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Increasing your chances: the synopsis that cinches the deal

February 12th, 2007

Yes, I know: I revisited synopses fairly recently, but yesterday, I made a bold statement: a good synopsis for a contest and a good synopsis for submission are not necessarily the same thing. I could have dropped that hot potato into your lap and gone blithely on my way, but something tells me that some of you might like some explanation of HOW the two might conceivably differ.

You’re funny that way. It’s one of the things I love about you.

In the first place, contest synopses are often shorter. Unlike submissions to agents, where you are merely expected to produce a document that falls within industry standards for length and format, contests generally will specify the length of the synopses they want; sometimes, the rules merely set a maximum page limit for the entry, and allow the writer to decide how much of it to devote to the synopsis.

In either case, page space will be at a premium – but even if the contest rules specify an absurdly short synopsis (or make it sound shorter by calling it a plot outline), please do not give into the quite substantial temptation to fudge a little to stay within the specified parameters. Even if you have been asked to produce a 3-paragraph synopsis of a 500-page book, DO NOT single-space it, shrink the print size, or fudge the margins to make it fit within the specified limits, unless the contest rules say you may.

The reason is simple: you will get caught and penalized. Trust me, if the rest of your entry is in 12-point Times New Roman with 1-inch margins, double-spaced, almost any judge is going to be able to tell right away if your synopsis is presented differently.

Because judges are expected to rate entries for professional presentation, unless contest rules specify otherwise, NEVER allow a contest synopsis to run over 5 pages or under 2. A synopsis that is much shorter will make you look as if you are unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware of the standard.

That’s right: if you have been asked to submit a synopsis, it, as well as your chapter, is subject to judging for clarity, coherence, marketability…and professionalism. Make sure that your synopsis reads like a SYNOPSIS, and not like a back-jacket blurb (“My writing teacher says this is the best novel since THE SUN ALSO RISES!”) or an exposition on why you chose to write the book (“It isn’t autobiographical, but…”)

Just make sure that the novel sounds engaging, marketable – and like the best yarn since TREASURE ISLAND. Make the pacing FAST.

To that end, it is justifiable to streamline the plot more than you might for a regular synopsis – trust me, after you are wearing the first place ribbon, no one is going to come running up to you crying, “Hey! Your synopsis left out three major plotlines, and didn’t mention the protagonist’s sister! Foul! Foul!”

For non-fiction entries, it is usually a good idea to include some brief indication of the target market and why your book will serve that market better than what is currently available – but do keep it short and to-the-point. Hyperbole does not work well in this context, so steer clear of grandiose claims (“Everyone in North America will want to buy this book!” All of these quotes are permutations of statements I have seen in actual contest synopses, by the way.).

Stick to saying what the book is ABOUT. Also – and this is for some reason hugely common in contest synopses — try not to get sidetracked on WHY you chose to write it. A LOT of contest synopses go off on these tangents, to the detriment of the entry, and it costs them a plethora of presentation and professionalism points.

“Wait just a minute!” I hear some of you out there saying. “Why is personal revelation regarded as a sign of a lack of professionalism? What if my entry is a memoir, for instance? Aren’t my reasons for writing my own life story worth mentioning in the synopsis?”

Not necessarily. In the eyes of the industry, there are only a few contexts where a lengthy discussion of why you chose to write a book is considered appropriate professional behavior:

(1) Within a nonfiction book proposal, where it is a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing.
(2) In a query letter or pitch, to show that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are pitching.
(3) After you have signed with your agent, when she asks, “So, are there hidden selling points in this book that I should mention while I’m marketing it?”
(4) To your publisher’s marketing department just before your book is released, so they can include any relevant points in the press packet.
(5) Within the context of an interview AFTER the book is released. Interviewers LOVE hearing about writers’ motivations — which, I suspect is why aspiring writers so often want to tell everyone they see what is and is not autobiographical in their novels. So feel free to go to town after the book comes out.
(6) When you are chatting with other writers about why they wrote THEIR books.

Other than that, it’s considered over-sharing – yes, even for memoirists. In your synopsis, stick to the what of the book, and save the whys for later.

The only exception to this in a contest entry is if you have some very specific expertise or background that renders your take on a subject particularly valid. If so, make sure that information is stated within the first paragraph of your NF synopsis; if you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned to the judges, stick it at the end of the synopsis, where it won’t be too intrusive.

In all other cases, for a synopsis to accompany a fiction entry, your goal is very, very simple: make it a terrific story. You would be AMAZED how few contest synopses-writers seem to realize that.

What do they do instead? All too often, writers just state the premise of the novel, rather than taking the reader through the plot, blow by blow. If the plot has twists and surprises, so should the synopsis. Show the story arc, and make it compelling enough that the judge will scrawl on the evaluation sheet, “Wow, I want to read this book when it comes out.”

Trust me, pretty much every contest winner and placer’s evaluation sheet has this sentiment, or something very similar to it, scrawled upon it in a judge’s hand. So make it your mission in the synopsis to evoke that wonderful response.

Yes, I know: it’s a tall order. But don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting.

The easiest way to get the judges involved is not merely to summarize the plot as quickly as possible, but to give the feel of a number of specific scenes. Don’t be afraid to use forceful imagery and strong sensual detail, and try to have the tone of the synopsis echo the tone of the book.

For nonfiction, your goal in a contest synopsis is threefold: to show the argument of the book in some detail, along with some indication of how you intend to prove your case; to show that the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and to demonstrate that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book.

In 3-5 pages, no less. Piece o’ proverbial cake, right?

For the first, it is helpful to have an outline of your proposed chapters in front of you, so you can use the synopsis to demonstrate how each chapter will build upon the next to make your overall case. Even if you are writing a self-help book, history book, or memoir, you are always making a case when you write nonfiction, if only to argue that your take on the world around you is interesting, unique, and valid. Be certain that by the time a judge finishes reading your synopsis, s/he will understand very clearly what this argument is – and what evidence you will be bringing in to demonstrate it. (Statistics? Extensive background research? Field experience? Interviews? A wealth of personal anecdotes? Etc.)

If you are pinched for space, you need only devote the first paragraph to marketing information. Say why the world needs your book. If you are writing on a subject that is already quite full of authorial opinion, make it plain why your book is different and better. (“Have you ever wondered what goes on underneath the snow while you are skiing on top of it? Although there are many books currently on the market for snowboarding enthusiasts, MOUNTAINS MY WAY is the first to be written by a geologist.”)

If you have statistics on your prospective market, this is the place to mention them. (“There are currently 2 million Americans diagnosed with agoraphobia, yet there are few self-help books out there for them – and only one that is actually written by an agoraphobic, someone who truly understands what it feels like to be shut in.”)

