Contest entry bugbears: “When caught between two evils, I generally pick the one I’ve never tried before.”


Today’s quote and picture have the same source, of course: Mae West, playwright of note, your hostess for today — and, harkening back to yesterday, an actress who certainly did her best work when she was writing her own material.

Why Mae, you ask? Well, while the sentiment above may not be the best guide to ethical living (and it would be darned hard to walk in that dress, so I wouldn’t emulate it, either), it’s not a bad motto for any artist aspiring to originality.

And true originality, contrary to what you might have heard on the writers’ conference grapevine, is one of the best selling points a manuscript — or a contest entry — can have.

Admittedly, this may seem like rather strange advice to those of you who have spent conference season after conference season being told endlessly by agents and editors that they are looking for books like this or that bestseller, but honestly, copycat books usually don’t sell all that well.

Witness how quickly all of those chick lit take-offs on BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY fell off agents’ hot lists, for instance. And just how many reworkings of THE DA VINCI CODE do you think the average agent saw immediately after it hit the bestseller list?

As Mae West liked to say, there are a lot of copies out there, but if you’re an original, no one can mistake you for someone else. No one remembers the copies.

Don’t believe me? Okay, name three books patterned after COLD MOUNTAIN. Or SEX IN THE CITY. Or, if you want to go farther back in time, CATCH-22.

I thought not. And there’s a pretty good reason for that: agents, editors, and yes, contest judges tend to get most excited by fresh concepts, not tired ones.

You’re all familiar with what the publishing world means by the term fresh, right? To borrow a page from my writer’s glossary:

FRESH, adj.: Industry term for an unusual look at a well-worn topic; marketable. The industry truism is that they’re always looking for an author who is fresh, but not weird. (Weird can mean anything from a topic never written about before to an unpopular political spin to a book proposal in a non-standard folder.)

Fresh is not a synonym for original, precisely, but a marriage of originality and proven marketability, a new spin on something they already know that they can sell. This is why, in case you were wondering, agents and editors so often say things at conferences like, “I wish aspiring writers would pay attention to what’s on the bestseller list.”

They don’t mean that they’re looking for replicas of what’s to be found there — or rather, they don’t mean that if they’re savvy. What they want is a book for which they know there is an already-existing audience (thus the reference to the bestseller list) that is DIFFERENT from anything else that’s out there.

Sound tautological? Not necessarily. But given how small a window of opportunity a book has to grab an agent or editor’s attention during a query letter or pitch, broad freshness (“It’s JAWS set in a kindergarten class!”) tends to have an easier time catching the industry’s eye than more complex storylines.

In a contest entry, however, you do have a bit more leeway: if the writing is good, a judge is more likely to give an entry the benefit of the doubt. You also have more wiggle room with both judges and Millicents alike if your book happens to be funny — and not just because actually humorous writing is genuinely rare.

With comedy, a writer can get away being downright original, because of the nature of the exercise: spontaneous laughs are, after all, often produced by surprising the reader.

Which is precisely why, as I have mentioned before, a successful comic entry should do everything it can to avoid being predictable. Trust me, there is absolutely nothing more predictable in a contest entry — or a contemporary novel, or a memoir — than humorous references to the current zeitgeist.

And isn’t that a coincidence? Last time, I suggested that one of the best ways to endear your contest entry to a judge may be to go through it carefully, excising as much of the humor based upon current pop culture references as humanly possible. Don’t worry that it will make your work seem less hip: since it takes so long for the average manuscript to hit the shelves, even if a reference is brand-new, chances are that it will no longer be current by the time the book comes out.

There’s a term for this in the industry: dated. And another: not fresh.

I hear some dissention out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of you pointing out, “there are plenty of books published every year that are up-to-the-minute topical and/or hip. I can understand where they might not age very well, but isn’t the point of a contest entry or submission to wow the judge or Millicent NOW? After all, I could always change the pop culture references just before the book went to press, couldn’t I?”

That’s kind of a clever way to look at it, faceless theorizers, but that’s not really the way a contest judge tends to think. They want to reward books that are going to be on the shelves for a while.

And frankly, they’re perfectly aware that books-of-the-moment don’t tend to be perennial sellers. Which, in case you were not aware of it, is the way that most authors who make a living at it earn their bread and butter: not by selling millions of copies of one book in a given year, but by selling thousands of copies of several different books.

Bestsellers are the exception — thus the comparison inherent in the name — and have always been. And, if you’ll forgive my saying so, there are factors other than quality of writing that can lead to a book’s being a runaway hit.

Scandal, for instance. The writer’s already being a celebrity. Being endorsed by a celebrity. Being written by a very well-known author. A great publicity campaign. A publishing house that really believes in the book and is willing to put a great deal of time and money into promoting it.

Yes, it would be nice to think that any well-written book would receive the benefit of the latter, but realistically, the vast majority released in any given year by U.S. publishing houses are allocated less than $2,000 in promotion. (Yes, you read that correctly. I’ve been to small launch parties where the wine cost more than that.)

So while your garden-variety contest judge would most likely be thrilled if an entry she sent on to the finals ended up on the bestseller list, she’s not really expecting it. No, she wants to recognize a good book that stands a decent chance of getting published, even of winning further awards.

My, you’re antsy today, readers; could it be that you’re trying to get a contest entry out the door? “But Anne,” some of you cry, “while this is undoubtedly interesting, I’m up against a deadline. Today is not the day I’m worried about originality; I’m concentrated on making my work funny. You had mentioned something a couple of posts ago about a few tests I can apply to my writing?”

Ah, but there’s been a method to my madness: most of the tests I’m going to pass along touch on BOTH the originality and the humor level of the manuscript. These tests will highlight mistakes that should set off warning bells while you are revising — because, believe me, they will be setting off hazard flares in the minds of agents, editors, and contest judges.

But going through all of the tests (not to mention what to do if any part of your entry runs afoul of them) is going to take up quite a bit of blog space, so I shall be delving into that tomorrow. In the meantime, give some thought to whether anything in your entry could have been written by any sentient being in the universe other than you.

I’m quite serious about that, you know. Most aspiring writers take a number of years — or even a couple of books — to discover their own individual literary voices. The voices of the authors we admire tend to creep into our work without our realizing it.

And that’s just not good, either for comedy in general or comic contest entries in particular. Contrary to the oft-repeated truism, only conscious imitation could possibly be construed as anything remotely approaching flattery — and even then, I’m inclined to think the debt should be attributed openly.

I’m not going to give you an exercise for this — it’s up to every writer’s conscience to draw the line between being inspired by another artist’s work and lifting from it. The line is almost always pretty fuzzy.

But if you find instances in your entries or manuscripts where it isn’t, you might want to take those parts back to the revision board. Any given contest judge may have read and admired the same author you have, after all. Chances are, if it’s a living writer of any repute, a fairly hefty proportion of your target audience will have, too.

You want to win fame and fortune for YOUR literary voice and YOUR trenchant observations upon the human condition, don’t you?

The moral of the day: people still remember Mae West, my friends, not her hundreds of imitators. Here’s to all of us being originals on the page — and keeping up the good work!

PS: did anyone but me catch that big ol’ typo on the titles of the main network pre-Oscars red carpet show? It was a prime example of the kind of editing mistake one is likely to make when editing on a computer screen — and a problem that no spell-checker in the world would ever catch: it referred to the Oscar’s, not the Oscars.

The Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named

Psst, those of you who are entering that contest whose deadline is tomorrow: I know that I said that I wasn’t going to be playing contest favorites this year — thus the series on contest prep that does not come to a screeching halt just before your deadline — but if you have a few moments to spare between reading every syllable of your entry (yes, synopsis, too) OUT LOUD and IN HARD COPY and popping it into the mail, I posted a last-minute checklist of common entry errors last year. Might be worth a gander — or a re-gander, as the case may be.

Remember: it’s TWO spaces after a period, not just one, and remember to turn off the widow/orphan control. (It’s under FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS in Word.) Unless a contest’s rules specifically state otherwise, the other rules of standard format (delineated in the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right.

And to spare your writing in about it: yes, yes, I know that it’s going to drive some of you nuts that I’m going to still be talking about contests after you’ve sent off your entries, but last year, my focusing on the Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named gave some folks at the organization that runs it the false impression that they had a right to make demands about this site’s content. This year, I want to make it absolutely plain that not only do I have no affiliation with them; I don’t even like them very much.

So good luck, and kindly forget that we ever had this conversation. I’ll be back to our regularly-scheduled programming within the hour.

Still more about contests: the unwritten rules


While we’re on the subject of contests, I have a wonderful announcement about a member of the Author! Author! community: longtime reader Georgiana Kotarski, better known around these parts as MooCrazy, was honored by the Storytelling World Resource Awards!

As was, coincidentally, a children’s book by my erstwhile elementary school librarian, Denys Cazet, who used to read his works-in-progress to us wee ones at storytime. (And yes, I did go to the world’s best schools.)

Congratulations, Georgiana — and Mr. Cazet, too! Let’s take a gander at his book cover, too, while we’re at it:


Georgiana’s award-winning book, GHOSTS OF THE SOUTHERN TENNESSEE VALLEY, is available for sale on Amazon. As is Mr. Cazet’s , The Perfect Pumpkin Pie, should you be interested in checking them out. The folks who judge storytelling ability think that we all should, and hey, that’s good enough for me.

I’m always encouraged when books from small presses, such as Georigana’s GHOSTS OF THE SOUTHERN TENNESSEE VALLEY, win these awards. Not just for the underdog value (although it’s that, too), but because it’s great to see what a good, old-fashioned editorial handling can do for a well-written book.

In fact, I have it on pretty good authority that it was the publisher who nominated Georgiana’s book — how’s that for supporting one’s authors? Quoth she:

One thing I’d like to say about the contest is that I never thought of entering one. I was too lazy and also assumed I wouldn’t win. I didn’t even know my publisher had entered me. So there is a lesson there for other blog readers: have a little faith in yourself!

I couldn’t agree with you more, Moo. Which is why I’m getting right back to business.

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 enough to make it to the finalist round.

I introduced the change of subject too abruptly, didn’t I? As soon as I typed it, I heard good moods the world over deflate hissingly. Sorry about that.

Of course, this kind of my-view-equals-the-market stance 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 your garden-variety contest judge. And — wouldn’t you know it? — those measures just happen to be my subject du jour.

Judge-appeasing strategy #1: avoid clichés like the proverbial plague.

Clichés are AMAZINGLY common in contest entries, for some reason I have never understood — unless it is simply that clichés become 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?!?)

Judge-appeasing strategy #2: minimize pop culture references.

In general, you should avoid pop culture references in contest entries, except as indicators of time and place. 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 — and thus the reference in question needs to be able to age at least that long.

In answer to that collective gasp I just heard from those of you new to the industry: books don’t typically hit the shelves for at least a year after the contract is signed — and that’s not counting the time the agent spends shopping the book around first. And that’s after the writer has found an agent for it in the first place.

So even if a cultural reference is absolutely hot right now, it’s going to be dated by the time it hits the shelves. For instance, do you really think that anyone will know in five years who Paris Hilton is, or why she was famous? (I’m not too sure about the latter now.)

Also, writers tend to underestimate how closely such references tend to be tied to specific eras, regions, and even television watching habits. Which brings me to…

Judge-appeasing strategy #3: NEVER assume that the judge will share your worldview.

Often, the writer’s age — or, at any rate, generational identification — is perfectly obvious from the cultural references used in a contest entry. That’s fine, especially for a memoir, but 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.

Why? Well, nothing falls flatter than a joke that the reader doesn’t get, unless it’s a shared assumption that’s shared by a group to which the reader does not happen to belong.

In other words, it’s very common for contest entrants to assume (apparently) that the judges assessing their work are share their age group, sex, sexual orientation, views on foreign policy, you name it. So much so that they tend to leave necessary references unexplained.

And this can leave judges who do not happen to be like the entrant somewhat perplexed. Make sure that your story or argument could be followed by ANY English-reading individual without constant resort to the encyclopedia or MTV.

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.

Judge-appeasing strategy #4: if you are taking on social or political issues, show respect for points of views other than yours.

This is really a corollary of the last. If you’re going to perform social analysis of any sort, it’s a very, very poor idea to assume that the contest judge will already agree with you. A stray snide comment can cost you big time on a rating sheet.

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.

Yet you would be AMAZED at how many contest entries, particularly in the nonfiction categories, are polemics, and how often they use the argumentative tactics of verbal speech. But while treating the arguments of those who disagree with dear self as inherently ridiculous can work aloud (although it’s certainly not the best way to win friends and influence people, in my experience), they tend to work less well on paper.

So approach your potential readers with respect, and keep sneering at those who disagree with you to a minimum.
And 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.

Judge-appeasing strategy #5: recognize going in that you have absolutely no control over how an individual judge will respond to your work. All you can control is how you present it.

Trust me, you will be a much, much happier contest entrant if you accept that you cannot control who will read your work after you enter it into a contest. Sometimes, you’re just unlucky. 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.

To revert to my favorite gratuitous piece of bad luck: if Millicent the agency screener has scalded her tongue on a too-hot latte immediately prior to opening your submission, chances are that she’s going to be in a bad mood when she reads it. And there’s absolutely nothing you can do about that.

Ultimately, you can have no control over whether the agency screener has had a flat tire on the morning she reads your manusript, 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. 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.

Which brings me to…

Judge-appeasing strategy #6: don’t expect a single contest entry to make your writing career.

Okay, so this is really more about your happiness than the judges’, but do try to avoid hanging all of your hopes on a single contest. That’s giving WAY too much power to a single, unknown contest judge.

Yes, even if there is only one contest in your part of the world for your kind of writing. Check elsewhere.

And, of course, keep querying agents, magazines, and small presses while your work is being considered by a contest. (No, this is not a contest rule violation: contests almost universally require that a entry not be published prior to the entry date. You’re perfectly free to keep submitting after you enter it — and to enter the same work in as many contests as you choose.)

Judge-appeasing strategy #7: be alert for content and style expectations that may not match your writing.

As I mentioned during my earlier contest selection series, if a contest does not have a track record of rewarding your type of work, it’s just not a good idea to make it your single entry for the year — yes, even if the rules leave open the possibility that your kind of work can win. For instance, a certain contest in my area has a Mainstream Fiction category that also accepts literary fiction — and, until this year, accepted genre as well.

Care to guess how often writing that WASN’T literary has won in this category? Here’s a hint: for many years, the judges had a strong preference for work containing lots and lots of semicolons.

Still unsure? Well, here’s another hint: in this year’s description of the Mainstream Fiction category, they spent four paragraphs defining literary fiction. Including a paragraph specifying that they meant the kind of work that tended to win the Nobel Prize, the Booker Award, the Pulitzer…

In case that didn’t shake up those of you considering entering an honestly mainstream work, I should also add: there were only four paragraphs in the description.

This is yet another reason — in case, you know, you needed more — to read not only the contest rules very carefully, but the rest of a contest’s literature as well: skim a little too quickly, and you may not catch that contest organizers have given a hint to what kinds of work they want to see.

You know, something subtle, like implying that they expect their contest winners to be future runners-up for the Pulitzer.

Judge-appeasing strategy #8: be alert for expectations about content.

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 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.

Judge-appeasing strategy #9: make sure that you’re entering the right category.

Stop laughing. Entrants make this mistake all the time — and it isn’t always the fault of poorly-defined categories.
Most of the time, 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 turns 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.

Next time, I shall discuss category selection a bit more. In the meantime, if you’re working on an entry that due, say, next Friday, try not to panic. Yes, this is a complex task, but you’re a complex writer, aren’t you? You can do this.

Keep up the good work!

Still more on contest entries: the ins and outs of category selection


After yesterday’s epic post on the various means contest entries tend to annoy the average judge, I’m going to try to limit myself to merely waxing mildly poetic today. It’s going to be hard, though, because I’m continuing the seldom-discussed but vitriol-stained topic of finding the right category in which to enter your work.

I hear some snickering out there already. “Vitriol-stained?” some head-shakers out there are murmuring. “Just a tad melodramatic, isn’t it?”

Actually, it isn’t — at least, not from the perspective of a conscientious contest judge, the kind who volunteers because gosh darn it, s/he wants to be there when the next Great American Novel is first discovered.

Wipe that smirk off your face. Being a contest judge, particularly for the first round, is typically a great big time commitment, and the stalwart souls who embrace it often do it for the love of literature, community, and humanity. Or an unvarnished affection for jumping upon those who mangle the English language.

