Okay, let’s assume that you’ve finished the basic writing and paperwork for your contest entry. You’ve read and reread your chapter, and it is both grammatically impeccable and one hell of a good story; Will Rogers, Mark Twain, and Dorothy Parker would all gnash their venerable teeth, if they still had them, in envy over your storytelling skills. Now it’s time to start asking yourself a few questions, to weed out the more subtle problems that can make the difference between making the finalist list and being an also-ran:
(1) Is my entry AND the length specified by the contest rules? Is it double-spaced, in 12-point type, with standard margins?
Yes, I know — I’ve mentioned all this already. I’ve also seen a whole lot of contest entries in odd formats, or with standard format in the chapters and single-spaced synopses. Unless the rules specifically state otherwise, keep EVERYTHING you submit in standard format.
(2) Is every page numbered? Does every page (except the title page, or as specified by the rules) contain the slug line TITLE/#?
Oh, how I wish I had a dime for every unnumbered manuscript page I have ever read… An astonishingly high percentage of writers leave this vital step until the last minute — and apparently forget in the rush of getting the entry into the mail by the deadline.
(3) Does the first page of the synopsis SAY that it’s a synopsis? Does it also list the title of the book? And does every page of the synopsis contain the slug line TITLE/SYNOPSIS/#?
Again, this is nit-picky stuff — but people who volunteer as contest judges tend to be nit-picky people. Better to over-identify your work than to under-identify it.
(4) Have I included all of the requested elements on the title page? If the contest asked for two title pages (one with my name on it, and one without), have I made sure that they are as different as requested?
This is not the time to experiment with funky typefaces or odd title page formats. Unless the contest rules specify otherwise, put the whole thing in the same typeface AND TYPE SIZE as the rest of the entry. List only the information you are asked to list there. (Although if you want to add something along the lines of “An entry in the X Category of the 2006 Y Contest,” that’s generally considered a nice touch.)
(5) If I mention the names of places, famous people, or well-known consumer products, are they spelled correctly?
Okay, if no one else is willing to call foul on this, I will: writers very often misspell proper nouns, possibly because they tend not to be words listed in standard spell-checkers’ dictionaries. In a contest, that’s no excuse. Check.
To revisit every editor in the world’s pet peeve, most word processing programs are RIFE with misspellings and grammatical mistakes. I use the latest version of MS Word for the Mac, and it insists that Berkeley, California (where I happen to have been born) should be spelled Berkley, like the press.
It is mistaken. Yet if I followed its advice and entered the result in a contest, I would be the one to pay for it, not the fine folks at Microsoft.
(6) Have I spell-checked AND proofread?
Another hard truth: most spelling and grammar-checkers contain inaccuracies. They can lead you astray. If you are tired (and who isn’t, by the time he finishes churning out a contest entry?), the path of least resistance is just to accept what the spell checker thinks your word should be. This is why you need to recheck by dint of good old proofreading.
Yes, it is wildly unfair that we writers should be penalized for the mistakes of the multi-million dollar corporations that produce these spelling and grammar checkers. But that’s one of the hard lessons we all have to learn eventually: the world is not in fact organized on a fair basis. People whose job it is to make sure the dictionaries and grammar-checkers are correct are collecting their hefty salaries and cashing in their stock options without being able to spell Berkeley or hors d’oeuvre. Sorry.
Before you boil over about the inequity of it all, think about misspellings and grammatical errors from the contest judge’s perspective. The judge cannot tell whether the problem with the entry is that the author can’t spell to save his life, or he hasn’t bothered to proofread — or if some Microsoftie just couldn’t be bothered to check Strunk and White to see when THERE should be used instead of THEIR. (My grammar checker routinely tells me to use the former instead of the latter in cases of collective possession, alas.) From the judge’s point of view, the author is invariably the one who looks unprofessional.
This doesn’t mean not to spell-check: you should. But you should never rely solely upon a spell-checker or grammar-checker’s wit and wisdom. They’re just not literate enough.
(7) If I use clichés for comic effect, have I reproduced them correctly?
As a general, I frown upon the use of clichés in print. (You can’t see me doing it, but I am frowning right now.) Part of the point of being a writer is to display your thought, not the thought of others. Occasionally, however, there are reasons to utilize clichés in your work, particularly in dialogue.
You would not BELIEVE how common it is for writers to reproduce clichés incorrectly. (I would not believe it myself, if I had not been a judge in a number of literary contests.) And an incorrectly-quoted cliché will, I assure you, kill any humorous intention deader than the proverbial doornail. So make sure that your needles remain in your haystacks, and that the poles you wouldn’t touch things with are ten-foot, not 100-foot. (How would you pick up a 100-foot pole, anyway?)
When in doubt, ask someone outside your immediate circle of friends — your own friends may well be making the same mistake you are.
(8) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?
As I have been arguing all week, the synopsis is, in fact, a writing sample, every bit as much as the chapter does. Make sure it lets the judges know that you can write — and that you are professional enough to approach the synopsis as a professional necessity, not a tiresome whim instituted by the contest organizers to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim of their own. Believe me, writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis.
And again, don’t worry about depicting every twist and turn of the plot — just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary. Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.
(9) Does this entry fit the category in which I am entering it?
This is not a situation where close-enough is good enough: as the rather distasteful old adage goes, close-enough only applies to horseshoes and Napalm.
If you have the SLIGHTEST doubt about whether you are entering the correct category, have someone you trust (preferably another writer, or at least a good reader with a sharp eye for detail) read over both the contest categories and your entire entry.
(10) Reading this over again, is this a book to which I would award a prize? Does it read like finished work, or like a book that might be great with further polishing?
It’s a very, very common writer’s prejudice that everything that springs from a truly talented writer’s keyboard will be pure poetry. Even first drafts. However, there are in fact quantities of practical storytelling skills that most of us poor mortals learn by trial and error.
Although contests tend to concentrate on as-yet unrecognized writing talent, they are simply not set up, in most cases, to reward the writer who is clearly gifted, but has not yet mastered the rudiments of professional presentation. And this is very sad, I think, because one of the things that becomes most apparent about writing after a judge has read a couple of hundred entries is that the difference between the entries submitted by writers with innate talent and writers without is vast. An experienced eye — of the kind belonging to a veteran contest judge, agent, or editor — can rather easily discern the work of what used to be called “a writer of promise.”
In the past, writers of promise were treated quite a bit more gently than they are today. They were taken under editorial wings and cherished through their early efforts. Even when they were rejected, they were often sent notes encouraging them to submit future works. (Occasionally, a promising writer will still get this type of response to a query, but the sheer volume of mail at agencies has rendered it rare.)
Now, unfortunately, writers of promise, like everybody else, tend to have their work rejected without explanation, so it’s extremely difficult to tell where one’s own work falls on the talent spectrum. Did that high-powered agent turn you down because your query was in the wrong format, or because she hated your premise, or because she thought you could not write? Did your entry falter before the finalist round because you fiddled with the margins, or because you formatted it incorrectly, or because there were simply ten entries this year that were better-written?
To put it as kindly as possible, until you have weeded out all of the non-stylistic red lights from your contest entries, you truly cannot gain a realistic feel for whether you need to work more on your writing or not. If you are indeed a writer of promise — and I sincerely hope you are — the best thing you can possibly do for your career is to learn to conform your work to professional standards of presentation. This is one of the best reasons to enter contests that give entrants feedback on a regular basis, just as is one of the best reasons to take writing classes and join a writing group: it gives you outside perspective on whether you are hitting the professional bar or not.
Oh, and it helps to be lucky, too.
Keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini