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!

8 Replies to “Still more about contests: the unwritten rules”

  1. First of all, my congratulations to “MOOCRAZY!”
    Secondly, I’m a little bummed that a certain contest has done away with the “Adult Genre” category. I felt that a certain sub-category within that area fit my work the best. The first time I entered, I did enter in the “Mainstream/Literary” arena. One critique suggested that perhaps “Science Fiction/Fantasy” would have been better. This year that’s what I’ll do. Now I’ve just got to bet off my ___and do it.

    1. I was sorry to see that category go, too, Dave — it’s great that there are individual categories for SOME genre fiction, but it’s a bit perplexing where books in other genres should be entered. If at all.

      I was also very sorry to see that there were going to be fewer finalists in each category — in previous years, my understanding is that the problem has been that there were many more excellent entries than there were finalist spaces. Making fewer spaces would seem likely to exacerbate this problem, no?

      But admittedly, my view on the contest organization is unabashedly in favor of the writer, but the more chances a contest gives for good writers to earn ECQLC, the better I like it.

        1. This made everyone in my household laugh very hard, Gordon. I particularly like how the acronym sounds like the something a drowning person might blurt out with his last breath.

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