In reading back over this series on contest entries, it strikes me that I might have been a trifle harsh on contest judges throughout. I’m sure that there are many who don’t transmogrify into fire-breathing dragons while they are screening entries. Many do, however, and my underlying point is that as a contest entrant, you can never be sure which kind, dragon or book-lover, will end up judging your manuscript.
Best to be on the safe side. If for even a second between now and when you mail off your entry, you find yourself asking, “Hm, I wonder if I can deviate from standard format and/or contest requirements here, just a little?” I beg of you to imagine your contest fairy godmother standing beside your computer with a magic wand. Okay, got that image firmly in mind? Now, ask the question about whether you can fudge just a little again — and picture that wand descending upon your mouse hand, smacking it before you can make the rule-bending change.
Listen to that rule-mongering fairy godmother. She will keep you out of trouble.
Of course, there are many criteria over and above mere following of rules that judges use to rate entries, but unfortunately, I don’t have time to go over all of them between now and the PNWA contest deadline. So here comes the streamlined version: today, I want to give you a quick overview of the category in which most entries lose points, Presentation.
Presentation is more than how a manuscript looks on a page; it is also the category is where questions of continuity and coherence are rated. Continuity covers two major issues, consistency (on all levels, from tone to what the protagonist’s sister is called by intimates) and flow. Does the argument unfold in the manner it should, or does it stop cold from time to time?
Here again, a pair of outside eyes screening your entry for continuity problems can be extremely helpful. And just look at that calendar: if you hopped to it right now, I’ll bet you could rustle up some kind first reader to check your entry for continuity within the next week.
Coherence is also an easy one to double-check before submitting an entry: just have someone who knows nothing about the story you are telling read through the entry. Then have this generous friend tell the story back to you.
If any of the essentials come back to you garbled (or worse, missing), there are probably some coherence problems in the entry. Or the person you asked has serious recall problems. Since the deadline is less than a week away, assume the former, and revise until all is clear.
95% of the time, coherence issues stem from the enthusiasm of the writer. The writer so longs to convey the story or the argument to the reader that he rushes on, willy-nilly, all caught up in the momentum of communication, flying over the details of complex human interactions in sentences that even Ernest Hemingway would have thought over-terse.
Tight pacing is great, but all too often, explanation — and yes, even meaning — can fall along the wayside. Slow down and tell the story in full. Judges feel bad subtracting points from such entries, because the writer’s passion for the material comes through so clearly, but subtract they must.
Seriously. This problem is generally listed on the scoring sheet.
Pages stuffed with jargon almost invariably end up with low Presentation scores as well, which surprises many entrants. This is a coherence issue. Yes, it is wonderful when you can present people in a field as they talk in real life, but as the author, it’s your job to make sure they are comprehensible to the lay reader. If not, the reader has to spend additional time on each jargon-ridden sentence, trying to figure out from context what those bizarre phrases could possibly mean.
Within the context of a contest entry, every extra second spent in translation will be costly to your Presentation score.
So define your terms, in as un-pedantic a way as possible. Provide subtitles, if you absolutely must. Think about it: Anthony Burgess’ A CLOCKWORK ORANGE would have been well-nigh incomprehensible without the glossary in the back, wouldn’t it?
And please don’t tumble into the extremely common mistake of thinking that using lots of jargon or hugely long words will make the book come across as smarter. In the vast majority of case, it doesn’t; it only renders it harder to read. (And never, ever, EVER use a word in an entry unless you are POSITIVE of its definition and correct use. As any contest judge can tell you, many an otherwise fine entry has lost valuable Presentation points through an obviously ill-informed use of a thesaurus.)
Actually, amongst the well-read, being able to convey the sense of a difficult concept in simple language tend to be regarded as a virtuoso stunt. Judges — yes, and most agents and editors, too — are generally quite aware that it is significantly harder to describe a complex process in simple terms than in obscure ones. The appeal of Stephen Hawking’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, for instance, was not merely the platform of the writer, which is undoubtedly impressive, but the fact that he was able to describe theoretical physics in layman’s language.
In a nonfiction entry especially, you need to make sure that every plank of your argument is sound and comprehensible to someone who knows NOTHING about your subject matter. Literally nothing, as in perhaps never even suspected that such a topic might even exist.
This assumption may seem like an invitation to talk down to the reader, but actually, it’s just realistic. While you may be writing for a target market crammed to the brim with specialists in your area (or people who think they are, always a prime market for NF books), a new writer can NEVER assume preexisting expertise on the part of a judge, agent, or editor.
This is true, amazingly enough, even if you are writing on a subject that has already been well-traveled in the popular press. You may be writing about the single most common social phenomenon in the country, but that does not mean that NYC-based publishing types will have heard of it. Publishing is a rarefied world, in a sense quite provincial, insofar as its denizens tend to be very much absorbed in their own culture, often to the exclusion of others. It’s a complex and extraordinarily diverse culture, yes, but still, an inward-looking one.
While judges in contests based outside of Manhattan tend to be a trifle less industry-myopic, remember, the final round judges in many contests (include the PNWA’s) are selected from the ranks of the agents and editors attending the conference. The moral: just because a contest is based in the Pacific Northwest doesn’t mean you can assume you will be judged by lumberjack-savvy standards.
So if statistics, for instance, would be helpful to conveying how large the market for the NF book you are entering is, or how many people are affected by the disease that is the central subject matter of your novel, go ahead and include them in the synopsis. It may seem a trifle silly to have to explain, for instance, that asthmatics do exist in this country and they have been known to read, but trust me on this one — I’ve seen books about conditions that affect 20% of the population of the United States dismissed as appealing to only a tiny niche market.
Why is this a presentation issue, rather than a marketing one? Well, come closer, and I’ll tell you a little secret: on most contest scoring sheets, the market-readiness of the entry is not given its own set of points, per se. In theory, every aspect of the entry is supposed to speak to its marketability. But in practice, the category where the points are most likely to be subtracted is Presentation, because in most judges’ minds, the person to whom they are picturing the work being presented is an agent or editor.
Yes, I know: this logic isn’t all that coherent. But it is the usual train of thought.
Unanswered questions can cause coherence difficulties as well, particularly if those questions arise fairly naturally from the action of the piece: why, for instance, does the protagonist in a horror story wander, alone and unarmed, into a house she knows to be haunted? Why didn’t the family in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR just invoke the state’s lemon law and cancel its contract to buy the house? And why oh why doesn’t the local bored housewife in a thriller take up crochet or gardening, instead of lusting after the town’s newest stubble-encrusted drifter?
Remember, “because the plot requires it” is never a valid answer. Give the reader some sense of your characters’ motivations.
Yes, I know — in a contest, where you might be allowed to show only a single chapter of a 400-page novel, you may not have room to establish motivations for every major character. You can in the synopsis, though, and you certainly can show off your ability to convey motivation in the actions the protagonist takes in that first chapter. And don’t underestimate how much handling small events well will demonstrate your acumen in handling the bigger ones later on in the book.
Bear in mind that deep in his gnarled little heart, every contest judge honestly does want to be the one who discovers in his evaluation pile the entry that deserves to win the contest. When a well-written piece stumbles over coherence or continuity problems, it is a genuine disappointment. There isn’t a single judge in the world who likes to shake his head over an entry and mutter, “Oh, if only this author had read it in hard copy first, to notice that the step between getting onto the bronco and getting thrown from it was accidentally axed in editing. What a pity — with that fixed, this could have won the top prize.”
Don’t let your entry be the great story that lost its chance at the finalist’s circle through demerits in the presentation column. The judges are counting on you. Keep up the good work!