The third desiratum is what is known in the industry as your platform. Admittedly, it is a trifle hard to explain why you are THE expert best qualified to write this book without saying a little something about yourself, so you may feel as though you are slipping into the realm of author bio, a potentially dangerous strategy in a contest entry where you might get disqualified for inadvertently mentioning your first name. But rest assured, no one is going to disqualify you for mentioning that you have a Ph.D. or went to a specific culinary school.

So go ahead and state your qualifications – just don’t slip up and mention yourself by name. “A well-respected Seattle area caterer for twenty years, the author has extensive experience in crafting meals for the pickiest of eaters,” for example, will only make you sound authoritative, not rule-breaking. As will, “SHELLFISH AND YOU is the fruit of many years of postdoctoral research. The author, a graduate of the prestigious Scripps School of Oceanography, is recognized worldwide as an up-and-coming authority on mollusk behavior.”)

If your head is whirling from all of this – and whose wouldn’t be, given the imminence of the PNWA contest deadline — don’t worry. I’ll go into some tips on how to simplify the contest-writing synopsis process tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Increasing your chances of making it to the contest finals: more on memoirs

February 11th, 2007

After yesterday’s post on the advisability of quadruple-checking your memoir entries to make super-sure that they contain NO usages of your first or last name, I believe I heard some murmurs of dissent. “Wait just a second,” the voice in the ether I choose to attribute to you kept saying, “isn’t this paranoid overkill? How is the judge ever going to know? In most contests, the judges never see your name attached to the manuscript, and thus would not know that the name mentioned IS the author’s?”

Well, several reasons, all of which boil down to this: are you sure enough about that to risk your entry’s getting disqualified?

First, as I mentioned yesterday, such is the seriousness with which blind judging is taken that if a judge even SUSPECTS that an entry contains the author’s name, that entry may be toast. And, to be fair, it does not require much of a cognitive leap to conclude that the Sheila Mae who is narrating a memoir excerpt is, in fact, the same Sheila Mae who wrote it.

Second, it is not unheard-of for contests to employ (or, more commonly, impress volunteers into servitude as) initial screeners, whose SOLE function is to check the entries for rule violations before the entries are distributed to the judges who will rate them. These screeners sometimes do have your entire entry packet – and thus your name, and will be able to tell immediately if you have violated the don’t-use-your-name rule.

Third – and while this one is the simplest, it is also the way self-namers are most often caught – even in a contest that does not pass entries under the watchful eyes of screeners, someone is going to have to slit open that envelope, if only to extract the check. Someone is going to have to note your name in the contest log, assign your entry the identification number that will allow it to be judged blindly, and pass your entry along to the proper section’s judges.

It’s a boring job. So tell me: how likely do you think it is that such a mail-sorter would glance at the first page of the entry, to render the process a trifle less tedious? And how many memoir first pages have you ever seen that DIDN’T include some mention of the memoir subject’s name?

There is one absolutely foolproof, not very time-consuming means of avoiding the problem altogether, of course: use a pseudonym within the context of the entry, adding a note on your title page, STATING that you have changed the names in order to adhere to the rules of the contest. “For the purposes of this entry,” you could write, “I have changed my family name to Parrothead.”

Yes, it’s kind of silly, but that way, you make it pellucidly clear that you’re not referring to yourself. And, after all, how is the judge to know whether you have substituted the names or not, if you do not say so?

Other good tip for memoirists entering their work in contests is to do a bit of market research prior to entry. (Actually, this is a good idea for anyone writing a book, and certainly for everyone who has to write a synopsis for a contest.) Are there memoirs currently on the market – and in industry terms, a book either has to be a bestseller or have been released within the last five years to be considered “currently on the market” similar to yours?

To put it another way, is your memoir in fact absolutely unique, or does it fit into a well-defined market niche? If it’s the latter, is there a way that you can make its individual appeal clearer in the pages you are submitting?

It is a question well worth asking before entering a memoir into a contest – or before trying to market it. All of us tend to think of our own experiences as unique, which of course they are; every point of view is to a very great extent original. However, every memoir is about something in addition to the personality of the person writing it, right? Those other subjects are definitely a matter of fashion; there are fads in memoir-writing, just as in any other kind of publishing, and you can bet your boots that if a particular subject matter is hot this year, the nonfiction rolls of every contest in the country will receive quantities of that type of memoir.

Remember, for instance, after Lance Armstrong’s book came out, and suddenly there were a zillion upbeat I-survived-a-lethal-illness memoirs? Well, so do contest judges: they read thousands of them. Which meant, in practical terms, that it was quite a bit harder to wow a judge with an illness memoir in that period than at any other time in human history.

Also, certain life experiences tend to recur across a population with predictable regularity, and if you are writing about a well-trodden topic, it is IMPERATIVE that you make it clear in your contest entry just how your book is different from the others currently on the market. Because – and I tremble to tell you this, but it’s true – if you are writing on certain over-mined topics, even the most heart-felt prose can start those cliché warning bells pealing in the average judge’s brainpan.

This is not to say that your personal take is not worth telling – if you’re a good writer with a truly individual take on the world around you, it undoubtedly is. Remember, though, that judges tend to be reading for marketability, and if they perceive that you are writing in an already glutted submarket, your entry may not do as well as an entry on a less well-trodden topic.

Think about how many people suddenly started writing accounts of growing up poor immediately after ANGELA’S ASHES hit the big time, or about over-medicated, over-sexed teenagerhoods in the wake of PROZAC NATION, and plan accordingly.

Sheer repetition can wear down even the most conscientious judge after a while; remember, most contest judges do not judge a single contest only, but return year after year. Certain topics are perennial contest entry favorites.

The result? “Oh, God,” the judge whimpers, instinctively backing away from the papers in front of her, “not another well-written, emotionally rich story about a Baby Boomer daughter nursing her mother through her final illness, and in the process learning to heal the long-standing rift between them!”

Not that any of these judges have anything against women who care for their aging parents; it’s not as though anyone is rooting for those life-long disagreement NOT to be mended. But honestly, after fifteen or twenty of these, a judge does start to root for a nice entry about, say, someone who was mauled by a tiger. Or hit by lightning. Or at least not following in the wheeltracks of Lance Armstrong.

Conditioned reflex, I’m afraid. Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the sound of a bell, and contest judges wince at the sight of the third similar entry of the day.

So if you happen to be any of the following, you might want to think about how your book ISN’T like the others: a former drug addict/alcoholic/workaholic rediscovering the beauty of day-to-day life; a former hippie/swinger/disco queen recounting his or her glory days; a teacher from a white, upper-middle-class background who went to teach in the inner city; a new father confessing that he was not prepared for the practicalities of caring for children; a new mother discovering that motherhood is significantly harder than it is cracked up to be; anyone who worked at a dot com that went bust.

