Contest entry bugbears: “When caught between two evils, I generally pick the one I’ve never tried before.”

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Today’s quote and picture have the same source, of course: Mae West, playwright of note, your hostess for today — and, harkening back to yesterday, an actress who certainly did her best work when she was writing her own material.

Why Mae, you ask? Well, while the sentiment above may not be the best guide to ethical living (and it would be darned hard to walk in that dress, so I wouldn’t emulate it, either), it’s not a bad motto for any artist aspiring to originality.

And true originality, contrary to what you might have heard on the writers’ conference grapevine, is one of the best selling points a manuscript — or a contest entry — can have.

Admittedly, this may seem like rather strange advice to those of you who have spent conference season after conference season being told endlessly by agents and editors that they are looking for books like this or that bestseller, but honestly, copycat books usually don’t sell all that well.

Witness how quickly all of those chick lit take-offs on BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY fell off agents’ hot lists, for instance. And just how many reworkings of THE DA VINCI CODE do you think the average agent saw immediately after it hit the bestseller list?

As Mae West liked to say, there are a lot of copies out there, but if you’re an original, no one can mistake you for someone else. No one remembers the copies.

Don’t believe me? Okay, name three books patterned after COLD MOUNTAIN. Or SEX IN THE CITY. Or, if you want to go farther back in time, CATCH-22.

I thought not. And there’s a pretty good reason for that: agents, editors, and yes, contest judges tend to get most excited by fresh concepts, not tired ones.

You’re all familiar with what the publishing world means by the term fresh, right? To borrow a page from my writer’s glossary:

FRESH, adj.: Industry term for an unusual look at a well-worn topic; marketable. The industry truism is that they’re always looking for an author who is fresh, but not weird. (Weird can mean anything from a topic never written about before to an unpopular political spin to a book proposal in a non-standard folder.)

Fresh is not a synonym for original, precisely, but a marriage of originality and proven marketability, a new spin on something they already know that they can sell. This is why, in case you were wondering, agents and editors so often say things at conferences like, “I wish aspiring writers would pay attention to what’s on the bestseller list.”

They don’t mean that they’re looking for replicas of what’s to be found there — or rather, they don’t mean that if they’re savvy. What they want is a book for which they know there is an already-existing audience (thus the reference to the bestseller list) that is DIFFERENT from anything else that’s out there.

Sound tautological? Not necessarily. But given how small a window of opportunity a book has to grab an agent or editor’s attention during a query letter or pitch, broad freshness (“It’s JAWS set in a kindergarten class!”) tends to have an easier time catching the industry’s eye than more complex storylines.

In a contest entry, however, you do have a bit more leeway: if the writing is good, a judge is more likely to give an entry the benefit of the doubt. You also have more wiggle room with both judges and Millicents alike if your book happens to be funny — and not just because actually humorous writing is genuinely rare.

With comedy, a writer can get away being downright original, because of the nature of the exercise: spontaneous laughs are, after all, often produced by surprising the reader.

Which is precisely why, as I have mentioned before, a successful comic entry should do everything it can to avoid being predictable. Trust me, there is absolutely nothing more predictable in a contest entry — or a contemporary novel, or a memoir — than humorous references to the current zeitgeist.

And isn’t that a coincidence? Last time, I suggested that one of the best ways to endear your contest entry to a judge may be to go through it carefully, excising as much of the humor based upon current pop culture references as humanly possible. Don’t worry that it will make your work seem less hip: since it takes so long for the average manuscript to hit the shelves, even if a reference is brand-new, chances are that it will no longer be current by the time the book comes out.

There’s a term for this in the industry: dated. And another: not fresh.

I hear some dissention out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of you pointing out, “there are plenty of books published every year that are up-to-the-minute topical and/or hip. I can understand where they might not age very well, but isn’t the point of a contest entry or submission to wow the judge or Millicent NOW? After all, I could always change the pop culture references just before the book went to press, couldn’t I?”

That’s kind of a clever way to look at it, faceless theorizers, but that’s not really the way a contest judge tends to think. They want to reward books that are going to be on the shelves for a while.

And frankly, they’re perfectly aware that books-of-the-moment don’t tend to be perennial sellers. Which, in case you were not aware of it, is the way that most authors who make a living at it earn their bread and butter: not by selling millions of copies of one book in a given year, but by selling thousands of copies of several different books.

Bestsellers are the exception — thus the comparison inherent in the name — and have always been. And, if you’ll forgive my saying so, there are factors other than quality of writing that can lead to a book’s being a runaway hit.