Either way, there’s usually a passion for the written word smoldering under those judges’ robes. Which is precisely why it’s so darned disappointing when a beautifully-written entry knocks itself out of finalist consideration by being submitted to the wrong category.

Now, I’m the first to admit that it’s not unheard-of for judges to harbor some kind of squirrelly ideas of what does and doesn’t belong in a particular contest category. This is not altogether surprising, particularly for fiction, as it’s far from unusual for even the pros to disagree upon what book category would most comfortable house a particular book.

If you doubt this, you probably haven’t tried to establish a book category for your opus. For those of you who don’t know, book categories are how the industry thinks of potentially publishable work, the conceptual containers into which it is sorted — or, to put it another way, the shelf where the book would rest in a local bookstore. (For how to tell which is which, as well as where this information is likely to be found on a published book, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES listing at right.)

Due to this pervasive mindset, a writer needs to be able to say up front into what category her book would logically fall in order to query, pitch, or submit successfully in the U.S. market.

Why? Well, since generalist agents are very rare — it would be flatly too time-consuming to establish connections for more than a few types of book — book categories enable them to avoid wasting time upon submissions they do not already have the connections to place successfully.

If an agent represents only mysteries and SF/Fantasy, it would be a waste of good stationary to send him a query for literary fiction, wouldn’t it?

While contest categories tend to be far broader than the industry’s, lumping a handful together, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have the publishing world’s standards in mind. There’s an awfully good reason for this: final-round contest judges (the ones who read only the finalists’ entries) are often agents, editors, or authors who work on a daily basis with a particular category. The early-round judges, aware of this, tend to weed out entries that don’t fit neatly into the applicable book categories long before the finalist round.

That way, the logic goes, the final-round judges will be presented only with works that stand a fighting chance of getting published as sterling representatives of the best current writing in their respective categories.

If the contest of your choice does not actually list the book categories that belong within each of its contest categories, contact the organization and ask for such a list. Or — if you have already firmly categorized your work in industry terms, give your category and ask which part of the contest would best fit for it.

(Hint: you’ll probably get a substantially friendlier response to this question if you DON’T give a three-minute summary of your book — and DON’T ask it four days before the entry deadline. This is research best done well in advance, and armed in advance with a one- or two-word category description.)

It may seem pushy to ask for this information, but if a contest-throwing organization is serious about seeing its winners get published, this is an important question. After all, from the entrant’s point of view, a contest win is only as valuable as the connections it can bring.

What do I mean by that, you ask? Ideally, you want to win a contest that is recognized in the industry as a stellar judge of writing in your chosen book category. If, for instance, the organization’s definition of genre fiction doesn’t include Action/Adventure, not only is even the best Action/Adventure entry unlikely to win — agents and editors who sell that book category are not likely to be aware of the contest, either.

Think about it: which credential is going to do your book more good on your query letter, being a semifinalist in a contest that any agent in your book’s category would have known about for years, or in a contest of which the agent of your dreams has never even heard?

Trust me, if a contest has a good track record for identifying wonderful work within a particular book category, the agents and editors who handle that kind of book WILL have heard of it.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you with complex books offer timidly, “I thought you said just a couple of minutes ago that there’s often disagreement amongst the pros about the right category for a particular book. If a contest category is nebulous, isn’t there likely to be even greater disagreement?”

In a word, yes. In five words: it happens all the time. Let’s face it, category standards along the lines of we accept good fiction of every type aren’t that helpful to the writer trying to determine which contest to enter, are they?

Most contests are more specific than this, thank goodness — but it does pay to be aware that when a description refers to a particular book category, it’s seldom doing it idly. Don’t be mislead by a general category heading like Genre Fiction into thinking that any genre is welcome; this is seldom the case.

Again, read the description underneath that heading very carefully: it will probably mention the book categories that the contest organizers are expecting to see.

Because, frankly, in most cases of poor category fits, it’s not a near miss so much as trying to cram a size 14 foot into a size 6 shoe. You would be astonished — at least, I hope you would — at how often writers send work in apparently willy-nilly, trying to force their pages into a category where, by definition, their chances of winning are close to zero.

This is just an inefficient use of an entry fee.

To put it another way, this is not a situation where playing rules lawyer — “But Category 5 was entitled FICTION! How was I to know that didn’t include haiku? Both came out of my imagination!” — is at all likely to help you. As I mentioned a few days ago, there isn’t a court of appeal here: if a judge thinks that your entry doesn’t fit into the category where you entered it, you’re just out of luck.

So, once again: read every syllable of a contest’s literature very, very carefully. Particularly those category definitions.

I’m not just talking about those ultra-brief definitions that tend to grace entry forms, either. Take the time to read EVERYTHING that a contest’s website or literature says about your chosen category, to make sure that your book is, in fact, admissible.

Fair warning: what I am about to say next is extremely likely to drive literal-minded readers completely nuts, but why not consider the possibility that the category you had envisioned for your work after publication — i.e., where YOU had envisioned its being shelved in a bookstore or library after you are famous — might not be the best category in any given contest for you?

Did I just hear a collective gasp out there? “Who are you?” I hear the hyper-literal cry, “and what have you done with Anne? Haven’t you been the long-time advocate of labeling your work as accurately as possible AND in the industry’s favorite terms? Should we check your basement for pods?”

Well, yes — and defining your book with precision still the best strategy when you’re approaching an agent or editor.

However, as I mentioned above, contests often divide the literary world differently than publishing professionals do. Frequently, they use categories that have not been current since Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer. (Quick, tell me: if it were being marketed now, would THE AGE OF INNOCENCE be mainstream fiction, literary fiction, or women’s fiction?)

Here’s a radical idea: pick the CONTEST category that makes the most strategic sense, regardless of your book’s MARKETING category.

Honestly, this prospect should not make you hyperventilate; agents do this to their clients’ work all the time. Remember, the label you give the entry today is not necessarily going to stick with the book for the rest of its life, and there’s absolutely no reason that you should send agents precisely the same pages that you enter in a contest.

Take a little time, and be imaginative about it. The line between memoir and first-person narrative, for instance, can be notoriously thin. Heck, even the fine folks at Random House didn’t seem to be able to tell the difference with A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, did they? (A book that was, as I understand it, originally marketed as a novel, not a memoir.)

And there can be a very good reason to consider other categories for your work. Not to tell tales out of school, but in most contests that accept book-length works, the fiction categories tend to get more entries than the nonfiction ones.

As in SUBTANTIALLY more entries. Sometimes as in five or ten times as many, which obviously has a direct bearing on any individual entry’s chances of making the finalist round.

But mum’s the word, okay?

So why not take a good, hard look at your first chapter of your novel or memoir and ask yourself: how much would I have to change this to enter it in the other category as well? What about the nonfiction short piece category?

Is your novel really mainstream, or is it actually romance? Could it be entered as both?

If the contest offers a novel-in-progress category (as the Wisdom/Faulkner competition does, incidentally; they also have a novella category, in case you’re interested), would your barely-finished book do better there, or against the fully polished novels?

And so forth. The goal here is to gain a win to put on your writing resume and in your query letters, not to force your work into the category you have pre-selected for it.

Yes, there is usually more prestige attached to book-length categories, but, frankly, in major contests, that’s where the competition tends to be the fiercest. If a shorter-length category seems to offer you a better conceptual fit or better odds, it’s sometimes worth switching. Or multiply submitting.

In a word, be flexible. Get the win on your résumé however you can.

One of the best memoirs I have ever read, Barbara Robinette Moss’ astonishing CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS’ DAUGHTER, found its publisher because its downright lyrical first chapter won in the personal essay category in the Faulkner competition.

That was smart contest selection — and a well-deserved win. (Seriously, this is one of the books that made me long to write memoir in the first place. I certainly did not fully appreciate the art form until I read it. It’s gorgeous and painful and brilliant in a way few books manage to be.)

This is not to say that you should rush out and enter exactly the same piece in, say, both the mainstream novel and novel-in-progress categories of the same competition, or in both the genre novel and mystery short story categories.

Again, READ THE RULES. Most contests will not allow you to enter the same work in multiple categories, but some will, so check the contest rules carefully before you spend the extra entrance fee.

You didn’t hear it from me, of course, but it is not unheard-of for authors to get away with this sort of double-dipping even when it’s forbidden, if the pieces have different titles. Of course, this is terribly, terribly immoral even to consider, but often, it works.

Why? Well, most of the time, the bureaucratic part of accepting an entry entails merely noting the author’s name and title, assigning numbers so the judges don’t know who wrote what, sending the entry to the appropriate category chair, and cashing the check. So until the pieces land on the various category judges’ desks, it’s possible that no one will have read them. And it’s not as though the judges in one category discuss the entries they are reading with the judges in another.

The utterly despicable result: when an unscrupulous author is bright enough to give different titles to remarkably similar entries and perhaps mail them in separate envelopes, it is highly unlikely that anyone in the front office will have the opportunity to notice that the two distinct entries are, in fact, the same work.

Totally unethical, of course; I would have to scold anyone who did that. Or anyone clever enough to revise the work just enough between entries that, say, there weren’t more than 50 consecutive words in a row that were identical. That’s maybe one word per paragraph.

Ooh, I would have to wag my finger over anyone who went that route, boy oh boy. Really, I would. That would be just a shade too professional to be merely clever.

Well, darn: it doesn’t look as though I could manage to be brief on the subject today, either. Keep up the good work!

Telling your life story to the judge, part II

tiger5.gif tiger5.gif tiger5.gif

Before I launch into today’s topic, campers, I have a bit of a modification to yesterday’s post. My interview on is indeed located in the links I listed — here for English and here for French — but in order to leave a comment, readers will need to go to the site’s homepage and click on Commentaires. I know from delightful experience that many of you are inveterate web commenters.

Far be it from me to curtail your freedom of expression. That’s not my style. And frankly, it would be nice for the interviewer to hear that English-speaking readers are interested in my book.

Let’s get back to work.

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 out there. “Wait just a second,” the voice in the ether I choose to attribute to my readers kept saying, “isn’t this tactic bordering on paranoid overkill? How is the judge ever going to know if I use my name? In a blind-judged contest, the judges never see the author’s name attached to the manuscript, and thus could not know that the name mentioned IS the author’s.”

Well, that’s a good point, disembodied voice. But you still shouldn’t do it for 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. It doesn’t matter if the judge can GUESS who the author is — since the rules don’t call for complete negation of the memoirist’s identity, all they can catch you on is the use of your name. They watch for it like the proverbial hawks.

But, 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 on more sophisticated bases.

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. So there.

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? I rest my case.

Except to say: I know that my harping on this is going to throw the more conscientious memoirists out there into a frenzy of proofreading. Actually, though, the entry where the writer has obviously made a determined effort to rid the document of his own name but missed a single instasnce is not usually the one that ends up getting disqualified. Oh, it will certainly get marked down, but probably not thrown into the trash.

So what kinds of violations of this rule DO tend to get the entry disqualified on sight? The one where the entrant clearly didn’t bother to read the rules, but simply printed up the already-existing first chapter and submitted it.

You’d be astonished at how common that is — and how obvious it is to the judges. At least, I hope you would be.

There is, as I mentioned yesterday, 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 case you were not aware of it, for the industry to consider a published book part of the market, a book either has to have been released within the last five years or have been a bestseller within the last ten — 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 to that particular segment of the market clearer in the pages you are submitting?

It is a question well worth asking before entering a memoir into a contest – or indeed, before trying to market it at all.

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?

The frequency with which books on those other subjects turn up on the shelves of Barnes & Noble is 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 PRECISELY 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.

Before you bemoan this, recall that not only do agents, editors, and contest judges get tired of seeing the same types of books over and over again; so do readers. 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; nor is anyone is rooting for those life-long disagreements NOT to be mended. But honestly, after fifteen or twenty of these in a single year’s crop of entries — that’s not an exaggeration, incidentally — a judge does start to long 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. That’s just the way they’re built.

So if you happen to be any of the following, you might want to give some serious thought to 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; your magnificent weight loss or gain and how that journey made you a better person; 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.

And any reworking of the concepts of THE DA VINCI CODE or the bestsellers of last year.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t bother to enter memoirs that encroach upon these well-trodden areas. You should, if that is the story you burn to tell.

But alert the judge to the ways your book is different and better as soon as possible: on page one of the entry, if you can, and within the first few paragraphs of the synopsis. And don’t just SAY that your book is unique: SHOW it.

For instance, if your memoir details your spiritual awakening, your discovery that the giant corporation for which you worked is corrupt — because, you know, that’s always a surprise — you might want to invest some time in market research to figure out how to make your book come across as fresh and exciting to jaded professional readers.

How? Well, 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.

Some of you are feeling a trifle grumpy at this prospect, aren’t you? I can’t say as I blame you, really. Try to
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.)

One of the best ways 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?

If a reasonably intelligent judge could make it through your memoir entry without being able to answer these questions, you should probably consider a spot of revision before you mail off the entry.

“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 also probably cannot get away with assuming that the writing alone will differentiate it from the other submissions. Again, if there’s recently been a bestseller along similar lines as yours, yours will almost certainly not be the only entry that resembles it.

To put it another way, 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?

Sad but true, 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.

Yes, yes, I know: I’m asking a lot of you here, but I’m positive that you can do this.

You want to know how I know? Because a writer with the staggering courage and honestly to write a truly self-revealing memoir, rather than one that simply makes the self look good, is a writer who has had to master many subtle writing skills. Call me zany, but compared to laying your soul bare on paper, doing a little market research and a bit of book promotion is a walk in the park.

Not a very pleasant park, true, but still, not a minefield. Keep up the good work!

More contest entry bugbears: what’s in a name?

Anne contemplates her past at Harvard.

Before I launch into today’s topic, I wanted to give you all a heads-up about an interview I have just given to that excellent French Philip K. Dick fansite, on the subject of my long-delayed memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. For those of you who have been curious about the book (and the hold-up), this interview may answer a few questions.

Charmingly, they’ve posted it both in English and in French. I got a big kick out of that. It’s not the first time my work has been published in other tongues (I wrote for a Dutch magazine, briefly), but it IS the first time it’s been in a language I can read. It makes me sound very soigné.

Fair warning: over the last few years, most of my attempts to tell the story behind my memoir (or, to put it another way, my life before the age of 15) have resulted in nasty lawsuit threats. The question of whether I own my memories or a small corporation does is, in addition to a fabulous-sounding premise for a Philip K. Dick novel, the central fact of my writing life of late.

Call it a literary identity crisis.

In keeping with the theme of the interview, 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 — for an early draft of the book mentioned above, as it happens — I have a thing or two to say on what does and doesn’t tend to make a memoir entry sing.

So let’s get right to it, shall we? Because I have been concentrating upon technicalities for the past few days, let me begin with the most important one for memoir — and the one most frequently violated:

please, I implore you, if you are submitting a memoir entry to a blind-judged contest, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. And do bear in mind that this applies to EITHER your first OR your last name.

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.

Seriously, memoirists run afoul of this rule all the time, for the exceedingly simple reason that their names tend to appear a whole lot more often in their work than, say, a SF writer’s would in his. (Philip is a notable exception, of course; he created fictional characters with permutations of his own name all the time.) It’s pretty easy to overlook a single reference to the protagonist in a book that’s written in the first person.

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 something along the lines of:

since the contest forbids mention of the author’s name, I have substituted “Billie Bartolucci” throughout.

Billy Bartolucci, incidentally, was an immense linebacker at my high school, sweet enough to get a big kick out of the fact that the girls in the drama club used to claim that they were Miss Billie when some ne’er-do-well asked for their names and phone numbers. Billy sounded like Darth Vader on the phone, so the effects were sometimes dramatic.

But I digress. For those of you who have not yet tread the memoir path (which is, I notice, more or less de rigeur for a novelist who hopes to win the Nobel Prize someday), it’s practically impossible NOT refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life. Contest 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 one iota.

Make yourself comfortable; I’m going to tell you a little story about where such cleverness might lead. 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 he 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 straightaway: 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, however,this practice would have gotten him disqualified immediately.

I bring this up not because there are legions of Machiavellian-minded rule-manglers out there — although there apparently are — 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 some of 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 let’s take a gander 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. Naturally, a simple search-and-replace could weed out uses of the name, but late at night, just before a contest deadline, slips do occur.

Luckily, these slips tend to concentrate within certain contexts. 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 keep 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, are often counted as rule violations. So Biddy would be wise to do a search-and-replace for BOTH her first AND last names in her entry before she prints 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!

Contest entry formatting, continued: three cheers for the emperor of ice cream!


