Contests, Part IX: Category surfing

Okay, I wrote through last-minute shopping days; I wrote through Christmas, and I’ve been writing through Hanukkah, and we’re right on top of New Year’s Eve, so it’s time to wrap up my holiday present to my readers, a lengthy series on how to improve your chances of winning or placing in a literary contest. Time to tie up the loose ends and offer those last few droplets of wisdom.

(Unless, of course, I happen to think of more good contest-related advice in the weeks between now and the end of February, when entries are due in the PNWA contest, or next week, when entries are due for the Holiday Tables contest. If I come up with anything juicy, I shall pass it along toute de suite. Or maybe I’ll decide over the weekend that I have so much more to say that I’ll keep writing through Epiphany.)

You will notice, in reading back over my advice on steering clear of crooked contests and avoiding technical mistakes likely to knock your entry out of consideration, I have spoken very little on the subject of content — other than to recommend not offending the judges. Frankly, I don’t think an honest literary contest has any business dictating content, but a surprising number of them do, either overtly (in defining the categories) or covertly (in defining winning criteria for the judges). This is yet another reason to read contest rules VERY carefully: skim a little too quickly, and you may not catch that contest organizers have limited what kinds of short story they want.

This is particularly true in short-short story competitions. It’s not uncommon for those to specify the topic outright. Read with care before you submit.

Few writers in the heftier categories (e.g., ones that accept book excerpts) write new entirely new pieces for every contest they enter, with good reason. If you are trying to fit prewritten work into specified categories, make sure to read the category’s definition FIRST, before you enter. This is not a time merely to skim the titles of the categories: get into the details of the description. Read it several times. Have a writer friend read it, then read your entry, to double-check that your work is in fact appropriate to the category as the rules have defined it.

I would LOVE to report that entries never come in labeled for the wrong category, but, alas, sometimes they do. And most contests have far too many entries for the initial screeners to recategorize the work for the careless entrant. Be careful.

Also, consider the possibility that the category you had envisioned for your work — in other words, where you had envisioned its being shelved in a bookstore or library — may not be the best category in any given contest for you. Would the first chapter of your memoir work best in the nonfiction book category or the nonfiction short piece category? Is your novel really mainstream, or is it actually romance? If the contest offers a novel-in-progress category, would your barely-finished book do better there, or against the fully polished novels?

And so forth. The goal here is to gain a win to put on your writing resume and in your query letters, not to force your work into the category you have preselected for it. Yes, there is usually more prestige attached to book-length categories, but, frankly, in major contests, that’s where the competition tends to be the most fierce. If a shorter-length category seems to offer you a better conceptual fit or better odds, it’s sometimes worth switching.

Be flexible. One of the best memoirs I have ever read, Barbara Robinette Moss’ astonishing CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS’ DAUGHTER (if you’ve never read it, and you have even the vaguest interest in the art of autobiography, you simply cannot fully appreciate the art form until you have read this book. It’s gorgeous and painful and brilliant in a way few books manage to be.), found its publisher because its downright lyrical first chapter won in the personal essay category in the Faulkner competition. That was smart contest selection — and a well-deserved win.

This is not to say that you should rush out and enter exactly the same piece in, say, both the mainstream novel and novel-in-progress categories of the same competition, or in both the genre novel and mystery short story categories. Most contests will not allow you to enter the same work in multiple categories, but some will, so check the contest rules carefully before you spend the extra entrance fee.

Truth does compel me to say, however, that it is not unheard of for authors to get away with this sort of double-dipping even when it’s forbidden, as often the bureaucratic part of accepting an entry entails merely noting the author’s name and title, assigning numbers so the judges don’t know who wrote what, sending the entry to the appropriate category chair, and cashing the check. So when an unscrupulous author, say, is bright enough to give different titles to remarkably similar entries and perhaps mail them in separate envelopes, it is highly unlikely that anyone in the front office will have the opportunity to notice that the two distinct entries are, in fact, the same work.

I would have to scold you if you did that, of course. Or if you were clever enough to revise the work just enough between entries that, say, there weren’t more than 50 consecutive words in a row that were identical. That’s maybe one word per paragraph. Ooh, I would have to wag my finger over you if you went that route. Really, I would. That would be just a shade too professional to be merely clever.

Oh, wait — I’ve just realized that I’ve forgotten to deal with an AMAZINGLY important part of any book category’s entry: the synopsis. Oh, and while a good synopsis for a query is usually a good synopsis for a contest entry, it is not necessarily always the case. And there are ways in which a GREAT contest synopsis can differ significantly from a great query synopsis…

Well, that does it. I’ll just have to come back to more contest advice next week. Come to think of it, I have enough to say to carry us through to Greek Christmas, January 6, which as you know is the deadline for entering this blog’s Holiday Tables contest (check out post of December 9 for details.)

Happy New Year, and keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Contests, Part VIII: Assuming an audience

Welcome to yet another installment in my two-week series about how to navigate the often-treacherous waters of the literary contest, my holiday gift to my readers and a gift that I hope will keep on giving long after I have moved on to other topics.

I begin today with a parable.

A friend of mine used to be a research assistant for a professor at Harvard Law School. This professor, the story goes, took a sabbatical from Harvard and joined the faculty at Georgetown for a year. He realized, after he had been installed in his new office for a week, that he had been tenured for so long that he no longer remembered what it had been like to be the new guy in the faculty lounge. So, one day, determined to make friends, he sat down next to another law professor and introduced himself. They chatted a bit, but the Harvard professor was pretty rusty at small talk. When conversation floundered, he cast his mind back to the last time he had been the new guy, and resuscitated a tried-and-true question: “So, what does your wife do?”

To his astonishment, the Georgetown professor broke into a fit of uncontrollable giggles.

The Harvard professor didn’t know whether to be piqued or amused. “I’m sorry — doesn’t she work?”

This question abruptly ended the other man’s laughter. “Oh, she does,” he replied dryly, fixing our hero with a glance of singular disdain. “You might possibly have heard of her work, in fact.”

The Harvard professor had been talking for the last half an hour to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s husband.

Now, the story may be apocryphal (although I rather hope it isn’t), but the moral is clear: when speaking to strangers, watch what you say, because you do not necessarily know what their backgrounds or beliefs are.

The same holds true for writing you enter in a contest. Today’s tip on how NOT to annoy contest judges is a slightly subtle one: remembering that when opinion-givers are anonymous — as judges invariably are, especially in contests where the entrant never sees the judging form — they tend to give free rein to their pet peeves, personal preferences, and yes, even prejudices. So if you have the luxury of choice amongst work to submit to a contest, it is in your best interests to choose the one that will be least likely to offend a testy reader.

I learned this one through hard personal experience, many years ago. I had entered a novel contest — one where the entrants got feedback, thank goodness, or I never would have known what happened. One of the two first-round judges stated outright on the evaluation form that my entry was beautifully written (hey, I’m quoting here), professionally presented, and an interesting read. He had recommended, he said, that it be forwarded to the finalist round.

Since I had not been a finalist, I was rather puzzled — until I read the other judge’s comments. I wrote very well, the other conceded begrudgingly, but he (and yes, he did specify his sex) had HATED my entry’s subject matter. The book in question was about an academic sexual harassment case, and the judge had decided, for no textual reason that he could name, that my novel’s protagonist must necessarily be a thinly-veiled surrogate for me. She wasn’t, but this assumption evidently made it easier for the judge to vent his opinions about women who file such charges at me. Other than the brief preliminary remark that the writing was excellent, his ENTIRE feedback sheet was devoted to elaborating on all the ways he thought I was a spectacular bitch.

This was in a very respected competition, mind you.

I learned two things from this: there are a whole lot of people out there who don’t understand the difference between fiction and nonfiction, and that no matter how carefully I crafted my entries, some judge with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder could knock it out of competition for any number of very personal reasons. In my case, the reasons had very clearly been political.

Those of us who write controversial work are both blessed and cursed. Once controversial works are published, they tend to sell well — readers, bless their hearts, will often buy books they know will make them angry enough to debate. However, writing on controversial subjects tends to have a harder time finding a home with an agent — and rather seldom wins contests, I have noticed.

I am not saying that dull, safe writing tends to carry of trophies — far from it. Interestingly, you can write about child abuse, neglect, and rape until you’re blue in the face without most contest judges becoming offended. We’ve all read so much about it that while the individual stories remain shocking, the concept isn’t. Similarly, you can write about losing your virginity, cheating on your taxes, and all kinds of murder and mayhem, and judges will be enchanted.

You cannot, however, get away with presuming that any given contest judge will share your political or social beliefs, however — or, for that matter, your race, ethnicity, or economic background. You cannot, like the Harvard professor, get away with assuming that everybody else’s wife is like your own. And sometimes, like me, you cannot escape the wrath of a stranger who believes that certain topics should not be written about at all. (That’s a quote from the contest form, incidentally.)

I am most emphatically NOT suggesting that you gut your work of any controversial content — but do be very aware that you will need you explain your views thoroughly for the sake of judges who might not share your life experience. Or who, alternatively, might be VERY familiar with your subject matter, just as the unknown Georgetown professor was unexpectedly knee-deep in Supreme Court lore. Make sure that your entry is respectful of readers at both ends of the familiarity spectrum.

It is also worth noting that being a contest judge takes TIME, especially for those stalwart souls who are first round readers. They need to be able to read and comment upon dozens of manuscripts within a short window of time. Thus, contest judges tend to be either extraordinarily dedicated volunteers who are willing to forego sleep in order to help out, people like me who have extremely flexible schedules, or retired people. Like the Academy Awards, the average age of a first-round contest judge tends to fall in the charmingly graying range.

This is DEFINITELY vital for contest entrants who write for, say, Gen Xers or Gen Yers to know. If your dialogue is very hip, it would improve your novel in the eyes of older judges if you toned it down a little within the context of the contest entry. (Just don’t change your only copy.) Or add a bit of explanation, so readers outside your target demographic could follow easily.

Actually, it’s a pretty good idea to make sure that any piece you enter would read well for ANY English-reading demographic, because you never know who your judges will be. I can’t tell you how many contest entries I’ve screened as a judge that automatically assumed that every reader would be a Baby Boomer, with that set of life experiences. As a Gen Xer with parents born long before the Baby Boom, I obviously read these entries differently than an older (or younger) person would. As would a judge in her late 80s.

We would all have different takes, and, perhaps more importantly for the sake of the contest, different ideas of what is marketable. As I pointed out yesterday, although marketability is surprisingly seldom listed as one of the judging criteria in contest rules, it is very, very frequently in the judges’ minds when they read.

There are a few simple ways you can minimize the possibility of alienating judges. Avoid clichés, for starters, as those tend to be tied to specific eras, regions, and even television watching habits. They date you, and in any case, the point of writing is to convey YOUR thoughts, not the common wisdom. (Clichés are AMAZINGLY common in contest entries, for some reason I have not been able to pin down.)

If you can get feedback on your entry from a few readers of different backgrounds than your own, you can weed out references that do not work universally. Recognize that your point of view is, in fact, a point of view, and as such, naturally requires elucidation in order to be accessible to all readers.

Third, approach your potential readers with respect, and keep sneering at those who disagree with you to a minimum. (Again, surprisingly common.) I’m not suggesting that you iron out your personal beliefs to make them appear mainstream — contest judges tend to be smart people, ones who understand that the world is a pretty darned complex place. But watch your tone, particularly in nonfiction entries, lest you become so carried away in making your case that you forget that a member of your honorable opposition may well be judging your work. This is a circumstance, like so many others, where politeness pays well.

Your mother was right about that, you know.

Finally, accept that you cannot control who will read your work after you enter it into a contest. If your romance novel about an airline pilot happens to fall onto the desk of someone who has recently experienced major turbulence and resented it, there’s really nothing you can do about it. However, you can approach the process with a sense of humor — and avoid hanging all of your hopes on a single contest. That’s giving WAY too much power to a single, unknown contest judge.

