Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part VI: apologies to Charles Dickens, or, why Millicent isn’t prone to asking if she may please have some more

Before I launch into the crux of today’s post, a bit of old business: yesterday, I mentioned that, contrary to my usual practice for this time of year, I’m not planning to spend January and February going over the ins and outs of entering literary contests. As pleased as I am when my readers do well in writers’ contests, there are already several very, very meaty series on the subject lurking under the aptly-named CONTEST ENTRY PREP, CONTEST ENTRY BUGBEARS, CONTEST JUDGING CRITERIA, etc. categories on the archive list on the lower right-hands side of this page.

I would STRONGLY advise anyone planning to pull together an entry in the near future to take a gander at them. And, as always, should any of you want further guidance or come up with contest-related questions I haven’t covered in those many, many posts, please feel free to ask questions in the comments. I’m always glad to help.

I forgot to mention all that yesterday — which is rather a shame, since contest rules are often a bit opaque. Which is a nice way of saying that they’re often surprisingly poorly written and/or organized. Even the best put-together ones almost universally assume that anyone likely to enter will already be intimately familiar with the rigors of standard format for manuscripts. I’ve yet to see a literary contest website that features a sample page of text, for instance — or for entries in book-length categories gives a description of what kind of synopsis it expects entrants to submit. (Although if any of you can point me to one that does include these thoughtful amenities for entrants, I would appreciate knowing of their existence, so I may point potential entrants in their general direction.)

The result? Well, while it’s not actually unheard-of for a writer makes finalist in the first contest he enters, it’s rare enough these days that one seldom even hears about it anecdotally on the conference circuit. Usually, the finalists in such contests have been submitting and entering for years, if not decades, learning the hard way how to polish their submissions. Producing a brilliant contest entry is to a certain extent a learned skill, one that — dare I say it? — is not always identical to figuring out what will please Millicent the agency screener on any given day.

Why, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, as I mentioned yesterday, literary contest judging is almost invariably a volunteer activity, at least for the initial rounds: just as an agency will employ a Millicent or two to narrow down the field of submission contenders just a handful for the agent to read, writing competitions usually have screeners. It’s the norm for a contest that advertise celebrity judges — well-known authors, for instance, or stellar agents — to give only the finalists’ entries to the bigwig to read.

I wanted to point this out explicitly to those of you who are considering entering literary contests in the months to come, because it’s not at all uncommon for contests with big name judges to charge heftier entry fees. If you’re tempted to enter the contest because you want the big name to read your work, do a bit of research in the fine print before you send in a check; if what you want is contact with a famous writer, it may be a better investment of your money and time to take a seminar with her, or even just show up at a book reading to chat.

I don’t mean to discourage any of you new to the game from entering contests, of course — but in these tight economic times, I would feel remiss if I didn’t caution you to do your homework carefully before investing your possibly scant resources in sometimes quite expensive entry fees. Unless you’re going to approach it like a lottery — as a surprisingly high percentage of contest entrants seem to do, sending in unpolished work on the off chance that someone will fall in love with it and catapult them to fame and fortune — make sure that it’s a prudent investment.

Because I’m not going to lie to you: while many contest finalists, placers, and winners are indeed able to parlay the credential into ECQLC (that’s short for Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, for those of you new to Author! Author!) and thus into significant assistance in landing an agent, it’s hardly the inevitable conclusion. To put it bluntly, the winner of even the most prestigious writing contest doesn’t receive an agent as a prize.

Can you tell that I just received a postcard in today’s mail from the Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named (because I don’t want to give them the free publicity), strongly implying quite the opposite?

As a past contest winner myself, I hate to admit it, but I know plenty of unagented winners of major literary contests. Agents don’t seem to be pouncing on even major contests’ winners with the vim of yore, possibly because the market has been changing so much in recent years.

Do I sense some dissatisfied shifting in chairs out there? “Okay, Anne,” I hear some potential contest entrants point out, “I understand that I shouldn’t expect that entering a contest with a big-name judge, or even one that’s advertised as being judged by agents and/or editors, necessarily means that my entry will actually be critiqued by them, but I’m confused. Weren’t you saying just yesterday that since the red flags for Millicent and contest judges are often the same, it would behoove those of us eyeing entry to follow this series closely? If so, how is it possible that contest winners, who presumably have to weed out all of those red flags in order to make it to the finalist round, AREN’T getting snapped up automatically by agents as soon as they receive the ribbon?”

That’s a great question, dissatisfied pointer-outers, and one that gets quite a bit of discussion amongst those of us who have won contests, as you might imagine. There are many theories floating around, but having been a frequent contest judge myself, my guess would be that, as I mentioned yesterday, contest judges tend to stay on the job for years on end.

Why might that be a problem, potentially? Well, since contest organizers like their winners to make them look good by moving on to fame and fortune, they usually include a marketability criterion in the judging — and a judge who has been at it for a while may well be evaluating marketability by the same standards she used when she first began judging, not those governing the current market.

Remember how I mentioned last month that it’s a good idea for a writer to keep abreast with what’s selling in the category in which he has chosen to produce a book? It’s an even better idea for a contest judge. Unfortunately, busy creatures that most of us are, not all judges keep up with their reading — or, if they do, like what’s coming out right now better than the styles that were considered nifty, say, fifteen years ago.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying: while most professional readers share a love of good writing, good grammar, and proper formatting, a judge’s standards for marketability may not be Millicent’s. Which makes a whole lot of sense: Millicent spends her days watching what publishers are and are not buying right now.

To help illustrate how this might play out in practice, I am again going to ask you to step into the over-stretched and down-at-the-heel shoes of Millicent the agency screener — and if we happen to learn a thing or two about contest entries along the way, well, let’s just say that I shan’t be entirely surprised.

