Increasing your chances: the unwritten rules

Okay, enough about the minutiae of contest rules, and back to the larger issues of contest entries. As I pointed out earlier in this series, although marketability is surprisingly seldom listed as one of the judging criteria in contest rules, it is very, very frequently in the judges’ minds when they read — which means, all too frequently, that if you offend their sensibilities, they will conclude that your work isn’t marketable.

Now, of course, this isn’t precisely fair: we would all have different takes on what makes a book good, what sentiments are acceptable, and, perhaps most for the sake of the contest, different ideas of what is marketable. However, there are a few simple ways you can minimize the possibility of alienating judges.

Avoid clichés, for starters. Clichés are AMAZINGLY common in contest entries, for some reason I have never understood — unless it is simply that clichés are clichés because they ARE common. You really do want to show contest judges phraseology and situations they’ve never seen before, so try to steer clear of catchphrases, stock characters, and tried-and-true plot twists. (“You don’t mean… you’re my FATHER?!?”)

In general, you should avoid pop culture references in contest entries, except as indicators of time and place; in other words, they tend to fall flat in both dialogue and narration, but are often very useful in description.

Why? Well, even the most optimistic judge would know that an unpublished work entered in a contest will be at least 2 more years on its way to publication. Remember, books don’t hit the shelves for at least a year after the contract is signed, and there’s shopping-around time first. And that’s after the writer has found an agent for it. So even if a cultural reference is absolutely hot right now, it’s going to be dated by the time it hits the shelves.

Also, writers tend to underestimate how closely such references tend to be tied to specific eras, regions, and even television watching habits. Often, the writer’s age — or, at any rate, generation — is perfectly obvious from the cultural references used in a contest entry. That’s fine, but as I have I have suggested before, it’s not a good idea strategically to assume that the judges determining whether your work makes it to the finalist round share your background in any way.

The best way to steer clear of potential problems: get feedback on your entry from a few readers of different backgrounds than your own, so you can weed out references that do not work universally. Recognize that your point of view is, in fact, a point of view, and as such, naturally requires elucidation in order to be accessible to all readers.

Third, approach your potential readers with respect, and keep sneering at those who disagree with you to a minimum. (Again, surprisingly common in contest entries, particularly in NF.) I’m not suggesting that you iron out your personal beliefs to make them appear mainstream — contest judges tend to be smart people, ones who understand that the world is a pretty darned complex place.

But watch your tone, particularly in nonfiction entries, lest you become so carried away in making your case that you forget that a member of your honorable opposition may well be judging your work. This is a circumstance, like so many others, where politeness pays well.

Your mother was right about that, you know.

Finally, accept that you cannot control who will read your work after you enter it into a contest. If your romance novel about an airline pilot happens to fall onto the desk of someone who has recently experienced major turbulence and resented it, there’s really nothing you can do about it.

You recognize this dilemma, right? It’s precisely the same one queries and submissions to agencies face.

Ultimately, you can have no control over whether the agency screener has just burnt her lip on a too-hot latte (to revert to my favorite gratuitous piece of bad luck), any more than you can control if the agent reading it has just broken up with her husband, or if the editor has just won the lottery. In either case, all you can do approach the process with a sense of professionalism: make your work the best it can be, and keep sending it out until you find the reader who gets it.

In other words, avoid hanging all of your hopes on a single contest. That’s giving WAY too much power to a single, unknown contest judge. And, of course, keep querying agents and small presses at the same time.

All that being said, personally, I don’t think an honest literary contest has any business dictating content, but a surprising number of them do, either overtly (in defining the categories) or covertly (in defining winning criteria for the judges). This is yet another reason to read contest rules VERY carefully: skim a little too quickly, and you may not catch that contest organizers have limited what kinds of work they want.

This is particularly true in short story and essay competitions, I notice. Indeed, in short-short competitions, it’s not at all uncommon for a topic to be assigned outright. Read with care before you submit, because such contests assume that entrants will be writing work designed exclusively for their eyes.

This should not, I feel, ever be the expectation for contests that accept excerpts from book-length works. Few entrants in these categories write new entirely new pieces for every contest they enter, with good reason: it would be quixotic. Presumably, one enters a book in a contest in order to advance the book’s publication prospects, not merely for the sake of entering a contest, after all.

Because the write-it-for-us expectation does sometimes linger, make sure to read the category’s definition FIRST, before you enter work you have already written. If the category is defined in such a way that work like yours is operating at a disadvantage, your chances of winning fall sharply. So be careful with your entry dollar, and enter only those contests and categories where you have a chance of winning.

Most of the time, though, miscategorization is an inadvertent error on the entrant’s part, rather than obfuscation on the part of the contest rules. I would LOVE to report that entries never come in labeled for the wrong category, but, alas, sometimes they do — and contests almost never allow the judges to drop the entry into the correct category’s pile. So the judge is left to read the out-of-place entry, and to wonder: did the entrant just not read the category descriptions closely enough?

Often, this turned out to be precisely what happened.

This is not a time merely to skim the titles of the categories: get into the details of the description. Read it several times. Have a writer friend read it, then read your entry, to double-check that your work is in fact appropriate to the category as the rules have defined it.

This may seem like a waste of time, but truly, it’s in your best interests to make sure. I have seen miscategorized work disqualified — or, more commonly, given enough demerits to knock it out of finalist consideration right away — but never, ever have I seen an entry returned, check uncashed, with an explanation that it was entered in the wrong category.

Tomorrow, I shall discuss category selection a bit more. In the meantime, keep working on those entries, and keep up the good work!

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