And, of course, keep querying agents and small presses.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Contests, Part VII: Why standard format is your friend

Hello, campers —

All done digesting yesterday’s bitter pill about the realities of contest competition? Or are you still fighting the notion that something very, very tiny might have knocked your last contest entry out of finalist consideration? (Or have you not been following the last week and a half of blogs, my holiday present to my readers, on how to improve one’s odds in the contest game, and thus haven’t the vaguest notion what I’m going on about?) Well, keep those digestive juices flowing, because what I’m going to tell you today will cause you chagrin for about a month — and then save you massive amounts of writing grief for the rest of your natural life.

As I mentioned last week, 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 not much more than a professional editor would charge to give feedback on the average-length entry. So if you get a conscientious editor, 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.

Okay, everyone, take a deep breath. 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. Basically, 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.

What I’m trying to tell you here is that 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. As I mentioned last week, 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.

Here are the rules of standard format, tarted up a bit for contest use:

1) All manuscripts must be typed and double-spaced, with at least one-inch margins on all sides of the page.

No exceptions, unless the contest rules SPECIFICALLY ask you to do otherwise.

2) All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page.

Again, unless you are asked to do otherwise — and yes, this is wasteful of paper. Deal with it.

3) The text should be left justified ONLY.

A lot of writers squirm about this one. They want to believe that a professional manuscript looks exactly like a printed book, but the fact is, it shouldn’t. Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along the margins, and yes, your word processing program will replicate that, if you ask it nicely. But don’t: the straight margin should be the left one.

4) The typeface should be 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier.

Yes, these are plain, not-too-pretty fonts, but they are in fact the standards of the publishing industry. If you want a specific font for your finished book, you should NOT use it in the manuscript, even if you found a very cool way to make your Elvin characters’ dialogue show up in Runic. That is a matter of discussion between you and your future editor. For the purposes of contest entries and queries, stick to looking like a professional.

If you write screenplays, you may only use Courier. Seriously, most screenplay agents will not read even the first page of a script in another typeface — which means that most contest judges will follow suit.

5) No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type, keep the ENTIRE manuscript in the same font and typeface.

Industry standard is 12-point. Again, no exceptions. You may place your title in boldface, if you like, but that’s it.

6) Words in foreign languages should be italicized.

Including Elvish. You don’t want your judge to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered.

This one is generally an automatic disqualification offense.

Each page should a standard slug line in the header, listing ABBREVIATED TITLE/PAGE #. The safest place for this is left-justified, but you can get away with right-justifying it as well.

Yes, I know: this seems a trifle silly to do in a contest that threatens to disqualify you (as blind contests do) if you mention yourself by name. However, I have seen complaints about lack of a slug line so often in judges’ circles that I am going ahead and recommending its use.

However, this is one instance where contest standard is different from standard format. Standard format dictates a slug line that runs thus: AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/ABBREVIATED TITLE/PAGE #. So the third page of my memoir manuscript reads: MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/3.

In contest format, however, the slug line would look like this: A FAMILY DARKLY/3

9) The first page of a chapter should begin a third of the way down the page.

That’s twelve lines, incidentally. The chapter name (or merely “Chapter One”) may appear on the first line of the first page, but then nothing should appear until a third of the way down the page.

10) The beginning of each paragraph should be indented five spaces.

Yes, I know that published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. Trust me, that was the editor’s choice, not the author’s, and copying the style will surely get your work knocked out of serious prize consideration.

11) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs.

This one is for all of you bloggers out there. The whole darned manuscript should be double-spaced. The only exception is that you may skip an extra line to indicate a section break.

12) All numbers under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25.

13) Dashes should be doubled — hyphens are single, as in self-congratulatory.

Yes, I know that your word processing program will automatically change a doubled dash to a single one. Change it back, because you never know when a real stickler for format is going to end up as your contest judge.

14) Dashes should have spaces at each end — rather than—like this.

Again, I know: books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy. But standard format is invariable upon this point. It’s a pain, true, but is it really worth annoying a judge over?

15) The use of ANY brand name should be accompanied by the trademark symbol, as in Kleenex™.

If you catch a judge under the age of 30, you may get away without including the trademark symbol, but legally, you are not allowed to use a trademarked name without it. Writers — yes, and publishing houses, too — have actually been sued over this.

There you have it. If you adhere to these standards in your contest entries (except, of course, where the contest rules specify otherwise), your work will sail past that scourge of entries everywhere, the hyper-nit-picky judge. A manuscript in standard format looks to the critical eye like a couple dressed in formal wear for a black-tie event: yes, it is possible that the hosts will be too nice to toss them out if they show up in a run-of-the-mill casual suits or jeans, but the properly-attired couple will be admitted happily. By dressing as the hosts wished, the couple is showing respect to the event and the people who asked them to attend.

Dress your work appropriately, and it will be a welcome guest in the finalist ring.

Tomorrow, I shall move on to more subtle ways to woo contest judges. In the meantime, keep up the good work, and avoid that nasty cold that’s going around!

– Anne Mini

Contests, Part VI: The nitty-gritty

Hello, all —

I took yesterday off, because — as my bank manager kept assuring me in harried tones — it WAS a legal holiday. Don’t blame the banks for not being open; blame Congress. But now I am back, raring to go on my ongoing holiday present to my readers, an exploration of ways in which you can increase your chances of winning literary contests.

Last week, I went over questions you should ask yourself before you enter a contest. Entering every contest for which your work is remotely qualified is surprisingly common, and can cost the unwary entrant hundreds of dollars per year in entry fees alone, not to mention the significant expenditure of time, postage, and anxiety. It adds up. So paring back to only those contests that are most likely to serve you is definitely a smart move.

Once you’ve picked your contest, it all comes down to the writing, right? The best writing invariably wins, doesn’t it?

Well, not always. As both a veteran contest-enterer (and winner) and an experienced contest judge, I am here to tell you, an AWFULLY high percentage of entries rush to disqualify themselves within the first couple of pages — and I’m going to tell you how.

Self-disqualifying entries tend actually to be welcomed by contest organizers, because they take up so much less time and effort to evaluate, resulting in a smaller contestant pool. In other words, the first screeners in almost any contest are LOOKING for reasons to disqualify your entry.

Don’t give them the chance.

If you are going to enter contests, the first premise you need to accept is that it is an inherently nit-picky business — and it’s your job to make sure you have followed every nit-picky rule set out by the contest requirements. Impeccably.

Obviously, it would be generous-hearted of contest organizers and judges everywhere to gloss over, say, the odd typo or the entrant who feels it artistically necessary to print some portion of the entry manuscript single-spaced, if the quality of writing is high. But think about it: if you have been handed fifty entries to read in your spare time (screeners and first-round judges are almost invariably volunteers), and you could toss aside twenty-eight of them after a page or two, wouldn’t you start disqualifying entries on technical grounds?

I’ll take your murmured “yes” as given.

What does this mean, from the entrant’s point of view? That this is not a forum where good-enough is going to fly. Even the best conceivable writing is not going to stand a chance if it is not technically perfect. The competition is not amongst all entries, but amongst those who have first passed the technical bar.

Within the context of a contest, technical perfection is measured by two things: adherence to what the individual judge reading your entry believes to be standard industry format for the genre (which I shall discuss tomorrow) and WHAT THE CONTEST RULES HAVE ASKED ENTRANTS TO DO. Of the two, the latter is far and away the most important.

Pay attention now, because I’m only going to say this once: 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. Even the ones that seem arbitrary, or even stupid, because (as I mentioned last week), the more senseless the requirement, the more likely it is to be used to disqualify entries.

This is just common sense, if you’re trying to maximize disqualifications: almost every writer who has ever taken a writing class or read a writers’ publication knows work should be double-spaced, for instance, but no one spontaneously places his first chapter and a synopsis in a bright blue folder, having first made the left-hand margin 1.5 inches to accommodate the brad, and makes sure that the name of the work, page number, and name of the contest is in the upper right margin in 10-point type. (A real set of contest requirements, incidentally.) Such an array of demands is brilliant, from a weeding-out point of view: the first-round judges don’t even have to open a folder that is, say, purple or navy, nor do they have to take the time to read entries with 1-inch left margins.

Is that rumbling noise I’m hearing out there the sound of everyone who has ever entered a contest with such requirements leaping to his feet and crying, “Wait — you mean they might not have READ my entry? After they cashed my $50 check?”

It is very, very possible, alas.

Now, most contests have far less restrictive requirements, but most of the time, even the most liberal contest judge will be REQUIRED to reduce the rating of an entry that violates even one of the basic rules as stated in the entry requirements. In other words, it can be the difference between making the finals and not. The most common rule violations:

Neglecting to add a slug line (the title of the work and page number, located in the top left-hand corner) on EVERY page;

Shrinking the typeface so that the submission fits within the stated page limits (oh, come on — you didn’t think they’d notice that your submission was shrunk to 91%, when it is surrounded by submissions printed in 12-point type?);

Not numbering the pages (VERY common);

Non-standard margins.

If you have ever committed any of these sins, you can raise your chances of making it to the finalist round exponentially through one simple act: never make any of these mistakes again.

You would be astonished — at least, I hope you would be — at just how few of the entrants in any given contest seem to have READ the formatting requirements. Often, these rules are buried at the end of the entry materials, but by all means, dig them out. Follow them as if your life depended upon it. And 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, another 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 chance of winning plummets to practically zero.

Again — it’s not the judges’ fault that entries get ruled out on technicalities; in most contests, the judges are not given any wiggle room. I remember only too well reading a truly well-written entry in a contest where I was a first-round judge (no, I can’t tell you which contest). It was an interesting story told from two POVs, and personally, I would have liked it to advance to the finals. However, it had one big technical problem: the contest rules had specified a single typeface throughout, and the author of this entry had chosen to use different typefaces for each of the POVs. So, unfortunately, I had to recommend that it be disqualified.

I felt terrible for a week, but what could I do? It would have been knocked out unread at the next level, anyway, and if I had pushed for an exception, it would have damaged the chances of the other excellent entries that I was able to send to the next round.

Not all judges or screeners are so tender-hearted, of course: many report becoming downright angry after reading the fourth or fifth entry that doesn’t follow the rules. Believe me, when you are relying upon the personal preferences of a judge, the last thing you want to do is annoy her.

Trust me, if you follow the rules to the letter, yours will be in the minority of entries. The bigger the contest, the more it will shine. Be memorable for good reasons, not for bad ones.

Just how common is it to ignore the rules? Well, back in my graduate school days, I used to teach discussion sections in gargantuan undergraduate lecture classes. After each test, the teaching assistants (for such we were called) would get together and set out grading criteria. What did each student need to say in order to answer each question at an A level? A B level? And so forth. We’d get together again after grading to compare how our students did. Invariably, the graders’ most oft-repeated complaint: what we came to call RTFQ!

It stands for Read The Question! (The additional F was an unspoken bow to the graders’ annoyance the thirtieth time they saw the same mistake.) There is something about a timed test that apparently makes students skip the vital step of reading the exam question carefully, to figure out what precisely they are being asked. Oh, they skim it — but in the skimming, they usually miss some crucial element of the question. Their grades go down accordingly.

In my experience, the mere necessity of meeting a contest entry deadline tends to have the same effect upon entrants. They skim the rules, or ignore them altogether. And it is disastrous for them.

So please, for my sake, sit down well before the contest deadline and make a checklist of the contest’s requirements. Check it twice, just like Santa does, for accuracy. As you complete the requirements and stuff the constituent parts of the entry into the envelope, check them off. Then, before you seal the envelope, pull the whole entry out again and read it over to make absolutely certain that you have met every tiny, nit-picky technical requirement. Then you can seal the envelope and rush it to the post office to get it postmarked by the deadline.

You can’t be first across the finish line if you are disqualified in the first lap, my friends. Be extremely careful, and your chances of contest victory will rise.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Contests, Part V: Is it worth your time?

