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Increasing your chances: the niceties

February 19th, 2007

Okay, we’re heading into the home stretch of the contest-entry process. I hope that all of you eager contest-entrants have improved your entries – and I hope that those of you who have no interest in entering any contest at all have not been bored to death. I don’t feel too guilty about the latter group, actually: most of these presentation tips work beautifully with query letters and manuscript submission, too.

Today’s installment should please both sides of the aisle: deals with the fun stuff, the last-minute touches that can give your entry an edge.

Do I see the bleary-eyed contest entrants out there waving feebly to get my attention? “Whoa there,” they say, “you’ve just spent weeks on end telling us about restrictions on what doesn’t work in a contest entry. How much fun stuff could there possibly be?

Well, okay, you have a point there: 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. Proportion, for instance, can make a difference in how your work is received. And I’m not just talking about how your text looks on a page.

Although while I’m at it, allow me to reiterate two points that sharp-eyed readers have asked me to clarify in comments: no matter what anyone tells you about how skipping two spaces after a period or colon makes your manuscript look “dated,” DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM. Printing standards have indeed changed on this point; standard format has not. Technically, periods and colons should have two spaces after them, not one. (If you’ve already sent in an entry with only one, you’re likely to elicit a nasty comment about it on your feedback form, but you’re unlikely to be docked points. Make sure to have those spaces doubled before you send those chapters out to agencies, though.)

Also, another point that had slipped my mind earlier: turn off your widow and orphan control (in Word, this is located under FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. This is the annoying little feature that automatically hijacks a single line of a paragraph at the bottom of a page and sticks it on the next, with the rest of the paragraph. The result: uneven numbers of lines on pages.

Turn it off. In standard format, every page of full text is SUPPOSED to have the same number of lines. (A fringe benefit for those of you who, like me, are wordy: this will result in your being able to cram more words into your contest entry. Yippee!)

Okay, back to other proportionality issues. 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 o’ the trade: 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 – and because I KNOW you don’t have time to read anything between now and the contest deadline, I’ll pick a storyline you probably already know. 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. But after all this, you don’t have much room to go through the rest of the plot, do you? 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 absolutely 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 (and only the first time), HIS NAME APPEARS IN ALL CAPS (age).

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 at all. 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 again 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 working at Microsoft does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, I beg of you: 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 an especially good 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. Back in my contest-winning days, I favored bright white 24-lb. cotton.

Yes, it’s a little more expensive than ordinary printer paper; live a little. Using good paper will make your entry stand out amongst the others. 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?

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 – and with printer cartridges that have seen better days. 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 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, I don’t deny it – 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.

I’ve told this story before, so for the sake of those of you who have, ahem, already had the opportunity to laugh at the joke, I went back and sniffed the manuscript box again. (Ah, the things that I do to amuse my readers!) And you know what? More than 15 months later, the damned thing STILL smells like a smokers’ lounge.

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 have been telling you all throughout this series, 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. And everybody, keep up the good work!

Increasing your chances: the pentultimate checklist

February 18th, 2007

After my rather peevish little post yesterday, I’m going to stop giving big-picture advice on your contest entries, and return to the nit-picky level. At this point, I have to assume that those of you who are planning to enter the PNWA contest have already finished the basic writing and paperwork for it.

If not, I can only assume that you are either the world’s fastest writer or an incurable optimist. Having been both myself — I actually did once win a major contest with an entry I wrote in a single day. In a book category, no less – I would be the last person on earth to castigate you for either. Write like the wind and keep your hopes high, you crazy kids.

But for most of you, the essential writing is done, right? You’ve read and reread your chapter, and it is both grammatically impeccable and one hell of a good story; John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, and Dorothy Parker would all gnash their venerable teeth, if they still had them, in envy over your storytelling skills. Now it’s time to start asking yourself a few questions, to weed out the more subtle problems that can make the difference between making the finalist list and being an also-ran.

You may recognize some of these questions: many of them are boiled-down versions of earlier posts in this series. Sort of contest-wisdom bouillon, as it were. Take a few sips, to keep your entry from catching a cold fatal to its chances of winning.

Okay, so that was a lousy analogy; I’m trying to get a book proposal out the door by, oh, tomorrow, so I’m punchy. So ignore that last joke and concentrate on making absolutely, positively sure that your entry does include any of the most common mistakes.

Batten down your hatches, boys and girls: this is going to be a long one.

(1) Is my entry AND the length specified by the contest rules? Is it double-spaced, in 12-point type, with standard margins?

Yes, I know – I’ve been harping on standard format for, well, ever. I’ve also seen a whole lot of contest entries in odd formats, or with standard format in the chapters and single-spaced synopses.

To be precise, I have seen them be disqualified. Unless the rules specifically state otherwise, keep EVERYTHING you submit to ANY professionally-geared forum in standard format. (If you’re in doubt about what this means, please check out the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)

Oh, and because I realized only last night I hadn’t mentioned it specifically: in standard format, there should be TWO spaces after every period and colon, one after semicolons and commas. Yes, I know, there are plenty of sources out there that will tell you two spaces after a period is obsolete, and in fact, it is seldom used in books anymore, as a tree-saving measure.

But what can I say? Publishing is an old-fashioned business. Don’t worry; no one will think your manuscript is dated if you preserve the traditional two-space norm.

(2) Is every page that should be numbered numbered? Does every page (except the title page, or as specified by the rules) contain the slug line TITLE/#?

This is sort of a trick question for those of you entering the PNWA contest: quick, which page do the rules specify SHOULDN’T be numbered?

Kudos to those of you who said that both the first page of text and the title page should remain numberless. Remember, title pages are never numbered, and are never counted in the page count.

How, you ask does one PREVENT a page number from appearing on the first page of a numbered document? Well, in MS Word, under FORMAT, there is a section called DOCUMENT. Under LAYOUT, you may select “Different first page.” Then go into the HEADER/FOOTER and make sure the first page header doesn’t have a page #.

Alternatively, you could just copy the first page of the entry into a separate document and print it from there. Just because technology is rigid doesn’t mean you have to be.

But no matter how you do it, NUMBER YOUR PAGES.

(3) Does the first page of the synopsis SAY that it’s a synopsis? Does it also list the title of the book? And does every page of the synopsis contain the slug line TITLE/SYNOPSIS/#?

Again, this is nit-picky stuff – but people who volunteer as contest judges tend to be nit-picky people. Better to over-identify your work than to under-identify it.

(4) Have I included all of the requested elements on the title page? If it asked me to specify genre and/or target market, have I done that? And is it in the same font and type size as the rest of the entry?

This is not the time to experiment with funky typefaces or odd title page formats. Unless the contest rules specify otherwise, put the whole thing in the same typeface AND TYPE SIZE as the rest of the entry. List only the information you are ASKED to list there. (Although if you want to add something along the lines of “An entry in the X Category of the 2007 Y Contest,” that’s generally considered a nice touch.)

(5) If I mention the names of places, famous people, or well-known consumer products, are they spelled correctly?
Surprised by this one? You’d be amazed how many points are lost this way.

Writers very often misspell proper nouns, possibly because they tend not to be words listed in standard spell-checkers’ dictionaries. In a contest, that’s no excuse. Check.