I have a great example, too. The first time that I ran this series, a reader was kind enough to pass along an amusing factoid, gleaned from a recent Seattle Post-Intelligencer trivia spot: the first sentence of Charles Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST apparently contains 98 words, seven commas, and three semicolons. I don’t know which edition the counter used, since this doesn’t jibe with the first page of my childhood copy that’s sitting right next to me, but the point of bringing it up

Since I’m always delighted to provide demonstrations of what standard manuscript format looks like in practice, let’s take a gander at what the first page of Mr. Dickens’ submission would look like by the standards of today. Try to think like Millicent, and if you’re having trouble reading it, try double-clicking on the image:

How far did you get before you thought, “Oh, Millicent would have rejected it by now” and began to giggle? Because if you’ve been paying attention throughout this series, you should have. I doubt any of the Idol panelist agents would have made it even halfway through this first page.

Not entirely sure why? Okay, let’s take another look at this page after a professional editor has had a chance to comment upon it:

Apart from gleaning some indication why Millicent just wouldn’t turn to page two of OLIVER TWIST, but would instead slide it (probably not all that gently) into the rejection pile, I posted this example in the hope of sparking a couple of realizations helpful to submitting writers. First — in submissions, spelling, grammar, and punctuation COUNT. It’s not uncommon for poorly-proofed first pages to get rejected on that basis alone.

Spellcheck that first page. Grammar-check it to within an inch of its life — and I’m not just talking about relying upon what your word processing program tells you is correct, either. Proof it yourself IN HARD COPY and, the better to catch logic problems and skipped words, OUT LOUD.

If you’re not comfortable doing this yourself — and don’t feel bad about it, if so; there’s a reason that publishing houses employ proofreaders — have the most vicious grammarian of your acquaintance go over at least the first couple of pages of your submission or contest entry. And if you, like Dickens, aren’t all that sure about how to use fancy punctuation like the semicolon, don’t use it in the first place.

Trust me, Millicent will notice one that’s not used properly. So will her boss, the agent.

Yes, I’m perfectly aware that for many, many writers, this is a highly unpleasant fact to face. I’m also quite cognizant of the fact that demanding grammatical perfection gives well-educated aspiring writers quite a competitive edge. But I don’t make the rules; I just try to interpret ‘em for you.

Second — and I MAY have mentioned this seven or eight hundred times before in this forum — professional readers don’t read like other people: whereas a normal reader will usually take a little bit of time before drawing conclusions about a piece of writing, Millicent reads from sentence to sentence, making up her mind about each before moving on to the next.

Or, more accurately, she makes up her mind about whether to move on to the next. Just as she is not going to bother to read page 2 if page 1 didn’t impress her, if she doesn’t like sentence #3, she’s not going to read sentence #4.

Yes, screening honestly is that draconian. So is contest judging, in case you were wondering.

Aspiring writers rarely understand this going into the submission process: in my classes and at conferences, I am perpetually meeting submitters who profess great astonishment when I suggest that agents, editors, and contest judges WOULDN’T be willing to look past some technical problems if the writing is otherwise good or the story’s a real grabber. And occasionally, if a Millicent is in an unusually good mood — having, say, just fallen in love or won the lottery — she might be willing to do just that.

But are you willing to take the chance that your submission will land on her desk on that particular day?

I wish that this issue were discussed more frequently at writers’ conferences, in writing classes and critique groups, and even in social gathering for writings, because being aware of it can make an immense difference in how a writer approaches preparing her manuscript for submission. But alas, the first pages of our novels are not what writers tend to sit around and talk about when we get together.

Go figure, eh?

Third, and getting back to my original point, what got published in 1838 is not necessarily a good indicator of what is going to appeal to agents, editors, and contest judges today. Nor is what wowed ‘em in 1938, 1968, or — brace yourself — 2008.

Hey, I told you to brace yourself.

As annoying as it may be to those of us who love the classics, the literary market changes all the time — which means that, as night follows the day, what agents and editors are looking for changes with equal frequency. So if you’ve been scratching your head over why your novel that would have made Maxwell Perkins faint with happiness hasn’t been getting picked up, it’s worth considering the possibility that it might fare better if it adhered a little more closely to the currently prevailing standards of your book category.

Translation: Millicent and the fine folks who employ her expect submitting writers to be familiar with, if not what publishers are buying at this very minute, at least what’s been hitting the shelves at Barnes & Noble in a submission’s category within the last five years.

Sorry about that, Charlie. Maybe the passive voice will come back into fashion in another couple of years. But what will almost certainly not come back into fashion is aping the styles of the last century. Or the one before it, or the one before that.

“But Anne,” my former interlocutors cry, “why bring up out-of-style prose and subject matter in the middle of a series on reasons submissions tend to get rejected on the first page? You don’t mean…”

Yes, I’m afraid I do: submissions can — and do — sometimes get rejected simply because Millicent perceives them to be old-fashioned in a way that she doesn’t think would fly in the current market. That is a conclusion that she is extremely likely to reach before the bottom of page 1 — or even before the end of paragraph 1.

Had I mentioned that the pros don’t read like other people?

Feel free to find this frustrating. Most of us would like to think that an agent who liked our pitch or query well enough to request the first 50 pages would have the patience, if not the courtesy, to commit to reading at least the first 5 of those pages…

Ah, well, live and learn. I’m sure that some great cosmic record-keeper in the sky is keeping tabs on which side of the book-producing process is the more courteous. But until writers rule the universe — as, last I checked, we do not, alas — you’re going to be better off not testing Millicent’s patience.

Next time, I shall return to our list of rejection reasons already in practice. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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