I’m going to be a trifle terse today, campers — even as I write this, I am supposed to be constructing a croquembouche for a Christmas Eve shindig. A croquembouche is often used as a wedding cake by the French: it’s a pyramid of cream puffs filled with liqueur-laced whipped cream, drizzled with caramel syrup, and stacked into the shape of, well, as Christmas tree. Except I think I’m going to make mine in the shape of a pagoda. It is not, in short, an endeavor to be entered into lightly, and I need to get cracking.

But first, I want to pass along another installment of my holiday present to you fine people, a series on how to make the most 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.

This one is a corollary to the questions I have been asking all week: how much of your writing time is being eaten up by contests these days? If you have been entering quite a few (and the late fall is a very common deadline choice for contests and fellowship applications), would your time be better spent by passing on the next one?

I once met a writer at an artists’ colony (we’d both won a competition to get in, one with a VERY involved application) who spent literally three weeks of our four-week retreat there applying for other retreats, filling out grant applications, and entering contests. When the time came at the end of our sojourn to share what we’d written during our stay, she ended up reading a piece she had written several years before. 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 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 often isn’t 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 reason.

However — and this is a serious consideration — a LOT of aspiring writers 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 if you do it one at a time, it can take years to pique a good agent’s interest. (This is the main reason that I advise my clients NOT to send only one query out at a time. If you keep good records, you can easily have ten out at the same time. Contrary to writers’ conference myth, agencies do NOT insist upon single submissions; in those rare instances when they do, they list this preference in the standard guides to agents. Sending one, waiting weeks for a reply, then sending the next only after all hope is gone on the first, merely squanders your precious time.)

However tired of the querying grind you may be, please do not use 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 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.

With first readers at agencies (who are seldom the agents themselves), 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 a bad idea, your work is likely to be knocked out of consideration the first time you use one. 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 enter 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.

Off to bake cream puffs now. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: Don’t forget to take notes over the next week to inspire your entry to the Holiday Tables Contest! The deadline has been extended to January 6, so keep those entries rolling in! While the prize of posting your work here, posting it on a highly respected literary fiction website, AND being able to boast that you won the contest may not seem as sexy as a contest that offers more tangible prizes, it’s a lot of bang for your entry time: two legitimate publication credits and a contest win. Check out my post of December 9 for contest details.

Contests, Part III: The fringe benefits

As my ongoing holiday present to my readers, I have been writing for the last couple of posts about entering literary contests, and how to maximize your entry fee dollar. There are a million good reasons to enter contests in general — the writing resume candy, the query letter boasting rights, and the opportunities to promote yourself to conference-attending agents, to name but a few — but not all contests are created equal. Some will help you more than others, so it is very much to your advantage to choose your contests wisely.

This is particularly true for novelists and nonfiction writers who enter contests. True, the adulation tends to be greater for winners of categories rewarding entire books, but the fact is, the vast majority of contests ask for short pieces, for the simple reason that it requires much, much less effort on the sponsoring organization’s part to process them. Short story writers, essayists, and even poets enjoy a VASTLY greater scope of contest opportunity (which, in turn, makes these contest wins a trifle less valuable in the eyes of agents and editors, but still worthwhile) than those of us who write entire books. If you write in any of these shorter formats, you have only to open any issue of POETS & WRITERS to find dozens of contests just crying out for your work — contests that often include publication as part of the prize.

Book-length writers have many fewer contest forums at their disposal, and those that exist tend not to ask that the whole book be submitted, but only the first chapter and a synopsis, at most. Writers whose ideas expand beyond 25-page limits can feel discouraged by this, or even discriminated against, and with reason.

Writers of book-length pieces also enjoy the considerable advantage of being paid astronomically more for their work when it sells — you’d have to place a tremendous number of poems in paying venues to make ends — so don’t feel too sorry for them. But the fact that the contest universe is hugely biased toward producers of shorter pieces makes it significantly harder for novelists and such to chalk up a contest win.

If you write in the longer formats, yet are comfortable in the shorter, you might want to consider polishing a single short story, poem, or essay to a high luster and sending it on the contest circuit, to try to rake in a win you can add to your credentials list. No one is going to hold it against you that the credential you used to catch an agent’s attention was for a gorgeously terse poem, while the book you were pitching was a three-volume work of science fiction.

However, if shorter work is not your cup of tea, don’t force yourself. Personally, I feel that the short story and the novel are quite different art forms, as different as painting in oils and sketching in charcoal — witness the number of writers who publish several short stories in venues like THE NEW YORKER, and publish them in collections, only to find after they have signed a novel contract that they don’t have a novel in them. Short pieces are about the surprise of instant revelation; novels (and book-length memoirs, and nonfiction books) are about character and argument development. Mastering the skills of one does not necessarily prep an author to produce the other.

I know a lot of writers disagree with me on this subject — including, I should mention, virtually everyone who has ever taught in an M.F.A. program — so you should feel free to try your hand in more than one format. But do make sure that anything you enter in a contest is your best writing, of course.

If you are the kind of writer who sticks single-mindedly to a long project until it is finished, however, it is a good idea to look upon contests not merely as rolls of the dice to try to win the jackpot of recognition (and, the fantasy goes, an agent and major book deal immediately thereafter), but as tools to learn how to improve your work. Because — and I’m letting you in on a literary judge secret here — most of the time, contest judges are not so much judging the quality of the writing in an entry as assessing its marketability. A great idea with huge market potential, presented in a clear and professional manner, will often edge out a beautifully-written piece aimed at a tiny market niche.

This is not true of every contest that accepts book-length work (or portions thereof), naturally but it’s true more often than not. It’s not unusual for the final judges of contests to be the exact same agents and editors who appear at conferences — and if there is anything that THEY’re looking for, it’s marketability. Great writing is always a plus, but to win a contest, it isn’t always enough.

Knowing this can save you a lot of grief at contest time. If your work is not particularly mainstream, select contests that cater to your niche, rather than hoping your work will fly in a more general contest. If you want to make your work appeal to the largest segment of the reading population as possible, select contests where the judges give feedback on entries — it’s some of the least sentimental, least punch-pulling marketing advice you will ever receive. If you approach it in that spirit, you can learn a great deal — especially if you are new to querying and aren’t sure why your work keeps getting rejected.

Which brings me, at long last (phew!), to the fourth on my list of questions to ask yourself before entering a contest: does it have advantages for non-winning entrants?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but almost no one wins the first contest he enters. Contest entrants experience a fairly sharp learning curve, for reasons I shall be covering later in this series; there are many, many simple mistakes that frequently disqualify inexperienced entrants outright, even with otherwise well-written entries. Even if your entry is a monument of precision and contest-rule adhesion, you may have to enter a few times to learn the rhythms and preferences of a contest before you win.

So it is very much in your interests to make your first contest entries ones that will help you even if you don’t win. For instance, if you are new to the game, it is a better use of your contest-entering buck to go for contests that recognize semi-finalists, as well as finalists. That way, you maximize your probability of garnering boasting rights from those entries.

Contests that offer significant feedback to contest entrants are very, very useful when you are first starting out, as you may use them to learn how to polish up future entries. PNWA contest judges, for instance, have to fill out a questionnaire about every entry they read, explaining precisely how they thought the entry did or did not meet the contest criteria. The entrants receive these forms after the competition is ended, so they may study them for hints on how to improve their entries.

In other words, my friends, there is a whole range of benefits that can accrue from contest entry beyond winning the grand prize. By selecting the contests that meet your current needs, rather than entering blindly or with an all-or-nothing attitude, you can maximize the good entering will do you. And, of course, you might win!

Tomorrow, I shall shift gears a little to talk about the widely differing time commitments necessary to meet contest criteria. Some allow you just to pop your work in the mail; some require you to fill out extensive forms; some specify such stringent formatting requirements that you cannot use the work submitted to them for any other purpose. Tomorrow, I shall give you some tips on navigating the waters of these requirements.

Happy holiday madness, everybody; I have just discovered that the sterling soul who cuts my hair has never read any David Sedaris, and naturally, I cannot allow that situation to continue. Not while there’s still a holiday-packed bookstore open.

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… or 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

Contests, Part II: But what’s in it for me?

Today, I am continuing with my holiday present to my readers, an ongoing discussion on how to improve your chances of winning literary contests. I had anticipated only a week’s worth of posts on the subject (ho, ho, ho), but having chatted with several major contest winners since I posted my last, I suspect I might have gleaned enough wisdom on the subject to take us to New Year’s Eve. If the information can assist you, I want to post it here.

I had written yesterday about how to determine whether to enter any specific contest or not. I suggested that you start asking yourself a few questions before you invest time and money in entry fees. Entry fees can be quite hefty, especially cumulatively; if you enter many, have a chat with your tax advisor about establishing your writing as a small business. Contest entry is legitimate promotion for your work. (Contrary to popular belief, you don’t necessarily have to make money writing in order to take tax deductions on related expenses. The IRS changed its thinking on the subject, recognizing that many talented writers NEVER break even; what they look for, I’m told, is evidence of a “profit motive” — which includes professional education efforts such as going to conferences and promotional efforts like entering contests. Not all tax specialists are up on the rules for artists, though, so talk to a specialist before you begin writing things off.)

I suggested yesterday that before you plunk down the green, you do your research. Is the contest credible? If it’s run by an organization, does it have a track record for awarding outside its membership? Do the judges win their own contests? Is it plagued by scandals? How good are the benefits for the winners? Would winning or placing in this contest give you notoriety or resources that are worth the investment of entering?

In short, I suggested yesterday that you begin to think of entering literary contests as an investment in your future as a writer. There are good investments, and there are bad investments, so select carefully.

Third, ask yourself: how will winning the contest help you?

The adulation and opportunities offered to the winners vary so widely from contest to contest that it is almost impossible to generalize about any benefit accruing to all winners OTHER than boasting rights in query letters. If you do some basic checking in advance, you can save yourself quite a bit in entry fees by avoiding the contests that will not help promote you and your work.

Obviously, the ideal outcome of your winning a contest would be a situation like mine: talent and hard work recognized one second, signing with an agent the next… but I am sorry to tell you, my results were not the norm. Contests that support their winners to the extent that the PNWA does are EXTREMELY rare. I was, in a word, lucky.

Well, okay, it wasn’t JUST luck. Since I had done my homework before I entered the 2004 contest, I had learned that the PNWA bends over backwards to help its contest winners hook up with agents and editors. Not only are finalists clearly and vibrantly marked at the conference with rainbow-colored ribbons so agents and editors know who they are, but the top three entries in each category are displayed in the lobby at the conference, where everybody can read them. (Actually, if you are agent-hunting, one of the best places to troll is at this reading table between 7 and 9 a.m. on the morning after the award ceremony.) The first-place winners are invited to have breakfast with all of the agents and editors, and each winner can stand up and give a universal pitch.

This, however, is unusual. I’ve been to many conferences where contest finalists are not marked at all, and other conference attendees are far more likely to meet a finalist than any of the attending agents. This is counter-intuitive, as most conference-related contests actively encourage their finalists to trek to the awards ceremony; you’d think that they’d take the extra step of making a few introductions, but often, they do not.

If the entry fee to a contest tied to a conference is high, I would advise checking out the contest description very carefully, to make sure it is worth your while. There is no rule against dropping an e-mail to the organizers before entering and asking politely if there are secondary benefits to being a winner or a finalist.

A sneakier way to find out how winners are treated in a conference-tied contest is to talk to NON-finalists who have attended the conference in question. Where the winners are treated extremely well, other attendees tend to notice — sometimes to the extent of being unhappy about it. If your mole says, “My God, the agents there wouldn’t give the time of day to anyone who didn’t have a top ten entry!” it’s a good bet that the winners get some perks. I’d enter that contest — but not attend unless I was up for a prize.

Also, check out the list of winners from two years ago or more: how many of these writers can you find on a basic web search or by checking Amazon? In other words, are this contest’s winners getting published afterward? (Checking last year’s winners is not entirely fair, as publication seldom occurs in less than a year after a book deal is signed.) How past winners fared is an excellent indication of how you will make out if you win.

