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

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