Ready to talk conference rules, campers? I’m rather excited about it, to tell you the truth. Why? Lean in close, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: those of us that work with manuscripts for a living like it when talented aspiring writers enter contests. It’s a way that they can help themselves to succeed.
Yes, it’s true: the publishing world honestly does like writers that help themselves. Especially these days, when being a successful author so often means being one’s own publicist — and copyeditor.
Which is why, before I begin, I would like to say that I’m quite sorry to be posting the promised advice on how to read literary contest rules so much later than I intended, and after most readers’ weekends will have ended. I meant to post this hours ago. Heck, I meant to post it on Saturday morning, but several things came up. I spent the first half of my weekend ill (yet still reposting back issues, so to speak, relevant to the contest-entry experience) and the second half answering questions readers e-mailed me rather than posting here on the blog.
Oh, yes, this happens all the time, I’m sorry to report, especially on weekends. Why is the traffic higher then? Well, I’m not positive, but my sense is that either that’s when writers have spare time — or that they assume I would be answering in my spare time, and thus not on the clock as a writing consultant. After all, each seems to reason, he would be the only one approaching me privately, right? How much of my time could it possibly take?
Quite a lot, actually. This weekend, seven people contacted me on that basis. Only one of them had a question that was even remotely likely to cause problems if posted as a comment.
So I hope you will pardon me if I restate the policy: as the rules for posting comments here at Author! Author! explain, I entertain a vast preference for readers’ posting their questions here in the comments, rather than e-mailing them to me. I write a blog so that my advice is easily accessible to whoever wants to read it, after all. If I answer questions individually, I end up answering the same questions over and over again without future readers being able to benefit from the information.
I appreciate that so many of my readers like to think of me as their friend in the business, but as you may or may not have noticed, this is not a sponsored site. Translation: no one pays me to answer questions here; I do it because I believe that the information good writers need should be readily available. Thus the extensive archives, broken down by common questions.
If you have a question and cannot find a relevant category on the archive list, well, I’d be surprised, but I’m always happy to answer readers’ questions, provided that they ask them politely and in the proper manner. It’s excellent training for working with an agency or publishing house, actually. This is, after all, a business in which courtesy counts.
That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, writers in general have gotten kind of a bad rap for being inconsiderate. It’s not that we are, as a group; it’s that a persistent few have been, well, overly persistent. For every hundred shy, courteous aspiring writers, there are ten who are, in a word, pushy. In fact, this attitude is so pervasive that quite a few pros simply develop a policy of avoiding giving any advice to up-and-comers at all.
One doesn’t have to encounter too many such boundary-leapers to start contemplating erecting some pretty hefty walls in self-defense. Which is why, in case any of you recent conference-goers had been wondering, it can be very hard to corner some of the speakers to ask a pertinent question or track down an attending agent for a hallway pitch. They’ve probably been the victims of aspiring writers who mistook momentary interest, the willingness to answer a complex question, or even just plain old common courtesy for a commitment to provide hours, weeks, or even years of non-stop assistance.
Oh, I understand the impulse to push it from the aspiring writer’s perspective: since can be so hard to catch a pro’s eye that when you meet someone in the know who is actually nice to you, it can feel pretty wonderful. It can also feel an awful lot like the beginning of a friendship. And it may be — down the line. But from the pro’s point of view, all that friendly interaction was, or could possibly be construed as being, is just that, a friendly interaction with a stranger.
So imagine the pro’s surprise when she arrives back in her office to find five e-mails from that stranger, each more desperate and demanding than the last.
Wildly different understandings of the same interaction are especially prevalent at conferences that schedule pitching appointments for attendees. Many first-time pitchers walk into their sessions so terrified that if the agent or editor smiles even a little and listens sympathetically, they just melt. Here, at last, is a personal connection in an industry that can seem appallingly impersonal from the outside. So when the agent or editor concludes the meeting with a fairly standard request for pages, these pitchers sometimes conclude that the pro only made the request to be nice; s/he couldn’t possibly have meant it.
That’s the less common reaction. The significantly more common is to act as though the agent or editor has already committed to taking on the book. If not actually serving as best man or maid of honor at the writer’s wedding.
Yes, really — I see it at conferences all the time. The writer rushes home, instantly prints up his manuscript, and overnights it to his new friend. Or she rushes home, opens her e-mail account, and instantly sends the requested pages as an attachment to her new friend. Even if they received requests from other agents or editors, they won’t send ‘em out — that might offend the new friend, who clearly by now has a deep stake in signing the writer.
Then both writers fill Hefty bags with Doritos and plop themselves down between their telephones and their computers, waiting for the positive response that will doubtless come any minute now. And they wait.
Many of them are still waiting, in this era where some agencies have policies where no response equals assumed rejection. Others are stunned to receive form-letter rejections that contain no mention of their positive personal interaction at the conference at all. Some are unwise enough to follow up upon either of these reactions with a hurt or angry e-mail to that faithless new friend.
Who will, I guarantee you, be mystified to receive it. “Why is this writer taking my rejection so personally,” they murmur to their screeners, “not to mention so unprofessionally? We talked for five minutes at a conference; it’s not as though I made a commitment to help him. It’s my job to talk to writers at conferences, after all.”
“Hey, look,” Millicent says, pointing at her boss’ e-mail inbox, “your new protégé has just sent you yet another e-mail. Ooh, there’s a third. And a fourth!”
The agent buries her head in her hands. “Cancel my e-mail account. I’m moving to Peru to become a llama herder.”
What we have here, my friends, is a failure to communicate. Agents, editors, conference speakers, and writing gurus are nice to aspiring writers, when they are, because they are nice people, not because any of us (not the sane ones among us, anyway) are likely to pick a single aspirant at random and decide to devote all of our resources to helping him. Any of us who interact with aspiring writers on a regular basis meet hundreds, if not thousands, of people just burning for a break, yet not one of us possesses the magical ability to stare deeply into the eyes of a writer we’ve just met, assess the talent coiled like a spring in that psyche, and determine whether she, alone of those thousands, is worth breaking a few rules to help get into print. Nor are most of us living lives of such leisure that we have unlimited time or resources to devote to helping total strangers.
(Yes, yes, I know: this blog is devoted to helping total strangers along the road to publication, and I do in fact post far more information on any given day than many advice-givers do in a month. Don’t quibble; I’m on a roll here.)
Yet that level of instant, unlimited devotion is precisely what many aspiring writers simply assume is the natural next step after a pleasant initial interaction with a publishing professional. While most, thank goodness, have the intrinsic good sense or Mom-inculcated good manners not to start demanding favors instantly or barrage that nice pro with e-mails asking for advice or a leg up, the few who do are so shameless that, alas, they give all aspiring writers a bad name.
The moral: your mother was right — politeness pays off in the long run.
(What’s that you say? Yesterday was Mother’s Day? Everyone was praising dear old Mom yesterday; you don’t think she would appreciate it today as well?)
Okay, I feel better now. Time to get back to doing today’s last favor, just one, for masses and masses of writers I have never met. After that, I’m off the charitable clock — and it only two in the morning.
Already, eager hands fly into the air. Yes? “Please, Anne,” those of you who paid attention to the prologue to this post ask politely, doffing your urchin caps, “while you already in counting mode, and before you leave the contest synopsis behind, may I please as how one number its pages?”
Ah, that’s a nice, straightforward question — and phrased so courteously, too. So much so that I wish I could give you a more straightforward answer than it varies from contest to contest.
Check the rules for each, rather than assuming a one-size-fits-all approach will meet its requirements. 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.
Surprised that 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? Don’t be; as we discussed earlier in this series, contests sometimes include slightly oddball rules to render it a bit easier to weed out entries in the first round of judging.
How should a savvy contest entrant handle these dissimilarities? I would HIGHLY recommend going through any contest’s rules with a fine-toothed comb, as well as 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 — and then photocopying it a couple of times. Why would a sane contest entrant require three copies? So you can work your way through the contest’s requirements, checking off each item as you complete it on List #1. Then, just before sealing the envelope or hitting SEND, whip out List #2 and check again, to make sure that you didn’t miss anything in the rush to get the entry off to the judges.
And perhaps you would even have the foresight to do as clever reader Tad’s suggested a while back: hand 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 remember to include that synopsis you slaved over for so long, either. I’m also referring to adhering to formatting requirements — and yes, Virginia, those too often vary from contest to contest.
Don’t swear, please. Your mother might be listening.
“Okay,” some of you mutter, visibly restraining yourselves from calling upon whatever deity might happen be listening, “let’s assume that I am entering a contest that requires a synopsis. Are you saying that my first stop should be to consult the rules, just in case the contest’s organizers have hidden some trap there?”
No, I’m suggesting that you scan the rules to see if there are special ways they would like to see it formatted. Same action, different attitude. If the rules do express a preference — any preference — follow it to the letter.
Do this even if you believe what they are asking you to do is silly, unheard-of, or downright obsolete. A certain local literary conference of my acquaintance, for instance, insists that section breaks in entries 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 is no longer considered proper in a book manuscript. (Short story format is different; at the risk of repeating myself, if you are planning on submitting a short story to a contest or magazine, run, don’t walk, to consult the submission requirements.)
In book manuscripts and proposals, however, those asterisks have 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 mite annoyed with you.
So while it would be exceedingly foolish to risk disqualification by ignoring the asterisk requirement if you were planning on entering the page above in the aforementioned contest, if you were submitting the same page to an agent or editor, you would be best served by presenting it looking like this:
Which only goes to underscore the point that I have kept banging upon, drum-like, throughout this series on constructing a successful contest entry: contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, the sheets of paper you submit to a contest and to an agent or editor should not necessarily be identical.
Different contexts require different formats, after all. It’s only polite to present your work as the people you want to reward it have asked to see it.
“May I interrupt for a moment, Anne?” some of you ask, handing me bouquets of flowers. “I have been going over the rules of the contest I intend to enter, as you advise, and they do not indicate any special formatting conditions apply. How, then, should I format the pages of my entry?”
An excellent question, and my, those tulips are lovely; thank you so much. You’re going to want to adhere to standard manuscript format, where the rules do not specifically call for something different.
What makes me so sure about that? 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? Your mothers cannot possibly know that you scuff your nice shoes like that. “But Anne,” 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. They are not; some have not been updated since the Eisenhower administration. Yet 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 regularly, 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 that update their websites frequently.)
I single out no particular contest here, of course. No matter what contest you plan to enter, you should scan its rules carefully for quirks. It’s also a good idea to double-check the category definitions for EVERY category you intend to enter AND the entry form for minute differences. Especially if you happen to be entering a major contest based within my area code, if you catch my drift.
Why is the onus on the writer to catch any discrepancies? 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 notion.) Unless a contest gives entrants feedback, it’s unlikely that you’d even find out what the particular charges against your entry were.
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 E.F. Benson’s MAPP AND 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 things you might want to be on the lookout for on your second read-through:
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 subtler problem that almost any professional reader would have caught, but most writers would not unless they were reading their own work out loud.
Give up? Okay, 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 from most competitions is in red.
See ‘em more clearly now? Let’s go through the problems one by one.
1) In a blind-judged contest, 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 most Millicents, many 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: Jessamine 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. But in writing, 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.
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.
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?
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 an entrant: 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 them 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.
Tomorrow, politeness permitting, I shall tackle a specific contest’s rules with the aforementioned fine-toothed comb, to see what an entry that adhered to those rules might look like on the page. Thank your mother for teaching you such nice manners, everyone, and keep up the good work!