Scoring Criteria, Part X: Scoring Criteria, Part X: Continuity, Coherence, and the Big Surprise

Hello, readers –

Today, I think, will be the last installment of my series on what contest judges use as evaluation criteria; I want to move on to my long-promised tutorial on how to write an author bio. Like so much else, constructing an author bio is a skill that every writer is expected to have in her tool bag, regardless of what else she writes. I don’t want you to get blindsided by this routine request down the line, so I’ll show you how to write one.

Yesterday, I talked about how issues of coherence and continuity can cost entries points in the Presentation category, including a spirited complaint about how movies and television prompt us not to explain motivations and to perpetuate clichés. I pointed out how the good writer should be wary of the unanswered question the story may raise for the reader, particularly if it is a rather obvious one. I implied, and none too gently, that watching low-quality screenwriting in action has led many writers to be lazy on these points.

It serves me right, therefore, to have seen a very good movie last night that prompted a very, very big unanswered question. Screenwriters everywhere have my apologies: maybe it has something to do with the medium. Thank you very much for providing me with such a marvelous example of how unanswered questions can vitiate even the best-crafted story.

The film was LOVE LIZA, with the generally excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman (of CAPOTE fame; I still haven’t recovered from THAT screenplay’s changing the identity of the murderer from the one who committed the bulk of the mayhem in the book IN COLD BLOOD) and the dependably wonderful Kathy Bates. As the movie makes clear over and over, the title refers to the closing of a letter — so if you’re wondering why the title is missing the grammatically necessary comma in the middle, you’re in good company.

Maybe it’s a command.

The approximately two-minute silence that opens the film (I didn’t realize at first that I should be clocking it, so pardon my imprecision) let the viewer know that this was going to be Art with a capital A, so I settled in for a good, old-fashioned depressing film about the human experience. And boy, did I get it: the protagonist (Hoffman), who has just lost his wife to suicide, takes up sniffing gasoline and related petroleum products with a vim that most people reserve for the first course of Thanksgiving dinner. So engaged is he in mourning-though-inhalants that he cannot manage to open the suicide note his wife left for him, cleverly hidden under the pillow of a man who obviously thinks laundering sheets is for sissies. Because he’s afraid that the letter will blame him in some way that he cannot imagine (it’s hard to imagine much with a gasoline-soaked rag clutched to your face, I would guess), he carries the note with him everywhere he goes for most of the film — and believe me, he gets around.

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

But as I say, this was a good film, so I was willing to waive objections on this point. However, the moment he slit the envelope open, my writer’s mind went haywire. Why, I asked myself, would a woman bent upon doing herself in within the next minute or two have bothered to fold up the note and stuff it in an envelope? She and her husband lived alone; he was equally likely to be the first to see it if she had left it unfolded on the kitchen counter as hidden under a pillow in an envelope.

Those of you who read yesterday’s post already know the answer, don’t you? BECAUSE THE PLOT REQUIRED IT, that’s why — how could the protagonist tote around the Visible Symbol of His Loss for an hour and a half UNLESS it was in a sealed envelope? Evidently, the late lamented Liza was considerate enough to have read the script before doing herself in.

Thus was yet another good story well presented scuttled by the unanswered question. Remember, “because the plot requires it” is never a valid motivation; stories are invariably improved by ferreting out the answers before showing the work to an audience.

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

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

Okay, time to move on from unanswered questions. Often, writers fail to provide information necessary to understanding a situation until after it has occurred, resulting in many lost points in contest scoring and rending of readers’ garments. One of the most common of lapses is the post-explained joke, a surprise or one-liner that is only funny if the reader knows certain information in advance — but the reader is not given that information in advance. There are vast graveyards of jokes that died hideous and protracted deaths because their authors did not set them up properly — and then sought to save the situation by adding a line or a paragraph of explanation afterward.

I don’t quite get this — does the author intend that the joke will be funny the SECOND time someone reads the book? Or is it in response to some kind reader having pointed out that the joke sans explanation was not at all funny? Or — and a creeping sensation up my spine tells me that this is the most plausible explanation of all — has the author just read over that particular scene so many times that the time-space continuum in which a reader would experience it has dissolved as a consideration?