I’ve been yammering all week about the importance of reading contest entry requirements as if the fate of the Western world depended upon your following each and every one, but the fact is, in many contests, the rules are far from clear. And no, this is not usually because contest rule designers are just itching to trip you up.

Really. Honest.

In practice, a contest that has been around for a while has probably modified its rules over time — and since in the U.S., the reputable literary contests tend to be run by volunteer organizations, it’s not unheard-of for one board member to add a new rule in response to a specific situation that arose in last year’s contest, another to have inserted two the year before…without anyone concerned realizing that someone needs to go through every so often and make sure that the new collection of rules makes sense.

Which, to their credit, the Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named seems to have done between last year and this. It’s almost as though someone posted a fairly extensive online critique last year — and they responded to it. Entrants everywhere should be happy about this, I think. (But they may be less happy about the fact that this organization has reduced the number of finalists in every category by two from last year.)

But even with the best intentions, contest rules are seldom written so clearly that someone who has absolutely no experience with how the industry likes to see manuscripts could figure out the rules with certainty on the first read-through. In fact, I suspect that if you asked most contest organizers and judges, they would be flabbergasted at the suggestion that writers who haven’t been submitting their work fairly regularly to agents, editors, and magazines would be entering their contest at all.

If you doubt this, take a gander at most literary contests’ rules: most of the time, specific expectations are compressed under terse statements such as, “Submit in industry standard format.”

That should make those of you who have been hanging out on this site for a while feel pretty darned good about yourselves — because, believe me, having some idea what standard format should look like, or even that such a thing exists, places you several furlongs in front of aspiring writers who do not. (If you fall into the latter category, run, don’t walk to the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS category at right.) Because — correct me if your experience contradicts this — this is an industry that tends to conflate lack of professional knowledge with lack of artistic talent.

And that is as true for contest entries as for submissions to agents.

That’s why, in case you have been wondering, I harp on standard format so much here. No one is born aware of how the industry expects to see writing presented, but the rules are seldom shared with those new to the game — and almost never explained in much detail. Admittedly, sometimes one sees the rules asserted in an aggressive do this or fail! tone, but it’s pretty difficult to apply a rule unless you know what it’s for and how it should be implemented.

That’s my feeling about it, anyway. Call me zany, but I would rather see all of you judged on the quality of your WRITING than on whether your manuscript or contest entry adheres to a set of esoteric rules. But unless it does conform to those (often unspoken) rules, it’s just not going to look professional to someone who is used to reading top-of-the-line work.

So try to think of quadruple-checking those rules as the necessary prerequisite to getting a fair reading for your writing — and bear in mind that most judges will expect the author of that winning entry to have been hanging around the industry for a good long time.

The two categories where this expectation is most evident are screenwriting and poetry. Almost any contest that accepts screenplays will use the same draconian standard that the average script agent does: if it’s not in positively the right format (and in the standard typeface for screenplays, Courier), it will be rejected on sight.

Now, I’m going to be honest with you here: I am not a screenwriter; I’m just thrilled that the WGA strike was settled. So if you are looking for guidance on how to prep a screenplay entry, I have only one piece of advice for you:


Sorry to be so blunt, but I don’t want any of my readers to be laboring under the false impression that this is the place to pick up screenplay formatting tips. Happily, there are both many, many websites out there just packed with expert advice on the subject, and good screenwriting software is easily and cheaply available. I would urge those of you with cinema burning in your secret souls to rush toward both with all possible dispatch.

I can speak with some authority about poetry formatting, however.

Remember how I mentioned yesterday that where contest rules are silent, their organizers generally assume that writers will adhere to standard format — which is to say, the form that folks who publish that kind of writing expect submitters to embrace? Well, that’s true for poetry as well.

So what does standard format for poetry look like? Quite a bit as you’d expect, I’d expect:

* Single-spaced lines within a stanza

* A skipped line between stanzas

* Left-justified text, with a ragged right margin

* Centered title on the first line of the page

* 1″ margins on all sides of the page

* 12-point typeface on white paper, printed on only one side of the page

In other words, it shouldn’t be formatted the way you might see it in a book, where the left margin might be a few inches in, or on a greeting card, where the text floats somewhere closer to the center of a page. Basically, the average poetry submission looks like this, to borrow a manuscript page from a favorite poet of mine, Wallace Stevens:


Pretty straightforward, eh? (I love that poem, by the way. I almost named my memoir about my relationship with Philip K. Dick THE EMPEROR OF ICE CREAM. Makes more sense than the title my erstwhile publisher picked, doesn’t it?)

Now let’s see what how a contest rules might call for something slightly different. To pick one set at random, let’s take that nameless contest whose deadline is next week:

* Submit three complete poems.

* Single-space within stanza, double-space between stanzas.

* Maximum length of collection: 3 pgs.

* Use 12pt Times New Roman or Times (Mac).

Those are all of the category-specific rules listed. Elsewhere, however, others pop up, some from rather far afield:

* One-sided 8 1/2 x 11 standard WHITE paper.

* 1” margins all around.

* Have the title of the submission and page numbers located in the upper right hand corner of each page.

* Each submission MUST show the name of the category to which it is submitted.

Okay, what can we learn from this? Any occasion for our pal Wallace to panic about the breadth of necessary changes to his already-formatted poem?

Not really. Oh, the rules seem pretty hostile to the notion that any worthwhile poem could possibly be longer than a single page (take that, Lord Byron!), as well as unaware that Word for Mac does in fact feature the Times New Roman font — and has for many years. But otherwise, there’s not a lot here that ol’ Wallace is going to have to change.

EXCEPT, of course, for taking his name out of the slug line and moving it to the other side of the page.

Do I hear some confused muttering out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you point out, and who could blame you? “What about needing to place the title in the slug line? Each of the three less-than-page-long poems will have a different title, won’t it?”

Great question, unseen mutterers. I’ll complicate it further: in the rules for book-length works, there’s an additional regulation that may apply here:

* The Contest Category name and number (e.g. Category 3: Romance Genre) on the first page of the submission and on the mailing envelope.

Yes, yes, it DOES appear in the section of the rules that apply to categories other than poetry — but tell me, do you want YOUR entry to be the one that tests whether the Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s organizers don’t think this rule should apply to the poetry category?

I didn’t think so. If I were a poet, I certainly would not omit scrawling Category 9: Poetry on the outside of my entry envelope.

You, of course, are free to do as you wish. But remember how I demonstrated yesterday that adding a title page can help smooth over quite a few little logistical problems? Look what happens to the opening of our pal Wallace’s entry if he takes that advice to heart:



Both of these pages are in Times New Roman, incidentally, created on a Mac. (Hey, I couldn’t resist.)

More to the point, ol’ Wallace has now neatly avoided any rule violations. Oh, he could have given his collection of poetry (if a mere three poems can legitimately be called a collection; if he were a collector of, say, teapots, he would be considered merely a hobbyist collector if he had only three) a more exciting overarching title, but this gets the job done.

It also satisfies the contest’s rule requiring that the title be in the slug line, along with the page number. What’s not to like?

Amazing what a lot of explanation a seemingly simple set of rules can engender, isn’t it? Keep combing through those contest rules, potential entrants, and everybody, keep up the good work!

What do you mean, my entry needs a title page?

Have you recovered yet from yesterday’s magnum opus on contest entry formatting, campers? Take a deep breath, because I have an addendum to it, based upon information newly come to light: remember how I told you yesterday that you should go over EVERY syllable of contest entry literature with a magnifying glass, bloodhound, and possibly a psychic, to make sure that you are aware of every tiny little rule that might be lurking in the small print?

Well, I was indulging in a little light-hearted romping through the Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s (you know, the one with the deadline next week) rules a bit ago, and what should my aged eyes fall upon almost instantly in the formatting guidelinesHave the title of the submission and page numbers located in the upper right hand corner of each page.

Other than the grammatical problem with that sentence, do you see any problems it might raise, in light of what we discussed yesterday? Why, the slug line for this contest is on the opposite side of the page!

Specifying an odd location for the slug line may not seem as though it would change the entry much, but actually, it would be one of the easiest rule violations possible to spot, other than using the wrong typeface or not indenting paragraphs. Take another look at our example from yesterday:


Now, that page would make pretty much any Millicent in the land happy, in terms of formatting, right? The asterisk line is a bit old-fashioned (translation: Millicent’s boss is going to make you take it out if she signs you), but still, it’s basically in standard format otherwise.

But see how different the same page looks with the slug line as the Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s rules direct:


Don’t need the aforementioned bloodhound or magnifying glass to spot THAT difference, do you?

The moral of the story is — let’s all shout it together, shall we? — always, always, ALWAYS go over the contest rules more than once and follow them to the letter. Don’t assume that you know what they say after only a cursory glance, and for heaven’s sake, don’t blindly follow the advice of any given yahoo with a website who happens to give advice to writers.

Including yours truly. Heck, I WON that contest once, and I still didn’t recall that was in the rules.

Okay, on to today’s main focus: the title page for your contest entry.

Already, I hear dissension in the ranks. “But Anne,” I hear those of you who have been poring over contest rules for the last two weeks cry, “the contest I’m entering doesn’t ASK for a title page. I’m afraid of breaking the rules — do I really need to add one?”

I understand your fear, oh cringing pre-entrants, but in my opinion, yes, you do need one, for precisely the same reason that a professional writer ALWAYS includes a title page with ANY book-length manuscript or excerpt therefrom she plans to submit to an agent or editor. It’s just the way the pros do things.

Not to mention that a title page in standard format is stuffed to the proverbial gills with all kinds of information that’s highly useful to folks in the industry. Lookee:


See? A great many of the basic facts an agent would need to know to acquire and sell a book are right there at her fingertips: what kind of book it is, how long it is, the title, the author — and, most importantly from our point of view, how to get ahold of that gifted author in order to proffer a representation contract. (For more of the hows and whys of a standard format title page, please see the YOUR TITLE PAGE category in the list at right.)

For a contest, however, these are not the relevant facts the reader needs to know — in fact, the mention of a couple of ‘em might well get you disqualified. But almost without exception, contest rules will specify that an entrant must provide certain additional information — and the logical place to do that is on a title page.

Let’s take, for instance, a certain contest that may or may not have a deadline next week. Its rules demand that, in addition to filling out an entry form, the entrant shall indicate other information as follows:

*The Contest Category name and number (e.g. Category 3: Romance Genre) must be printed on the first page of the submission and on the mailing envelope.
*All pages of the submission (chapters and synopsis) must have the title of the manuscript.
*Do not type your name on any page of the submission. It should appear only on your registration form and return envelope.

And, from elsewhere in the rules, our old friend:

*Have the title of the submission and page numbers located in the upper right hand corner of each page.

We dealt with quite a few of these criteria yesterday and earlier today, right? Even though the rules do not invoke the magical words slug line, we’ve all had enough experience now with manuscripts to know that is what they’re talking about, right? So no worries here.

Except for that pesky requirement to name the category. Sure, it SAYS to place it on the first page of the submission, but does that mean on a title page or on the first page of text?

Most contest entrants go for the latter. Technically, there is nothing wrong with this — except for the fact that including information other than the chapter name and number on the first page of text makes it look to anyone familiar with standard manuscript format as though the writer just doesn’t know the difference between short story format, which looks like this:


And the proper format for the first page of a book-length manuscript, which looks like this:


I ask you once again: do you require either a magnifying glass or a bloodhound, or even a psychic, to ferret out the difference between those two pages? Certainly not.

So while you COULD comply with the rules by shoving the title, category, and genre onto the first page of text, it’s not going to look very market-ready to trained eyes. And we all know by now how your garden-variety contest judge feels about marketability, don’t we?

Before you stress out too much about this seeming Catch-22, your fairy godmother is here to make it all better, with a simple, elegant solution that will both satisfy the rule-huggers AND make your entry look spotlessly professional.

You guessed it, by adding a title page.

Don’t worry about its adding length to your entry: as I mentioned in passing yesterday, in neither contests nor manuscripts are title pages either numbered or counted in page counts.

What might it look like, you ask? Well, obviously, it would vary slightly from contest to contest, depending upon what the rules called upon the writer to provide, but were our pal Edith entering the Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named next week, I might advise her entry title page to look a little something like this:


Admittedly, there have been more exciting title pages in the history of the world, but this one offends no one, adheres to the contest’s stated guidelines, and gives the necessary information. Everyone wins.

Note, too, that just like a title page in standard format, the contest entry title page is in the same font and typeface as the rest of the manuscript. Resist the temptation to add bells and whistles such as boldfacing, larger type, or (heaven preserve us) designs. This is not the place to show your creativity: it’s the place to show your professionalism.

Show your creativity in the text you submit.

Resist, too, the astonishingly common impulse to include an epigraph of any sort on either the title page or the first page of your entry. You know what I’m talking about, right? Those little quotations and/or excerpts of poetry that authors so love to tack on to the front of their work, presumably to demonstrate that they are well-read, the source of their inspiration for the book to follow, or a subtle announcement that this work is ready to join the community of well-loved published writing.

I have to admit, I like ‘em, too, but do you know what they start to look like to professional readers after only a year or two of seeing them emblazoned on title pages, first pages, or pages of their own in manuscripts? Like little picket signs reading, I’m just as good as the writer I’m quoting — take my word for it.

To which the professional reader is likely to respond, after being confronted with the 1500th manuscript this year similarly picketed, “Oh, yeah? You’ve just raised the bar to prove it, baby.”

Just don’t do it in a contest entry, no matter how integral to the plot that opening poem may be, even if you wrote it yourself. Even if one of the CHARACTERS wrote it. The judges show to assess YOUR writing, not those of the people you like to quote.

More on contest entry formatting follows next time. I know that it’s not the most thrilling topic on the face of the earth for readers who are not planning on entering a contest anytime soon, but for those who are, I wanted to make sure it was here as a resource.

Keep up the good work!

(PS: today’s photo, minus my embellishments, appears courtesy of

The one text every literary contest entrant absolutely MUST read — and no, it’s not this blog post (but thanks for asking)

Wouldn’t you know it? I spend days and days of blog time on how to do a synopsis for a contest entry, and I leave out the answer to one of the most basic possible questions: how does one number the pages?

That does it — today’s post is going to be on formatting contest entries.

Let me begin by answering the synopsis question before any of us get even a single minute older: it varies from contest to contest.

Most of the time, contests will simply specify that all pages of the entry should be numbered; some request that the synopsis or other support materials be numbered separately. If the rules say to number the synopsis sequentially with the rest of manuscript, by all means do so: if an entry consists of (in the order they appear) a title page, 24 pages of text, and a 3-page synopsis, the title page would be neither numbered nor counted, the text would be pp. 1-24, and the synopsis would be pp. 25-28. If they call for separate numbering, the title page and text would be the same, but the synopsis would start over at page 1.

Yes, you read that first part of the answer correctly: there is no standard answer to this, nor is there any substitute for going over the contest’s rules with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. In fact, I would HIGHLY recommend going through them with a fine-toothed comb, a nit-pick — and then making a checklist of ALL of the requirements, so you may check them off as you fulfill them.

Actually, if it were my entry, I would go a few steps farther: making the list, checking it twice for accuracy (à la the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver) — then photocopying it a couple of times, and not only checking off each item as you complete it on List #1, but going back just before sealing the envelope with List #2, to make sure that you didn’t miss anything in the rush to get the entry envelope-ready.

And perhaps — this was clever reader Tad’s excellent suggestion from a while back — handing List #3 to your significant other, flat mate, tennis partner, or some other sharp-eyed soul who either loves you enough to do you an unpleasantly tedious favor or is otherwise too polite to say no, and ask him/her/them/it to go through and check your entry for required elements.

I’m not just talking about making sure that you actually INCLUDE that synopsis you slaved over for so long, either. I’m also referring to adhering to formatting requirements.

So if you were entering a contest that required a synopsis, your first stop should be to consult the rules, to see if there are special ways they would like to see it formatted. If they do, follow them to the letter.

Do this even if what they are asking is silly, unheard-of, or downright obsolete. Like, for instance, the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s yearly insistence that section breaks should be denoted by at least three centered asterisks, like this:


Now, those asterisks are not entirely without reason: back in the days of typewriters, they were indeed how a writer alerted the manual typesetter to a section break. Now that publishing houses expect writers to turn manuscripts over to them after contract signing in both hard and soft copy, the asterisked section break has gone the way of the horse and buggy: it’s still POSSIBLE to get around that way, but folks on the highway are going to get a might annoyed with you.

