Contests, Part XII: Every word is a writing sample

It may seem odd that I hammered so hard yesterday about the importance of a finely-crafted synopsis to a contest entry’s overall chances of winning, but you would be astonished at how often a well-written chapter is accompanied by a synopsis obviously dashed off at the last minute, as though the writing quality, clarity, and organization of it weren’t actually being evaluated at all.

I suspect that this is a fairly accurate reading of what commonly occurs. All too often, writers (most of whom, after all, have full-time jobs and families and, well, lives to lead) push preparing their entries to the very last minute. Frustrated at this crucial moment by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement — it’s the writing in the chapter that counts, right? — it’s tempting to just throw together a synopsis in a fatal rush and shove it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it.

Trust me on this one: judges WILL pay attention to it.

Many a fine chapter has been scuttled by a slipshod synopsis. I won’t go so far as to say that if you do not expend careful consideration over the crafting of the synopsis for a book-length category, you might as well not enter at all. It is entirely fair to say, however, that if you have a well-written, well thought-out synopsis tucked into your entry packet, your work will automatically have an edge toward winning.

Effectively, in a contest situation, the synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book. The synopsis is where you demonstrate to judges that you are not merely a writer who can hold them in thrall for a few isolated pages: the synopsis is where you show that you have the vision and tenacity to take the compelling characters you have begun to reveal in your first chapter through an interesting story to a satisfying conclusion. The synopsis is where you show that you can plot out a BOOK.

For this reason, it is imperative that your synopsis makes it very, very clear how the chapter or excerpt you are submitting fits into the overall arc of the book, regardless of whether you are submitting fiction or nonfiction. Quite a few contests allow writers to submit chapters other than the first, and if you elect to take them up on this offer, your synopsis had better make it absolutely plain where the excerpts will fall in the finished work.

Truth be told, I think it is seldom wise to submit either non-consecutive excerpts from a book or chapters other than the initial ones, even if later chapters contain writing that is truly wonderful. Non-consecutive excerpts require the judge to make the logical connections between them — which the judge may not be inclined to do in a way that is in your best interest.

An uncharitable judge might, for instance, draw the unkind inference that you had submitted the excerpts you chose because they were the only parts of the book you had written — a poor message to send in a category devoted to book-length works. Or that you simply can’t stand your introductory chapter. Or, a judge may reason, no agent or editor in the world, is going to accept random excerpts from a book for which she’s been queried: she is going to expect to see the first chapter, or first three chapters. Thus, a judge might conclude, the author who submitted this patchwork entry isn’t anywhere near ready to submit work to professionals. Next.

This is not, in short, a situation where it pays to rely upon the kindness of strangers.

If you DO decide to use non-contiguous excerpts, place your synopsis at the BEGINNING of your entry, unless the rules absolutely forbid you to do so, and make sure that the synopsis makes it QUITE clear that these excerpts are far and away the most important part of the book. Basically, the role of the synopsis here is to make the judges EAGER to read these particular excerpts. Obviously, this means that your storytelling skills had better be at their most polished, to meet the challenge.

As for selecting a chapter other than the first for submission, effectively starting midway through the book, I would advise against it, too, even if when contest rules explicitly permit the possibility. In the first place, the judge may well draw the same set of uncharitable inferences as with the non-continuous excerpts, and dismiss your submission as not ready for the big time. (As I have mentioned repeatedly over the last couple of weeks, contest organizers LOVE it when their winners move on quickly to publication. If your work looks like it needs a couple of years’ worth of polishing to become market-ready, it is unlikely to win a contest, even if you are extremely talented.)

In the second place, while your best writing may well lie later in your book, the advantage of starting at the beginning of the book is that the judge and the reader will have an equal amount of information going in. I’ve known a lot of contest judges who resent having to go back and forth between the synopsis and the chapters to figure out what is going on.

There is a sneaky way to get around this — but again, I would have to scold you if you did it. There is no contest in the world that is going to make you sign an affidavit swearing that your entry is identical to what you are submitting to agents and editors; if you win, no one is later going to come after you and say, “Hey, your book doesn’t start with the scene you entered in the contest!”

So? Professional writers change the running orders of their books all the time.

A clever entrant who feels her best writing occurs fifty pages into her novel might, for the purposes of competition, place her strongest scene first by starting the entry on page 50 (presenting it as page 1, of course). The synopsis would have to be revised, naturally, to make it appear that this is indeed the usual running order of the book, and our heroine would have to edit carefully, to make sure that there is nothing in the skipped-over pages that is vital to understanding what happens in the chapters presented in the entry. The job of the synopsis, then, in the hands of this tricky writer, would be to cover up the fact that the entry starts in the middle of the book. It would be just our little secret.

To put it in a less clever way: go ahead and submit your strongest chapter — but for heaven’s sake, do NOT label it as Chapter 8. Label it as Chapter 1, and write a new synopsis for a book where Chapter 8 IS Chapter 1. Just make sure that your synopsis is compelling and lucid enough that it all makes sense as a story.

As a general rule, anything you can do to place your best writing within the first few pages of your entry, you should do. Judges’ impressions tend to be formed very fast, and if you can wow ’em before page 3, you absolutely should.

Actually, just as with work you submit to agents, the first page of your entry is far and away the most important thing the judges see. Unless there is a strong reason to place your synopsis first, put it at the end of your entry, so your first page can jump out at the judges. And if you can include some very memorable incident or imagery within the first few paragraphs of your chapter, that much the better.

And whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for a contest for the very last moments before you stuff the entry into an envelope. Synopsis-writing is hard; budget adequate time for it. And make absolutely sure that the synopsis you submit supports the image of the book you want your submitted chapter to send.

Tomorrow, I shall delve into the little niceties that make your entry look truly polished. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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