Similarly, if your memoir details your spiritual awakening, your discovery that the giant corporation for which you worked is corrupt, and/or your magnificent weight loss or gain, you might want to invest some time in market research to figure out how to make your book come across as fresh and exciting. If you check a well-stocked bookstore, or even run your subject matter through an Amazon search, you will get a pretty firm idea of how many other accounts there are that resemble your own, at least superficially.

Think of this research as practice for writing that inevitable book proposal. (All of you memoirists are aware that memoirs are seldom sold on the entire book, right? I keep running into memoir-writers to whom this is news, so I will go ahead and say it: it is not necessary to have a completed memoir before selling it to a publishing house. As with other NF books, the average memoir book proposal contains only a chapter or two — and a WHOLE lot of marketing material.)

The best way to make your work stand out from the crowd is to use the synopsis to show how YOUR memoir is QUITE different than the other memoirs on the subject – and knowing the existing memoir market will be most helpful in figuring out what aspects to stress. What made your experience special, unique, unforgettable from the point of view of a third party? Why couldn’t anyone else on earth have written it, and why will readers want to buy it?

The best place to make all this clear, of course, is the synopsis.

“But wait!” I hear some of you cry. “My book may be on a common topic, but my literary voice is unique! But I can hardly say in my synopsis, ‘this book is different from others on the market because it is better-written,’ without sounding like a jerk, can I?”

Well, no, but unfortunately, if you are writing about a common experience, you cannot get away with assuming that the writing alone will differentiate it from the other submissions. If there’s recently been a bestseller along similar lines as yours, yours will almost certainly not be the only entry that resembles it – and you can’t be certain that the finding a sense of wholeness after the death of a loved one memoir that the judge read immediately before yours was not written by Emily Brontë and Gustave Flaubert’s oddly gifted spiritual love child, can you?
If you are writing on a common topic, the bar automatically goes higher, alas, for making YOUR story stand out amongst the rest. You really have to knock their socks off, to an extent that you might not if your topic were not popular that year.


No need to turn your synopsis into a back jacket blurb, but do show how your work is UNLIKE anything else the judge is going to read. Yes, each judge will have your chapter, or few pages, or however much the contest allows you to show him, but sometimes, the difference between a “Thank you for entering” letter and one that says, “Congratulations – you’re a finalist!” is a synopsis that makes the case that THIS entry, out of the half-dozen entries on the same general topic, is the one that is going to hit the big time.

But to discuss that, I shall have to get into the issue of how contest synopses differ from query synopses, and that is a project for another day. Tomorrow, to be precise, and perhaps the day after that. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Increasing your chances of winning a contest: not naming names, or, calling a spade a diamond

February 10th, 2007

After yesterday’s suggestion that it might behoove potential contest entrants who write about real-life incidents to enter their work in both fiction and nonfiction categories, this seems like the natural moment to concentrate for a post upon a category dear to my heart: memoir. As a past PNWA Zola Award winner for best nonfiction book/memoir, I have a thing or two to say on the subject. And having judged in this category, I can say a few more.

So let’s get right to it, shall we?

Let’s start with the technicalities first: please, I implore you, if you are submitting a memoir entry, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. And do bear in mind that this rule applies to not only your entire name, but EITHER your first or your last appearing alone.

Actually, every contest entry everywhere should follow all the rules in the contests they enter, but this is the single most common way for memoir entries to get themselves disqualified – and the reason that for a memoir entry, you should NEVER just print up the opening chapter of your book and send it in.

Unless, of course, you are writing anonymously, or under a pseudonym. Even then, it is a good idea to add a note on the title page, saying that since the contest forbids the author to mention his own name, you will be using “Bobby” (not your real name) throughout. Because, you see, it’s practically impossible NOT refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life – and judges are aware of that, and become accordingly eagle-eyed.

And why is that a problem? Everybody, sing along with me now: because the judges are trying to weed out as many entries from the finalist running as swiftly as possible. As usual, it all comes down to time.

The no-name rule, however, exists for a very good reason: for a contest to be worth its salt, it must be able to claim that its judging procedures are not biased; the first step to assuring lack of personal bias is to institute blind judging, where no judge knows the name of any given author. Now, as I explained in my earlier blogs on how to pick the right contest for you, some competitions are only apparently unbiased, but for the most part, contest organizers take authorial anonymity very seriously indeed.

So no, finding a clever way to get around the rules is not going to endear you to them. Not at all.

Make yourself comfortable; I’m going to tell you a little story. I went to college with Danny, a very clever, very ambitious writer who periodically contributed pieces to the on-campus humor magazine. Now, it was the practice of the magazine to publish all of its pieces without bylines, to encourage collaboration amongst members of the writing club. But as I said, Danny was ambitious: he, like many of the other writers in the club, was anxious to graduate with clippings he could use to promote his work later on.

So Danny did something exceptionally crafty: he inserted his own name into every ostensibly anonymous piece he wrote, much as Jerry Lee Lewis used to refer to himself in his own lyrics, so radio listeners would know who sang the song. Danny’s favorite way of doing this was to have an imaginary conversation with himself, so an alter ego could address him by name, as in, “Danny boy, you’re really in trouble now!” Occasionally, he would vary it by having an authority figure yell at his narrator: “Wilson, you’re out of line!”

(For the sake of MY own credibility, and because Danny is now a fairly prominent magazine writer, I should say straight away: to protect his identity, Wilson is not Danny’s actual last name.}

Now, as my parenthetical aside just told you indirectly, Danny’s little stratagem actually did help him generate the clippings he coveted, but he was relying upon his club’s editorial indulgence to let him get away with breaking the rules. In a contest, this practice would have gotten him disqualified immediately.

I bring this up not because there are legions of Machiavellian-minded rule-breakers out there, but because I have seen so many contest entries that have apparently done inadvertently what Danny did on purpose. Within the first-person narrative common to memoirs, narrators tend to talk to themselves all the time, à la Hamlet: “Danny, you get ahold of yourself, now.”

And that single reference, to a judge who was looking to pounce upon contest rule violations, could get a memoir entry disqualified. Yes, even though it would be highly unlikely, without the judge’s having the list of memoir entrants by his side for first-name cross-referencing purposes, for the judge to guess the author’s identity. Simply the implication that the author might have referred to himself can appear to be a rule violation.

So a word to the wise: innocent mistakes can knock your entry out of competition.

Now, I think this is pretty mean, personally. Usually, the author’s name (almost always the first) comes up as an unconscious slip, where it’s pretty obvious that the author thought she had expunged all relevant references to herself. But, as I have been telling you for the last couple of weeks, the submitter has absolutely no control over who is going to read his manuscript; it would behoove to prepare your entry, like your queries, under the assumption that the judge who is going to read it is the nastiest, most curmudgeonly nit-picker since, well, me.

