A Writing Prize for the People, by the People

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The story contest website FieldReport.com draws aspiring writers by the thousands

When the San Francisco-based entrepreneurs Will Petty and Skye Thompson posted a notice on Craig's List last May announcing their website FieldReport.com, which offers pots of prize money for the best nonfiction stories submitted, they were met with incredulity and even foul language by skeptics who thought they smelled a rat. "They were downright rude to us," Thompson recalled. "We were really shocked." (A typical post: "Yeah right. S--- me.")

But on Oct. 1, when FieldReport's first official monthly contest ended, the skeptics were silenced. A total of $25,000 in checks went out to the authors of the winning stories in each of FieldReport's contest categories (there are 21, from "Animal Beings" to "Life + Me" to "Love + Hate" to "Style+Beauty+Body"). The most highly ranked story on the site for the month won an extra $4,000 prize. In July, $40,000 had gone out to the victors of a trial-run "beta" contest, including a grand prize of $20,000 to the author of the most popular story overall.

If you send a story in now, you have a fair shot at winning one of the $1,000 prizes to awarded next on Nov. 1, and at the end of the year competing for the $250,000 grand prize for best story of 2008. That's less than the Nobel Prize winner for Literature — for which this year's laureate, French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, will pick up a little under $1,500,000 — but considerably more than the Pulitzer purse of $10,000. Says Thompson, "We are confident the FieldReport prize for experiential writing is the biggest single-story prize out there." What's more, he says, "It's accessible to everybody. You don't have to submit it to a judge in Stockholm."

There's no fee to enter a story (1500 stories have been submitted so far), but in return each entrant must review at least five other stories to have his or her own considered. "We're getting between 15 and 20 reviews on our site per story, from users who love to review," Petty said. The prize-winning stories receive far more reviews than that, and the number of positive reviews decides each story's ranking. In January, the best-reviewed story of 2008 will claim the $250,000 jackpot.

International contributors are welcome, says Petty — "We have had three winners from England out of the 40, and we'd love to see people from other countries as well" — although the founders are leery of entrants from one foreign country: Nigeria. "The Nigerians were the one group of people who believed us from the first," Thompson said. "One guy immediately jumped on the site and tried to game it. It was either the guy himself posting multiple reviews under different names, or a bunch of his friends." The story, Thompson says, "was execrable, unfortunately."

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