The envelope, please…


Update as of September 13, 2010: I am sorry to report that Phoebe Kitanidis decided not to follow through on the award portion of this contest, so the feedback winners in Category II: YA will be receiving will be from me alone. While I regret the necessity, this was a mutual decision: she did participate in the judging, but her feedback on the winning entries was not up to Author! Author! standards, and her next book deadlines was, she said, too tight for her to participate in the video feedback we had planned instead.

My profound apologies to those of you who entered Category II: YA, as her feedback was slated to be its primary prize, as well as to all of the winners in both categories, whose prize entries’ posts were substantially delayed by these negotiations.

Other than removing the parts below that were obviously rendered untrue by subsequent events, I have left this post as I ran it originally back in August, 2010.

That’s right, gang: the long-anticipated day has arrived. Today, I’m going to announce the winners of the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. Winners will receive an extensive critique of their first pages in this very forum, courtesy of yours truly and FAAB Phoebe Kitanidis, author of the HarperCollins’ new YA release, Whisper.

Hmm, why does that title sound so very familiar? You must have seen the cover someplace.

Why did it take such a long time to judge this contest, you ask? Well, several reasons, up to and including the fact that I’m typing this one-handed, due to my recent injuries. In addition, I experienced great difficulty organizing the prizes; see above. Also, the response to this contest was quite a bit more enthusiastic than either the judges or I had anticipated; as a contest without an entry fee, it wasn’t as though we could simply hire staff to deal with the additional entries.

Beginning to understand why the vast majority of literary contests charge fairly hefty entry fees? Contest administration is time-consuming.

Not that I’m complaining, of course — there were many great entries, and a tidy array that rose to the rank of fabulous. So many, in fact, that it was exceptionally difficult for the judges to agree on the final awards.

But of that, more below. First, I want to talk about a couple of the widespread entry problems.

To be blunt, it was not exceptionally difficult was to disqualify the full one-third of entries that disregarded the rules — and that’s not even counting the 90% of entries that did not adhere to standard format for manuscripts. Come on, people — there were only four rules!

What can we learn from disturbing statistic? Something that any veteran contest judge or agency screener could have told you: a significant proportion of aspiring writers evidently do not take the time to read contest rules and submission requirements.

That’s sad, because — again, as anyone mentioned above could tell you — if an entry or submission does not follow the rules, it will almost always be rejected, regardless of the quality of the writing.

Period. End of story. No appeal. Or, to put it another way: not taking the time to read the rules hurts only you.

Ditto with not following the rules of standard format for manuscripts — although so many entrants broke one or more rules that the judges had to downgrade the importance of formatting in the judging. This meant, in practice, that we ended up considering (and even giving a prize or two) to first pages that Millicent the agency screener probably would not have bothered to read at all.

Hey, we were being nice. But expecting Millicent to exercise that level of leniency would be foolish.

In case I am being too subtle here to catch the average rule-skimmer’s eye: READ THE RULES. LEARN THE RULES. FOLLOW THE RULES. REPEAT AS NEEDED UNTIL YOUR BOOK GETS PUBLISHED.

Seriously, submitting an improperly-formatted manuscript is precisely like sending a contest entry that ignores the stated rules: the writer is depending, foolishly, upon the kindness of the reader to overlook a lack of professionalism. Submitting an improperly or — even more common — inconsistently formatted manuscript is, to put it bluntly, usually a waste of the writer’s time.

Why? Chant it along with me, long-time readers of this blog: because agencies and contests typically receive so many perfectly-formatted, impeccably rule-following manuscripts that they don’t need to bother with those that are not professionally presented. Therefore, not taking the time to learn how to format a book manuscript properly because you are trying to get it out the door faster is self-defeating.

Again, it really is that simple. Fortunately, all any aspiring writer has to do to learn how to format a manuscript properly is take a swift peek at the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list on the bottom right-hand side of this page.

Given how much blog space I routinely devote to proper formatting, I was genuinely surprised at how few entrants had evidently checked their formatting against the literally hundreds of practical examples I have posted on this very blog in recent years. Short of coming to your respective houses and formatting your work for you, I don’t see how I could possibly have made it easier for entrants to this contest — or submitters to agencies, for that matter — to get the formatting right.

I just mention. While I’m typing one-handed. Don’t make me pull out any more guilt-inducement than that.

Oh, and something else almost everybody who entered did: titled the entry document along the lines of Anne Mini contest, Author! Author! contest, first page contest…in short, in a manner that, while convenient for finding it again on THEIR hard drives, required my renaming virtually every entry before I could save it to mine. Because, honestly, when confronted with 43 (seriously) entries called ANNE MINI CONTEST, how else was I supposed to tell them apart?

Aspiring writers do this all the time in electronic submissions and contest entries. Strategically, it’s a bad idea to inconvenience Millicent, even a little.

How should a request for an attachment be titled, you ask? Either with the writer’s last name (Smithentry.doc would have worked beautifully on my end; SmithCatIIentry.doc would have been even better) or — and this was the most popular choice in the contest — with the title of the piece. (TheWayWeWere.doc would be hard to mix up with VenusVampires.doc, after all.)

So much for the multi-part lecture. On to the announcement of the winners. First, the grand prizes.

The 2010 Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence and Grand Prizes in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest go to:

Adult Fiction: Jennifer Sinclair Johnson, DIVIDED STATES

Young Adult Fiction: Juniper Ekman, TROUBLE COMES

Actually could fit in either adult fiction or YA, but the judges agreed they would have awarded it a grand prize in either: Cole Casperson, INDOMITVS

Memoir (not an official category, but we received a lot of great entries): Jennifer Lyng, NORMAL IS WHAT YOU KNOW

But wait — there’s more! Judging the finalist round was quite tough. Because we received such a lot of exciting, well-written entries, the judges and I talked it over, and we decided that it might be a lovely idea for me to post and discuss the first, second, and third-prize entries as well. (Not that I’ll be doing it immediately, mind you; prize fulfillment will take place when my hands are once again up to full blogging strength.)

So, bearing that prize upgrade in mind, let’s also hear it for the entries that placed:

The Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better, Category I: Young Adult

First Prize, YA: Natalie Hatch, BREEDER

Second Prize, YA: Suzi McGowen, A TROLL WIFE’S TALE, and Sherry Soule, DARK ANGEL

Third Prize, YA: Janine A. Southard, WHICH STAR MY DESTINATION, and Gayton P. Gomez, BOOK WORMS

The Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better, Category II: Adult Fiction

First Prize, Adult Fiction: Curtis Moser, PERDITION, and Jens Porup, THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR

Second Prize, Adult Fiction: David A. McChesney, SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS, and Ellen Bradford, PITH AND VINEGAR

Third Prize, Adult Fiction: David Jón Fuller, BARK AT THE MOON; Linda C. McCabe, THE LEGEND OF THE WARRIOR MAID AND THE SARACEN KNIGHT, and Carolin Walz, GOTHIC WARS.

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about a plethora of great entries! Congratulations to all of the winners — watch this space to hear more from them.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

23 Replies to “The envelope, please…”

  1. Congratulations to all prize winners! I’m sure I’m not the only one a little envious of the prize you earned, but am happy you received it!

    Anne, while you’re mending and at the mention of formatting/rules issues, I thought I’d throw out an academic problem – academic only because it’s already sent in. I am very interested in how you’d solve this case, however. I was rereading the submission rules for a partial request I’d received a week or two ago – after Frankenstein-editing and READING OUT LOUD the first 30ish pages requested. The rules were simple enough, log in using the password provided and upload the pages (doc/rtf). Oh, and attach the original query letter as the first page. No problem, right? While the first hurdle wasn’t too hard on the nerves – whether to leave the query in the email format it was first sent as or reformat it into an actual letter (they did not specify, so I left in format originally sent) – the second was more difficult. There was only the option of uploading one file, which means that when I stuck my query first, my title page suddenly became page 2 of my document and all of my correctly formatted slug lines were suddenly inaccurate. In case anyone was wondering, Word does not like being asked to start on page -1. I tried everything I could think of, but my options quickly came down to 1) leave off the title page so the slug lines of the pages line up, or 2) leave out the slug line altogether. (I did not even consider pulling the slug lines out of the top margins and sticking them in as first lines of every page – all the wasted space!) I did a lot of anxious thinking, but could not see a way to fulfill the agency’s directions and not either of the above options.

    1. Adam: what I would have done is to put a section break to separate the query letter from the manuscript. Then I would specify that page numbering in the manuscript section starts with page 1, rather than continuing from the previous section.

    2. First: I wouldn’t worry about it too much, Adam. If the rules were not especially clear, they must be quite used to receiving an array of formats. (Although I would have reformatted the query as a letter, rather than an e-mail.)

      Actually, Word does permit not numbering at all until the second page of text, but it’s a multi-step process. (I know that your problem was that you wanted to have the THIRD page of text be page 1, but I want to address this part first, for the benefit of others with the more common problem of wanting to include a title page.)

      1. Save everything you want to send (in this case, query + pages) as a single .doc document. (Few agencies are running the more recent versions of Word with .docx)

      2. In the new document, select Document… under the FORMAT menu in the header. Under Document…, select LAYOUT, then select “Different first page.”

      3. Arrange your headers so the first page’s header is blank, but the second page on will have a standard slug line. (This also works for including a title page, by the way.)

      4. Go into the part of the header and footer menu that allows you to change formatting — specifically, the place where you would set the page numbers. (On my very recent version of Word for Mac, this involves pulling up the Formatting Menu, but it may be different for a PC.) Select “Format Page Number.” Under “Page Numbering,” set “Start numbering at…” to 0.

      The result will be a first page that is not numbered, and a second page (in this case, the first page of text) with a slug line set at page 1.

      I know what you’re going to say: but what about the title page? You’re quite right that Word will allow a different first page, but balks at a different first two pages.

      Given these constraints and the agency’s having set it up in the manner you say, option (2) was the right call: assume that they weren’t actually expecting a title page (since they had made it impossible for you to include one with proper pagination), instead making certain that all of your contact information is in the query letter. Essentially, the query letter IS the title page, for informational purposes.

      Your mistakes here were two, as nearly as I can tell from your description. First, you assumed that there WAS a right answer, rather than conclude (rightly, I think) that the agency simply didn’t think through this particular dilemma. If they ask for something that would mess up every submitter’s pagination, it’s only logical to conclude that they are not concentrating very hard on the pagination — and that most writer who submit to them are not including title pages.

      The second mistake — and the one more likely to affect how your submission is perceived — was to assume that the point of asking you to send the query letter was for them to see precisely the same query letter again, formatted precisely the same way. Other than seeing if you could follow directions, though, what could possibly be the point of asking a writer to do that? It’s not as though Millicent has time to perform a compare-and-contrast on something that trivial.

      A far more sensible conclusion would be that different kinds of books are sent to different Millicents at that agency; the info from the query letter probably permits the mail-sorter to get it to the right place. Asking to re-send the query also makes sure (albeit indirectly) that they will be able to contact you again, because, let’s face it, it would be insane to have hitting REPLY be the only way to get ahold of a writer it might want to represent.

      So basically, you probably wasted a lot of energy in worrying because (a) you were thinking of the request as coming from an all-knowing, all-seeing source eager to trip you up, rather than from people who just wanted to make sure they had the information they needed and (b) you didn’t consider it as a practical request, rather than as a hurdle. In actuality, it was probably intended as a perfectly straightforward request for information in a format that would make their lives easier, period.

      Aspiring writers overthink such statements by agents all the time. In fact, they are far more likely to invest endless energy into trying to second-guess what an offhand comment or generic phrase in an a rejection letter ACTUALLY meant than to take the time to learn what the basic rules of submission are. It’s relatively rare that agents will actively try to trick submitters, though: they simply have the professional norm in mind, and, in this particular case, added a single condition to it. They would probably be very, very surprised to hear that any submitter had stressed out over it for more than a minute.

      One could be depressed by this, of course. But a conscientious writer like you could also heave a great big sigh of relief!

      1. For this (Adam’s dilemma) and other reasons, I clearly need to take a course in Word, even though I’ve been using it for years. Had no idea how to do this stuff.

      2. Thank you for your thoroughness, Anne. Let it never be said you lack for detail. 🙂 I did end up using my query in place of the title page. With David’s tip, I should never have to worry about that particular dilemma again! Your own counsel is also invaluable. Perhaps a bit odd, but a large part of anxiety over this was that I knew it shouldn’t be this complicated, and that I was making it harder on myself than need be. Thankfully, I only have so much patience with anxious indecision, so spent about 30 minutes worrying, made what I thought was the best decision I could, then sent it off.

        In the separate-but-related category, thank you for providing links to the winners’ web pages/blogs Anne. It’s been really neat checking out writers at various points along the publishing path!

        1. I kind of got that sense, Adam — thus the discussion of over-thinking. It’s usually the writers who are doing things right that fall prey to it. (Although I suppose it’s tautological to say that those who don’t do things right should think more about how they’re doing things.)

