Contests, Part X: Entering a memoir

I thought about it over the weekend, and yes, Virginia, I DO have enough left to say on the subject of contests to carry us all the way through Greek Christmas, January 6. Which, as it happens, is the extended deadline for the Holiday Tables contest, sponsored by yours truly. (Entry details in the blog of December 8.) The winner will receive undying glory and the opportunity to post writing both here and on a well-respected literary fiction website. That’s two legitimate publication credits and a boastable contest win, my friends.

You can’t win if you don’t enter.

Having won the PNWA’s Zola Award in the nonfiction book/memoir category last year, I feel that I should add a few category-specific hints for my own kind today. (And have I mentioned recently that THE VERY MEMOIR THAT WON is currently available for presale on Amazon? It’s called A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK now, although when it won, it was titled IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN? Unfortunately, it will not actually be available to READ the first chapter, which the nonfiction book/memoir judges liked so much, before the upcoming PNWA contest deadline, but hey, think of all the good contest karma you’ll be racking up by checking out the Amazon blurb.)

I have judged in this category before in several contests, and please, I implore you, if you are submitting a memoir entry, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. Yes, I know, it’s very difficult not to refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life, but seriously, I’ve seen entries get disqualified for this.

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

I went to college with Danny, a very clever, very ambitious writer who periodically contributed pieces to the on-campus humor magazine. Now, it was the practice of the magazine to publish most of its pieces without bylines, to encourage collaboration amongst members of the writing club. But as I said, Danny was ambitious: he, like many of the other writers in the club, was anxious to graduate with clippings he could use to promote his work later on. So Danny did something exceptionally crafty: he inserted his own name into every ostensibly anonymous piece he wrote, much as Jerry Lee Lewis used to refer to himself in his own lyrics, so radio listeners would know who sang the song. Danny’s favorite way of doing this was to have an imaginary conversation with himself, so an alter ego could address him by name.

Danny did in fact land a pretty good writing job after graduation, I am told, but he was relying upon his club’s editorial indulgence to let him get away with breaking the rules. In a contest, this practice would have gotten him disqualified immediately.

Because there are legions of rule-breakers out there, you need to be ultra-careful about not doing inadvertently what Danny did on purpose. Unfortunately, within the first-person narrative common to memoirs, narrators tend to talk to themselves all the time,  à la Hamlet: Danny, you get ahold of yourself, now.

Keep a sharp eye out for that in preparing your contest entries.

Usually, though, the author’s name comes up as an inadvertent slip, where it’s pretty obvious that the author thought she had expunged all relevant references to herself. Even these innocent mistakes can knock your entry out of competition.

Let’s say the author is named Tammy Postlethwaite. Here are the most frequent ways that her name is likely to appear in a memoir. Check for these:

When another character directly addresses the narrator: “Tammy, have you seen the rice pudding?”

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

And, in the VAST MAJORITY of childhood memoirs, when the narrator gets in trouble, some adult says: “Tammy Marie Postlethwaite, you come in this house this instant!”

Remember, in order to violate the rule, even if a character OTHER than the author appears with the author’s last name, it can cost you:

When a family member is addressed by a third party: “Mrs. Postlethwaite, your daughter is under arrest.”

When the narrator refers to her family collectively, or to a possession as theirs: In the Postlethwaite residence, Christmas decorations abounded.

Remember, too, that self-references to EITHER your first or last name, not just to both together, count as rule violations. By all means, do a search-and-replace for BOTH your first AND last names in your entry before you print it up.

Why might this be necessary, you ask, since in most contests, the judges never see your name attached to the manuscript, and thus would not know that the Tammy mentioned is the author? Well, two reasons. First, such is the seriousness with which blindness is taken that if a judge even SUSPECTS that an entry contains the author’s name, the entry may be toast. Second, it is not unheard-of for contests to have initial screeners, whose SOLE function is to check the entries for rule violations before the non-rule breaking entries are passed along. These screeners sometimes do have your entire entry packet — and thus your name.

The easiest way to avoid this problem is to use a pseudonym, of course, within the context of the entry. However, it is well worth your while to add a note to the title page of your entry, STATING that you have changed the names, because, as I mentioned above, the mere suspicion of rule-breaking can harm your chances of winning. How is the judge to know whether you have substituted the names or not, if you do not say so? “For the purposes of this entry,” you could write, “I have changed my family name to Parrothead.”

Yes, it’s kind of silly, but that way, you make it pellucidly clear that you’re not referring to yourself.

Other good tip for memoirists entering their work in contests is to do a bit of market research. (Actually, this is a good idea for anyone writing a book, and everyone who has to write a synopsis for a contest.) Is your memoir in fact unique, or does it fit into a well-defined market niche?

It is a question well worth asking before entering a memoir into a contest. All of us tend to think of our own experiences as unique, which of course they are. Every point of view is to a very great extent original. However, certain life experiences tend to recur, and tender, well-written memoirs about a Baby Boomer daughter nursing her mother through her final illness, for instance, or a former drug addict/alcoholic/workaholic rediscovering the beauty of day-to-day life, or a former hippie/swinger/disco queen recounting his or her glory days are not altogether uncommon. Nor are spiritual awakenings, discoveries that institutions are corrupt, or personal battles against major illnesses. If you check a well-stocked bookstore, or even run your subject matter through an Amazon search, you will get a pretty firm idea of how many other accounts there are that resemble your own, at least superficially.

This is not to say that your personal take is not worth telling — if you’re a good writer with a truly individual take on the world around you, it undoubtedly is. Remember, though, that judges tend to be reading for marketability, and if they perceive that you are writing in an already glutted submarket, your entry may not do as well as an entry on a less well-trodden topic.

Unfortunately, if you are writing about a common experience, you cannot get away with assuming that the writing alone will differentiate it from the other submissions. If there’s recently been a bestseller along similar lines as your topic, you can bet your boots that yours will not be the only entry that resembles it. Think about how many people suddenly started writing accounts of growing up poor immediately after ANGELA’S ASHES hit the big time, or about over-medicated, over-sexed teenagerhoods in the wake of PROZAC NATION.

If you are writing on a common topic, the bar automatically goes higher, alas, for making YOUR story stand out amongst the rest. If there are a whole lot of entries with similar stories, it is just human nature for the judges to get a trifle bored after the second or third one. You really have to knock their socks off, to an extent that you might not if your topic were not popular that year.

The best way to make your work stand out from the crowd is to use the synopsis to show how YOUR memoir is QUITE different than the other memoirs on the subject — and knowing the existing memoir market will be most helpful in figuring out what aspects to stress. What made your experience special, unique, unforgettable from the point of view of a third party? Why couldn’t anyone else on earth have written it, and why will readers want to buy it?

No need to turn your synopsis into a back jacket blurb (of which, more over the next few postings), but do show how your work is UNLIKE anything else the judge is going to read. Yes, each judge will have your chapter, or few pages, or however much the contest allows you to show him, but sometimes, the difference between a “Thank you for entering” letter and one that says, “Congratulations — you’re a finalist!” is a synopsis that makes the case that THIS entry, out of the half-dozen entries on the same general topic, is the one that is going to hit the big time.

But to discuss that, I shall have to get into the issue of how contest synopses differ from query synopses, and that is a project for another day. Tomorrow, to be precise, and perhaps the day after that.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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