Scoring Criteria

Hello, readers —

Miss me? No, I did not take a long weekend; I had a mountain of time-consuming stress suddenly come up around my memoir. Not overwhelmingly productive, but necessary; it has had almost exactly the same effect upon the other aspects of my life as a particularly virulent bout of flu. Isn’t the writing life glamorous? I barely had the strength to deplore the apparently newly fashionable I’m-a-corpse-in-a-champagne-colored-dress look popular at the Oscars this year. Or to muse upon the irony that while the publishers are freaking out in this James Frey period over whether it’s still safe to publish memoirs, three of the four winners in the acting categories were playing real people — and no one seems to be suing THEM.

For those of you new to this blog, I was supposed to have a book coming out this month, but it has been pushed back to May at the earliest. My continuing apologies for not being able to fill you in more fully (still!) about the book’s continuing travails, but (a) legal issues still abound and (b) my feelings about what is going on cannot be described in the language used in children’s books, if you get my drift. If you’re curious about why a squabble about whether it is permissible to tell one’s own life story takes eight months (and counting) to resolve, well, so am I.

I’ll fill you all in about the whole saga the moment I may, of course: it’s a story that reveals a lot about the publishing industry. At each new turn of events, my agent keeps saying, “Wow, this would make a great screenplay!” All very dramatic, in other words, but not much fun. I did an interview about the book recently, where I was able to speak a bit more freely than I can in the PNWA’s forum, but otherwise, I can’t give any specifics about what is holding up production.

I’m back today, though, and eager to tackle a great question about contest entries from insightful and curious reader Marcille:

You mentioned the contest first-round judges evaluate the entries using a complex rating form. Can you explain more about what they are rating and what weighs heaviest in their evaluation?

Happy to oblige, Marcille; I’m sure a lot of people out there are curious. Every contest gives its first-round judges slightly different criteria for determining which entries should move on to the next stage (in most contests, the next stage is the finalist round); each category may have its own criteria and weighting rules. In a mystery category, for instance, maintaining suspense would count more heavily than in a mainstream novel category.

However, the general criteria tend to fall into five categories: Premise (also known as Core Idea or Theme, although each of these actually means something different. Go figure.), Presentation, Voice (also known as Viewpoint), Technique (sometimes collapsed into the same category as Voice), and Mechanics (and yes, this is different from Technique or Presentation). Usually, these categories are either weighed equally (as is the case for the PNWA contest), or Voice and Technique are given slightly more weight.

I’ll go through each category and discuss what judges tend to look for within it, but I want to pause first and call your attention to something significant: three of the five categories are heavily reliant upon not just craft, but nit-picky details. This emphasis means that even a “Wow! What a spectacular idea for a book!” entry with a strong, likeable narrative voice that’s full of technical problems CANNOT score particularly well.

Seem a trifle counterintuitive? Actually, the contest organizers are trying to help writers by weighting it this way — they are trying to reward manuscripts that are free of the type of mistake that tends to get submissions tossed by agents and editors. Emphasizing the cosmetic aspects in the first-round judges maximizes the probability that any entry that makes it to the finalist round will be absolutely ready for professional eyes.

And in the long run, this is good for both the writer and the contest — every writing contest organizer loves to boast about how this or that prize winner went on to publication success. Contest organizers wanting to be able to point to successful writers in later years and say, “See? Our contest discovered her/him.” Why, just look at how the PNWA bills me; I have relatives who boast about me less.

However, it could be argued that it would be BETTER for the entering writers if they were told this upfront. Remember how, in the weeks leading up to the contest deadline, I kept both yammering at you to proofread AND make sure your entry adhered to standard format? This was why.

The Premise category encompasses more than whether the entry is a cool idea for a book. Usually, the judge will be asked point-blank to assess the basic idea’s market appeal. (Do I hear the literary fiction writers out there moaning aloud?) Why? Well, see argument above about what the contest organizers like to have happen to their winners; a great little book with only tiny niche appeal will generally gain lower marks in this category than a less well-written entry with broader market potential.

This is important for writers to know, especially those marketing work with atypical attributes, such as a nonlinear plot or Socratic method argumentation. One of the questions judges are almost invariably asked to evaluate is, “Was the premise carried out consistently throughout the entry?” In order to answer this, all of the judges will have to
(a) understand your structural choices and underlying assumptions, and
(b) agree that they’re a good idea.
The more out there the entry, the chances that one or more of the judges will not embrace either (a) or (b).

There is an organizational reason for this: anyone who has been judging literary contests for awhile has seen a LOT of nontraditional entries, many of which are apparently the result of the authors’ not being aware of standard format or rules of argumentation. Sad but true, the more of these a judge has seen, the warier he is when he is confronted with the next one. To put it bluntly, your decision to omit punctuation because your narrator is illiterate may well be brilliant, but the last poorly-punctuated submission probably was not. Your entry is likely to suffer by association.

I have met many, many writers who have insisted that the nontraditional elements in their work were selling points. They cite example after example of major bestsellers with similar attributes, and have a hard time believing me when I point out that Mark Twain was hardly an unknown writer when he wrote HUCK FINN and Alice Walker was well enough established by the time she published THE COLOR PURPLE that no one seriously believed that she didn’t know how to use a semicolon properly. Yet at literally every writers’ conference I have ever attended (and believe me, I’ve been to plenty, all over the country), I have met at least one eager writer who informed me very earnestly that his or her book was far too out there for the mainstream. The publishing world, I am invariably informed, is probably not ready for a book this profound/innovative/insightful and/or political.

I have a couple of pieces of advice for people with genuinely startling projects. First, tip number one for pitching your work: DON’T give your hearer all the reasons that the book will have a hard time finding its audience! Second, a contest probably isn’t the best forum for getting your work discovered. In a contest, your entry has to make it past many sets of eyes, all of which will be attached to brains with their own strong opinions about what is and isn’t marketable. When you are querying, you generally need to convince only one person — most often, the agency’s designated query screener — to get past the first stage, but in a contest, it’s a group decision. Individuals are more likely to take a chance on something legitimately wacky than a contest committee.

If you take nothing else away from today’s discussion of premise, remember this: it is the writer’s responsibility to make the premise clear, not the reader’s to figure it out. Yes, the first chapter of a novel or nonfiction book is not a whole lot of time to establish a complex premise, but it is what the contest format offers you. Contests judges are not evaluating the overall merit of a book, even in categories that ostensibly do exactly that — they are judging how well the entry performs its self-assigned task of presenting its premise within the portion of the book that they SEE. This distinction sometimes renders writing a good contest entry and writing a good book different tasks.

There is more to the Premise category than this, of course, but that is material for tomorrow’s blog. I shall continue going over the contest judging categories in the days to come.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: If you want a crash course in evaluating your own work as a contest judge, agent, or editor would, as one of a broad array of submissions, you could do no better than to volunteer to be a contest judge yourself. The PNWA is still looking for a few judges for this year’s contest — why not drop ’em an e-mail? Even if you entered the contest, you could still be a first-round judge in another category. It honestly is a learning experience like no other.

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