  2. Wow! Thank you so much! I’m delighted and (still) doing my secret happy dance. Of course, now it’s not secret anymore 🙂

  3. Anne,
    Although my book isn’t in a category that I could have submitted in your contest, I did want to say a word about formatting. Actually, it is a BIG and loud YAY for all of the aforementioned blogs that you have so kindly written for us that are essentially FORMATTING FOR DUMMIES! I’ve had wonderful confirmation that taking my time to follow Anne’s Rules of Formatting works. I finally got my first batch of proposals for my nonfiction book out last Saturday. I followed EVERY, SINGLE PIECE of Anne Advice to the letter, word and page. Are you ready for this? I received my first REQUEST FOR SUBMISSION on Tuesday! The day my proposal arrived! I feel extremely blessed that the envelope was even opened that quickly, but it obviously looked right when Millicent did open it — black folder and all. Thanks AGAIN, Anne. Who knows if this is the “agent of my dreams” or not, but the process has started and was kicked off with a bang! The submission request was very specific as to what they wanted to see next, so I am now pouring over your blogs having to do with “Requested Submissions.” I LITERALLY could not have done this without you. And, great to know you are feeling well enough to be back with us, even if it’s one handed!

    1. Marsha! This is tremendous news! I’m so very excited for you.

      I love being thanked, but do remember to pat yourself on the back for being professional enough to have learned the ropes, followed the rules, and dotted all of the Is.

      1. Rest assured, whenever my fingers aren’t on the keyboard, they are patting my back! And not just for following instructions so carefully, I learned to do that professionally years ago. But, I feel very smart for having chosen your advice, Anne, which is really the point of my last comment. There is a great deal of information on the web and I sifted through a lot of it before I settled on your blog. The info you provide is clear, to the point and well organized. Plus (and this is the BIG one) I decided to trust what you had to say. The fact that I received such a positive response from a fairly large agency so quickly is confirmation that I chose well and I wanted your readers to know the importance of that choice. Frankly, I feel it is the difference of having a real shot at getting published and having no shot at all. That’s why I gave you so much credit, Anne. You take the time to give us solid and practical advice. I wanted my fellow writers who hope to get published to know that your advice works — it just has to be followed carefully.

        Must run! I have a list of your blogs on Requested Submissions that I have yet to read! Thanks again and keep on getting well, Anne.

  4. Can you include me in your image of Suzi dancing, Anne? My internet has been down so I just read this post after logging on at my local coffee shop. The pace of my heartbeat picked up (again!) — not from my too-hot latte. The affirmation is inspiring: after plugging away for these (too many) years, I finally GET IT. Congrats to all the winners! I hope all of your readers connect with the advice that you so generously offer here, incorporating it into their own work. Maybe they’ll find, like I have, it provides the framework that lets my best writing shine through. Now, on to page two. (Just kidding.)

    Marsha, congratulations on your request for submission! I’m looking forward to the day I’m ready to query.

    1. Thanks so much Jennifer! I worked on my proposal constantly for four months – a great deal of that time was research (reading and applying LOTS of Anne blogs!) plus honing in on the right agents to submit to. By the time it finally went out the door, I have to say I felt really good about it! Here’s to the day you are ready to query – and as our guru Anne would say – keep up the good work!

  5. “1. Save everything you want to send (in this case, query + pages) as a single .doc document. (Few agencies are running the more recent versions of Word with .docx)”

    After reading this, I clicked the “Learn more about file formats” link on my Word 2008 for Mac software. I didn’t realize that .docx is compatible with Word 2007 for Windows, and .doc is compatible with Word 97-Word 2003 for Windows. I’m glad to know, although it adds a new challenge to the process to me. It must explain why a magazine editor couldn’t open my recent article revisions, despite having communicated successfully before. As always, thanks for the info!

  6. Big wowee! I hope you can stand yet another happy dance alongside Suzi, Jennifer and (presumably) Marsha!

    Naturally, I know that now is when the hard work begins. Namely, finding a flattering authorial photograph.

    As a side note: I presume you’ve seen that story of the woman who summoned the police by typing on a laptop with her flexible toes. Just something a one-armed typist might wish to keep in mind. 🙂

    1. Ooh, that opens up some intriguing possibilities, Ellen. I had a very strict ballet teacher who used to fling marbles onto the studio floor and make us pick them up with our toes. So even if I could not type barefooted, I could probably brandish a chopstick effectively as a key-selection tool.

  7. As it is not within my nature to do “happy dances,” you will not find me hopping about in joy. Nonetheless I am thrilled to be in such august company. Congratulations to all!

  8. In case I didn’t make it clear above (and I may not have), the competition was FIERCE. I was really proud of how difficult it was to narrow down first the finalists, then the winners. We saw a lot of terrific first pages.

  9. Whee! Did I mention my resounding yays! and wows! and goshes! and thankses!?

    I am far too tired to happy dance, but my mind is doing a mean jitterbug.

    Thanks again, Anne!

    1. Very, very well deserved, Joon. Although I must say, I burst out laughing when I saw your entry at the top of each of the judges’ lists: my first thought was, “Is she going to win EVERY contest this year?”

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