Still more on contest entries: the ins and outs of category selection

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After yesterday’s epic post on the various means contest entries tend to annoy the average judge, I’m going to try to limit myself to merely waxing mildly poetic today. It’s going to be hard, though, because I’m continuing the seldom-discussed but vitriol-stained topic of finding the right category in which to enter your work.

I hear some snickering out there already. “Vitriol-stained?” some head-shakers out there are murmuring. “Just a tad melodramatic, isn’t it?”

Actually, it isn’t — at least, not from the perspective of a conscientious contest judge, the kind who volunteers because gosh darn it, s/he wants to be there when the next Great American Novel is first discovered.

Wipe that smirk off your face. Being a contest judge, particularly for the first round, is typically a great big time commitment, and the stalwart souls who embrace it often do it for the love of literature, community, and humanity. Or an unvarnished affection for jumping upon those who mangle the English language.

Either way, there’s usually a passion for the written word smoldering under those judges’ robes. Which is precisely why it’s so darned disappointing when a beautifully-written entry knocks itself out of finalist consideration by being submitted to the wrong category.

Now, I’m the first to admit that it’s not unheard-of for judges to harbor some kind of squirrelly ideas of what does and doesn’t belong in a particular contest category. This is not altogether surprising, particularly for fiction, as it’s far from unusual for even the pros to disagree upon what book category would most comfortable house a particular book.

If you doubt this, you probably haven’t tried to establish a book category for your opus. For those of you who don’t know, book categories are how the industry thinks of potentially publishable work, the conceptual containers into which it is sorted — or, to put it another way, the shelf where the book would rest in a local bookstore. (For how to tell which is which, as well as where this information is likely to be found on a published book, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES listing at right.)

Due to this pervasive mindset, a writer needs to be able to say up front into what category her book would logically fall in order to query, pitch, or submit successfully in the U.S. market.

Why? Well, since generalist agents are very rare — it would be flatly too time-consuming to establish connections for more than a few types of book — book categories enable them to avoid wasting time upon submissions they do not already have the connections to place successfully.

If an agent represents only mysteries and SF/Fantasy, it would be a waste of good stationary to send him a query for literary fiction, wouldn’t it?

While contest categories tend to be far broader than the industry’s, lumping a handful together, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have the publishing world’s standards in mind. There’s an awfully good reason for this: final-round contest judges (the ones who read only the finalists’ entries) are often agents, editors, or authors who work on a daily basis with a particular category. The early-round judges, aware of this, tend to weed out entries that don’t fit neatly into the applicable book categories long before the finalist round.

That way, the logic goes, the final-round judges will be presented only with works that stand a fighting chance of getting published as sterling representatives of the best current writing in their respective categories.

If the contest of your choice does not actually list the book categories that belong within each of its contest categories, contact the organization and ask for such a list. Or — if you have already firmly categorized your work in industry terms, give your category and ask which part of the contest would best fit for it.

(Hint: you’ll probably get a substantially friendlier response to this question if you DON’T give a three-minute summary of your book — and DON’T ask it four days before the entry deadline. This is research best done well in advance, and armed in advance with a one- or two-word category description.)

It may seem pushy to ask for this information, but if a contest-throwing organization is serious about seeing its winners get published, this is an important question. After all, from the entrant’s point of view, a contest win is only as valuable as the connections it can bring.

What do I mean by that, you ask? Ideally, you want to win a contest that is recognized in the industry as a stellar judge of writing in your chosen book category. If, for instance, the organization’s definition of genre fiction doesn’t include Action/Adventure, not only is even the best Action/Adventure entry unlikely to win — agents and editors who sell that book category are not likely to be aware of the contest, either.

Think about it: which credential is going to do your book more good on your query letter, being a semifinalist in a contest that any agent in your book’s category would have known about for years, or in a contest of which the agent of your dreams has never even heard?

Trust me, if a contest has a good track record for identifying wonderful work within a particular book category, the agents and editors who handle that kind of book WILL have heard of it.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you with complex books offer timidly, “I thought you said just a couple of minutes ago that there’s often disagreement amongst the pros about the right category for a particular book. If a contest category is nebulous, isn’t there likely to be even greater disagreement?”

In a word, yes. In five words: it happens all the time. Let’s face it, category standards along the lines of we accept good fiction of every type aren’t that helpful to the writer trying to determine which contest to enter, are they?

Most contests are more specific than this, thank goodness — but it does pay to be aware that when a description refers to a particular book category, it’s seldom doing it idly. Don’t be mislead by a general category heading like Genre Fiction into thinking that any genre is welcome; this is seldom the case.

Again, read the description underneath that heading very carefully: it will probably mention the book categories that the contest organizers are expecting to see.

Because, frankly, in most cases of poor category fits, it’s not a near miss so much as trying to cram a size 14 foot into a size 6 shoe. You would be astonished — at least, I hope you would — at how often writers send work in apparently willy-nilly, trying to force their pages into a category where, by definition, their chances of winning are close to zero.

This is just an inefficient use of an entry fee.

To put it another way, this is not a situation where playing rules lawyer — “But Category 5 was entitled FICTION! How was I to know that didn’t include haiku? Both came out of my imagination!” — is at all likely to help you. As I mentioned a few days ago, there isn’t a court of appeal here: if a judge thinks that your entry doesn’t fit into the category where you entered it, you’re just out of luck.