An organization that supports its contest winners will usually be proud of them, so this information tends to be quite easy to obtain. (Anyone happen to notice how the PNWA describes yours truly on its website? In terms so flattering that they make my mother blush — it’s great!) If you can find a chatty volunteer in the organization’s office — most of them will return phone calls and e-mails — see if you can elicit boasting about their post-contest success stories. Ask who their favorite winner was, and why. Ask if the organization sponsors readings for the winners, publishes excerpts, or offers other goodies to successful entrants.

All of this research will help you determine whether the contest is worth the entry fee and your prep time. As a writer — especially as a writer with a full-time job — you need to treat your writing time as precious. Three days or a week spent agonizing over a contest entry is necessarily time taken away from your actual writing, and the more expensive contest fees tend to run around the same amount as a good writing seminar. Weigh your options carefully.

It may seem a bit odd that I, of all people, should argue caution to those about to fling themselves into the literary entry ring, but I — and every contest winner I know, and I know some big ones — entered many, many contests before winning our first. We’ve all encountered contests that were worthwhile, contests that were scams, and everything in between. If you are going to hang your hopes — and your resources — on an array of contests, it honestly does pay to be selective.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about evaluating the benefits contests offer non-winners — which, like the contests themselves, vary wildly. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Increasing your chances of winning a contest

In the spirit of the holiday season, I’ve decided to give all of my loyal readers a really nifty present: starting today, I shall be giving you a week’s worth of bona fide tips on how to maximize your chances of winning a writing contest, as well as guidelines to navigate your way amongst the dizzying array of contests out there. As both a former contest winner and a veteran judge of literary contests, I am here to tell you: no, Virginia, winning isn’t just about the quality of the writing. It’s about the writing AND playing the contest game well.

For those of you new to my blog, I am the poster child for literary contests: I had every writer’s fantasy come true. I won the Zola Award for Nonfiction Book/Memoir at the 2004 PNWA conference, met my fabulous agent within 12 hours after receiving the blue ribbon, and signed a publication contract with a great NYC publisher before the 2005 conference.

While such speedy results are not the norm for contest winners, winning or placing in a well-respected contest can definitely kick open a few doors. Agents pay attention to that kind of credential; it makes your query letters jump out of the daily pile. (Most queriers list no writing credentials at all, so a writer with publication credits and/or contest wins automatically looks more professional than most. Even if those credits or wins are in wildly different genres than the book being pitched. So, at the risk of seeming repetitious, you might want to consider entering the Holiday Table contest here on this very blog — see posting of December 9 for details — because the winner will receive TWO publication credits AND a legitimate contest win to dress up future queries. And did I mention that the PNWA contest deadline is only a couple of months away?)

There are a LOT of contests out there, as anyone who has ever Googled “writing contests” knows. Most, unfortunately, do not offer cash prizes, but many do offer publication. (In fact, contests are a not uncommon way for literary magazines just starting up to get good writing for free.) Almost all, however, charge an entry fee, sometimes a hefty one. As I have mentioned before, there is now an entire industry devoted to offering help to aspiring writers, and like seminars and conferences and how-to books, what the contests offer writers who enter varies widely. So just as you should learn all you can about a writers’ conference before you slap down the registration fee, before you pay to enter a contest, it would behoove you to do your homework.

First, is the contest credible?

There has been quite a bit of controversy within the last year over how various literary contests are judged. Not all are blind (meaning that the judges do not know whose entry is whose), and not all contests that claim to have blind judging actually do. It is not unheard-of, for instance, for organizations to solicit entries from outside their memberships, but only award to their own. It is not at all unusual for contests for the unpublished to allow published writers to submit their work-in-progress for judging alongside the work of the less experienced. And some observant souls pointed out earlier this year that the students of the writers who were judging contests seemed to be winning major awards on a fairly regular basis.

Obviously, this kind of pseudo-blind judging is grossly unfair to the other entrants, but the moral of this story is not that not all contests are squeaky-clean. It is no secret that there are many contests out there that solicit widely for entrants primarily as a fundraising effort, rather than a sincere attempt to discover heretofore unsung talent. Nothing bad happened to the judges who were favoring their students, so the moral is most definitely LET THE ENTRANT BEWARE.

I shall never forget the looks on the faces of everyone at the awards ceremony of a QUITE respectable Southern conference when the teenage daughter of two of the contest judges carried off the Young Writer award (and, as I recall, a not insignificant check — derived, no doubt, from the entry fees of trusting high school students). Now, her parents had actually been judging in other categories, not hers, but since they had been her first readers and were rather chatty people, the judges in her category certainly knew which entry was hers. I’m not saying that the contest was rigged, per se; I’m just saying that the mother won in the nonfiction category.

The general rule of thumb to avoid this type of situation: enter contests sponsored by organizations, not cliques. The writers’ grapevine can really help you here. Ask other writers about particular contests before you spend time and money on entering them. POETS & WRITERS magazine, which lists literary contest deadlines in each issue, does a pretty good job of screening, so if a contest seems a bit shady to you, check if it is listed in P&W.

And, of course, if you check out a list of the last few years’ winners (and you should; more on why below), and you see the same last names recurring, or see that the judges themselves seem to carry off prizes, you might want to think twice about sending in your entry.

Second, how good are your chances of winning?

Yes, any contest win or place will look nice on your writing résumé, but obviously, some contests are more prestigious than others. Less prestigious ones can actually be a better bet, if they are legitimate. When you are first starting out as a contest entrant, you might want to stick to smaller contests, where your odds are significantly better. Big-ticket contests attract stiff competition; contests with large cash prizes attract a higher percentage of professionals amongst the entrants.

Also, your chances of winning are higher if your writing resembles that of past winners. Most contests will list past winners on their websites, tucked away in a corner somewhere; check them out. If the sponsoring organization publishes winning entries, read a few. If your writing is stylistically radically different, the contest is probably not for you.

Remember, in most writers’ organizations that offer contests, the first round of reading is performed by volunteers — the same volunteers, year after year. If the volunteers favor Gothic romance, and you write futuristic fantasy, you’re probably better off saving your money and going for a different contest.

In any contest with celebrity judges (i.e., famous writers who make the final selections), this goes double. If your writing doesn’t resemble the famous judge’s in form, think twice before bothering to enter.

Even if you’re lucky enough to find a celebrity judge who is well-read outside of his own subgenre — and willing to reward work unlike his own — the bigwigs virtually never read all of the entries; commonly, they read only the finalists. That means that those crusty volunteers I mentioned above screen the entries first — and all too frequently, edge out good entries that do not resemble the celebrity’s, on the well-intentioned theory that our writing tends to reflect our reading tastes. They’re just trying to save the celebrity some time.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about what you can get out of the writing contest. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

I need it yesterday

Hello, readers —

All right, I’ll confess it: my recent hiatus was not merely so you all would have time to get your entries in for the Holiday Tables contest — the deadline of which, incidentally, has been extended to Epiphany, January 6. A wise soul pointed out to me yesterday that all of us would be garnering rich material on holiday-table interactions in the weeks to come, and I would hate to miss any of that. See my last blog for contest details.

No, my break was for another reason: I was abruptly greeted week before last with an incredibly short revision deadline from my editor. When I say incredible, I don’t mean unusual so much as improbable to be able to meet: from Thursday afternoon to Monday night.

Would I frighten you too much if I told you such a short turn-around time is not atypical?
Manhattanite attitudes toward time (punctuated thus: wait-wait-wait-I NEED IT TODAY!-wait-wait-wait-REVISE THIS BY TOMORROW-wait-wait…), combined with the fact that it takes pretty darned long to edit a manuscript, dictate that we West Coast authors are continually FedExing things across the country. (In my case, at the publisher’s expense, thank goodness.) When I see an e-mail from my editor, I automatically break out the vitamin pills. I know it’s going to be a long night.

It would be easier to e-mail chapters, of course, but the aforementioned Manhattanites tend to be working with such outdated hardware and software that transferred files don’t translate between my system and theirs. This, too, is common: ask any PNW-based established writer who works on a Mac, and you’ll get a diatribe about how her agent and/or editor can’t open any of her attachments. We’re spoiled in the PNW, you know — even non-geeks tend to know computer geeks at least casually, so we can get answers to our computer questions fairly easily.

Not so the average NYC agency or publishing house. Would you believe me if I told you that neither my agency — a major one, with more than a hundred clients — nor my publisher — also fairly large and well-to-do — employs a computer expert?

It’s hard to imagine a company of that size in say, Seattle or Portland doing without a resident computer guy, isn’t it? The sad fact is, half the publishing industry is running Windows 98 on ten-year-old PCs — and have so little computer savvy that they insist that a book’s manuscript should be one long document. (That crash you just heard was everyone at Microsoft fainting at the very thought.) As an up-to-date Mac user who knows that 350-page documents tend to be a mite unwieldy — and thus like to crash like the Hindenburg — I can only shake my head and insist upon working in paper.

Then, too, when you send something as an attachment, it is too tempting not to proof it in hard copy before you send it, which can be disastrous. Admit it — you probably have in the past tried to edit e-mailed documents right on screen, when you were in a hurry. An odd illusion most of us have, that reading on screen is faster: actually, the typical reader reads 25% MORE SLOWLY on screen than on paper. And 79% of on-screen readers scan the page, instead of reading word-for-word, as one must to do an adequate proofreading job. A mistake that looks minimal on screen, such as a repeated word, can look truly unprofessional on the page.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: proof your work in HARD COPY before you send it to professionals.

Obviously, it’s flattering the first time an editor at a real, live publishing house — or a real, living agent — asks for ultra-quick revisions. “Hey!” the author thinks, aglow with joy, “they’re super-eager to read my work! They want to rush it out the door!”

Ah, the fantasies one can construct…

Actually, the swift turnaround request from an agent is often indicative of eagerness, but from an editor, it often is not. What the last-minute rush (usually, I am sad to report, followed by weeks or months of “Oh, I haven’t had a chance to read it yet”) generally means is that the editor requesting it has pushed his side of the work until the last minute — and thus has placed you in the procrastinator’s last-minute frantic shuffle. This tendency is so common in the publishing industry that it will do you no good to complain about it, except to other authors. Sorry.

I should pause to distinguish between the last-minute editorial request for changes and what newly-signed authors often PERCEIVE to be a rush request. The latter is primarily a function of the well-justified frustration most of us feel while trying to break into the biz and the fact that agents and editors have been very good at training conference-going writers (not to mention the ones professional enough to read writers’ publications) that they are roughly as busy as the angel responsible for protecting the hides of two-year-olds worldwide. We fear to encroach upon their valuable time, so when an agent or editor asks for a change or two, many throw ourselves into the task as though the world will end if we don’t finish the revision within the week.

I have learned over the years, both from my experience and my editing clients’, to ASK up front for a deadline. This request invariably surprises agents and editors — who tend to think of writers as inveterate procrastinators; their ways are much more comprehensible if you recognize that — and makes the author look comparatively good. Not to mention the not insignificant advantage of letting the author know whether the revision is expected sometime this week or sometime this year.

In the publishing world, both are distinct possibilities.

You may not always be given a deadline when you ask, but at least you won’t be left to wallow in the dread fear that you should have overnighted the revision yesterday, and it will open the possibility of haggling for more time. Since most new writers (and actually, most established ones) have day jobs, asking for a solid deadline is important, so it is possible to save up vacation and sick days for use during deadline crunch. A good way to budget your time with a long-term deadline is to set a personal deadline two weeks or a month before the actual deadline, and plan accordingly.

If you finish before your agreed-upon deadline, great — nothing makes an author look better than being able to turn in a manuscript BEFORE a deadline. When my agent was negotiating the contract for my memoir (A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK), she asked me how quickly I thought I could finish the manuscript, so we could specify a delivery date in the contract. Prudently, I added two weeks to my estimate, since publishing houses are serious about those delivery deadlines. When I turned in the manuscript two weeks early — in other words, precisely on my personal deadline date — my editor and publisher nearly fell over from surprise.