And when I say check, I don’t mean just ask your spell-checker. To revisit every editor in the Western world’s pet peeve, most word processing programs are RIFE with misspellings and grammatical mistakes. I use the latest version of MS Word for the Mac, and it insists that Berkeley, California (where I happen to have been born) should be spelled Berkley, like the press. It is mistaken. Yet if I followed its advice and entered the result in a contest, I would be the one to pay for it, not the fine folks at Microsoft.

Double-check.

(6) Have I spell-checked AND proofread in hard copy?

Again, most spelling and grammar-checkers contain inaccuracies. They can lead you astray. If you are tired (and who isn’t, by the time she finishes churning out a contest entry?), the path of least resistance is just to accept what the spell checker thinks your word should be. This is why you need to recheck by dint of good old proofreading.

Yes, it is wildly unfair that we writers should be penalized for the mistakes of the multi-million dollar corporations that produce these spelling and grammar checkers. But that’s one of the hard lessons all writers have to learn: the world is not in fact organized on a fair basis. People whose job it is to make sure the dictionaries and grammar-checkers are correct are collecting their hefty salaries and cashing in their stock options without apparently being able to spell Berkeley or hors d’oeuvre.

Sorry. I’m sure Dante could cook up some especially appropriate permanent lodging for such souls in the afterlife, possibly involving nails on chalkboards or having to listen to that annoying Gilbert Godfrey voice that used to be standard on their programs asking them what they want to every time they move so much as an eyelash. But in this world, alas, all we can do is refuse to bow down to their low, low standards.

Before you boil over about the inequity of it all, though, think about misspellings and grammatical errors from the contest judge’s perspective. The judge cannot tell whether the problem with the entry is that the author can’t spell to save his life, or he hasn’t bothered to proofread — or if some Microsoftie just couldn’t be bothered to check Strunk and White to see when THERE should be used instead of THEIR. (My grammar checker routinely tells me to use the former instead of the latter in cases of collective possession, believe it or not.) From the judge’s point of view, the author is invariably the one who looks unprofessional.

This doesn’t mean not to spell-check electronically: you should. But you should NEVER rely solely upon a spell-checker or grammar-checker’s wit and wisdom. They’re just not literate enough, and again, it’s just too easy to accept an incorrect change when you’re over-tired. In my undergraduate thesis, my spell-checker saw fit to change my references to “longshoremen’s coalitions” to “longshoremen’s cotillions.” Lord knows what my readers would have made of that, had I not proofread, too.

As it is, I have never been able to get the image of burly stevedores mincing around in sparkly Glinda the Good ball gowns out of my poor brain.

(7) If I use clichés for comic effect, have I reproduced them correctly?

As a general rule, I frown upon the use of clichés in print. (You can’t see me doing it, but I assure you, I am frowning right now.) Part of the point of being a writer is to display YOUR turn of phrase, not the thought of others. Occasionally, however, there are reasons to utilize clichés in your work, particularly in dialogue.

You would not BELIEVE how common it is for writers to reproduce clichés incorrectly. (Heck, I would not believe it myself, if I had not been a judge in a number of literary contests.) And an incorrectly-quoted cliché will, I assure you, kill any humorous intention deader than the proverbial doornail.

So make sure that your needles remain in your haystacks, and that the poles you wouldn’t touch things with are ten-foot, not 100-foot. (Both of these are actual examples I’ve seen in contest entries. How would you pick up a 100-foot pole, anyway?)

When in doubt, ask someone outside your immediate circle of friends — your own friends may well be making the same mistake you are.

(8) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?

The synopsis, like everything else in your contest entry, is a writing sample, every bit as much as the chapter is. Make sure it lets the judges know that you can write — and that you are professional enough to approach the synopsis as a professional necessity, not a tiresome whim instituted by the contest organizers to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim of their own.

Even in those instances where length restrictions make it quite apparent that there is serious behind-the-scenes sadism at work. Believe me, writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis.

Don’t worry about depicting every twist and turn of the plot – just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary. Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.

(9) Does this entry fit the category in which I am entering it?

If you have the SLIGHTEST doubt about whether you are entering the correct category, have someone you trust (preferably another writer, or at least a good reader with a sharp eye for detail) read over both the contest categories and your entire entry.

Yes, even this close to the deadline. Categorization is a crucial decision.

(10) Reading this over again, is this a book to which I would award a prize? Does it read like finished work, or like a book that might be great with further polishing?

It’s a very, very common writer’s prejudice that everything that springs from a truly talented writer’s keyboard should be pure poetry. Even first drafts. However, there are in fact quantities of practical storytelling skills that most of us poor mortals learn by trial and error.

Although contests tend to concentrate on as-yet unrecognized writing talent, they are simply not set up, in most cases, to reward the writer who is clearly gifted, but has not yet mastered the rudiments of professional presentation. And this is very sad, I think, because one of the things that becomes most apparent about writing after a judge has read a couple of hundred entries is that the difference between the entries submitted by writers with innate talent and writers without is vast. An experienced eye — of the kind belonging to a veteran contest judge, agent, or editor – can rather easily discern the work of what used to be called “a writer of promise.”

In the past, writers of promise were treated quite a bit more gently than they are today. They were taken under editorial wings and cherished through their early efforts. Even when they were rejected, they were often sent notes encouraging them to submit future works. (Occasionally, a promising writer will still get this type of response to a query, but the sheer volume of mail at agencies has rendered it rare.)

Now, unfortunately, writers of promise, like everybody else, tend to have their work rejected without explanation, so it’s extremely difficult to tell — even after months or years of patient querying — where one’s own work falls on the talent spectrum. To put it as kindly as possible, until you have weeded out all of the non-stylistic red lights from your contest entries, you truly cannot gain a realistic feel for whether you need to work more on your writing or not.

If you are indeed a writer of promise – and I sincerely hope you are – the best thing you can possibly do for your career is to learn to conform your work to professional standards of presentation. This is one of the best reasons to enter contests like the PNWA that give entrants feedback, just as is one of the best reasons to take writing classes and join a writing group: it gives you outside perspective on whether you are hitting the professional bar or not.

Oh, and it helps to be lucky, too. Keep up the good work.

Increasing your contest chances: but wait, there’s more!

February 17th, 2007

Again, pardon my racing through the areas where contest entries tend to lose points, but I want to cover as many as humanly possible before those of you entering the PNWA contest pop those envelopes (triple-checked for content completeness, of course) into the corner mailbox. So onward and upward:

Another common problem in contest entries, one that affects both coherence and continuity, is skipping logical steps in arguments or plots, assuming that the reader will simply fill in the gaps for herself. The resulting logic that appears from the reader’s POV to run like this:

1. Socrates was a man.
2. Socrates was wise.
3. Therefore, men who want to be wise should not wear socks.

Clearly, there is some plank of the argument missing here, right? In order to prove Proposition 3, the writer would first have to show that (a) Socrates did not wear socks (I have no idea if this is true, but hey, Greece is a warm country, so it’s entirely possible), (b) non-sock wearing had some tangible and demonstrable effect upon his mental processes that cannot be explained by other contributing factors, such as years of study or having a yen for conversation with smart people, and (c) the bare ankle experiment’s success was not dependent upon some exogenous variable, such as the fact that socks would have looked really stupid worn with a toga.

It would make sense, too, to establish that Socrates is a proper role model for modern men to emulate, as opposed to scruffy old sock-wearing moral thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Mary Wollstonecraft. Perhaps the book could even include a compare-and-contrast of the intellectual achievements of famous sock-wearing individuals versus those of the air-blessed ankles.

