Increasing your chances, part III: keep your wig on, Rapunzel!

I have been thinking all day about the story of Rapunzel, and how it relates to the writer’s life. The past couple of years has been rather fairy tale-ish for me and my work — not in the Disneyfied sense of some man one has never seen before showing up and improving current conditions by taking one away from them, but in the older, darker fairy tale sense. Wicked Stepsisters trying to prevent my memoir from going to the ball where it might be recognized; a frightened monarch locking my book up in a dungeon, far from the sight of day, in the superstitious belief that it might start a war; incorporating an editor’s feedback is very much a case of spinning straw into gold, and as a freelance editor, I’m often called in like Rumplestiltskin to ease the process heck, I’ve even been working on a proposal of a NF book about a lone woman fighting to save a bunch of miners from the machinations of a foreign power into which Snow White could step with only a slight change of make-up.

But in thinking about contests and querying, Rapunzel is our girl. See if this sounds familiar to any of you: a well-meaning person, due to conditions that prevailed before she was born, finds herself locked in a tower. (History does not record whether she was locked in there with a computer or not, but let’s assume for the moment that she was.) Her only hope of getting out is for someone to notice her, so she grows her hair as long and as shiny as possible, to be seen as far away as, to take a random example, an NYC-based agency or publishing house. When the prince is intrigued by her querying locks, she is overjoyed, more hopeful than she has been in a long time.

And then what happens? A nasty old witch tosses the prince out of the tower window and shears off all of Rapunzel’s beautiful hair. Cast into despair again, all poor Rapunzel can think to do is grow another few stories’ worth of hair.

So it is all too often with the hopeful contest entrant and the contest judge. The entrant toils in solitude, trying to produce something prince-attracting, and sends it off to the contest that promises fame and glory. (Well, actually, all it technically promises is a nice ribbon, boasting rights on future query letters, and perhaps a small check, but work with me here.) The judge grasps the entry — but if there is anything in it that disturbs his sensibilities about what is and isn’t professional-level writing, out the tower window it goes. And the poor writer’s ego shares the fate of Rapunzel’s hair, lopped off until such time as the writer can regrow it.

Well, so much for my pep talk du jour. On to other matters…

No, but seriously, folks, I talk to many, many writers in the course of an average month, and the most common complaint is that the publishing world is hostile to their respective books, as evidenced by not making it to the finalist round in contests and query rejections. And literally every individual writer believes that this is a personal problem, that there is either something so good or so bad about his book that the judges, agents, and editors of the world are in unprecedented agreement that it should be given a chance.

In the first place, poppycock: judges, agents, and editors tend to conform to certain basic expectations of format and presentation, but taste is and has always been individual. Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: a rejection by ANY single person, be it agent, editor, or contest judge, is just that, a rejection from a single person. No matter how universally folks in the industry describe their opinions (“No one is buying books on horse raising anymore.”), it just doesn’t make sense to regard their opinions about your work as identical to those of the industry until you have a whole lot of evidence that it’s accurate.

As in, for instance, 100 letters of rejection.

However — and this is a BIG however — there are plenty of non-writing problems that can get work rejected in agency and contest alike. I cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining in your mind a clear distinction between the TECHNICAL problems that might get a contest entry disqualified — improper margins, odd spacing, not using the kind of binding specified in contest rules, etc. — CONTENT problems that might keep it out of the finalist’s round, and STYLE issues. Until you have ruled out the first two levels of problem, you cannot legitimately conclude that your work isn’t winning contests or attracting agents because of a lack of talent.

Obviously, all three factors need to be in fighting trim for an entry to make it to the finalist round. But the VAST majority of the time, writing style — what almost every writer sees as the ONLY thing being judged in a literary contest — is not what knocks an entry out of the running.

So really, Rapunzel, do you need to grow a new batch of hair between contest entries, or do you just need to wash and style it differently?

How can you find out which is applicable to your work? As I mentioned earlier, contests that give entrants written feedback, regardless of where their entries place, can be a real boon for the aspiring writer. Sometimes, they give great advice — and actually, the cost of the average entry fee is often less than what a professional editor would charge to give feedback on the average-length entry. So if you get a conscientious judge, you can glean a great deal of practical advice.

