Increasing your chances of making it to the contest finals: more on memoirs

After yesterday’s post on the advisability of quadruple-checking your memoir entries to make super-sure that they contain NO usages of your first or last name, I believe I heard some murmurs of dissent. “Wait just a second,” the voice in the ether I choose to attribute to you kept saying, “isn’t this paranoid overkill? How is the judge ever going to know? In most contests, the judges never see your name attached to the manuscript, and thus would not know that the name mentioned IS the author’s?”

Well, several reasons, all of which boil down to this: are you sure enough about that to risk your entry’s getting disqualified?

First, as I mentioned yesterday, such is the seriousness with which blind judging is taken that if a judge even SUSPECTS that an entry contains the author’s name, that entry may be toast. And, to be fair, it does not require much of a cognitive leap to conclude that the Sheila Mae who is narrating a memoir excerpt is, in fact, the same Sheila Mae who wrote it.

Second, it is not unheard-of for contests to employ (or, more commonly, impress volunteers into servitude as) initial screeners, whose SOLE function is to check the entries for rule violations before the entries are distributed to the judges who will rate them. These screeners sometimes do have your entire entry packet — and thus your name, and will be able to tell immediately if you have violated the don’t-use-your-name rule.

Third — and while this one is the simplest, it is also the way self-namers are most often caught — even in a contest that does not pass entries under the watchful eyes of screeners, someone is going to have to slit open that envelope, if only to extract the check. Someone is going to have to note your name in the contest log, assign your entry the identification number that will allow it to be judged blindly, and pass your entry along to the proper section’s judges.

It’s a boring job. So tell me: how likely do you think it is that such a mail-sorter would glance at the first page of the entry, to render the process a trifle less tedious? And how many memoir first pages have you ever seen that DIDN’T include some mention of the memoir subject’s name?

There is one absolutely foolproof, not very time-consuming means of avoiding the problem altogether, of course: use a pseudonym within the context of the entry, adding a note on your title page, STATING that you have changed the names in order to adhere to the rules of the contest. “For the purposes of this entry,” you could write, “I have changed my family name to Parrothead.”

Yes, it’s kind of silly, but that way, you make it pellucidly clear that you’re not referring to yourself. And, after all, how is the judge to know whether you have substituted the names or not, if you do not say so?

Other good tip for memoirists entering their work in contests is to do a bit of market research prior to entry. (Actually, this is a good idea for anyone writing a book, and certainly for everyone who has to write a synopsis for a contest.) Are there memoirs currently on the market — and in industry terms, a book either has to be a bestseller or have been released within the last five years to be considered “currently on the market” similar to yours?

To put it another way, is your memoir in fact absolutely unique, or does it fit into a well-defined market niche? If it’s the latter, is there a way that you can make its individual appeal clearer in the pages you are submitting?

It is a question well worth asking before entering a memoir into a contest — or before trying to market it. All of us tend to think of our own experiences as unique, which of course they are; every point of view is to a very great extent original. However, every memoir is about something in addition to the personality of the person writing it, right? Those other subjects are definitely a matter of fashion; there are fads in memoir-writing, just as in any other kind of publishing, and you can bet your boots that if a particular subject matter is hot this year, the nonfiction rolls of every contest in the country will receive quantities of that type of memoir.

Remember, for instance, after Lance Armstrong’s book came out, and suddenly there were a zillion upbeat I-survived-a-lethal-illness memoirs? Well, so do contest judges: they read thousands of them. Which meant, in practical terms, that it was quite a bit harder to wow a judge with an illness memoir in that period than at any other time in human history.

Also, certain life experiences tend to recur across a population with predictable regularity, and if you are writing about a well-trodden topic, it is IMPERATIVE that you make it clear in your contest entry just how your book is different from the others currently on the market. Because — and I tremble to tell you this, but it’s true — if you are writing on certain over-mined topics, even the most heart-felt prose can start those cliché warning bells pealing in the average judge’s brainpan.

This is not to say that your personal take is not worth telling — if you’re a good writer with a truly individual take on the world around you, it undoubtedly is. Remember, though, that judges tend to be reading for marketability, and if they perceive that you are writing in an already glutted submarket, your entry may not do as well as an entry on a less well-trodden topic.