So if you were submitting the same page to an agent or editor, you would be best served by its looking like this:


Which only goes to reiterate the point that I keep banging upon, drum-like, every time I bring up the topic of contest entries: contrary to popular belief amongst writers, the sheets of paper you submit to a contest and to an agent or editor should not necessarily be identical.

Yes, you’re going to want to adhere to standard manuscript format, where the rules do not specifically call for something different; since standard format is in fact industry standard (thus the name), contest judges expect to see it. In fact, if an entry is NOT in standard format (other than the little tweaks the contest’s organizers have amused themselves by adding to the rules), it usually loses either presentation or marketability points.

Remember, the judges want the finalists’ work to be market-ready — which means in the format that agents and editors prefer.

Do I hear some disgruntled shifting of feet out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you mutter, “if they’re so hot on marketability, why don’t they just set up the rules so they’re identical with standard format and call it good?”

Ooh, good question, disgusted mutterers. If contest rules were set afresh every year, or even every decade, that would make abundant sense. Because, you see, contest organizers will frequently insist (in feedback, anyway) that the contest’s rules ARE standard format, even when — as in the case of the asterisks — that’s no longer true.

But the fact is, contest rules are NOT revised every year, generally speaking: in the vast majority of cases, the same rules have been used since the contest began, with additions as contest organizers thought of them, entrants objected, logical problems were noticed, and so forth. This is often true, incidentally, even of organizations who update their websites frequently.

I single out no PARTICULAR contest here, of course — but suffice it to say that if I were again entering a Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named whose deadline is next week (on the 22nd, to be precise), I would not only go over the Rules and Guidelines section of their website with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, but also double-check the Category Definitions for EVERY category you intend to enter AND the entry form for minute differences.

I’m not saying that there’s a problem THIS year, of course. But still, it would be an excellent idea to triple-check, as there’s one less judge hanging around those parts who is aware of the problem to point it out to the others, if you catch my drift.

Because, realistically, if a contest judge duns you for not following a regulation that was not prominently displayed in the official rules, there’s not much you can do about it in retrospect. Think of it as the difference between the laws on the books and how a judge interprets them from the bench: you may be right in your interpretation, but the judge is the person in the room with the power to throw others in jail for contempt.

For all practical purposes, while you’re in his courtroom, his interpretation IS the law. This is why we have appellate courts.

Literary contests, however, do not have a Supreme Court to which writers may appeal. (Although it’s an interesting idea.) Unless a contest gives entrants feedback, it’s unlikely that you’d even find out what the particular charges against your entry were.

So read the rules (and all other relevant documents) CAREFULLY, follow them to the letter, and follow standard format where the rules do not specifically tell you what to do. (If you need a refresher on how manuscripts should be formatted, please see the rule-based STANDARD FORMAT BASICS and the more visually-based STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right. And please, if you have questions, ask — I’d much rather that you bring it up here than lose points on an entry.)

For those of you who are more conversant with standard format, let’s play a little game to show how differently an author, a regular reader, and a contest judge might view the same page of text. Here’s that first contest entry page again, an excerpt from EF Benson’s Mapp & Lucia: what’s wrong with it, from a judge’s point of view?


Spot anything? Spot many things? (If you’re having trouble seeing the details of the text, try right-clicking on the image and saving it to your desktop.)

This is quite hard; I’ve set a multi-level test for you here. A few hints:

1) There’s an error that would be a disqualification-level offense for almost any contest,

2) a fairly universal pet peeve,

3) a common causer of knee-jerk reactions,

4) a couple of matters of style that would probably have lost Benson a crucial point or two, and

5) a more subtle problem that almost any professional reader would have caught, but most writers would not unless they were reading their own work out loud.

Here’s what the page would look like to a contest judge. The colored bits are the problems, one color per gaffe; I’ve backed up in the text a little, to make the more elusive problem clearer, so now it’s on two pages. (All the better to see standard format in action, my dear.) The one that would get the entry booted is in red.



See ‘em more clearly now? Let’s go through the problems one by one:

1) In an entry, ANY reproduction of the author’s name usually results in instant disqualification. (Yes, even in a memoir.) So quadruple-check that slug line.

2) As the notes in orange point out, these paragraphs are pretty long, and do not necessarily break where the underlying thought does. Also, some of these sentences are pretty lengthy — okay, let’s just go ahead and use that dreaded term from English class, run-on sentence.

Contrary to popular opinion, run-on sentences do NOT make a narrative seem more conversational in tone, at least to your garden-variety contest judge: most of the time, they just look LONG. As do paragraphs more than half a page long. The average contest judge’s heart sinks at the first glimpse of either.

3) Notice the underlined bits in teal — there, the text has fallen into passive constructions. Like many Millicents, most contest judges respond to the passive voice with a negativity that most people reserve for rattlesnake bites, fender-benders, and telemarketing calls. In their minds, the passive voice is pretty much synonymous with poor writing.

It’s not fair, of course; plenty of good writers use the passive voice occasionally, because it can be darned useful. But that’s not an argument you’re going to win in a contest entry. Purge the passivity.

4) If you’re going to use semicolons (pink), make sure that you are using them correctly. In English, ; and is technically redundant, because a semicolon is an abbreviated form of comma + and. So a list should read: Jessamyn gathered armfuls of lavender; bushels of poppies; two thousand puppies, and a bottle of Spray-and-Wash.

Were you surprised to see then show up in color? Most contest entries overuse this word — which isn’t hard to do, as in print, if action A appears in the text prior to action B, it is always assumed that B followed A, unless the text gives some specific reason to believe otherwise. So then is almost always unnecessary, particularly in a list of actions.

5) See all of that blue? It looks like a sapphire inkwell came here to die — and that’s precisely what that much repetition of and looks like to a contest judge. It’s annoying to read, because it is so easy for the eye to stray accidentally from one line to the next. (For an explanation of why this phenomenon is so tiring to the eye, please see my former post on the subject.)

It’s not a bad idea to go through your contest entry with a highlighter, marking all of the ands, for where more than one appears per sentence, you will usually find run-ons. Had I mentioned that people who sign up to judge contests are usually sticklers for grammar?

I know, I know: people do use connective ands instead of periods in spoken English. That doesn’t mean it will work on the page. Trust me on this one — it DOES bug most professional readers and contest judges.

Did that vicious little run-down make you want to shove your contest entry back into the drawer to hide from human eyes? That would be understandable, but I choose rather to view this little exercise as empowering for a writer: your chances of polishing your work to contest-winning shininess is much, much higher if you know BEFORE you seal that envelope just how close a scrutiny the judges are likely to give it.

Is it shallow of me to like it when my readers win, place, and make the finals in contests? Possibly. But if judges react so strongly to textual problems like #2-5, how much more negatively are they likely to respond to an entry that breaks one of the contest’s rules?

Do not assume that your entry will be read by the laid-back, in other words. Read the rules, reread the rules, and FOLLOW THE RULES as if your life depended upon it. If you don’t find yourself waking in the night, muttering that under your breath, the night before you’re planning to drop your entry in the nearest mailbox, I can only advise that your first action the next morning should be to go back and DOUBLE-CHECK THAT YOU HAVE FOLLOWED THE RULES.

And then read the whole darned thing out loud, to weed out possible knee-jerk reaction-triggers. Like, for instance, the first two words of the previous sentence.

More tips to follow, of course. But a quick reminder to those of you who are planning to enter that contest with a deadline next week: my ruminations on entries will in fact be going on past that deadline, as I’m trying not to promote any individual contest this year. All of my trenchant observations on that particular contest from last year, when I was writing directly about it, are still available for your perusal under the CONTEST ENTRY PREP category at right.

Keep up the good work!

That pesky contest synopsis, part V: the remains of the (caucus) day


Well, my caucus day is finally over, and boy, is it odd to see the news reports reduce a thrilling, inspiring afternoon to a flat color on a map of the U.S.! Which isn’t even accurate in my state: we elected delegates for BOTH of the major candidates, thank you very much, not just for the one Wolf Blitzer keeps telling us won the entire state.

I volunteered to be my caucus’ secretary, which meant that my job was to document all of the twists and turns of everyone’s trying to figure out how proportional representation works. I know, I know: not really a task that required a professional writer’s hand, but hey, I get a kick out of seeing democracy in action.

The elementary school was SWAMPED, the rather acute parking situation exacerbated by the fact that some clever soul had scheduled the other party’s caucus ACROSS THE STREET, in a local high school, at the same time as several apparently fiercely-fought soccer games. If you’re willing to walk four blocks from your car just to convince someone who lives three houses away from you to support your candidate, you’ve got to be excited about electoral politics in a way that is rare in these decadent days.

My favorite moment: as we were cleaning up, a GORGEOUS 17-year-old (if you’ll be legal by election day, you can caucus here) brought over a stack of voter registration forms (heck, we’re so hospitable in Washington, you don’t even need to be registered to vote before caucusing! We’ll give you the forms, and we’ll provide the stamp!). She was glowing, because she had just been elected as a delegate to the county convention.

Naturally, as a former party hack (hey, someone has to write those platforms), I congratulated her winning the first elected office of her adult life. She burst into tears and threw her arms around me, cheering.

Imagine starting one’s adult political life like that. Long may it last, for all of the young people who are new to the process.

It reminded me of being at the national convention in 2000. Due to a freak accident during which a suddenly-turning cameraman, my body, and the convention floor abruptly made intimate, if not friendly, contact, I was sitting with my (broken, but we didn’t know that at the time) swollen ankle propped up on a chair near the press seats, explaining to a puzzled Russian journalist why the candidate had just been cheered for mentioning his mother, when I noticed that one of the security guards had tears rolling down her face. Believe me, when you sprain (we thought at the time) both of your ankles in the middle of a packed convention center, you make friends with the security guards, pronto. (My elevated gams also drew the attention of a very sweet cameraman with a pronounced foot fetish who worked for an East Coast newspaper which shall remain nameless, but that’s another story.)

Since I knew from previous conversations with this guard that she considered herself apolitical and the entire convention rather silly, I asked her why she was so moved. Apparently, on his way into the convention center, Gore had stopped and shaken hands with every single one of the security guards. She had grown up poor; it had never occurred to her that someone running for president might ever notice her existence.

And that, my friends, is a side of politics the media seldom covers.

Okay, that’s enough sentiment for today: back to work. Contest synopses ho!

Effectively, in a contest situation, the synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book, right? It is where you demonstrate to judges that you are not merely a writer who can hold them in thrall for a few isolated pages: here is where you show that you have the vision, tenacity, and — chant it with me now — storytelling ability to take the compelling characters you have begun to reveal in your first chapter through an interesting story to a satisfying conclusion.

The synopsis, in short, is where you show that you can plot out a BOOK, baby.

For this reason, it is imperative that your synopsis makes it very, very clear how the chapter or excerpt you are submitting to the contest fits into the overall story arc of the book, regardless of whether you are submitting fiction or nonfiction.

Did I just notice many, many eyebrows shooting hairline-ward out there? “But Anne,” I seem to hear some of you asking, “isn’t that self-evident? Why would I be submitting anything other than the first chapter(s) of my book?”

Well, for starters: the rules. Quite a few contests allow writers to submit chapters other than the first. Still more do not explicitly specify: they merely tell the entrant to send X number of pages and a synopsis.

Sometimes, writers feel that their best writing falls in, say, Chapter 18; these writers might want to take advantage of such a loophole. However, if you elect to take them up on this offer, your synopsis had better make it absolutely plain where the enclosed excerpt will fall in the finished work.

Truth be told, I think it is seldom wise to submit either non-consecutive excerpts from a book or chapters other than the initial ones, even if later chapters contain writing that is truly wonderful. Non-consecutive excerpts require the judge to make the logical connections between them — which the judge may not be inclined to do in a way that is in your best interest.

An uncharitable judge might, for instance, draw the unkind inference that you had submitted the excerpts you chose because they were the only parts of the book you had written – a poor message to send in a category devoted to book-length works. Or that you simply can’t stand your introductory chapter.

Or, a judge may reason, no agent or editor in the world, is going to accept random excerpts from a book for which she’s been queried: she is going to expect to see the first chapter, or first three chapters, or some other increment up to and possibly including the entire manuscript. But no way, no how is an agent or editor going to ASK to see unrelated excerpts out of running order.

Well, okay, not unless the submitter is a celebrity for whom it would be a stunning surprise to the industry if s/he could string three coherent English sentences together. But in that case, the celebrity would be selling a platform more than the writing itself, right?

Since reputable contest judging is blind, this situation is unlikely to arise, anyway. So a judge might safely conclude that the author who submitted this patchwork entry isn’t anywhere near ready to submit work to professionals. In other words: next!

This is not, in short, a situation where it pays to rely upon the kindness of strangers.

If you DO decide to use non-contiguous excerpts, place your synopsis at the BEGINNING of your entry packet, unless the rules absolutely forbid you to do so, and make sure that the synopsis makes it QUITE clear that these excerpts are far and away the most important part of the book. Basically, the role of the synopsis in this instance is to make the judges EAGER to read THESE particular excerpts.

Obviously, this means that your storytelling skills had better be at their most polished, to meet the challenge. But really, why raise an already lofty bar even higher?

As for selecting a chapter other than the first for submission, effectively starting midway through the book, I would advise against it, too, even if when contest rules explicitly permit the possibility.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you point out, “the opening to my Chapter 58 knocked the socks off my mother, nearly slayed my writing teacher, and generally left my critique group in a state of panting incoherence. Are you saying that I SHOULDN’T loose that level of brilliance upon a contest judge?”

Before I answer that directly, let me acquaint you with some of the arguments against not beginning at the beginning in general. In the first place, the judge may well draw the same set of uncharitable inferences as with the non-continuous excerpts, and dismiss your submission as not ready for the big time.

Remember, they are typically judging marketability as well as writing quality. As I have mentioned repeatedly over the last couple of weeks, contest organizers LOVE it when their winners move on quickly to publication. If your submission looks like it needs a couple of years’ worth of polishing to become market-ready, it is unlikely to win a contest, even if you are extremely talented.

In the second place, while your best writing may well lie later in your book, the advantage of starting at the beginning of the book is that the judge and the reader will have an equal amount of information going in. To lay bare the secrets of the judging world, I’ve known a LOT of contest judges who resent having to go back and forth between the synopsis and the chapters to figure out what is going on.

There is a sneaky way to get around this – but I’m afraid I would have to scold you if you did it.

Here it is anyway: there is no contest in the world that is going to make you sign an affidavit swearing that your entry is identical to what you are submitting to agents and editors. If you win, no one is later going to come after you and say, “Hey, your book doesn’t start with the scene you entered in the contest!”

And even if someone did, so what? Professional writers change the running orders of their books all the time. And titles. And the name of the protagonist’s baby sister. Pretty much no one in the industry regards a manuscript as beyond revision until it is sitting on a shelf at Barnes & Noble.

With NF books that go into subsequent editions, not even then.

Thus, a clever entrant who feels her best writing occurs fifty pages into her novel might, for the purposes of competition, place her strongest scene first by starting the entry on page 50. Presenting it as page 1, of course.

The synopsis would have to be revised, naturally, to make it appear that this is indeed the usual running order of the book, and our heroine would have to edit carefully, to make sure that there is nothing in the skipped-over pages that is vital to understanding what happens in the chapters presented in the entry.

The job of the synopsis, then, in the hands of this tricky writer, would be to cover up the fact that the entry starts in the middle of the book. It would be just our little secret.

To put it in a less clever way: go ahead and submit your strongest chapter — but for heaven’s sake, do NOT label it as Chapter 8. Label it as Chapter 1, and write a new synopsis for a book where Chapter 8 IS Chapter 1. Just make sure that your synopsis is compelling and lucid enough that it makes sense as a story told in that order.

Are those eyebrows wiggling again? “But Anne,” some of you tireless running order-huggers maintain, “my story doesn’t make sense told out of order. Am I doomed to submit Chapter 1, just so the synopsis makes sense?”

Okay, come closer, and I’ll whisper a little secret that the pros use all the time: it’s perfectly acceptable in most fiction genres, and certainly in memoir, to open the book with a stunningly exciting scene that does not fall at the beginning of the story, chronologically speaking. It’s usually called a prologue, and it’s slapped onto the beginning of the book, before the set-up begins.

Does this seem a tad dishonest? It isn’t, really; it’s an accepted trick o’ the trade. If you trawl in bookstores much, you’ve probably seen this technique used in a novel or twelve lately. It’s become rather common in submissions, for the simple reason that a book that bursts into flame — literarily speaking — on page 1 tends to be a heck of a lot easier to sell to agents and editors than one that doesn’t really get going until page 27.