If you get a grumpy judge, however, or one who disqualifies your entry on technical grounds, getting feedback can be a real ego-saver. If the judge missed the point of your piece (it’s been known to happen, alas; remember, until the final round of judging, the vast majority of readers are volunteers, and as such, their reading skills vary), it will be very, very apparent from his feedback. And if you got a judge who simply did not like the typeface you used (again, it has been known to happen), it is far more useful to you to learn for certain that the typeface — and not, say, the quality of your writing — scuttled your chances.

Yes, I did just say that I have seen good writing disqualified for reasons as minor as typeface selection — and in contests where the entry requirements did not specify the use of a particular font. I have seen good writing tossed aside for reasons as arbitrary as the first-round judge not liking semicolons much. And in a contest where the entrant doesn’t receive feedback, the writer would never know it.

You see now why I’m so adamant that Rapunzel should keep her hair on until she’s sure what’s going on?

To be successful, your entry needs to speak to readers with the broadest possible array of prejudices about what is and is not good writing. Effectively, your work is not just being read by the judges, but by the spectre of every writing teacher they have ever had — and their own interactions with the publishing world.

So when you submit your work to be judged in a contest, you are expected to adhere to not only the contest requirements (see yesterday’s blog for guidance on that all-important insight) but also to the contest judges’ conception of how a professional manuscript should be presented. As a result, it is VERY much in your interest to make your entry look as close to a submission to a top-flight agent as the contest rules permit.

You should make sure, in short, that your work is in standard format.

I can hear my long-time readers groan: yes, I am harping on standard format AGAIN, and with good reason. It adds significantly to the prestige of a contest if its winners go on to have their work published; to obtain this wholly delightful result, contest judges tend to screen entries not just for quality, but for marketability as well.

So if your entry contains the type of non-standard formatting that the judge believes would cause the average agent or small-press editor to cast it aside, it’s not going to make it to the next round. (Particularly in those contests where final-round judging is performed by agents, editors, and/or celebrity writers; the screeners want a very clean set of manuscripts to send to them.)

Trust me on this one: the exact same entry, if you entered it once in standard formatting and once in more eccentric format, would almost invariably place at different levels in any writing competition held in North America. I have judged contests where formatting counted for as much as a quarter of the final score. If you are serious about making it to the finalist round, use standard format.

You can save yourself SIGNIFICANT bundles of time during contest entry season if you just go ahead and adhere to standard format from the FIRST day you start working on a project, of course. Sending out queries will be swifter, and you will definitely be in better shape on that great day when an agent or editor asks to read your first 50 pages. Think of it as having your interview suit all pressed and ready, so you can leap into it the second you get the call from your dream job.

Since I went over the strictures of standard format as recently as early December, I shall not go over them again. (Pleasantly surprised, long-term readers?) If you missed my last diatribe about it, feel free to peruse the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.

However, for the benefit of those of you planning to enter the upcoming PNWA contest, I wanted to give you a heads-up about one of its rule peculiarities that deviates from standard format. The rules specify that the first page of the entry should not contain a page number in its slug line, which has never been a provision of standard format.

So what does this mean, in actual practice? Not numbering the title page? If you begin with a synopsis, should you not number that?

I’m anticipating myself a little here, but I ALWAYS advise including a professional title page in a contest entry: it looks more polished, and it renders it a snap to include the information pretty much every contest asks entrants to include somewhere in the entry. However, title pages are never numbered, under any circumstances, nor they are never included in the page count. (0r word count, for that matter, for submissions to agents and editors.)

Perhaps more importantly, nor do title pages count toward the contest’s page limit.

What the PNWA is asking to see is no page number on the first page of TEXT in the entry — because, although they do not say so, they are assuming that page 1 of your entry will be the first page of text proper, rather than the synopsis. If you choose to place your synopsis first in the packet, go ahead and leave the page number off that page.

Do be aware, though, that old school judges tend to prefer a synopsis to come at the end of an entry, for much the same reason that it should come at the end of a submission to an agent: that way, the reader is encouraged to judge the writing first and book’s premise second. Not a bad idea. If you decide to do it in this order, DO number the synopsis’ first page, just like the rest of the entry, rather than providing the synopsis with its own title page.

Phew! That was a long one, wasn’t it? Keep an eye on those technicalities, everybody, and remember, your ego should be tied up with the beauties of your writing style, not whether you remembered to double dashes in your manuscript. By removing any technical reasons that even the grumpiest judge could dun your entry, you increase your chances of your gorgeous prose being appreciated a thousandfold.

Keep up the good work!

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