Scoring Criteria, Part II: Revenge of the Premise

Hello, readers —

I started yesterday down the long and twisting road of how precisely contest judges judge, discussing the premise category at length. Naturally, every contest on earth hands its judges slightly different criteria for judging, but (in case you missed yesterday’s post) there tend to be five major categories of scoring criteria: Premise, Voice, Presentation, Mechanics, and Technique. Today, I shall wrap up the topic of Premise.

Before I launch, however, a quick aside to those of you following my Novel Project, where I try to give a sense of what it is like to work with a good agent in real time. It’s been just over two weeks — 16 days, to be precise — since my agent and I agreed that it was time to start submitting my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, to editors at publishing houses. I sent 8 copies of my manuscript to her precisely two weeks ago, give or take an hour or two, and she received them 9 days ago.

So where are my manuscripts now, you ask? Sitting in my agent’s office, of course.

Surprised? I’m not — but this is an area where most new writers simply don’t speak the same language as their agents, and thus go into agonies of worry about WHY the manuscripts did not get submitted right away. Writers who went to the pointless trouble and expense of overnighting them (something I never do unless the other party is footing the shipping bill; I’ve literally never encountered a situation in the publishing world where USPS Priority Mail didn’t get it there in ample time) end up feeling even worse.

In actual practice, manuscripts seldom pass immediately from agent to editor. (Moral: NYC-based people ALWAYS make their desires sound urgent. Don’t listen to them.) Agents almost never send out manuscripts without pitching them to editors first, and pitching to 8 editors takes time. So does picking which editors would be the best fits for the book — here is where it really pays off to have an agent with good connections, to be able to know who is likely to want a book about the adult lives of kids who grew up on an Oregon commune. Actually, I would be surprised if there weren’t still a few copies sitting in my agent’s office at the end of the month.

I’ll keep you posted, of course. But it just goes to show you, agency and publishing house clocks apparently do not run at the same rate as clocks in writers’ humble domiciles. Which is a nice way of saying: it’s not just you; writers being left in limbo while others judge their work is the nature of the beast. Try not to panic as the days and weeks tick by.

All right, back to the Premise category. In addition to evaluating whether the premise is a marketable one, clearly presented and carried consistently throughout the submitted chapter AND the synopsis, this category is also where judges grade how well the author convinced the reader that this will be a great book. This is not just a matter of how lucidly the premise is presented in the entry; it’s also how quickly the reader is sucked into accepting the premise.

In other words, is there a hook?

As an experienced contest judge and editor, I can tell you outright: the vast majority of entries (and manuscripts, for that matter) do not have a hook. In fact, most entries and manuscripts, even those written by very good writers indeed, tend to do what is known in journalism as burying the lead: they often take a few pages to warm up before starting the book. Or a few paragraphs before getting into the premise in the synopsis.

I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve found a TERRIFIC first line for a novel on page 4. Or 6. Or 17. It’s almost as though some writers are afraid to wow their readers before they get to know them a little. Drink a little wine, maybe go dancing first.

And I’m here to tell you, not only will this practice cost you vital points in the Premise category, it will also harm you in agents’ offices and publishing houses.

To anyone who has read more than a couple of British novels written in the last 30 years, this should be a jaw-dropping observation. Pick up almost any novel that’s won an award in the British Isles recently, and you’ll notice something: by North American standards, the action does not start until at LEAST 10 pages in. Sometimes, it doesn’t start for the first 50 pages. Over there, this rather coy approach to the reader is apparently considered rather stylish.

In the good old U.S.A., however, such a leisurely approach in a first book is considered deadly. (As we all know, established writers have infinitely more leeway.) If nothing dramatic happens in the first 5 pages, chances are very high that the average reader in an agency or publishing house simply will not continue reading. I’ve spoken with agents who say — and I swear I’m not making this up — that if nothing happens on the FIRST page, they stop reading and move on to the next submission.

Yes, yes, it’s grossly unfair. But as I believe I may have pointed out before, if I ran the universe, things would be organized rather differently. As I do not, I can only pass the unpleasant truth on to you.

Contest judges are structurally constrained to be quite a bit more generous — they actually are required to read all of each submission. However, as I mentioned yesterday, perceptions of marketability tend to weigh rather heavily in judging assessments. So when confronted with an entry that seems likely to be set aside for slowness by professionals… well, let’s just say it might be graded down.

As I mentioned in January, this is why it is a good idea, both for a contest entry and a first novel, to position a strong, memorable, active image as close to the beginning of your submission as possible. It’s astonishing how often the active scene on pg. 8 does not need 7 pages of explanation to occur first. Try constructing a first chapter — or short story beginning, or memoir opening — so it starts off with a bang, and hurls itself forward into the plot. Often, it’s the backstory that is best told on page 8, rather than the attention-grabbing action. It is one of the best ways I know to make a good writer’s first work seem to leap out of a pile of contest entries or agency submissions. Give it a try.

And, at the risk of sounding cynical about the industry (me? Perish the thought!), you do not ultimately have to use the action-packed opening in your finished book. Jump-starting the work is a trick of the trade, a sales tool, a means of getting a judge, agent, or editor to keep reading long enough to come to the realization that you can write.

Tomorrow, I shall delve into the issue of Voice, possibly the most subjective of the judging categories. Everyone defines good authorial voice differently (like the Supreme Court’s famous pronouncement about pornography, we may not be able to agree upon what it is, but we all know it when we see it), so does it all just come down to a matter of personal taste?

In a word, no. Tune in tomorrow to find out how and why.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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