Scandal, for instance. The writer’s already being a celebrity. Being endorsed by a celebrity. Being written by a very well-known author. A great publicity campaign. A publishing house that really believes in the book and is willing to put a great deal of time and money into promoting it.

Yes, it would be nice to think that any well-written book would receive the benefit of the latter, but realistically, the vast majority released in any given year by U.S. publishing houses are allocated less than $2,000 in promotion. (Yes, you read that correctly. I’ve been to small launch parties where the wine cost more than that.)

So while your garden-variety contest judge would most likely be thrilled if an entry she sent on to the finals ended up on the bestseller list, she’s not really expecting it. No, she wants to recognize a good book that stands a decent chance of getting published, even of winning further awards.

My, you’re antsy today, readers; could it be that you’re trying to get a contest entry out the door? “But Anne,” some of you cry, “while this is undoubtedly interesting, I’m up against a deadline. Today is not the day I’m worried about originality; I’m concentrated on making my work funny. You had mentioned something a couple of posts ago about a few tests I can apply to my writing?”

Ah, but there’s been a method to my madness: most of the tests I’m going to pass along touch on BOTH the originality and the humor level of the manuscript. These tests will highlight mistakes that should set off warning bells while you are revising — because, believe me, they will be setting off hazard flares in the minds of agents, editors, and contest judges.

But going through all of the tests (not to mention what to do if any part of your entry runs afoul of them) is going to take up quite a bit of blog space, so I shall be delving into that tomorrow. In the meantime, give some thought to whether anything in your entry could have been written by any sentient being in the universe other than you.

I’m quite serious about that, you know. Most aspiring writers take a number of years — or even a couple of books — to discover their own individual literary voices. The voices of the authors we admire tend to creep into our work without our realizing it.

And that’s just not good, either for comedy in general or comic contest entries in particular. Contrary to the oft-repeated truism, only conscious imitation could possibly be construed as anything remotely approaching flattery — and even then, I’m inclined to think the debt should be attributed openly.

I’m not going to give you an exercise for this — it’s up to every writer’s conscience to draw the line between being inspired by another artist’s work and lifting from it. The line is almost always pretty fuzzy.

But if you find instances in your entries or manuscripts where it isn’t, you might want to take those parts back to the revision board. Any given contest judge may have read and admired the same author you have, after all. Chances are, if it’s a living writer of any repute, a fairly hefty proportion of your target audience will have, too.

You want to win fame and fortune for YOUR literary voice and YOUR trenchant observations upon the human condition, don’t you?

The moral of the day: people still remember Mae West, my friends, not her hundreds of imitators. Here’s to all of us being originals on the page — and keeping up the good work!

PS: did anyone but me catch that big ol’ typo on the titles of the main network pre-Oscars red carpet show? It was a prime example of the kind of editing mistake one is likely to make when editing on a computer screen — and a problem that no spell-checker in the world would ever catch: it referred to the Oscar’s, not the Oscars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is just an inefficient use of an entry fee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But mum’s the word, okay?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Telling your life story to the judge, part II

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Before I launch into today’s topic, campers, I have a bit of a modification to yesterday’s post. My interview on Dickien.fr is indeed located in the links I listed — here for English and here for French — but in order to leave a comment, readers will need to go to the site’s homepage and click on Commentaires. I know from delightful experience that many of you are inveterate web commenters.

Far be it from me to curtail your freedom of expression. That’s not my style. And frankly, it would be nice for the interviewer to hear that English-speaking readers are interested in my book.

Let’s get back to work.

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 out there. “Wait just a second,” the voice in the ether I choose to attribute to my readers kept saying, “isn’t this tactic bordering on paranoid overkill? How is the judge ever going to know if I use my name? In a blind-judged contest, the judges never see the author’s name attached to the manuscript, and thus could not know that the name mentioned IS the author’s.”

Well, that’s a good point, disembodied voice. But you still shouldn’t do it for 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. It doesn’t matter if the judge can GUESS who the author is — since the rules don’t call for complete negation of the memoirist’s identity, all they can catch you on is the use of your name. They watch for it like the proverbial hawks.

But, 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 on more sophisticated bases.

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. So there.

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? I rest my case.

Except to say: I know that my harping on this is going to throw the more conscientious memoirists out there into a frenzy of proofreading. Actually, though, the entry where the writer has obviously made a determined effort to rid the document of his own name but missed a single instasnce is not usually the one that ends up getting disqualified. Oh, it will certainly get marked down, but probably not thrown into the trash.