My point is, by the end of such a disquisition, the reader might well become converted to the author’s premise, and cast his footwear from him forever with a cry of grateful liberation.

Think this seems like a ridiculous example of skipped steps, one that could not possibly occur in a real manuscript? Oh, bless your innocent eyes: you’ve obviously never been a judge in a literary contest. (Or advised an undergraduate thesis, for that matter.)

In nonfiction, I can do no better than to refer my faithful readers to Nietzsche’s THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA as an illustration of this phenomenon. (I know, I know; I’m on a philosophy kick today, but it’s such a stellar example that I simply can’t resist.) Following the narrative of this book is like watching a mountain goat leap from crag to crag on a blasted mountainside; the goat may be able to get from one promontory to another with no trouble, but those of us tagging behind actually have to walk up and down the intervening gullies. The connective logic between one point and the next is frequently far from clear, or even downright wacko — and in a book that proposes that the writer and reader both might be logically superior to other people, that’s a serious coherence problem.

Nietzsche allegedly wrote the work in a three-day frenzy while confined to an insane asylum due to a particularly virulent case of syphilis, so perhaps it is not fair to expect world-class coherence from him. The average literary contest entrant, however, does not have so good an excuse, and should not expect the judges to cut him any slack.

So again: read over your entry for coherence. If a judge ever has the opportunity to write “connective logic?” in one of your margins, your presentation score is sunk. Make sure you’re filling in the relevant gullies.

Nietzsche did one thing in THUS SPAKE ZARTHUSTRA that would help him win back points in the Presentation category: include genuinely funny lines. It’s actually quite an amusing book, coherence problems aside (and not only because of them), and very, very few contest entries are funny. A funny manuscript, or even a funny joke in a serious manuscript, feels like a gift to your average tired contest judge. A deliberately-provoked laugh from a judge can result in the reward of many Presentation points, and often additional points in the Voice category as well.

Notice that I specified a DELIBERATELY-PROVOKED laugh. An unintentional laugh, what moviemakers call “a bad laugh” because it springs forth from the audience when the filmmakers do not want it to occur, will cost points.

We’ve all recognize bad laughs in movies, right? My personal favorite was in the most recent remake of LITTLE WOMEN: Jo, played by Winona Ryder, has sold her long, lovely hair in order to help the family, and one of her sisters cries out, “Oh, Jo! Your one beauty.” The theatre positively rocked with laughter, because Ms. Ryder arguably possesses the kind of face that artists over the centuries have willingly mortgaged their souls in order to depict. The script chose to feature that particular bad laugh TWICE.

Do not, whatever you do, make the extremely common mistake of including guffawing onlookers to mark where the reader is supposed to laugh, as that will cost you points as well. This is another one that writers seem to have picked up from movies or television: whenever a joke appears in the dialogue, the reader is told that someone nearby laughs in response. Contrary to the author’s apparent expectation, to an experienced professional reader, this additional information detracts from the humor of the scene, rather than adds to it; the bigger the onlookers’ reaction, the less funny it seems.

Why? Well, to a judge, agent, or editor who has been around the block a few times, the onlooker’s guffaw is a flag that the author has some significant doubts about whether the joke IS actually funny. It’s a marker of discomfort, a peek behind the scenes into the writer’s mind, distracting from the story at hand. And once the reader suspects that the writer isn’t amused, it’s only a small step to the reader’s not being amused, either.

The moral: you can lead a judge to funny, but you can’t make him laugh.

Finally, there is one more criterion that falls into the Presentation category, what I call the
Ta da! factor. It’s hard to define precisely, because it’s when a manuscript exudes the sort of mercurial charisma that Elinor Glyn (author of one of the first of the great sex novels, THREE WEEKS) dubbed It when it occurs in human beings. (Thus Clara Bow, the It Girl, an Elinor Glyn discovery.) As Madame Glyn argued, we may not be able to define what It is, but we all seem to drool over those who have It.

Like It, the Ta da! factor makes a manuscript shine, practically demanding that the judge give the entry high marks. In fact – although you are not hearing this from me — a healthy dose of the Ta da! factor might even prompt a judge to fudge a little in the other categories, so as to assure the entry a point total that will launch it into the finalist round.

To achieve the Ta da! factor –

Well, if I could tell you that, I would chuck the blogging business entirely and establish myself as the world’s most expensive writing guru. I do know that mere professionalism is not enough. Yes, all of the technical aspects of the work need to be right, as well as the execution. The writing style needs to be strong and distinct, and it helps a lot if the story is compelling.

Beyond that, it’s a little hard to say how precisely the Ta da! factor gives a manuscript its sheen, just as it’s difficult to pin down just what makes a great first line of a book so great. Perhaps it’s rhythm, and a certain facility for telling detail. Here’s a definite example of the Ta da! factor in action:

”I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and four chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train.”

That’s the opening of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, Truman Capote’s masterpiece that incidentally someone really ought to make into a movie some day, because the Audrey Hepburn version bears only a passing resemblance to it. (The original novella concerns a friendship between a straight woman and gay man in their late teens; the movie is about a love story between a straight man and a woman in, if you look at George Peppard charitably, their late thirties. Oh, and the endings are quite different.) But just look at the use of language here. You could sing this opening; it’s positively bursting with the Ta da! factor.

Perhaps, too, a certain sense of showmanship is required. Bask in this one:

”He was a very good-looking young man indeed, shaped to be annoyed. His voice was intimate as the rustle of sheets, and he kissed easily. There was no tallying the gifts of Charvet handkerchiefs, art moderne ash-trays, monogrammed dressing-gowns, gold key-chains, and cigarette-cases of thin wood, inlaid with views of Parisian comfort stations, that were sent him by ladies too quickly confident, and were paid for with the money of unwitting husbands, which is acceptable any place in the world.”

That, my friends, is the opening to Dorothy Parker’s short story DUSK BEFORE FIREWORKS, and let me tell you, if a short story like that fell onto my desk as a contest judge, I would not only shower it with the highest possible marks (yes, even though I do not agree with all of Ms. Parker’s punctuation choices in this excerpt); I would nag the category chair unmercifully about pushing it into the finalist round. I would go to the awards ceremony, cheer if it won, and make a point of meeting the author. I might even introduce the author to my agent.

Because, my friends, it exudes the aura of the Ta da! factor as distinctly as a Buddhist temple exudes incense.

I mention this, not to cow you with examples of writing by extremely talented writers, but to fill you with hope, after this long discourse on all the technical ways you can gain or lose points in the contest judging process. Ultimately, talent does supersede almost every other consideration, as long as the work is professionally presented.

This is not to say that you should not go to great lengths to avoid making the point-costing mistakes I have pointed out over the last few weeks — you should, because genuinely talented writers’ work is knocked out of competition (and into agents’ rejection piles) all the time for technical reasons. When talent is properly presented, though, the results are magical.

A few years ago, a member of my writing group, a mystery writer, submitted a chapter, as we all did, for the group to read. In this draft (we has seen earlier ones), the first two paragraphs were gaspingly beautiful, so full of the atmosphere of the Sierra Nevada mountains that I not only to this day picture his opening in my mind as clearly as a movie — I remember it as though I had actually been there.

