Tying up the loose ends of a contest entry: one last foray into the practical, the sublime, and the frivolous


For those of you tuning into this series late, for the last — oh, how long has it been, a few weeks? A few months? A decade or two? — I’ve been going over the ins and outs of literary contest entries. This is, thank goodness, the last post in this series for a good long time, although naturally, I welcome your questions on the subject whenever they should happen to occur to you.

The important thing for our purposes today, however, is that this is the last PLANNED post on entries aimed at this year’s contest season. I’ve been promising a nice, long series on manuscript megaproblems for quite some time now, and I’m eager to leap right into it.

Or, rather, to collapse into a quivering little heap of advice-giving exhaustion for a few days, THEN leap right into it.

To our muttons, then. I have one more question for the pre-entry manuscript scan (and since a couple of people have complained that the darling tiger animation was distracting, I’ll omit it this time):

(17) Reading this over again, is this a book to which I would award a prize? Does it read like finished work, or like a book that might be great with further polishing?

It’s a very, very common writer’s prejudice that everything that springs from a truly talented writer’s keyboard should be pure poetry. Even first drafts. However, there are in fact quantities of practical storytelling skills that most of us poor mortals learn by trial and error.

Although contests tend to concentrate on as-yet unrecognized writing talent, they are simply not set up, in most cases, to reward the writer who is clearly gifted, but has not yet mastered the rudiments of professional presentation.

And this is very sad, I think, because one of the things that becomes most apparent about writing after a judge has read a couple of hundred entries is that the difference between the entries submitted by writers with innate talent and writers without is vast. An experienced eye — of the kind belonging to a veteran contest judge, agent, or editor — can rather easily discern the work of what used to be called “a writer of promise.”

In the past, writers of promise were treated quite a bit more gently than they are today. They were taken under editorial wings and cherished through their early efforts. Even when they were rejected, they were often sent notes encouraging them to submit future works. (Occasionally, a promising writer will still get this type of response to a query, but the sheer volume of mail at agencies has rendered it rare.)

Now, unfortunately, writers of promise, like everybody else, tend to have their work rejected without explanation, so it’s extremely difficult to tell — even after months or years of patient querying — where one’s own work falls on the talent spectrum.

To put it as kindly as possible, until you have weeded out all of the non-stylistic red lights from your contest entries, you truly cannot gain a realistic feel for whether you need to work more on your writing or not.

If you are indeed a writer of promise — and I sincerely hope you are — the best thing you can possibly do for your career is to learn to conform your work to professional standards of presentation. This is one of the best reasons to enter contests that give entrants feedback, just as is one of the best reasons to take writing classes and join a writing group: it gives you outside perspective on whether you are hitting the professional bar or not.

Oh, and it helps to be lucky, too.

Okay, let’s assume for the sake of rounding out this darned series that your answer to Question #17 was a resounding, “By all I hold holy, YES!” Let’s further assume, for my peace of mind, that you have made all of the changes that Questions 1-16 suggested to you and run it past a trusted first reader or two.

If you haven’t yet done all three, please don’t tell me: I’ll never get to sleep tonight otherwise. Help me preserve my illusions.

So what else should you do BEFORE you seal all of that greatness into an envelope and mail it off in the hopes of future glory? Well, first, you should read the ENTIRETY of your entry IN HARD COPY, ALOUD, before you send it anywhere at all.

Oh, come on: you didn’t see that one coming?

Yes, you should proof it again, especially if you made even the most minor textual alteration in your last read-through. As virtually anyone in the industry can tell you, even very, very experienced authors often inadvertently miss manuscript gaffes — and, as regular readers of this blog are already aware, my professional editor’s hat (oh, it’s fetching, I assure you) gets all in a twist at the notion of any writer’s proofreading solely on a computer screen.

Since I love you people, I shall spare you a repetition of all the excellent reasons you should NOT do this. Just humor me, okay?

If you decide to break my heart and perform the final read-through on your computer — as long experience tells me that some of you will — at least avoiding using your word processor’s spell- and grammar-checker when you are exhausted. As you might be, to pick a random example, in the dead of night or a few hours before that contest entry needs to be postmarked.