Think about how many people suddenly started writing accounts of growing up poor immediately after ANGELA’S ASHES hit the big time, or about over-medicated, over-sexed teenagerhoods in the wake of PROZAC NATION, and plan accordingly.

Sheer repetition can wear down even the most conscientious judge after a while; remember, most contest judges do not judge a single contest only, but return year after year. Certain topics are perennial contest entry favorites.

The result? “Oh, God,” the judge whimpers, instinctively backing away from the papers in front of her, “not another well-written, emotionally rich story about a Baby Boomer daughter nursing her mother through her final illness, and in the process learning to heal the long-standing rift between them!”

Not that any of these judges have anything against women who care for their aging parents; it’s not as though anyone is rooting for those life-long disagreement NOT to be mended. But honestly, after fifteen or twenty of these, a judge does start to root for a nice entry about, say, someone who was mauled by a tiger. Or hit by lightning. Or at least not following in the wheeltracks of Lance Armstrong.

Conditioned reflex, I’m afraid. Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the sound of a bell, and contest judges wince at the sight of the third similar entry of the day.

So if you happen to be any of the following, you might want to think about how your book ISN’T like the others: a former drug addict/alcoholic/workaholic rediscovering the beauty of day-to-day life; a former hippie/swinger/disco queen recounting his or her glory days; a teacher from a white, upper-middle-class background who went to teach in the inner city; a new father confessing that he was not prepared for the practicalities of caring for children; a new mother discovering that motherhood is significantly harder than it is cracked up to be; anyone who worked at a dot com that went bust.

Similarly, if your memoir details your spiritual awakening, your discovery that the giant corporation for which you worked is corrupt, and/or your magnificent weight loss or gain, you might want to invest some time in market research to figure out how to make your book come across as fresh and exciting. If you check a well-stocked bookstore, or even run your subject matter through an Amazon search, you will get a pretty firm idea of how many other accounts there are that resemble your own, at least superficially.

Think of this research as practice for writing that inevitable book proposal. (All of you memoirists are aware that memoirs are seldom sold on the entire book, right? I keep running into memoir-writers to whom this is news, so I will go ahead and say it: it is not necessary to have a completed memoir before selling it to a publishing house. As with other NF books, the average memoir book proposal contains only a chapter or two — and a WHOLE lot of marketing material.)

The best way to make your work stand out from the crowd is to use the synopsis to show how YOUR memoir is QUITE different than the other memoirs on the subject — and knowing the existing memoir market will be most helpful in figuring out what aspects to stress. What made your experience special, unique, unforgettable from the point of view of a third party? Why couldn’t anyone else on earth have written it, and why will readers want to buy it?

The best place to make all this clear, of course, is the synopsis.

“But wait!” I hear some of you cry. “My book may be on a common topic, but my literary voice is unique! But I can hardly say in my synopsis, ‘this book is different from others on the market because it is better-written,’ without sounding like a jerk, can I?”

Well, no, but unfortunately, if you are writing about a common experience, you cannot get away with assuming that the writing alone will differentiate it from the other submissions. If there’s recently been a bestseller along similar lines as yours, yours will almost certainly not be the only entry that resembles it — and you can’t be certain that the finding a sense of wholeness after the death of a loved one memoir that the judge read immediately before yours was not written by Emily Brontë and Gustave Flaubert’s oddly gifted spiritual love child, can you?
If you are writing on a common topic, the bar automatically goes higher, alas, for making YOUR story stand out amongst the rest. You really have to knock their socks off, to an extent that you might not if your topic were not popular that year.


No need to turn your synopsis into a back jacket blurb, but do show how your work is UNLIKE anything else the judge is going to read. Yes, each judge will have your chapter, or few pages, or however much the contest allows you to show him, but sometimes, the difference between a “Thank you for entering” letter and one that says, “Congratulations — you’re a finalist!” is a synopsis that makes the case that THIS entry, out of the half-dozen entries on the same general topic, is the one that is going to hit the big time.

But to discuss that, I shall have to get into the issue of how contest synopses differ from query synopses, and that is a project for another day. Tomorrow, to be precise, and perhaps the day after that. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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