Hello, readers —
Today really will be the last installment of my series on literary contest judging criteria, I promise. This topic has been hard to leave, because it really is a microcosm of how books are viewed by publishing professionals. However, I promised you blogs on how to write a bio, and those you shall have.
Back to Presentation category problems. Another common problem in contest entries, one that affects both coherence and continuity, is skipping logical steps in arguments or plots, assuming that the reader will simply fill in the gaps for herself. This results in logic that appears from the reader’s POV to run like this:
1. Socrates was a man.
2. Socrates was wise.
3. Therefore, men who want to be wise should not wear socks.
Clearly, there is some logic missing here, right? In order to prove Proposition 3, the writer would first have to show that (a) Socrates did not wear socks (I have no idea if this is true, but hey, Greece is a warm country, so bear with me here), (b) non-sock wearing had some tangible and demonstrable effect upon his mental processes that cannot be explained by other contributing factors, such as years of study or having a yen for conversation, and (c) the bare ankle experiment’s success was not dependent upon some exogenous variable, such as the fact that socks would have looked really stupid worn with a toga. It would make sense, too, to establish that Socrates is a proper role model for modern men to emulate, as opposed to scruffy old sock-wearing moral thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Mary Wollstonecraft. Perhaps the book could even include a compare-and-contrast of the intellectual achievements of famous sock-wearing individuals versus those of the air-blessed ankles. By the end of such a disquisition, the reader might well become converted to the author’s premise, and cast his footwear from him with a cry of liberation.
Think this seems like a ridiculous example of skipped steps, one that could not possibly occur in a real manuscript? Oh, my poor friend, bless your innocent eyes: you’ve obviously never been a judge in a nonfiction contest or advised an undergraduate thesis.
In nonfiction, I can do no better than to refer my faithful readers to Nietzsche’s THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA as an illustration of this phenomenon. (I know, I know; I’m on a philosophy kick today, but it’s such a sterling example that I simply can’t resist.) Following the narrative of this book is like watching a mountain goat leap from crag to crag on a blasted mountainside; the goat may be able to get from one promontory to another with no trouble, but those of us tagging behind actually have to walk up and down the intervening gullies. The connective logic between one point and the next is frequently far from clear, or even downright wacko — and in a book that proposes that the writer and reader both might be logically superior to other people, that’s a serious coherence problem.
Okay, Nietzsche allegedly wrote the work in a three-day frenzy while confined to an insane asylum, so perhaps it is not fair to expect world-class coherence from him. The average literary contest entrant, however, does not have so good an excuse.
If a judge ever has the opportunity to write “connective logic?” in one of your margins, your presentation score is sunk. Make sure you’re filling in the relevant gullies.
Nietzsche did one thing in THUS SPAKE ZARTHUSTRA that would help him win back points in the Presentation category: include genuinely funny lines. It’s actually quite an amusing book, coherence problems aside (and not only because of them), and very, very few contest entries are funny. A funny manuscript, or even a funny joke in a serious manuscript, feels like a gift to your average tired contest judge. A deliberately-provoked laugh from a judge can result in the reward of many Presentation points, and often additional points in the Voice category as well.
Notice that I specified a DELIBERATELY-PROVOKED laugh. An unintentional laugh, what moviemakers call “a bad laugh” because it springs forth from the audience when the filmmakers do not want it to occur, will cost points. We’ve all recognize bad laughs in movies (my personal favorite was in the most recent remake of LITTLE WOMEN: Jo, played by Winona Ryder, has sold her long, lovely hair in order to help the family, and one of her sisters cries out, “Oh, Jo! Your one beauty.” The theatre positively rocked with laughter, because Ms. Ryder possesses the kind of face that artists over the centuries have willingly mortgaged their souls in order to depict accurately), but literally the only way for an author to discover them in her own book is to have someone else read it.
Do not, whatever you do, make the extremely common mistake of including guffawing onlookers to mark where the reader is supposed to laugh, as that will cost you points as well. This is another one that writers seem to have picked up from movies or television: whenever a joke appears in the dialogue, the reader is told that someone nearby laughs in response. Contrary to the author’s apparent expectation, to an experienced professional reader, this additional information detracts from the humor of the scene, rather than adds to it; the bigger the onlookers’ reaction, the less funny it seems.
Why? Well, to a judge, agent, or editor who has been around the block a few times, the onlooker’s guffaw is a flag that the author has some doubt about whether the joke is actually funny. It’s a marker of discomfort, a peek behind the scenes into the writer’s mind, distracting from the story at hand. And once the reader suspects that the writer isn’t amused, it’s only a small step to the reader’s not being amused, either.
The moral: you can lead a reader to funny, but you can’t make him laugh.
Finally, there is one more criterion that falls into the Presentation category, what I call the Ta da! factor. It’s hard to define precisely, because it’s when a manuscript exudes the sort of mercurial charisma that Elinor Glyn dubbed It when it occurs in human beings. (Thus Clara Bow, the It Girl.) Like It, the Ta da! factor makes a manuscript shine, practically demanding that the judge give the entry high marks. In fact, a healthy dose of the Ta da! factor might even prompt a judge to fudge a little in the other categories, so as to assure the entry a point total that will launch it into the finalist round.
To achieve the Ta da! factor — well, if I could tell you that, I would chuck the blogging business entirely and establish myself as the world’s most expensive writing guru. I do know that mere professionalism is not enough. Yes, all of the technical aspects of the work need to be right, as well as the execution. The writing style needs to be strong and distinct, and it helps a lot if the story is compelling. Beyond that, it’s a little hard to say how precisely the Ta da! factor gives a manuscript its sheen, just as it’s difficult to pin down just what makes a great first line of a book so great. Perhaps it’s rhythm, and a certain facility for telling detail:
“I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and four chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train.”
That’s the opening of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, Truman Capote’s masterpiece that incidentally someone really ought to make into a movie some day, because the Audrey Hepburn version bears only a passing resemblance to it. (For instance, the original novella concerns a friendship between a woman and man in their late teens; the movie is about a love story between a man and a woman in, if you look at George Peppard charitably, their late thirties. Oh, and the endings are quite different.) But just look at the use of language here. You could sing this opening; it’s positively bursting with the Ta da! factor.
Perhaps, too, a certain sense of showmanship is required. Bask in this one:
“He was a very good-looking young man indeed, shaped to be annoyed. His voice was intimate as the rustle of sheets, and he kissed easily. There was no tallying the gifts of Charvet handkerchiefs, art moderne ash-trays, monogrammed dressing-gowns, gold key-chains, and cigarette-cases of thin wood, inlaid with views of Parisian comfort stations, that were sent him by ladies too quickly confident, and were paid for with the money of unwitting husbands, which is acceptable any place in the world.”
That, my friends, is the opening to Dorothy Parker’s DUSK BEFORE FIREWORKS, and let me tell you, if a short story like that fell onto my desk as a contest judge, I would not only shower it with the highest possible marks (yes, even though I do not agree with all of Ms. Parker’s punctuation choices in this excerpt); I would nag the category chair about pushing it into the finalist round. I would go to the awards ceremony, cheer if it won, and make a point of meeting the author. I might even introduce the author to my agent. Because, my friends, it exudes the aura of the Ta da! factor as distinctly as a Buddhist temple exudes incense.
I mention this, not to cow you with examples of writing by extremely talented writers, but to fill you with hope, after this long discourse on all the technical ways you can gain or lose points in the contest judging process. Ultimately, talent does supersede almost every other consideration, as long as the work is professionally presented.
This is not to say that you should not go to great lengths to avoid making the point-costing mistakes I have pointed out in the last two weeks — you should, because genuinely talented writers’ work is knocked out of competition (and into agents’ rejection piles) all the time for technical reasons. When talent is properly presented, though, the results are magical.
A few years ago, a member of my writing group, a mystery writer, submitted a chapter, as we all did, for the group to read. In this draft (we has seen earlier ones), the first two paragraphs were gaspingly beautiful, so full of the atmosphere of the Sierra Nevada mountains that I not only to this day picture his opening in my mind as clearly as a movie — I feel that I was actually there. After reading this opening, the group grew rather quiet, so we could all chew on the imagery, the sentence structure for a while. It was so imbued with the Ta da! factor that there hardly seemed to be any point in discussing the rest of his chapter.
“One of the miracles of talent,” Mme. de Staël tells us, “is the ability to knock your readers out of their own egoism.” (Another favorite writer of mine; every woman who writes should read her brilliant novel CORINNE at some point. She wrote it in 1807, but apart from the travelogue sections, it’s still fresh as piping-hot cinnamon rolls today.) The Ta da! factor does just that, grabs the reader’s attention and simply insists upon this book’s being read, right now.
Under the sway of all of the publishing fads continually buffeting us, it’s all too easy for writers to forget what power really good writing has. If only the publication of a truly exciting book were taken up with the verve and intensity that the media has devoted to the controversy over James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE PIECES. “But is it well written?” the commentators should cry, and then go into questions of factual accuracy.
Publishing fads, like fashions in beauty, come and go. Talent doesn’t. Just as so many of the actors held up as exemplars of beauty now would not have been considered especially attractive in, say, the Italian Renaissance, or even a hundred years ago, I believe that many of the books published today will not be considered essential reading a hundred years from now. But the work of some authors — Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker, Mme. de Staël, for instance — has something about it that elevates it above the passing fad, just as there are some actors who, it is perfectly obvious to us all, would have been considered absolutely lovely in any period of human history.
“Oh, Jo! Your one beauty!” notwithstanding.
Keep your chins up, my friends, through all the hard work of perfecting your manuscripts and contest entries; you’re toiling in a noble vineyard. Real talent is not necessarily measured in the short term. Keep up the good work.
– Anne Mini