After reading this opening, the group grew rather quiet, so we could all chew on the imagery, the sentence structure for a while. It was so imbued with the Ta da! factor that there hardly seemed to be any point in discussing the rest of his chapter.

“One of the miracles of talent,” Mme. de Staël tells us, “is the ability to knock your readers out of their own egoism.” (Another favorite writer of mine; every woman who writes should read her brilliant novel CORINNE at some point. She wrote it in 1807, but apart from the travelogue sections, it’s still fresh as piping-hot cinnamon rolls today.) The Ta da! factor does just that, grabs the reader’s attention and simply insists upon this book’s being read, right now.

Under the sway of all of the publishing fads continually buffeting us, it’s all too easy for writers to forget what power really good writing has. If only the publication of a truly exciting book were taken up with the verve and intensity that the media has devoted to the controversy over James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE PIECES. “But is it well written?” the commentators should cry, and then go into questions of factual accuracy.

Publishing fads, like fashions in beauty, come and go. Talent doesn’t. Just as so many of the actors held up as exemplars of beauty now would not have been considered especially attractive in, say, the Italian Renaissance, or even a hundred years ago, I believe that many of the books published today will not be considered essential reading a hundred years from now. But the work of some authors — Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker, Mme. de Staël, to name just a few — has something about it that elevates it above the passing fad, just as there are some actors who, it is perfectly obvious to us all, would have been considered absolutely lovely in any period of human history.

“Oh, Jo! Your one beauty!” notwithstanding.

Keep your chins up, my friends, through all the hard work of perfecting your manuscripts and contest entries; you’re toiling in a noble vineyard. Real talent is not necessarily measured in the short term. Keep up the good work – and polish those entries to a high sheen.

PS: Now that the contest deadline is looming ever-closer, more and more readers have been sending me personal e-mails with questions. Please do not do this, no matter how close your deadline is — answering these requires time. Cumulatively, this array of small questions takes literally hours out of my day.

Although I have a posted policy about such e-mailed questions (please see “What If I Want One-on-One,” right), still, these questions continue to roll in. That is time filched from my clients’ work and my own writing — and I assure you, hardly a week passes without some manuscript I am handling facing some major deadline.

However, the comments function is ALWAYS here for you to post questions. It is rare that it takes me more than 24 hours to respond to any question posted there, which is more than reasonable. If you feel you need a more extensive response, or a quicker one, please read the one-on-one policy page and proceed accordingly. (And contrary to popular opinion, offering to take a publishing professional out to lunch or coffee in order to pick her brain about your submission is much akin to inviting a doctor to dinner and expecting him to take out your appendix in gratitude.)

Also, PLEASE do not e-mail me if my blog’s server is malfunctioning. It apparently went down for a few minutes yesterday morning — and 12 people e-mailed me about it. Every server requires service from time to time, and honestly, I am the last person in the world to be able to provide it. Alerting me to a problem will not get it fixed any faster, I promise you — it just fills my inbox.

Increasing your chances: eschewing the screenwriter’s tricks. Even if you’re entering a screenplay.

February 16th, 2007

Yesterday, I talked about how issues of coherence and continuity can cost entries points in the Presentation category of your garden-variety literary contest. I know that for those of you entering the PNWA contest, whose deadline is in just a few days, may be surprised that I am including this advice so late in the game, but I have a tricky motive: between now and the deadline, you certainly have time to recruit an outside reader and check for flow, plausibility, etc., but you probably don’t have time to rewrite the whole thing.

In other words: if I had given you this advice a week earlier, it might have made you crazy. Or at least made you contemplate quitting your job in order to revise what you intend to submit. It’s better this way, really.

One great way to use this coming weekend (well, apart from pulling a synopsis together, as I am quite sure many, many of you are) would be to give your fiction entry a thorough scan for any element that might catch the judges’ eyes as incongruous within an otherwise smooth manuscript: plausibility problems, logical leaps, unnecessary dialogue.

Be particularly aware that sometimes, what would work as a device in an entire book – phrase repetition, for instance – is significantly harder to pull off in a contest entry, due to the page limit.

Take, for example, that shopworn advice about leading your protagonist through the steps of a Jungian hero’s journey. You’ve heard of this plotting device, right? Screenwriters have inundated us with it since the success of the original STAR WARS; in recent years, there has been an entire ilk of advice-givers on the writers’ conference circuit advocating it as well. It goes like this: the hero starts out in his (almost never her), normal life, hears the call of a challenge, gets drawn into a challenge, meets friends and advisors along the way…and so forth, for three distinct acts.

It’s not a bad structure, per se, although it has gotten a bit common for my taste. Also, it more or less requires that the opening of the book (or, more commonly, movie) open with the protagonist’s mundane life, before the excitement of the drama begins.

See the problem in a contest entry? It lends itself to a first chapter heavy on background and light on action. That can work in a book as a whole, but when that first chapter is all the judges see…

I’ve written about this before, and recently, so I won’t expend energy now retracing the many, many reasons to start your contest entries and agency submissions with a bang. Suffice it to say that in this instance, sticking too rigidly to a predetermined structural formula may leave you with little action for which to provide motivation.

You should also scan your submission for clichés of every kind, including those plot twists that any relatively regular viewer of TV or movies might see coming. Why should you be careful about including these? Because if you are entering in a fiction category, chances are VERY good that you will not be the only one to use these tricks – which is automatically going to cost you some originality and freshness points.

One of the surest signs that a story has fallen into a cliché is when the story gives the impression that there is no need to provide a motivation for a particular character’s action: in a cliché, the motivation is just assumed. Movies and TV have warped our sense of the utility of plausible motivation: why did the hooker have a heart of gold/the older cop with the new partner act bitter/the pretty high school girl ignore the boy of her dreams in order to date the captain of the football team with the nice car? Apparently, purely because there was a camera nearby; as viewers, we are given little other justification.

Few of us actually have a thing for real-life drifters, for instance, at least not so much that we instantly fling ourselves into torrid affairs with them a few minutes after they first slouch into sight, yet we’re evidently willing to believe that characters in films will. You may laugh at the idea of putting this in a book, but this scenario is essentially what happens in SIDEWAYS – which, I’m told, began life as a book: these two wine-tasters drifted into town, and the local bored women took up with them without knowing anything, really, about their backgrounds…

Having grown up in California wine country, I can assure you that the fine folks who pour sips at the local wineries are NOT prone to flinging themselves at every drifter who asks for a refill. Unless a LOT has changed since I left town.

The constant barrage of this kind of story has indelibly stained most people’s sense of the plausible, but you’re better than that, aren’t you? You’re not going to be seduced by this charming willingness on the part of the audience to suspend disbelief into believing that they don’t need to establish realistic motivations for your characters, will you?

And if you’re not, don’t tell me; I want to preserve my cherished illusions of you.

So do the judges of literary contests; they’re hoping that you will resist the siren songs of cliché and unmotivated action with all of your might. In print and to professional eyes, unmotivated action comes across as literary laziness. Scads of points lost this way.

Why? Well, since I’m quite sure that no contest entrant has time to read a new book between now and the contest deadline, I’m going to have to resort to a film example to show you how unmotivated action might scuttle a story. The film is LOVE LIZA, with the generally excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman (of CAPOTE fame; I still haven’t recovered from THAT screenplay’s changing the identity of the murderer from the one who committed the bulk of the mayhem in the book IN COLD BLOOD, but never mind) and the dependably wonderful Kathy Bates.

As the movie makes clear over and over, the title refers to the closing of a letter — so if you’re wondering why the title is missing the grammatically necessary comma in the middle, you’re in good company. Maybe it’s a command. The film opens with approximately two minutes of silence (I didn’t realize at first that I should be clocking it, so pardon my imprecision), presumably to let the viewer know that this was going to be Art with a capital A.

I could go on and on, but for our purposes here, all you really know is that it was clearly intended to be a slice o’life, a goal to which many contest entries aspire. So try to picture this story as if it were an ultra-literary short story or novel excerpt entered in a contest. See if you can spot the problems:

The protagonist (Hoffman), who has just lost his wife to suicide, takes up sniffing gasoline and related petroleum products with a vim that most people reserve for the first course of Thanksgiving dinner. As one does. So engaged is he in mourning-though-inhalants that he cannot manage to open the suicide note his wife left for him, cleverly hidden under the ONLY bed pillow possessed by a man who obviously thinks laundering linens is for sissies.

After some non-laundry-related incident early in the story causes him to discover the letter, he does not open it. Ostensibly, he’s afraid that the letter will blame him in some way that he cannot imagine (it’s hard to imagine much with a gasoline-soaked rag clutched to your face, I would guess). So he carries the note with him everywhere he goes for most of the film — and believe me, he gets around.

Okay, a quick quiz for all of you novelists out there: what’s going to happen in the final scene? What, in fact, did we know was going to happen in the final scene as soon as he did not open the letter the first time it appeared?

Uh-huh.

Now, while watching a film, most viewers tend to suspend their disbelief as Aristotle says they should, but we writers (as contest judges often are) are made of sterner stuff. So, as you might expect, the moment he slit the envelope open, my writer’s mind went haywire. Why, I asked myself, would a woman bent upon doing herself in within the next minute or two have bothered to fold up the note, stuff it in an envelope, seal it, AND conceal it? She and her husband lived alone; he was equally likely to be the first to see it if she had left it unfolded on the kitchen counter as hidden under a pillow in an envelope.

BECAUSE THE PLOT REQUIRED IT, that’s why — how could the protagonist tote around the Visible Symbol of His Loss for an hour and a half UNLESS it was in a sealed envelope?

Evidently, the late lamented Liza was considerate enough to have read the script before doing herself in. Thus was yet another good story well presented scuttled by the unanswered question. Remember, “because the plot requires it” is never a valid motivation; stories are invariably improved by ferreting out the answers before showing the work to an audience.

In this case, for instance, if someone — say, the unbiased reader I always recommend you show your work before loosing it upon the world — had asked the screenwriter the unanswered question, a genuinely touching scene could have been added to the movie: the letter is sitting on the kitchen counter (or under the unwashed pillowcase still, if you happen to share the screenwriter’s evident passion for wrinkled linen); the protagonist takes those full two minutes at the top of the movie to become aware enough of his environment to find it, and when he does, the prospect of being blamed terrifies him so much that he uses kitchen tongs to stuff it into a Manila envelope, unread. Then HE could seal it, thus giving further resonance to his inevitable decision to unseal it in the final scene.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a demonstration of what a good editor can do for your story. Or a good writing group, or indeed any truly talented first reader. Not only can outside eyes alert you to problems you might not otherwise catch; they can help suggest specific ways to make your book better.

But the contest deadline is in just a few days: you don’t have time for that. So take my advice: scan your entry for this kind of problems yourself. Oh, and after you seal the envelope with your entry in it, don’t stick it under your sleeping husband’s pillow. Mail it instead.

After those last sterling pieces of counsel, any further advice seems superfluous. Keep up the good work!

Increasing your contest chances: continuity and coherence

February 15th, 2007

In reading back over this series on contest entries, it strikes me that I might have been a trifle harsh on contest judges throughout. I’m sure that there are many who don’t transmogrify into fire-breathing dragons while they are screening entries. Many do, however, and my underlying point is that as a contest entrant, you can never be sure which kind, dragon or book-lover, will end up judging your manuscript.

Best to be on the safe side. If for even a second between now and when you mail off your entry, you find yourself asking, “Hm, I wonder if I can deviate from standard format and/or contest requirements here, just a little?” I beg of you to imagine your contest fairy godmother standing beside your computer with a magic wand. Okay, got that image firmly in mind? Now, ask the question about whether you can fudge just a little again – and picture that wand descending upon your mouse hand, smacking it before you can make the rule-bending change.

Listen to that rule-mongering fairy godmother. She will keep you out of trouble.

Of course, there are many criteria over and above mere following of rules that judges use to rate entries, but unfortunately, I don’t have time to go over all of them between now and the PNWA contest deadline. So here comes the streamlined version: today, I want to give you a quick overview of the category in which most entries lose points, Presentation.

Presentation is more than how a manuscript looks on a page; it is also the category is where questions of continuity and coherence are rated. Continuity covers two major issues, consistency (on all levels, from tone to what the protagonist’s sister is called by intimates) and flow. Does the argument unfold in the manner it should, or does it stop cold from time to time?

Here again, a pair of outside eyes screening your entry for continuity problems can be extremely helpful. And just look at that calendar: if you hopped to it right now, I’ll bet you could rustle up some kind first reader to check your entry for continuity within the next week.

Coherence is also an easy one to double-check before submitting an entry: just have someone who knows nothing about the story you are telling read through the entry. Then have this generous friend tell the story back to you.

If any of the essentials come back to you garbled (or worse, missing), there are probably some coherence problems in the entry. Or the person you asked has serious recall problems. Since the deadline is less than a week away, assume the former, and revise until all is clear.

95% of the time, coherence issues stem from the enthusiasm of the writer. The writer so longs to convey the story or the argument to the reader that he rushes on, willy-nilly, all caught up in the momentum of communication, flying over the details of complex human interactions in sentences that even Ernest Hemingway would have thought over-terse.

Tight pacing is great, but all too often, explanation — and yes, even meaning — can fall along the wayside. Slow down and tell the story in full. Judges feel bad subtracting points from such entries, because the writer’s passion for the material comes through so clearly, but subtract they must.

Seriously. This problem is generally listed on the scoring sheet.

Pages stuffed with jargon almost invariably end up with low Presentation scores as well, which surprises many entrants. This is a coherence issue. Yes, it is wonderful when you can present people in a field as they talk in real life, but as the author, it’s your job to make sure they are comprehensible to the lay reader. If not, the reader has to spend additional time on each jargon-ridden sentence, trying to figure out from context what those bizarre phrases could possibly mean.

Within the context of a contest entry, every extra second spent in translation will be costly to your Presentation score.

So define your terms, in as un-pedantic a way as possible. Provide subtitles, if you absolutely must. Think about it: Anthony Burgess’ A CLOCKWORK ORANGE would have been well-nigh incomprehensible without the glossary in the back, wouldn’t it?

And please don’t tumble into the extremely common mistake of thinking that using lots of jargon or hugely long words will make the book come across as smarter. In the vast majority of case, it doesn’t; it only renders it harder to read. (And never, ever, EVER use a word in an entry unless you are POSITIVE of its definition and correct use. As any contest judge can tell you, many an otherwise fine entry has lost valuable Presentation points through an obviously ill-informed use of a thesaurus.)