And that’s doubly true of contest entries, which judges are often reading for free and in their spare time.

Generally speaking, anything you can do to place your best writing within the first few pages of your contest entry, you should do. Judges’ impressions tend to be formed very fast, and if you can wow ‘em before page 3, you absolutely should.

Just as with work you submit to agents, the first page of your entry is far and away the most important thing the judges see — which is why, unless an entry features mid-book excerpts, the author’s platform is truly stellar, or the contest’s rules specify a particular order for the entry packet, I ALWAYS advice placing the synopsis AFTER the chapters, not before.

That way, your brilliant first page of text can jump out at the judges. (After the title page, of course.) And if you can include some very memorable incident or imagery within the first few paragraphs of your chapter, so much the better.

One final word to the wise: whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for a contest for the very last moments before you stuff the entry into an envelope. Synopsis-writing is hard; budget adequate time for it. And make absolutely sure that the synopsis you submit supports the image of the book you want your submitted chapter to send.

Next time, I shall begin to cover the super-common entry mistakes that tend to raise even the most tolerant judges’ hackles, due to sheer repetition. Feel free to keep posting questions about synopses as you write them, though, and keep up the good work!

That pesky contest synopsis, part IV: hold the phone!

phone-3-1.gif phone-3-1.gif phone-3-1.gif

What a day this has been! What a rare mood I’m in! No, it’s not almost like being in love — it’s exactly like living in a caucus state the day before the big event. My telephone hasn’t rung this much since the days when my phone number was one digit off from my hometown’s most popular bar.

Why all the ringing? Why, so the recorded voices of people I have heard of and the live voices of people I haven’t may urge me to spend half a day tomorrow arguing with my neighbors at my local caucus, of course. All of a sudden, everyone in the other Washington can find Seattle on a map unassisted.

Heck, representatives from both major campaigns offered not only to give me directions to the elementary school where I will be caucusing; they offered to DRIVE me there.

To be fair, a certain amount of nagging is warranted in my neck of the woods — to attend my caucus is to take one’s life, and certainly one’s blood sugar, into one’s hands. Unlike a primary, where all the voter is asked to do is fill in a few bubbles, drop a form into a box, and go, caucus goers are expected to spend several HOURS holding forth on the relative merits of their chosen candidates.

While actual fisticuffs seldom occur, bullying often does; the last time I attended, my views on environmental preservation were challenged by a 6’5″, 400-pound ex-Marine willing — indeed, eager — to throw his considerable bulk in the direction of anyone who contradicted the views of the party leadership.

Since he was of the opinion that the merest discussion of any plank of the state’s platform, however minor, was tantamount to treason, a certain amount of physical intimidation was inevitable. I’ve seen him send entire salmon preservation leagues scurrying to the other side of the elementary school auditorium.

All the while, party volunteers proffer cookies, coffee, candy, coffee, hot dogs, coffee, Danish, coffee, brownies, coffee, and sometimes, in my neighborhood, a gigantic cake emblazoned with the iced likeness of our local baking maven’s choice for president. You should have seen it the year she went for Jesse Jackson.

Oh, heavens, there goes the phone again.

I’m back — now back to work.

It may seem odd that I hammered so hard yesterday about the importance of a finely-crafted synopsis to a contest entry’s overall chances of winning, but you would be astonished at how often a well-written chapter is accompanied by a synopsis obviously dashed off at the last minute, as though the writing quality, clarity, and organization of it weren’t actually being evaluated at all.

I suspect that this is a fairly accurate reading of what commonly occurs. All too often, writers (most of whom, after all, have full-time jobs and families and, well, lives to lead) push preparing their entries to the very last minute.

Frustrated at this crucial moment by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement — it’s the writing in the chapter that counts, right? — it’s tempting just to throw together a synopsis in a fatal rush and shove it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it.

Trust me on this one: judges WILL pay attention to it. Many a fine entry has been scuttled by a slipshod synopsis.

I won’t go so far as to say, of course, that if you do not expend careful consideration over the crafting of the synopsis for a book-length category, you might as well not enter at all. It is entirely fair to say, however, that if you have a well-written, well thought-out synopsis tucked into your entry packet, your work will automatically enjoy an edge toward winning.

I have a few more tips on how to increase that edge, of course — but while that darned phone keeps ringing every few minutes, I think my powers of concentration will be best spent on issues of format, rather than content.

I hadn’t realized it until reader Sheri asked a question about synopses the other day, but back in December, when I was posting examples of standard format, I somehow managed to neglect to include what a synopsis should look like. Today, I’m going to rectify that, for both contest and submission synopses.

First, let’s look at the first page of a synopsis one might submit to an agent:


For the most part, as you may see, it simply adheres to standard manuscript format: one-inch margins all the way around, slug line in the top left margin, page number in the slug line, indented paragraphs, the works. (If you’re unclear on the hows and whys of standard manuscript format, or were unaware that such a thing existed, please see the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS category at right.)

Note, too, that the first time a character is introduced to the story, her name appears entirely in capital letters. That makes it easier for skimming eyes to follow — and if that seems like an invitation to screener laziness, bear in mind that Millicent and her compatriots are reading literally hundreds of pages per day. Their eyes are TIRED.

Do you want to be the writer who makes those eyes’ little lives easier or harder?

The title of the work is on the first line of the page, with the information that it is a synopsis on the second double-spaced line. Why state up front that it’s a synopsis? Well, remember a few months back, when I described that catastrophic collision between two interns in an agency hallway? Does “Hey, you got memoir in my thriller!” “No, you got thriller in my memoir!” ring a bell?

Since submitted manuscripts are unbound in any way, individual pieces of them tend to wander off on field trips of their own. Slug lines can go a long way toward allowing those hapless interns to piece the manuscripts back together.

Guess what? So can clearly labeled synopses.

For this reason, I like to label subsequent pages of the synopsis as such as well. It’s not strictly required, but hey, the subsequent pages are every bit as likely to go wandering as the first, right? The result looks like this:


All clear on the format for the submission synopsis? May I suggest that this would be a dandy time to bring up questions, if not?

Okay, on to the contest synopsis. The primary difference is — anyone? Anyone?

Yes, that’s right: in a blind-judged contest (i.e., in the respectable ones that are worth your time and money to enter), the writer’s name cannot appear on any page of the entry. Not the first, and certainly not the last.

Obviously, this is going to affect the slug line, but it’s easily resolved. Lookee:


See? Very simple. Notice any other differences?

If you are looking for purely cosmetic differences, there aren’t any, other than the slug line. However, on the content level, I did tighten up the synopsis a bit for the benefit of the contest judge.

Why, you ask? Because I happen to know (having read the contest rules as closely as I urge you all to do) that this contest accepts entries up to fifty pages long. Almost everything that happened within the first two pages of the submission synopsis occurs during the first fifty pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY.

The judge will most likely read the chapters before turning to the synopsis — that way, if the writing in the chapter is not good, they can skip the synopsis altogether. So why recap more than is necessary, especially if including a 4-page contest synopsis will allow Aunt Jane to include another page of text?

Seem rules-lawyerish? Exactly; contests are run by people who just adore rules. Go with the flow.

Next time, phone conditions permitting, I shall polish off the hot topic of contest synopsis-polishing. Happy caucusing, Washingtonians, Louisianans, and Nebraskans, and everybody, keep up the good work!

That pesky contest synopsis, part III: an entry synopsis that stands out from the crowd, or, baa humbug


Yes, the pun is a terrible one, but I’m in a giddy, hopeful mood today; specifically, I’m hoping that those rumors I’ve been hearing about an any-second-now settlement to the screenwriters’ strike are true. I’ve been hearing them from increasingly credible sources all week; if you picture an Oscar statuette whispering in my ear today, you wouldn’t be far off. Fingers crossed for all of those talented people getting back to work on reasonable terms.

For the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about how and why a successful contest synopsis and a killer submission synopsis can and should be different. I have to say, I had expected to hear a little more groaning from the peanut gallery about this — I am, after all, suggesting that you write a 3 – 5 page summary of your book for contest submission that you will pretty much never be able to use for any other purpose on God’s decreasingly green earth.

See? Nothing. You people must be getting desensitized to the idea that reading this blog may lead to more work for you.

Frankly, I think that nonfiction entrants typically have a harder time producing a winning synopsis — or perhaps I merely think that because I have more often been a judge in nonfiction than fiction categories. For fiction, the task at hand is a bit closer to writing a submission synopsis: tell a good story in a reasonable amount of juicy detail.

If this sounds vaguely familiar to those of you who suffered through last summer’s Book Marketing 101 series, you have an excellent memory: this is more or less the goal of the 2-minute pitch as well.

You would be AMAZED how few contest synopses-writers seem to realize that the point is to tell a terrific story, though. Seriously, in my experience, usually under 10% of the entries include synopses that indicate storytelling ability, rather than going through a rote exercise in summarization.

Where do the other 90% go wrong, you ask?

As I explained yesterday, all too often, writers just state the premise of the novel, rather than taking the reader through the plot, blow by blow. If the plot has twists and surprises, so should the synopsis. Show the story arc, and make it compelling enough that the judge will scrawl on the evaluation sheet, “Wow, I want to read this book when it comes out.”

Trust me, pretty much every contest winner and placer’s evaluation sheet has this sentiment, or something very similar to it, scrawled upon it in a judge’s hand. So make it your mission in the synopsis to evoke that wonderful response.

Yes, I know: it’s a tall order. But don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting. Both need to be compelling reads that draw the reader into the story you’re telling.

The easiest way to get the judges involved is not merely to summarize the plot as quickly as possible but to give the feel of a number of specific scenes. Don’t be afraid to use forceful imagery and strong sensual detail, and try to have the tone of the synopsis echo the tone of the book.

Yes, you read that correctly, too: a good synopsis should be written in the same voice as the book, for both contest and for submission. Changes the way you think of the synopsis, doesn’t it?

Again, this should sound familiar to some of you: a good pitch conveys the same tone as its book, too.

So if you’re writing a comedy, you had better make sure that the judge at least chuckles a couple of times while reading your synopsis — and, word to the wise, as nothing is more stale than a joke told twice with a ten-minute period, repeating the same funny line in both chapter and synopsis is not the best means of invoking hilarity.

A sexy book deserves a sexy contest synopsis, too, and a thriller’s synopsis had better be, well, thrilling. If your horror synopsis doesn’t make the reader blanch (try it out on strangers in a coffeeshop), add gory details until it does.

And so forth. You’re a writer; you’re good at this sort of thing.

For nonfiction, the assignment is slightly less straightforward: yes, you need to make it plain that you’re a good arguer making an intriguing argument, but it would also behoove you to include certain elements of the book proposal that you would never include in a submission synopsis.

Some indication of the target market, for instance. A passing reference to why your book is better at conveying this set of information than anything currently on the market. A miniscule tease about how the publication of THIS book, as opposed to any other entered into the contest, will make the world just a little bit better for those who read it.

Why shouldn’t you include these in a synopsis sent along with requested materials? For starters, it’s redundant with the both the book proposal and, most likely, with the query letter as well.

Think about it. You might, if an agent’s listing or website asked for it, include a synopsis with your query letter, but really, if you’re going to make the case that the agent should drop everything and read your book proposal, the argument belongs in your query letter. (For tips on how to construct this type of case, please see the HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the list at right.)

You MIGHT be asked to send a synopsis along with requested materials, but for nonfiction, an agent or editor is far more likely to ask to see the entire book proposal — which, naturally, would include entire sections on who the target audience is, why they would benefit from your book, and how your book is different and better than anything remotely similar currently on the market. (For some insights on the various necessary components of a NF book proposal, please see — you guessed it — the BOOK PROPOSAL category at right.)

For a memoir, admittedly, an agent is slightly more likely to ask to see the first couple of chapters plus a synopsis, but still, most memoirs, like other nonfiction, are sold on proposals, not the entire manuscript. (And no, I’m not sure why there are so many sources out there that say otherwise. I’ve sold two memoirs to publishers without having written more than the first chapter and a proposal for either.)

But as I mentioned yesterday, the trick to a memoir synopsis, for a contest or submission, is much closer to the goal for fiction: it needs to sound like a great yarn well told. What it does NOT need to be and should not be is an extended discussion of why you decided to write a memoir in the first place.

For some reason, it is hugely common in contest synopses for memoirists (and sometimes other NF writers as well) to treat the synopsis as though it were a response to an impassioned crowd storming their writing spaces, demanding to know who the heck the author is, to think he has the right to think his pet topic might interest even a single other human being, let alone thousands or millions. Defensive does not even begin to describe it.

A LOT of contest synopses go off on these tangents, to the detriment of the entry, and it costs them a plethora of presentation and professionalism points. Which means, unfortunately, that an experienced judge’s knee-jerk response to a synopsis that engages in this practice even a little tends to be exaggerated.

Yes, I am saying what you think I’m saying: “Next!”

“Wait just a minute!” I hear some of you out there saying. “Why is personal revelation regarded as a sign of a lack of professionalism? In a memoir, I would think that it would be downright desirable. Why aren’t my reasons for writing my own life story worth mentioning in the contest synopsis?”

It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? In the eyes of the industry, though, there are only a few contexts where a lengthy discussion of why you chose to write a book is considered appropriate professional behavior:

(1) Within a nonfiction book proposal, where it is a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing. There, you may state your case in market terms in the section dedicated to that purpose.

(2) In a query letter or pitch, to show that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are pitching. There, you may indulge in this impulse for as long as a couple of sentences.

(3) After you have signed with your agent, when she asks, “So, are there hidden selling points in this book that I should mention while I’m marketing it?” At that point, you may discourse for as long as it takes for the agent to drink a cup of coffee — or until her other line rings, whichever comes first.

(4) To your publisher’s marketing department just before your book is released, so they can include any relevant points in the press packet. They will be far more interested in your listing the addresses, phone numbers, and websites of every bookstore where any local might recognize your mug, but they’re going to want you to come up with a nice sound bite about why you wrote the book as well.

(5) Within the context of an interview AFTER the book is released. Interviewers LOVE hearing about writers’ motivations — which, I suspect is why aspiring writers so often want to tell everyone they see what is and is not autobiographical in their novels. So you can go to town after the book comes out.

(6) When you are chatting with other writers about why they wrote THEIR books. You can basically do this for the rest of your life.

Other than those few occasions, it’s considered over-sharing — yes, even for memoirists. In a contest entry, it is NEVER considered anything but self-indulgent.

Just don’t do it. In your contest synopsis, stick to the what of the book, and save the whys for later.

The only exception to this in a contest entry is if you have some very specific expertise or background that renders your take on a subject particularly valid. If so, make sure that information is stated within the first paragraph of your NF synopsis.

If you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply MUST be mentioned to the judges, go back and reread that list above three more times. If you are still wedded to the idea after that, imagine me sighing gustily — then stick the information at the end of the synopsis, where it won’t be too intrusive.

For nonfiction, keep reminding yourself that your goal in a contest synopsis is threefold:

A) to show the argument of the book in some detail, along with some indication of how you intend to prove your case,

B) to show that the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and

C) to demonstrate that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book.

In 3-5 pages, no less. Piece o’ proverbial cake, right?

In pursuit of Goal A, it is helpful to have an outline of your proposed chapters in front of you, so you can use the synopsis to demonstrate how each chapter will build upon the next to make your overall case. Even if you are writing a self-help book, history book, or memoir, you are always making a case when you write nonfiction, if only to argue that your take on the world around you is interesting, unique, and valid.

Make absolutely certain that by the time a judge finishes reading your synopsis, s/he will understand very clearly what this argument is – and what evidence you will be bringing in to demonstrate it. (Statistics? Extensive background research? Field experience? Interviews? A wealth of personal anecdotes? Etc.)

In doubt about whether you’ve pulled this off successfully? Hand your synopsis to an intelligent non-specialist in your area (intelligent adolescents are great for this), have him or her read it — then ask the reader to summarize the argument for you without looking at the paper. Take notes on what parts come back to you fuzzily: those are the parts of the synopsis that need work.

If you are pinched for space in your entry, you need only devote the first paragraph to marketing information. State outright why the world needs your book. If you are writing on a subject that is already quite full of authorial opinion, make it plain why your book is different and better. As in:

Have you ever wondered what goes on underneath the snow while you are skiing on top of it? Although there are many books currently on the market for snowboarding enthusiasts, MOUNTAINS MY WAY is the first to be written by a geologist.