So, once again: read every syllable of a contest’s literature very, very carefully. Particularly those category definitions.

I’m not just talking about those ultra-brief definitions that tend to grace entry forms, either. Take the time to read EVERYTHING that a contest’s website or literature says about your chosen category, to make sure that your book is, in fact, admissible.

Fair warning: what I am about to say next is extremely likely to drive literal-minded readers completely nuts, but why not consider the possibility that the category you had envisioned for your work after publication — i.e., where YOU had envisioned its being shelved in a bookstore or library after you are famous — might not be the best category in any given contest for you?

Did I just hear a collective gasp out there? “Who are you?” I hear the hyper-literal cry, “and what have you done with Anne? Haven’t you been the long-time advocate of labeling your work as accurately as possible AND in the industry’s favorite terms? Should we check your basement for pods?”

Well, yes — and defining your book with precision still the best strategy when you’re approaching an agent or editor.

However, as I mentioned above, contests often divide the literary world differently than publishing professionals do. Frequently, they use categories that have not been current since Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer. (Quick, tell me: if it were being marketed now, would THE AGE OF INNOCENCE be mainstream fiction, literary fiction, or women’s fiction?)

Here’s a radical idea: pick the CONTEST category that makes the most strategic sense, regardless of your book’s MARKETING category.

Honestly, this prospect should not make you hyperventilate; agents do this to their clients’ work all the time. Remember, the label you give the entry today is not necessarily going to stick with the book for the rest of its life, and there’s absolutely no reason that you should send agents precisely the same pages that you enter in a contest.

Take a little time, and be imaginative about it. The line between memoir and first-person narrative, for instance, can be notoriously thin. Heck, even the fine folks at Random House didn’t seem to be able to tell the difference with A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, did they? (A book that was, as I understand it, originally marketed as a novel, not a memoir.)

And there can be a very good reason to consider other categories for your work. Not to tell tales out of school, but in most contests that accept book-length works, the fiction categories tend to get more entries than the nonfiction ones.

As in SUBTANTIALLY more entries. Sometimes as in five or ten times as many, which obviously has a direct bearing on any individual entry’s chances of making the finalist round.

But mum’s the word, okay?

So why not take a good, hard look at your first chapter of your novel or memoir and ask yourself: how much would I have to change this to enter it in the other category as well? What about the nonfiction short piece category?

Is your novel really mainstream, or is it actually romance? Could it be entered as both?

If the contest offers a novel-in-progress category (as the Wisdom/Faulkner competition does, incidentally; they also have a novella category, in case you’re interested), would your barely-finished book do better there, or against the fully polished novels?

And so forth. The goal here is to gain a win to put on your writing resume and in your query letters, not to force your work into the category you have pre-selected for it.

Yes, there is usually more prestige attached to book-length categories, but, frankly, in major contests, that’s where the competition tends to be the fiercest. If a shorter-length category seems to offer you a better conceptual fit or better odds, it’s sometimes worth switching. Or multiply submitting.

In a word, be flexible. Get the win on your résumé however you can.

One of the best memoirs I have ever read, Barbara Robinette Moss’ astonishing CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS’ DAUGHTER, found its publisher because its downright lyrical first chapter won in the personal essay category in the Faulkner competition.

That was smart contest selection — and a well-deserved win. (Seriously, this is one of the books that made me long to write memoir in the first place. I certainly did not fully appreciate the art form until I read it. It’s gorgeous and painful and brilliant in a way few books manage to be.)

This is not to say that you should rush out and enter exactly the same piece in, say, both the mainstream novel and novel-in-progress categories of the same competition, or in both the genre novel and mystery short story categories.

Again, READ THE RULES. Most contests will not allow you to enter the same work in multiple categories, but some will, so check the contest rules carefully before you spend the extra entrance fee.

You didn’t hear it from me, of course, but it is not unheard-of for authors to get away with this sort of double-dipping even when it’s forbidden, if the pieces have different titles. Of course, this is terribly, terribly immoral even to consider, but often, it works.

Why? Well, most of the time, the bureaucratic part of accepting an entry entails merely noting the author’s name and title, assigning numbers so the judges don’t know who wrote what, sending the entry to the appropriate category chair, and cashing the check. So until the pieces land on the various category judges’ desks, it’s possible that no one will have read them. And it’s not as though the judges in one category discuss the entries they are reading with the judges in another.

The utterly despicable result: when an unscrupulous author is bright enough to give different titles to remarkably similar entries and perhaps mail them in separate envelopes, it is highly unlikely that anyone in the front office will have the opportunity to notice that the two distinct entries are, in fact, the same work.

Totally unethical, of course; I would have to scold anyone who did that. Or anyone clever enough to revise the work just enough between entries that, say, there weren’t more than 50 consecutive words in a row that were identical. That’s maybe one word per paragraph.

Ooh, I would have to wag my finger over anyone who went that route, boy oh boy. Really, I would. That would be just a shade too professional to be merely clever.

Well, darn: it doesn’t look as though I could manage to be brief on the subject today, either. Keep up the good work!

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