“But Anne,” I hear you cry, pale at the prospect of encountering yours truly as a contest judge, “if this mistake is usually made inadvertently, how can I hope to avoid it?”

Well asked, oh fearful trembler. Experience sharpens the editing eye. Rest yourself upon the judge’s reading couch for a moment, and take a look at where these slips most commonly occur.

Let’s say the memoir’s author is named Biddy MacAlister-Thames, not a name anyone’s eye is likely to encounter on a page without noticing. Biddy should check her entry especially carefully in the following scenes:

(1) When another character directly addresses the narrator: “Biddy, have you seen the our pet tiger, Max?”

(2) When another character is talking about the narrator behind her back: “Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver. He’s paying too much attention to that Biddy next door.”

(3) And, in the VAST MAJORITY of childhood memoirs, when the narrator gets in trouble, some adult says: “Elizabeth Deirdre MacAlister-Thames, you come in this house this instant!”

Remember, in order to violate the rule, even if a character OTHER than the author appears with the author’s last name, it can cost you. So keep our Biddy should keep her eye out for these kinds of situations, too:

(4) When a third party addresses a family member: “Mrs. MacAlister-Thames, your daughter is under arrest.”

(5) When the narrator refers to her family collectively, or to a possession as theirs: The Easter Bunny had been unusually generous to the MacAlister-Thames family that year.

And, as I mentioned above, self-references to EITHER your first or last name, not just to both together, count as rule violations. So Biddy would be wise to do a search-and-replace for BOTH your first AND last names in your entry before you print it up.

Yes, it’s a tedious thing to have to do, Biddy, and yes, you have my sympathies for having to do it. But frankly, I would rather see you annoyed and on the finalist list than not proofread and disqualified. I’m funny that way.

Keep up the good work!

Increasing your contest chances: broadening your category search

February 9th, 2007

Yesterday, I took up the seldom-discussed topic of finding the right category in which to enter your work. 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 inefficient.

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

Also, 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 – may not be the best category in any given contest for you.

Did I just hear a collective gasp out there? Haven’t I been the long-time advocate of labeling your work in the industry’s favorite terms?

Yes, and that’s still true when you’re approaching an agent or editor. However, 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?)

Pick the category that makes the most strategic sense, regardless of your book’s formal category. Remember, the label you give the entry today is not 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.

So 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. Sometimes as in five or ten times as many, which obviously has a direct bearing on any individual entry’s chances. 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, if 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 resume however you can.

One of the best memoirs I have ever read, Barbara Robinette Moss’ astonishing CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS’ DAUGHTER (if you’ve never read it, and you have even the vaguest interest in the art of autobiography, you simply cannot fully appreciate the art form until you have read this book. It’s gorgeous and painful and brilliant in a way few books manage to be.), 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.

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.

And that’s all I’m going to say on the subject. Keep up the good work!

Increasing your chances: the unwritten rules

February 8th, 2007

Okay, enough about the minutiae of contest rules, and back to the larger issues of contest entries. As I pointed out earlier in this series, although marketability is surprisingly seldom listed as one of the judging criteria in contest rules, it is very, very frequently in the judges’ minds when they read – which means, all too frequently, that if you offend their sensibilities, they will conclude that your work isn’t marketable.

Now, of course, this isn’t precisely fair: we would all have different takes on what makes a book good, what sentiments are acceptable, and, perhaps most for the sake of the contest, different ideas of what is marketable. However, there are a few simple ways you can minimize the possibility of alienating judges.

Avoid clichés, for starters. Clichés are AMAZINGLY common in contest entries, for some reason I have never understood – unless it is simply that clichés are clichés because they ARE common. You really do want to show contest judges phraseology and situations they’ve never seen before, so try to steer clear of catchphrases, stock characters, and tried-and-true plot twists. (“You don’t mean…you’re my FATHER?!?”)

In general, you should avoid pop culture references in contest entries, except as indicators of time and place; in other words, they tend to fall flat in both dialogue and narration, but are often very useful in description.

Why? Well, even the most optimistic judge would know that an unpublished work entered in a contest will be at least 2 more years on its way to publication. Remember, books don’t hit the shelves for at least a year after the contract is signed, and there’s shopping-around time first. And that’s after the writer has found an agent for it. So even if a cultural reference is absolutely hot right now, it’s going to be dated by the time it hits the shelves.

Also, writers tend to underestimate how closely such references tend to be tied to specific eras, regions, and even television watching habits. Often, the writer’s age – or, at any rate, generation – is perfectly obvious from the cultural references used in a contest entry. That’s fine, but as I have I have suggested before, it’s not a good idea strategically to assume that the judges determining whether your work makes it to the finalist round share your background in any way.

The best way to steer clear of potential problems: get feedback on your entry from a few readers of different backgrounds than your own, so you can weed out references that do not work universally. Recognize that your point of view is, in fact, a point of view, and as such, naturally requires elucidation in order to be accessible to all readers.

Third, approach your potential readers with respect, and keep sneering at those who disagree with you to a minimum. (Again, surprisingly common in contest entries, particularly in NF.) I’m not suggesting that you iron out your personal beliefs to make them appear mainstream — contest judges tend to be smart people, ones who understand that the world is a pretty darned complex place.

But watch your tone, particularly in nonfiction entries, lest you become so carried away in making your case that you forget that a member of your honorable opposition may well be judging your work. This is a circumstance, like so many others, where politeness pays well.

Your mother was right about that, you know.

Finally, accept that you cannot control who will read your work after you enter it into a contest. If your romance novel about an airline pilot happens to fall onto the desk of someone who has recently experienced major turbulence and resented it, there’s really nothing you can do about it.

You recognize this dilemma, right? It’s precisely the same one queries and submissions to agencies face.

Ultimately, you can have no control over whether the agency screener has just burnt her lip on a too-hot latte (to revert to my favorite gratuitous piece of bad luck), any more than you can control if the agent reading it has just broken up with her husband, or if the editor has just won the lottery. In either case, all you can do approach the process with a sense of professionalism: make your work the best it can be, and keep sending it out until you find the reader who gets it.

In other words, avoid hanging all of your hopes on a single contest. That’s giving WAY too much power to a single, unknown contest judge. And, of course, keep querying agents and small presses at the same time.

All that being said, personally, I don’t think an honest literary contest has any business dictating content, but a surprising number of them do, either overtly (in defining the categories) or covertly (in defining winning criteria for the judges). This is yet another reason to read contest rules VERY carefully: skim a little too quickly, and you may not catch that contest organizers have limited what kinds of work they want.

