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

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Anne contemplates her past at Harvard.

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

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

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

Call it a literary identity crisis.

In keeping with the theme of the interview, this seems like the natural moment to concentrate for a post upon a category dear to my heart: memoir. As a past PNWA Zola Award winner for best nonfiction book/memoir — for an early draft of the book mentioned above, as it happens — I have a thing or two to say on what does and doesn’t tend to make a memoir entry sing.

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

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

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

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

Unless, of course, you are writing anonymously, or under a pseudonym. Even then, it is a good idea to add a note on the title page, saying something along the lines of:

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

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

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

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

As usual, it all comes down to time.

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

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

Make yourself comfortable; I’m going to tell you a little story about where such cleverness might lead. I went to college with Danny, a very clever, very ambitious writer who periodically contributed pieces to the on-campus humor magazine. Now, it was the practice of the magazine to publish all of its pieces without bylines, to encourage collaboration amongst members of the writing club.

But as I said, Danny was ambitious: he, like many of the other writers in the club, was anxious to graduate with clippings he could use to promote his work later on.

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

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

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

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

And that single reference, to a judge who was looking to pounce upon contest rule violations, could get a memoir entry disqualified.

Yes, even though it would be highly unlikely, without the judge’s having the list of memoir entrants by his side for first-name cross-referencing purposes, for the judge to guess the author’s identity. Simply the implication that the author might have referred to himself can appear to be a rule violation.

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

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

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

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

Let’s say the memoir’s author is named Biddy MacAlister-Thames, not a name anyone’s eye is likely to encounter on a page without noticing. Naturally, a simple search-and-replace could weed out uses of the name, but late at night, just before a contest deadline, slips do occur.

Luckily, these slips tend to concentrate within certain contexts. Biddy should check her entry especially carefully in the following scenes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m funny that way. Keep up the good work!

Contest entry formatting, continued: three cheers for the emperor of ice cream!

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I’ve been yammering all week about the importance of reading contest entry requirements as if the fate of the Western world depended upon your following each and every one, but the fact is, in many contests, the rules are far from clear. And no, this is not usually because contest rule designers are just itching to trip you up.

Really. Honest.

In practice, a contest that has been around for a while has probably modified its rules over time — and since in the U.S., the reputable literary contests tend to be run by volunteer organizations, it’s not unheard-of for one board member to add a new rule in response to a specific situation that arose in last year’s contest, another to have inserted two the year before…without anyone concerned realizing that someone needs to go through every so often and make sure that the new collection of rules makes sense.

Which, to their credit, the Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named seems to have done between last year and this. It’s almost as though someone posted a fairly extensive online critique last year — and they responded to it. Entrants everywhere should be happy about this, I think. (But they may be less happy about the fact that this organization has reduced the number of finalists in every category by two from last year.)

But even with the best intentions, contest rules are seldom written so clearly that someone who has absolutely no experience with how the industry likes to see manuscripts could figure out the rules with certainty on the first read-through. In fact, I suspect that if you asked most contest organizers and judges, they would be flabbergasted at the suggestion that writers who haven’t been submitting their work fairly regularly to agents, editors, and magazines would be entering their contest at all.

If you doubt this, take a gander at most literary contests’ rules: most of the time, specific expectations are compressed under terse statements such as, “Submit in industry standard format.”

That should make those of you who have been hanging out on this site for a while feel pretty darned good about yourselves — because, believe me, having some idea what standard format should look like, or even that such a thing exists, places you several furlongs in front of aspiring writers who do not. (If you fall into the latter category, run, don’t walk to the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS category at right.) Because — correct me if your experience contradicts this — this is an industry that tends to conflate lack of professional knowledge with lack of artistic talent.

And that is as true for contest entries as for submissions to agents.

That’s why, in case you have been wondering, I harp on standard format so much here. No one is born aware of how the industry expects to see writing presented, but the rules are seldom shared with those new to the game — and almost never explained in much detail. Admittedly, sometimes one sees the rules asserted in an aggressive do this or fail! tone, but it’s pretty difficult to apply a rule unless you know what it’s for and how it should be implemented.

That’s my feeling about it, anyway. Call me zany, but I would rather see all of you judged on the quality of your WRITING than on whether your manuscript or contest entry adheres to a set of esoteric rules. But unless it does conform to those (often unspoken) rules, it’s just not going to look professional to someone who is used to reading top-of-the-line work.

So try to think of quadruple-checking those rules as the necessary prerequisite to getting a fair reading for your writing — and bear in mind that most judges will expect the author of that winning entry to have been hanging around the industry for a good long time.

The two categories where this expectation is most evident are screenwriting and poetry. Almost any contest that accepts screenplays will use the same draconian standard that the average script agent does: if it’s not in positively the right format (and in the standard typeface for screenplays, Courier), it will be rejected on sight.

Now, I’m going to be honest with you here: I am not a screenwriter; I’m just thrilled that the WGA strike was settled. So if you are looking for guidance on how to prep a screenplay entry, I have only one piece of advice for you:

GO ASK SOMEONE WHO DOES IT FOR A LIVING.

Sorry to be so blunt, but I don’t want any of my readers to be laboring under the false impression that this is the place to pick up screenplay formatting tips. Happily, there are both many, many websites out there just packed with expert advice on the subject, and good screenwriting software is easily and cheaply available. I would urge those of you with cinema burning in your secret souls to rush toward both with all possible dispatch.

I can speak with some authority about poetry formatting, however.

Remember how I mentioned yesterday that where contest rules are silent, their organizers generally assume that writers will adhere to standard format — which is to say, the form that folks who publish that kind of writing expect submitters to embrace? Well, that’s true for poetry as well.

So what does standard format for poetry look like? Quite a bit as you’d expect, I’d expect:

* Single-spaced lines within a stanza

* A skipped line between stanzas

* Left-justified text, with a ragged right margin

* Centered title on the first line of the page

* 1″ margins on all sides of the page

* 12-point typeface on white paper, printed on only one side of the page

In other words, it shouldn’t be formatted the way you might see it in a book, where the left margin might be a few inches in, or on a greeting card, where the text floats somewhere closer to the center of a page. Basically, the average poetry submission looks like this, to borrow a manuscript page from a favorite poet of mine, Wallace Stevens:

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Pretty straightforward, eh? (I love that poem, by the way. I almost named my memoir about my relationship with Philip K. Dick THE EMPEROR OF ICE CREAM. Makes more sense than the title my erstwhile publisher picked, doesn’t it?)

Now let’s see what how a contest rules might call for something slightly different. To pick one set at random, let’s take that nameless contest whose deadline is next week:

* Submit three complete poems.

* Single-space within stanza, double-space between stanzas.

* Maximum length of collection: 3 pgs.

* Use 12pt Times New Roman or Times (Mac).

Those are all of the category-specific rules listed. Elsewhere, however, others pop up, some from rather far afield:

* One-sided 8 1/2 x 11 standard WHITE paper.

* 1” margins all around.

* Have the title of the submission and page numbers located in the upper right hand corner of each page.

* Each submission MUST show the name of the category to which it is submitted.

Okay, what can we learn from this? Any occasion for our pal Wallace to panic about the breadth of necessary changes to his already-formatted poem?

Not really. Oh, the rules seem pretty hostile to the notion that any worthwhile poem could possibly be longer than a single page (take that, Lord Byron!), as well as unaware that Word for Mac does in fact feature the Times New Roman font — and has for many years. But otherwise, there’s not a lot here that ol’ Wallace is going to have to change.

EXCEPT, of course, for taking his name out of the slug line and moving it to the other side of the page.

Do I hear some confused muttering out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you point out, and who could blame you? “What about needing to place the title in the slug line? Each of the three less-than-page-long poems will have a different title, won’t it?”

Great question, unseen mutterers. I’ll complicate it further: in the rules for book-length works, there’s an additional regulation that may apply here:

* The Contest Category name and number (e.g. Category 3: Romance Genre) on the first page of the submission and on the mailing envelope.

Yes, yes, it DOES appear in the section of the rules that apply to categories other than poetry — but tell me, do you want YOUR entry to be the one that tests whether the Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s organizers don’t think this rule should apply to the poetry category?

I didn’t think so. If I were a poet, I certainly would not omit scrawling Category 9: Poetry on the outside of my entry envelope.

You, of course, are free to do as you wish. But remember how I demonstrated yesterday that adding a title page can help smooth over quite a few little logistical problems? Look what happens to the opening of our pal Wallace’s entry if he takes that advice to heart:

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Both of these pages are in Times New Roman, incidentally, created on a Mac. (Hey, I couldn’t resist.)

More to the point, ol’ Wallace has now neatly avoided any rule violations. Oh, he could have given his collection of poetry (if a mere three poems can legitimately be called a collection; if he were a collector of, say, teapots, he would be considered merely a hobbyist collector if he had only three) a more exciting overarching title, but this gets the job done.

It also satisfies the contest’s rule requiring that the title be in the slug line, along with the page number. What’s not to like?

Amazing what a lot of explanation a seemingly simple set of rules can engender, isn’t it? Keep combing through those contest rules, potential entrants, and everybody, keep up the good work!