If you have statistics on your prospective market, this is the place to mention them, as you would in a query letter or book proposal. Remember, one of the things that the judges are evaluating is the book’s marketability — how likely is a judge who thinks your target market is a quarter of its actual size to give you high marks? Go ahead and minimize this possibility:

There are currently 2 million Americans diagnosed with agoraphobia, yet there are few self-help books out there for them — and only one that is actually written by an agoraphobic, someone who truly understands what it feels like to be shut in.

The third desiratum is what is known in the industry as your platform. Admittedly, it is a trifle hard to explain why you are THE expert best qualified to write this book without saying a little something about yourself, so you may feel as though you are slipping into the realm of author bio, a potentially dangerous strategy in a contest where you might get disqualified for inadvertently mentioning your first name.

But rest assured, no one is going to disqualify you for mentioning that you have a Ph.D. or went to a specific culinary school. Go ahead and state your qualifications – just don’t slip up and mention yourself by name. As in:

A well-respected Seattle area caterer for twenty years, the author has extensive experience in crafting meals for the pickiest of eaters.

SHELLFISH AND YOU is the fruit of many years of postdoctoral research. The author, a graduate of the prestigious Scripps School of Oceanography, is recognized worldwide as an up-and-coming authority on mollusk behavior.

If your head is whirling from all of this – and whose wouldn’t be? — don’t worry. I’ll go into some tips on how to simplify the contest-writing synopsis process tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

(PS: today’s photo appears courtesy of

That pesky contest synopsis, part II, or Synopsis #1 ? Synopsis #2

Or, to put it graphically:
01_01_53-vulture_web.jpg is not the same fowl as 01_01_7_thumb.jpg

What, you ask, am I talking about? Well, last time, I began talking about the differences between a synopsis that an aspiring writer might submit along with a query or requested pages and one that works well in a contest submission. Although they are called by the same name, they actually serve different purposes, so it’s in your best interests to craft them differently.

Hey, both vultures and peacocks are birds, but you don’t expect them to move from Point A to Point B precisely the same way, do you? Would you feed a peacock Vulture Chow?

Of course not. You’d feed it Peacock Yummies.

Because I had gone over the ins and outs of constructing the former type fairly recently (a series of posts gathered for your reading pleasure under the HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS category in that long list at right), I leapt right into the contest version last time with nary a backward glance. But perhaps that was a tad abrupt.

Let me back up for a moment and define synopsis, for those of you new to the term:

SYNOPSIS, n.: A brief exposition in the present tense of the plot of a novel or the argument of a book. Typically, synopses run from 1-5 pages (double-spaced), depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent, editor, or contest.

In other words, it’s our old bugbear, a coolclips_wb024789.gif

That’s going to be true, incidentally, no matter the context in which it is requested. But, unlike many of the other hoops through which aspiring writers need to jump through on the way to landing an agent, the ability to write a strong synopsis is a skill that’s going to serve you well for your entire literary career.

That’s right, folks: even the long-agented and often-published still need to write ‘em occasionally. Might as well learn to do it well.

Because, after all, no one likes a synopsis that just lies there like a dead trout. Except, perhaps, our friend the vulture.

Now, obviously, it’s a tough task to summarize a 400-page book in just a few pages — no one contests that. You’re going to need to cover that plot with dispatch. But that doesn’t necessarily mean being vague or leaving out eye-catching details.

In both types of synopsis, most fiction writers make the mistake of summarizing the plot in generalities, rather than giving a brief overview of the major conflicts of the plot through a series brief, vividly described scenes redolent with juicy concrete details. The latter is definitely more memorable — which is definitely a great trait in a synopsis.

Not clear on the difference? Let’s take a gander at a fairly typical opening paragraph for a synopsis:

JACQUELINE (42) is experiencing severe problems in her life: a boss who alternately seems to hate and praise her, a father who calls all the time to grill her about her love life, and a wacky neighbor who is constantly knocking on her door to borrow things. She feels like she’s going out of her mind until she meets the man of her dreams, an architect whose bedroom eyes make her swoon, but who may already have a wife. After a series of disturbing “chance” meetings with Josh, she finds that it’s easier to accept a temporary demotion than to keep on fighting battles on all fronts.

Okay, let me ask you: how many lines into that summary did your attention start to wander? How many lines before you started to become confused about what was going on? And if you made it all the way to the end, did you find yourself wondering whether Josh was the architect, the boss, or the neighbor?

Good; you’re thinking like an agency screener. And like a contest judge.

The primary reason that this excerpt doesn’t hold the attention is that it’s stuffed to the gills with generalities and clichés. But a synopsis does not need to present a story with either. Take a look at the same story, summarized with a bit more pizzazz and a lot more specifics:

Freshly-divorced graphic designer JACQUELINE (42) is finding it hard to sleep these days. Staying awake isn’t much of a picnic, either. Her boss, ALBERT (87) cannot seem to make it through a staff meeting at the magazine without criticizing her layouts while running a warm, greasy hand up her stockinged thighs under the conference table.

You already want to read this book, don’t you? That’s because the details are compelling and unusual. Let’s see where else dialing back the vague helps us:

Every morning at precisely 9:24, her habitually-marrying father (OWEN, 67) telephones her at work to see if she met Mr. Right the night before — and when she sheepishly says no, he regales her with tales of his latest paramour. Even her nights are disturbed by her lonely neighbor, CLIVE (24), who can’t seem to make it past midnight without scratching on her door to ask to borrow something — her milk, her hairdryer, her cat.

She manages to run carefully-balanced chaos of her life runs with relative smoothness until dreamy, suspender-wearing architect JOSH (48) comes to measure her office for long-overdue renovations. But is does that untanned line on his left ring finger mean that he, too, is recently separated, or that he’s the kind of rat who slips his wedding ring into his pocket every time he comes within smoldering range of an attractive woman?

Yes, this second synopsis is a trifle longer, but aren’t those few extra lines worth it, when they give the story so much more oomph?

Oomph is, after all, important in a contest entry. A contest judge, like our old friend Millicent the agency screener, typically reads quite a few entries within a single sitting. If you want yours to end up in the pile with the finalists, you’re going to want that judge to remember the STORY of your book, as well as the quality of the writing.

Remember them for positive reasons, that is. If your synopsis doesn’t make the judge make a mental note to rush out and buy that book the nanosecond it hits the shelves, it may be lacking in the oomph department.

Do I see a raised hand or two out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you asking, “wouldn’t everything you’ve just said be applicable to either a submission OR a contest synopsis? I thought we were talking this week about contest synopses specifically.”

Good point, ethereal questioners. Yes, these principles would apply equally well to either type of synopsis. However, for a contest synopsis, since you will also be submitting the opening of the book — even if the rules merely say that you should include A chapter, rather than Chapter 1, you’re pretty much always going to be better off submitting the beginning — you can get away with covering those early pages only very lightly in the synopsis.

Actually, since those opening 10 pages (or 15, or 25) are all that the judges are going to see of the book, it is justifiable to streamline the plot more than you might for a regular synopsis. If you can make a better, more vivid story by sticking to only the book’s primary plotline (which, in a short synopsis of a long novel, is often the case), go ahead. The point of the contest synopsis, after all, is to wow the judges with what a great storyteller you are, not to reproduce every twist, turn, and minor character’s angst.

This may feel a touch misleading, but after you are wearing the first place ribbon, no one is going to come running up to you crying, “Hey! Your synopsis left out three major plotlines, and didn’t mention the protagonist’s sister! Foul! Foul!”

Trust me on this one.

For memoir, it’s especially important to streamline the story, since the number one problem that most memoir entries present is a tendency to include a little too much information extraneous to the primary plotline. For the synopsis, hit only the dramatic high points — and make sure to give some indication of how the main character grows and changes throughout the book.

Oh, and avoid making the common mistake of mentioning in either a contest or submission synopsis that the story being told is TRUE. Actually, you should eschew it in a query, too: in publishing circles, all nonfiction is assumed to be based upon truth.

Just ask James Frey.

Seriously, the true memoir is as much of an industry pet peeve as the fiction novel or the nonfiction how-to book. To the ears of the industry, all of these terms are redundant.

For other non-fiction entries, you’re going to want to reproduce the basic argument of the book in the synopsis. Starting with a thought-provoking question (“In a society as complex as America’s, why isn’t there more social acceptance of squirrel-lovers?”), then moving on to why the question is important enough to answer is often a good start. Present the essential planks of your argument in logical order, and give some indication of the kind of evidence you intend to use to back it up.

But again, remember to be SPECIFIC in your overview, not vaguely general.

I hear some throat-clearing out there. “Um, Anne? Again, dandy advice for either kind of synopsis, but how should I handle NF in a contest synopsis in particular?”

Tenacious, aren’t you? I can refuse you nothing, so here goes.

In a contest synopsis, it is usually a good idea to include some brief indication of the target market and why your book will serve that market better than what is currently available — essentially, a free taste of the argument that you will be making in your book proposal.

Do keep it short and to-the-point, though. Hyperbole does not work well in this context, so steer clear of grandiose claims (Everyone in North America will want to buy this book!) and stick mostly to saying what the book is ABOUT.

But most of all, make sure that the synopsis makes the book sound like a great read.

As with a novel, the way to achieve this in just a few pages may well involve leaving out some of the less important planks of your argument. Do not feel compelled to give the chapter-by-chapter summary as you would in a book proposal. Just because you have a chapter on the spiritual life of tadpoles in your book on frogs doesn’t necessarily mean than a description of it will read well in a contest synopsis.

Here again, we see that a single book may benefit from having one version of the synopsis that goes out to agents, and another, more streamlined one that gets tucked into contest entries. Different contexts — and sometimes even different contests — may call for different approaches.

Flexibility, after all, is as important a part of the writer’s tool bag as the ability to write an eye-catching opening paragraph. Don’t worry that a judge is going to assume that you don’t understand how to write a submission synopsis — this is a bird of another color, and everyone concerned understands that.

No one familiar with the vulture and the peacock would expect them to flap their wings in exactly the same manner or emit the same sounds, right?

Next time, I shall give a few more pointers on how to make that synopsis appeal a bit more to contest judges — and for those of you who are visually-oriented, I shall be showing examples of how a synopsis should be formatted later in the week. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

May I ask for your indulgence?

My, but there have been a lot of questions posted as comments on old posts lately! I love getting the questions, but they do take quite a bit of time to answer. It’s pushing my new blog posting times later and later.

So no, it’s not your imagination: I have been posting a lot in the dead of night lately, and for health reasons, I would prefer not to see that trend continue. (My doctor seconds this, by the way, in a much, much bossier tone.)

Since the higher volume of questions seems to be a phenomenon that’s here to stay, and as we are just heading into contest season, I would like to make a preemptive request: if you have contest-related questions, PLEASE post them AT LEAST a week before the entry deadline. Please, too, try to give at least double that lead time for submission-related questions.

That way, I won’t need to worry that a few days’ delay in answering a complex question will cause undue problems on the asker’s end.

Honestly, I do sit up at night fretting about such things. (My doctor HATES that.)

Believe me, I completely understand having a last-minute pre-submission panic about a detail, but while the blog is always here, I’m actually not logged into the website all that much on any given workday. I also occasionally take a day off, have days with thirty posted questions, or only have just barely enough time in a given day to write a blog without also answering questions. Sometimes, I’m just plain in a cranky mood.

Then again, I often get questions that really deserve a blog post of their very own. These typically go on a great big list to wait their day of glory. Sometimes, as we have seen, the sheer length of that list and my frequent series can mean a rather long delay before I can get to a particular topic. As in months.

In short, please be aware that I may not always be able to respond as quickly as a questioner might like — which is one reason that I’ve been adding more and more specific categories to the list at right, to ease a deadline-pressed reader’s ability to find quick answers. Allowing lead time will maximize everyone’s happiness, and isn’t that what a good community is about?

Thanks for helping me out with this. Keep those great questions coming — and keep up the good work!

That pesky contest synopsis, where once again we see the value of that old literary bugbear, show, don’t tell


I’ve spent the last week plus talking about the various types of literary contest that an agent-seeking writer might conceivably want to enter. As a freelance editor and not infrequent contest judge myself, I’m eager to move on to the nitty-gritty, how to make the small tweaks that often make the difference between reaching the finalist round and not — and avoiding the big mistakes that scuttle most entries before the end of page 2.

Not that I’m ambitious or anything.

Since I’m not gearing this series to a particular contest’s deadline, as I did last year (for the reasons behind that decision, please see my January 22 post), I’m going to put off discussion of the small points to concentrate for a few days on an aspect of contest entry that seems to frustrate nearly every entrant: the synopsis.

Why? Well, if you are entering a category that covers book-length material, you will pretty much always be asked to submit a synopsis — and since contest rules often specify an overarching page limit intended to cover both the submitted chapter and a synopsis for the whole book, many entrants yield to the temptation to skimp on this important part of the contest puzzle.

To summarize what promises to be several days’ worth of advice in a word: DON’T.

Contrary to widely-held writerly belief, a synopsis typically weighs MORE heavily in a contest entry’s success than in a submission to an agency’s, not less. Not to give away trade secrets or anything, but synopses tucked inside submission packets are not even always read — generally speaking, our pal Millicent the agency screener reserves that honor for those manuscripts she reads in their entirety.

Which is to say: not very many.

But the synopsis that accompanies a contest entry virtually always receives some critical attention.

Last September, just before I slid into the wonderland of glee that is mononucleosis, I spent a couple of weeks on how to write a stellar synopsis for querying agents. (Now well hidden under the startlingly opaque category title HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS. Why oh why do I not make these things easier to track down?)

Unless any of you kick up a hue and cry, demanding that I revisit the issue now (anyone? Anyone?), I’m going to proceed on the assumption that most of you have already mastered the basics of writing an (ugh) synopsis. Now, I would like to focus on the differences between a synopsis that might wow an agent and one that might impress a contest judge.

In answer to that vast unspoken question my readership just flung in my general direction: yes, I am indeed suggesting that you write a separate synopsis to accompany contest entries.

Before you rend your garments and trouble heaven with your bootless cries on the subject of all of the extra work I tend to suggest above the bare minimum, hear me out. I’ve seen a LOT of otherwise excellent contest entries scuttled by bad synopses.

Bad how? Well, most entries read as though their authors regarded them as — get this — an annoying nuisance to be tossed off as quickly as humanly possible, generally in as few pages as feasible. Exactly as if the writing there were not being judged, too, in addition to the writing in the submitted chapter.

Did I just hear about 5,000 of you suck in your breath sharply in surprise? A surprisingly high percentage of entrants seem to be unaware that the synopsis is part of the writing being evaluated in a contest, just as in a submission.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: every word of your writing that passes under the eyes of a professional reader is a writing sample.

Treat it accordingly.

Another common mistake is to submit a too-terse synopsis, presented in what is essentially outline form. (Sometimes, writers present it literally in outline format, believe or not.) Short on the sensual details and plot twists that enliven a story, they give no indication that the author is a talented storyteller. Just that s/he is darned good at making lists.

See my note above about every word of an entry being a writing sample.

Bearing that in mind might help a hopeful entrant from avoiding the frequent fault of repeating entire phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs from the entry itself. Trust me, judges are born nit-pickers: they’re going to notice.

(As will Millicent the agency screener, incidentally; it’s one of her predictable pet peeves.)

It’s also becoming increasingly common to conflate a screenplay synopsis — which typically has separate categories for action and major characters — with a literary synopsis, which is a linear, one-piece narrative concerned with plot for fiction and argument for nonfiction.

Remember how I mentioned yesterday that there are certain problems that prompt judges to slide an entry prematurely into the non-finalist pile as soon as they appear? This is one of ‘em.

Why? Well, such a synopsis makes it so very apparent that the entrant has not learned the norms of the literary world — and as I mentioned last time, one of the things being evaluated in a literary contest is a book’s marketability. To put the prevailing logic bluntly, the vast majority of judges will prefer an entry that is professionally presented — that is, one that adheres to standard format and resembles what a top-notch agent would expect to see in a successful submission — over even a brilliantly-written submission that does not conform with these standards.

Or, to put it another way, with many, many good entries, few judges are going to be willing to waste finalist space on an entry that flouts the expectations of submission. They want to promote writing that has a fighting chance in the marketplace.

Seriously, I’ve seen this criterion included on judges’ rating sheets.

Another type of synopsis that tends to elicit this knee-jerk reaction is the one that does not summarize the plot or argument of the book at all. Instead, it reads like promotional copy: This is the best book about the undead since Interview with the Vampire! This cookbook will change cuisine as we know it!