This is particularly true in short story and essay competitions, I notice. Indeed, in short-short competitions, it’s not at all uncommon for a topic to be assigned outright. Read with care before you submit, because such contests assume that entrants will be writing work designed exclusively for their eyes.

This should not, I feel, ever be the expectation for contests that accept excerpts from book-length works. Few entrants in these categories write new entirely new pieces for every contest they enter, with good reason: it would be quixotic. Presumably, one enters a book in a contest in order to advance the book’s publication prospects, not merely for the sake of entering a contest, after all.

Because the write-it-for-us expectation does sometimes linger, make sure to read the category’s definition FIRST, before you enter work you have already written. If the category is defined in such a way that work like yours is operating at a disadvantage, your chances of winning fall sharply. So be careful with your entry dollar, and enter only those contests and categories where you have a chance of winning.

Most of the time, though, miscategorization is an inadvertent error on the entrant’s part, rather than obfuscation on the part of the contest rules. I would LOVE to report that entries never come in labeled for the wrong category, but, alas, sometimes they do – and contests almost never allow the judges to drop the entry into the correct category’s pile. So the judge is left to read the out-of-place entry, and to wonder: did the entrant just not read the category descriptions closely enough?

Often, this turned out to be precisely what happened.

This is not a time merely to skim the titles of the categories: get into the details of the description. Read it several times. Have a writer friend read it, then read your entry, to double-check that your work is in fact appropriate to the category as the rules have defined it.

This may seem like a waste of time, but truly, it’s in your best interests to make sure. I have seen miscategorized work disqualified – or, more commonly, given enough demerits to knock it out of finalist consideration right away – but never, ever have I seen an entry returned, check uncashed, with an explanation that it was entered in the wrong category.

Tomorrow, I shall discuss category selection a bit more. In the meantime, keep working on those entries, and keep up the good work!

The peculiarities of contest rules revisited, part V: not all surprises are delightful

February 7th, 2007

This, thank goodness, should be my last post on the rules for the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association literary contest. I’ve been going over them in exhaustive detail, to both to help those of you planning on entering (the deadline is February 20th) and to give the rest of you an insight into just how carefully an entrant has to go over contest rules and guidelines. It is far from uncommon for not all of the rules to be listed on, well, the official list of rules.

But after having gone through all of the rules and I’ve covered over the last three days, you should be fine, right? Wrong. I did some checking – and there are a couple more rules on the checklist on the entry form.

See? I really wasn’t kidding about having to go over all of the contest literature with a fine-toothed comb.

Actually, merely seeing a checklist on an entry form should set off all kinds of warning bells in your mind: contests are NOTORIOUS for slipping in extra rules here. So let’s take a good look, to see if that are any restrictions that do not appear anywhere else in the entry literature.

A Checklist Before Putting Your Entry In The Mail

_ My name is NOT on the submission pages, only on the Literary Contest Registration Form and SASE.
_ For categories in which a synopsis is required, my total submission including synopsis is 28 pages or less.
_ My submission is typed or computer printed, double-spaced (poetry and screenplays excepted where standard format permits) on one side of 8” x 11” white paper with at least 1” margins all around.
_ I used 12 point Times New Roman or Times font (for a computer word processor) or pica or elite type on a typewriter.
_ I have the Contest Category and Category Number on the first page of the submission.
_ For Adult Genre novel, I also have the sub-genre on the first page.
_ For Adult Short Topics, I also have the target audience on the first page.
_ I have the title of the submission on each page in the upper right hand corner.
_ I have conformed to the rules and standard formats indicated above of those categories I entered, including:
_ Length of submission
_ Use of page numbers

My large mailing envelope contains:
_ Two (2) complete copies of the submission AND synopsis (if required) for each category entered.
_ The completed Entry Form for the PNWA Literary Contest.
_ A check or money order for the appropriate entry fees and membership fee (if applicable).
_ A separate SASE for each category entered.
_ My envelope is postmarked no later than February 20, 2007, and has the category number on the bottom corner.

Okay, I spotted two new rules and one logical error – how about you? Since the error won’t hurt your entry’s chances of winning, I’ll leave it to you to find it at your leisure, but the two new rules are ones that could, in a very nit-picky organizer’s hands, get you disqualified.

First, this is the first time I’ve seen ANY mention in the rules of a separate SASE for EACH category of entry. As nearly as I could tell, it’s the only time this specification appears anywhere in the contest literature.

So thank goodness we took the time to read the checklist, eh?

The second new restriction is utterly counterintuitive to anyone who has never been a mail sorter: now, the entrant is to include the category number on “the bottom corner” (which one?) of the entry envelope.. Granted, there is absolutely no mention of this requirement in the section of the contest info labeled, “CONTEST RULES,” but hey, let’s not let a little thing like that stop us, eh?

More to the point, just because a requirement is not listed in the formal rules doesn’t mean that entrants’ following it is optional. Generally speaking, if a requirement appears ANYWHERE on the contest’s website or in its official contest literature, it must be followed – and no, protesting that it really should be in the rules probably won’t help you after the fact. Typically, all this sort of protest engenders is the inclusion of the rule in the formal list of rules the following year.

In short, too late to help your entry. And to add insult to injury, in all probability, the contest organizers will probably just add the new rule to the list, willy-nilly, without proofing the whole contest literature for consistency, internal logic, or other mistakes of this nature.


But enough of tragedy, and back to the bizarre numbering requirement. While seeing it on the checklist may come as a surprise, as a restriction, it actually comes slightly less out of left field than it may appear at first glance. We have, in fact, seen a rather different version before, in the pre-rules section labeled “Submission Guidelines for all Book-length Works.” It ran a little something like this:

“The Contest Category name and number (e.g., Category 3: Romance Genre) must be shown on the first page of the submission and on the mailing envelope.”

Call me zany, but this casual allusion to mentioning the category on the envelope is quite different from what is specified on the checklist. For one thing, in the guidelines, there was no mention of location, but on the checklist, it is specific: on the bottom corner of the envelope.

Okay, so it could be more specific: presumably this refers to the front of the envelope, not the back, and one could infer that “the bottom corner” they have in mind is the left-hand bottom corner, as the right-hand corner has the address scrawled on it.

The other difference is merely confusing: while the checklist calls for the category number only to be marked on the envelope, the guidelines call for BOTH the category number AND the category title to appear there. To be on the safe side, I would go with the latter.

All of this, of course, only goes to illustrate the overarching point I have been making over the past few days: when you are entering a literary contest, you must read offensively, rather than defensively. Just doing the bare minimum – i.e., what the rules require – may not be enough to allow your entry to pass on technical grounds; as we’ve seen, it’s not inconceivable that an entrant could follow every single one of the official rules and still find his work docked points for not adhering to the rules, or even disqualified.

If this conclusion seems overstated, think about this: I had to go through three distinct sets of rules, on two different pages of the organization’s website, to glean all of the rules I have been covering over the past 4 days. And at the risk of making you faint, those were not all of the rules the PNWA posted for this year’s contest: there is a downloadable PDF form as well.

I am going to leave going over this PDF form and comparing it to the rest of the rules in this series to you, my readers: call it the final exam for this series on how to read contest rules. Please, if you find any major discrepancies, leave a comment and let me know, so I can inform everybody else.

Is this a bit lazy of me? Maybe. But time is short before the PNWA’s deadline; I want to move on to other burning contest topics, so you have time to implement them in your entries. And I sometimes wonder if by providing so many answers so quickly to my readers, I’m stifling your research skills.

Besides, I have a HUGE deadline coming up next week – huge as in on the book level, rather than the chapter level – and one of the best things about having an agent and a publisher is that I DON’T have to enter contests anymore. So it’s all about me, me, me.

I know you’re up to the challenge. Keep up the good work.

The peculiarities of contest rules revisited, part IV: field trip to the dark ages

February 6th, 2007

Welcome back to my ongoing review of the entry requirements for the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association literary contest. To head off any criticism at the pass, I haven’t singled out PNWA because their contest rules are unusually hard to decipher – I chose them because this is a contest in which I’ve both taken top honors and been a judge several times, so I know the rules inside-out. Although, as we learned yesterday, it’s always a mistake to assume that what worked last year – or what works in a submission to an agent or editor, will fly in a contest.

The best rule of thumb: find out what ALL of the rules are, and follow them as if your life depended upon it.

Just don’t make the mistake of exporting those rules into your other submissions, or agency screeners will conclude that you have been trapped in a damp cave since the end of World War II. Some of these rules are ARCHAIC, and some of them are just odd.

On to the next rule in our series:

8. In all categories except Screenwriting and Poetry, entries MUST:

a. Be double-spaced

b. Use an unjustified right margin

This means that unlike printed books, the lines of text should not form a straight line on the right. They should be lined up on the left – and no, Virginia, this is not the right time to make the case that block justification is “cooler.”

c. Indent first line of paragraphs

You should recognize this one: I’ve been harping on it for quite some time. Non-indented paragraphs – what is commonly known as business format, or now sometimes as blog format – is considered illiterate by the publishing community and contest judges alike. Nobody cares what your favorite author’s editor chooses to do in his published books. Indent.

d. Have significant breaks (if any) indicated by at least three spaced asterisks.

Okay, this one is MONUMENTALLY out of date; indeed, I believe that the PNWA contest is the only major contest that still requires it. But still, when in Rome…

Are you wondering what they are talking about? Well, they’re talking about section breaks, that skipped line between one scene of a novel and the next. Standard format now calls for manuscripts simply to skip a line here. In fact, for the benefit of those of you who have been trained in business format, the ONLY reason for skipping a line between paragraphs in standard format is to indicate a section break.

However, back in the typesetting days, asterisks were used to alert the typesetter that the skipped line wasn’t just accidental. And heaven forefend that the PNWA assume that everyone is not using a typewriter to produce entries.

So how does one follow this quaint custom? Traditionally, the way to mark a section break was a line containing only five asterisks, centered, with five spaces between each (which I can’t do in blog format, so you’ll have to use your imagination). I don’t know where the PNWA came up with three — Five was the norm, and I think it looks more elegant, but who is asking me?

Go ahead and give the PNWA what it wants here. But don’t use this convention in your submissions to agents, or they will conclude that you are 112 years old, and thus might question the authenticity of your chick lit submission.

e. In Poetry and Screenwriting: conform to standard format(s).

Since technically there isn’t a standard format for poetry, they have been kind enough to include a link to what they think it is. If you are a poet – and the vast majority of my blog readers are not – please do check these rules before submitting.

You provide the author’s name only on the registration form and the SASE.

Again, oddly phrased, but we’ve seen this one before. Keep your name off the rest of the manuscript – and bear in mind, this rule is usually violated inadvertently. Later in my series on contest entry, I shall cover the primary ways in which this tends to occur, so you may avoid them like the plague and chicken pox rolled together.

Okay, that’s the end of the official rules – but campers, we’re certainly not out of the woods yet. Tune in tomorrow to see where else hidden rules may be concealing themselves.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The peculiarities of contest rules revisited, part III: why standard format alone may not be enough.

February 5th, 2007

Welcome back to my ongoing review of the entry requirements for the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association literary contest. If you’re joining this series late, I’ve been going through the entry requirements of this fast-approaching contest one by one, to make sure none of my lovely readers are knocked out of finalist consideration due to any minor formatting mistakes.

So let’s return to the rules already in progress, shall we, and see what else we can learn? At this point, we have moved on to the cosmetic restrictions

7. All entries MUST:
a. Be typed or computer-printed.

(Anne here with a translation: if you hand-write in a correction, it might disqualify you.)

b. Use one side of 8” x 11” WHITE paper.

(Anne piping in: a rather odd way to put it, no? All this really means is one-sided printing on standard paper. Always use 20 lb paper or better. Thinner paper, such as photocopy or multi-use paper, tends to wilt very quickly.)

c. Have at least 1” margins all around.

(Anne here: not counting info in the header, of course. I recall someone having asked about this last year around this time.)

d. Use 12 point Times New Roman or Times font. If you are using a typewriter, you may use either elite or pica type.

(Anne again: this one is kind of funny, because the Times family is essentially Elite type. Pica is Courier. Since they ask for Times, I would stick with Elite, if you’re going to use a typewriter, so no hyperactive judge concludes that you went Courier-happy on a computer.)

e. Have the title of the submission in the upper right hand corner of each page.

f. Include page numbers on all but the first page.

Okay, another pop quiz: how is an item on this list different from the guidelines I went over two days ago, and how does this same restriction deviate from standard format? (No fair answering, Dave and those of you who read his excellent and incisive commentary on that very post.)

Full marks if you caught that the problem was the slug line: in yesterday’s guidelines, it merely had to be on every page. Extra credit if you noticed that the upper right-hand corner is NOT the norm for standard manuscript format: it’s the left. But really, there are professionals who use right-justified – and whose agents then tell them to change it – so there’s no need to be a format Nazi about it.

But let’s see if you’ve been paying attention throughout this series: in the case of a discrepancy between the contest rules and standard format, which should you follow in your entry?

