Contests, Part XIV: Niceties and tidbits

Okay, time for the final installment of my holiday gift to my readers: an extended series on how to increase your chances in literary competitions. Today’s installment deals with the fun stuff, the last-minute touches that can give your entry an edge. (Incidentally, many of these presentation tips work beautifully with query letters and manuscript submission, too.)

When you first read through contest rules, it may not seem as though they allow a great deal of leeway in how you package your work, but often, there is some wiggle room. If so, proportion can make a difference in how your work is received.

Take a look at your entry: does the synopsis seem disproportionately long? Is there good writing that you would be able to squeeze into the chapter if it were shorter?

If your synopsis runneth over its assigned page limit, try this trick: minimize the amount of space you devote to the book’s premise and the actions that occur in Chapter 1. Yes, you will need this information to appear prominently in a synopsis you would show an editor or agent, but you have different goals here. If you are submitting Chapter 1 (or even beyond) as part of your contest entry, and if you place the chapter BEFORE the synopsis in your entry packet, the judges will already be familiar with both the initial premise AND the basic characters AND what occurs at the beginning in the book. So why be repetitious?

In the average novel synopsis, over a quarter of the text deals with premise and character introduction. Trim this down to just a few sentences and move on to the rest of the plot.

Allow me to use a practical example. Let’s say that you were Jane Austen, and you were submitting the first 25 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY to a literary contest. (You should be so lucky!) For submission to an agent, your query synopsis might look something like this:

ELINOR (19) and MARIANNE DASHWOOD (17) are in a pitiable position: due to the whimsical will of their great-uncle, the family estate passes at the death of their wealthy father into the hands of their greedy half-brother, JOHN DASHWOOD (early 30s). Their affectionate but impractical mother (MRS. DASHWOOD, 40), soon offended at John’s wife’s (FANNY FERRARS DASHWOOD, late 20s) domineering ways and lack of true hospitality, wishes to move her daughters from Norland, the only home they have ever known, but comparative poverty and the fact that Elinor is rapidly falling in love with her sister-in-law’s brother, EDWARD FERRARS (mid-20s), render any decision on where to go beyond the reach of her highly romantic speculations. Yet when John and his wife talk themselves out of providing any financial assistance to the female Dashwoods at all, Mrs. Dashwood accepts the offer of her cousin, SIR JOHN MIDDLETON (middle aged) to move her family to Barton Park, hundreds of miles away. Once settled there, the Dashwoods find themselves rushed into an almost daily intimacy with Sir John and his wife, LADY MIDDLETON (late 20s) at the great house. There, they meet COLONEL BRANDON (early 40s), Sir John’s melancholy friend, who seems struck by Marianne’s musical ability — and beauty. But does his sad face conceal a secret?

Now, all of this does in fact occur in the first 25 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, as the contest entry would clearly show. So, being a wise Aunt Jane, you would streamline the contest synopsis so it looked a bit more like this:

At the death of their wealthy father, ELINOR (19) and MARIANNE DASHWOOD (17) and their affectionate but impractical mother (MRS. DASHWOOD, 40) are forced to leave their life-long home and move halfway across England, to live near relatives they have never seen, far away from Elinor’s beloved EDWARD FERRARS (mid-20s). At the home of their cousins SIR JOHN (middle aged) and LADY MIDDLETON (late 20s), melancholy COLONEL BRANDON (early 40s), seems struck by Marianne’s musical ability — and beauty. But does his sad face conceal a secret?

Less than half the length, but enough of the point to show the judges how the submitted chapters feed into the rest of the book. Well done, Jane!

Placing character names in capital letters and indicating ages (as I have done above), is no longer standard for querying synopses — but not all contest judges seem to be aware of that. To old-fashioned eyes, a synopsis simply isn’t professional unless the first time each major character is named, HIS NAME APPEARS IN ALL CAPS (age). Here again, you would be perfectly within your rights not to adhere to this quaint practice, but if your work happens to fall into the hands of a judge who thinks it’s mandatory, you’ll be far better off if you stuck to old-fashioned structure.

And naturally, you should read the ENTIRETY of your entry IN HARD COPY, ALOUD, before you send it anywhere. As regular readers of this blog are already aware, my professional editor hat gets all in a twist at the notion of any writer’s proofreading solely on a computer screen.

And don’t even get me started on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers! Mine disapproves of gerunds, apparently on general principle, strips accent marks off French words, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody out there does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, drop me a comment, and I shall make everything clear.) Like a bad therapist, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded, but even in the unlikely event that your grammar checker was put together by someone remotely familiar with the English language as she is spoke, you should NEVER rely solely upon what it tells you to do. If you’re in doubt, look it up.

There is another excellent reason to read the synopsis out loud: to make sure it stands alone as a story. Since part of the point of the synopsis is to demonstrate what a good storyteller you are, flow is obviously important. If you have even the tiniest reservations about whether you have achieved this goal, read your synopsis out loud to someone unfamiliar with your project — and then ask your listener to tell the basis story back to you. If there are holes in your account, this method will make them leap out at you. (Insofar as a hole can leap.)

Once you have perfected your entry, print it on nice paper. This may seem silly, but it sometimes does make a difference, believe it or not.

By nice paper, I’m not talking about hot pink sheets or pages that you have hand-calligraphed with gold leaf and Celtic designs. Either of those would get your entry disqualified on sight. No, I mean high-quality white paper, the kind of stuff you might print your resume on if you REALLY wanted the job.

If this seems extravagant to you, ask yourself: have I ever walked into an interview wanting the job as much as I want to have my book published?

Using good paper will make your entry stand out amongst the others. Nice paper is a pleasure to hold, but frankly, there’s more to this strategy than giving your judges visceral pleasure. The vast majority of contest entries are printed on very low-quality paper; when multiple copies are required for submission, they generally show up on the flimsy paper so often found in copy shop photocopiers. It tears easily. It wrinkles as it travels through the mail. It’s dingy-looking.

Spring for something nicer, and your entry will automatically come across as more professional to the judges.

It may not be fair, but it’s true, so it’s very worth your while to invest a few extra bucks in a decent ream. 20-pound paper or heavier (I use 24-pound) will not wrinkle in transit unless the envelope is actually folded, and bright white paper gives the impression of being crisper. (Avoid anything in the cream range — this is the time for brilliant white.)

For what it’s worth, I have observed over time that agents and editors, too, seem to treat manuscripts printed in Times New Roman on bright, heavy white paper with more respect than other manuscripts. The only drawback — and it was a significant one — was that when I printed up a draft of my memoir for my editor on lovely cotton 24-pound paper, it came back to me smelling like an ashtray. Turns out cotton paper soaks up ambient smoke like a sponge. My cats shied away from my desk for weeks afterward.

And before you seal the envelope, GO BACK AND REREAD THE CONTEST RULES. Have you met each and every requirement? Have you included every needed element? Are your margins precisely what the contest specified?

It may seem anal-retentive to re-check this often, but as I kept telling you last week, judges are often looking for reasons to disqualify you. It is absolutely imperative, then, that you follow every rule to the letter. And in the average contest, a good 5% of entries show up with something really basic missing, like the check or a second title page.
Good luck with your entries.

Hey, one of my readers suggested to me that it might be a good idea for me to hold a brief seminar on putting the contest entry packet together a week or so before PNWA contest entries are due, to help my Seattle-area readers catch last-minute problems. If you might be interested in such a class, or if you just think it would be a dandy thing to have offered, vote for it by dropping me a line via the COMMENTS function, below, sometime before the end of January. (If you want a personalized notice when it happens, include your e-mail.) If there’s enough interest, I’d be happy to teach it.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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