Or, even more common: This is the moving, insightful, beautifully written story of two kids in love.

Clearly, the entrant has confused a synopsis with a back-jacket promotional blurb. Judges are seldom amused by this, for precisely the same reason that Millicent tends not to be: they want to make up their own minds about how good/important/marketable a piece of writing is, not have it announced to them.

Once again, an old nag from the writing advice stable may be trotted out to admonish us all: show, don’t tell, the high quality of your writing.

The final frequent strategic error is also often seen in submissions to agencies: devoting virtually the entire synopsis to the premise of the book, often to the exclusion of the major conflicts of the book or the ending.

The usual authorial justification for this, of course, is I don’t want to give the ending away. Understandable, of course — were these writers not asking the judges to recognize the high quality of a book that they’re not going to read in its entirety.

Surely, it isn’t SO unreasonable for the judges to want to be provided with proof that the author has at least thought through the ending of the book, as well as the beginning?

Of course, any entrant is free to interpret the synopsis requirement as s/he pleases, but it’s only fair to tell you that in every contest I’ve judges, none of these synopses would have made it to the semifinalist round, much less been seriously considered for the top prize.

As if all that weren’t enough to make even the bravest first-time contest entrant tremble like a leaf at composition time, contest synopses often need to be shorter than submission synopses — which means that writing them is often harder.

Why harder? Well, most contest entries set absolute maximum page limits, which means page space will be at a premium. For instance, if the chapter you want to submit is currently 23 pages long, and the page limit (exclusive of title page, which is never counted in a contest’s maximum page count) is 25, you’re either going to need to shorten your already-existing synopsis to 2 pages or make some serious cuts to your chapter to permit something longer.

Guess which option most contest entrants pick?

Yep, you guessed it: contest judges see many, many single-page synopses. Unless the contest rules actually call for it to be that short, however, those synopses tend to lose style points for the entry — because, after all, it’s pretty hard to tell the story of a reasonably complex book within a couple of dozen lines of text.

Even if the contest rules specify an absurdly short synopsis (or make it sound shorter by calling it a plot outline), PLEASE do not give into the quite substantial temptation to fudge a little to stay within the specified parameters. Even if you have been asked to produce a 3-paragraph synopsis of a 500-page book, DO NOT single-space it, shrink the print size, or fudge the margins to make it fit within the specified limits, unless the contest rules say you may.

Why am I being so adamant about this? Simple: if you do it, you will get caught and penalized.

It’s kind of a no-brainer for the judge, actually. Trust me, if the rest of your entry is in 12-point Times New Roman with 1-inch margins, double-spaced, almost any judge is going to be able to tell right away if your synopsis is presented differently.

Because judges are expected to rate entries for professional presentation, unless contest rules specify otherwise, NEVER allow a contest synopsis to run over 5 pages or under 2.

Why those limits? A synopsis that is much shorter will make you look as if you are unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware that a 3- to 5-page synopsis is fairly standard in the industry.

If this is starting to sound a bit repetitious, congratulations — you’ve grasped a fundamental truth about literary contests. An entry’s synopsis, just like its chapter(s), is subject to judging for clarity, coherence, marketability…and professionalism.

Which is why a synopsis that reads like a SYNOPSIS is almost always going to receive higher points than one that sounds like a back-jacket blurb (My writing teacher says this is the best novel since THE SUN ALSO RISES!) or an exposition on why the author chose to write the book (It isn’t autobiographical, but…).

Instead, if you are entering fiction, make sure that the novel sounds engaging, marketable — and like the best yarn since TREASURE ISLAND. For a memoir, ditto. And for other nonfiction, present the argument as fascinating and rigorously supported.

But use the synopsis to SHOW that your book is all of these things, not to tell about it.

Admittedly, that’s a fairly tall order. Don’t worry, I shall be giving some tips o’ the trade in the days to come, to give your synopsis some platform heels. Perhaps even a ladder, to enable it to stand head and shoulders above the other entries.

Before that metaphor falls of its own weight, I’m going to sign off for the day. Keep up the good work!

Picking the right literary contest for you, part VII: why not choose to jump through only the NON-flaming hoops?


Welcome back to my resumption of the absorbing topic of literary contests. Later this week, I shall be going over how to write the synopsis that virtually every contest that accepts book-length work requires. After that, I shall be going into fine detail about technical tweaking you can give your entries that will make them more likely to end up in the finalist pile.

But today, I want to finish up my series of questions you should ask yourself about a contest before you invest your time, money, and hope in entering.

In my last post, I discussed the pitfalls of contests that require entrants to devote extensive time to filling out entry forms, especially those that require information that should be positively irrelevant in a blind-judged contest. (Personal references? Huh?)

I neglected to mention, however, a potentially time-consuming side effect of entry that usually takes its toll long after the judging is over: do be aware that every time you fill out one of these forms, you are giving tacit consent to being placed upon the sponsoring organization’s mailing list. And that many, many nonprofit organizations (as runners of literary contests and conferences tend to be) scare up additional scratch for their operating expenses by selling their mailing lists.

Oh, come on — did you think those offers from Writers Digest and The Advocate just found their way into your mailbox magically?

The moral: just because a contest is literary doesn’t mean that its organizers aren’t making money on it. If you don’t want to be placed on mailing lists, add a letter to your entry saying so.

Also, as with any information you submit to people you do not know, be careful not to provide any data that is not already public knowledge. Every piece of information you share here is subject to resale to marketing firms, unless the contest sponsor states outright on the form that it will not do so.

But that is a minor consideration, and a long-term one; we were talking about the up-front costs of entering a contest, weren’t we?

Here’s a good rule of thumb: you can save yourself a lot of time if you avoid contests that make entrants jump through a lot of extraneous hoops in preparing a submission.

Some of these requirements have to be seen to be believed. In the last year, my aged eyes have beheld demands for:

coolclips_wb024789.gifSpecific typefaces that differ from the ones required by standard manuscript format.

coolclips_wb024789.gifFancy paper (three-hole punched, anyone?).

coolclips_wb024789.gifBizarre margin requirements, such as two inches on the left and 3/4 inch on the right — or vice versa.

coolclips_wb024789.gifExpensive binding, binders, or printing that a writer could not perform at home.

coolclips_wb024789.gifAn unprintable entry form that must be sent away for with a SASE — presumably because the contest organizers have yet to hear of the Internet — and needs to be filled out by typewriter, rather than by hand.

Does anyone out there still OWN a typewriter?

Even if you do, each of these will eat up your time and money, without the end result’s being truly indicative of the quality of your work. Because, really, all conforming to such oddball requirements truly demonstrates is that an entrant can follow directions. (Which, admittedly, is something that an agent or editor might legitimately want to know about a writer s/he was considering signing.)

I’m sorry to shock anyone, but my notion of a literary contest is one where the entrant proves that she can WRITE, not that she can READ.

But I suppose that could be my own absurd little prejudice, like my belief that gravity should make things fall down, not up.

I don’t enter contests anymore, of course — most agents frown upon their clients’ entering them, and really, pros skew the scoring curve. But when my clients ask me whether a particular contest is worthwhile for them to enter, my yardstick is this: if they can pull together a contest entry with already-written material within a day’s worth of uninterrupted writing time, I consider it reasonable.

I like this standard, because the more time you have to write, the more entry-ambitious it encourages you to be.

So if a contest requires time-consuming funky formatting, or printing on special contest forms, or wacko binding, you might not want to bother. To my contest-experienced eyes, such requests are not for your benefit, but the contest organizers’.

How so? Because — and hold onto your hats, everybody, because I am about to reveal a deep, dark secret of the contest trade here — the primary purpose of these elaborate requests for packaging is to make it as easy as possible to knock entries out of finalist consideration.

As a matter of simple probability, the more that contest rules ask entrants to do to package an entry, the more ways an entrant can get it wrong. By setting up stringent and easily-visible cosmetic requirements, the organizers maximize the number of entries they can simply toss aside, unread.

Yes, you read that right: it’s so they don’t have to read all of the entries in full.

Interestingly enough, many of the organizers of contests that establish these demands are quite open about their being merely an exercise in rule-following — and that they do it in order to preserve that most precious of commodities in this industry, time.

Not that you’d have to be Einstein, Mme. de Staël, and Confucius rolled into one to figure it out. Think about it: if contest organizers really only were only seeking uniformity amongst the entries, they could easily just say, “We will only accept entries in standard manuscript format.”

No fuss, no bother, and besides, all of their entrants who want to get published should be using standard format, anyway, right? Manuscripts not conforming to standard manuscript format tend, after all, to be rejected unread in both contest situations and in agents’ offices. (If you are not already aware of the requirements of standard format for manuscript, do yourself a favor and check out the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS category at right.)

Instead, the organizers in this type of contest can merely assign some luckless intern or volunteer to go through the entries before the judges see page 1 of them, plucking out any that are in the wrong type of folder, printed on the wrong type of paper, don’t have the right funky margins…well, you get the idea.

Voilà! The number of entries the judges have to read has magically decreased! Shades of Millicent, eh?

I find this practice annoying, frankly, and the surprisingly common corollary of not being crystal-clear about the costs to the entrant of deviations from these non-literary requirements close to despicable. Over-adherence to nit-picky presentation issues provides the organization with the illusion of selectivity on bases that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing.

And that, my friends, is unfair to writers everywhere.

Which brings me to a specialized question aimed at those of you who are currently embroiled in preparing contest entries: how much of your writing time is being eaten up by contests these days? If you have been entering quite a few (and we’ve just finished a season of deadlines for contests and fellowship applications, and are about to enter another), would your time be better spent by passing on the next one?

As I intimated earlier in this series, there are so many literary contests out there that if you entered them all, you would never have a chance to get down to serious writing. Equally seriously, if you have a finished piece that you should be marketing to agents and/or small presses, it is very easy to tell yourself that entering contest after contest — at the expense of devoting that time to sending out queries — is a time- saver, in the long run.

Unfortunately, that isn’t always true.

Yes, a win (or place, or finalist status) in a reputable contest can indeed speed up your agent-seeking process exponentially. It would be kind of pointless for me, of all people, to deny that, as I met my agent as a direct result of winning a contest. It CAN lead to the fast track, and you should definitely enter a few for that very reason.

Yet, contrary to many, many entrants’ expectations, it doesn’t ALWAYS lead to landing an agent, even if you win.

True, a contest credential almost always moves your submission up in the pile, and sometimes even allows it to jump the Millicent screening stage entirely, jumping directly to the agent’s desk. But a contest judge’s idea of what is marketable at the moment is often a bit outdated; an agent or editor might not agree. And most contests feature many categories that do not correspond to the interests of the agents and editors invited to the conference where the winners are announced.

Word to the wise: entering contests probably should not be your only agent-seeking strategy.

It’s an understandable choice, of course — sending out query after query is discouraging, and in the current ultra-competitive writers’ market, it can sometimes take years to pique a good agent’s interest.

Not that it will take my readers years, of course. You’re one market-savvy bunch.

However tired of the querying grind you may be, PLEASE do not fall into the trap of using contests as a complete substitute for querying. For one thing, the turn-around time for contest entries is significantly longer than the response time for even the least organized agencies: four to six months is common, and if you have a finished novel or NF book proposal in hand, that’s FAR too long to wait for a single response.

Also, if you hang all of your hopes on a contest win, even if you enter a plethora of contests, you are relying upon the quirky tastes of people you have never met to determine your fate.

Do I sense some disagreement out there? “But Anne,” some disgruntled voices mutter, “isn’t that true when you send a query to an agent as well? You spent a significant part of your time here demonstrating the difference between the things a writer can control and those we can’t, and unless I’m very much mistaken, this is one of the latter.”

Well, sort of. Just as there are certain dependable agents’ pet peeves that seem to transcend space and time (hel-LO, topic for March!), there are a great many predictable reasons a submission might get knocked out of a contest competition; I shall be talking about those later this month. But in contests, there can also be considerations that have little to do with the actual marketability — and sometimes not even the writing quality — of your entry.

To be blunt about it, to make it to the finalist round in a contest, you have to avoid every conceivable pet peeve that the initial screeners might have. And, believe it or not, your garden-variety contest judge tends to have MORE pet peeves than Millicent the agency screener.

Mind-blowing, isn’t it? But true. With first readers at agencies (who are seldom the agents themselves, recall), you can at least rely upon certain basic rules. Standard format, for instance, is not a matter of individual whim, and while some rogue agents may prefer some slight variation upon it, you can bet your next-to-last nickel that if you follow it, you’re not going to have your submission tossed out on technical grounds if you follow it.

But in a contest, if you hit a volunteer first reader whose college English professor insisted that semicolons are ALWAYS an indicator of poor writing — yes, such curmudgeons do exist, and their erstwhile students abound — your work is likely to lose its shot at the finalist round the first time you use one.

Ditto with the passive voice, or multiple points of view. You never can tell who is going to be a contest judge, so the outcome even for very good writing is not always predictable.

So please, I beg of you, keep sending out those queries while you are entering contests — and if you find that the time to prep contest entries are starting to be your excuse for not sending out more queries, stop and reevaluate whether you are making the best use of your time in your pursuit of publication.

If for no other reason that that I would really, really like to be able to gloat when your first book comes out. I ask for so little; humor me.

Keep up the good work!

Picking the right literary contest for you, part VI: got the time tick tick ticking in my head


In case you’re joining us mid-series, for the past few posts, I’ve been discussing criteria a sensible writer might use in determining which contests make the most sense to enter and which to eschew. Today, I am going to talk about something rarely discussed, even amongst writers who routinely enter literary contests: the widely differing time commitments necessary to meet contest criteria.

That knowing chuckle you just heard echoing through the ether was the concurrence of every literary contest winner, placer, shower, and finalist who has every walked the planet.

How do I know that they’re the chucklers? Because — wait for it — the folks who put in the extra time tend to be the ones who place best.

But really, it’s hard to find a contest whose rules DON’T require the investment of quite a bit of time over and above the actual writing. In fact, it often comes as something of a shock to those new to entering contests just how time-consuming many of them are.

Do I hear some unrealized wails out there from those of you who are considering entering your first contest? “But Anne,” some of you protest, and who could blame you? “I don’t understand. I’m not planning to enter a contest that requires me to write fresh material for it — I’m entering my novel/memoir/poem that I finished writing a year ago. To enter it into a contest, I just need to print it out, fill out a form, write a check, and find a mailbox, right?”

Oh, my sweet, dear innocents. To put it as gently as possible: no.

Unfortunately, there are few contests out there, especially for longer works, that simply require entrants to print up an already-existing piece, slide it into an envelope, write a check for the entry fee, and slap a stamp upon it.

How few, you ask? Well, off the top of my head, thinking back over the last dozen years or so, I would estimate that the grand total would be roughly…none.

At minimum, any blind-judged contest is going to require that you prepare a special rendition of your manuscript devoid of your usual slug line — because your slug line, of course, includes your name.

Translation: you can’t just photocopy or print your current MS and mail it to a contest. And anything beyond that is, alas, time-consuming.

I hate to tell those of you who write nonfiction this, but any blind-judged contest will require that you remove every reference to your name from the entry. In a novel, that may merely involve revising the slug line, but in a nonfiction piece about, say, your family, it may require coming up with fresh names for practically every character.

Yes, I’ve done it — my big contest win was, after all, for a memoir. And because I love you people, I’m not going to tell you just how long that took. I wouldn’t want to give you nightmares.

Why do I keep harping on the importance of valuing your time, in the face of a publishing industry which, to put it very gently indeed, doesn’t?

Precisely because the industry doesn’t. While dealing with agents who take three months to respond to queries, and editors who take a year to pass judgment on a submission, if you don’t treat your time as a precious commodity, it’s all too easy to conclude that the industry is right: writers’ time is as vast as the sea, and as easily replenished as a tidal pool adjacent to a beach.

I don’t think so.

I measure time by the standards of a professional writer: every waking minute spent away from my current writing project, or from editing my clients’ writing projects, is expensive. More expensive, I think, than the equivalent minutes in the average agent or editor’s quotidian lives, because they are not typically creating new beauty and truth in every spare nanosecond they can steal. What writers do is important, not only to the writers themselves, but to humanity.

So there.

I tend to doubt that what I’m going to say next will cause any of my long-term readers to fall over with surprise, but here is my credo, in case any of you missed it: since we writers control so little else along our paths to publication, I’m a great advocate of controlling what we can.