Actually, amongst the well-read, being able to convey the sense of a difficult concept in simple language tend to be regarded as a virtuoso stunt. Judges — yes, and most agents and editors, too — are generally quite aware that it is significantly harder to describe a complex process in simple terms than in obscure ones. The appeal of Stephen Hawking’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, for instance, was not merely the platform of the writer, which is undoubtedly impressive, but the fact that he was able to describe theoretical physics in layman’s language.

In a nonfiction entry especially, you need to make sure that every plank of your argument is sound and comprehensible to someone who knows NOTHING about your subject matter. Literally nothing, as in perhaps never even suspected that such a topic might even exist.

This assumption may seem like an invitation to talk down to the reader, but actually, it’s just realistic. While you may be writing for a target market crammed to the brim with specialists in your area (or people who think they are, always a prime market for NF books), a new writer can NEVER assume preexisting expertise on the part of a judge, agent, or editor.

This is true, amazingly enough, even if you are writing on a subject that has already been well-traveled in the popular press. You may be writing about the single most common social phenomenon in the country, but that does not mean that NYC-based publishing types will have heard of it. Publishing is a rarefied world, in a sense quite provincial, insofar as its denizens tend to be very much absorbed in their own culture, often to the exclusion of others. It’s a complex and extraordinarily diverse culture, yes, but still, an inward-looking one.

While judges in contests based outside of Manhattan tend to be a trifle less industry-myopic, remember, the final round judges in many contests (include the PNWA’s) are selected from the ranks of the agents and editors attending the conference. The moral: just because a contest is based in the Pacific Northwest doesn’t mean you can assume you will be judged by lumberjack-savvy standards.

So if statistics, for instance, would be helpful to conveying how large the market for the NF book you are entering is, or how many people are affected by the disease that is the central subject matter of your novel, go ahead and include them in the synopsis. It may seem a trifle silly to have to explain, for instance, that asthmatics do exist in this country and they have been known to read, but trust me on this one — I’ve seen books about conditions that affect 20% of the population of the United States dismissed as appealing to only a tiny niche market.

Why is this a presentation issue, rather than a marketing one? Well, come closer, and I’ll tell you a little secret: on most contest scoring sheets, the market-readiness of the entry is not given its own set of points, per se. In theory, every aspect of the entry is supposed to speak to its marketability. But in practice, the category where the points are most likely to be subtracted is Presentation, because in most judges’ minds, the person to whom they are picturing the work being presented is an agent or editor.

Yes, I know: this logic isn’t all that coherent. But it is the usual train of thought.

Unanswered questions can cause coherence difficulties as well, particularly if those questions arise fairly naturally from the action of the piece: why, for instance, does the protagonist in a horror story wander, alone and unarmed, into a house she knows to be haunted? Why didn’t the family in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR just invoke the state’s lemon law and cancel its contract to buy the house? And why oh why doesn’t the local bored housewife in a thriller take up crochet or gardening, instead of lusting after the town’s newest stubble-encrusted drifter?

Remember, “because the plot requires it” is never a valid answer. Give the reader some sense of your characters’ motivations.

Yes, I know — in a contest, where you might be allowed to show only a single chapter of a 400-page novel, you may not have room to establish motivations for every major character. You can in the synopsis, though, and you certainly can show off your ability to convey motivation in the actions the protagonist takes in that first chapter. And don’t underestimate how much handling small events well will demonstrate your acumen in handling the bigger ones later on in the book.

Bear in mind that deep in his gnarled little heart, every contest judge honestly does want to be the one who discovers in his evaluation pile the entry that deserves to win the contest. When a well-written piece stumbles over coherence or continuity problems, it is a genuine disappointment. There isn’t a single judge in the world who likes to shake his head over an entry and mutter, “Oh, if only this author had read it in hard copy first, to notice that the step between getting onto the bronco and getting thrown from it was accidentally axed in editing. What a pity – with that fixed, this could have won the top prize.”

Don’t let your entry be the great story that lost its chance at the finalist’s circle through demerits in the presentation column. The judges are counting on you. Keep up the good work!

Increasing your chances: in a contest title page, pretty is as pretty does

February 14th, 2007

As sharp-eyed longtime reader Serenissima pointed out, I have been talking blithely all throughout this extended series on contest entries about what you should and should not put on your entry’s title page. This implies that every entry in every contest SHOULD include a title page to contain all of this information, no?

So why, you may have wondered, do most contest rules, including the PNWA’s , contain no mention of a title page? Is this just my clever, underhanded way of placing the Author! Author! stamp upon each and every one of my readers’ entries?

No. It’s my clever, underhanded way of helping you make your entries look more professional to contest judges – and since professional presentation is one of the factors being weighed, that can only help your entry’s chances.

For those of you just tuning in, here’s why: no agent in North America would even consider submitting a manuscript to an editor without a title page; for one thing, it’s the only place in a manuscript that the agent’s contact information appears. (Of which, more below.) But it is also yet another of those small signals that a writer should be taken seriously – it’s a bow to the conventions of the industry.

And yes, even though we have all been told since we were in diapers not to judge a book by its cover, people in the industry routinely judge manuscripts at least in part by their title pages.

“Wait just a paper-wasting minute,” I hear some of you out there saying. “What’s there to judge about a title page? They’re pretty straightforward, right? Surely, if there is an area where a writer new to submissions may safely proceed on simple common sense, it is the title page…”

Wrong. Like everything else in a manuscript, there is a standard format for it. (And don’t you wish you had known THAT before the first time you sent pages to an agent?)

The title page of a manuscript tells agents and editors quite a bit about both the book itself and the experience level of the writer. Not including it at all, the most common mistake, naturally sends up flares indicating someone new to the biz. So do the typeface and font choices displayed there. There is information that should be on the title page, and information that shouldn’t, and all this sends messages about how seriously folks in the industry should take the manuscript before them.

Yes, of course this unfair; of course, it discriminates against writers new to the business.

If it makes you feel better, there are a LOT of aspiring writers in the same boat. Speaking with my professional editing hat on for a moment, virtually every rough draft I see has a non-standard title page, so it is literally the first thing I will correct in a manuscript. I can only assume that for every ms. I can correct before they are sent to agents and editors, there must be hundreds of thousands that make similar mistakes.

Here again is an area where I feel that writers are under-informed – and where keeping those new to the game in the dark is beneficial to nobody. Writers who make mistakes are their title pages are very seldom TOLD what those mistakes are. Their manuscripts are merely rejected on the grounds of unprofessionalism, usually without any comment at all. I do not consider this fair to aspiring writers, but as I have been bemoaning, well, since I started writing this blog, I do not make the rules, alas, nor do I rule the universe.

So now you know: anytime you are submitting a manuscript, even a partial one, it would behoove you to include a title page, to show that you are hip to the standards of professional format. Your future agent is going to make you come up with one eventually, anyway. And honestly, after you’ve agonized for months over the perfect title, don’t you want to showcase it?

On the bright side, properly-formatted title pages are rare enough that a good one will make your manuscript (or your excerpt, if an agent asks to see the first chapter or two) shine preeminently competent, like the sole shined piece of silver amidst an otherwise tarnished display.

Besides being professional-looking and a nice touch, there’s another very, very good reason to include a title page with your contest entry: it minimizes the possibility of your entry’s being mixed up with the one directly on top of it in the stack. Need I even say that I’ve seen this happen? A lot?