If you can’t answer this question instantly, I would seriously suggest going back and re-reading the rest of this series prior to entering. Because being a contest entrant is like being a member of a jury: you may know in your heart that the judge on the bench is wrong to say that jaywalking is a capital offense in these United States, but while you are sitting in the jury box, you are required to act as if the law is precisely what the judge tells you it is. Doing so is the only way to ensure that you’re not going to end up held in contempt.

This is why, of course, we have courts of appeal. But in a literary contest, there is no court of appeal. Think about it, and act accordingly.

Tomorrow, I shall go through the rest of the rules – provided, of course, that there aren’t any hiding in corners that I’ve missed. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The peculiarities of contest rules revisited, part II: PNWA redux, or, the attack of the killer chipmunks

February 4th, 2007

Yesterday, I started to go through the rules and guidelines Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association literary contest, an exhaustive chore designed to help those of you new to contest entry learn how to follow contest rules to the requisite letter. Why? Because I like you.

Seriously, few things annoy me more than ambigiously-articulated yet firmly-enforced regulations. In my long-ago and much-deplored days as a temp between college and graduate school, I was unlucky enough to be assigned to work on the lot of…well, let’s just say the studio had great big ears on the top of its head, and leave it at that. This particular rodent-infested studio lot was run under a set of rules that rivaled many totalitarian governments – don’t sit on the gorgeous green grass, ever; don’t leave the studio lot for lunch (I was actually reprimanded for this); don’t even think about missing the company picnic.

Now, it was perfectly obvious that I was not the kind of worker they wanted – I was ultimately asked to leave because I feloniously did not wear nylons on a 102 degree day – but even for people as corporate-minded and rigorously non-individuated as all of those identical children who populate the IT’S A SMALL WORLD RIDE, I had to conclude that the rules were hard to follow.

What makes me say that? Well, it wasn’t as though temps were ever given a list of the draconian and counter-intuitive rules. (How was I supposed to know I had to eat in the overpriced commissary?) Oh, signage pointing out those rules abounded, but many of the signs were merely good advice – such as watching for passing trucks when you crossed the street – and all were emblazoned with images of cartoon animals. Apparently, you were supposed to know that a Goofy sign was to be taken more seriously than a Donald.

As far as I was able to find out in my brief sojourn there, there was only one rule that would result in being fired on the spot. (My hosiery offense led to my immediate transfer to a different department for a week, pending laying me off.) That rule was, in plain English, don’t peek into the sound stages during filming.

The signage? Glad you asked: a picture of Chip ‘n’ Dale cavorting, with the caption, “No lookie-loos!”


So when I am presented with an array of contest rules, I automatically wonder which are the Chip ‘n’ Dale offenses and which are the Goofy. And in the PNWA guidelines, I have to say, it is not always apparent to which is which. Which wouldn’t necessarily give one pause – after all, I am the Commissary Bandit – except that I won one of the major categories in the PNWA contest in 2004. And I had to read through the entirety of the literature on the contest before I was certain that I understood them.

Why? Because the contest rules had changed since I last entered, of course, and not in ways to make entries conform more closely to standard format for manuscripts. Heck, the rules have changed since the last time I judged in one of the contests’ categories.

So head’s up, returning entrants: what you sent in last year, even if it made the finalist round, may not be quite right for an entry this year.

I know: maddening. All the more reason to slap our adorable pug noses to the grindstone and figure out just what they’re asking you to do. Here are the rules as expressed in the second volley of guidelines, this one actually labeled, “CONTEST RULES,” followed closely by the dire warning, “PLEASE READ CAREFULLY. FAILURE TO FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS MAY RESULT IN DISQUALIFICATION.”

Note the “may” here. Some of these are Goofys, and some are Chip ‘n’ Dales. Glancing over the rules, though, I notice that the various entries on this list don’t specify which are which. I’ll just go ahead and tell you which ones are deal-breakers, shall I?

1. All entries must be ORIGINAL and NOT PREVIOUSLY ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION OR PRODUCTION at the time of submission.
This one is what it says on the box. You have to have written it, and you can’t have published it before in this form. There is nothing to stop you, however, from submitting material that is extremely similar to other work you have published: an essay and a short story on the same topic, for instance.

There is some important subtext here: if you do get a publication offer (not an offer from an agent, and not just serious interest, but a signed contract) on the piece you submitted between the entry date and the awards ceremony, you are obliged to inform the contest organizers. If you had not signed on the dotted line prior to the deadline, subsequent publication usually does not knock an entry out of contest competition.
2. Entries must be postmarked no later than FEBRUARY 20, 2007.
Okay, this one really is a deal-breaker. No exceptions.

3. A completed LITERARY CONTEST REGISTRATION FORM, together with the FULL ENTRY FEE and a 4”x 9” SASE, must accompany each author’s entry. The Registration form and the SASE are the only places the author’s name should appear.

Here, I think you can use a bit of judgment: I seriously doubt they would disqualify you for using your name in your return address, for instance. But they are absolutely Chip ‘n’Dale about your name appearing anywhere in the entry itself.

4. TWO clean copies of each submission, including TWO copies of any required synopsis, MUST be sent for each category entered.
Another deal-breaker. And by clean copies, they mean decent printer-quality: I have seen smudged photocopies disqualified from contests.
5. Each submission MUST show the name of the category to which it is submitted (including the sub-genre for Adult Genre novel, and the target market for Adult Short Topics).
Okay, this is a little different than what we saw in yesterday’s guidelines. Basically, this is a reiterated request for a title page. Now, they are specifying what information they want on the title page: title, contest category, and book category, with a short (several words, not several sentences) description of target market for one of the categories. Try to use the same terms as the market does.

Pop quiz: hands up, who noticed how following this one to the letter would have resulted in NOT following the overall rules?

A big gold star if you noticed that this time around, the rules neglected to note that you MUST include the number of the category (as in Category 3: Adult Genre Novel). When in doubt, ALWAYS include more information, rather than less.

Since the next few cover the same ground, I’m going to lump them all into a single number. Perversely, the rules on the website don’t number any of them.
6. A submission may be entered in only one category. An author may enter only one submission per category. An author may enter other submissions in other categories. MULTIPLE ENTRIES TO A SINGLE CATEGORY DISQUALIFIES ALL OF THEM.

I’m going to be honest with you on this one: I’ve seen this one enforced, and I’ve seen it not enforced. To be on the safe side, follow it to the letter.

Since the next set of rules is a lengthy one, I’m going to save it for tomorrow’s post. I hope, though, that an overall moral is starting to appear, marked clearly with the dread symbolism of Chip ‘n’ Dale: never, under any circumstances, assume that a manuscript correctly formatted for submission to an agent or editor will pass muster for a contest. ALWAYS check to see where the rules differ.

Yes, even when the contest organizers swear up and down that their preferred format is the ONLY one acceptable in the industry. Trust me, there are studios where employees are allowed to leave the lot for lunch.