So what kinds of violations of this rule DO tend to get the entry disqualified on sight? The one where the entrant clearly didn’t bother to read the rules, but simply printed up the already-existing first chapter and submitted it.

You’d be astonished at how common that is — and how obvious it is to the judges. At least, I hope you would be.

There is, as I mentioned yesterday, 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 case you were not aware of it, for the industry to consider a published book part of the market, a book either has to have been released within the last five years or have been a bestseller within the last ten — 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 to that particular segment of the market clearer in the pages you are submitting?

It is a question well worth asking before entering a memoir into a contest – or indeed, before trying to market it at all.

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?

The frequency with which books on those other subjects turn up on the shelves of Barnes & Noble is 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 PRECISELY 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.

Before you bemoan this, recall that not only do agents, editors, and contest judges get tired of seeing the same types of books over and over again; so do readers. 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; nor is anyone is rooting for those life-long disagreements NOT to be mended. But honestly, after fifteen or twenty of these in a single year’s crop of entries — that’s not an exaggeration, incidentally — a judge does start to long 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. That’s just the way they’re built.

So if you happen to be any of the following, you might want to give some serious thought to 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; your magnificent weight loss or gain and how that journey made you a better person; 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.

And any reworking of the concepts of THE DA VINCI CODE or the bestsellers of last year.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t bother to enter memoirs that encroach upon these well-trodden areas. You should, if that is the story you burn to tell.

But alert the judge to the ways your book is different and better as soon as possible: on page one of the entry, if you can, and within the first few paragraphs of the synopsis. And don’t just SAY that your book is unique: SHOW it.

For instance, if your memoir details your spiritual awakening, your discovery that the giant corporation for which you worked is corrupt — because, you know, that’s always a surprise — you might want to invest some time in market research to figure out how to make your book come across as fresh and exciting to jaded professional readers.

How? Well, 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.

Some of you are feeling a trifle grumpy at this prospect, aren’t you? I can’t say as I blame you, really. Try to
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.)

One of the best ways 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?

If a reasonably intelligent judge could make it through your memoir entry without being able to answer these questions, you should probably consider a spot of revision before you mail off the entry.

“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 also probably cannot get away with assuming that the writing alone will differentiate it from the other submissions. Again, if there’s recently been a bestseller along similar lines as yours, yours will almost certainly not be the only entry that resembles it.

To put it another way, 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?

Sad but true, 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.

Yes, yes, I know: I’m asking a lot of you here, but I’m positive that you can do this.

You want to know how I know? Because a writer with the staggering courage and honestly to write a truly self-revealing memoir, rather than one that simply makes the self look good, is a writer who has had to master many subtle writing skills. Call me zany, but compared to laying your soul bare on paper, doing a little market research and a bit of book promotion is a walk in the park.

Not a very pleasant park, true, but still, not a minefield. Keep up the good work!

More contest entry bugbears: what’s in a name?

anne-and-valis-cover.jpg
Anne contemplates her past at Harvard.

Before I launch into today’s topic, I wanted to give you all a heads-up about an interview I have just given to that excellent French Philip K. Dick fansite, Dickien.fr on the subject of my long-delayed memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. For those of you who have been curious about the book (and the hold-up), this interview may answer a few questions.

Charmingly, they’ve posted it both in English and in French. I got a big kick out of that. It’s not the first time my work has been published in other tongues (I wrote for a Dutch magazine, briefly), but it IS the first time it’s been in a language I can read. It makes me sound very soigné.

Fair warning: over the last few years, most of my attempts to tell the story behind my memoir (or, to put it another way, my life before the age of 15) have resulted in nasty lawsuit threats. The question of whether I own my memories or a small corporation does is, in addition to a fabulous-sounding premise for a Philip K. Dick novel, the central fact of my writing life of late.

Call it a literary identity crisis.

In keeping with the theme of the interview, 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 — for an early draft of the book mentioned above, as it happens — I have a thing or two to say on what does and doesn’t tend to make a memoir entry sing.

So let’s get right to it, shall we? Because I have been concentrating upon technicalities for the past few days, let me begin with the most important one for memoir — and the one most frequently violated:

please, I implore you, if you are submitting a memoir entry to a blind-judged contest, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. And do bear in mind that this applies to EITHER your first OR your last name.

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.

Seriously, memoirists run afoul of this rule all the time, for the exceedingly simple reason that their names tend to appear a whole lot more often in their work than, say, a SF writer’s would in his. (Philip is a notable exception, of course; he created fictional characters with permutations of his own name all the time.) It’s pretty easy to overlook a single reference to the protagonist in a book that’s written in the first person.