But, again, not just any title page will do: you need a professional-looking one. To maximize the usefulness of this post, I’m going to go through what the industry’s basic title page looks like first, then show you how to narrow it down for a contest entry.

In the first place, the title page should be in the same font and point size as the rest of the manuscript – which, as I have pointed out before, should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier.

So, say it with me now, class: EVERY word on your title page should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier.

No exceptions, and DEFINITELY do not make the title larger than the rest of the text, as virtually every writer does. It may look cool to you, but to professional eyes, it looks rather like a child’s picture book. You may use boldface, if you wish, but that is as fancy as you may legitimately get.

“Oh, come on,” I hear some of you saying, “the FONT matters that much? What about the content of the book? What about my platform? What about my brilliant writing? Surely, the typeface pales in comparison to these crucial elements?”

You’re right — it does, PROVIDED you can get an agent or editor to sit down and read your entire submission. Or, in the case of a contest, provided that your entry is not disqualified on sight for using a different typeface than the one specified in the rules.

Unfortunately, this is a business of snap decisions, where impressions are formed very quickly. In a contest, just as in an agency, if the cosmetic elements of your manuscript imply a lack of knowledge of industry norms, your manuscript is entering its first professional once-over with one strike against it. It may be silly – okay, it IS silly — but it’s true.

Most of my clients do not believe me about this until they after they switch, incidentally. Even queries in the proper typefaces tend to be better received. Go ahead and experiment, if you like, sending out one set of queries in Times New Roman and one in Helvetica. (But for heaven’s sake, don’t perform this experiment with your PNWA contest submission, which specifies Times New Roman!) Any insider will tell you that the Times New Roman queries are more likely to strike agents (and agency screeners, and contest judges) as coming from a well-prepared writer, one who will not need to be walked through every nuance of the publication process to come.

Yet, after all this, as with so many aspects of the mysterious publishing industry, there is actually more than one way to structure a title page. Two formats are equally acceptable from an unagented writer. (After you sign with an agent, trust me, she will tell you how she wants you to format your title page toute suite.) The unfortunate technical restrictions of a blog render it impossible for me to show it to you exactly as it should be, but here is the closest approximation my structural limitations will allow:

Format one, which I like to call the Me First, because it renders it as easy as possible for an agent to contact you after falling in love with your work:

Upper right-hand corner:
Book category
Word count (approximate)

Upper left-hand corner:
Your name (your real name, not your pen name: the one to whom you would like your checks to be made out)
First line of your address
Second line of your address
Your phone number
Your e-mail address

(Skip down 10 lines, then add, centered on the page:)
Your title
(skip a line)
By
(skip a line)
Your name (or your nom de plume)

There should be NO other information on the title page. Title pages are NEVER numbered, nor are they EVER included in the page count.

Why, you may be wondering, does the author’s name appear twice on the page in this format? For two reasons: first, in case you are writing under a name other than your own, as many writers choose to do, and second, because the information in the top-left corner is the contact information that permits an agent or editor to acquire the book. Clean, easy, and standard.

If you are in doubt about which category best describes your book, you’re not alone – the categories change all the time, in a way that’s both bewildering to writers and doesn’t seem to inform where the book will actually sit in Barnes and Noble. Where biographies and memoirs, for instance, generally occupy the same shelf. I’ve developed some rough guidelines to help you, under BOOK CATEGORIES at right.

Word count can be approximate — in fact, as I have mentioned before, it looks a bit more professional if it is. This is one of the advantages of working in Times New Roman: in 12-point type, everyone estimates a double-spaced page with one-inch margins in the business at 250 words. If you use this as a guideline, you can’t go wrong.

Never mind that 250 words/page RADICALLY underestimates actual word count. It’s just the way it’s done in the industry. Go figure.

Do not, under ANY circumstances, include a quote on the title page – or, in a contest entry, on the first page. Many authors do this, because they have seen so many published authors use quotes at the openings of their books. Trust me: putting your favorite quote on the title page will not make your work look good; it will merely advertise that you are unfamiliar with the difference between manuscript format and book format.

While the Me First format is perfectly fine, the other standard format, which I like to call the Ultra-professional, is more common in the industry. It most closely replicates what most agents want their authors’ ultimate manuscript title pages to look like:

Upper right corner:
Book category
Word count

(Skip down 12 lines, then add, centered:)
Title
(skip a line)
By
(skip a line)
Your name (or your nom de plume)

(Skip down 12 lines, then add in the lower right corner:)
Your real name
Line 1 of your address
Line 2 of your address
Your telephone number
Your e-mail address

Again, there should be NO other information, just lots of pretty, pretty white space. After you sign with an agency, your agent’s contact information will appear where your contact information does – because the last thing your agent will want will be an interested editor’s being able to contact you directly.

Obviously, such a wealth of information is not desirable for a contest title page; in fact, it might actually get your entry disqualified. The trick is to put all of the information the contest rules require you on the title page, and leave out the rest. That way, your first page of text looks like a professional first page of text in a manuscript.

Such niceties make judges smile at the end of a hard day’s reading, I promise you.

For instance, the PNWA contest’s rules specify that each entry should be clearly labeled with the category and category number in which it is being entered. For the genre categories, you are also asked to list genre; for the nonfiction categories, market and readership. Piece o’ cake.

Let’s say you are entering a Futuristic Fantasy novel into the Adult Genre Novel category in this year’s contest. Your title page should look like this, centered on the page in Times New Roman 12-point:

TITLE
(skip a line)
(Futuristic Fantasy)
(skip 3 lines)
An entry in the Category 2: Adult Genre Category of the 2007 PNWA Literary Contest

That’s it. Leave the rest of the page absolutely white. For an entry where you also need to list market and readership, it might look something like this:

TITLE
(skip a line)
A How-to book aimed at Gen X Mothers-To-Be
(skip 3 lines)
An entry in the Category 7: Nonfiction Book/Memoir

I said this last week, but allow me to reiterate: entry purposes, your title page would not count toward the 28-page limit on entries. The first page of text is page one, which they specify should not be numbered at all (so the slug line should just read TITLE), and the second page of text should be numbered as page 2 (slug line = TITLE/2).

Yes, I know it’s simple, and even a little boring. As I said, if I ran the universe, things would be QUITE different. But this format invariably looks professional – and as those of you who have been following this series already know, professionalism is the first criterion contest judges tend to note.

Good luck, everybody. And keep up the good work!

Increasing your contest chances: every word is a writing sample

February 13th, 2007

Did it seem odd that I hammered so hard yesterday on the importance of a finely-crafted synopsis to a contest entry’s overall chances of winning? As a long-time contest judge, I am continually astonished at how often a well-written chapter is accompanied by a synopsis obviously dashed off in the final fifteen minutes before the post office closes on deadline day, as though the writing quality, clarity, and organization of it weren’t going be evaluated at all.

I suspect that this is a fairly accurate reading of what commonly occurs. All too often, writers (most of whom, after all, have full-time jobs, families, books to write, and, well, lives to lead) push preparing their entries to the very last minute – or at the very least, to the last few days. Imagine their chagrin when they realize that they can’t simply print up the first chapters they have readied for agents and send them in to the contest!

Aren’t you glad, dear readers, that you are never going to be in that unenviable position ever again? Now, you know better: every contest has some formatting restrictions that will require you to modify your manuscript. And that takes time.

But let’s step for a moment into the uncomfortably tight moccasins of a contest entrant who DIDN’T know that, shall we? Picture poor Rodney (after the famous commercialeer Rodney Allen Rippey, so you can picture his hair standing up with angst; as a fundamentally straight-haired person I always deeply admired his ‘do), running around in anguished circles, trying to meet all of his chosen contest’s strange regulations. Then, just when he thinks he’s finished, he realizes that he’s going to have to throw a synopsis into the packet, too – and it probably isn’t going to satisfy the rules if he just uses the one he’s developed for querying.

Frustrated at this crucial moment by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement – “It’s the writing in the chapter should count,” Rodney fumes, “not how well I can summarize a 350-page book.” – our Rodney falls prey to the insidious temptation that has felled many a good writer before him. He sits down at his computer, throws together a synopsis in a fatal rush, and shoves it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it.

Oh, Rodney, trust me on this one: judges WILL pay attention to it, and even a judge who loves every syllable of your chapter will be forced to deduct points from your score if your synopsis is not up to snuff. Many a fine chapter has been scuttled by a slipshod synopsis.

All of you Rodneys out there please take note of this, as it is a cardinal rule of winning literary contests – EVERYTHING YOU ARE ASKED TO SUBMIT TO A CONTEST WILL BE JUDGED FOR QUALITY.

Therefore, you should treat every comma of the entry as though it were a writing sample to be submitted to all nine Muses for approval. (I hear that Erato is, like the East German judges at the Olympics used to be, an exceptionally picky scorer.)

I won’t go so far as to say that if you do not expend careful consideration over the crafting of the synopsis for a book-length category, you might as well not enter at all. It is entirely fair to say, however, that if you have a well-written, well thought-out synopsis tucked into your entry packet, your work will automatically have an edge toward winning.

Did I just hear you ask why, Rodney? Because, my sweet, a truly great synopsis in a contest entry is such a rarity.

Effectively, in a contest situation, the synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book. The synopsis is where you demonstrate to judges that you are not merely a writer who can hold them in thrall for a few isolated pages: the synopsis is where you show that you have the vision and tenacity to take the compelling characters you have begun to reveal in your first chapter through an interesting story to a satisfying conclusion.

To put it another way, here is where you show that you are something more than a talented chapter-writer: the synopsis is where you show that you can plot out a BOOK.

For this reason, it is imperative that your synopsis makes it very, very clear how the chapter or excerpt you are submitting fits into the overall arc of the book, regardless of whether you are submitting fiction or nonfiction. ESPECIALLY if you are submitting a chapter other than the first. Quite a few contests allow writers to submit any chapter you like, provided that it falls within the specified page restrictions, and if you elect to take them up on this offer, your synopsis had better make it absolutely plain where the excerpts will fall in the finished work.

Truth be told, though, in my experience it is seldom wise to submit either non-consecutive excerpts from a book or chapters other than the initial ones. Yes, even if the later chapters contain writing that is truly wonderful. Non-consecutive excerpts require the judge to make the logical connections between them – which the judge may not be inclined to do in a way that is in your best interest.

“Oh, God,” Rodney says, covering his eyes. “How?”

An uncharitable judge might, for instance, draw the unkind inference that you had submitted the excerpts you chose because they were the ONLY parts of the book you had written – a poor message to send in a category devoted to book-length works, where the prestige of the contest depends upon winners getting snapped up by attending agents. Another possible interpretation is that you simply can’t stand your introductory chapter – again, not the best message to send, as a weak first chapter generally equals rejection from agents and editors.

Or, a judge may reason, no agent or editor in the world is going to accept random excerpts from a book as an indication of the book’s quality : she is going to expect to see the first chapter, or first three chapters. Thus, a judge might conclude, the author who submitted this patchwork entry isn’t anywhere near ready to submit work to professionals. Next!

This is not, in short, a situation where it pays to rely upon the kindness of strangers, Rodney.

If you DO decide to enter non-contiguous excerpts, place your synopsis at the BEGINNING of your entry – unless, of course, the rules absolutely forbid you to do so — and make sure that the synopsis makes it QUITE clear that these excerpts are far and away the most important part of the book. Basically, the role of the synopsis in this instance is to make the judges EAGER to read these particular excerpts. Obviously, this means that your storytelling skills had better be at their most polished, to meet the challenge.

As for selecting a chapter other than the first for submission, effectively starting midway through the book, I would advise against it, too, even if when contest rules explicitly permit the possibility. In the first place, the judge may well draw the same set of uncharitable inferences as with the non-continuous excerpts, and dismiss your submission as not ready for the big time.

Why is this a problem? Well, as I have mentioned above, contest organizers LOVE it when their winners move on quickly to publication. If your work looks like it needs a couple of years’ worth of polishing to become market-ready, it is unlikely to win a contest, even if you are extremely talented.

In the second place, while your best writing may well lie later in your book, the advantage of starting at the beginning of the book is that the judge and the reader will have an equal amount of information going in. Judges like that. I’ve known a lot of contest judges who resent having to go back and forth between the synopsis and the chapters to figure out what is going on.

There IS a sneaky way to get around this – but I would have to scold you if you did it, Rodney: you could just enter your best chapter and submit a synopsis that implies that it IS the first. There is no contest in the world that is going to make you sign an affidavit swearing that your entry is identical to what you are submitting to agents and editors; if you win, no one is later going to come after you and say, “Hey, your book doesn’t start with the scene you entered in the contest!”

And even if someone did, so what? Professional writers change the running orders of their books all the time. Manuscript change is the norm in the industry, not the exception. Heck, the editor currently pondering the purchase of my novel asked me to change the running order twice before she showed it to anyone else at the publishing house.

Thus, if Rodney felt his best writing occurred fifty pages into his novel, it might behoove him, for the purposes of competition, to place his strongest scene first by starting the entry on page 50 (presenting it as page 1, of course). The synopsis would have to be revised, naturally, to make it appear that this is indeed the usual running order of the book, and Rodney would have to edit carefully, to make sure that there is nothing in the skipped-over pages that is vital to understanding what happens in the chapters presented in the entry.

The job of the synopsis, then, in the hands of this tricky writer, would be to cover up the fact that the entry starts in the middle of the book. It would be just our little secret, Rodney dear.

To put it in a less clever way: as a general rule, anything you can do to place your best writing within the first few pages of your entry, you should do. Judges’ impressions tend to be formed very fast, and if you can wow ‘em before page 3, you absolutely should.

Actually, just as with work you submit to agents, the first page of your entry is far and away the most important thing the judges see. Unless there is a strong reason to place your synopsis first, put it at the end of your entry, so your first page can jump out at the judges. And if you can include some very memorable incident or imagery within the first few paragraphs of your chapter, that much the better.

So go ahead and submit your strongest chapter to a contest – but for heaven’s sake, do NOT label it as Chapter 8 in your entry. Label it as Chapter 1, and write a new synopsis for a book where Chapter 8 IS Chapter 1. Just make sure that your synopsis is compelling and lucid enough that it all makes sense as a story.

And whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for a contest for the very last moments before you stuff the entry into an envelope. Synopsis-writing is hard; budget adequate time for it. And make absolutely sure that the synopsis you submit supports the image of the book you want your submitted chapter to send.

On to title pages tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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.

Sorry.

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!

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