Increasing your chances of winning a contest: not naming names, or, calling a spade a diamond

After yesterday’s suggestion that it might behoove potential contest entrants who write about real-life incidents to enter their work in both fiction and nonfiction categories, this seems like the natural moment to concentrate for a post upon a category dear to my heart: memoir. As a past PNWA Zola Award winner for best nonfiction book/memoir, I have a thing or two to say on the subject. And having judged in this category, I can say a few more.

So let’s get right to it, shall we?

Let’s start with the technicalities first: please, I implore you, if you are submitting a memoir entry, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. And do bear in mind that this rule applies to not only your entire name, but EITHER your first or your last appearing alone.

Actually, every contest entry everywhere should follow all the rules in the contests they enter, but this is the single most common way for memoir entries to get themselves disqualified — and the reason that for a memoir entry, you should NEVER just print up the opening chapter of your book and send it in.

Unless, of course, you are writing anonymously, or under a pseudonym. Even then, it is a good idea to add a note on the title page, saying that since the contest forbids the author to mention his own name, you will be using “Bobby” (not your real name) throughout. Because, you see, it’s practically impossible NOT refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life — and judges are aware of that, and become accordingly eagle-eyed.

And why is that a problem? Everybody, sing along with me now: because the judges are trying to weed out as many entries from the finalist running as swiftly as possible. As usual, it all comes down to time.

The no-name rule, however, exists for a very good reason: for a contest to be worth its salt, it must be able to claim that its judging procedures are not biased; the first step to assuring lack of personal bias is to institute blind judging, where no judge knows the name of any given author. Now, as I explained in my earlier blogs on how to pick the right contest for you, some competitions are only apparently unbiased, but for the most part, contest organizers take authorial anonymity very seriously indeed.

So no, finding a clever way to get around the rules is not going to endear you to them. Not at all.

Make yourself comfortable; I’m going to tell you a little story. I went to college with Danny, a very clever, very ambitious writer who periodically contributed pieces to the on-campus humor magazine. Now, it was the practice of the magazine to publish all of its pieces without bylines, to encourage collaboration amongst members of the writing club. But as I said, Danny was ambitious: he, like many of the other writers in the club, was anxious to graduate with clippings he could use to promote his work later on.

So Danny did something exceptionally crafty: he inserted his own name into every ostensibly anonymous piece he wrote, much as Jerry Lee Lewis used to refer to himself in his own lyrics, so radio listeners would know who sang the song. Danny’s favorite way of doing this was to have an imaginary conversation with himself, so an alter ego could address him by name, as in, “Danny boy, you’re really in trouble now!” Occasionally, he would vary it by having an authority figure yell at his narrator: “Wilson, you’re out of line!”

(For the sake of MY own credibility, and because Danny is now a fairly prominent magazine writer, I should say straight away: to protect his identity, Wilson is not Danny’s actual last name.}

Now, as my parenthetical aside just told you indirectly, Danny’s little stratagem actually did help him generate the clippings he coveted, but he was relying upon his club’s editorial indulgence to let him get away with breaking the rules. In a contest, this practice would have gotten him disqualified immediately.

I bring this up not because there are legions of Machiavellian-minded rule-breakers out there, but because I have seen so many contest entries that have apparently done inadvertently what Danny did on purpose. Within the first-person narrative common to memoirs, narrators tend to talk to themselves all the time, À la Hamlet: “Danny, you get ahold of yourself, now.”

And that single reference, to a judge who was looking to pounce upon contest rule violations, could get a memoir entry disqualified. Yes, even though it would be highly unlikely, without the judge’s having the list of memoir entrants by his side for first-name cross-referencing purposes, for the judge to guess the author’s identity. Simply the implication that the author might have referred to himself can appear to be a rule violation.

So a word to the wise: innocent mistakes can knock your entry out of competition.

Now, I think this is pretty mean, personally. Usually, the author’s name (almost always the first) comes up as an unconscious slip, where it’s pretty obvious that the author thought she had expunged all relevant references to herself. But, as I have been telling you for the last couple of weeks, the submitter has absolutely no control over who is going to read his manuscript; it would behoove to prepare your entry, like your queries, under the assumption that the judge who is going to read it is the nastiest, most curmudgeonly nit-picker since, well, me.

“But Anne,” I hear you cry, pale at the prospect of encountering yours truly as a contest judge, “if this mistake is usually made inadvertently, how can I hope to avoid it?”

Well asked, oh fearful trembler. Experience sharpens the editing eye. Rest yourself upon the judge’s reading couch for a moment, and take a look at where these slips most commonly occur.

Let’s say the memoir’s author is named Biddy MacAlister-Thames, not a name anyone’s eye is likely to encounter on a page without noticing. Biddy should check her entry especially carefully in the following scenes:

(1) When another character directly addresses the narrator: “Biddy, have you seen the our pet tiger, Max?”

(2) When another character is talking about the narrator behind her back: “Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver. He’s paying too much attention to that Biddy next door.”

(3) And, in the VAST MAJORITY of childhood memoirs, when the narrator gets in trouble, some adult says: “Elizabeth Deirdre MacAlister-Thames, you come in this house this instant!”

Remember, in order to violate the rule, even if a character OTHER than the author appears with the author’s last name, it can cost you. So our Biddy should keep her eye out for these kinds of situations, too:

(4) When a third party addresses a family member: “Mrs. MacAlister-Thames, your daughter is under arrest.”

(5) When the narrator refers to her family collectively, or to a possession as theirs: The Easter Bunny had been unusually generous to the MacAlister-Thames family that year.

And, as I mentioned above, self-references to EITHER your first or last name, not just to both together, count as rule violations. So Biddy would be wise to do a search-and-replace for BOTH your first AND last names in your entry before you print it up.

Yes, it’s a tedious thing to have to do, Biddy, and yes, you have my sympathies for having to do it. But frankly, I would rather see you annoyed and on the finalist list than not proofread and disqualified. I’m funny that way.

Keep up the good work!

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