When the genuine last-minute request does hit you, there is little you can do but hold on for the ride. Unfortunately for the author, having to be en garde constantly for the possibility of a last-minute revision request means superlative organization UP TO that point. The better you know your manuscript, the less time such revisions will take.

Think about your current manuscript: if you were asked to change a secondary plotline, or remove a minor character, how long would it take you to track down each relevant page? If you have to scroll or leaf through, it can be quite time-consuming; for how long most writers pore over their own work, it is surprising how few have read it back to front often enough to know to a certainty what falls where. If you’re in a hurry, knowing only vaguely when a contested character does or does not appear will slow you down — and increase the probability that you’ll miss a spot.

So I say it once again: you should be reading your own work on a regular basis, in hard copy. If you have a very complicated plot or a great many characters, it isn’t a bad idea to maintain a sequential list of scenes, listing who is in which. Yes, this is a lot of work, but such a well-kept list can save you literally weeks at revision time, if you need to change a character or significant plot point.

Fortunately for me, I happen to know my manuscript superlatively well, so I could put my finger on precisely the individual sentence or paragraph that needed to be moved without delay. That was not an intimacy with the text that sprang up overnight, my friends, but one born of weeks and months of going over the text, again and again. Every so often, I would print out what I had and read it straight through, like a finished book. (This is less paper-wasteful than it sounds, when you save a one-sided draft and print the next draft on the flip side. I’m notorious for raiding office recycling bins to forage for draft paper.) Even though sections have moved around, I grew to have an almost instinctive feel for what fit where. Frankly, a four-day revision would not have been possible without that level of advance knowledge.

A word to the wise, my friends. Keep up the good work.

– Anne Mini

This is my 75th blog!

Hello, writers —

Guess what? This is my 75th blog for the PNWA! That’s 322 pages of writing in standard format, in case you’re curious (or in case you were planning to print it all out), approximately the length of my dissertation; I’ve written shorter novels. Greater love hath no woman for an organization. When I reach Blog 100, we shall have to celebrate, perhaps with another contest.

But wait! We have a contest going on right now, and the deadline is NEXT WEEK — December 15 at midnight PST, to be precise. To save you all the trouble of leafing back through earlier postings to get to the rules, I am going to post them again today — handily enough, just before a nice weekend that just BEGS to be spent writing a superlative entry.

I have a holiday goodie to inspire your pen: the winner of this little contest will not only have his or her writing posted here, for all to read, but also on a respected literary fiction website.

Why is this double posting opportunity a particularly nifty prize? Because, dearly beloved, being posted on a third-party website DOES count as publication. You may legitimately use it as a bullet point on your writing resume and boast about it in your query letters — that’s TWO publication credits, and one contest win. Not bad for an afternoon’s work.

Trust me, if your past is shy of credentials, nothing dresses up a query letter like a paragraph citing previous publications. As I explained back in September — how long ago it seems! — agents and editors like to be the second or third person to recognize a writer’s talent, not the first. That’s why contest winners tend to attract droves of agents — someone else has already said, “Gee, this is a writer to watch.” In the publishing world, a contest win shows up like flare against a starless sky.

(Is this the right time to remind you that I landed my fabulous agent, and shortly thereafter my publishing contract, because I won the 2004 PNWA Zola Award for Nonfiction? Is it the right time to remind you that you should start working on YOUR entry for that fantastic venue, so you will be ready for the February entry deadline? No? Well, I’ll keep quiet, then — but since the publishing world is effectively shut down for the rest of the year, this would seem like the ideal time to be polishing up your contest entries, rather than querying… I just mention.)

Before I give you your assignment and deadline, let me share a tender tale of holiday festivity at Harvard. I remember this particular Thanksgiving distinctly, as it was the year that I unwisely agreed to share the festivity with my roommate’s family. Roomie’s father was a chemistry professor of great repute, and he decided that this was the year to determine experimentally just how little heat a turkey could be subjected to and still be served. In my opinion, a microwave oven was not the proper instrument to utilize for this experiment, but who was I to question the march of progress?

The following year, the professor actually won a Nobel Prize, so he must have had good ideas occasionally, but trust me, this was not one of them. When it came my turn to tell the assembled family what I was grateful for, holding hands around the holiday table, I couldn’t help glancing down at the bloody mess on my plate and blurting: “I’m grateful that I grew up in a family of excellent cooks.”

That year, I was taking an introductory Italian class, taught by a fiery European immigrant who dressed every day in fine black leather suits, claimed to be sleeping with several rather prominent 70-year-old economists then engaged in advising the current president, and moved like a panther in heat. She gave us Italian soft porn comic books to improve our vocabularies — which it certainly did! — and regularly bought out all of a particular shade of red hair dye stocked in Cambridge drug stores, so no one else would have precisely her wild shade. She liked to be noticed.

The class adored her.

Our midterm was set on the last day of class before Thanksgiving break, and for the essay section of the test, we were assigned to write a short piece on our family’s usual celebration. On the first day back from break, our teacher came flying into the room, late as usual. She crushed me to her monumental bosom, redolent of expensive leather, a trifle too much Chanel No. 19, and what I could only assume was the lingering affection of a major economist. With a resounding smack upon my startled head, she announced that I had won a bet for her with the other Italian teaching fellows.

In all of the Italian 101 sections combined, there were perhaps a hundred students, all of whom had been given the same midterm essay assignment. Out of those hundred, I had been the only one who had written a short story. Everyone else had written the Italian equivalent of:

“On Thanksgiving, our family eats turkey. My mother cooks it for a long time. I like gravy on my potatoes. At the end of the meal, we eat pie made from pumpkin, a kind of squash.”

Based upon past experience, my teacher had known that I was constitutionally incapable of writing an essay that straightforward. What won her a bottle of Veuve Cliquot was my little story about how my parents tended to invite every non-citizen they knew to our Thanksgiving repast, so my brother and I would end up vainly trying to explain the more nonsensical traditions to guests totally bewildered by them, much to my parents’ amusement. Then, when everyone was good and perplexed, my father would stand ceremoniously, holding the carving knife and fork aloft — and with a single swift stroke, slice the turkey clean through from top to bottom. Gasps galore. My mother, tireless in pursuit of that one awesome moment when a perfectly-stuffed slice of turkey fell onto the plate, as cohesive as though the whole thing were a ham, would spend hours on end boning the bird. One year, a guest fainted, and had to be revived with a rather potent Napa Valley Chardonnay. The following year, my parents made a suckling pig instead, so large that I was convinced for hours that they had cooked our Labrador retriever and hung a garland of cranberries around its neck.

What does this have to do with the contest, you ask? It points up the crying need for some more interesting stories about the holiday dinner table.

Why is it that, in writing about the festivals of our lives, we so seldom dwell upon the DISSIMILARITIES between our widely disparate families’ holiday tables? Oh, I know, there are countless scenes in movies that deal with the Thanksgiving meal: always an intact family, with parents permanently married, always the same beautifully-lit pink and beige foods heaped on the table, and almost always in a multi-story A-frame house, located somewhere in New England where the first light snow of winter wafts gently to the ground. There may be drama going on in the other rooms of the house, but in the dining room (there is always a dining room, even when the family depicted is very poor; at worst, there is the world’s largest kitchen equipped with a dining nook that would easily seat 8 adults comfortably), all is harmony and stuffing.

If I knew Thanksgiving only from movies and TV, I would think that every American was struggling to forge an adult relationship with her adorably graying upper middle class WASP parents (he, square-jawed, clean-shaven, and incapable of showing emotion to his nearest and dearest; she, stuck in some sort of arid 1950s oven cleaner ad where everything in the house remains perpetually clean with no effort) and ne’er-do-well brother/slutty sister/frigid sister played by Julianne Moore in an atmosphere of TREMENDOUS FAMILY SECRETS that everyone has known perfectly well for the last decade or two. And yet Mom (unaided, or perhaps with assistance from the non-slutty sister; extra points if she is played by Hope Davis and is an asexual corporate lawyer), bless her, always manages to get that perfect meal on the table. No one ever chokes on an underdone drumstick, and spices, beyond nutmeg and perhaps a bit of sage, are utterly unknown.

But for the vast majority of Americans, that is not the way this family festival plays out, is it? For starters, New England, as fond as the Puritans may have been of it, is a rather small portion of the country, geographically speaking, and almost none of us are actually descended from the first colonists. Westerners born and bred almost never see a white Thanksgiving (I am quite sure that when we ate suckling pig in California, I was in short sleeves), and Pacific Northwesterners generally go to Grandmother’s house over flat highways marked with grayish drizzle, rather than over the river and through the woods. Unless, of course, it is a period of especially heavy rainfall, in which case we drive our SUVs through flooded streets. Most of our trees are evergreens, so they do not change color at all, and in earthquake country, you don’t see a whole lot of multistory single-family houses, as we don’t like our kith and kin being squashed by falling rubble when the floor starts to shake unmercifully.

And that’s just how different the West Coast experience is on the OUTSIDE.

So here is your challenge, should you care to accept it: write a scene that shows what the holiday table is like in your neck of the woods, and post it via the comments function on this blog (that’s what the copy-and-paste function is for, my friends) before December 15.

Any genre is acceptable (wouldn’t you love a good Christmas murder mystery?), so feel free to submit in play format, if that’s what blows your skirt up. Or as poetry. Or as a short story, novel excerpt, or cookbook entry. What I want to see here is YOUR style of holiday table.

Standard format, please (if you don’t know what that is, do yourself a favor, and read yesterday’s posting), and nothing longer than 10 double-spaced pages. Winners will receive undying glory, an actual readership amongst your peers, and posting on a literary fiction website. Just a little resume candy to stuff your holiday stocking.

Ho, ho, ho. Keep up the good work.

– Anne Mini

Standard format

A few posts ago, I promised to refresh your memories on what precisely standard format for manuscripts is. This may seem Mickey Mouse to some of you, but honestly, in my extensive travels amongst writers looking to get published, I have discovered that more often than not, the aspiring rely primarily upon instinct and observation of works in print as formatting guides. They pick typefaces on purely aesthetic grounds, play with margins and print size to make things fit well on the printed page, and occasionally even have justified margins on both the left and right sides of the page.

They are, in short, employing formatting practices that make their work unprofessional to agents and editors. And manuscripts that look unprofessional, unfortunately, tend not to be taken seriously by people in the biz.

There is a standard format for prose manuscripts in North America; why this should not be widely known is a mystery to me. I think it is unfair to writers new to the game to expect them to learn such basic requirements by trial-and-error, so periodically, I like to state — openly and without disguise — what standard format entails. Unorthodox, I know, but I’m here to help.

A manuscript, dearly beloved, is NOT an exact replica of a published book.

It differs in many small, important ways — and to editorial eyes, these difference are screaming fire sirens about the experience level of the author. A manuscript that apes the conventions of published books does not, contrary to popular belief, make the author look more professional, at least not to professional eyes. Instead, to an agent or editor, those very ostensibly expert touches brand a manuscript irrevocably as the work of an amateur.

Why is this a problem? Well, in an environment where agents receive 500 or more unsolicited submissions per week, being able to weed out the less experienced authors automatically by tossing out any submission that does not adhere to standard format speeds up going through the mail considerably.

In other words, if your manuscript is formatted correctly, it is FAR more likely to be read than if it is not.

To be absolutely honest, most of the conventions of standard format are seriously outdated. For instance, in standard format, all numbers under 100 are written out in full. The original reason for this was simple: to prevent the typesetter from making a mistake; in longhand, a 3 can look a great deal like an 8, but a three is pretty hard to mistake for an eight. Similarly, all dashes in manuscripts should be doubled, to prevent the typesetter from mistaking them for hyphens. Now that manuscripts are transmitted whole and entire via computer program, the risk of this type of mistake is significantly lower, yet the traditions of standard format remain intact.

I find it helps to think of the rigors of standard format as the manners of the publishing world. You would not stumble into a group of foreigners whom you wanted to impress and deliberately hurt their sensibilities by refusing to comply with their rituals, would you? If you met the Queen of England, would you seize the opportunity to insult her taste in hats, or would you curtsey and murmur a few polite words, like everyone else in the receiving line?

I imagine that your mother would like think that she brought you up well enough to choose the latter. Pet the corgis, admire the Queen’s hat, and get out of the palace with your head on.

Agents and editors may not have the power to chop off your head if you displease them, but they do have the authority to pronounce your manuscript dead on arrival. So the prudent course for those new to the publishing world is to learn its manners and traditions. Honoring these traditions may not guarantee your work a sympathetic reading — but on a bad day, when an agent is trying to plow through her seventieth submission in an hour, you bet your boots that deviations from standard format provide an easy excuse to toss that manuscript aside and move onto the next.

Here are the rules of standard format:

  • All manuscripts must be typed and double-spaced, with at least one-inch margins on all sides of the page. No exceptions.


  • All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page.

Yes, this is wasteful of paper. Deal with it.

  • The text should be left justified ONLY.

Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along the margins, and yes, your word processing program will replicate that, if you ask it nicely. But don’t: the straight margin should be the left one.

  • The typeface should be 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier.

If you write screenplays, you may only use Courier. Seriously, most screenplay agents will not read even the first page of a script in another typeface.

There is a very good reason for utilizing a standardized font: in Times or Times New Roman, one double-spaced page is 250 words, rendering word count estimation easy.

  • No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type, keep the ENTIRE manuscript in the same font and typeface. Even if the manuscript features an extensive correspondence in translated Elvish. If it’s in English, it should be in a standard typeface.


  • Words in foreign languages should be italicized.


  • Every page in the manuscript should be numbered.


  • Each page contains a standard slug line in the header, listing AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/ABBREVIATED TITLE/PAGE #.

Thus, the third page of my memoir manuscript reads: MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/3.

  • The first page of a chapter should begin a third of the way down the page.

That’s twelve lines, incidentally.

  • The beginning of each paragraph should be indented five spaces.

Yes, I know that published books often begin chapters and sections without indentation. Trust me, that was the editor’s choice, not the author’s. Even if every chapter ever printed by your favorite author has used this device, you will not be in a position to explain that to an agent or editor until after he has already noted that your work is not professionally presented.

  • All numbers under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25.


  • Dashes should be doubled — hyphens are single, as in self-congratulatory.

Yes, I know that your word processing program will automatically change a doubled dash to a single one. Change it back.

  • Dashes should have spaces at each end — rather than—like this.

Yes, yes, I know: books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy. But standard format is invariable upon this point.

  • The use of ANY brand name should be accompanied by the trademark symbol, as in Kleenex™

Actually, if an editor or agent is under the age of 30, you may get away without including the trademark symbol, but legally, you are not allowed to use a trademarked name without it.

Yes, I know you’ve never seen this in a finished book — that’s because the legal department at some publishing house has meticulously gone through the text of those books with a fine-toothed comb, finding brand names so they can obtain permission from their owners to use them. Save the legal department some time: flag the words.

That’s it.

I know that most of these seem petty: after all, it should be the writing that counts in a submission, not the typeface. It IS petty to privilege Times over Helvetica. Again, this is yet another of those areas where you can beat yourself bloody, railing against an illogical system, or you can just accept the status quo.

I vote for the latter. This is an industry that changes only very, very slowly: believe it or not, most NYC literary agencies still don’t even have an on-site computer wizard. It is not uncommon for e-mail attachments, the transition between Mac and PC, and the linked documents to appear as big, ugly mysteries to people who are otherwise very, very savvy. A polite person, a prudent person, a person who wants these people to like her and her work, will not rub their noses in the fact that you probably know more about computers than they do.

Trust me on this one: it’s a paper-based industry, and one that likes to see new authors respect its traditions.

Flow with it. And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: Don’t forget to work on your entry for the Holiday Table contest (details in my post of November 24). The deadline is December 15

On beyond pushy

Hey, I’ve got a great idea for how to while away a long, dark winter’s evening: why not put together your entry for this fine blog’s Holiday Table contest? You may use any style you like — 8-line poem, play, novel excerpt, short story… Just keep it under 10 pages (standard format), and make sure it shows a holiday feast more interesting than the standard, saccharine, TV-movie version we so often see. Show us some drama; show us some comedy; show us some pathos. Heck, go ahead and show us some bathos, but for heaven’s sake, send in your entry (via the COMMENTS function, below) by December 15. Full directions in my post of November 24. Fame, if not fortune, awaits.

I’ve been writing all week about steps you can take to improve the feedback you get from non-professional first readers — for those of you just tuning in, that’s any pre-publication reader for your book who is not paid to give you feedback.

In other words, the vast majority of first readers.

Tip #8 advised you to give your first readers a list of questions, preferably in writing, at the same time as giving them the manuscript. That way, you will get your most important questions answered, and less experienced first readers will have the guidance they need to keep from floundering about in the text, desperately searching for something helpful to say.

Several of my loyal, intelligent, devoted readers have already informed me that they find Tip #8 far and away the most distasteful of the lot. They consider it pushy, if not downright presumptuous: empathetic souls, they feel that such a list implies doubt about the first readers’ reading ability, if not actual intelligence.

If anything beyond “Just tell me what you think” feels overly dictatorial to you, consider this: there is not a literary contest in the world that does not provide written instructions to its judges on how to evaluate contest entries. Those famous writers that you see touted in POETS & WRITERS routinely follow precisely the kind of lists Tip #8 suggests. Literary assistants at agencies are almost invariably handed lists of desirable traits to seek as they read through submissions, as well as lists of criteria for instantaneous rejection. If professional readers work along pre-set guidelines, why should amateur readers be expected to perform the same task without guidance?

To turn the question around, haven’t you ever noticed how first readers new to the task almost always have difficulty giving specific feedback, even if they loved the book? Haven’t you noticed how they tend to freak out a little if they are asked pointed questions?

As a former professor, I can tell you exactly what that panicked flash in their eyes means: it’s the fight-or-flight response of a student suddenly tested on material he thought would not be on the test. From the unguided reader’s POV, being grilled by an anxious author is like a pop quiz on material read for fun. Nip this anxiety in the bud: give your first readers a study guide, so they’ll know what’s going to be on the test.

Do you remember that professor in college or that teacher in high school who used to madden you at exam time with vague questions, ones so broad that they essentially invited you to spill out every minor fact you had managed to memorize? “Compare and contrast the Renaissance with the Middle Ages,” for instance, or “Was the League of Nations a good idea?” Or the ever-popular ploy of giving you a quote, and asking you to relate it to the reading — here’s a doozy

“There is no ‘objective’ or universal tone in literature, for however long we have been told here is. There is only the white, middle-class male tone.” — Carolyn Heilbrun, WRITING A WOMAN’S LIFE

Relate this quote to the works of Jane Austen, Dave Barry, Truman Capote, Charles Dickens, Norman Mailer, Yukio Mishima, Anaïs Nin, Philip Roth, Edith Wharton, and Marvel Comics. Use specific examples.

Students look at this sort of question and wish that they would be struck by bolts of lightning — which, in essence, they have. “What the heck does “relate” mean in this context?” they wonder, surreptitiously sharpening their pencils into weapons of mayhem.

I like to call this the “what color am I thinking?” school of test-giving.

My dissertation advisor used to favor rambling quarter-page ruminations on the nature of politics, without ever articulating a question she desired students to answer. My high school biology teacher, more vague than most, simply walked into class on the day of our big plant life exam, handed each of us a three-foot-long stretch of butcher paper, and told us, “Show me everything you know about plants.” Was it an invitation to draw lilies for an hour, or an entreaty to write haiku? No one knew until after the exams were graded.

It drove you nuts in school, right? Well, first readers given no guidance by the authors who have handed them manuscripts often feel as annoyed and helpless as you felt when faced with those kind of vague exam questions, especially if they’ve never read a manuscript (as opposed to a book) before. The format is substantially different, for one thing (if that’s a surprise to you, don’t worry: I shall post a refresher on standard format soon), and let’s face it, it’s an intimidating thing to be faced with the task of evaluating the creative output of someone’s soul.

For the reader who is not also a writer, the implied obligation not only to point out problems but to suggest viable solutions can be completely overwhelming. All too often, the reader gets so intimidated at the prospect of providing creative advice that he simply gives no feedback at all — or just keeps putting off reading the manuscript. Alternatively, other readers will run in the other direction, treating every typo as though it were evidence that you should never write another word as long as you live. All of these outcomes will make you unhappy, and might not produce the type of feedback you need.

Following Tip #8 will decrease everyone’s stress levels — and providing written parameters for criticism at the same time that you hand over your manuscript is an easy way to minimize the potential for future misunderstandings. Even just one or two questions will be helpful to your reader.

There’s no need to turn it into a major research project, or to inundate your readers with ten-page lists of questions. Stick to a simple 1-2 pp. questionnaire about the book, highlighting the areas you feel could use some work. (For the sake of your ego, it’s also a good idea to include questions about parts that you know you have pulled off well.) I like to call this the “what color am I thinking of?” school of test-giving.

Be as specific as you can — questions along the lines of “What did you think of my protagonist?” tend to elicit less helpful responses than “Was there any point in the book where you felt the tension lapsed? At what point did you feel most interested in the plot?” I always like to add some offbeat questions, to make the process more amusing for the reader: “Did anything in the book make you laugh out loud?” and “What in the plot surprised you most?” can provoke some interesting responses.

If you are uncomfortable with the idea of a questionnaire, make a few specific requests, either verbally or in writing. Verbally, I have found that coupling very pointed suggestions with compliments works best:

“You’re always so good at foreseeing plot twists in movies — what do you think I could do to make my book’s plot more astonishing?”

“You’re the best cook I know — I would really appreciate it if you would keep an eye out for sensual details that did or did not work. Did I bring in the senses of smell and taste enough?”

Remember, this is an exercise in getting you the feedback YOU need, so the more honest you can be with yourself and your first readers, the better. If you are feeling insecure, it is completely legitimate to say:

“Look, this is my baby, and I’m nervous about it. Yes, I would love it if you flagged all of the typos you saw, but what I think would help me most is if you told me what is GOOD about my book.”

And finally, all throughout the process, observe Tip #9: Be hugely grateful for your first readers’ help.

Yes, I know, I sound like your mother (are you sitting up straight?), but honestly, this is a situation where politeness really pays. Here is a wonderful person who has — for reasons of friendship, bribery, or idle curiosity — agreed to devote many, many hours of her time to giving your manuscript a good, hard reading. She has let you blandish her into that most difficult and dangerous of tasks, telling the truth to a friend.

If that’s not an occasion for sending some flowers, I should like to know what is.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Eliciting the specifics

For the past few days, I have been talking about how to get the most from non-professional feedback, from those readers who, not to put too fine a point on it, are neither employed in the publishing industry, being paid to read your work, nor are other writers. For most writers, their first readers do fall outside these categories — which means that most writers are dealing with first readers who have no previous experience in manuscript critique. When the writer does not set out ground rules to guide these inexperienced first readers, trouble often ensues.

The single best thing you can do to head off problems before they start is to follow Tip #8: Give written directions for feedback.

“Wait a cotton-picking minute,” I know some of you will say. “I won’t get to set up restrictions for who buys and reads my book after it is published. What’s wrong with just letting my first readers have a completely spontaneous reaction?”

Well, in the first place, buyers in bookstores will not know you personally. Their reactions, unless they happen to contact you or write reader reviews on Amazon or someplace similar, will remain a mystery to you. Your first readers, on the other hand, do know you, and presumably will be interacting with you in future social situations. They will probably want to be considerate of your feelings — which automatically makes giving honest critique even of excellent writing much harder. That’s going to kill most of the spontaneity of their reactions.