Why, you ask? It’s just too easy to hit the CHANGE button when your eyes get blurry — a faulty spell- and grammar-checker choice can obviate hours and hours of your earlier hard work.

Don’t even get me started again on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers! Mine disapproves of gerunds, apparently on general principle, strips accent marks off French words, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody working at Microsoft does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, I beg of you: drop me a comment, send me a letter, or just start shouting loudly in my general direction, and I shall make everything clear.)

Like a bad therapist, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded, but even in the unlikely event that your grammar checker was put together by someone remotely familiar with the English language as she is spoke, you should NEVER rely solely upon what it tells you to do.

If you’re in doubt, look it up.

There is an especially good reason to read the synopsis out loud: to make sure it stands alone as a story. Since part of the point of the synopsis is to demonstrate what a good storyteller you are, flow is obviously important.

If you have even the tiniest reservations about whether you have achieved this goal, read your synopsis out loud to someone unfamiliar with your project — and then ask your listener to tell the basis story back to you. If there are holes in your account, this method will make them leap out at you.

Insofar as a hole can leap.

Once you have perfected your entry, print it on nice paper. This may seem silly, but it sometimes does make a difference, believe it or not.

By nice paper, I’m not talking about hot pink sheets or pages that you have hand-calligraphed with gold leaf and Celtic designs. Either of those would get your entry disqualified on sight in most contests.

No, I mean high-quality white paper, the kind of stuff you might print your resume on if you REALLY wanted the job. Back in my contest-winning days, I favored bright white 24-lb. cotton. Yes, it’s a little more expensive than ordinary printer paper; live a little. If this seems extravagant to you, ask yourself: have I ever walked into an interview wanting the job as much as I want to have my book published?

If your finances genuinely prohibit that small splurge, at least make sure that you don’t use less than 20-lb — and would this be a good time to point out that virtually every photocopier on the planet is stocked at this very moment with paper that’s quite a bit flimsier than this?

It tears easily. It wrinkles as it travels through the mail. It’s dingy-looking.

Nice paper is a pleasure to hold, but frankly, there’s more to this strategy than giving your judges visceral pleasure. The vast majority of contest entries are printed on very low-quality paper — and with printer cartridges that had apparently seen better days around the end of the Clinton administration. When multiple copies are required for submission, they generally show up on the flimsy paper so often found in copy shop photocopiers.

Spring for something nicer, and your entry will automatically come across as more professional to the judges.

It may not be fair, but it’s true, so it’s very worth your while to invest a few extra bucks in a decent ream. 20-pound paper or heavier will not wrinkle in transit unless the envelope is actually folded, and bright white paper gives the impression of being crisper.

Avoid anything in the cream range — this is the time for brilliant white.

For what it’s worth, I have observed over time that agents and editors, too, seem to treat manuscripts printed in Times New Roman on bright, heavy white paper with more respect than other manuscripts. The only drawback — and it was a significant one, I don’t deny it — was that when I printed up a draft of my memoir for my editor on lovely cotton 24-pound paper, it came back to me smelling like an ashtray. Turns out cotton paper soaks up ambient smoke like a sponge. My cats shied away from my desk for weeks afterward.

I’ve told this story a couple of time before, so for the sake of those of you who have, ahem, already had the opportunity to laugh at the joke, I went back and sniffed the manuscript box again. (Ah, the things that I do to amuse my readers!) And you know what? More than 2 1/2 years later, the darned thing STILL smells like a smokers’ lounge.

Now THAT’s good paper.

One last thing: before you seal the envelope, GO BACK AND REREAD THE CONTEST RULES. Have you met each and every requirement? Have you included every needed element? Are your margins precisely what the contest specified?

It may seem a bit obsessive to re-check this often, but as I have been telling you all throughout this series, judges are looking for reasons to knock entries out of finalist consideration. It is absolutely imperative, then, that you follow every rule to the letter.

And if that isn’t enough to convince you to check again, perhaps this little statistic will: in the average contest, a good 5% of entries show up with something really basic missing, like the check or a second title page.

Best of luck with your entries, this contest season and forevermore. As always, keep up the good work!

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