So let’s spend today’s post looking at how a contest-entering writer can make most efficient use of her time.

The time criterion (see earlier posts in this series for other criteria) is perhaps the most important factor to consider in evaluating a contest — other than whether your writing is ready to face competition, of course. Unlike the other criteria, which mostly focused upon the contest itself, this consideration is about you and your resources.

Parenthetically – because I am, as my long-time readers are already aware, constitutionally incapable of not following an interesting line of thought when it comes up — isn’t it amazing, given how much uncompensated time we all invest into our art, just how often time has been coming up in this blog as the single most common decision-making determinant? Such as:

* Your queries need to be pithy from the get-go because agency screeners only spend seconds upon each.

* You should send out simultaneous queries because your time is too valuable to expend the extra years single-shot querying can take.

* Agents don’t give rejection reasons because they don’t have the time to give substantive feedback to everyone. (I like to call this the Did You Bring Enough Gum for the Whole Class? defense.)

* Your submission (and contest entry) needs to elicit a “Wow!” for the writing and a “Whoa!” for the pacing on page 1 — or at the very latest, by page 5 — in order to cajole a professional reader into continue past the opening of the pages they requested you send.

* Although your story may legitimately take 600 pages to tell, agents and editors start to get nervous when a first novel rises above the 400-page mark — or 100,000 words, to use industry-speak. Even less, in some genres.

Need I go on?

Given that pattern, the advice I’m about to give next will probably come as a shock to no one: before you invest ANY time in prepping the entry, look very carefully at the requirements of any contest you are considering entering and ask yourself, “Is this honestly going to be worth my time?”

Pretty much every contest requires the entrant to fill out an entry form — which can range from requests for ultra-simple contact information to outright demands that you answer actual essay questions. (Applications for fellowships and residencies virtually always include essay questions, FYI.) And yes, Virginia, misreading or skipping even one of these questions on the entry form generally results in disqualification.

Or, at any rate, in an entry’s being tossed out of finalist consideration — which, from the entrant’s point of view at least, amounts to very much the same thing.

I wanted to state this explicitly, because last year, a number of entrants in feedback-giving contests sent me excerpts (or even, in a couple of cases, the entirety) of their judges’ critique, saying accusingly, “See? I didn’t follow your guidelines, and I wasn’t disqualified.”

Without exception, however, these independent-minded souls did not win, either.

Even if an entry does explicitly violate contest rules, it is highly unusual for the contest organizers to tell the entrant about it; most of the time, the entry is just quietly removed from next-round consideration. Which is unfortunate, in a way, because those entrants who violate the rules (often inadvertently) are thus prevented from learning from their mistakes.

But trust me, contest judges are REQUIRED not to give high marks to entries that violate the rules. Which means that if you don’t have the time to read, re-read, and read them again, modifying your pages accordingly, it’s probably not worth your time to enter the contest.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you cry, “you said only a few paragraphs ago that every contest will have some rules to follow. How can I tell if what any given contest is asking of me is de trop?

Good question, disembodied voices. One- or at most two-page application form is ample for a literary contest; a three- or four-page application is fair for a fellowship or residency.

Anything more than that, and you should start to wonder what they’re doing with all of this information.

A contest that gives out monetary awards will need your Social Security number eventually, for tax purposes (yes, contest winnings are taxable), for instance, but they really need this information only for the winners. I would balk about giving it up front.

I have also seen contest entry forms that ask writers to list character references, especially those contests aimed at writers still in school. It’s an odd request, isn’t it, given that the history of our art form is riddled with notorious rakes, ne’er-do-wells, and other social undesirables who happened to write like angels? Some awfully good poetry and prose has been written in jail cells over the centuries, after all.

Personally, I don’t believe that a contest should throw out the work of a William Makepeace Thackeray or an H.G. Wells because they kept mistresses…or to toss Oscar Wilde’s because he didn’t. Or, for that matter, close its entry rolls to a shy kid whose high school English teacher doesn’t happen to like her.

In practice, reference requests are seldom followed up upon, and even less frequently used to disqualify entries before they are read, but they are occasionally used as tie-breakers. A good literary contest is not going to refuse to read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s entry because of that bottle of laudanum he was fond of carrying in his pocket, or disqualify Emily Dickinson’s poetry submission because her neighbors noticed that she didn’t much like to go outside.

No, they’d wait until the finalist round to do that. (Just kidding. Probably.)

I have questioned contest organizers why they ask for references, and they claim they do it solely so they can rule out people whose wins might embarrass the organization giving the award — basically, so they do not wake up one day and read in the newspaper that they gave their highest accolade to Ted Bundy.

So they might well gently shove aside an entry whose return address was a state or federal prison, to minimize the possibility of handing their top honor to someone wearing manacles and accompanied by a guard.

Call me zany, but personally, I would prefer to see potential and former felons turn their entries to the gentle arts of the sonnet or the essay over other, less socially-useful pursuits like murdering people with axes, embezzlement, or arson of public buildings, but evidently, not every contest organizer agrees with me. Again, I’m not sure that they have an ethical right to limit literature this way, but as I believe I have made clear in the past, I do not run the universe.

The moral: if you don’t have friends as disreputable as you are to vouch for you in a reference-requiring contest, you need to get out more — or at least graduate from high school. Join a writers’ group; we write tremendous references for one another.

I must admit, though, that my suspicious nature rears its paranoid head whenever I see requests for references; back in my contest-entry days, I tended to avoid these contests. If an entrant lists one of the contest judges as a reference, is the entry handled differently? If I can list a famous name as a reference, are my chances of winning better?

Only the conference organizers know for sure.

Contest entry forms frequently ask you to list your writing credentials, which I find bizarre in contests where the judging is supposed to be blind. Again, perhaps I am suspicious, but I always wonder if entries from authors with previous contest wins or publication credentials go into a different pile than the rest. They shouldn’t, if the judging is genuinely blind.

But to quote the late great Fats Waller, “One never knows, do one?”

I’m not saying that you should rule out contests that make such requests — but I do think that the more personal information the organization asks for, the more careful your background check on the contest should be.

When I see a request for references, for instance, I automatically look to see if the listed judges and/or their students have won previous competitions. A lot of the requesters are indeed on the up-and-up, but there is no surer waste of an honest writer’s time, talent, and resources than entering a rigged contest — or one with a demonstrable bias.

But do not despair, dear readers: there are plenty of literary contests — and fellowships, too — out there that are absolutely beyond reproach. By keeping your eye out for warning signs before you sink your valuable time into filling out extensive applications, you will be keeping your work — and your entry fees — out of the hands of the greedy.

And hey, any of you out there who may be considering committing a felony in the days to come: take my advice, and take up short story writing instead. I assure you, everyone will be happier in the long run.

There! That’s another day of crime prevented; my work here is done.

Before you realize that you’ve never seen me and Superman together, I’m signing off. Keep up the good work!

(PS: The image at the top of this post appears courtesy of the fine folks as

Picking the right literary contest for you, part V: just walk on by

For reasons best known to himself, my SO has taken to playing the music of Dionne Warwick, she of the Psychic Friends Network, repetitively in our shared abode this evening. It’s not that I have anything against Ms. Warwick’s oeuvre, but the music of Burt Bacharach has always made me just a trifle, well, sleepy. It’s a tad hypnotic.

Which is perhaps why I suddenly feel compelled to share this with you:

The way to San Jose.

That established (phew!), let’s get back to the topic du semaine: maximizing your contest entry dollar. Ideally, I’d like to convince you to look upon each potential contest entry as not merely a fresh roll of the dice to try to win the jackpot of recognition (and, the common writerly fantasy goes, an agent and major book deal immediately thereafter), but as an exercise to learn how to improve your writing.

There are basketfuls of good reasons to enter contests in general — or, to be precise, to win them: the undoubted ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy), the writing résumé boost, the opportunities to promote yourself to conference-attending agents, to name but a few.

As I’ve been pointing out for the last few days, however, not all contests are created equal. Entering some will help you more than entering others, so it is very much to your advantage to choose your contests wisely.

This is particularly true for novelists and nonfiction writers who enter contests; poets, essayists, and short story writers have exponentially more contest venues, and entry fees tend to be correspondingly lower.

Proof: if you write in any of these shorter formats, you have only to open any issue of Poets & Writers to find dozens of contests just crying out for your work — contests that often include publication as part of the prize. So just a couple of wins in these categories, even in tiny contests, can add up to a serious upgrade in query letter decoration.

On the down side, the greater scope of opportunity renders these contest wins less valuable in the eyes of agents and editors than winning for a longer piece. In general, in fact, the adulation tends to be substantially greater for winners of categories rewarding entire books.

Which is kind of ironic, as there are comparatively few contests devoted to unpublished book-length manuscripts — and with very few exceptions, the ones that exist ask entrants to submit only a tiny fraction of the book being judged.

On average, 15-25 pages, inclusive of synopsis. And contest judges tend not to reward entries with super-short synopses, either.

A cynic might conclude from this that what these contests are actually rewarding is the ability to write a stellar first chapter and synopsis, rather than the talent to maintain interest in a story or argument for an entire book.

A purist might huff that while there are plenty of people who can write a pretty opening, these contests owe it to the literary world to guard readers from mid-book slump.

A pragmatist, on the other hand, would just look at this phenomenon and say, “Where on earth would they find volunteers to read 700 book-length entries?”

The fact is, the vast majority of contests ask for short pieces, for the simple reason that it requires much, much less effort on the sponsoring organization’s part to process them. The result, as those of you who have gone contest-searching have probably already noticed, is that book-length writers have many fewer contest fora at their disposal.

Causing novelists the world over to cry: what’s it all about, Alfie?

Don’t feel too sorry for them, poets, essayists, and short story writers — writers of book-length pieces enjoy the considerable comparative advantage of being paid astronomically more for their work than writers of shorter pieces. You’d have to place a tremendous number of poems in paying venues to make ends meet without a day job, after all.

If you want to pity them, base it on the fact that the contest universe is hugely biased toward producers of shorter pieces, making it significantly harder for novelists and such to chalk up a contest win at all.

If you write in the longer formats, yet are comfortable in the shorter, you might want to consider polishing a single short story, poem, or essay to a high luster and sending it on the contest circuit, to try to rake in a win you can add to your credentials list. Trust me, in ten years, no one is going to hold it against you that the credential you used to catch an agent’s attention was for a gorgeously terse poem, while the book you were pitching at the time was a three-volume work of science fiction.

It may not make as stunning an ECQLC impression as a win for an entire book, but hey, those of us with small rubies look good in our jewelry, too.

There is an unfortunately pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit that every agency screener in the land has been instructed to toss ANY book-pushing query letter that contains reference to poetry — however slight, and even if it refers to a major contest win — directly into the trash.

This is not true, and as nearly as I can tell, has never been widely true: it’s an exaggerated way of saying that poetry contest wins are not an automatic entrée into the publishing world. Which makes some sense, actually: being able to write a good poem does not necessarily translate into being able to write a good book.

Personally, I feel that the short story and the novel are also quite different art forms, as different as painting in oils and sketching in charcoal. Witness the number of writers who publish several short stories in venues like THE NEW YORKER, and publish them in collections, only to find after they have signed a novel contract that they don’t have a novel in them.

Why? Well, often, good short pieces are about the surprise of instant revelation; novels (and book-length memoirs, and nonfiction books) are about character and argument development.

I know a lot of writers disagree with me on this subject, though — including, I should mention, virtually everyone who has ever taught or been a student in an M.F.A. program — so you should feel free to ignore my opinion entirely on this point. Try your hand in more than one format, if you like so you may enter lots of different contests.

However, if shorter work is not your forté, it probably is not worth the expenditure of energy and angst to stop writing on your longer work in order to pull something short together for a contest.

But no matter where you fall on the length spectrum, adhere to the following little axiom with the tenacity of a starving leech: make sure that every page you enter in a contest represents your best writing.

Not just writing that’s pretty good, or prose that you think might catch an agent’s eye. Or the first 20 pages of a novel that starts to sing by page 62.

If the writing you’re planning to submit doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, cover you in goosebumps, and make you murmur fervent gratitude to the deity of your choice that you were privileged to write it, it does not belong in an entry.

Seriously — you’d be amazed at how many entries judges see that consist of perfectly adequate prose, but not writing that jumps off the page. If there isn’t an arresting image, great twist, or lovely sentence on page 1, even for a book-length entry, it’s probably not going to end up in the finalist pile.

I was going to insert a joke here about looking at your potential entry and crying, I know I’ll never love this way again, but really, do you need that kind of reference rattling around in your brainpan?

There’s another criterion you might want to consider in deciding whether it’s in your best interest to enter a particular piece of writing in a contest: how closely does it conform to the demands of the current literary market?

Artistically, that may seem like a secondary consideration, but in practice — and I’m letting you in on a literary judge secret here, because that’s what friends are for — most of the time, at least initially, contest judges are not so much judging the quality of the writing in an entry as assessing its marketability.

And THEN they worry about the writing.

Yes, you read that correctly. A great idea with huge market potential, presented in a clear and professional manner, will often edge out a beautifully-written piece aimed at a tiny market niche.

I know; I was disappointed when I first learned that, too. Wow, I thought, I’ll never fall in love again.

Naturally, marketability is not the primary orientation of every contest that accepts book-length work (or portions thereof), but it weighs heavily in the scoring more often than not. There’s a pretty good reason for that, too: it’s not unusual for the final judges of a contest to be the exact same agents and editors who appear at the attached conference.

And if there is anything that THEY’re looking for, it’s marketability. Great writing is always a plus, but to win a contest, it isn’t always enough.

Knowing this BEFORE you enter a contest can save you a LOT of grief — and a lot of wasted entry fees. If your work is not particularly mainstream, select contests that cater to your niche, rather than hoping your work will fly in a more general category.

Alternatively, if your work is an absolute dead-on fit for its genre, you might not want to waste your time, energy, and resources on a contest that has traditionally rewarded very literary writing.

If you are unsure where your work falls on the spectrum, select a contest where the judges give written feedback on entries — it’s some of the least sentimental, least punch-pulling marketing advice you will ever receive. Believe me, if you’ve mislabeled your work, they’re going to let you know about it.

If you approach a feedback-generating contest in that spirit, you can learn a great deal — especially if you are new to querying and aren’t sure why your work keeps getting rejected.

Which brings me, at long last (phew again!), to the final question to ask yourself before entering a contest: does it offer advantages for non-winning entrants?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but almost no one wins the first contest she enters.

Why? Well, most contest entrants experience a fairly sharp learning curve, for reasons I shall be covering later in this series; there are many, many simple mistakes that can, if not actually disqualify inexperienced entrants outright, at least minimize the probability of their making the finals.

Yes, even in otherwise well-written entries. And that’s over and above problems any given entry might encounter by not being written in the contest’s preferred style.

“Huh?” I hear those new to the game cry.

Even if your entry is a monument of precision and contest-rule adhesion, you may have to enter a few times to learn the rhythms and preferences of a particular contest before you win. I wish this weren’t the case; life would be easier for virtually every contest entrant on the planet if stylistic preferences were simply expressed openly, rather than the usual contest rhetoric about rewarding the best new writing out there.

Best is subjective, after all.

Yet it’s rare to the point of jaw-dropping for a contest to state up front in its rules, look, you may be a brilliant writer destined to wow millions, but if you don’t use adverbs exactly the way Annie Proulx does, don’t bother entering. Or we’re POV Nazis; sending us anything with multiple perspectives will only end in tears. Or even in case you haven’t noticed, we have never given a major award to a writer who wasn’t already a member of our organization. Other people’s entry fees may be regarded as a donation to our group; thanks very much.

I say a little prayer for you nightly, in the hope that this will change.

For these reasons, it is very much in your interest to make your first contest entries ones that will help teach you something even if you don’t land in the winners’ circle.

For instance, if you are new to the game, it is a better use of your contest-entering buck to go for contests that recognize semi-finalists, as well as finalists. That way, you maximize your probability of garnering ECQLC boasting rights from those entries.

Contests that offer significant feedback to contest entrants are very, very useful when you are first starting out, too, as you may use them to learn how to polish up future entries. In contests for novel-length work that don’t provide feedback, an entrant would need to engage in serious bribery to obtain that type of information.

To sum up: there is a whole range of benefits that can accrue from contest entry beyond winning the grand prize. By selecting the contests that meet your current needs, rather than entering blindly or with an all-or-nothing attitude, you can greatly increase the probability that entering will do you good.

And, of course, you might win! But will you still love me tomorrow?

Keep up the good work!