Second, when your first readers are non-professionals — that is, unless they are either being paid to read your work or are receiving critique from you in exchange, as in a class or writers’ group — they are doing the writer a great big favor. They are charming, generous people who deserve every piece of assistance a writer can give them.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the response of readers who buy your book will come after it is too late for you to revise it. By contrast, your first readers are giving you feedback early enough in the process to influence the book before it goes to press, and generally before it is seen by agents or editors. The better their feedback is, the easier it is for you to incorporate into the group.

If you are expecting your first readers to provide you feedback that you can use to revise your book, it is only fair to let them know in advance what kind of critique you are hoping to see. Providing a brief list of written questions may seem a bit pushy at first, but believe me, if your reader finds herself floundering for something to say, she will be immensely grateful that you gave her some advance guidance. And you, in turn, are far more likely to receive the kind of feedback most helpful to you than if you remain politely mum.

Coming up with specific questions will also force you to figure out what you in fact do want from your first readers. You may discover that you actually do not want feedback; maybe you want support instead. Maybe you want recognition from your kith and kin that you have completed a project as major as a book. If so, it is important to recognize your desires before you hear any critique from your first readers — if you were seeking praise, and your reader thought you were looking for constructive criticism, both you and your reader will end up unhappy. Bringing your expectations into sync will substantially raise the probability of the exchange being positive for everyone concerned.

Even if you discover that you actually do not want dead-honest critique, do tell your first readers that in advance. If you feel that the whole point of showing your work to your kith and kin is to gain feedback in a supportive environment, and you want to share this important part of your life with your loved ones, that is perfectly legitimate, as long as neither you nor your first readers EXPECT you to derive informative feedback from the experience. If this is what you want, it will be FAR easier on your first readers if you tell them so explicitly: “Don’t worry about proofreading, Mom,” you can say. “I have other readers who can give me technical feedback. Just enjoy.”

If you want to be a professional writer, however, you will need to harden yourself to feedback, and good critique can be invaluable to clarifying fuzzy places in the book. If this is what you want (and you are asking non-professionals to give it), then it is only courteous to take the time to set out exactly the questions you want your first readers to have in mind while they read.

Tomorrow, I shall wrap up this subject. In the meantime, why not take a few minutes to polish your entry for the Holiday Table contest? (Details in my November 24 posting; the deadline is December 15.) It easy to enter, and the winner will receive two bona fide publication credits! Enter today!

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Speeding the plow

Only ten more days to get your entry in for the Holiday Table contest! Full details in my November 24 post. Show us your stuff!

For the last few posts, I’ve been writing about how to improve the feedback you’re getting from non-professional readers — i.e., first readers of your work who are neither freelance editors, agents, editors at publishing houses, or paid writing teachers. In a publishing environment where agents and editors simply do not have the time to give in-depth responses to queries, writers hit up their friends — who all too often are too polite to say no or, heaven help us, think that giving feedback on a manuscript-in-progress is a jaunty, light-hearted, casual affair, as simple and easy as reading a book on a beach.

Tee hee. Imagine their surprise when they start reading, and learn that you expect them not to be passive consumers of prose, but active participants in the creative process.

Writers tend to complain about the feedback they get from kind souls decent enough to donate their time to feedback, but let’s pause for a moment and think about the position of a friend impressed into first reader duty. Chances are, this friend (I’ll call her Gladys because it looks good in print) committed herself to reading the manuscript without quite realizing that she’d done it. From a non-writer’s POV, “Oh, I’d love to read your work sometimes” is generally NOT an actual invitation to share a manuscript; for most people, it’s just a polite thing to say.

For the sake of Gladys and every kind soul like her, adhere to Tip #7: Make sure IN ADVANCE that your first readers fully understand what you expect them to do — and that it is significantly more complicated than merely reading a book.

I can tell you right now that 99% of casual offerers have no idea what to do with a manuscript when it is handed to them. Gladys is generally dismayed when someone takes her up on her request. Like most people, dear Gladys did not have a very good time in school, and you have just handed her a major reading comprehension assignment; in a flash, you have become her hated 8th-grade English teacher, the one who used to throw his keys at kids who walked in late. In her sinking heart, she is afraid of the book report she is going to have to give at the end of the process.

So what does Gladys do? Typically, she doesn’t read the book at all. Or she launches eagerly into it, reading perhaps ten or fifteen pages, then gets sidetracked by the phone ringing or piled-up laundry or the need to go to work. (Remember, she isn’t a writer, so she does not have much experience in wresting precious minutes of concentration time out of a busy day.) However good her intentions may have been at first, somehow the book falls to her lowest priority — and very few people lead lives so calm that a week of nothing to do suddenly opens up for their lowest-priority projects. Like the writer who keeps telling himself that he can only work if he has an entire day (or week or month) free, our well-meaning Gladys wakes up in six months astonished to find that she hasn’t made significant inroads on her task.

I once had a first reader who BEGGED to read a manuscript for weeks on end. Six months later, I asked for it back, even if she hadn’t read it. As it turned out, she hadn’t, but she had filled the margins of Ch. 1 with glowing praise, concluding with, “You couldn’t PAY me to stop reading now!”

She stopped reading three pages later.

Gladys intends to get back to it, she really does, but my goodness, when is she going to find the time? It’s not as though a manuscript is bound, like a book, rendering it easy to tote around and read in spare moments. Over time, she tends to start to resent the task. Most often, this resentment manifests in holding on to your manuscript indefinitely.

Frankly, this is maddening. We expect our friends to devour our books, relish them, and call us in the dead of night to say that it’s the best book they’ve ever read. (C’mon, admit it.) While most of us are astonishingly patient with agents and editors who do not respond to queries or hold on to manuscripts that they’ve asked to see for months at a time, we’re seldom as patient with our first readers, are we? The writer too timid to call an agent who’s had a requested three chapters for a year will often go ballistic at the friend who’s had the same pages for the same length of time. Odd, considering that the agent is being paid to read work, and the friend isn’t, but that’s the way we feel.

Once the situation has gone this far, it’s quite hard to fix it without resentment. The only way to get out of the situation gracefully is to call the remiss Gladys (or send her an e-mail, if you’re afraid that you’ll yell at her) and politely ask for the manuscript back. Ignore her protests that she is really intending to get to it soon, honest, because she won’t. Cast your request as having nothing to do with her: “Manuscripts are actually pretty expensive to produce, and I’ve just found the perfect person to give me feedback on it. Would you mind if I saved a little money by passing your copy on to him?”

This may sound a bit nasty, but believe me, it’s less confrontational than almost anything else you could say. Just accept that Gladys had no idea how much time it would take, and move on. And say no the next time she offers. (Astonishingly, the Gladyses of the world — Gladioli?) — often do. They must be insulating their attics with their hapless friends’ unread manuscripts.) Tell her that you’ve decided to rely on professional feedback this time around.

Whatever you do, don’t sit around and seethe in silence. Say something, and don’t let it wait too long. If you do not take action, Gladys will eventually have to come up with a strategy to deal with her obligation — and what she comes up with may not be very pleasant for you.

Often, Gladioli will turn their not having realized that reading a book draft is a serious time commitment into a critique of the book. Well, I would have read it, but it was too long. I was really into it, but then a plot twist I didn’t like came in, and I just couldn’t go on. I liked it, but it didn’t move fast enough. These all might be legitimate criticisms from someone who has actually read the manuscript, but from a non-finisher, they should be disregarded. They are excuses, not serious critique. Please do not allow them to hurt your feelings, because they are not really about the book — they are about the feedback process.

When you hear this type of critique used as an excuse for not reading, thank Gladys profusely, as if she has just given the Platonic piece of feedback. Tell her that you know in your heart she is right, and you don’t want her to read another word until you’ve had time to revise. Get the manuscript back as soon as possible. Then rush out and find another first reader.

“My secret, if I must reveal it,” quoth the illustrious Alexis de Tocqueville, “is to flatter their vanity while disregarding their advice.”

Advance planning can go a long way toward avoiding this situation. Observe Tip #7a: give a deadline at the outset. While you are explaining what it is you would like your first reader to do, mention that in order for the feedback to be useful to you, you will need it within a month. That’s long enough for a spare-time reader to get through pretty much any manuscript without sleepless nights, so you need not feel as though you are proposing a pop quiz. After that (you will explain kindly), while you will value Gladys’ opinion, you will not have time to incorporate it. Being able to turn the book around that quickly (you will tell her) is the difference between being the kind of helpful friend who gets thanked in acknowledgments and the kind of friend who is appreciated in private.

After you state the deadline, ASK if it will be a problem. If Gladys hesitates at all, tell her that it’s perfectly okay to say no. In fact, you would appreciate it, because you are at a point in your career where you need prompt feedback, and while she was your first choice, you do have others lined up. (Say this whether it is true or not; it will make it easier for her to decline if she feels overwhelmed.) By allowing her the chance to bow out BEFORE you’ve gone to all the trouble of printing up a complete manuscript, you are underscoring that you realize that she is promising something significant, and you appreciate it.

A week before the deadline, call or e-mail, to ask how the reading is going. This will give Gladys another opportunity to back out, if she is feeling swamped. (If she asked to read your manuscript out of simple curiosity — a very common motivation — she will have realized it by now.) Set up a specific date and time to get the manuscript back. Promise to take her out to lunch or to bring her chocolates — after all, she’s been doing you a big favor.

If Gladys can’t make the deadline but still wants to go forward, set another deadline. It may seem draconian to insist upon specific dates, but inevitably, the writer is the person who loses if the feedback relationship is treated casually. If you are open at every step to Gladys’ backing out, you will significantly reduce the probability that she will let you down after two months. Or four. Or a year.

If you present these requests politely and in a spirit of gratitude, it will be hard for even the most unreasonable Gladys to take umbrage. Actually, by taking the time to learn her literary tastes, ascertain that she has time to give you feedback, and not allowing your manuscript to become a source of guilt for months to come, you will be treating Gladys with respect. If you respect Gladys’ opinion enough to want her to read your book, you should respect her ability to make an informed opinion about whether she can commit to doing so. It is your job to inform her.

Your writing deserves to be taken seriously, my friends — and the more you take it seriously, by seeking feedback in a professional manner, the better it will become. Tomorrow, I shall discuss how to elicit specific information from your first readers, to get answers to problems you already know exist in the book.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

The keepers of the books

‘Twas the week after Thanksgiving, and all through the publishing houses, not a creature was stirring, not even that junior editor who swore to you at a conference last summer that she’d get to your submission within a month. So let’s let the literary world alone for its long winter nap and move on to matters that we writers can control, eh?

First, don’t forget to start polishing up your entries for the Holiday Table contest (details in my Thanksgiving post). Wow me and the editor of a respected literary fiction website with your piece about the holiday table, and you’ll gain eternal fame, via being posted here and on said literary site. (And yes, you can legitimately use that as a publication credit, quoth the ghost of query letters yet to come) So keep those entries rolling in — the deadline is December 15.

I devoted yesterday’s post to a few helpful hints on how to get good feedback from non-professional readers. (The standard professional readers are agents, editors — freelance and otherwise — and teachers, but agents and editors seldom have time to give significant feedback, and classes and freelance editing cost money.) Yesterday’s hints, as you may have noticed, concentrated on asking the right people to read your manuscript. A LOT of standard first reader problems can be avoided by simply not asking people who are not qualified to read your book to read your manuscript.

I hear some of you out there humphing. “Yeah, right,” some of you are grumbling audibly, “she’s a professional writer and editor with a Ph.D. She probably doesn’t think ANYONE is qualified to read a book.”

Actually, depending on your genre or field, a highly-educated person can be the WORST first reader imaginable. If you were writing for, say, fifth graders, your ideal first readers would be a classroom full of kids, not a symposium full of philosophy professors.

However, relatively few aspiring writers actively seek members of their target audiences as first readers. Why not? Well, most of the ones I’ve polled have said it’s just easier to ask people they already know — and it turns out that writers aren’t necessarily aware of what their friends do or do not read.