Keep up the good work!

The peculiarities of contest rules revisited: PNWA

February 3rd, 2007

I was going to continue my thought about the ways in which to avoid offending contest judges today, but one of my most ghastly blog-related fears has abruptly come true: in wading through the positive oceans of spam that appears as comments aspiring to be posted here (for the last time: this site is NOT the first place people are likely to look for links to generic Viagra!), my weary spam-blocking fingertips inadvertently deleted a legitimate, and indeed helpful, question.

So my profound apologies, MD — I accidentally deleted your question while I was halfway through reading it. And since my blogging program seems to have labeled it as spam in the process, I think you will need to use a new posting name (and possibly a new e-mail address) to post it again. But please do try, if I haven’t answered your question fully below – which, as I am reproducing it from an incomplete memory, seems probable.

That goes for anybody else whose comments, if not specifically labeled with a request for anonymity, have apparently disappeared into the ether. I work REALLY long hours, and sometimes, my spam-marking mitt slips.

I’m going to go ahead and first post the question that the part I read of MD’s missive seemed to be leading up to, and then answer it. Unless it changed after halfway through, the question was about a Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association literary contest entry, and its rules about page numbering: they ask that the first page of the entry (that’s the first page of text, not the title page) not have a page number appear on it; in other words, the first numbered page would be page two of the entry. Page one could still have a slug line, but it would be truncated to include only the information requested (TITLE).

Which raises the further question of how an included synopsis should be numbered in the entry. For those of you not familiar with the contest’s rules, the PNWA asks entrants in the book-length categories to provide a synopsis, suggesting that its maximum 28 pages (not counting title page) of the entry be divided as 23 pages of text and 5 of synopsis. So if you were take them at their word and put your synopsis at the end of the entry, the running order would go like this:

Title page (unnumbered, and without a slug line)
Page one of chapter (unnumbered, but with the requested slug line: TITLE)

The other 22 pages of the chapter, labeled as pp. 2-23 (with standard contest slug line: TITLE/PAGE 3 in the upper left or upper right corner; there should be no other information in either the header or the footer)

Page one of the synopsis, labeled in the slug line as page 24
The rest of the synopsis, labeled as pp. 25-28

As I said earlier, it’s generally considered more elegant to include the synopsis after the chapter. If, however, you began with the synopsis, the pagination would run like this:

Title page (unnumbered, and without a slug line)
Page one of synopsis (unnumbered, but with a truncated slug line: TITLE/SYNOPSIS)
The other four pages of synopsis, labeled pp. 2-5 (with this slug line: TITLE/SYNOPSIS/#)
The 23-page chapter excerpt pages of the chapter, labeled as pp. 1-23 (with standard contest slug line: TITLE/PAGE 3 in the upper left or upper right corner)

Oh, heck, while I’m at it, why don’t I just go through all of the PNWA’s contest rules? It can only help those of you who are planning to enter, and it will show those of you who are not how to interpret contest hieroglyphics. Here are the rules one by one, as they appear on the guidelines page, under the heading “Submission Guidelines for all Book-length Works”:

1. Maximum length of Submission: 28 pages.
The 28-page limit includes the synopsis and the first and subsequent chapters of your manuscript. Recommended: 5 pages of synopsis with up to 23 pages of the first and subsequent chapters, as the page limit permits.

2. The entry must follow the rules shown in the PNWA Literary Contest Rules.
All right: this should automatically set off warning bells in your head, contest entrants. Apparently, there are rules elsewhere that need to be followed – and it’s your responsibility to seek them out.

3. The Contest Category name and number (e.g., Category 3: Romance Genre) must be shown on the first page of the submission and on the mailing envelope. In the case of the Adult Genre Novel, state the sub-genre (Western, Horror, etc.).

Let’s pause a moment here, because this is a VERY commonly overlooked provision. Basically, they are asking for a title page that tells them immediately where to stack your submission. This title page should include ALL of the following information: the entry’s title, the category in which you are entering it (including the number PNWA has assigned that category, which is a bit nit-picky, to my eye), and the book category.

The book category should be expressed in the one- or two-word terms common to the publishing industry, not as a sentence or an explanation. (If you do not know what your book’s formal category is, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES section at right.)

Yes, I know: the rules do not actually STATE that you must include a title page. Trust me, however: cramming all of this information onto the first page of your chapter is an invitation for it to be overlooked.

4. All pages of the submission (chapters and synopsis) must have the title of the manuscript.
Remember above, when I told you that the first page of the chapter should have a slug line containing only the title? This was why.

And please, don’t get fancy and put it anywhere other than in the header of your submission. Left-justified is industry standard. You probably won’t be disqualified for right-justifying it, but you will definitely lose formatting points if you include ANYTHING in the footer at all.

5. Do not place your name on any page of the submission. It should appear only on your registration form and return envelope.
Pay close attention to this one – every year, a couple of people get disqualified because they refer to themselves by name within the context of the story. Memoirs are, of course, particularly prone to this.

Fairly straightforward, no? But as I mentioned above, let the entrant beware: this list is not the totality of the contest rules. There are more, and more specific ones, farther down the page. Basically, you would have to have noticed, as most readers would not in a first read, that the first set of guidelines referred to them – and that would be problematic, because in at least one important respect, the rules below are different than those listed above. See if you can catch how.

Surprised that presumably literate people could not put together a single list that covered everything? Don’t be. This kind of non-consecutive rule-mongering is the NORM for contest guidelines, not the exception. Usually, this isn’t done simply to trip up entrants: typically, new rules are tacked on to pre-existing guidelines each year, without the whole ever being proofread again for overall clarity.

The moral: ALWAYS make sure that you read every syllable of the literature a contest-giving organization posts or sends out for hidden rules.

And just so you know: it will do you no good to protest after the fact that the rules were unclear, non-consecutive, or even internally contradictory, so if you have questions about them, call or e-mail the organization WELL before the contest deadline for clarification.

A word to the wise, however: don’t be astonished if they are downright huffy with you when you try to verify. I’ve never met a contest-organizer yet who didn’t assume (without having read the rules for half a dozen years) that the guidelines are miracles of clarity. The objection that any sane human being might have to read the entirety of a brochure four times with a magnifying glass falls upon deaf ears: well, naturally, everyone in the world should read every syllable their organization prints or posts on the internet, right?

Again, try to be tolerant of this rather strange piece of institutional myopia – is it really so far from the writer’s expectation that an agent will read every syllable of a submission, rather than just the first page, before passing judgment upon it?

Oh, dear, I’ve gone on too long to get to the second set of PNWA rules today – and that alone should alert you to the fact that contest rule-reading is not an endeavor to embark upon lightly.

More follows in my next post. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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