However it may be, it’s a sure way to lose points in the Presentation category.

Jokes, alas, are not the only writing phenomena where the set-up tends to come after the fact. I tremble to tell you this, but often, big surprises pop up in entries without any prior indication that (a) this is not the outcome the characters were expecting, (b) this was not the logical outcome of events thus far, and/or (c) how such a turn of events might affect other people or events in the book.

”But it’s a SURPRISE,” writers will often whine when people like me (kindly souls devoted to improving the art form) gently suggest that perhaps a skillful writer might want to reveal some inkling of (a), (b), or (c) in advance, so the reader’s sense of the import of the moment will be greater. “I don’t want to give the whole thing away.”

Obviously, a writer who says this is not thinking of doing as my ilk and I advise, introducing the relevant information in a subtle manner, perhaps even piecemeal, in the pages prior to the big revelation. I say obviously, because if she were thinking of being subtle about it at all, the surprise would not be spoilt. No, she is thinking of what I like to call “a lazy man’s edit,” just lifting the explanation she’s already written and plopping it down earlier in the text, as is.

It never fails to astonish me just how far some writers will go to avoid real, in-depth revision. They fall so deeply in love with their own sentences that the very idea of cutting some of them and revising others seems like sacrilege.

That’s fine, if it makes them happy to approach their work that way, but it is an attitude that judges, agents, and editors can spot a mile away. They can sense it in a manuscript, pouncing on it like a drug-sniffing dog zeroing in on trace amounts of heroin. “Whoa,” they say, quickly pushing the manuscript aside. “This is an author who would be difficult to work with.”

I’m not saying that all writers who give after-explanations are impervious to input, of course, but it is a fairly common conclusion for professional readers to draw. This is why it is so important to avoid making this mistake in a contest entry: it doesn’t come across as a simple editing problem, but as a matter of authorial choice. For some reason of his own, they conclude, the author chose to minimize this joke or that dramatic moment. Go figure.

Why would they leap to such an extreme (and writer-hostile) conclusion, you ask? Come closer, and I’ll tell you a little secret: many, if not most, judges, agents, and editors assume that by the time they see a piece of writing, it HAS received feedback from other people.

Clearly, then, if such a glaring continuity problem as after-explanation was not corrected, one of two things must have happened: either the author got bad feedback (in which case the manuscript should be rejected until such time as the author learns to get better at her craft) or the author got good feedback and ignored it (in which case the author is difficult). Either way, they’re not rushing to embrace the author who does it.

So, for your contest entries, if it is comically or dramatically necessary for the reader to have some piece of information in order to be able to have a spontaneous reaction to a given line, make sure that the reader has the information first.

Well, I guess I shall have to push off my treatise on crafting the author bio until next week, because I find that I have a lot more to say about continuity and coherence in contest entries. Not to mention the fact that I seem not to have gotten to the promised topic of humor in entries at all. Here is one distinct advantage the blogger has over the contest entrant: what the entrant promises in the synopsis, she must deliver in the chapter, at least in part.

As a blogger, though, I can merely retreat to the tried-and-true methodology of the old serials: tune in tomorrow to find out how the story ends. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S. to Bob and all of the others out there who have tried without success to find links to my October, November, and December archived postings: no, there is not a link to them yet; they disappeared into the ether when the website switched servers. More news as it develops. But if I can’t figure out how to remedy the problem soon, as a personal favor to you, Bob, for bringing it to my attention, I’ll post the piece on Point of View Nazis again.

Nonfiction book categories (and no, I couldn’t think of a catchier title for it)

Hello, readers –

Here we are at our last installment of book category choices, the nonfiction array. Granted, most of the sections of the PNWA contest are devoted to various flavors of fiction, but as a memoirist myself, I would be the last to slight all of you brave and excellent writers of nonfiction.

Like genre, NF categories are the conceptual boxes that books come in, telling agents and editors roughly where it would sit in a bookstore. By telling an agent up front which category your book is, you make it easy for her to tell if it is the kind of book she can sell.

