fee could land you a lakefront cabin, a Maine bed and breakfast, or a Vermont weekly newspaper?

This premise is not as farfetched as it sounds; the essay-contest-as-sales-technique is alive and well and capturing the fancy of thousands who submit heartfelt essays in the hopes of winning one of these enticing properties.

I’ve been intrigued by these novel sales pitches for several years, ever since a close friend confided her desire to enter an essay contest to win a Maine bed-and-breakfast. Is the pen mightier than, say, a realtor’s open house, I wondered, and what seduces individuals to enter? Do entrants consider the pitfalls to these competitions?

Ultimately, the lure of these solicitations became the backbone of my second novel. (Read more about how Hurricane Sandy and other elements inspired AT WAVE’S END.)

In AT WAVE’S END, coming in August 2017, a middle-aged woman wins a Jersey shore bed-and-breakfast in an essay contest. When Connie Sterling arrives to claim her prize, however, she discovers everything isn’t as it seems. Connie’s problems only multiply after a major hurricane threatens the coastal community.

(Read more about how Hurricane Sandy and other elements inspired AT WAVE’S END.)

Though this character’s dilemma is entirely fictional, real-life Win-a-House contests occasionally fizzle. For example, last year, Vermont’s Hardwick Gazette abandoned its essay contest to find a new owner for the newspaper after failing to generate enough entries to add up to a profitable sale (the key to these contests).

A lack of entries also forced owners of a 35-acre Virginia farm to call off its essay contest in 2015 and begin the arduous process of refunding contest entrants.

Even the New England inn contest, which awarded the property to entrants from the U.S. Virgin Islands, wasn’t without derision from some contest non-winners.

Given these hiccups, potential participants might be wise to scan this New York Times article on the headaches of “Win-a-House” contests before diving in. If after doing so, you’re still game, take heart: a New Jersey couple just announced an essay contest to sell their lakeside cabin in the Catskills. They’re so confident in the premise they plan to launch a contest platform to help other sellers do the same.

And by the way, in case you’re wondering about my friend, she never submitted her essay. After mulling it over, she decided she’d be happier running a bar.

So if you hear of any “Win a Bar” essay contests, be sure to let me know so I can pass the word along.

What about you? Would you risk a few hundred dollars to win a home or business? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

(Read more about how Hurricane Sandy and other elements inspired AT WAVE’S END.)

Order your copy of AT WAVE’S END.


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