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 something along the lines of:

since the contest forbids mention of the author’s name, I have substituted “Billie Bartolucci” throughout.

Billy Bartolucci, incidentally, was an immense linebacker at my high school, sweet enough to get a big kick out of the fact that the girls in the drama club used to claim that they were Miss Billie when some ne’er-do-well asked for their names and phone numbers. Billy sounded like Darth Vader on the phone, so the effects were sometimes dramatic.

But I digress. For those of you who have not yet tread the memoir path (which is, I notice, more or less de rigeur for a novelist who hopes to win the Nobel Prize someday), it’s practically impossible NOT refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life. Contest 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 one iota.

Make yourself comfortable; I’m going to tell you a little story about where such cleverness might lead. 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 he 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 straightaway: 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, however,this practice would have gotten him disqualified immediately.

I bring this up not because there are legions of Machiavellian-minded rule-manglers out there — although there apparently are — 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 some of 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 let’s take a gander 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. Naturally, a simple search-and-replace could weed out uses of the name, but late at night, just before a contest deadline, slips do occur.

Luckily, these slips tend to concentrate within certain contexts. 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, are often counted as rule violations. So Biddy would be wise to do a search-and-replace for BOTH her first AND last names in her entry before she prints 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!

Stating the obvious

Before I get to today’s installment of the self-editing saga, here’s some worthwhile browsing for those of you who are planning to enter your work in a literary contest, well, ever: the ever-interesting Missy has posted a judge’s-eye view of poetry entries on her blog, the Incurable Disease of Writing. The judge’s perspective is so very different from the entrants’ that it really must be experienced first-hand to be fully comprehended, but Missy does a great job of giving writers an inside peek.

Her timing couldn’t have been better. Today I shall be dealing with a manuscript problem that is frequently invisible to the writer who produced it (myself included, I’ll readily admit), yet glaringly visible to a professional reader, for precisely the same reason that formatting problems are instantly recognizable to a contest judge: after you’ve see the same phenomenon crop up in 75 of the last 200 manuscripts you’ve read, your eye gets sensitized to it.

I’m talking, of course, about those most cut-able of sentences, statements of the obvious. If you’ll take the trouble to read on, I shall give you an example.

I heard some of you out there chuckle — you caught me in the act: the second sentence of the previous paragraph IS an example of a self-evident proposition. Knowing that I am a writer addicted to giving examples, where else would my faithful readers look for further explanation other than later in the text? To the PREVIOUS paragraph?

Lest that seem like an over-reaction to what in fact was an innocent line of text, allow me to give you a peek into the professional reader’s world: when you’re reading in order to catch mistakes — as every agency screener, agent, editor, and contest judge is forced to do, faced with mountains of submissions — you’re inclined to get a mite testy. Liability of the trade.

In fact, to maintain the level of focus necessary edit a manuscript really well, it is often desirable to keep oneself in a constant state of reactivity. To a professional reader in such a state, the appearance of a self-evident proposition on a page is like the proverbial red flag to a bull; the reaction is often disproportionate to the offense. Some things professional readers have been known to howl at the pages in front of them, regardless of the eardrums belonging to the inhabitants of adjacent cubicles:

In response to the innocuous line, “He shrugged his shoulders”: “What else could he possibly have shrugged? His kneecaps?” (Insert violent scratching sounds here, leaving only the words, “He shrugged” still standing in the text.)

In response to the innocent statement, “She blinked her eyes”: “The last time I checked, eyes are the only part of the body that CAN blink!” (Scratch, scratch, scratch.)

In response to “The queen waved her hand at the crowd”: “Waving ASSUMES hand movement! Why is God punishing me like this?” (Scratch, maul, stab pen through paper repeatedly.)

And that’s just how the poor souls react to all of those logically self-evident statements on a sentence level. It’s the assertions of the obvious on a larger scale that send them screaming into their therapists’ offices, moaning that all of the writers of the world have leagued together in a conspiracy to bore them to death.

As is so often the case, the world of film provides some gorgeous examples of the larger-scale writing problem. Take, for instance, the phenomenon film critic Roger Ebert has dubbed the Seeing-Eye Man: after the crisis in an action film has ended, the male lead embraces the female lead and says, “It’s over,” as though the female might not have noticed something as minor as Godzilla’s disappearance or the cessation of gunfire or the bad guys dead at their feet. In response to this helpful statement, she nods gratefully.

Or the cringing actor who glances at the sky immediately after the best rendition of a thunderclap ever heard on film: “Is there a storm coming?”

Taken one at a time, such statements of the obvious are not necessarily teeth-grinding events — but if they happen too often over the course of the introductory pages, they can be deal-breakers. You’re better off cutting ALL of them — and yes, it’s worth a read-through to search out every last one.

Yes, even if your manuscript does not fall into this trap very often. Remember, you have absolutely no control over whose submission a screener will read immediately prior to yours. Even if your submission contains only one self-evident proposition over the course of the first 50 pages, if it appears on page 2, and everybody’s favorite agency screener, Millicent, just finished wrestling with a manuscript where the obvious is pointed out four times a page, how likely do you think it is that Millie will kindly overlook it amongst the multifarious wonders of your pages?

You’re already picturing her astonishing passersby with her wrathful comments, aren’t you?

The trouble is, virtually all the time, these obvious statements appear to the writer to be simple explanation. Innocuous, or even necessary. But provide too much information about a common experience or everyday object, and the line between the practical conveyance of data and explaining the self-evident can become dangerously thin.

I’ve been using bald examples so far, but let’s take a look at how subtle self-evidence might appear on a page:

***The hand of the round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake ate his pie with a folk, alternating bites of overly-sweetened Ollieberry with swigs of coffee from his mug. As he ate, farmers came into the diner to eat lunch, exhausted from riding the plows that tore up the earth in neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. The waitress gave bills to each of them when they had finished eating, but still, Jake’s wait went on and on.***

Now, to an ordinary reader, rather than a detail-oriented professional one, there isn’t much wrong with this paragraph, is there? It conveys a rather nice sense of place and mood. But see how much of it could actually be cut by removing embroideries upon the obvious:

***The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened Ollieberry pie with swigs of coffee. As he ate, farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. Even after they had finished eating and left, Jake’s wait went on and on.***

The reduction of an 85-word paragraph to an equally effective 59-word one may not seem like a major achievement, but in a manuscript that’s running long, every cut counts. And the shorter version will make the Millicents of the world, if not happy, at least pleased to see a submission that assumes that she is intelligent enough to know that generally speaking, people eat pie with cutlery and drink fluids from receptacles.

This is one of those areas where it honestly is far easier for a reader other than the writer to catch the problem, though, so if you can line up other eyes to scan your submission before it ends up on our friend Millicent’s desk, do. Hand your first reader the biggest, thickest marking pen in your drawer, and ask her to make a great big X in the margin every time the narrative takes the time to explain that rain is wet, of all things, that a character’s watch was strapped to his wrist, of all places, or that another character applied lipstick to — wait for it — her lips.

I am now going to post this blog on my website on my computer, which is sitting on my desk. To do so, I might conceivably press buttons on my keyboard or even use my mouse for scrolling. You never can tell.

Keep up the good work!

Assumptions, assumptions

Remember how I told you that it is ALWAYS a strategic mistake assume that the readers of your queries and submissions know ANYTHING about the subject matter of your book prior to reading your work? No? Well, allow me to refresh your memory.

As I pointed out in my August series on manuscript revision with an eye to how an agency screener tends to read, authorial assumptions of readerly understanding can water down the intended impact of a manuscript. Obviously, this is true when the assumptions in question are inherently offensive to the reader — stereotyping, for instance, has taken down many a promising submission — but it is also the case where the text proceeds on the assumption that the reader has certain specialized knowledge of the underlying subject matter of the book.

In other words: it’s never a good idea to assume that an agent, screener, or even lay reader has ANY background that would free you from the necessity of explanation. (True of editors, too. But of that, more later, when I get to the part about ME, ME, ME.) Again, the question recurs: how sure are you about who will be reading YOUR submission?

You cannot always rely upon an agent’s background knowledge — even, amazingly enough, when the phenomenon in question is fairly well known. Just as you can’t get away with presuming that any given reader (again, read: agent, editor, or contest judge) will share your political or social beliefs, you cannot legitimately assume that the agent you covet WASN’T brought up in a cardboard box at the base of a mineshaft in an unusually warm part of Antarctica.

So while it’s already a poor idea to include too many pop culture references because they date your book, it’s also not strategically wise because your reader may not recognize them.

Partially, it’s a poor idea because you can’t be sure that the person reading your manuscript will be in your age group (or ethnic group, or sex group — that sounds racier than it is, doesn’t it? — or bridge club, for that matter). Your submission may as easily be read by a 23-year-old recent Columbia graduate with a nose piercing, eight tattoos, and an immoderate admiration for Benito Mussolini as by a 50-year-old Democrat in Armani.

At many agencies, in fact, the screening process would entail your work being approved by both. (In case you’re not aware of it, at a major agency, the agent herself is almost NEVER the first person to read a submission. Yes, even if she requested it from someone she met at a conference. It’s not at all uncommon for a manuscript to need to garner two or even three positive reviews from the screening pool before landing on the agent’s desk.)

Obviously, then, it would not be the best strategic move to make your work inaccessible to a reader outside your own age group — yes, even if you are writing a book SPECIFICALLY for readers in your age group. Screeners and editorial assistants tend to be young, so they might well need an explanation of, say, the quotidian effects of menopause.

How young, you ask? I don’t mean to scare those of you on Social Security, but practically the only editorial feedback I received on my memoir from the callow stripling assigned to it by my publishing house was flagged cultural references. The two that stick in my mind: next to Dacron, he had scrawled, “What is this?” and next to Aristotle, he had written, “Who?”

I’m just saying.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but for the benefit of those of you new to this blog, allow me to emphasize that age assumptions can be especially disastrous in contest entries: I can’t tell you how many entries I’ve screened as a judge that automatically assumed that every reader would be a Baby Boomer, with that set of life experiences. As a Gen Xer with parents born long before the Baby Boom (my father had first-hand memories of hometown doughboys marching off to World War I; my mother’s elementary school best friend was carted off to a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II), I obviously read these entries differently than an older (or younger) person would.

More to the point, as would a judge in her late 60s — or 70s, or 80s, as often they are. Being a contest judge takes TIME, especially for those stalwart souls who are first round readers. They need to be able to read and comment upon dozens of entries within a short window of time, so contest judges tend to be either extraordinarily dedicated volunteers who are willing to forego sleep in order to help out, people like me who have extremely flexible schedules, or —  and this is far and away the largest potential group of volunteers — retired people.

Thus, like the Academy Awards, the average age of a first-round contest judge tends to fall in the charmingly graying range. Which — I hate to say it, but it’s often true — tends to place those who write for Gen Xers or Gen Yers at a competitive disadvantage in the average contest. Yet another reason it’s a pretty good idea to make sure that any piece you enter would read well for ANY English-reading demographic.

Just as with your submissions to agencies, you never know how old your readers will be.

Ditto for concepts, cultural phenomena, professions, etc. — and ditto fifty times over for phenomena that do not routinely occur on the Eastern seaboard. Many things are beyond the average Manhattanite’s ken. So if your protagonist is an Alaskan fisherwoman, it’s probably a fairly safe bet that an agent in NYC will have little to no idea what such a person’s day-to-day life would entail, other than that there is probably a boat involved. Possibly a net as well.

However, it’s not always as simple as that: for all you know, the agent of your dreams’ older brother spent half a decade on just such a fishing boat (it was right after our Jimmy ran off to follow the Grateful Dead for a couple of years, but the family doesn’t talk about that, unless someone asks about his missing pinkie finger.) And, wouldn’t you know it, Jimmy was an unusually prolific writer of letters home. While he was on the high seas, he was clinging to a miniscule desk below deck, scribbling away like Mme. de Staël, giving your agent a crash course in all things fishery.

And this presents a genuine dilemma for the writer, doesn’t it? You have to be prepared for both complete ignorance and intimate familiarity with your subject matter. The trouble is, of course, is that before you submit, you have absolutely no idea which.

In order to succeed in this business, of course, you will need to accept that you cannot control who will read your work after you mail it to an agency. If your romance novel about cruise line captain happens to fall onto the desk of someone who has recently experienced food poisoning mid-cruise (just before the mambo tournament, too!) and resented it, there’s really nothing you can do to assuage her dislike. Similarly, if your self-help book on resolving intrafamily discord is screened by a reader in the midst of a three-year fight with her siblings over Grandma’s estate (she promised the figurines to everybody, apparently), no efforts on your part can assure a non-cynical read. And, as long-term readers of this blog already know, a tongue just burned on a latté often spells disaster for the next manuscript its owner reads.

All you can do is concentrate on what you can control: clarity, aptness of references, and making your story or argument appeal to as broad an audience as possible.

That being said, I have another truth to spring on you, so brace yourselves: everything I have just told you about dealing with agencies and contests is roughly 47 times more pertinent — and more important — when dealing with an editor at a publishing house. But of that (ME, ME, ME!), more tomorrow.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!