In a way, nonfiction writers have an easier time boxing their books, for the nonfiction categories give a much rougher indication of shelf location than the fiction. In fact, the categories used in the publishing industry are not necessarily the same as those used by bookstores. In my own area, for instance, I have noticed that Barnes & Noble tends to shelve biography, autobiography, and memoir together; Amazon lumps memoir into the autobiography category. Go figure.

As when you are querying fiction, the category designation belongs in the first paragraph of your query letter, as well as on the title page of your book and as part of your verbal pitch.
As an aside, do bear in mind that the first things an agent or editor now tends to look for in a NF book query is not just a great idea, but the platform of the writer. Platform is the industry term for a writer’s credentials or background to write a particular book. Your job in the query letter will be to sell yourself as the world’s best-qualified person to write this book.

So if, hypothetically speaking, you were entering the nonfiction/memoir category of a major regional writers’ contest, do you think it would be to your advantage if your synopsis gave some indication of your platform?

On to the categories. Fortunately, most of the them are pretty self-explanatory.

ENTERTAINING: no, not a book that IS entertaining; one ABOUT entertaining.

HOLIDAYS: a book about entertaining people at particular times of year.

PARENTING AND FAMILIES: this includes not only books about children, but books about eldercare, too.

HOUSE AND HOME: so you have a place to be PARENTING and ENTERTAINING your FAMILIES during the HOLIDAYS. This is for both house-beautiful books and how-to around the home. At some publishing houses, it also includes GARDENING.

HOW-TO: explains how to do things OTHER than house- and home-related tasks or cooking.

SELF-HELP: a how-to book for the psyche. If you have ANY platform to write one of these, do so. These are the books that can land you on Oprah if you’re NOT James Frey.

COOKBOOK: I suspect that you’ve seen one of these before, right?

NARRATIVE COOKBOOK: where the recipes are presented as part of a story, most often a memoir. Ruth Reichl’s COMFORT ME WITH APPLES is the usual example given, but my favorite narrative cookbook is Sylvia Thompson’s FEASTS AND FRIENDS.

FOOD AND WINE: where you write ABOUT the food and wine, not tell how to make it.

LIFESTYLE: Less broad than it sounds.

HEALTH: body issues for laypeople. If your book is for people in the medical professions, it should be classified under MEDICAL. Diet books are sometimes listed here (if there is a general philosophy of nutrition involved), sometimes under FOOD (if it is less philosophical), sometimes under COOKBOOK (if there are recipes), sometimes under FITNESS (if there is a substantial lifestyle/exercise component).

FITNESS: exercise for people who consider themselves to be out of shape. Usually includes diet tips, as well as exercise.

EXERCISE: fitness for people who consider themselves to be in relatively good shape, and thus do not need many diet tips.

SPORTS: exercise for competitive people in all shapes.

HISTORICAL NONFICTION: Your basic history book, intended for a general audience. If it is too scholarly, it will be classified under ACADEMIC.

NARRATIVE NONFICTION: THE hot category from a few years ago. Basically, it means using fiction techniques to tell true stories; while IN COLD BLOOD is the classic example simply everyone gives, it would today be classified as TRUE CRIME.

TRUE CRIME: what it says on the box.

BIOGRAPHY: the life story of someone else.

MEMOIR: the life story of the author, dwelling on personal relationships.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY: the life story of the author, focusing on large, generally public achievements. The memoirs of famous people tend to be autobiographies.

ESSAYS are generally published in periodicals first, then collected.

WRITING: technically, these are HOW-TO books, but editors love writing so much that it gets its own category.

CURRENT EVENTS: explanations of what is going on in the world today, usually written by journalists. In this category, platform is especially important. Why? Well, if you are not already a recognized expert in a current event field, your book probably will not be rushed to market, and thus perhaps will not be on the market while the event you have chosen is fresh in the public mind. Bear in mind that most books are not published until over a year after a publisher buys the book. This really limits just how current the events a first-time writer comments upon can be.

POLITICS: About partisan ideology.

GOVERNMENT: about the actual functions, history, and office holders of the political realm.

WOMEN’S STUDIES: a rather broad category, into which history, politics, government, and essays related to women tend to migrate. Logically, I think it’s a trifle questionable to call one book on labor conditions in a coal mine in 1880 HISTORY, and call a book on labor conditions in a predominantly female-staffed shoe factory in 1880 WOMEN’S STUDIES, but hey, I’m not the one who makes the rules.

GAY AND LESBIAN: Much like WOMEN’S STUDIES, this category includes works from a varied spectrum of categories, concentrating on gay and lesbian people. Again, were I making the rules…

LAW: This includes books for the layman, as well as more professionally-oriented books. Some publishers compress this category with books about dealing with governmental bureaucracies into a single category: LAW/GOVERNMENT.

ARTS: a rather broad category, no? Books on the history of painting or ballet go here.

PHILOSOPHY: thought that is neither overtly political nor demonstrably spiritual in motivation.

RELIGION: books about the beliefs of the major established religions.

SPIRITUALITY: books about beliefs that fall outside the major established religions. Often, the Asian religions are classified under SPIRITUALITY, however, rather than RELIGION. Go figure.

EDUCATION: books about educational philosophy and practice. (Not to be confused with books on how to raise children, which are PARENTING AND FAMILIES.)

ACADEMIC: books written by professors for other professors. Tend not to sell too well.

TEXTBOOK: books written by professors for students. Tend to sell quite well.

REFERENCE: books intended not for reading cover-to-cover, but for looking up particular information.

MEDICAL: books for readers working in medical fields. (Not to be confused with HEALTH, which targets a lay readership.)

ENGINEERING: I’m going to take a wild guess here – books written by and for engineers?

PROFESSIONAL: books for readers working in white-collar fields that are not medical, legal, or engineering.

TECHNICAL: books intended for readers already familiar with a specific field of expertise, particularly mechanical or industrial. Unless the field is engineering, or computers, or cars, or medical…

COMPUTERS: fairly self-explanatory, no?

INTERNET: again – speaks for itself.

AUTOMOTIVE: I’m guessing these aren’t books for cars to read, but to read about cars. (Sorry, I couldn’t think of anything remotely funny to say about this. I’m pretty stressed today.)

FINANCE: covers both personal finances and financial policy.

INVESTING: finance for those with more than enough money to pay the rent.

BUSINESS: this is another rather broad category, covering everything from tips for happy office interactions to books on executive manners.

CAREERS: books for people who are looking to break into a field. Includes books on how to find a job, how to interview, how to write a resume…

OUTDOORS AND NATURE: again, rather broad, as it logically encompasses everything outside a building that does not involve SPORTS, EXERCISE, FITNESS…

TRAVEL: books on how to get there and what to do when you do get there. I used to write these, once upon a time, so if you want to know how to scrawl copy for a tight deadline while balancing a camp light on a rickety picnic table and simultaneously watching out for bears, I’m your gal.

TRAVEL MEMOIR: first-person stories about someone who went somewhere.

PHOTOGRAPHY: both books about and books of.

COFFEE TABLE BOOK: books with big, gorgeous pictures and relatively little writing.

GIFT BOOK: small books, intended as impulse buys.

Looking at this list, it strikes me as rather incomplete set of categories to explain all of reality. However, these are indeed the major categories – and as with fiction, you definitely need to specify up front which your book is.

One final word on the contest front: typically, nonfiction categories are underrepresented; most of the entries in your garden-variety NF contest will be either memoirs, history, or narrative nonfiction. Where are the cookbooks? the contest judges cry. Where is the really well-written how-to book?

I just mention. Don’t write off literary contests just because your work may not be, well, traditionally literary. A well-written book is a well-written book, and I, for one, would not be inclined to sneeze in its general direction.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Contests, Part IV:But is it worth it?

Howdy, campers —

Welcome to Part IV of my holiday present to my loyal readers: a multi-part series on how to make literary contests work to your best advantage. Soon, I shall be moving on to tips that will give you a technical edge in most writing competitions, but first, I want to continue my discussion of how to decide whether any particular contest is going to be worth your entering.