So how do you find a qualified reader? Tip #3: ask people about their reading habits BEFORE you ask them to read your manuscript. Do this even if — and perhaps even especially if — someone has expressed an interest in reading your manuscript simply out of friendship. In my experience, such people, while kind and encouraging, often do not realize just how much time it takes to read a manuscript carefully. Often, these folks end up not finishing it at all or giving inadequate feedback, just because they did not budget adequate time to read well.

You need not give potential readers the third degree; take ’em out for coffee and spend half an hour chatting about books. (This is also a pretty good idea to do with members of any writing group you are thinking about joining. How a person speaks about his literary likes and dislikes will tell you a lot about whether he is a good reader for your work.) You may feel as though you are conducting a job interview, but honestly, you will be trusting your first readers to hold a significant part of your ego in their hands. You wouldn’t trust your teeth to a dentist without credentials or previous mouth-related experience, would you? Are the nerve endings in your mouth really more sensitive than your feelings about your work?

Having this little chat will make it significantly easier for you to implement Tip #4: get feedback from people in your target audience.

This is slightly different than yesterday’s Tip #2, which advised getting feedback from inveterate readers of your chosen genre or field, who would be familiar with the conventions, limitations, and joys possible in books like yours. People in your target audience, however, may not yet have read a book like yours, but for reasons that you are VERY eager to explain to your dream agent, these target readers need desperately to read your work.

For instance, let’s say you’ve written a lifestyle book for former high school athletes who no longer exercise — a rather large demographic. Three of your five chapters are filled with recipes for bran muffins, salads, and trail mix. Naturally, you would want to include among your first readers someone familiar with cookbooks, as well as someone who reads a lot of exercise books. However, it would be well worth your while to seek out a jock from your old high school who has never opened either a cookbook or exercise book before. If you can make your book work for your old volleyball buddy, you’ll know you have a good shot at writing for people like her. (Hey, you might as well get SOME use from all of those nagging messages keeps sending you about getting back in touch with old playmates, right?)

If you are a member of a writers’ group, and you have not been getting useful feedback, you might want to consider whether its members actually are in your target demographic. Look very carefully at your first readers and ask yourself: are these the kind of people I expect to buy my book? If they did not know me, would they buy it at all? If the answer to either is no, go out and find some people who are and will, pronto. I know an excellent children’s book illustrator who, every time she finishes a rough draft, routinely hangs out with her sketchpad in the picture book sections of bookstores, stopping every kid she sees to ask if the pictures she has just completed match the captions well enough. She gets TERRIFIC feedback, from precisely the right people.

You may have noticed that from talking about one or two first readers, I am now speaking of several for a single project. Your work is complex, right? It may be very difficult to find the single ideal best reader for it. So why not mix and match your friends to create an ideal composite reader?

Tip #5: Find different readers for different needs.

Most of us would like to think that anything we write will invariably touch any given reader, but in actuality, that’s seldom the case. Nor is it often the case that we happen to have an array of first readers easily at our disposal — although, again, if you join a good writers’ group, you will in fact have gained precisely that. In the absence of such a preassembled group, though, you can still cobble together the equivalent, if you think long and hard about what individual aspects of your book could use examination. Once you’ve identified these needs, you can ask each of your chosen readers to read very explicitly with an eye to her own area of expertise, so to speak.

In the lifestyle book example above, it was easy to see how readers from different backgrounds could each serve the book. With fiction, however, the book’s various needs may be more subtle, harder to define. In a pinch, you can always fall back on finding a reader in the same demographic as a particular character — I know a lot of teenagers who get a big kick out of critiquing adult writers’ impressions of what teenage characters are like. If a major character is an accountant, try asking an accountant to read the book for professional accuracy. Even if you are writing about vampires or fantasy creatures, chances are that some regular Joes turn up in your stories from time to time.

And so forth. But make sure when you approach these people — or any others — you follow Tip #6: couch your request in a compliment. Ideally, you would like these potential first readers to be flattered that you asked. Try asking like this:

“I trust your eye implicitly, so I am really looking for proofreading here.”

“Your comic timing is so good — would you mind flagging the jokes that you think don’t work?”

There’s no need to make up extravagant praise — just be very clear about why you are asking that particular person for feedback. Why is this person THE person to read your book?

Next time, I shall discuss how to frame your request for feedback in ways that will encourage useful commentary. In the meantime, ponder this: note how I have turned the issue of who makes a good first reader from a question of who your friends are to a question of what does the book need. This was deliberate, because this is the single biggest mistake I see good aspiring writers make in seeking feedback: they forget that the feedback process is not about helping the writer, but about helping the manuscript.

Keep that vital distinction foremost in your mind, and I promise you, you are far less likely to hand your beloved baby over to the first careless coworker who says, “Gee, I’d love to read some of your work sometime.” The writer may be flattered by such attention, but the manuscript deserves not to be sent on blind dates. Choose your first readers with care.

Have a lovely weekend, everybody. And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Getting the feedback you need

Hiya, campers —

I’m a little giddy today — it’s snowing. In Seattle. Before Christmas. Obviously, the weather gods are tireless readers of my blog, and they took umbrage at my contention that PNW holiday seasons didn’t even LOOK like all of those New England frosty Thanksgivings and white Christmases we keep hearing about. So never doubt the power of the written word.

Speaking of which, don’t forget to get to work on your entries for the Holiday Tables contest being sponsored by yours truly and this very blog site. (Check out my posting for Thanksgiving Day, November 24, for details.) Winners will have their fabulous words posted HERE and on a marvelous literary fiction site, both of which are gen-u-ine publication venues that you may proudly boast about in query letters yet to come. So get those creative juices flowing! Deadline for submission is December 15.

All right, back to business: I know, I know, I promised you a heaping helping of practical advice on how to deal with your first readers — and I promised to deliver it to you on Tuesday, two days ago. Well, apparently the human body isn’t really designed to withstand months of vague legal threats and highly personal attacks against its creative products. Either that, or Thems As Don’t Cotton To Me have dug out their voodoo dolls of late. (For those of you just tuning in, the Philip K. Dick estate began threatening back in early July to sue my publishers if my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY, comes out next winter, as planned. Such threats tend to linger in the air, particularly when repeated. Even though it was midsummer when they first went on the offensive, and there’s snow on the ground now, I still can’t tell you with any precision what exactly the estate wants me to change in the text. Go figure.) In any case, I have not been at all well, and thus the delay in posting. My apologies — and if any of you out there knows a good cure for off-site voodoo doll pokes, I’d like to hear about it.

I wrote last time (and indeed, for quite a bit of August and September) about the advisability of getting some trustworthy soul to read your work IN ITS ENTIRETY before you send it out to an agent or editor at a small press. If you belong to a writers’ group, you already have a built-in problem-catching system in place — or you do if you belong to a good writers’ group. If you have been hanging with other writers too kind to tell you about logical holes in your text, grammatical problems, or the fact that your protagonist’s sister was names Myrna for the first hundred pages and Myra thereafter, it really would behoove you to have a few more critical eyes look over your work before you send it out.

If you are going to be called on a mistake, it is FAR better to be a little embarrassed by a good first reader than rejected by a hyper-critical agent or editor. So if you are one of the many, many aspiring writers out there who has been too shy to show your work to others, yet is willing to send it out to be evaluated by grumpy literary assistants hyped up on seven lattes before lunch, consider carefully whether you really want your first reader to be someone who does not have either the time or the inclination to give you useful feedback.

Worth some thought, I think.

And it really is worth your while to get feedback that is actually objective. Translation: it shouldn’t come from people who already love you. Or hate you, for that matter. No matter how supportive, kind, literate, critical, eagle-eyed, or brutally honest your parents may be — and I’m sure that they’re sterling souls — their history with you renders them not the best sources of feedback. Ditto with your siblings, your children, your best friend since you were three, and anyone who has ever shared your bed. ESPECIALLY anyone who has ever shared your bed.

Far be it from me to suggest that any of these people might be sweet and generous enough to lie to spare your feelings, but frankly, that possibility should occur to you. Be grateful that you have such supportive folks in your life. Cherish them; appreciate them; cling to them with the tenacity of a leech. But get other first readers for your manuscripts, because a first reader who will not tell you the truth reliably is simply not useful for a writer.

If you need proof, ask the next agent or editor you meet at a conference how many times she’s heard a rejected author cry out: “But my mother/husband/wife/best friend LOVED it!” It’s one of the miracles of love, apparently, that it can blind the eye of the beholder to grammatical errors.

Incidentally, critique by loved ones often runs in the other direction, particularly if you happen to be loved by the type the psychologists used to call passive-aggressive. I have had many editing clients come to me in tears because their boyfriends have pounced on the first typo of the manuscript as evidence that the writer should never have put pen to paper at all. Long-repressed sibling rivalries often jump for joy when they see a nice, juicy manuscript to sink their teeth into, and are you quite sure that your best friend ever forgave you for the time that your 4th-grade soccer team beat hers? The critique you need is about the book, not about your relationships.

I’m not saying not to show your work to your kith and kin — if it makes you happy, do. But all of my experience tells me that even if your Aunt Mary won a Pulitzer in criticism last year, you probably should not rely solely upon her critique of your manuscript. I speak not just from professional experience, but from familial as well: my mother is one of the best line editors I’ve ever seen. She’s been doing it since the late 1940s, for some pretty top-notch writers. I do show my work to her — but for the brutal truth, I rely on my trusty band of first readers.

I can already hear some of my readers gnashing their teeth. “I HAVE been giving my work to first readers,” I hear them grumbling, “and they never give me feedback. Or they hold onto the manuscript for so long that I’ve already made revisions, so I can’t really use their critique. Or they so flood me with minute nit-picking that I have no idea whether they even LIKED the manuscript or not. I really feel burned.”

If you do, you are not alone: trust me, every freelance editor has heard these complaints hundreds of times from new clients. In fact, freelance editors ought to be downright grateful for those poor feedback-givers, as they tend to drive writers either to despair or into the office of a professional.

At the risk of thinning the ranks of potential editing clients, I do have a few suggestions about how to minimize frustrations in the first reader process. First, as I have indicated above, avoid asking relatives and close friends. If you do have them read it, make a positive statement when you give them the manuscript, limiting what you expect in response: “I have other readers who will deal with issues of grammar and style,” you can tell your kin, for example. “I want to know if the story moved you.” By telling them up front that you do not expect them to do the work of a professional editor (which at heart, many manuscript readers fear), you will make the process more pleasant for them and heighten the probability that you will get some useful feedback.

Ideally, your best first reader choice (other than a professional reader, such as an editor, agent, or teacher) is a fellow writer in your own genre, preferably a published one. Second best is a good writer in another genre. Third is an excellent reader, one who has read widely and deeply and is familiar with the conventions of your genre.

Which brings me to my second suggestion: stick to readers familiar with your genre. Someone who reads primarily nonfiction is not the best first reader for a novel; an inveterate reader of mysteries is not the best first reader of literary fiction or a how-to book. Readers tend to impose the standards of the books they like best onto anything they read, with results that can sometimes puzzle writers and readers of other genres. For instance, my boyfriend, an SF/fantasy reader since his elementary school days, shocked me on one of our first dates by confessing, in the middle of my rhapsody in praise of John Irving, that he had not been able to make it all the way through THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. “I found it boring,” he admitted. “Not much happened.”

“A character gets castrated in mid-car crash,” I pointed out. “How much more action do you want?”

From his reading background, though, he was right: it’s rare that more than a page goes by in a good SF novel without overt action, and mainstream novels tend to be devoid of, say, time travel. John Irving would be wise, then, to avoid him as a first reader.

As would I — and here’s where I see if you’ve been paying attention: why SHOULDN’T I use my SF-loving boyfriend as a first reader? If your first impulse was to cry out, “He’s double-disqualified! He’s more or less kith and kin, AND he doesn’t read memoirs on a regular basis!” you get an A.

Tomorrow, voodoo doll and legal conditions permitting, I shall share a few more hints on how to minimize first reader disappointments. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini