Book marketing 101: a professional-looking title page

My, this has been a long series, hasn’t it? A lot of ground to cover. Before I move on to topics more closely related to the writing in your book, rather than the writing in your marketing materials — specifically, I would like to spend a substantial chunk of the next couple of months going over the most common writing problems agents and editors see in submissions — I want to spend today talking about the very first thing an agent or editor will see IN your submission: the title page.

And yes, Virginia, EVERY submission needs one, as does every contest entry. Even if you are sending chapters 2-38 after an agent has pronounced herself delighted with chapter 1, you should send a title page with every hunk of writing you submit.

I know, I know: pretty much nobody ASKS you to include one (although contests sometimes require it), but a manuscript, even a partial one, that is not topped by one looks undressed to folks in the publishing industry. So much so that it would be completely out of the question for an agent to submit a book to a publishing house without one.

Why? Because, contrary to popular belief amongst writers, it is not just a billboard for your book’s title and your chosen pen name. It’s the only page of the manuscript that contains your contact information, book category, and word count.

In words, it is both the proper place to announce how you may best be reached and a fairly sure indicator of how much experience you have dealing with the publishing industry. Why the latter? Because aspiring writers so often either omit it entirely or include the wrong information on it.

You, however, are going to do it right — and that is going to make your submission look very good by comparison.

There is information that should be on the title page, and information that shouldn’t; speaking with my professional editing hat on for a moment, virtually every manuscript I see has a non-standard title page, so it is literally the first thing I, or any editor, will correct in a manuscript.

I find this trend sad, because for every ms. I can correct before they are sent to agents and editors, there must be hundreds of thousands that make similar mistakes. Even sadder, the 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 completely fair to aspiring writers — but once again, I do not, alas, run the universe, nor do I make the rules that I report to you. If I set up the industry’s norms, I would decree that every improperly-formatted title page would be greeted with a very kind letter, explaining precisely what was done wrong, saying that it just doesn’t count this time, and inviting the writer to revise and resubmit.

Perhaps, in the worst cases, the letter could be sent along with a coupon for free ice cream. Chances are, the poor writer is going to be shocked to learn that the title page of which he is so proud is incorrectly formatted.

But I digress.

The single most common mistake: a title page that is not in the same font and point size as the rest of the manuscript.

Since the rise of the personal computer and decent, inexpensive home printers, it has become VERY common for writers to use immense type and fancy typefaces for title pages, or even photographs, designs, or other visually appealing whatsits.

From a creative point of view, the tendency is completely understandable: if you have 50 or 100 fonts at your disposal, why not use the prettiest? And while you’re at it, why not use a typeface that’s visible from five feet away?

For one extremely simple reason: professional title pages are noteworthy for only two things, their visual spareness and the consequent ease of finding information upon them.

It’s rare, in fact, that any major US agency would allow its clients to send out a title page in anything BUT 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier for a submission, since these are the standards for the industry.

Why these fonts? The logic is complicated here, but in essence, it boils down to an affection for the bygone days of the typewriter: Times is the equivalent of the old elite typeface; Courier is pica. (I know, I know: there are other explanations floating around the Internet, but as this is what people in the industry have actually said when asked about it for the last 25 years, I’m going to continue to report it here.)

More to the point, agents and editors are used to estimating word counts as 250 words/page for the Times family and 200/page for the Courier family. When a submitting writer uses other fonts, it throws off calculations considerably.

Mind you, in almost every instance, an actual word count will reveal that these estimates are woefully inadequate, sometimes resulting in discrepancies of tens of thousands of words over the course of a manuscript. But if you check the stated word counts of published books from the major houses, you’ll almost always find that the publisher has relied upon the estimated word count, not the actual.

Unless an agency or publishing house SPECIFICALLY states a preference for actual word count, then, you’re usually better off sticking to estimation.

I wish that this were more often made clear at literary conferences; it would save masses of writerly chagrin. When an agent or editor at conference makes everyone in the room groan by announcing that she would have a hard time selling a novel longer than 100,000 words, she is generally referring not to a book precisely 100,012 words long, but a 400-page manuscript.

Is that hoopla I hear out there the rejoicing of those of you who tend to run a mite long? Or perhaps those who just realized that unless an edit cuts or adds an entire page to the manuscript, it isn’t going to affect the estimated word count? These are not insignificant benefits for following industry norms, are they?

So let’s take it as given that your title page should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. All of it, even the title. No exceptions — and no pictures, designs, or other bits of whimsy. You may place the title in boldface, if you like, or in all capitals, but that’s as elaborate as it is safe to get.

DEFINITELY do not make the title larger than the rest of the text. It may look cool to you, but to professional eyes — I hate to tell you this, but better you find out from me — it looks rather like a child’s picture book.

Do I hear disgruntled voices out there? “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 choice pales in comparison to these crucial elements?”

You’re right, of course — it does, PROVIDED you can get an agent or editor to sit down and read your entire submission.

Which happens far less often than aspiring writers tend to think. Ask any agent — it’s not at all uncommon for a submission to be rejected on page 1. So isn’t it better if the submission hasn’t already struck the screener as unprofessional prior to page 1?

Unfortunately, this is a business of snap decisions, especially in the early stages of the road to publication, where impressions are often formed, well, within seconds. 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 seem be silly — in fact, I would go so far as to say that it IS silly — but it’s true, nevertheless.

Even queries in the proper typefaces tend to be better received. If you are feeling adventurous, go ahead and experiment, sending out one set of queries in Times New Roman and one in Helvetica, and see which gets a better response.

As any agency screener will tell you after you have bought him a few drinks (hey, I try to leave no stone left unturned in my quest to find out what these people want to see in submissions, so I may pass it along to you), the Times New Roman queries are more likely to strike agents (and agents’ assistants, once they sober up again) as coming from a well-prepared writer, one who will not need to be walked through every nuance of the publication process to come.

Yes, I know — it seems shallow. But think of conforming to title page requirements in the same light as following a restaurant’s dress code. No one, not even the snottiest maitre d’, seriously believes that forcing a leather-clad punk to don a dinner jacket or a tie will fundamentally alter the disposition of the wearer for the duration of the meal. But it does guarantee a certain visual predictability to the dining room, at least insofar as one overlooks facial piercings, tattoos, and other non-sartorial statements of individuality.

And, frankly, setting such standards gives the maitre d’ an easy excuse to refuse entry on an impartial basis, rather than by such mushy standards as his gut instinct that the lady in the polyester pantsuit may be consorting with demons in her off time. Much less confrontational to ask her to put on a skirt or leave.

Sending your submission into an agency or publishing house properly dressed minimizes the chances of a similar knee-jerk negative reaction. It’s not common that a submission is rejected on its title page alone (although I have heard of its happening), but an unprofessional title page — or none at all — does automatically lower expectations.

Or, to put it another way, Millicent the screener is going to be watching the guy with the tie a whole lot less critically than the guy with the studded leather dog collar and 27 visible piercings, and is far less likely to dun the former for using the wrong fork for his salad.

Tomorrow, I am going to go over the two most common formats for a professional title page — and, if my newly-learned computer trick works, give you some concrete examples. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

What happens to an entry AFTER you mail it

I’m going to operate under the assumption that a lot of my regular readers have been spending this unseasonably pleasant PNW day frantically proofreading their entries, searching wildly for an envelope large enough to fit two copies, and generally freaking out because it’s deadline day for the PNWA literary contest. (For those of you Seattle-area members who are truly panicking, there’s a post office down near SeaTac who postmarks later than the average – until 8 p.m., if memory serves, but do call ahead of time and make sure. It’s in Burien.) Remember the feeling of this day: after you win (as I sincerely hope you will), people will ask you about how confident you felt as you passed your entry into the tender care of an overworked postal employee.

Just so you know, “I wondered why I put myself through this hell” does not play well as a response. Make up something you’d like your biographers to reprint a hundred years from now.

So now the long wait to hear back begins. In the PNWA contest, category finalists are generally notified in late May or early June, early enough that they can get good airfares to attend the conference. If your entry does not make the finals, you will not hear back until AFTER the conference, when you receive your feedback sheets.

Translation: if you do not make the finals, you may not hear ANYTHING until August. So no news is bad news, in this instance. However, if you have not heard by mid-June, you need not necessarily despair of your chances: last year, for instance, internal organizational crises meant that finalists were notified weeks later than usual. It’s not a good idea to hold your breath, in short.

If you are a finalist, PLEASE, for your own sake, try to make it to the conference. A finalist ribbon dangling over one’s stomach is like a backstage pass at a sold-out rock concert: if you’re brave about it, it really does allow you much more leeway about buttonholing agents and editors in the hallways. Not to mention making it substantially easier to meet other contest attendees; it’s an instant conversation-starter, a variation on the contest-ubiquitous, “So, what do you write?”

In case you’re curious about what will happen to your entry between now and then, first, it will be processed by wonderful, charming volunteers who don’t get nearly enough credit for the hours they put in on all of our behalves. They do the bureaucratic part, separating the entry form from the entries, arranging them by category for blind judging, assigning numbers so they can later figure out whose anonymous entry was whose. Oh, and they cash the checks.

Then they go to the category chair, who in turn will assign them to the first-round judges. Two first-round judges will read each entry, filling out complex rating forms. After the entries are ranked, the category chair will tabulate the findings, make ultra-sure that all of the top-ranked entries met ALL of the entry requirements, and come up with a list of finalists.

The bureaucratic end will then figure out who those entrants were, and then the finalists’ entries will go on to the category judge, usually either someone prominent in that particular field or one of the agents or editors attending the conference.

With the exception of the final judge, who is generally paid for his services, every single person who touches your entry is a volunteer. You should stand and cheer for these people; they are doing us all a great big favor.

If you did not enter this year’s contest, you might want to consider contacting the PNWA and offering to be a first-round judge in your favorite category. I can think of no experience that will educate you faster (short of being a query screener in a top-ranked agency) about what does and does not look professional in a manuscript. You will also get an unparalleled view of the kind of competition you can expect if you enter future contests.

Not to mention the kick of being the one who gets to point out deviations from standard format. It’s not much power, but it’s worth doing.

It’s also quite interesting, and the joy a judge feels upon discovering a hit-it-out-of-the-ballpark entry really isn’t like anything else. Except, perhaps, watching your favorite ball player hit a home run. But that lasts for a mere second, while the elation of reading a truly superlative entry lasts for hours. Or maybe I’m just more enamored of good writing than most people.

Thus ends this year’s series on contest entries. If, in retrospect, you think of a topic that would have been helpful to see covered here, drop a line via the comments function and suggest it, please.

Oh, and while I’m on the subject, my apologies to those of you who had sent out your entries before this last weekend’s barrage of tips. I’ve been in rather a hard place, strategically, since I know from last year’s experience that most of the writers logging into the blog for contest-entry advice do so within the last few days of the deadline. Since the panicked many are the most rushed of readers, the material they need to see most has to be at the top of the pile, so to speak.

Yet I did not want to make the series too redundant for my longer-term readers. All in all, it’s been like trying to plan the articles in a bridal magazine: covering the same material again and again, having to assume that any given article might be read by someone who is absolutely new to the subject matter, yet trying to put a fresh spin on the material to keep things interesting. It’s been harder than it looks. At least, I hope so.

On to new pastures and topics! My good wishes follow your contest entries – and, as always, keep up the good work.

To those of you who are posting a PNWA entry today

Okay, take a deep breath. Remember that you have talent, and that you are being a brave advocate for that talent whenever you enter a contest or send out a query. Be proud of yourself. Then take another deep breath, and don’t drive yourself crazy with worry about whether you should revise the whole thing again before you send it out.

Repeat above as many times as necessary to get yourself through the day — and your entry postmarked.

And, of course, keep up the good work!

Increasing your chances: the niceties

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

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.


(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 chances, part III: keep your wig on, Rapunzel!

I have been thinking all day about the story of Rapunzel, and how it relates to the writer’s life. The past couple of years has been rather fairy tale-ish for me and my work — not in the Disneyfied sense of some man one has never seen before showing up and improving current conditions by taking one away from them, but in the older, darker fairy tale sense. Wicked Stepsisters trying to prevent my memoir from going to the ball where it might be recognized; a frightened monarch locking my book up in a dungeon, far from the sight of day, in the superstitious belief that it might start a war; incorporating an editor’s feedback is very much a case of spinning straw into gold, and as a freelance editor, I’m often called in like Rumplestiltskin to ease the process heck, I’ve even been working on a proposal of a NF book about a lone woman fighting to save a bunch of miners from the machinations of a foreign power into which Snow White could step with only a slight change of make-up.

But in thinking about contests and querying, Rapunzel is our girl. See if this sounds familiar to any of you: a well-meaning person, due to conditions that prevailed before she was born, finds herself locked in a tower. (History does not record whether she was locked in there with a computer or not, but let’s assume for the moment that she was.) Her only hope of getting out is for someone to notice her, so she grows her hair as long and as shiny as possible, to be seen as far away as, to take a random example, an NYC-based agency or publishing house. When the prince is intrigued by her querying locks, she is overjoyed, more hopeful than she has been in a long time.

And then what happens? A nasty old witch tosses the prince out of the tower window and shears off all of Rapunzel’s beautiful hair. Cast into despair again, all poor Rapunzel can think to do is grow another few stories’ worth of hair.

So it is all too often with the hopeful contest entrant and the contest judge. The entrant toils in solitude, trying to produce something prince-attracting, and sends it off to the contest that promises fame and glory. (Well, actually, all it technically promises is a nice ribbon, boasting rights on future query letters, and perhaps a small check, but work with me here.) The judge grasps the entry – but if there is anything in it that disturbs his sensibilities about what is and isn’t professional-level writing, out the tower window it goes. And the poor writer’s ego shares the fate of Rapunzel’s hair, lopped off until such time as the writer can regrow it.

Well, so much for my pep talk du jour. On to other matters…

No, but seriously, folks, I talk to many, many writers in the course of an average month, and the most common complaint is that the publishing world is hostile to their respective books, as evidenced by not making it to the finalist round in contests and query rejections. And literally every individual writer believes that this is a personal problem, that there is either something so good or so bad about his book that the judges, agents, and editors of the world are in unprecedented agreement that it should be given a chance.

In the first place, poppycock: judges, agents, and editors tend to conform to certain basic expectations of format and presentation, but taste is and has always been individual. Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: a rejection by ANY single person, be it agent, editor, or contest judge, is just that, a rejection from a single person. No matter how universally folks in the industry describe their opinions (“No one is buying books on horse raising anymore.”), it just doesn’t make sense to regard their opinions about your work as identical to those of the industry until you have a whole lot of evidence that it’s accurate.

As in, for instance, 100 letters of rejection.

However – and this is a BIG however – there are plenty of non-writing problems that can get work rejected in agency and contest alike. I cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining in your mind a clear distinction between the TECHNICAL problems that might get a contest entry disqualified – improper margins, odd spacing, not using the kind of binding specified in contest rules, etc. – CONTENT problems that might keep it out of the finalist’s round, and STYLE issues. Until you have ruled out the first two levels of problem, you cannot legitimately conclude that your work isn’t winning contests or attracting agents because of a lack of talent.

Obviously, all three factors need to be in fighting trim for an entry to make it to the finalist round. But the VAST majority of the time, writing style – what almost every writer sees as the ONLY thing being judged in a literary contest – is not what knocks an entry out of the running.

So really, Rapunzel, do you need to grow a new batch of hair between contest entries, or do you just need to wash and style it differently?

How can you find out which is applicable to your work? As I mentioned earlier, contests that give entrants written feedback, regardless of where their entries place, can be a real boon for the aspiring writer. Sometimes, they give great advice – and actually, the cost of the average entry fee is often less than what a professional editor would charge to give feedback on the average-length entry. So if you get a conscientious judge, you can glean a great deal of practical advice.

If you get a grumpy judge, however, or one who disqualifies your entry on technical grounds, getting feedback can be a real ego-saver. If the judge missed the point of your piece (it’s been known to happen, alas; remember, until the final round of judging, the vast majority of readers are volunteers, and as such, their reading skills vary), it will be very, very apparent from his feedback. And if you got a judge who simply did not like the typeface you used (again, it has been known to happen), it is far more useful to you to learn for certain that the typeface – and not, say, the quality of your writing – scuttled your chances.

Yes, I did just say that I have seen good writing disqualified for reasons as minor as typeface selection – and in contests where the entry requirements did not specify the use of a particular font. I have seen good writing tossed aside for reasons as arbitrary as the first-round judge not liking semicolons much. And in a contest where the entrant doesn’t receive feedback, the writer would never know it.

You see now why I’m so adamant that Rapunzel should keep her hair on until she’s sure what’s going on?

To be successful, your entry needs to speak to readers with the broadest possible array of prejudices about what is and is not good writing. Effectively, your work is not just being read by the judges, but by the spectre of every writing teacher they have ever had – and their own interactions with the publishing world.

So when you submit your work to be judged in a contest, you are expected to adhere to not only the contest requirements (see yesterday’s blog for guidance on that all-important insight) but also to the contest judges’ conception of how a professional manuscript should be presented. As a result, it is VERY much in your interest to make your entry look as close to a submission to a top-flight agent as the contest rules permit.

You should make sure, in short, that your work is in standard format.

I can hear my long-time readers groan: yes, I am harping on standard format AGAIN, and with good reason. It adds significantly to the prestige of a contest if its winners go on to have their work published; to obtain this wholly delightful result, contest judges tend to screen entries not just for quality, but for marketability as well.

So if your entry contains the type of non-standard formatting that the judge believes would cause the average agent or small-press editor to cast it aside, it’s not going to make it to the next round. (Particularly in those contests where final-round judging is performed by agents, editors, and/or celebrity writers; the screeners want a very clean set of manuscripts to send to them.)

Trust me on this one: the exact same entry, if you entered it once in standard formatting and once in more eccentric format, would almost invariably place at different levels in any writing competition held in North America. I have judged contests where formatting counted for as much as a quarter of the final score. If you are serious about making it to the finalist round, use standard format.

You can save yourself SIGNIFICANT bundles of time during contest entry season if you just go ahead and adhere to standard format from the FIRST day you start working on a project, of course. Sending out queries will be swifter, and you will definitely be in better shape on that great day when an agent or editor asks to read your first 50 pages. Think of it as having your interview suit all pressed and ready, so you can leap into it the second you get the call from your dream job.

Since I went over the strictures of standard format as recently as early December, I shall not go over them again. (Pleasantly surprised, long-term readers?) If you missed my last diatribe about it, feel free to peruse the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.

However, for the benefit of those of you planning to enter the upcoming PNWA contest, I wanted to give you a heads-up about one of its rule peculiarities that deviates from standard format. The rules specify that the first page of the entry should not contain a page number in its slug line, which has never been a provision of standard format.

So what does this mean, in actual practice? Not numbering the title page? If you begin with a synopsis, should you not number that?

I’m anticipating myself a little here, but I ALWAYS advise including a professional title page in a contest entry: it looks more polished, and it renders it a snap to include the information pretty much every contest asks entrants to include somewhere in the entry. However, title pages are never numbered, under any circumstances, nor they are never included in the page count. (0r word count, for that matter, for submissions to agents and editors.)

Perhaps more importantly, nor do title pages count toward the contest’s page limit.

What the PNWA is asking to see is no page number on the first page of TEXT in the entry — because, although they do not say so, they are assuming that page 1 of your entry will be the first page of text proper, rather than the synopsis. If you choose to place your synopsis first in the packet, go ahead and leave the page number off that page.

Do be aware, though, that old school judges tend to prefer a synopsis to come at the end of an entry, for much the same reason that it should come at the end of a submission to an agent: that way, the reader is encouraged to judge the writing first and book’s premise second. Not a bad idea. If you decide to do it in this order, DO number the synopsis’ first page, just like the rest of the entry, rather than providing the synopsis with its own title page.

Phew! That was a long one, wasn’t it? Keep an eye on those technicalities, everybody, and remember, your ego should be tied up with the beauties of your writing style, not whether you remembered to double dashes in your manuscript. By removing any technical reasons that even the grumpiest judge could dun your entry, you increase your chances of your gorgeous prose being appreciated a thousandfold.

Keep up the good work!

Picking the right contest, part VIII: choosing to jump through only the NON-flaming hoops

Welcome back to my resumption of the absorbing topic of literary contests. Next week, I shall be going into fine detail about technical tweaking you can give your entries that will make them more likely to end up in the finalist pile, but today, I want to finish up my series of questions you should ask yourself about a contest before you invest your time, money, and hope in entering.

In my last post, I discussed the pitfalls of contests that require entrants to devote extensive time to filling out entry forms, especially those that require information that should be positively irrelevant in a blind-judged contest. (Personal references? Huh?) You can also save yourself a lot of time if you avoid contests that make entrants jump through a lot of extraneous hoops in preparing a submission.

Some of these requirements have to be seen to be believed. Specific typefaces, if they differ from the ones required by standard manuscript format. Fancy paper (three-hole punched, anyone?). Bizarre margin requirements. Expensive binding. An unprintable entry form that must be sent away for with a SASE – presumably because the contest organizers have yet to hear of the internet – and need to be filled out by typewriter, rather than by hand. (Does anyone out there still OWN a typewriter?)

Each of these will eat up your time and money, without the end result’s being truly indicative of the quality of your work. Because, really, all conforming with such oddball requirements really shows is that an entrant can follow directions.

I’m sorry to shock anyone, but my notion of a literary contest is one where the entrant proves that she can WRITE, not that she can READ. But I suppose that could be my own absurd little prejudice.

I don’t enter contests anymore, of course – most agents frown upon their clients’ entering them, and really, pros skew the scoring curve. But when my clients ask me whether a particular contest is worthwhile for them to enter, my rule of thumb is that if they can pull together a contest entry with already-written material within a day’s worth of uninterrupted writing time, I consider it reasonable. I like this standard, because the more time you have to write, the more entry-ambitious it encourages you to be.

So if a contest requires time-consuming funky formatting, or printing on special contest forms, or wacko binding, you might not want to bother. To my contest-experienced eyes, such requests are not for your benefit, but the contest organizers’

How do I know? Because — and hold onto your hats, everybody, because I am about to reveal a deep, dark secret of the contest trade here — the primary purpose of these elaborate requests for packaging is to make it as easy as possible to disqualify entries. As a matter of simple probability, the more that they ask entrants to do to package an entry, the more ways an entrant can get it wrong. By setting up stringent and easily-visible cosmetic requirements, the organizers maximize the number of entries they can simply toss aside, unread.

Yes, you read that right: it’s so they don’t have to read all of the entries in full. Interestingly enough, many of the organizers of contests that establish these demands are quite open about its being merely an exercise in rule-following – and that they do it in order to preserve that most precious of commodities in this industry, time.

Not that you’d have to be Einstein, Mme. de Staël, and Confucius rolled into one to figure it out. Think about it: if contest organizers really only were only seeking uniformity amongst the entries, they could easily just say, “We will only accept entries in standard manuscript format.” No fuss, no bother, and besides, all of their entrants who want to get published should be using standard format, anyway, right? (If you are not already aware of the requirements of standard format, do yourself a favor and check out the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right. Manuscripts not conforming to standard format tend to be rejected unread in both contest situations and in agents’ offices.)

Instead, the organizers in this type of contest can merely assign some luckless intern or volunteer to go through the entries before the judges see page 1 of them, plucking out any that are in the wrong type of folder, printed on the wrong type of paper, don’t have the right funky margins…well, you get the idea. Voilà! The number of entries the judges have to read has magically decreased!

I find this practice annoying, frankly, and not being crystal-clear about the costs to the entrant of deviations from these non-literary requirements despicable. Over-adherence to nit-picky presentation issues provides the organization with the illusion of selectivity on bases that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. And that, my friends, is unfair to writers everywhere.

Which brings me to a specialized question aimed at those of you who are contest entries: how much of your writing time is being eaten up by contests these days? If you have been entering quite a few (and we’ve just finished a season of deadlines for contests and fellowship applications, and are about to enter another), would your time be better spent by passing on the next one?

Yes, a contest win or fellowship award looks great on your query letters, but it is possible to spend so much time on them that you are left with very little time to write. I once met a writer at an artists’ colony — we’d both won a competition to get in, one with a VERY involved application that I wouldn’t recommend anybody take the time to fill out — who spent literally three weeks of our month-long retreat there applying for other retreats, filling out grant applications, and entering contests. Apparently, this was her standard MO.

The result: a resume crammed to the brim with impressive contest wins and prestigious fellowships – and a grand total of two short stories and a few chapters of a novel completed in 9 years’ time. In her frantic quest to fund her writing habit, she had turned herself into a non-stop entering machine with no time or energy to write anything new.

There are so many literary contests out there that if you entered them all, you would never have a chance to get down to serious writing. Equally seriously, if you have a finished piece that you should be marketing to agents and/or small presses, it is very easy to tell yourself that entering contest after contest — at the expense of devoting that time to sending out queries — is a time- saver, in the long run. Unfortunately, that isn’t always true.

Yes, a win (or place, or finalist status) in a reputable contest can indeed speed up your agent-seeking process exponentially. I would be the last to deny that, as I met my agent as a direct result of winning the Nonfiction Book/Memoir category in the PNWA contest in 2004. It CAN lead to the fast track, and you should definitely enter a few for that very reason.

However – and this is a serious consideration – I meet a LOT of aspiring writers who turn to the contest route as a SUBSTITUTE for querying, and that can definitely slow the road to publication to a crawl. It’s understandable, of course – sending out query after query is discouraging, and in the current ultra-competitive writers’ market, it can sometimes take years to pique a good agent’s interest.

Not that it will take my readers years, of course. You’re one market-savvy bunch.

However tired of the querying grind you may be, PLEASE do not fall into the trap of using contests as a complete substitute. For one thing, the turn-around time for contest entries is significantly longer than the response time for even the least organized agencies: four to six months is common, and if you have a finished novel or NF book proposal in hand, that’s FAR too long to wait.

Also, if you hang all of your hopes on a contest win, even if you enter a plethora of contests, you are relying upon the quirky tastes of people you have never met to determine your fate.

Oh, yes, I know – that’s true when you send a query to an agent as well, but as I shall demonstrate next week, there are a great many reasons a submission might get knocked out of a contest competition that have little to do with the actual marketability – and sometimes not even the writing quality – of your work. To make it to the finalist round in a contest, you have to avoid every conceivable pet peeve that the initial screeners might have.

And, believe it or not, contest judges tend to have MORE pet peeves than agency screeners.

Mind-blowing, isn’t it? But true. With first readers at agencies (who are seldom the agents themselves, recall), you can at least rely upon certain basic rules. Standard format, for instance, is not a matter of individual whim, and you’re not going to have your submission tossed out on technical grounds if you follow it.

But in a contest, if you hit a volunteer first reader whose college English professor insisted that semicolons are ALWAYS an indicator of poor writing – yes, such curmudgeons do exist, and their erstwhile students abound — your work is likely to be knocked out of consideration the first time you use one. Ditto with the passive voice, or multiple points of view. You never can tell who is going to be a contest judge, so the outcome even for very good writing is far from predictable.

So please, keep sending out those queries while you are entering contests – and if you find that the time to prep contest entries are starting to be your excuse for not sending out more queries, stop and reevaluate whether you are making the best use of your time in your pursuit of publication.

If for no other reason that that I would really, really like to be able to gloat when your first book comes out. I ask for so little; humor me.

Happy weekend, everybody. Keep up the good work!

Is that dialogue I see before me?

I was called in as a last-minute replacement contest judge — yes, it happens; regularly-scheduled judges drop out all the time – at a time I shall simply designate as recently, so it will not be apparent which contest it is. (But it was really, really recent.) I highly recommend stepping up to judge a contest from time to time; there’s nothing like spending a long weekend with a small mountain of entries to get a very tangible sense of what agency screeners face each and every day.

I refer, of course, to the constant joy of revelation. Oh, and so much repetition that spontaneous combustion starts to seem marginally attractive, just to have some diversion.

I was in a fiction category this time, not my usual donnybrook. Most of the time, I step up for NF categories, because, generally speaking, it’s far harder to find experienced judges for NF. But this time, it was a couple of dozen 15-page (max) novel excerpts. After such a lengthy short chapter orgy, I felt I could not exist another instant on this terrestrial sphere without passing along the following piece of gleaned wisdom:

It is a whole lot easier than one might suspect to bore someone who has just read twenty manuscripts. All your really have to do, should you aspire to it, is to write like everyone else. The easiest way to do this, apparently, is to construct dialogue.

Remember a month or two ago, when I went on a rampage about the drawbacks of the ever-popular dialogue-only scene? (Okay, I could be referring to several different posts here: this is a pet peeve of mine as an editor and as a blogger.) I suggested gently, if memory serves, that such scenes tend to be frowned upon by many professional readers: if you want to make your points entirely through dialogue, the industry wisdom runs, write a play.

Novels, on the other hand, have been known to include such decorative details as character development and environment description. Little things like that. Yet most of us were taught at some point in our writing development that GOOD dialogue should reveal so much about the characters from whose mouths it is ostensibly falling that description is, well, kinda superfluous.

As someone who spent quite a few years teaching, let me let you in on a wee teaching secret: exaggeration is often a very effective way to make a point. You might want to take tutorial truisms with a grain of salt, therefore. As in one that you might purchase at Costco, and a forklift would deliver it to your car.

To put it another way, if you had just finished reading your 1500th 10th-grade story where every character says things angrily, sadly, or scornfully, you might well feel that some extreme measures were called for to reduce the sheer number of adverbs your eyeballs might be forced to scan in future. You might conceivably say tell your students to avoid them like the proverbial plague.

Yes, I am saying what you think I’m saying here: many, many dialogue-only pushers are not motivated merely by a love of spareness, or even a hatred of intra-text description. Much of the time, they are trying to cut down on all of those adverbs – and the tag lines they grace. (You remember tag lines, right? They’re the he said and she exclaimed part of the dialogue. A surprisingly high percentage of the time, most professional readers will tell you, they’re not necessary.)

In running full-tilt from the Scylla of over-reliance upon adverb-laden tag lines, however, many writers run smack into the Charybdis of over-terseness in their dialogue. As in pages at a time where there is nothing but dialogue as far as the eye can see. No softening indications of tone or body language; no indications of the room where the dialogue might conceivably be taking place, or indeed that the conversation is taking place in a tangible location at all; not even a hint that every speaker might not be telling the truth 100% of the time.

Because, of course, in real life, everyone speaks in a monotone while holding perfectly still, standing in a featureless, all-white room while doing it, and says everything that crosses his mind with perfect candor. Can’t throw a cupcake at a single party in North America without hitting someone engaged in THAT type of conversation.

And heavens, does this make contest entries (and submissions) similar! I hate to break anyone’s bubble here, but I have it on pretty good authority that after the fifth or sixth such dialogue scene in a row, the underdeveloped characters in one might conceivably start to seem a heck of a lot like the underdeveloped characters in the next. In fact, it is not at all hard to imagine a situation where such characters might begin to blur together after a while.

I’m not saying that every judge or screener would read so quickly that this would happen, of course. Just the ones with, you know, lives. Think about it: what professional reader has time to take a 15-minute break between reading projects to clear her head?

Actually, I think play-like dialogue in novels has quite a few significant drawbacks, over and above how common it is. First, it encourages the kind of real-life exchanges that, while undoubtedly a reflection of how people speak in authentic situations, is deadly dull on the page. Unless you’re Samuel Beckett (who wrote PLAYS, people!), you’re going to have an uphill battle trying to get the average reader (let alone a professional one) to sit through sterling exchanges on the order of:

Sonia: Is the tea ready?
Simon: Yeah.
Sonia: I had to buy the tea myself today, you know. Didn’t you see the note on the refrigerator?
Simon: No. Isn’t there any sugar?
Sonia: No, there isn’t, because time, in case you haven’t noticed, is not infinitely flexible. I do not have the eight extra hours in the day you seem to think I have, nor do I have jet packs installed in my feet. You, on the other hand, work in a grocery store. Is it too much to ask for you to reach into Aisle 2 from time to time to grab a tin of tea?
Simon: Ah. Good tea.

Second, as I mentioned above, it pushes narrative character development out of dialogue-based scenes, which strikes me as something of a waste of a good scene. Third, such dialogue rests upon the logical fallacy that human beings just blurt out everything relevant about a situation in ordinary dialogue. (I would explain the problem with this, but in the interests of space conservation, I shall instead refer my readers to anyone who has ever had a conversation with an unpleasant boss, a coworker with B.O., a relative with political views different from oneself, or who has ever heard a eulogy or a toast at a wedding. Absolute truthfulness is simply not the norm for human interaction.)

The fourth reason is really a corollary of the third: as a matter of craft, dialogue-only scenes render depicting undercurrents between people, if not impossible, then at least far more difficult than it needs to be. As the Idol agents pointed out, scenes that have more than one thing going on in them are far more eye-catching (and interesting) than those that deal only in the obvious.

Dialogue-only scenes convey the impression that there is precisely nothing going on between the discussants but the subject of the conversation. The reader may well know different from earlier, non-dialogue parts of the book, but within the context of the discussion shown, the speakers have no bodies to speak of, apparently, no emotions worth mentioning, evidently, and no motivations, ulterior or otherwise, that they would not be more than happy to bellow at the nearest bystander.

Personally, I have never been in on such a conversation, but hey, they must exist: recently, I read fifteen of them in a row. I can’t imagine where. Or how recently.

Regardless of whether such conversations do actually occur in real life, or whether you (or your revered writing teachers) are fond of seeing them in print, consider this: is reproducing such an incredibly common writing technique really the best way to make your contest or submission stand out in the crowd?

I leave it up to you to decide. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Contest submissions revisited

The streets may be icy, but here I am, all cozy and warm, going through the backlog of reader questions posted via the COMMENTS function while I was going over the Idol list for lo! those many weeks. My, there have been some great questions posted, and I’m pleased to be getting back to them. Some of my best blogs have come from reader questions, so keep sending ‘em in, everybody!

For those of you who don’t know how to post a question (skip this paragraph if you already do), go to the bottom of any post. There, after the “Posted in…” category information, you will find green type that says either “No Comments” or a number of posted comments listed. Click on the word COMMENT. This will both bring up a page with the blog in question and any comments that have already been posted. At the bottom of this new page, you will find a section entitled “Leave a Reply.” Fill in your chosen screen name (pseudonyms are dandy), your e-mail address (this is not posted; it’s just to cut down on spammers), and your website, if any (and if you want to share it). Then type your question or comment in the little box provided and hit the “Submit Comment” button.

It’s that simple! The nifty blogging program lets me know whenever anyone posts a comment, so feel free to comment on months-old posts.

All right, enough technicalities for today. On to the questions. Serenissima wrote:

“I was wondering if it would make sense to enter an annual contest with a revised version of a piece one had submitted before. Do organizations such as PNWA have the same judges from year to year?”

Here’s the short answer: yes, it would, and yes, they do. Next!

No, but seriously, it does make sense to enter a revised manuscript in a subsequent year’s contest: writers do it all the time. In a contest like the PNWA’s, where entrants receive feedback on their submissions, it’s actually encouraged.

Do read the rules of any contest VERY carefully before you pop your entry into the mail, though, because not all contests allow repeat submissions. In fact, it’s a great idea to go over the rules with the proverbial fine-toothed comb anyway, because the single best thing you can do to improve your chances of winning or placing in a contest is to follow the stated rules to the letter.

Why? Well, for a couple of reasons. First, you would be astonished – at least, I hope you would – at just how few of the entrants in any given contest seem to have READ the contest’s rules. Often, these rules are buried at the end of the entry materials, but by all means, seek them out. Follow them as if your life depended upon it, because let me tell you, a volunteer judge’s patience is likely to become scanty by his fifth entry of the evening.

Rule non-followers are very, very easy targets for a begrumbled judge’s momentary ire.

The second reason is rather more sinister, and definitely less widely-known. As with submissions at agencies and publishing houses, any well-respected contest (translation: a contest prestigious enough that it would help your writing career to win) receives so many well-written entries that choosing the finalists is generally quite hard. It saves judges a LOT of time if they can simply rule out the entries that did not follow directions; if an entry contains a disqualifying element, the judge is usually instructed to stop reading, and for most contests, a rule violation results in automatic disqualification.

Do the math: over the course of a few hundred entries, even a 5% disqualification rate would equal a substantial reduction in reading time. So how many entries would a contest have to get every year before adding additional rules designed to trip up the entrant would start to seem worthwhile?

I have to be honest with you: even as a contest judge, I often find contest rules poorly-written, difficult to understand, and sometimes downright arbitrary. It’s been my experience, though, that the more senseless the requirement, the more likely it is to be used to disqualify entries. In fact, it is not unheard-of for very popular contests to employ initial screeners, whose SOLE function is to check the entries for rule violations before the non-rule breaking entries are passed along to the judges.

Please, tread with care. If you find yourself too sorely tempted to skip any specific requirement listed – such as, say, the information that must appear on the title page, an often-fudged requirement – save yourself some time and money, and just don’t enter the contest. Use the money to take a writing class, or to enter another contest, because if you don’t follow the rules, your chances of winning plummet to practically zero.

On the re-entry issue, it pays to be a rule-hugger. Many contests specify that you cannot enter EXACTLY the same manuscript in subsequent years, but they usually leave it up to the author to decide just how much revision constitutes significant change. (If memory serves, the Faulkner contest is the only major one in the country whose rules actually specify how much must have changed from last year — although I do know a very good poet who won third place with identical poems in the Faulkner two years back-to-back. So I don’t know how seriously they enforce it.)

You’ve hit the nail on the head, though, Serenissima, in identifying the primary problem of the repeat entrant: the only way that she would get caught repeating a submission would be by a returning judge. Most contests’ judge rolls are swollen with those who have done it before – which is to say, the pool of those who have both the reading chops and the time to donate (in virtually every contest in the country, even the very expensive ones, the first-round judges are volunteers, not paid staff) is relatively small.

Judging is a big time commitment, after all, and not one to be undertaken lightly. In the PNWA contest, each first-round judge is asked to read at least 10 full entries, as well as provide both extensive written feedback for the entrant AND a separate write-up for the section chair; in years where there is a shortage of volunteers, they may read as many as 20 each. Multiply that by, say, a 25-page page limit, and judges are facing reading a fairly hefty book, cumulatively.

However, which judge gets which entry is randomly assigned, so the chances of a judge getting the same submission two years in a row are rather slim. It does happen, though — in fact, it has happened to me as a judge, and in that contest, I was not required to return the repeat entry for reassignment. Rereading isn’t necessarily a problem, especially in contests where entrants receive written feedback — seeing one’s advice followed is, after all, rather gratifying — but if the judge who gets an entry twice happens to be a habitual Big Old Grump, he might not be very nice about it.

My, did I just suggest that not everyone who volunteers to be a contest judge does so to assuage a rampant love of literature alone? Could I have been implying that some judges, such as the BOG mentioned above, do it because they like the power? And is it remotely possible that I might be hinting that if your entry ends up in the beefy hands of a BOG, you are likely to receive some pretty nasty criticism, whether or not BOG has seen it before?

Nah, I couldn’t mean any of that, could I? Every contest judge is an angel incarnate, and literary contests are judged on demonstrated writing talent alone. A judge’s personal bias, bad day, or annoyance at reading the same entry twice knocking a good entry out of prize consideration is as uncommon as — well, snow in Seattle in November.

In a nutshell: if the rules do not explicitly exclude resubmission, I say go ahead and resubmit. You can’t entirely rule out the possibility of your entry’s landing on the same BOG’s desk twice, but the chances of it are rather low. (And incidentally, readers: if you encountered a BOG who was gratuitously mean on your last year’s entry feedback forms, you should let the contest-giving organization know as soon as possible. The PNWA, at least, does try to weed out the BOGs. They’re bad for repeat business.)

As we get closer to PNWA entry time, would you like for me to run another series on contest dos and don’ts? Drop me a note via the COMMENTS function (now that everyone knows how to use it!), if so, and I’ll start cranking up the insight mill. And, as always, keep up the good work!

Scoring Criteria, Part XI: Logic, Provoking the Genuine Laugh, and the Ta Da! Factor

Hello, readers –

Today really will be the last installment of my series on literary contest judging criteria, I promise. This topic has been hard to leave, because it really is a microcosm of how books are viewed by publishing professionals. However, I promised you blogs on how to write a bio, and those you shall have.

Back to Presentation category problems. 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. This results in 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 logic 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 bear with me here), (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, 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. By the end of such a disquisition, the reader might well become converted to the author’s premise, and cast his footwear from him with a cry of liberation.

Think this seems like a ridiculous example of skipped steps, one that could not possibly occur in a real manuscript? Oh, my poor friend, bless your innocent eyes: you’ve obviously never been a judge in a nonfiction contest or advised an undergraduate thesis.

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 sterling 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.

Okay, Nietzsche allegedly wrote the work in a three-day frenzy while confined to an insane asylum, 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.

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 (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 possesses the kind of face that artists over the centuries have willingly mortgaged their souls in order to depict accurately), but literally the only way for an author to discover them in her own book is to have someone else read it.

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 doubt 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 reader 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 dubbed It when it occurs in human beings. (Thus Clara Bow, the It Girl.) Like It, the Ta da! factor makes a manuscript shine, practically demanding that the judge give the entry high marks. In fact, 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:

”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. (For instance, the original novella concerns a friendship between a woman and man in their late teens; the movie is about a love story between a 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 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 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 in the last two 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 feel that I was actually 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, for instance — 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.

– Anne Mini