Scoring Criteria, Part VII: The most important thing you’ll ever read (or is it?)

Hello, readers —

Today, I am going to begin to talk about the final formal category of contest scoring, Presentation. The Presentation category is where, for instance, a judge might evaluate whether a fiction entry engages in too much flashback, or whether a nonfiction essay speaks too much in generalities rather than concrete examples. It is where the judge will ask herself: “What is the central problem of this piece? Is it well drawn? If this is a first chapter, do I have any idea where the novel is taking us in order to solve the problem?”

Put another way, in order to evaluate a manuscript for this category, the judge must ask herself how well she thinks the entry says what the author wants it to say.

As in other categories, while how well a problem is presented or an argument laid out is very much in the eye of the beholder, there are technical criteria that judges consult. In general, though, they concentrate on a single question — is it coherent? — and work outward from there. The harder it is for a judge to figure out what is going on in an entry, the lower its presentation score will be.

This is the single biggest reason not to enter an excerpt from the middle of a book, or splice together an entry from non-consecutive chapters. Even if the contest’s rules say you may do this, the mere fact of beginning anywhere but the beginning signals the judges that (a) the book is probably not finished and (b) that the author may have some personal doubts about the coherence of the opening. It invites speculation about motivation — which almost never ends well for the entrant.

Beyond the coherence issue, there are the small matters of how evidence and details are, well, presented — which is why a lot of writers confuse Presentation with Mechanics, or even Technique. The fault for this confusion lies not entirely with the writers, but in those who give advice to writers: outside the contest milieu, the issues of the Mechanics category — such as typeface, margins, proofreading, even paper choice — are often described as presentation problems. Within the context of a contest, however, Presentation is more about structure, argumentation, and detail than getting your margins in the right place.

The single place where entries are most likely to lose presentation points is the synopsis. Mostly, as I pointed out back in January, contest synopses simply SCREAM at the judges that the writer considers having to summarize the plot or argument of his book an intolerable and unreasonable burden. Resentment shouts from practically every line, which certainly does not make the book sound as though it would be enjoyable to read. Sometimes, this resentment is carried to such an extreme that an entry omits to include a synopsis at all, or merely provides a single-page one plus a table of contents. Instant loss of almost all presentation points.

It is also astonishingly common for the included synopsis to be nothing but a marketing blurb, a phantom jacket blurb for an as-yet-to-be-published book. While it is indeed useful for judges, agents, and editors to have some idea of who the target market is for a proposed book, the synopsis is not generally considered the proper place to talk about it, at least for fiction. (In a contest that asks you to specify target market, put the information on the title page.)

I have written at length in this forum before about how to write a synopsis, and I shall probably write about it again, so I shall not go into the nitty-gritty here. Suffice it to say, the MINIMUM requirements for a successful synopsis include, for fiction, telling the story of the plot in such a way as to indicate that the author has some skill as a storyteller; a nonfiction synopsis should give a brief, coherent indication of the argument to be made in the book and how the author proposes to prove it, also in a style that indicates the book will be a good read.

The operative concepts here are SUMMARY and BOOK THAT A READER MIGHT CONCEIVABLY ENJOY READING. The puff-piece method of synopsis generally omits the summary entirely, preferring instead to tell the reader (in this case, the judge) that there are 47 million Gen Xers, many of whom will feel resonance with the book’s argument; it’s great if you can work that information in to a NF synopsis ALONG with an overview of the case you are making in the book, but it is never a substitute.

Nor is an outline (or, worse still, a bulleted list — and yes, Virginia, I HAVE seen this done in many contest entries) ever an adequate substitute for a well-argued synopsis, because this method gives absolutely no indication of whether the author can WRITE or not.

I know I told you last time that if you take nothing else away from my blog, you should take away the importance of not editing your own work on a computer screen, but today, I am going to add a second commandment (drum roll, please):

Thou shalt regard EVERY line of EVERYTHING you submit to a contest, agency, or publishing house as a writing sample.

No exceptions. Your goal in a contest, as well as in a submission to an agent or editor, is to convince the judges that you can write well. Exceptionally well, in fact, well enough to render it a pleasure as well as a duty to recognize your talent with a place in the finalist category. So when you provide outlines instead of straightforward English prose, or a table of contents instead of a thoughtful exposition of your ideas, you are taking pages and pages of opportunity to prove your writing acumen and simply setting fire to them.

Using the synopsis and/or introduction as marketing copy does give you an opportunity to show you can write, true, but let’s face it, ad copy is not generally considered the highest form of mortal self-expression. Think about it — did your high school English teacher hold up “Coke adds life” to you as an example of prose to emulate? Did your first screenwriting instructor sigh over the persuasive magic of Ricardo Montalban’s poetic musings over the fine Corinthian leather of the Chrysler Cordova, pensively noting that we would never see the like of THAT kind of Shakespearean passion again in our lifetimes?

What ad copy does teach writers to do, alas, is exaggerate. To speak in gross overgeneralizations for a moment, it is HUGELY common for synopses (and first chapters) in nonfiction books to boast about the vital importance of the book the reader holds in her trembling hand. (Do my aged eyes see before me yet another book on the differences between men and women that proposes to solve the battle of the sexes in 250 pages — and that without once addressing the problem of pay differentials?) This, in fact, is the book that the world has been waiting for since the beginning of time. Every incident in my life led directly and inevitably to my writing this book. Honest. Every North American between the ages of 10 and 72 needs to read it within the next year, or I can’t be responsible for the consequences.

In nonfiction, a correlated tendency is to present the book’s argument as if it were the missing link, the single set of logic that will end world hunger, reconcile those who hate one another, and render such minor inconveniences as civil wars and border disputes things of the past. I wish I had a quarter for every first page that told me my life would be changed by this book — because, then, my life would have been changed by all of those books.

I would send you all a postcard from Tahiti, I promise.

The trick here is to avoid hyperbole, particularly in describing your intended audience. Frankly, there is NO book that appeals to everyone — and yes, entrants do actually make that claim fairly regularly in contest submissions. Even if you have identified your target demographic with praiseworthy precision, no reasonable contest judge, agent, or editor is seriously going to believe that everyone in the demographic is going to buy your book, no matter how apt it is. So don’t claim that they will.

Why should such claims harm you in the Presentation category? Because they betray, just as incorrect book categories do, a certain lack of familiarity with the lingua franca of the publishing world. No one in the publishing world would seriously argue that everyone in a demographic would buy a book, even about books that large percentage of a given demographic actually did buy. Remember, contest judges want to reward authors whom they believe can take the win and parlay it into publishing gold, not those who do not yet know the ropes.

When in Rome, speak as the Romans do.

And take my word for it, if you use language to describe your target market that reads like marketing copy, it will cost you many points in the Presentation category. A great big red flag: a demographic statement that includes the phrase “anybody who” or “everybody that,” as in, “anybody who knows and loves a cancer victim will want to buy this book,” or (heaven help us), “everybody that votes in presidential elections needs to have this information.” It doesn’t matter if you think it is true: it will come across as ill-informed boasting (yes, even if it’s true; sorry about that), and will be graded down accordingly.

Tomorrow, I shall delve into more of the nitty-gritty of the Presentation category. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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