This criterion (see earlier blogs from this week for the other criteria) is perhaps the most important factor to consider in evaluating a contest — other than whether your writing is ready to face competition, of course. Unlike the other criteria, which mostly focused upon the contest itself, this consideration is about you and your resources.

The fifth question to ask yourself: will entering the contest take up too much time?

Unfortunately, there are few contests out there, especially for longer works, that simply require entrants to print up an already-existing piece, slide it into an envelope, write a check for the entry fee, and slap a stamp upon it.

Pretty much all require the entrant to fill out an entry form – which range from ultra-simple contact information to outright demands that you answer essay questions. Do be aware that every time you fill out one of these, you are tacitly agreeing to be placed upon the sponsoring organization AND every piece of information you give is subject to resale to marketing firms, unless the sponsor states outright on the form that it will not do so. (Did you think those offers from Writers Digest and The Advocate just found their way into your mailbox magically?) As with any information you send out, be careful not to provide any information that is not already public knowledge.

How do you know if what is being asked of you is de trop? Well, a one- or at most two-page application form is ample for a literary contest; a three- or four-page application is fair for a fellowship. Anything more than that, and you should start to wonder what they’re doing with all of this information. A contest that gives out monetary awards will need your Social Security number eventually, but they really need this information only for the winners. I would balk about giving it up front.

I have seen contest entries that ask writers to list character references – an odd request, given that the history of our art form is riddled with notorious rakes. I’m not sure I believe that a contest should throw out the work of a William Makepeace Thackeray or an H.G. Wells because they kept mistresses…of disqualify Emily Dickenson’s poetry submission because her neighbors noticed that she didn’t much like to go outside.

I have asked contest organizers why they do this, and they claim that it is so they can rule out people whose wins might embarrass the organization giving the award – basically, so they do not wake up one day and read that they gave their highest accolade to Ted Bundy. Frankly, I would MUCH rather see mass murderers, child molesters, and other violent felons turning their energies to the gentle craft of writing than engaging in their other, more bloody pursuits; some awfully good poetry and prose has been written in jail cells. I do not, however, run an organization fearful of negative publicity.

My suspicious nature rears its paranoid head whenever I see requests for references. If an entrant lists one of the contest judges as a reference, is the entry handled differently? If I can list a famous name as a reference, are my chances of winning better? Only the conference organizers know for sure.

Contest entry forms frequently ask you to list your writing credentials, which I find bizarre in contests where the judging is supposed to be blind. Again, perhaps I am suspicious, but I always wonder if entries from authors with previous contest wins or publication credentials go into a different pile than the rest. They shouldn’t, if the judging is genuinely blind, but to quote the late great Fats Waller, “One never knows, do one?”

I’m not saying that you should rule out contests that make such requests – but I do think that the more personal information the organization asks for, the more careful your background check should be. When I see a request for references, for instance, I automatically check and see if the judges and/or their students have won previous competitions. A lot of the requesters are indeed on the up-and-up, but there is no surer waste of an honest writer’s time, talent, and resources than entering a rigged contest.

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. Specific typefaces. Fancy paper. Odd margin requirements. Expensive binding. All of these will eat up your time and money, without the end result’s being truly indicative of the quality of your work – all conforming with such requirements really shows is that an entrant can follow directions.

My general rule of thumb is that if I can pull together a contest entry with already-written material within a day’s worth of writing time, I consider it reasonable. If a contest requires time-consuming funky formatting, or printing on special contest forms, or wacko binding, I just don’t bother anymore, because to my contest-experienced eyes, these requests are not for my benefit, but theirs.

Because — and I am about to reveal another 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. By setting up stringent and easily-visible cosmetic requirements, the organizers have maximized the number of entries they can simply toss aside, unread: the more that they ask you to do to package the entry, the more ways you can go wrong.

Interestingly enough, many of the organizers of contests that establish these demands are quite open about its being merely an exercise in rule-following. Think about it: if they really only wanted standardization 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 read my posting of December 8. 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 them and pluck 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; it 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.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini