It may be possible to see a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour, but that doesn’t mean a submitter should play fast and loose with the space-time continuum

green anemone

Happy Memorial Day weekend, U.S.-based readers! Since one of the many, many sacrifices those of us devoted to the difficult task of self-expression routinely make is to trade what other folks might do with their long weekends for gloriously uninterrupted hours of writing — or, better yet, revising! — I thought you might appreciate a glimpse of the world outside your writing studios. Now get back to work!

Actually, I have an ulterior motive for opening with that photo: as I’m certainly not going to be the first to point out, those of us who read manuscripts for a living are noted for looking not just at the big picture — is this an interesting story? Does it grab the reader from the get-go? And the question dear to writers everywhere, is it well-written? — but also at the granular level. It also probably won’t stop the presses to point out that the notoriously close reading any given manuscript has to survive in order to be seriously considered for publication tends to come as a great, big, or even nasty surprise to a lot of first-time submitters. And don’t even get me started on how many literary contest entrants seem to operate on the assumption that contest judges are specifically selected for their propensity to read with a charitable eye.

Does that giant gasp I just heard indicate that some of you fine people have been laboring under one or both of those impressions, or is somebody about to go for a nice, leisurely swim? If it’s the former, you’re definitely not alone: all too often, talented writers new to the game rush their manuscripts out the door the instant after they’ve typed the last page, presumably in the fond hope that all agents, editors, and contest judges are such lovers of literature that they will judge the book by nothing but how well it’s written. And possibly, to a lesser extent, by the inherent interest of the story.

Or so Millicent the agency screener must surmise from how many of those submissions apparently have not been spell-checked. Or grammar-checked. Or even read through since the last revision, because how else could the writer not have noticed that several words seem to have dropped out of that sentence on page 33?

Oh, stop groaning. Don’t you want your future agent and acquiring editor to fall so in love with your writing that they examine it from every angle, down to the last grain of sand?

Before I take that resounding, “Heavens, no!” for an unqualified yes, let me hasten to remind you that in the long run, it truly is better for your book if the agent of your dreams (and Millicent, the stalwart soul s/he has entrusted to narrowing the thousands of queries and hundreds of submissions a good agent receives to the handful that s/he would actually have time to read without sacrificing the book-selling side of the job entirely) pays attention to the little stuff. Why? Well, let me put it this way: if Millicent’s eye may legitimately be called nit-picky, a good acquiring editor’s peepers should be regarded as microscopic.

Oh, you thought it was easy to read closely enough to catch that the narrative has used the same image on page 12 and page 315? Or that the writer fell so in love with the word verdant that it appears every time that anything vaguely green flashes by the reader’s consciousness? In a book about lawn care?

So if this series’ focus upon the little visual details has occasionally seemed a trifle, well, obsessive, congratulations — you’re gaining real insight into what professional readers are trained to do. And think about it: if Millicent and her ilk must pay such close attention to the text, how likely are they to catch any formatting glitches?

Uh-huh. Hard to miss that sea anemone lying on the sand, isn’t it?

In order to give you a Millicent’s-eye view of your manuscript, for the past few posts in this series, we’ve been comparing manuscripts in standard format with improperly-formatted ones. Yes, it’s been a lengthy slog, but hands up, those of you who have never had the opportunity to see a manuscript that actually got picked up by an agent and published by a traditional house up close and personal.

See, I told you that you were not alone. Quite the forest of hands, isn’t it?

In my experience, most rookie submitter mistakes arise not merely from simple ignorance of the strictures of standard format, but from the low-level panic that comes from having to guess whether one is performing the secret handshake correctly. The better an aspiring writer understands the rules, the less guesswork is involved. It may not eliminate the stress of submission entirely, but it does at least remove one of the most common stressors from the mix.

Okay, so it’s not what the average would think of as a little light weekend recreational stress release. Were you under the impression that being a brilliantly incisive observer and chronicler of the human condition was ordinary?

Which is why I’m completely confident that you’re up to the challenge of thinking of your writing on several levels simultaneously. Particularly when, like the savvy submitter that you are, you are reading your ENTIRE manuscript IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before sending it to anyone even vaguely affiliated with a literary contest or the publishing industry. Lest we forget, it’s much, much easier to catch formatting issues, typos, and logic problems that way.

Do I sense that simmering resentment at how hard it is for a new writer to break into print beginning to bubble up to the surface? “But Anne!” I hear aspiring writers everywhere shout, and who could blame you? “I don’t have a problem with making my manuscript ship-shape on a writing level before passing it under Millicent’s critical spectacles. Granted, revision can be a trifle irritating, but what really irks me is that after I’ve done it, that lovingly worked and reworked prose could be knocked out of consideration because of some arbitrary expectations about how professional book manuscripts should look on the page. Isn’t that just an annoying additional hoop through which I’m expected to leap, and don’t I have every right to resent it?”

Well, not exactly, bubblers-up. As we’ve been discussing, the rules of standard format actually are not arbitrary; most of them have a strong practical basis that might not be readily apparent from the writer’s side of the submission desk. Let’s take, for instance, the relatively straightforward requirements that manuscripts should be entirely typed, double-spaced, and have 1-inch margins all the way around.

I hear some of you snickering, but Millicent regularly reads submissions that do not conform to standard format in one or even all of these respects. It’s not unheard-of for diagrams to be hand-drawn, pages hand-numbered, or for late-caught typos to be corrected in pen. Or for an e-mailed query to an agency that asks to see the first few pages to be single-spaced — because that’s the norm for an e-mail, right?

Let’s take a peek at why all of those rules necessary, from a professional point of view. For continuity’s sake, let’s once again call upon our old friend Charles Dickens again to see what a page of a manuscript should look like — actually, since we’ve been looking at so many first pages lately, let’s live dangerously, shall we? Here are pages 1 and two.

2 cities good
2 CIties right page 2

Relatively easy to read, isn’t it? (Assuming that you find it so, of course. If it’s too small to read easily on your browser, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + until the type is large enough to read comfortably.)

To give you some idea of just how difficult it would be to screen, much less hand-edit, a manuscript that was not double-spaced or had smaller margins, take a gander at this little monstrosity. To render it an even better example of what makes Millicent’s optician rend his garments in despair, I’ve gone ahead and submitted a fuzzy photocopy, rather than a freshly-printed original.

I believe the proper term for this is reader-hostile. Even an unusually patient and literature-loving Millicent would reject a submission like this immediately, without reading so much as a word. As would, more often than not, Mehitabel.

And honestly, can you blame them?

Did I hear a few spit-takes after that last set of assertions from those of you joining us in mid-argument? “My goodness, Anne,” sputter those of you wiping coffee, tea, or other beverage of your choice off your incredulous faces, “why would any sane person consider presentation violations that serious an offense? It is, after all, precisely the same writing. Sure, it’s a little harder to read, but if it’s an e-mailed submission, Millicent could just expand the image. And it’s not as though Millicent’s boss, the agent of Charles’ dreams, couldn’t just ask him to reformat it.”

Yes on both counts, but surely you can appreciate why the Charles who submitted that last page would strike anyone accustomed to handling manuscripts as a much, much more difficult writer to work with than the Charles behind our first set of examples. The latter displays a fairly significant disregard for not only the norms of standard format, but also the optical comfort of the reader. Not to mention just shouting, “Hey, I don’t expect any feedback on this, ever!”

Oh, you didn’t spot that? Anyone who handles manuscripts for a living would. Even with nice, empty page backs upon which to scrawl copy edits, trying to cram spelling or grammatical changes between those lines would be well-nigh impossible. Knowing that, Millicent would never dream of passing such a manuscript along to the agent who employs her; to do so would be to invite a stern and probably lengthy lecture on the vicissitudes of the life editorial — and that fact that, despite impressive innovations in technology, intensive line editing a single-spaced document in either hard or soft copy is well-nigh impossible.

Too hard on the eyes — and where on earth would the comments go on the hard copy?

Don’t tempt her to reject your submission unread — and don’t even consider, I beg of you, providing a similar temptation to a contest judge. Given the sheer volume of submissions Millicent reads, she’s not all that likely to resist. The contest judge, on the other hand, will be specifically instructed not to resist at all.

Yes, really. Even if the sum total of the provocation consists of a manuscript that’s shrunk to, say, 95% of the usual size, Mehitabel is likely to knock it out of the running on sight.

Are some of you are blushing? Perhaps some past contest entrants and submitters who wanted to squeeze in a particularly exciting scene before the end of those requested 50 pages?

No? Let me fill you in on a much-deplored practice, then: faced with a hard-and-fast page limit, some wily writers will shrink the font or the margins, to shoehorn a few more words onto each page. After all, the logic runs, who is going to notice a tenth of an inch sliced off a left or right margin, or notice that the typeface is a trifle smaller than usual?

Millicent will, that’s who, and practically instantly. As will any reasonably experienced contest judge; after hours on end of reading 12-point type within 1-inch margins, a reader develops a visceral sense of roughly how many characters fit on a properly-formatted page.

Don’t believe me? Go back and study the correctly formatted page 2 in our first example. Then take a gander at this wee gem of tricky intent:

2 Cities cheating page 2

Admit it: you can tell it’s different, can’t you, even without whipping out a ruler? Yet I shaved only one-tenth of an inch off each margin and shrunk the text by 5% — far, far less of a reduction than most fudgers attempt when, say, they’re trying to fit 26 pages of manuscript into a contest entry with a 25-page limit. So how likely is this little gambit to pay off for the submitter?

Exactly. Amazingly enough, people who read for a living very seldom appreciate attempts to trick them into extraneous reading. No matter how much Charles felt that last example added life to his opening — or how right he was about that — Millicent will simply notice that he tried to cheat in order to get more of his words in front of her eyeballs than writers conscientious enough to follow the rules. Next!

The same principle applies, incidentally, to query letters: Alarmingly often, aspiring writers, despairing of fitting a coherent summary of their books within the standard single page, will shrink the margins or typeface on a query. “What’s two tenths of an inch?” they reassure themselves. “And honestly, who is going to be able to tell the difference between 12-point type at 99%, rather than 100%?”

Help yourself to a gold star for the day if you immediately answered: “Someone who reads queries all day, every day. And two-tenths of an inch all around can, as Uncle Charles has just demonstrated, add up to a great deal more text on a page.”

Another common means of fudging spacing: incomplete adherence to the rules bout skipping spaces after periods and colons. Specifically, skipping two spaces (as tradition requires) in most instances, but omitting the second space when doing so would make the difference between a paragraph’s ending with a single word on the last line and being able to use that line to begin a new paragraph.

Shame on you, those who just bellowed, “Wow, that’s a great idea — over the course of an entire chapter, that might free up a page of text for my nefarious purposes!” Don’t you think inconsistent spacing is the kind of thing a reader trained to spot textual oddities might conceivably notice?

And for good reason: waffling about how often to hit the space bar can be a tell-tale sign that a writer isn’t altogether comfortable with writing in standard format. Such a writer’s work would, presumably, need to be proofread for formatting more closely than other agency clients’ work, would it not? And that in turn would mean that signing such a writer would inevitably means devoting either unanticipated staff time to double-checking his manuscripts or training in the delights of consistent rule application, right?

Those rhetorical questions would be equally applicable whether the agency in question happened to favor either the two-space or one-space convention, incidentally. Consistency is the key to proper manuscript formatting, after all, and all the more likely to be valued if an agency’s guidelines ask for something specific in a submission.

Why? Well, think about it: when you first thought about querying and submitting, would it have occurred to you to check each and every agency’s website (if it has one; not all do, even at this late date) for submission guidelines? So if you were the Millicent screening manuscripts for an agent with a desperate aversion to that second space after the comma (she had a nasty run-in with a journalist on a cross-country flight , perhaps; he may have menaced her with a copy of the AP’s formatting guidelines), and your boss had been considerate enough to post a reference to that aversion on the agency’s website, on her blog, and in 47 online interviews, wouldn’t that be one of the first things you looked for in a submission?

Let’s all chant it together, shall we? If an agency or publishing house’s submission guidelines ask for something specific, for heaven’s sake, give it to them. But don’t generalize that individual preferences to the entire industry, okay? And if they don’t express a preference, stick to standard format.

Yes, regardless of what you may have heard online about how nobody is using double-spacing after periods and colons in book manuscripts anymore. It’s simply not true that it’s generally an instant-rejection offense, on the grounds that manuscripts including the second space look hopelessly old-fashioned to agents and editors.

Well, guess what, cookie — standard manuscript format is old-fashioned, by definition. That doesn’t seem to stop most of the currently-published authors of the English-speaking world from using it. In fact, in all of my years writing and editing, I have never — not once — seen an already agented manuscript rejected or even criticized for including the two spaces that English prose requires after a period or colon. Possibly because those that feel strongly about the single-space convention tend to be up front about not being likely to fall in love with submissions featuring what they perceive to be extra spaces.

I have, however, heard endless complaint from professional readers about those second spaces being omitted. Care to guess why?

If you said that cutting those spaces throws off word count estimation, clap yourself heartily on the back: standard estimates assume those doubled spaces. (If you don’t know how and why word count is tallied, please see the HOW TO ESTIMATE WORD COUNT — AND WHY category on the archive list at right.) Give yourself a nice, warm hug if you also suggested that omitting them renders a manuscript harder to hand-edit. Because we all know about the lecture Millicent is likely to get if she forgets about that, right?

I can sense blood pressure rising over this issue, but honestly, inconsistent application of either rule is far more likely to raise red flags with Millicent than clinging like an unusually tenacious leech to either the one- or two-space convention. Particularly if that inconsistency — or slightly off sizing — seems to allow more words per page than is usual.

My point, should you care to know it, is that a pro isn’t going to have to look very hard at a space-deprived page to catch on that there’s something fishy going on, so let’s work a bit more to increase your visceral sense that something is wrong. Since Dickens was so fond of half-page sentences, the examples I’ve been using above won’t illustrate my next common gaffe very well.

Reaching blindly into the depths of the bookshelf next to my computer, I seem to have grabbed Elizabeth Von Arnim’s wonderful take on the Bluebeard myth, VERA. Taking a page at random, let’s take a look at it properly formatted in manuscript form.

Vera correctly

There are 310 words on this page; I wasn’t kidding the other day about how far off the standard word count estimations could be. Now cast your eye over the same text with a couple of very minor formatting alterations.

Doesn’t look significantly different to the naked eye, does it? Yet the word count is slightly lower on this version of this page — 295 words. That may not seem like a big difference, but it’s enough to make quite a difference over the course of an entire manuscript.

“But Anne,” I hear some sharp-eyed readers exclaim, “wasn’t the word count lower because there was an entire line missing from the second version?”?

Well spotted, criers-out: the natural tendency of omitting the second spaces would indeed be to allow more words per page, not less. But the scanter space between sentences was not the only deviation from standard format here; Millicent, I assure you, would have caught two others.

I tossed a curve ball in here, to make sure you were reading as closely as she was. Wild guesses? Anyone? Anyone?

The error that chopped the word count was a pretty innocent one, almost always done unconsciously: the writer apparently did not turn off the widow/orphan control, found in Word under FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. As we were discussing only the other day, this insidious little function, the default unless one changes it, prevents single lines of multi-line paragraphs from getting stranded on either the bottom of one page of the top of the next.

As you may see, keeping this function operational results in an uneven number of lines per page. Which, over the course of an entire manuscript, is going to do some serious damage to the word count.

As would tinkering with the bottom margin to allow an extra line on the page. Here it is with only a minor change, a .9 inch bottom margin instead of 1 inch, a modification so minute that a non-professional reader would probably not notice that it was non-standard. To compress a bit more, let’s have only one space after each period.

Vera with extra line

A bit claustrophobic, is it not? If you don’t find it so, consider it as Millicent would: not as an individual page, isolated in space and time, but as one of the several thousand she has read that week. Lest we forget, most of the ones she will have been taking seriously will have looked like this:

Vera correctly

See it now? While Millicent is highly unlikely to have either the time or the inclination to whip out a ruler to check whether that bottom margin is really a full inch (although Mehitabel might), she will be able to tell that this page has more words on the page than the others she has seen that day. She might not be able to tell instantly precisely how this page has been modified, but she will be able to tell that something’s off.

“But Anne,” clever rule-manipulators all over North America shout, “I’ve been modifying my submissions this way for years, and nobody has ever called me out on it. Therefore, I do not believe it’s ever been a factor in my work being rejected — and it does allow me to stay under that all-important 400-page limit.”

Perhaps, rules-lawyers, but let me ask you a question: have you ever had such a manuscript accepted?

Well might some jaws drop. It’s an extremely common submitter’s misconception, especially amongst those brand-new to the game or who have only submitted pages as part of a query packet, rather than as requested materials, that if they were really doing something wrong, the rejecter would tell them so. And tell them what it is, naturally, so they could do better next time.

In these days of form-letter rejections — and even no-reply rejections — this is simply an unrealistic expectation. Unless an agent or editor is asking for the writer to revise and resubmit the manuscript (in itself something of a rarity these days), why would they take the time?

Well, yes, to be nice would be a perfectly acceptable response, from a writer’s perspective. If a well-established agent received only a hundred queries per month and asked for one manuscript — not all that uncommon a ratio thirty years ago — writing personalized rejections would be both kind and not unduly time-consuming. Presuming, of course, that the rejected writer of the month did not consider a detailed rejection an invitation to argue about the manuscripts merits.

Consider for a moment, though, the agent that receives hundreds of queries per day. See why kindly advice-giving rejection letters might have become something of a rarity?

Especially if the rejection reason had to do with a formatting error. Honestly, it would eat up half of Millicent’s screening day. Why? Well, most submissions contain at least one — formatting problems, like typos, grammar gaffes, and wolves, tend to travel in packs. Even with the best of wills, it would be prohibitively time-consuming for Millicent to scrawl try learning how to format a manuscript, honey.

No, regardless of whether the ultimate rejection trigger for VERA was that extra line per page, the second misspelling in paragraph 2, or a premise that Millicent has seen seventeen times that week, the reasons given for sending back the submission would probably run like this: I’m sorry, but this manuscript does not fit our needs at this time. I just didn’t fall in love with this story, and I don’t feel that I can sell this in the current tough market. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.

The moral of this sad, sad story: it seldom pays to assume that you’re doing it right just because you haven’t been told you are doing it wrong. It pays even less often to conclude from the generalities of a boilerplate rejection that there can’t have been any specific technical problem that caused Millicent, if not to reject it outright, then at least to take the submission less seriously.

Besides, another notorious agents’ pet peeve was lurking in the background — although in all probability, it would have irritated a contest judge far more than Millicent. Here’s the page again; see if you can spot it this time. Hint: it was not in the properly-formatted version.

Crown yourself with a laurel wreath if, while running your eyes thoughtfully over that last example, your peepers became riveted to the next-to-last line of the page: an emdash (–, one long line) instead of a doubled dash with spaces on either end. Here again, we see that the standards that apply to printed books are not applicable to manuscripts.

Which brings me to yet another moral for the day: just because a particular piece of formatting looks right to those of us who have been reading books since we were three doesn’t mean that it is correct in a manuscript. Or book proposal. Or contest entry.

Or a professional reader wouldn’t instantly spot a trifle imported from the wonderful world of published books. Remember, Millicent scans manuscripts all day; contest judges read entries for hours at a time. After a surprisingly short while, a formatting issue that might well not even catch a lay reader’s attention can begin to seem gargantuan.

Please don’t dismiss this as unimportant to your success as a writer. If writing is solid, it deserves to be free of distracting formatting choices. You want agents, editors, and contest judges to be muttering, “Wow, this is good,” over your manuscript, not “Oh, God, he doesn’t know the rules about dashes,” do you not?

Spare Millie the chagrin, please; both you and she will be the happier for it. Believe me, she could use a brilliantly-written, impeccably-formatted submission to brighten her possibly Dickensian day. Be compassionate toward her plight — and your submission’s, proposal’s, and/or contest entry’s. Pay close enough attention to the technical details that yours the submission that makes her say, “Oh, here is good writing, well presented.”

My, all of those individual grains of sand are attractive, aren’t they? Keep up the good work!

Oh, you thought I was not going to explain precisely how to enter the young writers’ contest? How long have you been reading this blog?

As I hope every young writer within the reach of my keyboard is aware, I am now and have always been deeply committed to making age no barrier to membership in the Author! Author! community. I encourage questions and comments from writers just starting out; I try to keep the voice and vocabulary here at an extremely democratic reading level; I don’t allow profanity, even in the comments, so that filter programs at libraries or parental controls won’t block readers’ access. Heck, I once wrote a three-week series on how publishing does and doesn’t work in response to an extremely intelligent question from an 13-year-old.

He’d just completed his first novel and wasn’t sure what to do with it.

I do all of this, among other reasons, because in my opinion, there’s not enough good, solid discussion of writing for the under-18 crowd. Much of what is there strikes me as, well, a trifle condescending. And despite the fact that the fine print on the back of my adult card dictates that I should believe that youthful pursuers of my chosen profession could not possibly understand how it works, I can’t think that vague advice that would have insulted my intelligence in middle or high school would be a boon for writers in middle or high school now.

Call me zany, but I’m inclined to think that a smart, sensitive, creative person is a smart, sensitive, creative person at any age. I’m also inclined to think that it’s much, much harder for young writers to rack up the types of writing credentials that impress agents than it is for adults.

That massive groan you just heard was every aspiring writer in the continental United States writhing with frustration. It’s not easy for them, either. But let’s face it, there just are not a lot of contests out there for young writers that are not academically-oriented.

Which is why this year, instead of sponsoring only one Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence competition, I’m offering two: one aimed at adult writers writing for the adult market and one for writers currently in middle school and high school, as well as those writing for readers in those age groups. Thus was the Make Us Want to Eat It Literary Competition of 2012 born, to create what we here at Author! Author! like to call Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, writing credentials that will make your query letter stand out from the crowd.

I could have just felt good about that and gone home, of course. But having talked to a lot of young writers over the years, I have learned that one of the most common reasons that they don’t enter the few contests out there is that they’re afraid they are not going to put the entry together right.

At the risk of having my adult card revoked, allow me to let you in on a little secret: adult aspiring writers harbor that fear, too. In fact, they’re a bit more likely to be afraid of what a contest judge or agent will say; if they have been trying to get published for a while, they have probably been rejected quite a bit. And while anyone currently working within the publishing industry could tell them — and you — that getting rejected is a perfectly normal experience for writers that later end up selling their books to perfectly reputable publishers, it still hurts to hear no.

So many aspiring writers of all ages just give up, believing — not always correctly — that their work got rejected because their writing wasn’t good enough. Or because the market just wasn’t buying books like theirs. Or due to some deep hatred the staff at the agency of their dreams feels toward innovative prose stylings.

In practice, though, many, if not most, rejections do not stem from any of these sources — or, indeed, have much to do with what a writer would consider quality of writing. Queries and manuscripts get rejected all the time for purely technical reasons. Misspellings, for instance, or grammar problems. Lack of clarity. Overuse of clich?s. Not punctuating dialogue correctly. Not having been sent to an agent that represents that type of book.

Or — and this is one of the most common rejection triggers of all — not presenting the writing professionally.

Actually, I think younger writers have an easier time understanding technical rejections than those of us who have been kicking around the world longer typically do. Students are constantly running up against seemingly arbitrary rules and snap judgments. It may not be fair, but on the whole, smart kids learn to regard silly regulations and stereotyping philosophically. They’re just a part of going to school.

They’re just a part of holding a job, too, but writers often forget that professional writing is in fact a profession, with rules and standards just like any other. All too often, aspiring writers fall into the trap of believing that the publishing industry in general and agencies in particular are non-profit enterprises, selflessly devoted to the promotion of literature. So when an agent responds to a well-written manuscript like the businessperson she is, saying that she does not think she can sell it in the current literary market, aspiring writers often react with horror.

Or by giving up. Or by assuming that all agencies and publishing houses are uninterested in previously-unpublished writers. Or all of the above.

The fact is, though, that good writing by unknown writers gets published all the time. Previously-unpublished writers land agents literally every day. But I’m not going to lie to you: among the other factors that separate these writers’ manuscripts from, well, everybody else’s is that they are spelled correctly, grammatically sound, clearly written, free of clich?s, contain properly punctuated dialogue, and have been submitted to an agent that represents that type of book.

Oh, and they’re virtually always formatted correctly. In publishing circles, having taken the time to learn how book manuscripts are supposed to look is considered a sign of seriousness in a writer.

Which is why, in case you had been wondering, I spend so much time here on the blog talking about — wait for it — spelling, grammar, clarity, clich? avoidance, dialogue, and book category. And perhaps my favorite topic of all, standard format for book manuscripts. (Which, contrary to popular online opinion, is not identical to either what a published book looks like or proper format for short stories and articles.) I want my readers’ writing to be taken seriously.

In order to encourage learning the skills that will help them be taken seriously, I both explain the rules of standard format frequently and at great length here (with visual examples!) and require entrants in Author! Author! contests to format their entries correctly. Why, just the other day, I wrote aimed at helping entrants in the adult contest adhere to the rules of standard format. It’s not enough, I think, merely to provide writers with the opportunity to pick up some ECQLC; I want their manuscripts to be able to wow everybody’s favorite agency screener, Millicent. Like most of us that read manuscripts for a living, she’s distracted by improper formatting.

Which is a much better way to think of having to learn the rules of putting a manuscript together than to dismiss them as unimportant or ridiculous: not presenting your pages properly will make Millicent concentrate on something other than your good writing. She might not reject a submission or disqualify a contest entry on that basis alone, but it will almost certainly — chant it with me now, those of you who have been paying attention — take it less seriously.

Do I spot some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” those of you brand-new to the writing world will protest, “how do I get started? I’m more than willing to learn, but I’m frightened that Millicent won’t treat my early attempts with scorn. Why isn’t there a less high-stakes way I can try out my new presentation skills than sending my manuscript to an agency?”

Ah, but there is, bright rookies. You can enter a writing contest for practice.

Less intimidating than risking rejection, is it not? To make it even less scary, tell you what I’m going to do: for the rest of today’s post, I’m going to walk you through every syllable of the rules for Make Us Want to Eat It Literary Competition, giving you visual examples of how to apply those guidelines to your contest entry. And if you have questions, please ask them — I honestly do want to render the learning process as easy for you as possible.

Just remember to thank me on the Acknowledgements page of your first published book, okay?

Everybody ready? Okay, here goes. The contest’s rulesare in boldface; my explanations and helpful hints are in regular text.

The Make Us Want to Eat It Literary Competition of 2012

As I mentioned when I announced the previous contest for adult writing, although people experience life via all of their senses — sight, sound, taste, smell, touch — many, many of the manuscripts those of us who read them for a living see on a daily basis seem to assume that characters can only see and hear. Or that readers expect to know nothing about a character’s sensations except what an actor might be able to convey to us if we saw him playing that character on T.V.

But you’re a better writer than that, aren’t you? And you’re certainly a better reader.

This opening bit might not seem as though it’s important, but often, writing contest organizers will tell entrants up front what they want to see in a winning entry. It’s a good idea, then, not just to zoom in on the rules. It’s an even better idea to come back after you have finished writing your entry and re-read how the contest is presented, to make sure that what you are planning to send matches what the organizers are seeking.

This contest’s opening paragraphs will show you why: this says point-blank that the judges will be looking for entries that use all of the human senses in their descriptions. That means, in practice, that no matter how good the writing may be in the scene you were planning to enter, it’s unlikely to win unless the main character or the narration experiences what’s going on through many different sense organs — eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin.

That’s the goal of the contest. Let’s move on to see if the contest’s organizers have told us how they want us to achieve that goal.

Because I’m pretty confident that my readers are good at writing about what it’s like to be alive, I’m calling for young writers and adults that write for young readers to enter short scenes — anywhere from 2 to 8 pages in length — that present food in a manner that incorporates more than two senses.

Here’s the catch: the scene can’t take place in a kitchen — or at a dining table.

Why? Because I’d love to see you exercise your creativity, that’s why. That’s my idea of a proper reader-oriented spectator sport.

Ah, now we know what the entry will need to be: a 2-8 page scene about food, set somewhere other than a kitchen or table. Since it would be really, really easy to spend your entire writing time just coming up with new material for literary contests, the first thing a savvy writer should do with this kind of information is ask: have I already written a scene that might meet this description?

If the answer is no, that’s fine; this is a short enough page limit that you could write something fresh before the deadline (which, although we haven’t yet gotten to it in the rules, is September 30th). But your next question should be: do I have enough time to write a scene that I like before the entry is due?

Please consider this question carefully; it’s more important than most contest entrants realize. Having been a very good English student, I’m perfectly aware that it is in fact possible to toss off something good enough at the last minute — oh, as if you’ve never done that with a class assignment! — but in a writing contest that’s not for school, it really isn’t worth your time to do a half-hearted job. If you don’t think you will have the time to create something that you will be proud to share with the world, you’ll be better off investing your creative energies in something else.

Yes, yes, I know: pretty much every teacher you have ever had will have told you something different on this point. But writing for a reading audience is a completely different thing than writing for a grade; it takes one heck of a lot of bravery to bare your creations to the world.

Why? Well, readers will be basing 100% of their impressions of you upon those pages. You’re going to want them to see your writing at its absolute best, right?

While you are mulling over that one, let’s see if there are other restrictions on what you can enter. After all, you might be able to adapt something you already have on your hard drive.

In order to give young writers more freedom to stretch those creative limbs, you may enter either fiction or nonfiction. (Sorry, adult writers: you may enter only YA fiction. You can always enter your memoir in this summer’s adult contest ) If you are entering memoir and don’t want to use your real name, it’s fine to use a fake one; just make sure that you let us know, so we announce the right name when you win.

Either way, no profanity, please — and please have all of your characters fully clothed. I want to keep this site accessible for young writers whose parents have set up content filters on their computers. So if you wouldn’t want your parents to find a YouTube video of you doing something your characters do, give it a pass in the entry, okay?

My, that’s a lot of information a contest entrant in too much of a hurry to read anything but the numbered rules might have missed, isn’t it? (Try saying that sentence three times fast. I dare you.) Basically, it’s saying that the rules are different for adults that write for young readers and for young writers: if you’re in middle or high school, you can enter everything from a completely made-up piece of writing or one that’s a direct transcript of something that happened to you. Except, of course, without any swearing.

And you don’t even have to do it under your own name! Talk about risk-free.

If this is starting to sound as though I’m asking you to have an active conversation with any writing contest’s rules, you’re catching on. Literary competition organizers assume that writers can read really well; they will expect a winning entrant to have sat down with the rules and made a list of what is required. Being a passive reader — or, even more common, just giving a quick glance at the rules and assuming that you know what they are asking — is not a good strategy for pleasing contest judges.

Or anyone that reads for a living, for that matter. You would not believe how many college essays get bad grades because the student seems not to have understood the question being asked. A good half the time, students will just glance at an essay question, pick out a few words here and there — and go on to write an answer to the question they expected to be asked, not the one the professor actually did. This type of bad reading is so common that when I was teaching at a large state university with a rather well-known football team, the graders had an acronym to scrawl at the ends of tests that had this problem: R.T.F.Q.

It stood for read the question. (Hey, I told you this was a family-friendly blog.)

Now that we know in broad terms what the contest organizers want us to do, let’s see what’s in it for us if we win:

Winners will not only receive fabulous prizes (hold your horses; we’re getting to those), but may have their scenes and accompanying synopses both published and critiqued in a post here at Author! Author! for all the world to see and admire. And, if you’re a student, we’re going to recognize the teacher you feel has helped you most with your writing as well.

The grand prize winner in each category will receive a half-hour Mini Consult in order to discuss any aspect of writing. That means I will read up to 20 pages of your writing — a query? A synopsis? The opening pages of the manuscript you’ve been writing? — and call or Skype you in order to have a lovely, long talk about it. I’m also going to post your winning entry here on Author! Author! and tell everyone you know just how terrific your writing is.

Talk about having your writing taken seriously! This is your chance to get a professional editor take a look at your writing — not just the contest entry, but any writing you choose — and give you feedback. And since anything posted online is technically published (and this blog is pretty well respected in publishing circles, if I do say so myself), not only will thousands of people be able to read your entry, but you will have a publishing credential.

Think how good that’s going to look in a query letter someday. Not to mention on a college application.

It’s always a good idea, though, to find out what entries that don’t win top honors will get. Let’s take a gander.

First and second place winners will have their entries posted and critiqued on this blog.

Third place winners will receive copies of The Diary of Marie Landry, Acadian Exile

So you don’t have to win the whole thing in order to get feedback on your work. Even better, if you choose to enter under a pen name, you can get that feedback anonymously — yet still use the contest placing years from now, when you are querying agents under your own name. (Had I mentioned that in the literary world, there’s no expiration date on writing credentials? Or pointed out that the name of the contest says nothing about how old you were when you won or placed in it?)

All winners will also be asked to nominate the teacher that they feel helped them most in their quest to become a writer. Choose carefully: if the nominated teachers agree, I shall posting their names, a short bio, and a photograph here at Author! Author!, thanking them publicly for having done such a good job with these students. The judges and I shall also be putting our heads together on a pretty fabulous certificate of appreciation, recognizing the teacher as one of the great encouragers of future authors.

Obviously, this means that you will eventually have to ask the teacher’s permission, but if you’re shy — and many, many writers are — you don’t need to do that until after you have won. And then it’s going to be a pretty pain-free question, “Hey, how would you like international recognition for being a great teacher?”

Incidentally, adult YA writers, this part applies to you, too. As the rules go on to explain:

And yes, I do mean all winners, even in the adult writers of YA category. You think their favorite teachers shouldn’t be recognized? I couldn’t disagree more.

Hadn’t I mentioned that my mother was not only an editor, but also my junior high school librarian? Or that my completely fabulous seventh-grade English teacher is still one of my heroes?

Congratulations: you’ve made it through the contest’s description. That already gives you a significantly greater chance of winning or placing than the average entrant, regardless of age. Let’s move on to the more nit-picky rules.

Here are the specific steps required to win. Do read them all carefully, and post any questions you may have.

1. Write or select a scene no more than eight pages in length from your manuscript or manuscript-in-progress that best shows off a sense-based description of food.

Did that make the sharper-eyed among you do a double-take? If so, good for you: someone who read only the numbered rules might not have caught what you just did.

Oh, you missed it? Earlier, the contest’s description said that the entry must be 2-8 pages. In Rule #1, however, the phrasing leaves open the logical possibility that you could enter a 1-page story. (Don’t laugh; perhaps because reading contest entries is really, really time-consuming, there are plenty of writing competitions out there that call for what are called short-short stories.)

Literary contest rules do this kind of thing all the time, saying the rules calls for something in one part of the contest’s description and something else in another part. See why it might be a good idea to read everything the contest organizers post, making a list of requirements as you go?

That’s not a bad approach to answering an essay question for school, by the way, especially if it’s a question you’re expected to take a long time to answer. Read it in its entirety, making a list of all of the things it is asking you to do. If you are taking the test in a blue book, you might even want to construct an outline for your essay — college professors routinely give partial credit for items mentioned in outlines that a student did not have time to include in the answer. Then start writing.

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about the skills a writer has to learn to work as a professional being helpful in school. And that Godzilla-like shriek you’re hearing is all of the adults reading this wishing someone had explained about reading the whole question to them when they were in school.

“But Anne,” some of you ask, cradling your weary heads, “which of these two rules should I follow? Since it implies at some point in the contest rules that I can enter a single page, I’m safe if I do, right?”

Actually, usually not. When in doubt, go with the more restrictive rule.

So in this instance (which, if I’m honest about it, I didn’t notice until I began writing this post; that particular species of conflict-blindness is also not all that uncommon on contest websites), that would mean sticking with the 2-8 pages. But what length of pages does that mean? Let’s see if the rules address that.

How will you figure length? Glad you asked.

2. Pages must be double-spaced in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier., with one-inch margins and a slug line at the top containing your last name/title/page #.

That’s pretty specific, isn’t it? The left and right margins must be 1″. So must the top and bottom margins. It must be in one of the fonts mentioned here — which are, incidentally, the standard ones for the book publishing industry. It must also contain what the pros call a slug line: the entrant’s last name, separated by a slash, followed by the title of the piece (or the book from which it comes), slash, plus the page number.

Would it surprise you to learn that even with the requirements spelled out this much, many contest entries will disqualify themselves? (Again, most contest entrants don’t read the rules very closely.) So you don’t run that risk, here’s what the result would look like in 10th-grader Ima Newatit’s entry. If you’re having trouble seeing all of the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

So far Ima has followed the rules pretty well, right? But wait — has she? The rules continue:

All pages must be numbered, in accordance with standard format for book manuscripts.

“Good,” Ima says with satisfaction. “I looked up what a slug line is — if Anne hadn’t just described it here, there are many examples of how to do it under the SLUG LINE ILLUSTRATED category on the archive list conveniently placed at the lower right-hand side of this page — and it always contains the page number. So my formatting work is done, right?”

Actually, it isn’t, Ima, as you would know had you followed the link the contest organizers so thoughtfully placed in that rule, leading you to the rules of standard format. Since most contest entrants would have done precisely as you did, however, let’s move on. That way, we can see just how disastrous the effects of not reading the rules in their entirety can be.

3. All entries must be in English.
Whether you choose to write in American English, Canadian English, or U.K. English, however, is entirely up to you. Just let us know which — and make sure it’s spelled correctly.

Oh, this is an interesting one: it tells us that we can expect entries to be coming from all over the English-speaking world, as well as that the judges will expect Ima to have spell-checked her entry. (Always a good idea, right?) When a contest’s rules go out of its way to mention this, it usually means that the judges will stop reading after the first or second misspelling or grammar mistake.

That’s pretty common for college applications as well, by the way. In fact, e-mails from adults that you may have seen to the contrary, in the literate world, spelling always counts. So does grammar.

And think about it: why should Millicent take a writer seriously if he hasn’t taken the time to spell-check? If her boss, the agent of that writer’s dreams, did pick him up as a client, who does he think will correct the typos? Not the agent.

There’s another, less obvious contest requirement here, though, something that might also disqualify an entry from a writer that did not read carefully. Any guesses?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, crying, “I know! Even if I’m sending this from within the U.S., I must say that I am writing in American English,” you deserve a gold star for the day. Publishers, agents, and contest organizers alike virtually always expect submissions to be in the form of English prevailing in the city in which they operate. So pervasive is this expectation that most of the time, agency submission guidelines and contest rules will not even mention it. They’ll just consider spellings from other places wrong.

Since this contest’s rules made a point of talking about it, Ima should assume that this restriction is going to be taken seriously at judging time — and that she can’t just presume that if she doesn’t specify, American English is the default setting. She needs to say.

But where? Relax; we’ll be getting to that later in the rules. Let’s keep going through them in the order they were presented.

4. The scene must center on food, but it cannot take place in a kitchen or at a dining table.
That should sound familiar, right?

Why, yes, it does: we talked about that one earlier. But let me ask you: do you think that Ima’s entry is focused enough on food to qualify? Yes, she’s just eaten a big sandwich, but that happened before the scene began.

I’m not going to answer that one — it’s a genuine judgment call. That means it’s up to you, creative writer.

5. The scene must include depictions of at least two human senses, but cannot include any profanity or references to sexual activity.
No exceptions. Humans have a lot of other senses. Remember, too, that the judges will be looking for a variety of senses to be addressed in the scene.

“Check,” Ima says, “check, and check. Moving right along…”

Not so fast, Ima. Yes, this entry is free of the forbidden elements, but let’s go through and count the number of senses used. Since the contest is specifically focused upon sensation, it’s a good idea to double-check. Sound is highlighted in green, touch in yellow, sight in purple, and taste in gray.

Ima didn’t do so badly here, did she? She has definitely included more than two senses. But did you notice how the second page keeps alternating between just touch and hearing? In a contest devoted to writing about sensation, the judges are probably going to want her to mix it up more.

“But Anne!” I hear some of you shout, and who could blame you? “Why didn’t you highlight all of that food in the first paragraph? Surely, that’s sense-based detail.”

Actually, it isn’t — it’s just a list of sandwich ingredients. It would be possible for the reader to guess what each tasted like, but here, Ima seems to be going out of her way not to describe them.

Now that you’ve read the text of her entry through twice (at least, I hope you have), though, did you happen to catch the typo that would have disqualified this entry in most contests? Hint: it’s in line 6 of page 1.

The swimming pool stretched out before him, the stench of chlorine rising from its depths.

See it now? Clearly, in an earlier draft, this scene was about a boy.

Yes, it’s a relatively simple leftover from that earlier version, but contest judges, like Millicents, don’t really care why typos happen. It’s not their job, after all. And since this is not a gaffe that a spell-checker would have caught, what should Ima have done here?

Take 14 stars out of petty cash if you exclaimed, “Why, she should have read her entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD!” Yes, even for a contest that accepts only electronic entries. Since the human eye reads about 70% faster on a backlit screen than on a page, it’s quite a bit more difficult to catch small blunders like this if you’re only rereading your work on your computer screen.

And no, it’s not safe to assume that a contest judge or Millicent will not spot it in an electronic entry. They read for a living; trust them to be good at it. Besides, it’s not all that unusual for the finalists in an e-mailed-entry contest to get printed out so the judges can discuss them in a face-to-face meeting.

So a word to the wise: proofread. Always.

6. Polish your scene to a high gloss and save it as a Word document, as a .doc file.
Only .doc entries in Word will be accepted — not TextEdit, PDF, or any other formats, please. Please title the Word file your name and the abbreviated title of your book (Austen Pride & Prejudice), not just as contest entry or the ever-popular Anne Mini contest (The last time I ran a contest like this, I received 42 entries with one of the other file name.)

All of this is fairly self-explanatory, I hope — and even if a contest’s rules do not specify file format, it’s usually a better bet to send your work as a .doc file than as .docx. That way, it will be possible for someone running any of the last decade’s worth of Word versions to open it.

Oh, you may laugh, but believe it or not, many, many offices devoted to the promotion and production of books do not operate on the most recent versions of any word processing program. Heck, I know agents still working with Windows 95.

7. In a separate Word document, give your name, state (or country, if entering from outside the U.S.), age, name of your school (if you are enrolled in one), and e-mail address, as well as the category you are entering.

That seems fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? Yet here again, we can see the benefits of reading all of the rules, not just the numbered ones.

Oh, you didn’t spot what’s missing from this list? How about some mention of what English-speaking country’s version of the language the entrant will be using?

If you have been jotting down contest requirements — and you should be — make sure that you get each and every element on that list. It’s not at all unheard-of for writing contest entries to get disqualified, or at least knocked out of finalist consideration, because the writer simply forgot some technical bit like this. It may not have anything to do with the quality of the writing in the entry, but remember, in order to make a living as a writer, you’re going to have to be able to follow your agent and editor’s directions. This is one place that a writer demonstrates a willingness to do that.

One of the most common omissions in an entry: the category. This drives contest organizers nuts by making it harder to make sure that the entry ends up in the right judge’s hands. Since it’s in your best interest that it does turn up in the right place — almost universally, if a contest entry is not categorized correctly, it will be disqualified — why not make their lives as easy as possible?

To that laudable end, let’s take a peek at the categories, shall we?

Telling the judges the category will save a lot of confusion. The possible categories are:

Category I: Fiction on food by writers currently attending or about to enroll in middle school

Category II: Nonfiction/Memoir on food by writers currently attending or about to enroll in middle school

Category III: Fiction on food by writers currently attending or about to enroll in high school

Category IV: Nonfiction/Memoir on food by writers currently attending or about to enroll in high school

In theory, it should be quite simple to figure out which category to enter, right? Ima has only to match her grade with the category, then choose the fiction or nonfiction category, as appropriate. Yet you would be surprised at how often writers will glance at a list like this — which often, like this one, contain repeated words and phrases — and select the wrong option. Since this can get an entry disqualified, make sure to read carefully,

Hmm, where have I heard that before?

You have noticed, I hope, that in this section, the rules have not said whether this page needs to be in a particular typeface or have a specific format. When in doubt, though, it will look more professional if you submit any extra materials in the same format as the entry itself. So Ima’s second document would look like this:

Even though Ima had more room here, and the rules didn’t specifically rule out using a different font, sticking with the same as the entry is less distracting. Remember, people in publishing don’t consider typeface in a manuscript a legitimate stylistic choice. You’re better off sticking to the ones they are used to seeing.

Part of reading closely — and of jotting down notes as you do — involves figuring out whether any of the rules listed don’t apply to the category you are entering. But you can’t know whether you can afford to skip a section unless you read it all, right?

Category V: YA fiction on food by adult writers
If you are entering Category V, please see Rules #8 and #9. Everyone else can skip to Rule #10.

8. If you are entering in the adult writer category, on the same page as the material in Rule #7, please include a 1-paragraph explanation of how the scene you are entering fits into the overall story of the book.
This is the only chance you’re going to get to set up the scene for the judges, so make it count!

9. If you are entering in the adult writer category, on the second page of the document described in #7, please include a synopsis of no more than 1 page, giving the judges an overview of the book’s premise, its main characters, and its central conflict.
Again, this synopsis must be in standard format. If you are unfamiliar with either standard format or how to write a 1-page synopsis, you will find explanations (along with examples) under the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT and HOW TO WRITE A 1-PAGE SYNOPSIS categories on the archive list located on the right-hand side of this page.

Since all of these rules apply only to the adult YA writers’ category, Ima may safely disregard them. (But if any of you adult writers have questions about what to do here, please drop me a line in the comments.)

Rule #10, however, applies to everybody. And wow, does it have major implications!

10. Make sure that both documents are properly formatted: precisely as they would appear in a manuscript submission.
Part of the goal here is to help young writers learn how to submit their work professionally. If it is not double-spaced, in 12-point type, and featuring a slug line (Author’s last name/book title/page #) in each page’s header, the judges will not consider the entry.

At first glance, this reads like Rule #1, doesn’t it? But actually, it clarifies why the contest’s organizers wanted entrants to follow that link to the rules of standard format: in order to win this contest, we now learn, it’s not enough for the manuscript to be double-spaced, with one-inch margins all around and a slug line in the header. It has to be in standard format for book manuscripts.

How is that different? To save you some clicking time, here are the restrictions of standard format (which, again, are not the same as the proper format for short stories or articles). As we go through them, I shall keep modifying Ima’s entry, to reflect each new rule.

a) Standard format for manuscripts is not identical to the format of a published book; book manuscripts differ from published books in many important respects and for many reasons. To a classically-trained agent or editor, presentation is not a matter of style: what may appear to a writer to be a cool, self-expressive choice will strike a professional reader as a distraction from the writing.

b) All manuscripts should be typed or printed in black ink on 20-lb or heavier white paper. (I encourage my clients to use bright white 24-lb paper; it doesn’t wilt.)

c) All manuscripts are double-spaced, with 1-inch margins on all four edges.

d) All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page and are unbound in any way.

No worries here: we knew about (a) and (c) already, right? And (b) and (d) don’t apply to contest that accepts only e-mailed entries. No text change required yet, therefore. Let’s move on.

e) The text should be left-justified, not block-justified. The left margin should be straight, the right uneven.

Actually, Ima’s text did this one pretty much automatically: a straight left margin (meaning that every line of the text starts at the same point on the page) and an uneven right margin (although 1 inch is the smallest the white space can be, every line ends at a different point, as the words in it dictate) is the default setting for Word. Just to make sure that everyone understands what’s being requested here, let’s take a look at what Ima’s page would look like block-justified, as you might see it in a published book or magazine.

Making that right margin fall in a straight line down the page does all kinds of strange things to the spacing within the lines of text, doesn’t it? If you’re having trouble spotting it, check out the pages above again, then take a gander at the same pages with the proper ragged right margin.

Everybody clear on the difference now? If not, please speak up.

While you are thinking about whether to ask a question, let’s zoom through a few rules that should by now seem awfully familiar.

e) The preferred typefaces for manuscripts are 12-point Times New Roman or Courier.

f) No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type, keep the entire manuscript in the same font and typeface.

g) Each page should feature a standard slug line in the header, preferably left-justified: Author’s Last Name/Title/#
This should appear in the same plain 12-point type as the rest of the manuscript. The page number should appear in the slug line and nowhere else on the page.

We’ve already taken care of all of those under Rule #1, right? And the next few rules, as it happens, do not apply to this contest. Just so you will know how your book’s manuscript should be formatted, though, let’s give them a quick once-over.

h) Every page in the manuscript should be numbered except the title page. Do not include it in a page count. The first page of text is page 1, regardless of whether it is the beginning of Chapter 1 or a preface.

i) The first page of a chapter should begin a third of the way down the page, with the chapter title centered at the top.

j) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, not page 1.

Got all of that filed away in your brainpan for future use? Good. Here’s something more directly applicable to entering this contest:

k) The beginning of each paragraph should be indented .5 inch, including the first paragraph of each chapter, no matter what you have seen in a published book.

l) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs, except to indicate a section break.

m) Section breaks are formed by skipping one double-spaced line, not by # # # or any other marker UNLESS you are writing a short story, article, or entering a contest that requires the inclusion of a specific symbol.

We’ve already taken care of these, right? The first lines of all of Ima’s paragraphs are indented (instead of being lined up against the left margin, as they would be in an e-mail), so there is no need to skip a line between paragraphs (as, again, you usually need to do in an e-mail, because most e-mail programs discourage indented text). And since this contest calls for just one scene, and section breaks come between scenes, (m) is not likely to be relevant here.

n) Do not use boldface anywhere but on the title page — and even there, it’s optional.

o) Words in foreign languages should be italicized, as should emphasized words and titles of copyrighted works like songs. Nothing in the text should be underlined.

Ima has gotten all of these right, too. The easiest way to remember these two rules: don’t do anything fancy to your text, if you can possibly help it — or unless you are borrowing a title (from a song or a publication) or a phrase from another language (sacre bleu!). While you can use italics to emphasize words (I’m so angry!), it’s usually not the best strategy in a contest entry: judges, agents, and editors tend to prefer writing that relies upon words for meaning, not italics that tell the reader how to read them.

Still hanging in there? Good, because our example has violated the last two rules of standard format — and in this contest, that could result in disqualification. Take a peek:

p) All numbers under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25.

q) Dashes should be doubled — hyphens are single, as in self-congratulatory. Dashes should also have spaces at each end — rather than—like this.

Didn’t spot either in the last example, did you? If so, I’m not surprised — since these are peculiarities of book manuscripts, they usually only jump out at those of us that read professional writing for a living. But remember how I said earlier that formatting your writing like a pro will make it look more polished to Millicent?

To everyone else, the differences will be pretty subtle, I admit. Here’s Ima’s entry again, completely in standard format.

I sense some of you rolling your eyes, and frankly, I can’t really blame you. From the writer’s side of the submission desk, it’s not apparent why these changes are necessary. But from the editor’s side, it couldn’t be plainer: both (p) and (q) are guarantees that a typesetter in a hurry won’t misread the author’s intended symbols.

And congratulations — you have now learned all of the rules necessary not only to enter this contest, but also to submit a manuscript to an agency in the U.S. That wasn’t such a painful learning curve, was it?

Okay, perhaps I don’t really want a reply to that question. Let’s finish up the rest of the rules of the contest.

11. Attach both Word documents to an e-mail.
Please include FOOD! and the category number in the subject line. Please also mention the category In the body of the e-mail. (It makes it easier to process the entries.)

Make sure to say who you are, too, so we don’t get entries mixed up. It’s also a nice touch to say something pleasant (like “Howdy, Anne!”) in the e-mail itself. Just a nice habit for a writer to have acquired before starting to work with an agent.

Yes, these are just logistical requests, now that you mention it; they don’t really have anything to do with the writing in your entry. But honestly, it’s a false saving of energy to ignore common-sense rules like this. Just trust that the contest’s organizers have good reasons for asking — you wouldn’t believe how much more interesting it is for me to receive entries with notes attached — and be polite enough to honor these requests.

And if you’re not naturally polite enough to go along with this, consider: a contest entrant can never know for sure whether ignoring rules like this will get an entry disqualified. I’m just saying.

12. E-mail the whole shebang to contest(at)annemini(dot)com by Sunday, September 30, 2012, at midnight in your time zone. If you are entering more than one category, please submit each entry in a separate e-mail.

Don’t even try to push a deadline in a writing contest — they’re not movable. But in a web-based contest like this one, it’s always worth checking a few days before an entry deadline to see if it’s been extended. Surprisingly often, they are.

13. Because winners will also be awarded life-long bragging rights and coveted ECQLC , the judges reserve the right to award as many (or as few) prizes as the quality and quantity of the entry pool in any given category warrants.
That’s a fancy way of saying that if we don’t receive enough wonderful entries in one of the categories, we may not give an award for it. So you might want to urge your friends to enter.

Most contests will include statements like this, although usually not with the motivations behind them so clearly explained. Since contest organizers tend to value their prizes quite highly — even if the monetary value of the prize is low, they want a contest win to count for something special — it’s not at all unusual for organizers to add a clause saying that if the overall quality of the entries is not high enough, they will not award one or more of the prizes. It’s also pretty common for writing contests, especially those that ask readers to vote for winners, to eliminate a category if not enough people respond. Read carefully before you enter.

But that’s the overall moral of today’s exceedingly lengthy lesson, isn’t it? Be an active reader of contest rules, and you’re much more likely to end up in the winner’s circle.

And again, if any of this does not make complete sense to you, please ask. Helping aspiring writers is what I’m here to do, after all. Best of luck with your entries — and, as always, keep up the good work!

I know I can write — so why should I care about format in a contest entry? Or a submission to an agency, for that matter?

Every since I announced Author! Author!’s Sensual Surfeit Literary Competition of 2012 a couple of weeks ago, I have been barraged with questions. Admittedly, these questions have not, by and large, been posted as comments here on the blog — where, say, my response to them might be visible to potential entrants other than the one that happened to buttonhole me in a bookstore or e-mail me privately. (The comment section is there for a reason, people!)

If seven years of blogging (as of next month) have taught me anything, though, it’s that for every one aspiring writer brave enough to post a question or accost me in a dark alley, demanding literary answers, there are hundreds or even thousands that never work up the nerve to ask. Or perhaps have not yet progressed from a vague feeling of discomfort to a fully-formulated question. Or, as those that come up and tap me on the shoulder at the grocery store keep insisting is their problem, simply not having the time or the patience to type out a nuanced concern on the tiny keyboards of their smartphones in between quick peeks at the blog.

Whatever the reason, I worry about all of those shy questioners. Writing for a contest entry — or for publication — is a pretty complex business; it’s not as though I could just toss off a 500-word column that would answer every conceivable question floating around out there in the ether. As much as fans of brevity might like me to make the attempt (oh, those people comment!), there are plenty of websites out there that profess to tell aspiring writers everything they need to know about formatting a manuscript or writing a successful contest entry in just a few hundred words, if not a few dozen bullet points, that I have no qualms about not adding to the number.

Besides, in my experience, pretending that complex matters are simple just confuses people. As my extensive archives (conveniently organized by category at the lower right-hand side of this page) demonstrate, I’m perfectly happy being the blogger that aspiring writers seek out for detailed answers to difficult questions.

But in order for me to do that, I need to know what those questions are.

And no, I’m not always able to guess. As I have pointed out many times in this very forum, the issues I might speculate that my readers would like me to address are not necessarily those that would occur to someone brand-new to the challenges of entering a writing contest or submitting to an agency.

Why? Well, to those of us that read manuscripts for a living, matters of formatting and style are fairly self-evident: like our old pals, Millicent, the agency screener, and Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge, I have seen so many professionally-formatted, beautifully-written manuscript pages, as well as myriads that missed the mark, that I can tell at a glance if something’s off. And, like Millie and Hitty, if something’s off with the presentation, it makes it harder for me to concentrate upon the writing itself.

Well might you roll your eyes, contest entrants and submitters: ideally, it would be nice if all that counted in a submission or entry were the writing itself. But Millie, Hitty, and I all know that’s not a realistic expectation — and, frankly, that we would not be doing aspiring writers any favors in the long run if we pretended presentation did not count. Millicent knows that in order for her boss, the agent of your dreams, to be able to sell your manuscript to an editor, it would first need to be free of typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors; Mehitabel is aware that if an entry she likes is to have a fighting chance in the finalist round, it must adhere to the contest’s rules.

And my years of experience helping writers move from concept to publication have taught me that if I just nodded and smiled when those writers insisted that it was a waste of their time to adhere to the rigors of standard format for book manuscripts, they would have gotten rejected by Millicent before their good writing had a chance to impress her. Because there’s just no getting around the fact that to a professional reader, improper presentation is every bit as eye-distracting as a page that repeats the word being on every other line or never contains a single correct spelling of either.

So it honestly wasn’t merely a matter of nit-pickery when I included in the rules for this season’s adult writing competition the stark requirement that entries must be in standard format for book manuscripts, in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. Work that is not double-spaced, contains shrunken margins, or otherwise differs from standard format will be disqualified. Nor was it an accident when I included a link to the rules of standard format immediately thereafter.

A lesser writing contest organizer might have left it at that. So might a writing guru with less experience fielding questions from aspiring writers. But I know that everybody learns slightly differently — and not everyone has the time, patience, or web access minutes left this month to follow such a link.

I know, in short, enough to ask those of you contemplating entering the contest: how many of you have ever actually seen a professionally-formatted book manuscript in person? Or a contest entry that won a major prize?

I thought not. So today, for your viewing pleasure, I am going to walk potential entrants (and anyone else that might be interested) through the contest rules, giving visual examples of how an entry that clung to them tenaciously would look on the page.

That’s right, campers: today, I’m going to show you the technical side of how to win.

You’re welcome. And please, should anything in this set of explanations puzzle you, even for an instant, do me a favor and leave a comment asking for clarification. Believe me, if you are wondering, others will be, too. And I can’t answer questions I don’t know readers have.

(Okay, so I frequently do. Humor me this time, will ya?)

One caveat before we start: for reasons best known to itself, my blogging program chooses to reproduce page shots small, dark, and inexplicably blurry. I’ve cleaned them up as best I can, but since the details are the point here, I would strenuously advise those of you reading this on a computer to hold down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly to enlarge the images. (Those of you reading this on smartphones are on your own.)

Everyone seated comfortably? Excellent. Let’s begin where all sensible contest entrants start when figuring out how to pull together a contest entry, at the top of the rules.

The Sensual Surfeit Literary Competition of 2012

Although the last time any of us here at Author! Author! checked, human beings experience the known world through their sensory organs, the overwhelming majority of manuscripts seem to rely mostly upon just two: sight and sound. That’s understandable, of course, since the world is stuffed to the gills with television, online, and movie storylines that must depend upon only those two senses to convey meaning. On the printed page, however, there’s seldom a reason for a narrative to limit itself to only what could be observed on a screen.

In order to encourage aspiring writers to incorporate more senses — and more specific sense-oriented detail — in their manuscripts, the Sensual Surfeit Literary Competition of 2012 is calling upon you to wow the judges with just how thoroughly you can make them feel that they are there for one scene in your book.

The catch: it cannot be a scene that contains overtly sexual activity. Find other ways to engage the senses. And the scene in question must be 8 pages or less.

Winners will not only receive fabulous prizes (hold your horses; we’re getting to those), but may have their scenes and accompanying synopses both published and critiqued in a post here at Author! Author! for all the world to see and admire. To be specific:

The grand prize winner in each category will receive a half-hour Mini Consult on a query, synopsis, and first 10 pages of the manuscript from which the winning scene was excerpted, as well as having the winning entry, bio, and an author photo posted on Author! Author!

First and second place winners will have their entries posted and critiqued on this blog.

Third place winners will receive copies of Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery.

That’s pretty self-explanatory so far, is it not? The crux of the contest entry is a scene of 8 pages or less that contains nicely-written and creatively-conceived writing about the senses. Smut disallowed.

And already, I spot a forest of hands sprouting up out there. “But Anne,” those of you new to how people in publishing paginate point out, and rightly so, “why doesn’t this contest give a word count as a guideline, instead of a maximum page count? After all, 8 pages single-spaced would contain quite a few more words than the same number of pages triple-spaced — and my computer can produce type in a wide array of sizes, ranging from very small to very large. So am I reading the rules correctly to say that as long as I can cram everything I want to say onto 8 pages, it’s fair game?”

In a word, no. Contest judges are like Goldilocks: they like those pages to be just right.

What would just right mean in this context? Let’s scroll down to the specific rules and see if they offer any further elucidation.

1. Select a scene no more than eight pages in length from your manuscript or manuscript-in-progress that best demonstrates the use of sense-oriented description and/or imagery. Scenes may be excerpted from any point in the book, but do be aware that the judges will be assessing the writing by only this scene and your synopsis (see Step #5).

Pages must be in standard format for book manuscripts, in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. Work that is not double-spaced, contains shrunken margins, or otherwise differs from standard format will be disqualified.

Ah, there we go: the entry must be 8 or fewer pages in standard format — in other words, precisely the way a savvy writer would present the scene in a book manuscript intended for the eyes of an agent or editor. So that those of you without the time/inclination/remaining minutes won’t have to follow the link above, here are the rules.

a) Standard format for manuscripts is not identical to the format of a published book; book manuscripts differ from published books in many important respects and for many reasons. To a classically-trained agent or editor, presentation is not a matter of style: what may appear to a writer to be a cool, self-expressive choice will strike a professional reader as a distraction from the writing.

b) All manuscripts should be typed or printed in black ink on 20-lb or heavier white paper. (I encourage my clients to use bright white 24-lb paper; it doesn’t wilt in the hand.)

c) All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page and are unbound in any way.

d) The first page of a chapter should begin a third of the way down the page, with the chapter title centered at the top.

e) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, not page 1.

Okay, all of that is useful to know for manuscript-formatting in general, but this is a contest that you will be entering via e-mail, right? So for the moment, we don’t need to worry about paper quality or a title page. Let’s move on.

f) All manuscripts are double-spaced, with 1-inch margins on all four edges.

g) The text should be left-justified, not block-justified. The left margin should be straight, the right uneven.

That’s helpful, right? If a contest entrant (let’s call him Grover) were constructing his scene from scratch, he would begin by setting up the page like this:

Everybody clear on the margin requirements? Now is the time to speak up, if not. In the meantime, let’s move on with the rules of standard format — which, lest we forget, do not apply only to this contest entry. These are the requirements of a professional book manuscript for the U.S. market.

But for now, we’re still trying to figure out how many words you can fit on a page, are we not?

h) The preferred typefaces for manuscripts are 12-point Times New Roman or Courier.

i) No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type, keep the entire manuscript in the same font and typeface.

That last one, frankly, gets broken so often that many Millicents just roll their eyes over 24-point italics on the title page and flip impatiently to page 1. Mehitabel, however, cannot afford to be so tolerant. In most contests, the quickest way to get disqualified is to ignore font restrictions.

Since our last visual aid adhered strictly to both (h) and (i), I don’t feel the need to post another positive example. Just in case any of you might fall prey to that most common of contest-entrant brainstorms, the one that goes gee, no one will notice if I tinker just a little with the font and/or margins, to get a bit more on the page, though, let’s take a gander at what that same page would look like with both fudged.

Do your best to trick us, Grover. I’m curious to see if our audience can figure out on a first quick read what precisely is different.

Any guesses how Grover bought himself some extra lines here? First, the text was transmuted into Arial Narrow, a smaller font than Times New Roman. Then he changed it to 11 point. The margins also shrunk: each is .9 inch, instead of a full inch.

I ask you, though: looking at these two examples next to each other, is there any chance you would not have noticed that there were quite a few more words in the second version? The probability’s even lower for Mehitabel and Millicent, who scan many, many properly-formatted pages at a sitting.

The result in either context? “Next!”

Now that Grover’s presumably learned his lesson about cheating, let’s not rub it in. Instead, let’s proceed to a couple of more standard format requirements that could benefit from practical demonstration.

j) Each page of text should feature a standard slug line in the header, preferably left-justified:

Author’s Last Name/Title/#

This should appear in the same plain 12-point type as the rest of the manuscript. The page number should appear in the slug line and nowhere else on the page.

k) Every page in the manuscript should be numbered except the title page. Do not include it in a page count. The first page of text is page 1.

Let me tackle (k) first, because aspiring writers so often misconstrue it. In any manuscript, the title page is not numbered, because it is not a page of text. Thus, it should not include a slug line, either.

That means, in practice, that if a contest calls for a certain page limit for entries, the title page is not included in the total. In this contest, for example, if Grover decided to include a title page with his entry — not required, but not forbidden, either — he could submit up to nine pages: the title page plus up to eight pages of text. The first page of the scene would be page 1.

Millicent and Mehitabel are perennially shocked at how often submissions and entries disregard (j), by the way. Since manuscripts are not bound (unless a contest’s rules specifically call for them to be), it seems flatly crazy to professional readers that any writer would seriously expect them to read unnumbered pages — or to track down pages that might go wandering into what is often an entire desktop of manuscript.

So (h) is for your benefit as much as theirs, really: it enables M & M to make sure that they are reading the right person’s submission in the right order. Adding a slug line in the header is a small price to pay for that security.

That’s right — I said in the header, not on the first line of text on the page. The slug line is the only text permissible in the top margin; it should fall .5 inch from the top of the page. Like so:

Everyone clear on where it should go? Note, please, that the page number appears in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page. Some contests and agencies do harbor other preferences; check rules and submission guidelines carefully. If they do not mention a specific alternate location, though, you will never go wrong placing the page number in the slug line.

l) The beginning of each paragraph should be indented .5 inch, including the first paragraph of each chapter, no matter what you have seen in a published book.

This is an especially important one to observe in a contest that allows entry via e-mail. Why? Because the rise of e-mail has prompted many, many aspiring writers to believe — wrongly — that indentation is no longer required in English prose. As a direct and deplorable result, both Millicent and Mehitabel very frequently open both paper and e-mailed submissions to find entries that look like this:

Or — sacre bleu! — like this:

While an unusually tolerant Millicent might conceivably keep reading beyond the first line of the former (but don’t count on it), contest rules will almost always force Mehitabel to disqualify an entry like this on the spot. Or at least to dock the entry points for it. And neither professional reader is likely to read the second faux pas at all.

Oh, pick your jaws up off the floor; the publishing industry perceives itself, and rightly, as the protector of a language that’s increasingly seeing its rules blurred. Perhaps that’s why professional readers find standard format so undistracting to read — it enforces norms that have been around for quite a while.

Ignoring the indentation imperative is not the only reason that last example would raise M & M’s umbrage, however. This use of spacing confuses a paragraph break with a section break.

m) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs, except to indicate a section break.

n) Section breaks are formed by skipping one double-spaced line, not by # # # or any other marker UNLESS you are writing a short story, article, or entering a contest that requires the inclusion of a specific symbol.

I would show you an example of a section break, but since the Sensual Surfeit contest calls for only a single scene, it should not be necessary for entrants to use one. (Puzzled? Don’t be: section breaks come between scenes, not within them.)

Continuing our practice of concentrating our efforts upon what will help a contest entrant most, let’s proceed to something that might well crop up in a sense-heavy scene: the urge to emphasize.

o) Words in foreign languages should be italicized, as should emphasized words and titles of copyrighted works like songs. Nothing in the text should be underlined.

p) Do not use boldface anywhere but on the title page — and even there, it’s optional.

Basically, these two can be boiled down to a very simple precept: in a book manuscript, the only permissible fancy variant upon plain text is italicized text. (Short story format is different, but it’s not applicable here.) Use it where appropriate. As Grover has here:

Ah, that’s starting to look more like a scene that might appeal to this contest’s Mehitabels, isn’t it? Just two more rules, and we’ll have the formatting down pat.

q) All numbers under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25. Dates, times, and currency, however, are rendered as numbers when they are precise (3:02 p.m., June 12, 2012, $1,257), but in words when they are more general (a quarter to three, the fifteenth or sixteenth of June, a thousand dollars).

r) Dashes should be doubled, while hyphens are single, as in self-congratulatory. Dashes should also have spaces at each end — rather than—like this.

Oh, you want to see those in action, do you? Well, it’s late, but I think I have another example in me. Here you go:

(q) genuinely confuses a lot of aspiring writers, and with good reason: in A.P. style (what’s used in U.S. magazines and newspapers), only numbers under 10 are written out. Every part of publishing has its own standards; it’s not worth your energy to try to argue that the norms in one area are equally applicable to another.

Pay particular attention to (r), please — you would be astonished at how often simply employing an emdash (that long line between words that my blogging program favors, much to my chagrin) will set off a red flag for a professional reader. Why? It instantly tells her that the writer is unfamiliar with the rigors of standard format — and thus that the writer will need more coaching than one that is better prepared for professional writing.

But you won’t require that extra coaching, right? We’ve just gone through all of the rules of standard format — and none of them were particularly oppressive to individual writing style, were they?

I’m going to leave you to ponder the implications for your entry. Yes, there are a few more rules to this contest (which you will find in full here), but most of them are matters of content — most notably, restrictions on profanity and sexual content required so that all readers may read the winning entries, without fear of their being blocked by content filters — or simply logistics. (You can handle saving your scene and your synopsis as two different Word documents, right?)

For those of you who would like a guided tour of an entire set of contest rules, tune in next time, when I shall be going over all of the nuances for this summer’s contest for young writers and adult YA writers. That will be as specific as it is possible to be.

A quick reminder before I sign off: if you wish to enter the Sensual Surfeit competition, you will need to whip your entry into shape by Tuesday, October 30, 2012 Monday, December 3, 2012, at midnight in your time zone — so please, if you have any questions about the entry requirements, ask them sooner, rather than later. That way, everyone can benefit from the answers during the brainstorming phase of creation.

I really am looking forward to seeing your entries. The Mehitabels and I are anxious to hand out a broad array of Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy. Keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part XII: a few words about respecting one’s readership, plus an answer to the burning question but how do I know which category to enter?

I could blame my last few days of visible silence on having polished off the task I set for myself in this series: we did count down to the entry deadline for a major literary contest, and I did manage to talk about the major technical bugbears that dog contest entries. I could also pat myself on the bat for giving those of you that did enter that contest a few days to recover afterward. Let’s face it, while entering a writing contest is one of the best ways for an aspiring writer with no previous publications to garner ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), it’s also exhausting, demanding, and more than a little stressful to prepare an entry well.

Oh, those are both true, and both pretty good justifications for not posting for a few days. But the fact is, I’ve just been too depressed to blog. It being your humble correspondent, my reasons for tumbling down the great blue hole that writers know so well were almost entirely literary.

How so, you ask, backing away because you fear whatever it is might be catching? Well, over the past week, I’ve had occasion to observe first-hand a couple of dozen authors (first-time, established, old hand) promoting their books. Or at least trying to promote them. Surprisingly often, that takes the form of contacting someone like me.

Not a bad choice: my family’s been in and out of publishing since the 1920s, and substantial portions of my kith and kin were writing political fiction in the 1930s and 40s, or science fiction and fantasy in the 1950s and 1960s, both now-recognized genres that nice, literate people used to pretend in public that they didn’t read, then devour in private. Just sitting back and assuming one’s publisher would take care of book sales was a luxury these authors did not have. As a direct and, I think, entirely laudable result, I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know that no matter how good a publishing house’s marketing department might be, it was ultimately up to the author to convince at least a few readers to buy a book.

And I have distinct memories of events seen through the bars of my playpen. That being literarily gifted does not excuse one from attending to the business part of the publishing business has always seemed as much a fact of life to me as gravity making things fall down instead of up.

Imagine my dismay, then, when a very good author of a decade’s worth of exceptionally fine novels asked me for advice on how to promote her soon-to-be-released book. Immediately, I began churning out suggestions for online promotion, as is my wont.

She stopped me after three low-cost promotional ideas. “Oh, I can’t do any of that. I would look desperate.”

“Um, Ambrosia?” I asked, for Ambrosia was not her name but an undetectable pseudonym. “Have you not noticed that pretty much everyone with a book out is just a touch desperate these days? Or are you under the impression that people who read don’t understand that authors would like to make a living at it, and that making a living at it is dependent upon readers buying books?”

She lit up at what I can only guess in retrospect were a few non-consecutive words in that last sentence. “Yes, exactly — my last book did not sell very well, and I’m worried about the next. If only the author weren’t completely helpless in this situation!”

Was it heartless of me to burst into peals of laughter, campers? I’d just given Ambrosia at least a month’s worth of ways not to be helpless, promotional moves that would have cost him nothing but time and energy. To add icing to what was already a mighty fine cake, she’s a friend, so this was free advice, too. (Oh, you thought Author! Author! was the only place I couldn’t stop myself from holding forth?) Yet here she was, falling all over herself not to take it.

Now, I could have just given up. It’s the golden age of authorial outreach, after all; it’s now more or less expected that an author will get actively involved in online promotion. Yet I get Ambrosia’s point of view: she started writing back in the days when it was in fact considered a bit gauche for a high literary fiction author to do anything but wait to see if the reviews were good and smile graciously at the signings her publisher’s hardworking marketing department set up for her.

Of course, I talked her down — what do you take me for? After the requisite half an hour of disbelieving what I was telling her, followed by the equally requisite ten minutes of acting as though the new realities of authorship were entirely my fault, she hung up the phone a sadder but wiser pseudonym. She might even take some of my advice.

This kind of exchange is, alas, far too common these days for it alone to have depressed me — although it does make me sad to see a good author not understand how reaching her audience has changed over the last ten years. Especially when I’m relatively certain that her assigned publicist (a terrific lady who definitely knows the current market and is enough of a boon to her publishing house that if she hadn’t specifically forbidden me to name her on my blog, lest incoming authors stampede her office, would now praise to the skies) had already tried to get Ambrosia to do some of the things I was suggesting. I did suggest that she tell her that she, like the overwhelming majority of authors new to online promotion, had been thinking of her Facebook and Twitter accounts as if they were book signings: if it’s there, the fans will just show up, right?

More on that half-true authorial presumption in a moment. I want to tell you about something that happened the next day.

I was enjoying a nice cup of tea with Trevor, another author friend and someone who also has a book in the spring’s new offerings list. As a shameless friend (and every good writer needs many), I naturally had bought a copy of his book the nanosecond it came out, because those gratis copies his publisher gave him were intended for promotion, not to hand out to kith and/or kin. (You’ve already started disabusing your friends and neighbors on that point, right? The best way to help an author is to buy his book, and the sooner your Aunt Sadie accepts that, the happier you’ll be when you have a book out. Tell her you’ll be happy to sign it.) I also, although Trevor did not think to ask his shameless friends to do this, cranked out a review and posted it on Amazon and a few other sites.

“Oh, and before I forget,” I told him, “I noticed mine is the only review on Powell’s and B & N. A single reader review can come across as a fluke, so you’re going to want to ask a few friends to post there, too, as well as Amazon.”

As a fan of the gentle art of comedy, I can tell you that his subsequent spit-take was flawlessly executed. After he had rushed over to the nearest table with back-up napkins, apologizing profusely, he returned to help me sop up the remains of our shared cookie plate. “How did you know,” he hissed as soon as our neighbors stopped staring at us, “that I’d recruited any reviews at all?”

“Experience? And the fact that nobody but your mother and the second reviewer has ever called you Trevvie?”

Okay, so I made up that last part to amuse you; his mother’s review was far subtler than that. I did hasten to assure him, though, that he had been smart to ask his relatives, friends, friends of relatives, and relatives of friends to read the book and post reviews. It’s a fairly standard practice now, if only to get the ball rolling during the inevitable lag between the professional reviews (which sometimes appear quite a bit before the book’s release) and readers who do not know the author personally having read the book.

He did not, therefore, suffer from either a shortage of helpful friends (thanks, Mom!) or qualms about accepting their help. Subsequent conversation revealed, however, that he had been squeamish about asking those very same people to post a simple hey, my son/college roommate/coworker in his hated day job had a book out — and here’s a link! on their already-extant social media pages. Or — and this made me choke on my fresh cup of tea — to post such a request on his Facebook fan page.

I’ll spare you the conversation that followed, as well as an enumeration of all the café staff and habitués that pounded me on the back in turn. Suffice it to say that I was surprised: as far as any of us knew, the people who read his fanpage were, in fact, fans. Why wouldn’t people who already enjoyed his writing want to help him promote his book, especially when he could make it so easy for them by posting a link with the request?

Since we were already the pariahs of the teashop, he had no qualms about answering that last question out loud: because most of the people kind enough to have hit the LIKE button on his fanpage were — you saw this coming, didn’t you? — precisely the same generous souls he had asked to write reviews. Since he’d already asked a favor — two, since he’d asked most of them to take pity on him and hit LIKE — he felt funny about asking another.

“I guess that means that you wouldn’t be comfortable asking them to turn your book cover-outward anytime they’re in a bookstore,” I said. “A browser’s much more likely to pick it up.”

As with Ambrosia, what made me sad about this exchange (other than that last suggestion’s practically driving Trevor to tears) was not that he was too shy to make these relatively simple requests of people he already knew loved him, but that he was apparently unaware that it would behoove him to reach out to potential readers he did not already know. Indeed, he argued with me on that point, during that requisite ten minutes of target practice aimed at the messenger I mentioned earlier: “If you don’t know,” he sniffed, as though my suggestions were terribly lowbrow, “nothing makes people more uncomfortable than a sales pitch. If the reviews are good, then the book will sell.”

“Not always,” I said gently, bracing myself for the next barrage. “And not if your potential readers don’t know about them. All I’m suggesting is that you ask your established readership to offer their friends some encouragement to follow a link to those reviews.”

Again, I’ll spare you the subsequent debate; I’m sure you clever, imaginative souls can flesh it out unassisted. To get you started: apparently, it’s cynical and literature-hating to believe not only that readers will not buy a book if they have never heard of it, but that posting something — anything — online won’t instantly attract millions of looks. Call me zany — and Trevor did, several times — but I believe that signposts are helpful in getting people from Point A to Point B.

“But you’re a blogger,” he accused, in a tone that implied the term was synonymous with convicted poisoner of dozens; need I mention that his marketing department has been urging him fruitlessly for years to start blogging? “You of all people know that if you post it, they will come.”

“Ah, but I’ve been blogging for nearly seven years.” I did not add that when I started blogging, my memoir’s scheduled release was within six months. “And I’ve only had a Facebook fanpage for about a year. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever asked my blog’s readership if they would be kind and generous enough to follow a link there and press the LIKE button; I shall have to rectify that sometime soon. It would certainly make my agent happy.”

“Oh, come on,” Trevor said. “You know there’s no way to do that gracefully.”

I swear I did not that last observation up. Trevor has promised to keep an eye on my fanpage‘s likes over the next few weeks. Would you mind terribly helping me convince him that it would be worth his while to make a polite request of people who already know and appreciate his writing by following that link and LIKE-ing my page?

Again, though, I do understand why he feels overwhelmed: there’s just a lot more for an author to do these days. My upbringing leads me to believe that’s a good thing — what makes one feel more helpless than not being able to do anything to improve one’s prospects? — but I do realize that Trevor, like the vast majority of aspiring writers, began writing under the assumption that if he wrote a good enough book, it actually would sell itself. Or at least that the fine folks employed by his publishing house would do it for him, which, in terms of effort expenditure, amounts to very much the same thing.

Before I leave you to ponder all of this vis-à-vis your own current and future books and get back to talking about ECQLC-generating contest entries — oh, you thought I had abandoned my teaching goals for the day? — I would like to share the final literary depressive factor of the week. It will amuse you, Trevor, to see that it was an event a publisher had arranged in order to promote not just one, but several quite good books. It was a group signing at a large, well-stocked bookstore.

Naturally, I hied myself hence: I know one of the authors, and one of the nicest things a shameless friend can do to help an author is to help swell the ranks at a book signing. (If one wants to be a genuine peach, one ostentatiously buys the book at the signing, to encourage others to do so; of course I did.) To make it an even more efficient use of my literary booster time, another of the authors on the dais writes in the same book category I do — and if I have to explain to you why it’s in a writer’s best interest to make sure her chosen book category sells well, or why one of the best ways to assure editors to keep publishing writing in that category is to buy those books, and regularly, well, I can only wring my hands and wonder where I went wrong in the past seven years.

Hying myself hence was no easy task, however, because one of the local arts-oriented websites had misreported the time it started. Another paper, a free one that’s the only print paper to list author readings habitually, had recommended the signing and listed the correct time, but had referred readers to another page of the publication for an explanation of why it would be worth their time to attend. There was no mention of the event on the other page.

No way to anticipate any of that, of course, but those were not the only attendance-discouraging factors. The event had been scheduled for the same time as the opening of the Seattle International Film Festival — and about a block and a half away. Parking was nonexistent. John Irving was also speaking across town that night; even I thought twice about which event to attend.

Considering everything, then, the event’s organizers should be quite proud of themselves: about 25 people showed up. (And in response to those of you who just clutched your chests: that’s quite a respectable turn-out for a book signing; it’s not all that uncommon for authors to end up spending an hour or two addressing one fan, two bookstore employees, and a roomful of empty chairs.) They also had piles of the various authors’ books readily available — well done! — and had obviously collected a group of intelligent, articulate, interesting authors.

Most of whom looked positively terrified throughout the entire event. A few made a substantive effort to interact with the audience, but not all of them participated in answering questions. A couple of them did not even try to have conversations with the fans handing them books. The sweet 12-year-old who’d lugged his copies of every book one of the authors had ever written was, to say the least, a little surprised that his hero talked to one of the other authors while signing his way through the stack.

Sensing a pattern here, or at least a similarity to Ambrosia and Trevor’s promotional attempts? No? Okay, let me fill in a few more depressing details.

It’s fairly standard at book signings for authors to read from their work…and do I even need to finish this sentence? Not a word. It’s also usual for the authors, or at any rate the person introducing them, to give a short overview of what the books they would like to sign are about. Nor a murmur. Why would they? Everyone in the room had already read those books, right?

Anyone but me see this as a problematic assumption at an event devoted to selling the books in question? But it’s understandable, in the light of Trevor and Ambrosia: since the books would of course sell themselves, one shows up to a book signing to reward those that have already read them, not to try to coax new readers. If I have to explain why that attitude might be a trifle self-defeating at an event featuring more than one author…again, where did I go wrong in raising you?

In the unlikely event that I am now or have ever been too subtle on this point: book signings and readings are not about bolstering the authorial ego; they’re about selling books. They’re performances.

Speaking of which, as if all of that were not enough to keep nearby browsers from dropping by to see what was going on — none of them did, although that’s pretty standard for author signings, too — not all of the authors were audible to the back row of the audience when they did speak. Nor did the moderator repeat questions, so everyone there could hear them.

Now, I’ve given talks in that particular room of that particular bookstore, so I would be the first to admit that the acoustics are terrible. The bookstore’s wonderful staff admits it, too; as I can tell you from experience, they routinely offer to set up microphones for occasions like this. So if chatterers wandering around the shelves were sometimes more audible than some of the authors, I’m disinclined to blame the bookstore’s acoustics.

Will anyone accuse me of being cynical if I suggest that it might be prudent for authors to arrive a little early check out the acoustics at any venue at which they plan to speak? Or to rack up a little practice in being charming to readers nice enough to want to have their books signed?

Or at least not to be surprised when only 7 of those 25 audience members bought books?

To be clear, I’m not saying any of this to be critical of those authors, the bookstore’s staff, or the publisher that set up the event. (Although personally, I might have checked the local events listings before I set it up.) I’m just saying that it might have gone better had everyone concerned thought about it from the attendee’s point of view. Especially that delightful 12-year-old: should I have been the only adult in the room who asked him why he loved that armload of books?

I know: hands up if you have ever been that kid. Can you imagine how thrilled he would have been had his favorite author taken the time to treat their interaction as anything but routine fan maintenance? It’s not hard to make a devoted reader feel special, especially one that staggers into an event like this with a dozen hardcover books.

Lest anyone suggest that since this bright, articulate kid had already bought the books in question, the event was not really aimed at him: that kid goes to school; that kid goes online; that kid has friends and siblings that read (his older sister staggered under her own armload of books). Wouldn’t it actually have been a great way to get the word out the author’s new book to treat him in a way that will make the boy rush to tell everyone he knows about how nice his idol was to him? And, since this was a group event, wouldn’t it have helped everybody if the author had made a few recommendations for future reading?

That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, I was so adamant throughout last winter’s Queryfest that it’s in a writer’s best interest to give some pretty serious thought to who her target reader is. I could have told the author in question that smart 12-year-olds read his work; after talking to the fan, I can tell you now that there’s a better than even chance this 12-year-old is going to grow up to be a writer. And that means that he’s going to be looking to his favorite authors for guidance about how to act while promoting a book.

Oh, that hadn’t occurred to you? It probably didn’t occur to the author, either, but it could not have been more obvious to me. I grew up watching devoted readers toting stacks of books into science fiction conventions and book signings, so my relatives and friends could sign them. An inspired fan has a light in her eye, a glow to her face; it’s visible from across the room.

So am I cynical or literature-loving to believe that creating a positive experience for that reader at a signing is an essential part of the author’s job? Or that the opportunity to do so is something for which a savvy author should be exceedingly grateful?

Can you wonder now that I left depressed? Not all of the authors missed those fundamentals, but enough did that even I, who loves good writing enough to have devoted my life to it, wondered if I should have attended the event at all.

I have not asked my friend on the dais (who, I am delighted to report, interacted with her fans exceedingly well) if her colleagues, the bookstore, or the publisher were disappointed by the sales generated by the event; my guess is that they were not. Lackluster sales at readings and signings are one of the reasons many publishers sponsor fewer these days. It’s common to blame the fans for that.

Just something to ponder. If even one of you finds yourself facing an eager 12-year-old fan across a signing table and decides to make not only his day, but change the course of his life by taking a sincere interest in him, I will indeed feel that I have done all I can here.

Back to business — and yes, I’m going to talk about contests now, because I know that some of you tuned in for it. It’s important not to disappoint one’s readership, after all.

For the sake of those of you who tuned in because you’re in the habit of tuning in, though, bless you. I’ll keep it relatively brief. I wouldn’t want to eat into any time you were planning to devote to liking things on Facebook this weekend, after all.

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. Or at least not enough so to please current market tastes.

I introduced the change of subject too abruptly, didn’t I? As soon as I typed it, I heard the moods that had risen again after my downer of an opening over deflate hissingly once again. Sorry about that; I’m afraid that there’s just no upbeat way to shatter the ubiquitous misconception that the only thing a literary contest judge ever considers is the inherent quality of the writing in the entry.

But as we’ve been discussing, what constitutes good writing at one time — or in one book category — is not necessarily what was or will be considered good writing at all times or in all settings. The literary market is notoriously volatile. Then, too, contest judges, like agents, editors, and any other reader, harbor personal tastes. We would all have different takes on what makes a book good, what sentiments are acceptable, and, perhaps most for the sake of contest entry, different ideas of what is marketable. Or even of what fits comfortably under a particular contest category.

However, there are a few simple ways you can minimize the possibility of raising red flags before the eyes of our old pal, Mehitabel the veteran contest judge. Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, quite a few of these pitfalls tend to turn up on pet peeve lists in agencies and publishing houses as well.

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #1: avoid clichés like the proverbial plague.

Oh, you may laugh, but 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. It puzzles Mehitabel, too, because isn’t the goal of entering writing in a contest to show how you phrase things and conceive of stories, not how people tend to phrase things in general or how TV shows present storylines?

You really do want to show contest judges phraseology and situations they’ve never seen before, so try to steer clear of catchphrases (I know, right?), stock characters (Here’s your badge back, rookie-who-cannot-follow-the-rules, and here’s your new partner. He’s supposed to retire next month!), tried-and-true plot twists (You don’t mean — you’re my FATHER?!?), and anything, but anything, that you’re tempted to include just because it’s cultural shorthand for how a particular group of people act (“Whatever!” said the teenager, rolling her eyes.

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #2: minimize current pop culture references.

In general, you should avoid pop culture references in contest entries, except as indicators of time and place. Not only do they tend to be clichés (Hey, Betty Sue, want to go down to the malt shop and sock-hop to the latest Chuck Berry record in your poodle skirt?), but in a contest entry, they take up space that could be used for more original description.

Yes, yes, I know: dropping in the odd Bee Gees reference to a story set in 1976 feels like verisimilitude. It can be. But you wouldn’t believe how often Mehitabel sees entries that seem intent upon proving that every single soul on the planet liked the same music in 1976.

Current cultural references run all of these risks, but they suffer from an additional problem: even the most optimistic judge would be aware that an unpublished work entered in a contest could not possibly be in print in less than two years from now — 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 publishing world: books don’t typically hit the shelves for at least a year after the publication contract is signed — and often more than that. Print queues are long, and before a first-time author’s work enters one, the acquiring editor often requests changes in the text.

That’s not counting the time the agent spends shopping the book around first, of course. And that clock doesn’t even begin to tick until after the writer has found an agent for the book in the first place.

So even if a cultural reference is white-hot right now, it’s probably 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…

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #3: never assume that the judge will share your worldview.

You would be astonished at how often the writer’s age — or, at any rate, generational identification — is perfectly obvious from the cultural references used in a contest entry. Ditto with political views, or lack thereof, sex, gender (not the same thing), socioeconomic status…

All of that is fine, especially for a memoir or first-person fiction, but you need to be careful that the narrative does not 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.

It’s exceedingly 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 a Mehitabel who does 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.

Did you catch the problem with that last sentence? It shows my age.

That’s right: I’m old enough to remember when MTV was entirely devoted to music videos. Seems strange now, doesn’t it? I’m also old enough (but barely), to shake my head over the fact that if Mehitabel is of the Internet generation, she may never have touched a hard-copy encyclopedia.

It could easily go the other way, of course — and probably will, in a contest entry. (Most literary contests require some writing or publishing background before allowing someone to judge.) It’s not beyond belief that Mehitabel will never have seen a music video. Or know what Glee is, beyond a good mood.

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.

Mehitabel-pleasing 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 — especially if everyone you know agrees with you on a particular point. 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. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Mehitabel may well get her news from sources different than yours; her view of current events might well make your jaw drop, and vice-versa.

And that’s a problem, because an amazingly high percentage of contest entries, particularly in the nonfiction categories, are polemics. Novels 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, especially 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.

Mehitabel-pleasing 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.

Those of you trying to land an agent 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 latté 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.

The same holds true for a contest entry. Ultimately, you can have no control over whether Mehitabel has had a flat tire on the morning she reads your entry, any more than you can control if she has just broken up with her husband, or 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…

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #6: don’t expect a single contest entry to make your writing career all by itself.

Okay, so this one 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 Mehitabel.

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 entered in a contest. (No, this is not a contest rule violation, in most cases: 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.)

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #7: be alert for subtle clues about style expectations that may not match your writing.

As I mentioned earlier in this 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. You might even want to think twice about entering that contest at all.

Yes, even if the rules leave open the possibility that your kind of work can in theory win For instance, a certain contest in my area has a Mainstream Fiction category that also accepts literary fiction — and in many years, has accepted genre as well.

Care to guess how often writing that wasn’t explicitly 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 recent years, the category description had devoted four paragraphs to 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 have been years in which 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 website 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.

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #8: be alert for subtle clues about content.

Most literary contests will break down judging categories by writing style and book category, rather than content, but a surprising number of them harbor content preferences. They tend to be fairly upfront about them, too., referring to them 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. At the risk of repeating myself, read ALL OF THE RULES with care before you submit; 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 before you decide to enter work you have already written. If the category is defined in such a way that writing like yours is operating at a disadvantage, your chances of winning fall sharply. The best way to careful with your entry dollar, and enter only those contests and categories where you have a chance of winning.

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #9: make sure that you’re entering the right category — and that it’s the category you think it is.

Stop laughing. I would love to report that entries never come in labeled for the wrong category, but, alas, sometimes they do.

Why should you worry about something so easily corrected on the receiving end? Contests almost never allow judges to drop a misaligned entry into the correct category’s pile. Leaving Mehitabel 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 isn’t. 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. Yes, entering a literary contest is a complex task, but you’re a complex writer, aren’t you? You can do this.

Admit it: you’ve known that you could do it since you were 12 years old. And if you are 12 years old now, do you have any idea how jealous your elders are that blogs like this exist now? Why, back in my day…

Notice how close to 100 years old I sound already? Not an accident. Mind those cultural references, and keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part XI: a few more cosmetic points, or, three cheers for the emperor of ice cream!

Okay, you caught me: that’s not ice cream; it’s tiramisù. What do you want from me? The ice cream truck does not start circulating my neighborhood until summer starts.

But enough frivolity: I’m worried about your recovery from yesterday’s magnum opus on contest entry formatting. Surprisingly stressful, isn’t it, to go over contest rules that closely? That never palls, for some reason; I judge contests, and I still found writing last night’s post a trifle nerve-wracking.

Why, other than my habitual deep and abiding empathy for the writer just starting out? I guess it’s because writing contests are in some ways the last bastion of what aspiring writers everywhere would so like to believe the literary world to be: many, if not most, actually are devoted to rewarding good writing first and foremost.

If that’s not the only criterion, well, it’s hard to blame anyone concerned: style is quite a bit more complex to judge than most contest entrants suppose, and it’s only human nature to want their winners to go on to get published. Of course, the market-readiness of the text is legitimate to judge. So is aptness of subject matter, and vocabulary vis-à-vis intended audience. And realistically, how can the first- and second-round contest judges not give some thought to how an entry in a book-length category is likely to fare in the current book market, when the opinions and tastes of the agent, editor, or established author judging the finalist round have been formed (or at any rate informed) by market trends?

“Whoa!” some of you purists shout indignantly. “This is beginning to sound an awful lot like how our old nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, looks at submissions. Next, you’ll be telling me that if my contest entry does not conform to some specific cosmetic standard, it won’t make the finalist round, no matter how well-written it is.”

Oh, didn’t you read yesterday’s post? It’s rare that a literary contest doesn’t require entries to conform to at least a few specific cosmetic standards of presentation. That’s why I always urge serious contest entrants to go over every syllable of contest entry literature with a magnifying glass, bloodhound, and possibly a psychic, to make sure that you are aware of every tiny little rule that might be lurking in the small print.

Try not to think of such strictures as extraneous to the question of writing quality. Try to think of it as evidence of Mehitabel the contest judge’s being so committed to evaluating writing style that she does not want any mere presentation concerns to get in the way of that laudable endeavor.

How so? Just as submitting a manuscript in standard format minimizes the probability that Millicent will be concentrating on anything but your writing, following contest rules to the letter is a writer’s best bet for assuring the judge the freedom to focus on the words on the page. That’s what you want, isn’t it, purists?

What’s that you say? You hadn’t been thinking of deviations from contest rules as distractions from your good writing? How could they not be, to someone who reads entry after entry in the same format?

I must caution you, though, that not every writing contest embraces the same format — and not every category within a contest might call for the same formatting. Read the rules carefully every single time.

Yes, even if you have entered the contest in question before; contests change their rules all the time. Don’t assume that what was required the last time you entered a contest will be what’s required next time.

What kind of things might change, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, the last time I wrote a series on this topic, a local writers’ contest of my acquaintance stated very clearly in its entry guidelines: Have the title of the submission and page numbers located in the upper right hand corner of each page.

Other than the grammatical problem with that sentence, do you see any problems it might raise, in light of what we discussed yesterday? Why, the slug line for this contest is on the opposite side of the page from what’s expected in standard format for books! And it’s also on the opposite side of the page from where this same contest dictated the slug line should be the previous year!

Followed much woe and uproar, as you might imagine, as well as much speculation amongst repeat contest entrants. “Are the organizers trying to place those of us familiar with standard format at a disadvantage?” entirely theoretical potential entrants came to me in private to complain, as if I were still affiliated with the organization sponsoring the contest. “Or are they just attempting to discourage those of us who have been entering this contest every year since space travel was only a pipe dream?”

Who do I look like, the Amazing Kreskin? I have no idea what was going on in the rule-changers’ minds. Having served often as a contest judge, however, I can engage in some wild speculation about why it might be to the organizers’ advantage to change the rules from time to time on issues like this.

Okay, on with the unsubstantiated guesswork: it would render weeding out entries in the first round quite a bit quicker. How? By making it instantly apparent to Mehitabel which entrants had read the rules carefully and those who simply took their names out of the slug lines of the manuscripts they were already submitting to agents, printed up the requisite number of pages, and submitted them as they were to the contest.

And I do mean instantly apparent. Specifying an odd location for the slug line may not seem as though it would change the entry much, but actually, it would be one of the easiest rule violations possible to spot, other than using the wrong typeface or not indenting paragraphs. Take another look at our example from earlier in this series — and, to make it interesting, I’m using one that adheres to another of the Unnamed Local Contest’s rather oddball requirements, asterisks to designate section breaks.

asterisk.jpg

Now, that page would make pretty much any Millicent in the land happy, in terms of formatting, right? The asterisk line is a bit old-fashioned (translation: Millicent’s boss is going to make you take it out if she signs you), but still, it’s basically in standard format otherwise. And it would been considered perfectly acceptable in a ULC submission at any point between, say, Apollo I and the advent of the space shuttle.

But see how different the same page looks with the slug line as the ULC’s rule change directed a few years back:

as-rules-direct-jpeg.jpg

Don’t need the aforementioned bloodhound or magnifying glass to spot that difference, do you? Neither would Mehitabel.

I’m not saying, of course, that ease of first-round disqualification was the actual motive behind the rule change; as I said, I’m engaging in irresponsible speculation here. I’m saying that this year, the ULC’s contest guidelines specified that All pages of the submission must have the category number, manuscript title, and page number listed in the upper right-hand corner.

Which means, of course, that both our first and second examples would be, if not actually disqualified, then at least had enough points subtracted to render making it to the finalist round particularly likely. And all for a change that, while it would leap off the page at Mehitabel, might not even be noticed by a reader unfamiliar with manuscript format — and that would drive those of us accustomed to properly-formatted book manuscripts nuts.

The space shuttle has been grounded, and time has moved on. Take a gander:

“But Anne,” the eagle-eyed among you will no doubt exclaim, “that’s not the only difference between this example and the previous two. Earlier, there were five asterisks indicating the section break; here, there are only three. What gives?”

What gives, ladies and gentlemen, is yet another change in long-standing contest rules. This year, the wording changed at the bottom of the rule page: Indicate scene breaks (such as: POV/Location/Time change) by three spaced asterisks.

The moral of the story is — let’s all shout it together, shall we? — always, always, ALWAYS go over the contest rules more than once and follow them to the letter. Don’t assume that you know what they say after only a cursory glance, and for heaven’s sake, don’t blindly follow the advice of any given yahoo with a website who happens to give advice to writers.

Yes, including yours truly. Heck, I WON that contest once, and if I hadn’t combed the new rules, I would not have been aware of either of these newfangled requirements.

That being said, let’s move on to another element many contest entrants overlook: the title page for your contest entry.

Already, I hear dissension in the ranks. “But Anne,” I hear those of you planning to enter next year’s version of the ULC, “I realize that the contest you were discussing yesterday did require a title page, but if I’m reading the rules correctly, the contest I’m entering doesn’t ask for one. I’m afraid of breaking the rules — do I really need to add it?”

I understand your fear, cringing pre-entrants, but in my opinion, yes, you do need one, for precisely the same reason that a professional writer always includes a title page with any book-length manuscript or excerpt therefrom she plans to submit to an agent or editor. It’s just the way the pros do things.

Not to mention that a title page in standard format is stuffed to the proverbial gills with all kinds of information that’s highly useful to folks in the industry. Look at what Millicent would expect to see topping a manuscript:

See? A great many of the basic facts an agent would need to know to acquire and sell a book are right there at her fingertips: what kind of book it is, how long it is, the title, the author — and, most importantly from our point of view, how to get ahold of that gifted author in order to proffer a representation contract. (For more of the hows and whys of a standard format title page, please see the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A TITLE PAGE category on the archive list at right.)

For a contest, however, these are not the relevant facts Mehitabel needs to know — in fact, the mention of a couple of ‘em might well get you disqualified. But almost without exception, contest rules will specify that an entrant must provide certain additional information — and the logical place to do that is on a title page.

Let’s take, for instance, the ULC’s entry guidelines — or are these the guidelines from a few years ago. Do check. At one time, at least, its rules demanded that, in addition to filling out an entry form, the entrant should include other information:

*The Contest Category name and number (e.g. Category 3: Romance Genre) must be printed on the first page of the submission and on the mailing envelope.
*All pages of the submission (chapters and synopsis) must have the title of the manuscript.
*Do not type your name on any page of the submission. It should appear only on your registration form and return envelope.

And, from elsewhere in the rules, our old friend:

*Have the title of the submission and page numbers located in the upper right hand corner of each page.

We dealt with quite a few of these criteria yesterday and earlier today, right? Even though the rules do not invoke the magical words slug line, we’ve all had enough experience now with manuscripts to know that is what they’re talking about, right? So no worries here.

Except for that pesky requirement to name the category. Sure, it says to place it on the first page of the submission, but does that mean on a title page or on the first page of text?

Most contest entrants go for the latter. Technically, there is nothing wrong with this — except for the fact that including information other than the chapter name and number on the first page of text makes it look to anyone familiar with standard manuscript format as though the writer just doesn’t know the difference between short story format.

Oh, you’re not familiar with the latter? It looks like this:

short-story-jpeg.jpg

And the proper format for the first page of a book-length manuscript, which looks like this:

chapter-jpeg.jpg

I ask you once again: did you require either a magnifying glass or a bloodhound, or even a psychic, to ferret out the difference between those two pages? I’m hoping not, but if you did, you might consider consulting a qualified eye specialist.

So while you could comply with the rules (if they are for the right year) by shoving the title, category, and genre onto the first page of text, it’s not going to look very market-ready to trained eyes. And we all know by now how your garden-variety contest judge feels about marketability, don’t we?

Before you stress out too much about this seeming Catch-22, your fairy godmother is here to make it all better. I’ve got a simple, elegant solution that will both satisfy the rule-huggers and make your entry look spotlessly professional.

You guessed it: by adding a title page.

Don’t worry about its adding length to your entry: as I mentioned in passing yesterday, in neither contests nor manuscripts are title pages either numbered or counted in page counts. What might it look like otherwise, you ask? Well, obviously, it would vary slightly from contest to contest, depending upon what the rules called upon the writer to provide, but were our pal Gus entering the ULC, I might advise him to make his entry’s title page look a little something like this:

Admittedly, there have been more exciting title pages in the history of the world, but this one offends no one, adheres to the contest’s stated guidelines, and gives the necessary information. Everybody wins, so to speak.

Note, too, that just like a title page in standard format, the contest entry title page is in the same font and typeface as the rest of the manuscript. Resist the temptation to add bells and whistles such as boldfacing, larger type, or (heaven preserve us) designs. This is not the place to show your creativity: it’s the place to show your professionalism.

Show your creativity in the text you submit.

Resist, too, the astonishingly common impulse to include an epigraph of any sort on either the title page or the first page of your entry. You know what I’m talking about, right? Those little quotations and/or excerpts of poetry that authors so love to tack on to the front of their work, presumably to demonstrate that they are well-read, the source of their inspiration for the book to follow, or a subtle announcement that this work is ready to join the community of well-loved published writing.

I have to admit, I like ‘em, too, but do you know what they start to look like to professional readers after only a year or two of seeing them emblazoned on title pages, first pages, or pages of their own in manuscripts? Like little picket signs reading, I’m just as good as the writer I’m quoting — take my word for it.

To which the professional reader is likely to respond, after being confronted with the 1500th manuscript this year similarly picketed, “Oh, yeah? You’ve just raised the bar to prove it, baby. You’d better write like Gustave Flaubert!”

Just don’t do it in a contest entry, no matter how integral to the plot that opening poem may be, even if you wrote it yourself. Even if one of the characters wrote it. The judges show to assess your writing, not those of the people you like to quote.

I sense some of you scratching your heads. “But Anne,” deep thinkers everywhere ask, and who could blame them? “I don’t get it. Oh, I get why a contest’s organizers might want to render it this tricky to follow its rules. They’re entitled to test which entrants are paying attention. What I don’t get is why, if they’re going to do it that way, they don’t just post the rules for standard format.

That’s a good question, thinkers. I suspect that if you asked most contest organizers and judges, they would be flabbergasted at the suggestion that writers who haven’t been submitting their work fairly regularly to agents, editors, and magazines would be entering their contest at all. “So wouldn’t,” Millicent muses, “their writing already be in standard format?”

If you doubt this, take a gander at most literary contests’ rules: most of the time, specific expectations are compressed under terse statements such as, submit in industry standard format.

That should make those of you who have been hanging out on this site for a while feel pretty darned good about yourselves — because, believe me, having some idea what standard format should look like, or even that such a thing exists, places you several furlongs in front of aspiring writers who do not. (If you fall into the latter category, you might want to hie yourself hence to the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category at right.) Because — correct me if your experience contradicts this — this is an industry that tends to conflate lack of professional knowledge with lack of artistic seriousness.

That is as true for contest entries as for submissions to agents. That’s why, in case you have been wondering, I harp on standard format so much here. No one is born aware of how the industry expects to see writing presented, but the rules are seldom shared with those new to the game — and almost never explained in much detail.

Certainly not on your garden-variety contest entry guideline page. Admittedly, sometimes one sees the rules asserted in an aggressive do this or fail! tone, but it’s pretty difficult to apply a rule unless you know what it’s for and how it should be implemented.

That’s my feeling about it, anyway. Call me zany, but I would rather see all of you judged on the quality of your WRITING than on whether your manuscript or contest entry adheres to a set of esoteric rules. But unless it does conform to those (often unspoken) rules, it’s just not going to look professional to someone who is used to reading top-of-the-line work.

So try to think of quadruple-checking those rules as the necessary prerequisite to getting a fair reading for your writing — and bear in mind that most judges will expect the author of that winning entry to have been hanging around the industry for a good long time.

The two categories where this expectation is most evident are screenwriting and poetry. Almost any contest that accepts screenplays will use the same draconian standard that the average script agent does: if it’s not in positively the right format (and in the standard typeface for screenplays, Courier), it will be rejected on sight.

Now, I’m going to be honest with you here: I am not a screenwriter. So if you are looking for guidance on how to prep a screenplay entry, I have only one piece of advice for you: GO ASK SOMEONE WHO DOES IT FOR A LIVING.

Sorry to be so blunt, but I don’t want any of my readers to be laboring under the false impression that this is the place to pick up screenplay formatting tips. Happily, there are both many, many websites out there just packed with expert advice on the subject, and good screenplay formatting software is easily and cheaply available. I would urge those of you with cinema burning in your secret souls to rush toward both with all possible dispatch.

I can speak with some authority about poetry formatting, however. Remember how I mentioned yesterday that where contest rules are silent, their organizers generally assume that writers will adhere to standard format — which is to say, the form that folks who publish that kind of writing expect submitters to embrace? Well, that’s true for poetry as well.

So what does standard format for poetry look like? Quite a bit as you’d expect, I’d expect:

* Single-spaced lines within a stanza

* A skipped line between stanzas

* Left-justified text, with a ragged right margin

* Centered title on the first line of the page

* 1″ margins on all sides of the page

* 12-point typeface on white paper, printed on only one side of the page.

In other words, it shouldn’t be formatted the way you might see it in a book, where the left margin might be a few inches in, or on a greeting card, where the text floats somewhere closer to the center of a page. Basically, the average poetry submission looks like…well, let me go ahead and borrow a manuscript page from a favorite poet of mine, Wallace Stevens:

emperor-jpeg.jpg

Pretty straightforward, eh? Now let’s see what how a contest rules might call for something slightly different. To pick one set at random, let’s take a random year’s worth of the ULC’s:

* Submit three complete poems.

* Single-space within stanza, double-space between stanzas.

* Maximum length of collection: 3 pgs.

* Use 12pt Times New Roman or Times (Mac).

At the point I checked — today? Last year? Fifteen years ago? — there were all of the category-specific guidelines listed. By scrolling to a different part of the ULC’s entry guidelines page, I found others:

* One-sided 8 1/2 x 11 standard WHITE paper.

* 1” margins all around.

* Have the title of the submission and page numbers located in the upper right hand corner of each page.

* Each submission MUST show the name of the category to which it is submitted.

Okay, what can we learn from this, other than that it’s always a good idea to read the contest’s entry guidelines in its entirety, rather than merely the section on one’s chosen category? Any occasion for our pal Wallace to panic about the breadth of necessary changes to his already-formatted poem?

Not really. Oh, the rules seem pretty hostile to the notion that any worthwhile poem could possibly be longer than a single page (take that, Lord Byron!), as well as unaware that Word for Mac does in fact feature the Times New Roman font — and has for many years. But otherwise, there’s not a lot here that ol’ Wallace is going to have to change.

Except, of course, for taking his name out of the slug line and moving it to the other side of the page, along with the category number.

Do I hear some confused muttering out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you point out, and who could blame you? “What about needing to place the title in the slug line? Each of the three less-than-page-long poems will have a different title, won’t it?”

Great question, unseen mutterers. I’ll complicate it further: in the ULC’s rules for book-length works, there’s an additional regulation that may apply here:

* The Contest Category name and number (e.g. Category 3: Romance Genre) on the first page of the submission and on the mailing envelope.

Yes, yes, this bit does appear in the section of the rules that apply to categories other than poetry. But tell me: do you want your entry to be the one that tests whether the ULC’s organizers don’t think this rule should apply to the poetry category?

I didn’t think so. If I were a poet, I certainly would not omit scrawling Category 9: Poetry on the outside of my entry envelope.

You, of course, are free to do as you wish. But remember how I demonstrated earlier in this post that adding a title page can help smooth over quite a few little logistical problems? Look what happens to the opening of our pal Wallace’s entry if he takes that advice to heart:

p-title-jpeg.jpg

poempage-jpeg.jpg

Both of these pages are in Times New Roman, incidentally, created on a Mac. (Hey, I couldn’t resist.) But, in case you didn’t notice, they adhere to the 2008 rules, and it is now 2012.

Oh, Wally. Haven’t you been listening?

It’s a shame, too, because by the ULC’s standards of 2008, Wally would have neatly avoided any rule violations. Oh, he could have given his collection of poetry (if a mere three poems can legitimately be called a collection; if he were a collector of, say, teapots, he would be considered merely a hobbyist collector if he had only three) a more exciting overarching title, but this gets the job done. It also satisfies the contest’s rule requiring that the title be in the slug line, along with the page number.

What’s not to like? Other than the fact that he was operating off a 4-year-old list of rules, that is.

Amazing what a lot of explanation — and a lot of stress — a seemingly simple set of rules can engender, isn’t it? Next time, we shall depart the barren landscape of nitpickery for the fertile valleys of style. Keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part X: or shall I say 10…9…8…


Well, the day has finally arrived campers — or, rather, the eve has arrived: the deadline for entering this year’s William Faulkner/William Wisdom Literary Competition is, if I am reading my calendar correctly, tomorrow. As I promised way back at the beginning of this series, although I shall continue talking about the larger issues of contest entry preparation over the next week and a half or so (I have a special treat in store for you for Memorial Day weekend), this evening, I shall be demonstrating how to do something that every conscientious writing contest entrant should be doing immediately before hitting SEND or popping that entry in the mail: going over the rules of the contest in question with, if not the proverbial fine-toothed comb, than at least a great big ol’ magnifying glass.

Because the deadline is so close — tomorrow at midnight for e-mailed entries! — I am going to try to keep this post brief. I realize that I’m writing for two constituencies here, those of you planning to enter this particular contest this year and those who are interested in improving your familiarity with the contest-entry process in general. Rest assured, I shall return to longer, in-depth analyses the day after tomorrow, but for tonight and tomorrow, I shall try to keep it brief and to the point.

Let’s dive right in, then. Most contests require entrants to submit an entry form, and the Faulkner/Wisdom competition is no exception. Their form is quite straightforward, though, so in the interests of time, I shall keep my remarks minimal.

Like many contests, although it specifies electronic entries, it asks entrants to download the form, print it out, fill it out, and submit it via regular mail along with the entry fee. Generally speaking, when contests list this quite common requirement, the form and check must be postmarked by the contest’s deadline.

The thing to notice about the form itself: check for a signature line. Virtually any contest will require entrants to sign something, either literally or electronically, indicating that they agree to the terms of the contest. That means, in practice, that if there is any fine print indicating that a writer is signing away rights to submission — in this case, first publication rights for short pieces, or excerpts for longer works — it tends to appear on the entry form, just above the signature line. It is in your best interest to read this section very carefully before you either sign or submit the entry fee.

“But Anne,” impatient contest entrants across the English-speaking world shout, “I’m in a hurry to get this out the door! I don’t have time to take a magnifying glass to the fine print!”

I know, I know — but I’m telling you to do it, anyway. The more reputable a contest is, the less likely you are to find surprises there, but just as you should never sign a representation or publication contract without first (a) reading it, (b) making sure you understand to what you are agreeing by signing it, and if you have any doubts about (b), (c) asking relevant questions and/or (d) getting someone conversant with such contracts to give you some advice (the Authors’ Guild offers (d) to its members, I’m told), you should not sign a contest form unless you are positive that you understand what you are empowering contest’s organizers to do with the writing you enter.

And no, I am not going to walk you through this contest’s fine print or any other. I am not an attorney; please do not ask me for advice on writing-related contracts. All I can legitimately do is urge you to be careful what you sign — and to whom you send your work.

But if you joined this series late and want some tips on how to figure out if a literary contest is legit — and not all are, alas, I can certainly help you there: you will find several posts’ worth of sifting criteria beginning here.

So much for the form. The next thing you are going to want to check for is for general entry guidelines. Don’t be surprised if, as is the case for the contest we’ve been discussing, you need to scroll down the page from the category guidelines or even click to a different page to find them. It is the entrant’s responsibility to follow every rule the sponsoring organization has established for its contest, whether it has elected to post them in one place or not. Double-check that you have not missed some provisions.

Oh, I hear some of you snickering, but you would not believe how often contest entries will adhere strictly to, say, the category guidelines, while totally ignoring the general rules. Or vice-versa. Don’t expect Mehitabel the contest judge to cut you any slack; the judging restrictions will probably forbid it.

Stop rolling your eyes. That’s not a matter of meanness: those rules were established for a reason. Remember, ignorance of posted rules is not a valid excuse here; if the organizers took the time to post them, they will expect all successful entrants to abide by them.

Pretty much every set of general guidelines will include a section on who is and is not eligible to enter the contest. Check these restrictions carefully: as we discussed earlier in this series, it is a waste of a writer’s time, energy, and entry fee to enter a contest he does not have a realistic chance of winning.

Unless, of course, he’s doing it just for the practice in entering contests. That’s not the world’s worst idea, actually: as we have been seeing, there’s more to preparing a winning contest entry than just printing up what you’ve already written, signing a check for the entry fee, and popping it in the mail. Some of this stuff is genuinely counterintuitive. A dry run now might improve your chances down the line.

And then there will be the general rules. This is the part you are going to want to check, double-check — and then go through it again with a pad and pen, making your own list of what’s required. Then, if you’re prudent, you’ll have someone with good reading skills go over both your list and the rules, to make sure that they jibe.

Oh, you may laugh, but believe me, there’s nothing sadder for Mehitabel to see than a well-written entry that scuttles itself because it’s missing a required element. Or is formatted incorrectly, by the contest’s individual standards. Or is instantly disqualified because the entrant forgot to sign the entry form.

Fair warning: the rules may not be presented in a format that’s particularly easy on the eyes, or even organized as a list. They also might not be labeled as straightforwardly as CONTEST RULES. It’s up to the entrant to track them down and read them carefully, to catch the nuances.

Let’s go over the rules for our example contest together, to see what that might entail in practice. If you’re having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

I wasn’t kidding about it’s being hard on the eyes. Grab a pen and paper, please, and go back through the Manuscript Requirements, making two lists: a to-do list for pulling together your entry, and an eligibility requirement list.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s a tedious exercise, and this particular contest, like most, had a separate general statement about eligibility. What I’m talking about here are the specific entry requirements, not the disclaimers. Besides, but wouldn’t you rather do this for the first time when I’m doing it, too, so we can compare notes?

How’d you do? Here’s my gleaned list of eligibility requirements:

1. If I want to submit more than one piece of writing — whether in the same category or different ones — I will need to e-mail them separately, as well as filling out a separate entry form and paying a separate entry fee.

Although this provision appears late in the Manuscript Requirements, I’m placing it front and center, due to its importance to the entrant’s decision about what to send. Each short story, poem, novel-in-progress excerpt, etc. will require a separate entrance fee, and must be presented separately.

Please take both the fees and the time per entry seriously. And don’t even think of trying to get around this provision by trying to pass off a collection as an individual entry. As we shall see below, their Mehitabels have no patience for that kind of rules origami.

2. Any writing I enter cannot have been published before in its current form.

Remember last week, when we were discussing what would happen if a book you entered in a contest got picked up by an agent or acquired by a publisher between the time you entered it and the time the winners were announced? Helpfully, this contest’s rules have spelled out explicitly what would happen in this instance; in other contests, you may have to search the aforementioned fine print for this information.

3. If what I want to enter has been published anywhere — even online — at least of 50% of its current phrasing must be different than the published version. It’s fine if it’s been quoted at length elsewhere, though.

Again, this is spelled out much more carefully than your garden-variety contest rules; that’s nice for the entrants. No fine points of law here: if it’s been published before in a mostly similar form, don’t enter it.

4. Self-publishing counts toward (2) and (3), if it sold more than 500 copies.

Nice to see this spelled out, too. Count only sales as of the contest’s entry deadline.

5. Online publishing counts toward (2) and (3), too.

I’m rather glad to see this one, actually: technically, writing posted online is published. The key phrase here is published in its entirety on the Internet ; if you’re in doubt about reusing material that’s been part or in a different form, consult rule #2.

6. I should not even consider entering anybody’s writing but my own. Oh, and it must be in English.

This is just common sense, really. So why might a contest’s organizers think to include provisions like this? Probably because they have been burned by plagiarized entries in foreign languages in the past. Or perhaps just one or the other. At the very least, they have heard of another contest’s winner being caught doing so.

Don’t laugh — it’s not all that uncommon for a contest’s rules to reflect the organization’s experience at contest-throwing. Speaking of which…

7. If I try to enter a short story or essay collection in a book-length category, it will be disqualified.

Again, that reads like the result of experience. As does this provision:

8. I must commit to what I want Mehitabel to judge: “please do not send us your collections and expect us to select one piece as the entry.”

I quoted this one, so we could sense the tension in that brief admonition. Lest you be tempted to dismiss what this clearly suggests happened at least once, allow me to remind you of our recent discussion of whether it is ever acceptable to submit non-consecutive excerpts in a contest for book-length works that calls for a specific number of pages. Contest entrants sometimes read rules in wacky ways.

But that’s starting to make more sense now, isn’t it? Let’s press on.

9. That goes double if I’m submitting poetry: “Poets! Do not send us multiple poems and expect us to select one.”

Wow, this cri de coeur even features an exclamation point. Translation: if you want to submit more that one poem, see rule #1.

10. On the bright side, I can send in as many separate entries as I have time, money, and patience to assemble.

Bearing in mind that…

11. I must submit each entry as a Word attachment to an e-mail. Each entry must be in its own e-mail, and I must mail a separate entry form and check for each.

If you don’t have the e-mail experience to be confident about this part, recruit somebody that does. You’ll only have one chance to get this right.

12. If I copy and paste my entry into an e-mail, I will be disqualified.

Sorry to phrase it so baldly, but I wanted to make sure that all of you caught the implication here. Take it seriously.

How did you do? Coming up with that list wasn’t as easy as you thought it would be, was it?

Note, too, that the criteria on this list were gleaned from across both of the sections above; that should also be true of the to-do list. That’s the result of careful reading. Please, for your own sake, never assume that all of the rules that apply to your category appear in only one part of the contest’s website or rules document.

But you did, didn’t you? How do I know? Because I stacked the deck, that’s how. Hadn’t you been wondering what the entry fee was?

Oh, hadn’t you noticed that it did not appear in our earlier explanatory documents? It’s located in a completely different section of the rules, under Divisions of this Competition — and it turns out that the entry fee varies depending upon what is being entered. On the website, this information appears quite a bit above the general rules.

See? A savvy contest entrant isn’t afraid to do a bit of exploring. Since it’s broken down by category, I’m not going to reproduce it all here. Since most of my readers write books, let’s take a gander at that category designation.

Have I sufficiently made my point about reading contest rules IN THEIR ENTIRETY and VERY CAREFULLY INDEED? This part throws quite a different complexion on the decision to enter: unlike the vast majority of literary contests (and, indeed, agencies), these kind folks recognize that sometimes, a story takes more than 400 pages to tell. They allow prolific writers to enter longer manuscripts; they merely charge a non-unreasonable extra handling fee.

Which gives us a two more entry criteria, right?

13. I shall need to read every relevant contest category’s information IN ITS ENTIRETY, to check for any special requirements specific to that category — and to find out how much the entry fee will be.

Spoiler alert: every category in the competition has its own additional criteria. I shall not list them all here; do check.

14. I need to do an honest word count of my manuscript — and think very carefully whether I want to pay extra to cover additional length, or to revise the work to make it shorter.

Only you can decide this, of course. While you are deliberating, however, do bear in mind that actual word counts tend to be a whole heck of a lot higher than publishing industry estimates. By current estimation techniques, a 400-page manuscript in standard format in Times New Roman is 100,000 words (250 words/page x # of pages). An actual count of precisely the same pages would probably run closer to 120,000 words.

“But wait!” some of you shout, and with good reason. “I notice there’s nothing here about whether I can enter the same piece of writing in multiple years of the same contest. What if I placed in Novel-in-Progress last year — could I enter it again this year, since it’s still in progress?”

Excellent question, repeat entrant-wannabes. I had to wander all the way down to the bottom of an exceedingly well-stuffed webpage to find the answer to that one: “Winners in one competition year will not be eligible to win again in the same category. Work for different categories, however, will be accepted from previous winners. Entries rejected in one competition year will be eligible for entry in subsequent years with significant revisions if accompanied by a letter explaining briefly how the manuscript has been revised.”

That’s nice and clear, right? Fringe benefit: while I was poking around down there, I dug up a few hints about what criteria Mehitabel might be weighing extra-heavily in assessing entries. Take a gander: “We strongly suggest that authors have their work read by disinterested third parties for purposes of correcting spelling, grammar, and typographical mistakes, prior to finalizing entries. We also strongly suggest that authors give major attention to beginnings and endings, dialogue, transitions, and character development, as our experience has been that these are the areas which preliminary judges focus on when selecting work to progress to final rounds.”

That’s helpful, isn’t it? I love it when contest guidelines give this kind of hint — it’s generous to entrants.

Now that you have a complete list of entry criteria in hand, make it useful. Consider very carefully, please, whether what you had planned to enter meets all of the requirements on that list. If it doesn’t, save your time, money, and hope: the contest’s organizers have already told you that such an entry cannot win.

Is all of that clear? Now is the time to speak up, if not.

Let’s move on to my to-do list for preparing an entry — recognizing, of course, that since every writing contest has its own rules, the to-do list for this contest cannot be applied usefully to preparing an entry for any other contest out there. Specificity is the name of the game here, people.

1. Prepare a separate checklist for each piece of writing I’m entering, because each is considered a separate entry — and thus entering more than one piece of writing will require filling out a separate entry form and entry fee.

Again, I’m opening with this one because it will affect everything that comes thereafter. If you are planning to prepare more than one entry, maintain a separate checklist for each one. Otherwise, it’s just too easy for a stressed-out mind to reason, “Oh, I’ve already done step 8 for all of my entries,” whereas in fact Entry #3 is winging its way across the continent unaccompanied by the material step 8 would have provided.

Yes, it does happen. All the time. Yet another phenomenon that makes Mehitabel sad.

2. Save any writing I plan to enter as its own Word document, as a .doc file, not .docx, so I may send it as an attachment to an e-mail.

Please take this restriction seriously — not all versions of Word can open .docx files. If you want to submit your entry as a .docx file, or in any other format other than Word, do not bother to enter.

I’m serious about this. Mehitabel will not care that you prefer to work with PDFs or fell in love with WordPerfect. Microsoft Word is the current industry standard for manuscripts, period, and she knows it. She will disqualify entries that do not meet this criterion without thinking twice.

Do not, whatever you do, simply plan on attaching your working file of your manuscript. If it is currently in standard format, it violates a contest rule.

3. Go to the header of this document and remove the author’s name from the slug line.

The slug line, if you will recall, is the bit in the upper left-hand margin of a properly-formatted book manuscript that reads: Author’s Last Name/Title/page #. The manuscript may not be numbered anywhere else on the page.

Obviously, though, for a blind-judged contest, an ordinary slug line would result in disqualification, as it contains the entrant’s last name. Your contest entry slug line should look like this: Title/#

That means, incidentally, that if you are entering a memoir, you must change all of the names before you enter it in this contest. Because this is such a common means of disqualification for memoir entries, I would go the extra mile and place a note on the bottom of the title page, reading: To preserve anonymity, all names have been changed.

A bit paranoid? Perhaps. But to coin a phrase, better safe than sorry. Let’s move on.

4. Figure out the actual word count for each piece I am entering.

Careful here: the contest’s rules are asking for something different than what an agent would. Do not estimate the word count: highlight the entire text and use the WORD COUNT feature in Word to come up with an actual number.

5. Print out one entry form for each piece of writing I plan to enter and fill it out.

Remember, for this contest, the filled-out entry form — signed, mind you — and the check for the entry fee must be mailed, while the entry itself is e-mailed. Plan to get both on their way before the deadline.

Don’t write in cursive — yes, really. Use either block printing or track down somebody with a typewriter.

Why do this at this particular juncture? So you may double-check that all the information on it matches exactly what you say on…

6. Prepare a separate Word document (again, saved as a .doc file) with all of the requested contact sheet information.

What was that information again? Let’s recap:

(a) My name (real name, please — this is not the time to take your nom de plume for a test drive. If you win, you’ll want the contest organizers to write the check in the name by which your bank manager knows you, right?

(b) My mailing address (don’t assume that since you are sending this via e-mail, they can just hit REPLY)

(c) My e-mail address (ditto)

(d) Daytime phone number, designated as such (Oh, you didn’t catch that one? That’s because this was not on the list of required elements in the Manuscript Requirements section; it was in the What Constitutes an Entry section. Didn’t I tell you to read everything very carefully?)

(e) Evening phone number, designated as such (ditto)

(f) FAX number (ditto again. If you don’t have a FAX sitting on your desk — and who does, these days? — just say no FAX number

(g) The title of the piece I am submitting in this entry (yes, entrants mix up multiple entries all the time)

(h) The actual word count of the entry (aren’t you glad you figured that above?)

(i) The category of the contest I am entering (more on that later)

Save the whole shebang as a .doc file, not as a .docx file and set it aside. You’re going to be attaching it to your entry e-mail.

7. Reopen the Word document I created in Step #2 (saved as a .doc file, of course) and add a new page 1, a page break, then the 1-page synopsis, followed by another page break.

In other words, this document should include, in the following order:

(a) A title page containing ONLY the title and category
It should not be numbered, nor should it be included in the word count.

(b) That 1-page synopsis we discussed at such great length this past weekend
If the entry is a book-length work, that is. In the current Word document, this should be page 1, but not included in the word count.

(c) The writing you are planning to enter, in standard format EXCEPT for not having your last name in the slug line.
Because of the requested order here, the first page of the text of your book will be page 2. Try not to let it bug you.

Do not include a second title page, an epigraph on a separate page (those nifty quotes so often seen at the beginning of books), or a table of contents. Just the text in standard format — except, of course, for the altered slug line.

What you should have now is a single Word document (.doc, please!) with all three of these elements. Save it. This, too, is going to be attached to your entry e-mail.

8. If I am writing memoir, do a search of this second document for my own first name — and then for my own last name.

Oh, you thought your entry couldn’t get disqualified if you changed your name from Irma Grub to Bella Butterfly — and then the guy to whom Bella refers consistently as Dad is identified in the text as Mr. Grub?

9. Oh, heck, no matter what I’m writing, I’m going to want to go back and make ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that my name does not appear anywhere in my entry except in the two specified places.

Remember, your name can appear only on the contact sheet from Step #6 (which will be a separate attachment from your entry, the entry form (which you will be sending via regular mail), and, presumably, your check (which you shall gracefully tuck into the envelope with the entry form, perhaps shuddering slightly as you do so).

Wait — how much should that check be written for, and to whom? Thank goodness, the rules are explicit about that.

10. Check the word count from Step #4 against the pricing list in the category section. Write check/money order/traveler’s check accordingly.

You think you’re done now, don’t you? Ah, not so fast. Since the price of making even a relatively small mistake is so high — getting points knocked off at best, getting disqualified at worst — I’d like you to do two more things. No, make that three.

11. Go back through this checklist and make sure that I have actually done every single thing on it.

Honestly, you would be surprised how often even the most conscientious contest entrant misses something. Then…

12. Go back though the entry requirements checklist to make absolutely certain that what I’m about to enter still meets all of those criteria.

Don’t make that face at me. Your sense of this may well have changed over the course of preparing the entry.

Still have a few moments left before you have to hit SEND and/or rush the entry form to the post office? If you can possibly manage it, take this extra step.

13. Hand the checklist to someone I trust and ask him or her to quadruple-check that my entry contains all of the required elements.

Humor me on this one. Sometimes, a second set of eyes can catch a previously unnoticed problem — especially if the first set of eyes is bleary and bloodshot from having stayed up for days on end, preparing a contest entry.

Everything in its place? Excellent. Now you’re ready to send it off. Or are you?

14. Compose a nice, polite e-mail to the contest’s organizers, and attach the two Word documents to it.

Oh, you were planning to attach them to a blank e-mail? Isn’t that a trifle rude to the stalwart volunteers who will, out of the goodness of their hearts and their deep devotion to literature, be opening all of those entries and making sure that none of them have violated the rules?

But before you send it off…

15. At any point in this process, did it occur to you to spell- and grammar-check your entry?

You would be flabbergasted at how often the answer seems to be no. Certainly, Mehitabel and I are pretty flummoxed by it. Spelling counts here, people.

Obviously, my preference would be for you to read your entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you send it off, but working against a tight deadline, you may not have that luxury. Do be aware, though, that tired people do occasionally hit CHANGE when the spell-checker makes a ridiculous suggestion (“Cotillion instead of coalition? When did I agree to that universal change?”), and that for some reason I cannot fathom, my version of Word occasionally suggests that I change a contextually correct their to an incorrect there. Let the check-user beware.

16. Now you can hit SEND, seal the envelope with the entry form and fee, and toddle off to the mailbox.

Phew! That was a lot of work, wasn’t it? And that was just to make sure that the entry clung to the rules like an unusually tenacious leech; polishing your actual writing to the high shine requisite to impress Mehitabel will take time over and above all of this.

Ah, the things we do for Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy. Best of luck, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part IX: if it’s not too much trouble, would you mind following the rules? Or, your mother was right: courtesy counts.

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:

asterisk.jpg

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:

non-asterisk.jpg

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?

asterisk.jpg

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.

page-one-jpeg.jpg

page-2-jpeg.jpg

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!

Countdown to a contest entry, part VIII: embracing the offbeat strategy

Hey, I’ve got some great news for all of you penny-pinchers — and who doesn’t make a penny scream occasionally these days? FAAB Dave McChesney reports that Outskirts Press is currently offering a 10% discount on his new release, Beyond the Ocean’s Edge if you buy it directly from the publisher’s site. If you can stop tormenting those coins for a moment, you’ll find the blurb for this exciting adventure story in this earlier post. Thanks for letting us know, Dave!

Back to business. I feel a trifle guilty about not posting yesterday, I must admit. Oh, I had pretty good reasons — the pollen count was through the roof, or rather through my studio’s window. The lilac tree has evidently hit its adolescent growth spurt, and like all developing things that bid fair to be fascinating adults, it’s asserting its independence by breaking away from the bonds I have set for it and is getting in my face. I’ll spare you a description of the resultant sneezing.

The postmark deadline for the writing contest I have been planning to use as a rule exemplar, the William Faulkner/William Wisdom Literary Competition is this coming Tuesday, however, so I regret the loss of time. I have time to go over the rules and how to follow them, as well as answer any contest prep questions you might care to post this weekend, of course, so no need to panic. However, while I was sneezing my pretty little head off, I came up with a glorious plan to make the lost Thursday up to you.

Since the contest requires a 1-page synopsis to accompany book-length entries, and since most aspiring writers would, in my extensive and sympathetic experience, rather waltz with a live rattlesnake than sit down and write a 1-page synopsis, am I correct in assuming that more than a few of you planning to enter the contest have been putting it off until this weekend? Am I further correct in assuming that it would save you some time if you didn’t have to dig through my extensive archives for pointers on how to write one from scratch? And would I be crawling too far onto that interpretive limb if I presumed that it would save you a little time and more than a little chagrin if I abruptly presented you with the relevant how-to posts?

I’ll take those vague nods, exasperated sighs, and chorus of sneezes as yes, yes, and no. So I’ll tell you what I’m going to do: because I love you people and would like to be shaking several of your respective hands at the awards ceremony, I shall be reposting my ever-popular series on how to write a 1-page synopsis successfully, if hurriedly.

Tonight. All of it. Back-to-back, so you have it at your itchy fingertips.

You’re welcome. It will take a while to post them all, but if you tune in sometime after 8 p.m. Pacific time, I believe I can promise you enough to read to keep you busy.

To prepare you to turn that practical gift to its best advantage for you, right now, I’m going to polish off my observations on the touches that differentiate a successful contest synopsis from one that you might tuck with confidence into a query or submission packet.

Since most writing contests that offer prizes to unpublished books do not accept entire manuscripts — although the Faulkner/Wisdom competition does, one of the many things I like about it; I also like that it features an unusual Novel-in-Progress category, as well as a special prize for a short story by a high school student — judge that book by the first chapter (or some portion thereof) and a synopsis, the synopsis is quite a bit more important to an entry’s chances of making the finalist round than most entrants assume. Effectively, the contest synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book.

Oh, you hadn’t been thinking of it that way? It’s only sensible: that page (or 3 or 5, depending upon the individual contest’s rules) is where you demonstrate to judges that you are not merely a writer who can hold a reader in thrall for a few isolated pages. The synopsis is where you show that you have the vision, tenacity, and — feel free to sing along; you should know the words by now — storytelling ability to take the compelling characters you have begun to reveal in your first chapter through an interesting story to a satisfying conclusion.

Or, if you happen to be entering a memoir, that you can tell your life story so compellingly and honestly, while simultaneously presenting it with a dramatically-satisfying story arc, that a reader will indeed feel as though s/he has walked the proverbial mile in your moccasins, and returned from the journey edified, enlightened, and entertained.

Or, should your tastes run toward other stripes of nonfiction, that you can articulate an important problem or unresolved question, illuminate the relevant circumstances, and offer a solution or interpretation so subtle and complex that Cicero himself would stand up and applaud. Nothing dry or mundane about the story you’re telling.

Sounds noble expressed in those terms, doesn’t it? Actually, it is: the synopsis is where you show that you have the writerly chops to plot out a BOOK, baby.

For this reason, it is imperative that your synopsis makes it very, very clear how the chapter or excerpt you are submitting to the contest fits into the overall story arc or argument of the book, regardless of whether you are submitting fiction or nonfiction. And although it pains me to tell you this, it’s exceedingly rare that a synopsis included with an entry even attempts that not-particularly-difficult feat.

Did I just notice many, many eyebrows shooting hairline-ward? “But Anne,” those of you about to pop your entries into the nearest mailboxes shout, “isn’t it self-evident where that chapter or excerpt falls? Why would I be submitting anything other than the first chapter(s) of my book to a literary contest that judges book-length work?”

Well, for starters: the rules. Quite a few contests allow writers to submit chapters other than the first. Still more do not explicitly specify: they merely tell the entrant to send X number of pages and a synopsis. And surprisingly often, rules do not insist explicitly that the entered pages fall consecutively in the book.

So ostensibly, it’s can appear to be up to the writer to decide which pages are most likely to wow Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. Who — spoiler alert — may not have read the contest rules recently enough to recall that entering anything but the opening of the book is technically acceptable.

Well might you clutch your throat and mutter inarticulately. “What was this entrant thinking?” Mehitabel wonders, leafing through the four-page excerpt from Chapter 8, the six-page passage from Chapter 10, and the totality of Chapter 18 that make up the 25-page contest entry before her. “This reads like random notes for a planned book, not a legitimate taste of a book already written. No agent would accept this as a submission; why on earth would this writer think we accept it as a contest entry?”

In all likelihood, because the rules allowed for the possibility, even if they did not encourage it. You’d be astonished at how often contest entrants will take advantage of what they perceive to be a loophole operating in their favor, only to find that they have inadvertently violated the judges’ expectations.

Here comes the first iteration of an axiom you are going to be seeing many, many times over the next few days: read contest rules carefully. All too often, entrants merely glance at them and assume that they understand what’s expected. And then those entrants get disqualified.

Let’s say for the sake of argument, though, that feel that your best writing falls in, say, Chapter 16, not in Chapter 1. Like a sensible person, before you printed out Chapter 16 and pop it into the entry envelope, you have read through a contest’s rules with great care. You borrowed your spouse’s fine-toothed comb to go over them again, in case you missed something. Then you had your spouse, your neighbor, and your son Joey’s third-grade teacher peruse those rules, so you could compare notes.

In caucus, all of you agree that the rules do seem to allow entering an excerpt from the middle of the book. And the contest deadline is Monday, so you don’t have time to e-mail the contest’s organizers to double-check that this is indeed an acceptable option. Even if you did have time and they wrote back with their blessing, however, if you elect to pursuit this strategy, your synopsis had better make it absolutely plain where the enclosed excerpt will fall in the finished work.

Truth be told, I think it is seldom wise to submit either chapters other than the initial ones or non-consecutive excerpts from a book, even if later chapters contain writing that is truly wonderful. Why? Well, presumably, you chose to begin your manuscript at a certain point in the story for a reason; asking Mehitabel to jump into it somewhere else might well require her to know information that the chapter you submit does not contain. If a reader would normally know by page 5 that angel-faced Georgette is a murderous maniac in cheerleader’s clothing, and Mehitabel reads only pp. 57-82, she may well be confused when Georgie slashes up that nice math teacher on page 76.

Non-consecutive excerpts are even more likely to confuse. They require the judge to make the logical connections between them — which the judge may not be inclined to do in a way that is in your best interest. An uncharitable judge might, for instance, draw the unkind inference that you had submitted the excerpts you chose because they were the only parts of the book you had written — a poor message to send in a category devoted to book-length works. Or that you simply can’t stand your introductory chapter, the pages upon which Millicent the agency screener would naturally base her opinion if you submitted the manuscript to an agency.

Did some of you just do a double-take? No agent or editor in the world, is going to accept random excerpts from a book for which she’s been queried: she is going to expect to see the first chapter, or first three chapters, or some other increment up to and possibly including the entire manuscript. But no way, no how is an agent or editor going to ask to see unrelated excerpts out of running order.

Well, okay, not unless the submitter is a celebrity for whom it would be a stunning surprise to the industry if s/he could string three coherent English sentences together. But in that case, the celebrity would be selling a platform more than the writing itself, right? And in any case, that’s why God invented ghostwriters.

Since reputable contest judging is blind, that last scenario is unlikely to arise, anyway. So a judge might safely conclude that the entrant who mailed in this patchwork document isn’t anywhere near ready to submit work to professionals. In other words: next!

This is not, in short, a situation where it pays to rely upon the kindness of strangers, but I can already hear some of you quietly tucking page 147 into your entry packet. Fine. If you have decided, over my strenuous objections, to use non-contiguous excerpts, here is some advice on how to do it in the manner least likely to annoy Mehitabel.

First, place your synopsis at the top of your entry packet, before the manuscript pages, unless the rules absolutely forbid you to do so. That way, you will maximize the probability that the judge will read it first. Second, make sure that the synopsis makes it pellucidly clear that these excerpts are far and away the most important parts of the book for some reason other than the beauty of the writing.

Oh, you may giggle, but by embracing the offbeat strategy, you’ve added another responsibility to the synopsis’ usual task of showing the overall story arc or argument of the book. Basically, the role of the synopsis in this instance is to make the judges eager to read these particular excerpts.

Obviously, this means that your storytelling skills had better be at their most polished, to meet the challenge. But really, why would you want to raise an already lofty bar this much higher?

As for selecting a chapter other than the first for submission, effectively starting midway through the book, I would advise against it, too, even if when contest rules explicitly permit the possibility. If you must, however, you should again position your synopsis on the top of the pile, and that synopsis should present the chapter you are including as the climax of the book.

Yes, even if it isn’t. I can only assume that you have your reasons for wanting to stick Chapter 17, rather than Chapter 1, under Mehitabel’s bloodshot eyes; since that is the case, surely you can make a convincing argument that it’s the correct choice, despite the significant disadvantage any judge will face in figuring out what happened in Chs. 1-16.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you point out, “the opening to my Chapter 58 knocked the socks off my mother, nearly slayed my writing teacher, and left my critique group in a state of panting incoherence. Are you saying that I shouldn’t loose that level of brilliance upon a contest judge, just because she might — silly person — want to know what anyone else who read that far in the book would already know?”

Before I answer that directly, let me acquaint you with some of the more salient’ arguments against beginning your entry at any point other than the beginning of the book. In the first place, the judge may well draw the same set of uncharitable inferences as with the non-continuous excerpts, and dismiss your submission as not ready for the big time.

Remember, they are typically judging marketability as well as writing quality. As I have mentioned repeatedly over the last couple of weeks, contest organizers love it when their winners move on quickly to publication. If your submission looks like it needs a couple of years’ worth of polishing to become market-ready, it is unlikely to win a contest, even if you are extremely talented.

In the second place, while your best writing may well lie later in your book, the advantage of starting at the beginning is that the judge and the everyday reader will have an equal amount of information going in. I’ve known a LOT of contest judges who resent having to go back and forth between the synopsis and the chapters to figure out what is going on.

Oh, please don’t look so sad. There is a sneaky way to get around this problem — but I’m afraid I would have to scold you if you did it.

So while you did not, of course, hear it from me, there is no contest in the world that is going to make you sign an affidavit swearing that your entry is identical to what you are submitting to agents and editors. If you win, no one is later going to come after you and say, “Hey, your book doesn’t start with the scene you entered in the contest!”

And even if someone did, so what? Professional writers change the running orders of their books all the time. And titles. And the name of the protagonist’s baby sister. Pretty much no one in the industry regards a manuscript as beyond revision until it is sitting on a shelf at Barnes & Noble. With nonfiction books that go into subsequent editions, sometimes not even then.

Thus, in theory, a clever entrant who feels her best writing occurs fifty pages into her novel might, for the purposes of competition alone, place her strongest scene first by starting the entry on page 50. Labeling it as page 1, of course, precisely as if the crafty soul’s book actually did begin there.

To put it in a less clever way: go ahead and submit your strongest chapter, tricky one — but for heaven’s sake, do not label it as Chapter 8. Label it as Chapter 1, and write a new synopsis for a book where Chapter 8 IS Chapter 1. Just make sure that your synopsis is compelling and lucid enough that it makes sense as a story told in that order.

“Is there a problem, officer?” this shifty-eyed writer could then say, batting large, innocent eyes. “I just don’t like linear narratives, that’s all. I simply wanted to open with a prologue from later in the story, then leap back to Chapter 1.”

The synopsis would have to be revised, naturally, to make it appear that this was indeed the usual running order of the book. Then, too our heroine would have to edit the submitted pages carefully, to make sure that there is nothing in the skipped-over pages that is vital to understanding what happens in the chapters presented in the entry.

The job of the synopsis, then, in the hands of this tricky writer, would be to cover up the fact that the entry starts in the middle of the book. It would be just our little secret. Or it would be, if I knew about it.

Which I don’t. Look, isn’t that Superman flying by the window?

Are those eyebrows creeping skyward again? “But Anne,” some of you tireless running order-huggers maintain, “my story doesn’t make sense told out of order, but I don’t feel that the book’s opening shows off my writing skills more effectively than a section later in the book. Does that mean I am I doomed to submit Chapter 1, just so the synopsis makes sense?”

Okay, come closer, and I’ll whisper a little secret that the pros use all the time: it’s perfectly acceptable in most fiction genres, and certainly in memoir, to open the book with a stunningly exciting scene that does not fall at the beginning of the story, chronologically speaking. It’s usually called a prologue, and it’s slapped onto the beginning of the book, before the set-up begins.

Does this seem a tad dishonest? It isn’t, really; it’s an accepted trick o’ the trade. If you trawl in bookstores much, you’ve probably seen this technique used in a novel or twelve lately. It’s become rather common in submissions, for the simple reason that a book that bursts into flame — literarily speaking — on page 1 tends to be a heck of a lot easier to sell to agents and editors than one that doesn’t really get going until page 27.

And that’s doubly true of contest entries, which judges are often reading for free and in their spare time. Don’t underestimate the competitive value of not boring them; a staggeringly high percentage of manuscripts start pretty slowly.

You can and should take advantage of that fact, you know. Generally speaking, anything you can do to place your best writing within the first few pages of your contest entry, you should do. Judges’ impressions tend to be formed very quickly, and if you can wow ’em before page 3, you absolutely should.

Just as with work you submit to agents, the first page of your entry is far and away the most important thing the judges see — which is why, unless an entry features mid-book excerpts, the author’s platform is truly stellar, or the contest’s rules specify a particular order for the entry packet, I advise placing the synopsis AFTER the chapters in the stack of papers or e-mailed document, not before.

That way, your brilliant first page of text can jump out at the judges. (After the title page, of course.) And if you can include some very memorable incident or imagery within the first few paragraphs of your chapter, so much the better.

Why, yes, that is a different running order than I advised for the tricky. How observant of you.

One final word to the wise: whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for a contest for the very last moments before you stuff the entry into an envelope. Synopsis-writing is hard; budget adequate time for it. You’re going to want to make absolutely sure that the synopsis you submit supports the image of the book you want your submitted chapter to send.

Okay, so I’ll admit that’s kind of strange advice, coming from someone planning to provide a crash course in one-page synopsis-writing this very evening, with an eye to contest entries going out on Monday. I can only provide guidance; I cannot bend the space-time continuum to my will. And heaven knows I’ve tried.

Tomorrow, I shall begin to cover the super-common entry mistakes that tend to raise even the most tolerant judges’ hackles, due to sheer repetition. Feel free to keep posting questions about synopses as you write them, though, and keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part V: avoiding performing origami on the space-time continuum, or, might I recommend those contests that do not require leaping through flaming hoops?

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Sorry that I did not manage to post Sunday’s planned second post on the absorbing topic of literary contests, campers: the flesh was willing, but the server was weak. Every time I logged in yesterday, it advised me to come back later.

Later turned into now, so here is the post I wished to have winging to you last night. Later this evening, I hope to be posting today’s intended topic, but my schedule’s demands lead me to believe that it will be pretty late. But then, you’re used to me posting in the dead of night, right?

All of you potential contest-entrants will want to tune in for it, I suspect: I shall be going over how to write the synopsis that virtually every contest that accepts book-length work requires. While I am tossing around confusing references to the space-time continuum, allow me to add that later in the week, I shall be going into fine detail about technical tweaking you can give your entries that will make them more likely to end up in the finalist pile.

But today — or is it last night? — I want to finish up my series of questions you should ask yourself about a contest before you invest your time, money, and hope in entering.

Before I launch into that, however op quiz: how much did all of those iterations of later in the second paragraph bug you? If they didn’t, please run, don’t walk, to scroll back to my recent series on structural redundancy. Seriously, that paragraph would have caused our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to rip out patches of her hair by the roots.

Okay, perhaps her reaction would not have been that extreme had she encountered that paragraph in a manuscript submission. But I can guarantee that her response would have included a shout of “Next!”

Ah, that observation made some of you self-editors uncomfortable, didn’t it? Share your thoughts; this is a safe space for writerly angst. “But Anne,” the disgruntled mutter, “that wasn’t really a fair test of my reading eye. By the time the quiz popped into my consciousness, I had already read to subsequent paragraphs. By then, my attention was focused elsewhere. Isn’t the important thing that I kept reading in spite of them?”

Ah, but Millicent probably wouldn’t. Neither would Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge: they both simply see too many beautifully-written (and, almost as important to this particular example, beautifully proofread) pages to feel any compunction about crying, “Next!” over one that contains craft problems. Or, if they do read on, the memory of what has gone before almost invariably colors their opinions of what comes next.

Oh, you thought I was finished tying the space-time continuum into pretty bows?

Ponder that, please, while I segue back into the topic at hand. In my last post, I discussed the pitfalls of contests that require entrants to devote extensive time to filling out entry forms, especially those that require information that should be positively irrelevant in a blind-judged contest. (Personal references? Really?) I neglected to mention, however, another potentially time-consuming side effect of entry that usually takes its toll long after the judging is over.

I speak, of course, of the fact that every time you fill out one of these forms, you are giving tacit consent to being placed upon the sponsoring organization’s mailing list.

And the masses sigh with relief. “Oh, is that all, Anne? I thought you were going to tell me something really dire. Why should I mind receiving continued mailings from an organization I admire enough to want it to give me a writing award?”

I relieved to hear that you’re relieved, formerly disgruntled masses, but I must say, it might be premature. It’s admirable that you have restricted your contest entries to only those organizations whose work with writers you otherwise admire, campers; it’s equally admirable that you have paid enough attention to this series to realize that you should be doing a spot of research on those organizations. Would it shock you, however, to learn that some writers enter literary contests without learning the first thing about that organization?

Well might you turn pale. Believe it or not, our republic is stuffed to the gills with contest entrants who — are you sitting down? — know nothing about the sponsoring organization except that it sponsors a writing contest.

Why might that be problematic down the line? Well, many, many nonprofit organizations (as runners of literary contests and conferences tend to be) have been known to scare up additional scratch for their operating expenses by selling their mailing lists to similar organizations.

Oh, come on — did you think those offers from Writers Digest and The Advocate just found their way into your mailbox magically? Who did you think told those magazines that you had a yen to write, the Literature Fairy?

Nor is that the only hazard. Entities that purchase mailing lists often sell them to businesses that resell them, and so on. By blithely providing contact information on an entry form, many a writer has ended up receiving masses of junk mail — and junk e-mail — from those only related to the original contest by the most tenuous of links.

The moral: just because a contest is literary doesn’t mean that its organizers aren’t making money on it. If you don’t want to be placed on mailing lists, add a note to your entry saying so.

Also, as with any information you submit to people you do not know, be careful not to provide any data that is not already public knowledge. Every piece of information you share here is subject to resale to marketing firms, unless the contest sponsor states outright on the form that it will not do so.

But that is a minor consideration, and a long-term one. We have been concentrating on the short-term and up-front costs of contest entries, have we not? Here’s a good guideline for limiting your investment on both scores: you can save yourself a lot of time if you avoid contests that make entrants jump through a lot of extraneous hoops in preparing a submission.

Why are you laughing? “Oh, come on, Anne,” those of you new to literary contests chortle. “We’ve already discussed the pros and cons of writing a completely new piece for a contest, and I know that a reputable contest will usually require that I remove my name from the slug line — that bit at the top of each manuscript page that contains the author’s last name/title of the project/page #. Beyond, that, though, how much could a contest’s rules make me tinker with my manuscript?”

Oh, you would be astonished; some of these requirements have to be seen to be believed. In the last year, my aged eyes have beheld demands for:

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/coolclips_wb024789.gifBizarre margin requirements, such as two inches on the left and 3/4 inch on the right — or vice versa.

/coolclips_wb024789.gifExpensive binding, binders, or printing that a writer could not perform at home.

/coolclips_wb024789.gifAn unprintable entry form that must be sent away for with a SASE — presumably because the contest organizers have yet to hear of the Internet — and needs to be filled out by typewriter, rather than by hand.

Don’t think that sounds particularly time-consuming? Okay, pop quiz #2: does anyone out there still own a typewriter?

Even if you do, each of these strictures will eat up your time and money, without the end result’s necessarily being truly indicative of the quality of your work. Because, really, all conforming to such oddball requirements truly demonstrates is that an entrant can follow directions.

Which, admittedly, is something that an agent or editor might legitimately want to know about a writer s/he was considering signing. However — and I’m sorry to shock anyone, but I want to be truthful here — my notion of a literary contest is one where the entrant proves that she can write, not that she can read.

But I suppose that could be my own absurd little prejudice, rather like my unsubstantiated belief that gravity should make things fall down, not up. Or that a clock’s hands should turn in only one direction.

Given how common such requirements are, how can a time-strapped aspiring writer tell whether a particular contest’s rules are too hoop-heavy? My yardstick is this: if you can pull together a contest entry with already-written material within a day’s worth of uninterrupted writing time, the contest’s demands are probably pretty reasonable.

I like this standard: the more time you have to write, the more entry-ambitious it encourages you to be.

If a contest requires time-consuming funky formatting, or printing on special contest forms, or wacko binding, you might not want to bother — unless, of course, you happen to have a week’s vacation between now and the deadline. Even so, you might want to think twice: the more hoops the entrant is required to leap through, generally speaking, the more exacting the judging.

What makes me think that? To my contest-experienced eyes, such requests are not for your benefit, but the contest organizers’.

How so? Because — and hold onto your hats, everybody, because I am about to reveal a deep, dark secret of the contest trade — the primary purpose of these elaborate requests for packaging is to make it as easy as possible to knock entries out of finalist consideration at first glance.

That’s a matter of simple probability, really. The more that contest rules ask entrants to do to package an entry, the more ways an entrant can get it wrong. By setting up stringent and easily-visible cosmetic requirements, the organizers maximize the number of entries they can simply toss aside, unread.

Yes, you read that right: it’s so they don’t have to read all of the entries in full. Does that make you feel better or worse about the possibility of their selling your contact information to a third party?

Interestingly enough, many of the organizers of contests that establish these demands are quite open about their being merely an exercise in rule-following — and that they do it in order to preserve that most precious of commodities in this industry, time.

Not that you would have to be Einstein, Mme. de Staël, and Confucius rolled into one to figure it out. Think about it: if contest organizers really only were only seeking uniformity amongst the entries, they could easily just say, “We will only accept entries in standard manuscript format.”?

No fuss, no bother, and besides, all of their entrants who want to get published should be using standard format, anyway, right? Manuscripts not conforming to standard manuscript format tend, after all, to be rejected unread in both contest situations and in agents’ offices. (If you are not already aware of the requirements of standard format for manuscript, do yourself a favor and check out the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category at right.)

Instead, the organizers in this type of contest can merely assign some luckless intern or exceptionally virtuous volunteer to go through the entries before the judges see page 1 of them, plucking out any that are in the wrong type of folder, printed on the wrong type of paper, don’t have the right funky margins…well, you get the idea.

Voil? ! The number of entries the judges have to read has magically decreased! Shades of Millicent, eh?

One of the quickest and most reliable ways to find out if a good writer has entered many contests is how annoying she finds this phenomenon. Or the surprisingly common corollary of contest rules’ not being crystal-clear about the costs to the entrant of deviations from these non-literary requirements. Over-adherence to nit-picky presentation issues provides the organization with the illusion of selectivity on bases that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing.

Still happy about providing your contact information? Or investing more than a day’s worth of your irreplaceable time in prepping an entry?

While we’re on the subject, here’ a specialized question aimed at those of you who are currently embroiled in preparing contest entries: how much of your writing time is being eaten up by contests these days? If you have been entering quite a few (and we’ve just finished a season of deadlines for contests and fellowship applications, and are about to enter another), would your time be better spent by passing on the next one?

As I intimated earlier in this series, there are so many literary contests out there that if you entered them all, you would never have a chance to get down to serious writing. Equally seriously, if you have a finished piece that you should be marketing to agents and/or small presses, it is very easy to tell yourself that entering contest after contest — at the expense of devoting that time to sending out queries — is a time-saver, in the long run.

Unfortunately, that soothing self-talk isn’t always true. Yes, a win (or place, or finalist status) in a reputable contest can indeed speed up your agent-seeking process exponentially. It would be kind of pointless for me, of all people, to deny that, as I met my agent as a direct result of winning a contest.

It can lead to the fast track, and you should definitely consider entering a few for that very reason. Yet, contrary to many, many entrants’ expectations, it doesn’t always lead to landing an agent, even if you win.

True, a contest credential frequently moves a query up in the pile, and sometimes even allows it to jump the Millicent screening stage entirely, hop-scotching directly to the agent’s desk. That’s gotten rare, however: these days, all queries tend to go through the same screening process — sometimes even if the letter opens with a recommendation from a client.

Then, too, a contest judge’s idea of what is marketable at the moment is sometimes a bit outdated; an agent or editor might not agree. And many contests attached to conferences feature categories that do not correspond to the interests of the agents and editors invited to the conference where the winners are announced.

Word to the wise: entering contests probably should not be your only agent-seeking strategy.

It’s an understandable choice, of course — sending out query after query is discouraging, and in the current ultra-competitive writers’ market, it can sometimes take years to pique a good agent’s interest.

Not that it will take my readers years, of course. You’re one market-savvy bunch.

However tired of the querying grind you may be, please do not fall into the trap of using contests as a complete substitute for querying. For one thing, the turn-around time for contest entries is usually significantly longer than the query response time for even the least organized agencies: six months is common, and if you have a finished novel or book proposal in hand, that’s far too long to wait for a single response.

Also, if you hang all of your hopes on a contest win, even if you enter a plethora of contests, you are relying upon the quirky tastes of people you have never met to determine your fate.

Do I sense some disagreement out there? “But Anne,” some voices mutter, “isn’t that true when you send a query to an agent as well? You routinely spend a significant part of your time here demonstrating the difference between the things a writer can control and those we can’t, and unless I’m very much mistaken, this is one of the latter.”

Well, sort of. Just as there are certain dependable agents’ pet peeves that seem to transcend space and time, there are a great many predictable reasons a submission might get knocked out of a contest competition; I shall be talking about those later this month. But in contests, there can also be considerations that have little to do with the actual marketability — and sometimes not even the writing quality — of your entry.

To be blunt about it, to make it to the finalist round in a contest, your entry will have to avoid every conceivable pet peeve that the initial screeners might have. And, believe it or not, your garden-variety Mehitabel tends to have more pet peeves than Millicent. For one thing, she’s probably been screening pages longer.

Mind-blowing, isn’t it? With first readers at agencies (who are seldom the agents themselves, recall), you can at least rely upon certain basic rules. Standard format, for instance, is not a matter of individual whim, and while some rogue agents may prefer some slight variation upon it, you can bet your next-to-last nickel that if you follow it, you’re not going to have your submission tossed out on technical grounds if you follow it.

But in a contest, if you hit a volunteer first reader whose college English professor insisted that semicolons are always an indicator of poor writing — yes, such curmudgeons do exist, and their erstwhile students abound — your work is likely to lose its shot at the finalist round the first time you use one. Ditto with the passive voice, or multiple points of view. Plenty of professional readers actively dislike all of the above.

What can a contest entrant do about that? you ask, aghast? Nothing. You never can tell who is going to be a contest judge, so the outcome even for very good writing is not always predictable.

So please, I beg of you, keep sending out those queries while you are entering contests. Even if you do win that contest — as I sincerely hope you do; I love announcing my readers’ triumphs — you will be better off if you already have some agents interested in your work.

Some writers are shy about this, I’ve noticed, especially if they are eying competitions in which publication is a prize. Why, the very last time I discussed this topic at Author! Author!, incisive and thoughtful reader RM wrote in to ask:

I hate to be the asker of dumb questions, but I’m not sure of the protocol. Is it okay to send a piece into a contest and out to an agent at the same time?

It’s not a dumb question at all, RM. I’m quite positive that you’re not the only potential entrant that has wondered this.

To set your fears at rest, it’s perfectly legitimate to have the same piece out to agents and in a contest entry simultaneously. It’s in any literary contest’s interests to have its finalists succeed in market terms, so they won’t object, and if you do well in the contest, the agent gets boasting rights. Everyone wins!

Heck, in these days of tight editorial acquisitions, some agents actively encourage their already-signed clients to enter literary contests, in order to provide more oomph to their sales pitches. I hear you gasp, but you’d be astonished how seldom contests actually forbid this; read contest rules carefully. Many writing contests specify that entries must be previously unpublished, but say nothing about whether that writing can be represented or not.

Do take a contest at its word about the previously unpublished part — but don’t worry about what the outcome would be if you sent out a submission and an entry simultaneously, landed an agent prior to the contest’s winners being announced, and by some miracle that look forward to being able to announce on your behalf, the book in question sold before judging was completed. It’s highly unlikely that the process would move that fast, but even if it did, all you would have to do is contact the contest’s organizers and inform them that you’ve signed a publication contract.

Chances are, though, that won’t disqualify your entry: what they care about is whether a piece of writing is already under contract to be published prior to the entry deadline. So if you haven’t actually signed a publication contract by the time the entry window closes, you should be find.

But by all means, get your work out in as many ways as possible!

Try not to go overboard, however. If you find that the time to prep contest entries are starting to be your excuse for not sending out more queries, stop and reevaluate whether you are making the best use of your time in your pursuit of publication.

If for no other reason that that I would really, really like to be able to gloat when your first book comes out. I ask for so little; humor me. Keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part IV: is that the sun I see rising in the distance, or is the contest deadline merely getting close?

Okay, okay — I’m awake. Get that spotlight out of my eyes.

It’s a good thing I’m up and about at this ungodly hour, too: for the past few posts, I’ve been discussing criteria a sensible writer might use in determining which contests make the most sense to enter and which to eschew. And friends, the clock is ticking. I imagine that by this point in the series, those of you trying to hit that mid-month entry deadline can hear it in your sleep.

Mmmm. Sleep. I remember that.

Enough night dreaming; let’s get back to work. In tonight’s post, I am going to focus upon something rarely discussed, even amongst writers who routinely enter literary contests: the widely differing time commitments necessary to meet contest criteria.

That knowing chuckle you just heard echoing through the ether was the concurrence of every literary contest winner, placer, shower, and finalist who has every walked the planet.

How do I know that they’re the source of that great cosmic chuckle? Because — wait for it — the folks who put in the extra time (sometimes in the dead of night) tend to be the ones who place best. And win.

But really, it’s hard to find a contest whose rules don’t require the investment of quite a bit of time over and above the actual writing process. It often comes as something of a shock to those new to entering contests just how time-consuming many of them are to enter. As I mentioned about twelve hours ago, the vast majority of first-time entrants simply assume that all they will have to do is fill out an entry form, write a small check for the entry fee, and pop their writing into the nearest mailbox. Writing prize, please!

Would only that it were so easy. Successful contest entries often need to be tweaked unmercifully, in order to meet the entry criteria of a particular contest.

Do I hear some unrealized wails out there from those of you who are considering entering your first contest? “But Anne,” some of you protest, and who could blame you? “I don’t understand. I’m not planning to enter a contest that requires me to write fresh material for it — I’m entering my novel/memoir/poem that I finished writing a year ago. To enter it into a contest, I just need to print it out, fill out a form, write a check, and find a mailbox, right?”

Oh, my sweet, dear innocents. To put it as gently as possible: no.

Unfortunately, there are few contests out there, especially for longer works, that simply require entrants to print up an already-existing piece, slide it into an envelope, write a check for the entry fee, and slap a stamp upon it. How few, you ask? Well, off the top of my head, thinking back over the last dozen years or so, I would estimate that the grand total would be roughly…none.

At minimum, any blind-judged contest is going to require that you prepare a special rendition of your manuscript devoid of your usual slug line — because your slug line, of course, includes your name. Translation: you can’t just photocopy or print your current MS and mail it to a contest. And anything beyond that is, alas, time-consuming.

I hate to tell those of you who write nonfiction this, but any blind-judged contest will require that you remove every reference to your name from the body of your entry as well. That can be quite a challenge, if one happens to have written a memoir or personal essay. In a novel, that may merely involve revising the slug line, but in a nonfiction piece about, say, your family, it may require coming up with fresh names for practically every character.

I speak from experience here — my biggest contest win was, after all, for a memoir. And because I love you people, I’m not going to tell you just how long that took. I wouldn’t want to give you nightmares.

Why do I keep harping on the importance of valuing your time, in the face of a publishing industry which, to put it very gently indeed, doesn’t? Precisely because the industry doesn’t. While dealing with agents who take three months to respond to queries, and editors who take a year to pass judgment on a submission, if you don’t treat your time as a precious commodity, it’s all too easy to conclude that the industry is right: writers’ time is as vast as the sea, and as easily replenished as a tidal pool adjacent to a beach.

I don’t think so.

I measure time by the standards of a professional writer: every waking minute spent away from my current writing project, or from editing my clients’ writing projects, is expensive. More expensive, I think, than the equivalent minutes in the average agent or editor’s quotidian lives, because they are not typically creating new beauty and truth in every spare nanosecond they can steal. What writers do is important, not only to the writers themselves, but to humanity.

It must be, or I would be asleep right now.

I tend to doubt that what I’m going to say next will cause any of my long-term readers to fall over with surprise, but here is my credo, in case any of you missed it: since we writers control so little else along our paths to publication, I’m a great advocate of controlling what we can. Like, say, how much time a writer can choose to invest in prepping that entry without losing too much shut-eye, yet still have a reasonable chance of winning.

The time criterion is perhaps the most important factor to consider in evaluating a contest — other than whether your writing is ready to face competition, of course. Unlike the other evaluation criteria we discussed earlier in this series, which mostly focused upon the contest itself, this consideration is about you and your resources.

Parenthetically — because I am, as my long-time readers are already aware, constitutionally incapable of not following an interesting line of thought when it comes up — isn’t it amazing, given how much uncompensated time we all invest into our art, just how often time has been coming up in this year’s posts as the single most common decision-making determinant? Such as:

* Your queries need to be pithy from the get-go because agency screeners have time to devote only seconds to each.

* Sending out simultaneous queries is essential, because your time is too valuable to expend the extra years single-shot querying can take.

* Agencies seldom give rejection reasons anymore because they don’t have the time to give substantive feedback to everyone. (I like to call this the Did You Bring Enough Gum for the Whole Class? defense.)

* If your submission (and contest entry) elicit a “Wow!” for the writing and a “Whoa!” for the pacing on page 1 — or at the very latest, by page 5 — a professional reader is far more likely to continue past the opening of the pages they requested you send than if they do not emit these delightful exclamations.

* Although your story may legitimately take 600 pages to tell, agents and editors start to get nervous when a first novel rises above the 400-page mark — or 100,000 words, to use industry-speak. Even less, in some genres.

Need I go on? Or may I cut to the chase?

Given that pattern, it would be reasonable — nay, prudent — to set aside a few minutes before you invest any time in prepping an entry, look very carefully at the requirements of any contest you are considering entering and ask yourself, “Is this honestly going to be worth my time?”?

And oh, is it ever easy to underestimate how much time it will take. Some contests rules specify certain types of presentation for an entry — while a manuscript is always unbound for submission to agents and editors, a particular contest may prefer a bound version. Or three-hole punched. Or printed on a particular type of paper.

Or it may require entrants to use only a certain typeface. Or to include an author bio, author photo, or some other element that you might not already have on hand.

For every additional requirement, budget extra time to fulfill it. And don’t forget to figure in recovery time in the days after you pop that entry in the mail or hit SEND.

Hey, a body’s got to sleep sometime.

Then, too, pretty much every contest requires the entrant to fill out an entry form, for instance — which can range from requests for ultra-simple contact information to outright demands that you answer actual essay questions. (Not bad practice for those planning to pursue a writing career: applications for fellowships and residencies virtually always include essay questions, FYI.) And yes, Virginia, misreading or skipping even one of these questions on the entry form generally results in disqualification.

Or, at any rate, in an entry’s being tossed out of finalist consideration — which, from the entrant’s point of view, amounts to very much the same thing.

I wanted to state this explicitly, because when I have brought this up in years past, a number of entrants in feedback-giving contests have sent me excerpts (or even, in a couple of cases, the entirety) of their judges’ critique, saying accusingly, “See? I didn’t follow your guidelines, and I wasn’t disqualified.”

Without exception, however, these independent-minded souls did not win, either.

Even if an entry does explicitly violate contest rules, it is highly unusual for the contest organizers to tell the entrant about it; most of the time, the entry is just quietly removed from next-round consideration. Unfortunate, in a way, because those entrants who violate the rules (often inadvertently) are thus prevented from learning from their mistakes.

But contest judges are required not to give high marks to entries that violate the rules. So if you don’t have the time to read, re-read, and read them again, modifying your pages accordingly, it’s probably not worth your time to enter the contest.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you shout, “you said only a few paragraphs ago that every contest will have some rules to follow. How can I tell if what any given contest is asking of me is de trop? ”

Good question, disembodied voices I choose to attribute to my readership. One- or at most two-page application form is ample for a literary contest; a three- or four-page application is fair for a fellowship or residency.

Anything more than that, and you should start to wonder what they’re doing with all of that information. (Seriously, check the small print to make sure that you are not signing up for something.)

A contest that gives out monetary awards will need your Social Security number eventually, for tax purposes (yes, contest winnings are taxable), for instance, but they really need this information only for the winners. I would balk about giving it up front.

I have also seen contest entry forms that ask writers to list character references, especially those contests aimed at writers still in school. It seems an odd request, doesn’t it, given that the history of our art form is riddled with notorious rakes, ne’er-do-wells, and other social undesirables who happened to write like angels? Some awfully good poetry and prose has been written in jail cells over the centuries, after all.

Personally, I don’t believe that a contest should throw out the work of a William Makepeace Thackeray or an H.G. Wells because they kept mistresses — or to toss Oscar Wilde’s because he didn’t. Or, for that matter, close its entry rolls to a shy, talented kid whose high school English teacher doesn’t happen to like her.

In practice, reference requests are seldom followed up upon, and even less frequently used to disqualify entries before they are read, but one does hear rumors of their occasionally being used as tiebreakers. Contest organizers, too, have many demands upon their time. A good literary contest is not going to go out of its way to do background checks on all of its entrants. Even if they did, they are hardly likely to refuse to read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s entry because of that bottle of laudanum he was fond of carrying in his pocket, or disqualify Emily Dickinson’s poetry submission because her neighbors noticed that she didn’t much like to go outside.

No, they’d wait until the finalist round to do that. (Just kidding. Probably.)

It’s hard to blame the judges for wanting to have enough information on hand for it to be possible for them to do a little checking on the winners, though. They invest a tremendous amount of time and energy into running their contests, you know, many of them on a volunteer basis; surely, they have earned the privilege of ruling out people whose wins might embarrass the organization giving the award,

Oh, you wouldn’t might waking up one day to read in the newspaper that your months of effort resulted in giving your group’s highest accolade to Bigfoot?

For that reason, they might well gently set aside an entry whose return address was a state or federal prison, to minimize the possibility of handing their top honor to someone wearing manacles and accompanied by a guard. It could cut the other way, though: many of us literate folk would prefer to see potential and former felons turn their entries to the gentle arts of the sonnet or the essay over other, less socially-useful pursuits like murdering people with axes, embezzlement, or arson of public buildings.

The moral: if you don’t have friends as disreputable as you are to vouch for you in a reference-requiring contest, you need to get out more — or at least graduate from high school. Join a writers’ group; we write tremendous references for one another.

Contest entry forms frequently ask you to list your writing credentials, interestingly. A trifle bizarre, surely, in contests where the judging is supposed to be blind. Again, perhaps I am suspicious, but I always wonder if entries from authors with previous contest wins or publication credentials go into a different pile than the rest. They shouldn’t, if the judging is genuinely blind.

But to quote the late great Fats Waller, “One never knows, do one?”?

I’m not saying that you should rule out contests that make such requests — but I do think that the more personal information the organization asks for, the more careful your background check on the contest should be. After all, you are giving them enough information to do a fairly thorough one on you.

I can feel some of you tensing up, but rest assured: there are plenty of literary contests — and fellowship competitions, too — out there that are absolutely beyond reproach. By keeping your eye out for warning signs before you sink your valuable time into filling out extensive applications, you will be keeping your work — and your entry fees — out of the hands of the unscrupulous.

And hey, any of you out there who may be considering committing a felony in the days to come: take my advice, and take up short story writing instead. I assure you, everyone will be happier in the long run.

There! That’s another day of crime prevented; my work here is done.

Before you realize that you’ve never seen Superman and me in the same place at the same time, I’m signing off for the night. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXIX and I/II: tracking the wily US letter outside of its natural habitat

Last time, judging by the number of horrified private e-mails I have received since I last posted, I suspect I outdid myself on the reader-cautioning front. As so often happens, what induced widespread panic was not one of my habitual grand, wide-ranging philosophical statements, but commentary on a relatively small, practical matter it had never occurred to me to discuss in this forum — and, based upon the aforementioned e-mails, had not occurred to many of my international readers as a problem.

At the risk of sending still more of you charging into the streets, wild-eyed and screaming, allow me to recap: if you are planning upon querying or submitting to a US-based agency, your letter/synopsis/manuscript/everything else you even consider sending them should be printed on US letter-sized paper (8.5″ x 11″), not the internationally standard A4 (8.26″ x 11.69″).

(Oh, and at the risk of repeating myself on another point: it honestly is more efficient — and easier on me — if readers post their reactions and questions in the comments here on the blog, rather than sending them via e-mail. That way, I do not end up composing 42 separate soothing responses when only one would suffice. Also, if you post questions and concerns here, the chances are infinitely higher that some future reader with a similar perplexity will find the response. Karma points for all concerned!)

Those of you far-flung readers who did not immediately clutch your chests and hurl maledictions toward the muses are, I would guess, (a) not intending to approach US-based agents and publishing houses, in which case you should indeed stick with A4, (b) already aware that when in Rome, it’s only polite to do as the Romans do, in which case your tact is to be commended, or (c) smugly assuming that as you are cost-conscious enough to be approaching these agents and publishers electronically, this admonition simply does not apply to you. In that final case, I’m afraid I have some bad news.

You see, US printers and photocopiers are stocked with 8.5″ x 11″ paper — and it’s not at all beyond belief that an agent, literary contest, or small publisher whose submission guidelines specify electronic submissions will want at some point to print out your synopsis, query, entry, or manuscript. So even if you are submitting electronically from abroad, your submissions should be formatted for US letter-size paper.

Half of you did double-takes at the mention of the word contest, didn’t you? That’s right, campers: the overwhelming majority of the surprisingly hefty number of contest entries sent from abroad to writing contests here are misformatted. Either they are printed on the wrong size paper or, if the entry arrives electronically, they are formatted for A4. Any guesses why either might result in instant disqualification, even if the contest’s rules did not specify US letter?

Award yourself a gold star if you immediately leapt to your dainty feet, shouting, “I know, Anne! A4 allows more words per page than US letter, even with the same margins. So if the pages were full and the contest had length restrictions for entries, it would be quite easy to run quite a bit over the expected word count inadvertently.”

Quite right, gold star recipients. To borrow an example from the other side of the Atlantic, here is how the opening to the third chapter of Sir Walter Scott’s IVANHOE would appear in US letter — and, as is our wont here at Author! Author!, if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + repeatedly.

Here’s the first page of that chapter again, formatted for A4. Can you blame Mehitabel, everyone’s favorite veteran literary contest judge, for suspecting that ol’ Walt was trying to sneak in some extra verbiage?

In a paper submission, she’s likely recognize the problem here as a different paper size. In an electronic submission, though, she might just have a vague sense that something was wrong here. 11-point type instead of 12-point, for instance, or the whole shebang shrunk by 97%: both are fairly common dodges contest entrants (and aspiring writers frustrated by too-short synopsis requirements in general) utilize to try to side-step length restrictions. So even if she had not already knocked this opening out of finalist consideration for all of those which clauses (not considered particularly graceful writing, by current American standards) or the U.K. spellings (when in Rome, etc.), she might well have moved it to the disqualification pile for formatting reasons.

Did that blinding flash of light I saw illuminate the ether a moment ago indicate that the logic puzzle-lovers among you have just extrapolated correctly? “But Anne,” you cry, clutching your metric rulers, “does that mean that all of the time I have already invested in getting my query down to a single page — or whittling my synopsis down to a specified number of pages, or hacking at my contest entry until it is the length requested in the rules — has not in fact achieved my desired object? Are you (gulp) telling me (shiver) that because I wrote all of these assuming the A4 format, they are too long by US letter-sized paper standards?

That’s precisely what I’m telling you, swift calculators. As we saw in a previous post, writers querying, submitting, and entering from abroad frequently violate US length expectations without either intending to cheat or realizing that they have. And no, neither Mehitabel nor her niece, our pal Millicent the agency screener, will necessarily cut you any slack for not being aware of the difference in the paper supply.

Well might you gasp like a trout yanked from the murky depths to sunlit air, e-mailing queriers. If you have been composing your queries in Word set to printing on A4, copying your letters, and pasting them into an e-mail, they probably are longer than a US-generated query would be. And yes, Millicent probably has noticed.

Tempted to think that you might get away with it, are you? Let me ask you: if you had spent the past few months reading thousands of 1-page queries, do you honestly think that your brain wouldn’t automatically start counting lines if the one in front of you seemed a touch on the long side?

While it can be annoying to trim an extra line or two from a query that’s already bumping up against the one-page limit, and downright maddening to try to round a contest entry off so the last page does not end in mid-sentence (although in a contest for book-length works, just as in an agent’s request for a specific number of pages, no one expects the bottom of the last page to end a sentence, section, or thought), I reserve most of my compassion for the hapless submitter-from-abroad wrestling with a synopsis. Pretty much no matter who a writer is or how long the synopsis in question is supposed to be, every line is precious. And since the convention for synopses is to fill all of the allowed pages to the last line or the one before it — you knew that, right? — those few extra lines afforded by A4 paper can make quite a bit of difference.

Yes, of course I’ll show you. To borrow another story from across the pond, force it into a YA format (hey, it’s been a boring day), and present it in US letter:



Uses up every available line, does it not? Here’s precisely the same synopsis formatted for A4.



Makes more of a cumulative length difference than you would have thought, doesn’t it? This second version could take another entire paragraph — and don’t tell me that in summarizing a plot as complex as HAMLET, our friend Will would not have appreciated a little extra descriptive space. Not on this continent, buddy!

Now that I have impressed upon you the importance of using the paper size (and accompanying formatting) if you will be sending queries, synopses, manuscripts, and/or contest entries to the US from abroad, I still have that uneasy sense that those of you affected by this news might be gathering your pitchforks and torches to storm the castle, anyway. “But Anne,” you shout, brandishing the aforementioned weapons of mad scientist intimidation, “it’s not as though US letter is common outside the US. Where would you suggest I pick some up?”

Ooh, good question, pitchfork-brandishers — and a much better question than it would have been just a few years ago. For quite some time, the answer was fairly easy: US-based Kinko’s stocked US letter paper in its outlets all over the world. Once FedEx and Kinko’s merged, however, that seemed to become quite a bit less common. So while I could, as most writing advisors still do, just glibly tell those of you living abroad to track down a US-owned company, walk in, and demand to buy a ream or two of their paper, that’s less feasible than in days of yore.

So what’s a writer to do? The advice would be to order US letter paper from an American-owned company that has branches in your neck of the woods — while Amazon UK doesn’t seem to stock it, Amazon US does, and they do ship abroad. Shipping costs will be expensive enough, though, that you might want to try stopping by your local stationary store first, smiling as sweetly as you can, and asking them to order a box for you, just for comparative pricing purposes. (Your stationer may know US letter by its alternate name, American quarto.)

Yes, that’s rather inconvenient, but certainly less so than the primary answer I found when I did a quick online search — which was, I kid you not, “Go ask at the American embassy.”

While I’m on the subject of tracking down hard-to-find office supplies necessary to the writing set, this seems like an excellent time to repost a question that nonfiction writer Liz brought up the last time I wrote about the rigors and strains of pulling together a nonfiction proposal. After having eyed the photo I posted, she inquired:

What is the make of this portfolio? I cannot find one like this that is not made of paper/card and 30 pages max capacity. Please help!!

I can’t even begin to estimate how many times a year I hear this particular cri de coeur, both via e-mail (boo!) and popping up in the comments (hooray!). Since the comments are, for some reason that escapes me, not searchable with that handy little search engine that continually lurks for your exploratory pleasure at the upper right-hand corner of this blog, though, some of you may have missed my answers. Let’s go ahead and address this in a searchable part of the blog, hey?

For those of you who are not already gnashing your teeth over this particular problem, in the United States, book proposals are presented in plain black folders — yes, even at the submission stage. Don’t even consider trying to use anything fancy or colorful; it will just look unprofessional to the pros. What Millicent and her boss, the agent of her dreams, will expect to find in a nonfiction submission is something like this:

book proposal folder1

I know: boring. That’s the way they like it.

The folders in question, by the way, are the ones with horizontal pockets inside, not the ones with brads in the middle. The latter are for high school book reports, the former for book proposals, and ne’er the twain shall meet. So if the folder in your hand does not look like this when you open it:

book proposal photo 2

scuttle on back to the office supply story and pick up one that does. And whatever you do, do not bind your proposal in any way. Let those pages flap around loose, just as they do in a manuscript. Well, not quite the same: the marketing part of the proposal is placed (neatly, please) on the left-hand pocket, while the sample chapter, author bio, and clippings are typically placed on the right-hand side.

Which leads us right back to Liz’s problem, right? A book proposal usually runs in the neighborhood of 30-60 pages, including sample chapter, so she, clever writer, wants a folder that holds at least 20 pages per side. Generally speaking, plastic folders tend to hold more in their pockets than the flimsy cardstock type. (Liz’s proposal won’t be discarded if she sends it a nice cardstock folder; it’s merely more likely to get a bit mangled in transit.)

Once again, the Internet is the writer’s friend here. The Office Depot website carries an Oxford brand pocket folder that can hold up to 200 pages. It’s looks like it may be available only online, though. Scrolling through the site, I found one that they seem to sell in their stores, an Office Depot brand 2-pocket poly folder that holds up to 50 pages..

They also, should anyone happen to be in the market for it, sell a really nice 24-lb. US letter paper. While 20-lb. paper is fine for a submission, I prefer 24-lb.: it won’t wilt in the hand with repeated readings.

Oh, you don’t want Millicent to get so excited about your writing that she passes pages of it around the office?

Again, though, you might want to toddle down to your local stationary emporium and inquire. You might be surprised at what’s lurking in their back room.

My overall point, should it have gotten a trifle lost in the welter of details, is that when it comes to querying, submission, and literary contest entry, what might be easiest — or most obvious — for the writer often is not what the people on the receiving end are expecting. Yes, that’s can be kind of annoying, but remember, one of the things an aspiring writer is demonstrating at query or submission time is that she can present her work professionally. That means, among other things, printing manuscripts on the size of paper currently in use in that agency and presenting proposals in the kind of quiet, dignified folder that allows the writing to speak for itself.

Because that’s how the Romans roll, people. Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XXIII: when the going gets tough, the tough get…wait — what do you mean, they wanted 50 CONSECUTIVE pages?

thescream

My apologies for breaking up that interesting submission practicalities in the morning/query composition in the evening rhythm we’d had going here for the last few days of Querypalooza. I had fully intended to sit down and write another example-stuffed post on the subtle differences that frequently separate a successful query from one less likely to generate a request for pages, saving the partials-related information below for tomorrow morning.

A few hours ago, however, I received some very bad news about a blog-related situation I absolutely had to drop everything and correct right away. It ate up much of today’s writing time. Fortunately, I already had this post written: I had intended to deal with partials at the end of last week, before I got carried away by excitement over generating full query examples.

So I decided that it would make more sense to post it now, rather than writing frantically into the wee hours on a content-related post. That way, we all get to bed earlier, and the post quality will almost certainly reflect my bad day less. (Case in point: when I did try to generate examples this evening — surprise, surprise — the storylines all seemed to relate to this afternoon’s crisis. Not really fair to you, that.)

Last time, I wrapped up my advice on the assembly and packaging of a requested partial with some advice long-time readers of this blog MAY have heard before:

broken-record No matter how many pages or extra materials you were asked to send, do remember to read your submission packet IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you seal that envelope. Lest we forget, everything you send to an agency is a writing sample: impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing, please.

Sometimes, one’s own weary peepers are not up to the job — and with good reason. If you’ve been up half the night printing out those pages the agent of your dreams requested yesterday, so you may pop them in the mail first thing tomorrow, chances are that you’re going to be more than a little stressed out and tired by the time you get around to proofreading.

Heck, you may even be so longing for your pillow’s sweet, sweet embrace that you find yourself sorely tempted — dare I say it? Apparently, I do — to blow off this necessary step and seal the envelope. Or hit the SEND key.

That would be a bad idea, and not only because even a cursory once-over might have caught that missed word in the middle of the second paragraph of your first page. You know, the one left over from your third revision, when you decided your opening needed more action. (You haven’t read it in hard copy since you made that change, have you? Too bad; Millicent the agency screener was kind of liking that scene — but she knows from experience that a revision-hangover typo on page 1 is probably indicative of a Frankenstein manuscript full of similar half-made changes.)

It would be an equally bad idea to send out a query packet without last-minute proofreading, and not only because then, you might have noticed that you eliminated some grammatically-necessary punctuation when you cut out a sentence because it made your letter longer than a single page. (See parenthetical logic in previous paragraph for the probable conclusion. Hey, I don’t call them Frankenstein queries for nothing: this easily-identifiable type of revision residua might as well be waving a white flag at Millicent, shouting, “Hey, lady! This writer doesn’t go back and re-read his own work between revisions! Doesn’t that render it quite likely that the manuscript, should you request it, will exhibit Frankenstein tendencies?)

May I make a simple suggestion to counteract the editorial deficiencies brought on by trying to rush a query or submission packet out the door? Before you rush those requested materials off to the post office or hit SEND, it’s an excellent idea to have another set of eyes scan those pages first.

Ditto with contest entries and residency applications, by the way; it’s just too easy to miss a crucial typo yourself. Particularly if you’re really in a hurry to meet a deadline — and what entrant or applicant isn’t? — and neglect to read your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Why do I feel compelled to slip this golden piece of editorial advice into this post more than once, you ask — or, indeed, repeat it so often? Because I can already feel some of you gearing up to blow it off, that’s why.

Specifically, those of you who have been huffing impatiently throughout the last few paragraphs. “But Anne,” those of you who pride yourself on your attention to detail point out, “I must have read the pages the agent asked to see in my partial 75 times while I was revising them. I’ve read them so many times that two-thirds of my brain cells think they’re already published. What could I possibly learn by reading them again, much less IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Quite a lot, actually. Like, for instance, if when you changed your protagonist’s sister’s name from Mona to Maura, you altered every reference. Or if every line of the requested synopsis printed out legibly. Or — brace yourselves; this may be a hard one for some of you — if the minor changes you made in the course of the 71rst read are consistent with the ones from read 72.

Shall I rephrase that, to drive home the point a little harder? Okay, how’s this: had you re-read every syllable of your partial, contest entry, or writing sample tucked into a residency application between the time you made those final few changes and when you popped your last submission into the mail?

Or since you popped your last submission into the mail? What about your query letter — or, indeed, any page you have ever sent out in a query packet?

Wow, the crowd’s gone so quiet all of a sudden. Was it something I said?

For those of you who were not suddenly flung into retrospective panic about what kind of typo or printing snafu you might have inadvertently passed under Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge’s over-tired eyes, you needn’t take my word for how often writers realize only after something’s out the door that it wasn’t quite right. Many members of the Author! Author! community have already shared their horror stories on the subject; it makes for some enlightening reading.

Feel free to add stories of your own on that list; sharing them honestly will help other aspiring writers. But do not, I beg you, set yourself up for a spectacularly instructive anecdote by failing to read the very latest version of your partial, contest entry, or query packet writing sample IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Yes, even if you plan on submitting those pages via e-mail or by entering copying and pasting them into a form on an agency’s website. On average, people read 70% faster on a backlit screen; unless you share Superman’s optometrist, you’re infinitely more likely to catch typos, logic problems, and omissions in hard copy than soft copy.

(The lenses in Clark Kent’s glasses aren’t prescription, you see, but clear, and thus his vision is…oh, never mind.)

While I’m already hovering over you like a mother hen, here’s a post-submission regret I hope I can wipe from the face of the earth forever: including a business-size (#10) envelope as the SASE for a partial or a contest that returns materials, rather than an envelope (and appropriate postage) large enough to send back everything in the submission or entry packet.

“But Anne!” half of those with submissions currently languishing at agencies across the U.S. cry. “I thought the point of the SASE — that stands for Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, right? — was so the agent who requested the partial could mail me a letter, asking me to send the rest of the manuscript. Or, heaven forfend, a rejection letter! If he didn’t like my pages, wouldn’t he just, you know, toss ‘em in the trash or recycling bin?”

Well, the agent (or, more likely, the agent’s Millicent-in-residence) usually does include at least a form-letter rejection in a homeward-bound SASE, but that’s not the SASE’s primary purpose, from the agency’s point of view. As we have discussed at some length over the past few days, its primary use is to get all of those pages out of its office and back to the aspiring writers who sent them.

That’s not just because if they didn’t, the average agency’s halls would be so filled with rejected pages by the end of the first month that Millicent wouldn’t be able to fight her way to the coffeemaker through the chest-high stacks of pages. (She would have had to give up her traditional lattes by the end of the first week; she wouldn’t be able to find the front door during her lunch break.) They also return the pages because it’s in the writer’s copyright interest to know precisely where his pages are at any given time — and should any of that seem paranoid to you, you might want to take a gander at the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the archive list at right.

If, on the other hand, the idea of a submission’s tumbling into unscrupulous hands doesn’t strike you as particularly outrageous, but the logic behind the writer’s providing the postage to convey her own rejection to her does, I would recommend a quick read through the posts under the SASE GUIDELINES category.

And for those of you reading this post in a tearing hurry because you’re frantically trying to get a partial out the door and into the mail, or whose fingers are itching to hit the SEND key for electronic submissions, let me just go ahead and state it as a boldfaced aphorism: with any submission, always include a SASE sufficiently large for the agent to send the entire submission back to you, with enough stamps attached to get it there safely.

Again, emphasis on stamps. Attaching metered postage to a SASE is another fairly common mistake in submitting a partial. So is neglecting to add any postage at all. Out comes the broken record player again:

broken-record The vast majority of agencies will simply not use a stamp-free SASE. Instead, the entire query or submission packet will be unceremoniously dumped in the trash.

Or recycling. Although you’d be astonished at how many agencies — how to put this gracefully? — don’t take full advantage of all of that space in their recycling bins.

A third common mistake submitters of partials often make comes not when they are packing up the partial, but later, after the agent has approved the partial and asked to see the full manuscript. That’s the agency parlance for the request, anyway; in writer-speak, it’s usually called asking to see the rest of the book.

Therein lies the root of the mistake: the semantic difference is crucial here. All too often, successful partial submitters think that a request for the entire manuscript equals a request for only the part of the manuscript the agent has not yet seen.

The agent asked to see the rest of the book, right?

Actually, she didn’t — what asking to see the rest of the book means in agent-speak is that the agent is expecting the ENTIRE manuscript to show up in her office, neatly boxed and accompanied by a return mailing label and enough postage to get the whole shebang back to the sender, if it’s rejected.

Starting to see a pattern here?

I do — and have for years: when aspiring writers just assume that they know what a request for materials entails, submissions often go awry; ditto with query packets. When they take the time to find out what is actually being requested (or is called for in an individual agency’s guidelines), irritating Millicent by such mistakes is 99.999% avoidable. (Hey, there’s no accounting for how moody she might get when she burns her lip on that too-hot latte for the fiftieth time this year.)

Sadly, much of the time, the difference isn’t even the result of conscious step-skipping. Many first-time submitters — and virtually all first-time queriers – frequently don’t even know that there are rules to be followed.

Want to know what half the Millicents currently screening would say in response to that last sentence? It’s illuminating about the calm harshness of professional evaluation: “So I’m supposed to make allowances because these writers didn’t do their homework, effectively penalizing all of those conscientious writers out there who take the time to learn the ropes? I’ll bet that most of these mistaken submitters didn’t even bother to check whether my agency’s website has submission guidelines.”

To which Mehitabel would add: “And virtually every contest on earth includes very specific submission guidelines in its rules, yet I’m continually astonished by how few entrants seem to read them. I’ll seldom actually disqualify an entry because it violates a presentation rule, but how can I justify penalizing all of those nice entrants who did follow the rules by allowing a violator to proceed to the finalist round of judging?”

Okay, so maybe they wouldn’t be quite that forthcoming. Or prolix. If I’m going to be completely honest, I would have to admit that this is what either of them is most likely to say when such a submission crossed their line of vision: “Next!”

broken-record Please, do your homework about the recipient’s stated preferences before you submit any requested materials. Not every agency is kind enough to writers to post specific guidelines, but if you happen to be dealing with one that has, you absolutely must follow them, or risk the wrath of Millicent.

The results of that wrath are not pretty: summary rejection seldom is. Neither is Mehitabel’s wrath, or the as-yet-to-be-named individual screening applications for that writers’ retreat you would give your eyeteeth to attend.

I’m taking christening suggestions for the application screener, by the way. I’d originally dubbed her Petunia, but that doesn’t exactly inspire awe and fear, does it? (In case any of you had been wondering over the years, everybody’s favorite agency screener is called Millicent here at Author! Author! because it means she who works hard. I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: screening is incredibly hard work, and as much as aspiring writers may resent having to learn what Millicent is under orders to resent, the US-based agency system simply would not work without our Millie taking the time to look through all of those submissions and queries. So when the agent of your dreams discovers you, you might want to send her a thank-you note: in all probability, she was the first person in the publishing industry to notice your book’s potential.)

Another major mistake that dogs query packets, submission packets, and contest entries involves confusing a partial with a writing sample. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, chant it with me now, followers of this series:

A partial is the first X number of pages of a manuscript assumed already to be complete, numbered consecutively and stopping at the bottom of the exact page the requester specified as the maximum. A writing sample is a selection of a book’s best writing, regardless of where it falls in the book.

When an agency’s guidelines request five or ten pages to be included with the query, however, they are talking about the first five or ten pages of the manuscript. So even though query packet pages are indeed a writing sample, they should be treated like a submission.

That strikes many aspiring writers as counter-intuitive, and with some reason. I suspect the source of this confusion most often stems from second-hand conference anecdotes. In a pitching situation — the place an agent-seeking writer is most likely to be asked to produce an actual writing sample — 5 pages is usually the maximum length. However, a lengthy writing sample might include more than one scene, and those scenes might not run consecutively.

So when the neophyte querier who’s heard a few conference horror stories sees that an agency says he can send five pages, he may well say, “Great, I’ll send my best five pages: let’s see, that would be pp. 342-347,” where a more experienced querier would cry, “Well, obviously, the five pages they mean are pp. 1-5 of my manuscript.”

The same misunderstanding trips up a simply phenomenal number of contest entrants every year: when the rules state that an entrant should send 25 pages of the book she wants to enter, what Mehitabel is expecting to see are the first 25 pages, not a chapter from the middle that the writer happens to like. Or — and yes, I’ve seen this with my own weary eyes — 7 pages from the opening, 6 from Chapter 5, 4 from Chapter 13, and 8 from Chapter 23.

Yes, you read that correctly: sadly, they misinterpret the rules’ call for X number of pages from, say, a novel, as permission to send X number of pages from anywhere in the book, so they submit a bouquet of writing samples. Faced with such an array, most contest judges will simply stop reading.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you, contest entrants and mid-book-loving queriers. But isn’t it better that you hear the hard truth from me than rack up even one unnecessary rejection?

And yet it’s an understandable mistake, right? And extremely common, particularly in entries for contests that simply ask entrants to send a specified number of pages of a novel, without mentioning that those pages should be consecutive — oh, and if the entrant might by some odd chance want to win the contest, those pages had better begin on page 1 of Chapter 1 of the book.

Shall I take that gigantic collective gasp of indignation as an indication that some of you past contest entrants wish you had heard one or more of those tidbits before you entered?

Again, let’s state it as an aphorism, for the benefit of last-minute skimmers: unless a literary contest’s rules specifically state otherwise, assume that the entry should begin on page 1 and proceed consecutively. Part of what entrants in any prose contest are being judged upon is the ability to construct a strong narrative and story arc.

In answer to the question that most of you are probably screaming mentally, I have no idea why so few contests’ rules don’t just state this point-blank. It’s not as though it’s a rare problem — every contest judge I’ve ever met tells a sad story about the well-written entry that knocked itself out of finalist consideration via this error. And I’ve judged in a heck of a lot of literary contests, so I’ve met a whole lot of judges over the years.

I could spend a few more minutes of my life shaking my head over this, but over the years, my neck has gotten sore. I’m going to take the warning as heard — it was, wasn’t it? — and move on.

Before I do, though, let me call on those of you whose hands have been patiently raised for a while now. Yes? “But Anne, how does any of this relate to my query or submission packet? Are you perhaps implying that the last aphorism could be applied to sending partials or writing samples to agencies?”

Nicely caught, oh hand-raisers. Put another quarter in the jukebox:

broken-record Unless an agent’s request for a pages or an agency’s submission guidelines specifically state otherwise, assume that any manuscript pages should begin on page 1 and proceed consecutively. In other words, treat it like any other submission.

Writers asked to submit partials occasionally fall into the writing sample trap as well, but frankly, it’s less common. Perhaps writers marketing books harbor an inherent desire to have their stories read from beginning to end, just as a reader would encounter their work in a published book. Perhaps, too, agents’ requests for materials tend to be for much heftier portions of a manuscript than many contest entries would tolerate: 50 or 100 pages for a partial is fairly normal, but many contests for even book-length works call for as few as 10, 20, or 30 pages, sometimes including a synopsis.

But just to head any problems off at the pass, as well as to illustrate why a nonconsecutive partial made up of even superlative writing would not be a good marketing packet for any manuscript, from an agency perspective, let’s close out this short series by going over the expectations for a partial one more time.

Come on; it’ll be fun.

When an agent or editor requests a partial, she’s not asking for a writing sample consisting of 50 or 100 pages of the writer’s favorite parts of the book, a sort of greatest hits compilation — if that’s what she wants, she (or her submission guidelines; check) will tell you so point-blank. She is unlikely to prefer a writing sample as a submission, in any case, because part of what her Millicent is looking for in submissions is storytelling acumen.

Think about it: in an unconnected series of scenes gleaned from across your manuscript, how good a case could you make for your talent at arranging plot believably? How well could you possibly show off your book’s structure, or character development, or even ability to hold a reader’s interest, compared to the same story as you present it in your manuscript, beginning on page 1?

If you have any doubt whatsoever about the answer to that last question, run, don’t walk, to an objective first reader to help you figure out whether the current running order of events tells your story effectively. (Didn’t think I’d be able to work in another plug for someone else’s casting her eyes over your pages before you submit them, did you?)

What an agent or editor does expect to see in a partial, then, is the opening of the manuscript as you plan to market it to, well, agents and editors: it’s precisely the same as the full manuscript, except it doesn’t include the pages after, say, page 50.

And if Millicent loves that partial and asks for the rest of the book, what will you do? Send the entire manuscript, right? Right?

I couldn’t resist tossing in the pop quiz, to see if you’d been paying attention. I wouldn’t want any of you to end the post still confused about any of this. (And if you are: please, I implore you, leave a question in the comments.)

And remember, read any submission guidelines very thoroughly before you invest your heart, hopes, energy, and/or precious time in preparing a partial packet or contest entry. This is no time to be skimming; make a list and check it twice, like Santa Claus.

Yes, even if the request consisted of a grand total of three lines of text in an e-mail. Why? It’s very, very common for aspiring writers to become so excited by a request for pages that they forget to include something the agent specifically asked them to send.

Oh, how I wish I were making that one up…but it happens enough to show up on most Millicents’ lists of pet peeves.

So what’s the best way to avoid this terrible fate? I always advise my editing clients to pursue a multi-part strategy for an agent’s request for pages, agency guidelines, or contest rules:

1. Read the list of what’s required once, then set it aside for at least five minute.

2. Read it again, this time more carefully. Make a checklist of everything it is asking you to do. (No, a mental list will not do. Put it in writing.)

3. Wait a day before going back to triple-check that the list is accurate. Then, and only then, put together the packet or entry,

4. As you place each item in the envelope or box (or attach it to an e-mail), check off each item.

DO NOT SEAL THE ENVELOPE OR PRESS SEND AT THIS JUNCTURE. That way lies disaster.

5. Re-read the original guidelines or letter, comparing what it requests to your list.

5a. If the list is an accurate reflection of the expectations, check once more that what is in your packet matches what is on the list.

5b. If it does not, remove everything from the envelope. Go back to Step 1.

5c. If you are not sure, if you’re not much of a detail person, hand your list to at least one person who happens to love you, ask him/her/that ungainly mob to check it against the guidelines or contest rules, then to verify that what’s in your envelope is in fact what you have been asked to send.

6. Seal envelope or press SEND.

You didn’t think I was going to leave the kith and kin I’d disqualified from giving you objective feedback from helping you altogether, did you? Everyone has a task here at Author! Author!

That’s what how a supportive community works, isn’t it?

In that spirit, I shall make a valiant effort to come up with a truly impressive array of enlightening query letters for tomorrow’s posts. I should be in a better mood by 10 am PST, right? Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XXIII: when the going gets tough, the tough get…wait — what do you mean, they wanted 50 CONSECUTIVE pages?

thescream

My apologies for breaking up that interesting submission practicalities in the morning/query composition in the evening rhythm we’d had going here for the last few days of Querypalooza. I had fully intended to sit down and write another example-stuffed post on the subtle differences that frequently separate a successful query from one less likely to generate a request for pages, saving the partials-related information below for tomorrow morning.

A few hours ago, however, I received some very bad news about a blog-related situation I absolutely had to drop everything and correct right away. It ate up much of today’s writing time. Fortunately, I already had this post written: I had intended to deal with partials at the end of last week, before I got carried away by excitement over generating full query examples.

So I decided that it would make more sense to post it now, rather than writing frantically into the wee hours on a content-related post. That way, we all get to bed earlier, and the post quality will almost certainly reflect my bad day less. (Case in point: when I did try to generate examples this evening — surprise, surprise — the storylines all seemed to relate to this afternoon’s crisis. Not really fair to you, that.)

Last time, I wrapped up my advice on the assembly and packaging of a requested partial with some advice long-time readers of this blog MAY have heard before:

broken-recordNo matter how many pages or extra materials you were asked to send, do remember to read your submission packet IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you seal that envelope. Lest we forget, everything you send to an agency is a writing sample: impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing, please.

Sometimes, one’s own weary peepers are not up to the job — and with good reason. If you’ve been up half the night printing out those pages the agent of your dreams requested yesterday, so you may pop them in the mail first thing tomorrow, chances are that you’re going to be more than a little stressed out and tired by the time you get around to proofreading.

Heck, you may even be so longing for your pillow’s sweet, sweet embrace that you find yourself sorely tempted — dare I say it? Apparently, I do — to blow off this necessary step and seal the envelope. Or hit the SEND key.

That would be a bad idea, and not only because even a cursory once-over might have caught that missed word in the middle of the second paragraph of your first page. You know, the one left over from your third revision, when you decided your opening needed more action. (You haven’t read it in hard copy since you made that change, have you? Too bad; Millicent the agency screener was kind of liking that scene — but she knows from experience that a revision-hangover typo on page 1 is probably indicative of a Frankenstein manuscript full of similar half-made changes.)

It would be an equally bad idea to send out a query packet without last-minute proofreading, and not only because then, you might have noticed that you eliminated some grammatically-necessary punctuation when you cut out a sentence because it made your letter longer than a single page. (See parenthetical logic in previous paragraph for the probable conclusion. Hey, I don’t call them Frankenstein queries for nothing: this easily-identifiable type of revision residua might as well be waving a white flag at Millicent, shouting, “Hey, lady! This writer doesn’t go back and re-read his own work between revisions! Doesn’t that render it quite likely that the manuscript, should you request it, will exhibit Frankenstein tendencies?)

May I make a simple suggestion to counteract the editorial deficiencies brought on by trying to rush a query or submission packet out the door? Before you rush those requested materials off to the post office or hit SEND, it’s an excellent idea to have another set of eyes scan those pages first.

Ditto with contest entries and residency applications, by the way; it’s just too easy to miss a crucial typo yourself. Particularly if you’re really in a hurry to meet a deadline — and what entrant or applicant isn’t? — and neglect to read your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Why do I feel compelled to slip this golden piece of editorial advice into this post more than once, you ask — or, indeed, repeat it so often? Because I can already feel some of you gearing up to blow it off, that’s why.

Specifically, those of you who have been huffing impatiently throughout the last few paragraphs. “But Anne,” those of you who pride yourself on your attention to detail point out, “I must have read the pages the agent asked to see in my partial 75 times while I was revising them. I’ve read them so many times that two-thirds of my brain cells think they’re already published. What could I possibly learn by reading them again, much less IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Quite a lot, actually. Like, for instance, if when you changed your protagonist’s sister’s name from Mona to Maura, you altered every reference. Or if every line of the requested synopsis printed out legibly. Or — brace yourselves; this may be a hard one for some of you — if the minor changes you made in the course of the 71rst read are consistent with the ones from read 72.

Shall I rephrase that, to drive home the point a little harder? Okay, how’s this: had you re-read every syllable of your partial, contest entry, or writing sample tucked into a residency application between the time you made those final few changes and when you popped your last submission into the mail?

Or since you popped your last submission into the mail? What about your query letter — or, indeed, any page you have ever sent out in a query packet?

Wow, the crowd’s gone so quiet all of a sudden. Was it something I said?

For those of you who were not suddenly flung into retrospective panic about what kind of typo or printing snafu you might have inadvertently passed under Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge’s over-tired eyes, you needn’t take my word for how often writers realize only after something’s out the door that it wasn’t quite right. Many members of the Author! Author! community have already shared their horror stories on the subject; it makes for some enlightening reading.

Feel free to add stories of your own on that list; sharing them honestly will help other aspiring writers. But do not, I beg you, set yourself up for a spectacularly instructive anecdote by failing to read the very latest version of your partial, contest entry, or query packet writing sample IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Yes, even if you plan on submitting those pages via e-mail or by entering copying and pasting them into a form on an agency’s website. On average, people read 70% faster on a backlit screen; unless you share Superman’s optometrist, you’re infinitely more likely to catch typos, logic problems, and omissions in hard copy than soft copy.

(The lenses in Clark Kent’s glasses aren’t prescription, you see, but clear, and thus his vision is…oh, never mind.)

While I’m already hovering over you like a mother hen, here’s a post-submission regret I hope I can wipe from the face of the earth forever: including a business-size (#10) envelope as the SASE for a partial or a contest that returns materials, rather than an envelope (and appropriate postage) large enough to send back everything in the submission or entry packet.

“But Anne!” half of those with submissions currently languishing at agencies across the U.S. cry. “I thought the point of the SASE — that stands for Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, right? — was so the agent who requested the partial could mail me a letter, asking me to send the rest of the manuscript. Or, heaven forfend, a rejection letter! If he didn’t like my pages, wouldn’t he just, you know, toss ‘em in the trash or recycling bin?”

Well, the agent (or, more likely, the agent’s Millicent-in-residence) usually does include at least a form-letter rejection in a homeward-bound SASE, but that’s not the SASE’s primary purpose, from the agency’s point of view. As we have discussed at some length over the past few days, its primary use is to get all of those pages out of its office and back to the aspiring writers who sent them.

That’s not just because if they didn’t, the average agency’s halls would be so filled with rejected pages by the end of the first month that Millicent wouldn’t be able to fight her way to the coffeemaker through the chest-high stacks of pages. (She would have had to give up her traditional lattes by the end of the first week; she wouldn’t be able to find the front door during her lunch break.) They also return the pages because it’s in the writer’s copyright interest to know precisely where his pages are at any given time — and should any of that seem paranoid to you, you might want to take a gander at the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the archive list at right.

If, on the other hand, the idea of a submission’s tumbling into unscrupulous hands doesn’t strike you as particularly outrageous, but the logic behind the writer’s providing the postage to convey her own rejection to her does, I would recommend a quick read through the posts under the SASE GUIDELINES category.

And for those of you reading this post in a tearing hurry because you’re frantically trying to get a partial out the door and into the mail, or whose fingers are itching to hit the SEND key for electronic submissions, let me just go ahead and state it as a boldfaced aphorism: with any submission, always include a SASE sufficiently large for the agent to send the entire submission back to you, with enough stamps attached to get it there safely.

Again, emphasis on stamps. Attaching metered postage to a SASE is another fairly common mistake in submitting a partial. So is neglecting to add any postage at all. Out comes the broken record player again:

broken-recordThe vast majority of agencies will simply not use a stamp-free SASE. Instead, the entire query or submission packet will be unceremoniously dumped in the trash.

Or recycling. Although you’d be astonished at how many agencies — how to put this gracefully? — don’t take full advantage of all of that space in their recycling bins.

A third common mistake submitters of partials often make comes not when they are packing up the partial, but later, after the agent has approved the partial and asked to see the full manuscript. That’s the agency parlance for the request, anyway; in writer-speak, it’s usually called asking to see the rest of the book.

Therein lies the root of the mistake: the semantic difference is crucial here. All too often, successful partial submitters think that a request for the entire manuscript equals a request for only the part of the manuscript the agent has not yet seen.

The agent asked to see the rest of the book, right?

Actually, she didn’t — what asking to see the rest of the book means in agent-speak is that the agent is expecting the ENTIRE manuscript to show up in her office, neatly boxed and accompanied by a return mailing label and enough postage to get the whole shebang back to the sender, if it’s rejected.

Starting to see a pattern here?

I do — and have for years: when aspiring writers just assume that they know what a request for materials entails, submissions often go awry; ditto with query packets. When they take the time to find out what is actually being requested (or is called for in an individual agency’s guidelines), irritating Millicent by such mistakes is 99.999% avoidable. (Hey, there’s no accounting for how moody she might get when she burns her lip on that too-hot latte for the fiftieth time this year.)

Sadly, much of the time, the difference isn’t even the result of conscious step-skipping. Many first-time submitters — and virtually all first-time queriers – frequently don’t even know that there are rules to be followed.

Want to know what half the Millicents currently screening would say in response to that last sentence? It’s illuminating about the calm harshness of professional evaluation: “So I’m supposed to make allowances because these writers didn’t do their homework, effectively penalizing all of those conscientious writers out there who take the time to learn the ropes? I’ll bet that most of these mistaken submitters didn’t even bother to check whether my agency’s website has submission guidelines.”

To which Mehitabel would add: “And virtually every contest on earth includes very specific submission guidelines in its rules, yet I’m continually astonished by how few entrants seem to read them. I’ll seldom actually disqualify an entry because it violates a presentation rule, but how can I justify penalizing all of those nice entrants who did follow the rules by allowing a violator to proceed to the finalist round of judging?”

Okay, so maybe they wouldn’t be quite that forthcoming. Or prolix. If I’m going to be completely honest, I would have to admit that this is what either of them is most likely to say when such a submission crossed their line of vision: “Next!”

broken-recordPlease, do your homework about the recipient’s stated preferences before you submit any requested materials. Not every agency is kind enough to writers to post specific guidelines, but if you happen to be dealing with one that has, you absolutely must follow them, or risk the wrath of Millicent.

The results of that wrath are not pretty: summary rejection seldom is. Neither is Mehitabel’s wrath, or the as-yet-to-be-named individual screening applications for that writers’ retreat you would give your eyeteeth to attend.

I’m taking christening suggestions for the application screener, by the way. I’d originally dubbed her Petunia, but that doesn’t exactly inspire awe and fear, does it? (In case any of you had been wondering over the years, everybody’s favorite agency screener is called Millicent here at Author! Author! because it means she who works hard. I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: screening is incredibly hard work, and as much as aspiring writers may resent having to learn what Millicent is under orders to resent, the US-based agency system simply would not work without our Millie taking the time to look through all of those submissions and queries. So when the agent of your dreams discovers you, you might want to send her a thank-you note: in all probability, she was the first person in the publishing industry to notice your book’s potential.)

Another major mistake that dogs query packets, submission packets, and contest entries involves confusing a partial with a writing sample. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, chant it with me now, followers of this series:

A partial is the first X number of pages of a manuscript assumed already to be complete, numbered consecutively and stopping at the bottom of the exact page the requester specified as the maximum. A writing sample is a selection of a book’s best writing, regardless of where it falls in the book.

When an agency’s guidelines request five or ten pages to be included with the query, however, they are talking about the first five or ten pages of the manuscript. So even though query packet pages are indeed a writing sample, they should be treated like a submission.

That strikes many aspiring writers as counter-intuitive, and with some reason. I suspect the source of this confusion most often stems from second-hand conference anecdotes. In a pitching situation — the place an agent-seeking writer is most likely to be asked to produce an actual writing sample — 5 pages is usually the maximum length. However, a lengthy writing sample might include more than one scene, and those scenes might not run consecutively.

So when the neophyte querier who’s heard a few conference horror stories sees that an agency says he can send five pages, he may well say, “Great, I’ll send my best five pages: let’s see, that would be pp. 342-347,” where a more experienced querier would cry, “Well, obviously, the five pages they mean are pp. 1-5 of my manuscript.”

The same misunderstanding trips up a simply phenomenal number of contest entrants every year: when the rules state that an entrant should send 25 pages of the book she wants to enter, what Mehitabel is expecting to see are the first 25 pages, not a chapter from the middle that the writer happens to like. Or — and yes, I’ve seen this with my own weary eyes — 7 pages from the opening, 6 from Chapter 5, 4 from Chapter 13, and 8 from Chapter 23.

Yes, you read that correctly: sadly, they misinterpret the rules’ call for X number of pages from, say, a novel, as permission to send X number of pages from anywhere in the book, so they submit a bouquet of writing samples. Faced with such an array, most contest judges will simply stop reading.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you, contest entrants and mid-book-loving queriers. But isn’t it better that you hear the hard truth from me than rack up even one unnecessary rejection?

And yet it’s an understandable mistake, right? And extremely common, particularly in entries for contests that simply ask entrants to send a specified number of pages of a novel, without mentioning that those pages should be consecutive — oh, and if the entrant might by some odd chance want to win the contest, those pages had better begin on page 1 of Chapter 1 of the book.

Shall I take that gigantic collective gasp of indignation as an indication that some of you past contest entrants wish you had heard one or more of those tidbits before you entered?

Again, let’s state it as an aphorism, for the benefit of last-minute skimmers: unless a literary contest’s rules specifically state otherwise, assume that the entry should begin on page 1 and proceed consecutively. Part of what entrants in any prose contest are being judged upon is the ability to construct a strong narrative and story arc.

In answer to the question that most of you are probably screaming mentally, I have no idea why so few contests’ rules don’t just state this point-blank. It’s not as though it’s a rare problem — every contest judge I’ve ever met tells a sad story about the well-written entry that knocked itself out of finalist consideration via this error. And I’ve judged in a heck of a lot of literary contests, so I’ve met a whole lot of judges over the years.

I could spend a few more minutes of my life shaking my head over this, but over the years, my neck has gotten sore. I’m going to take the warning as heard — it was, wasn’t it? — and move on.

Before I do, though, let me call on those of you whose hands have been patiently raised for a while now. Yes? “But Anne, how does any of this relate to my query or submission packet? Are you perhaps implying that the last aphorism could be applied to sending partials or writing samples to agencies?”

Nicely caught, oh hand-raisers. Put another quarter in the jukebox:

broken-recordUnless an agent’s request for a pages or an agency’s submission guidelines specifically state otherwise, assume that any manuscript pages should begin on page 1 and proceed consecutively. In other words, treat it like any other submission.

Writers asked to submit partials occasionally fall into the writing sample trap as well, but frankly, it’s less common. Perhaps writers marketing books harbor an inherent desire to have their stories read from beginning to end, just as a reader would encounter their work in a published book. Perhaps, too, agents’ requests for materials tend to be for much heftier portions of a manuscript than many contest entries would tolerate: 50 or 100 pages for a partial is fairly normal, but many contests for even book-length works call for as few as 10, 20, or 30 pages, sometimes including a synopsis.

But just to head any problems off at the pass, as well as to illustrate why a nonconsecutive partial made up of even superlative writing would not be a good marketing packet for any manuscript, from an agency perspective, let’s close out this short series by going over the expectations for a partial one more time.

Come on; it’ll be fun.

When an agent or editor requests a partial, she’s not asking for a writing sample consisting of 50 or 100 pages of the writer’s favorite parts of the book, a sort of greatest hits compilation — if that’s what she wants, she (or her submission guidelines; check) will tell you so point-blank. She is unlikely to prefer a writing sample as a submission, in any case, because part of what her Millicent is looking for in submissions is storytelling acumen.

Think about it: in an unconnected series of scenes gleaned from across your manuscript, how good a case could you make for your talent at arranging plot believably? How well could you possibly show off your book’s structure, or character development, or even ability to hold a reader’s interest, compared to the same story as you present it in your manuscript, beginning on page 1?

If you have any doubt whatsoever about the answer to that last question, run, don’t walk, to an objective first reader to help you figure out whether the current running order of events tells your story effectively. (Didn’t think I’d be able to work in another plug for someone else’s casting her eyes over your pages before you submit them, did you?)

What an agent or editor does expect to see in a partial, then, is the opening of the manuscript as you plan to market it to, well, agents and editors: it’s precisely the same as the full manuscript, except it doesn’t include the pages after, say, page 50.

And if Millicent loves that partial and asks for the rest of the book, what will you do? Send the entire manuscript, right? Right?

I couldn’t resist tossing in the pop quiz, to see if you’d been paying attention. I wouldn’t want any of you to end the post still confused about any of this. (And if you are: please, I implore you, leave a question in the comments.)

And remember, read any submission guidelines very thoroughly before you invest your heart, hopes, energy, and/or precious time in preparing a partial packet or contest entry. This is no time to be skimming; make a list and check it twice, like Santa Claus.

Yes, even if the request consisted of a grand total of three lines of text in an e-mail. Why? It’s very, very common for aspiring writers to become so excited by a request for pages that they forget to include something the agent specifically asked them to send.

Oh, how I wish I were making that one up…but it happens enough to show up on most Millicents’ lists of pet peeves.

So what’s the best way to avoid this terrible fate? I always advise my editing clients to pursue a multi-part strategy for an agent’s request for pages, agency guidelines, or contest rules:

1. Read the list of what’s required once, then set it aside for at least five minute.

2. Read it again, this time more carefully. Make a checklist of everything it is asking you to do. (No, a mental list will not do. Put it in writing.)

3. Wait a day before going back to triple-check that the list is accurate. Then, and only then, put together the packet or entry,

4. As you place each item in the envelope or box (or attach it to an e-mail), check off each item.

DO NOT SEAL THE ENVELOPE OR PRESS SEND AT THIS JUNCTURE. That way lies disaster.

5. Re-read the original guidelines or letter, comparing what it requests to your list.

5a. If the list is an accurate reflection of the expectations, check once more that what is in your packet matches what is on the list.

5b. If it does not, remove everything from the envelope. Go back to Step 1.

5c. If you are not sure, if you’re not much of a detail person, hand your list to at least one person who happens to love you, ask him/her/that ungainly mob to check it against the guidelines or contest rules, then to verify that what’s in your envelope is in fact what you have been asked to send.

6. Seal envelope or press SEND.

You didn’t think I was going to leave the kith and kin I’d disqualified from giving you objective feedback from helping you altogether, did you? Everyone has a task here at Author! Author!

That’s what how a supportive community works, isn’t it?

In that spirit, I shall make a valiant effort to come up with a truly impressive array of enlightening query letters for tomorrow’s posts. I should be in a better mood by 10 am PST, right? Keep up the good work!

The envelope, please…

WHISPER_cover

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!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XXIII: how much detail is tutu much?

degas dance class pink

The blogger’s life is all about constantly creating new content to foist upon an eager world, but I have to say, I was so pleased with the way yesterday’s post turned out that I was tempted, albeit briefly, just to pretend that I couldn’t get to my computer for the next week or so. That way, the post would have lingered at the top of the blog for a nice, long time, all of you would have had some time to ponder your individual authorial voices, and I would have gotten a bit of a vacation.

Wait, why did I decide not to do this? It sounds like a great idea.

Oh, yeah: we’re rapidly heading toward August, and I didn’t want to slow down anyone’s revision efforts. Specifically, I did not want any of you coming to me in mid-September, saying, “Wow, Anne, I wish I’d known some of the editing fixes you were talking about late in the summer before I sent off my submission to the agent of my dreams! But there we were, just a few short weeks before the annual August exodus, and you decided to take a week off. Unbeknownst to anyone concerned, the piece of advice that would have enabled me to turn my opus from pretty good to yowsa would be in the very next post!”

Oh, you may laugh — but would you care to hear just how often readers or students in my classes have said similar things to me?

A small forest of hands shot into the air in the middle of the quote from the fantasy creature I choose to regard as representative of future readers. Yes, hand-raisers? “But Anne, why would mid-to-late July be a particularly poor time for you to stop lecturing us on craft issues? And what did your imaginary friends mean about the annual August exodus?”

Ah, the answers to those two trenchant questions are interconnected, my friends. Traditionally, enough of the NYC-based publishing world goes on vacation between the end of the second week of August and Labor Day that it’s genuinely difficult to pull together an editorial committee in order to approve the acquisition of a manuscript or book proposal. That means, in practice, that agents are not all that likely to be able to sell books during this period, so they, too tend to go on vacation during that period. Oh, a Millicent or two might be left behind to watch the store while the rest of the agency seeks less humid climes, but generally speaking, it’s a dead zone.

What does that mean for aspiring writers, you ask? Why, that mid-August through mid-September isn’t usually the best time to query or submit. Unless, of course, one happens to harbor an active desire to have one’s query or manuscript sit on a desk for a month or two.

Did that vast collective gasp mean that at least some of you were expecting to hear back sooner — or at any rate, for Millicent and her boss to get cracking immediately after midnight on Labor Day? Think about it: if you didn’t go into work for a few weeks, how much mail would pile up on your desk?

Got that image firmly in mind? Good. Now imagine the state of that desk if you routinely received 800-1200 queries per week.

On a not entirely unrelated note, had I mentioned that the next few weeks would be a great time to get those queries out the door? Or to polish up and send off those requested materials?

To facilitate your pursuing one or both of those laudable goals, I’m going to be winding down the Frankenstein manuscript series with today’s post. Oh, we’re not going to be leaving the wonderful world of craft — beginning with my next post, we’re going to take a serious foray into pepping up your dialogue. But for the nonce, we’re going to be stepping away from manuscript-polishing issues, so that you may more easily take the time to…well, polish your manuscript.

And honestly, weren’t you getting just a little tired of all those Roman numerals?

To round out the series with a bang, I’m going to devote today to challenging you to assess yet another reader’s actual text. Rather than present you with her opening pages, however, I’m going to show you an action scene, of a sort, and encourage you to try to spot potential revision opportunities.

Why launch into a mid-book scene, you ask, rather than my usual target of choice, the opening pages? Partially, so we could talk about pacing — as the expressive industry term sagging in the middle may already have led you to suspect, narratives are more likely to slow there than at either the beginning or the end — but also, as is my wont, to answer a reader’s question. Quoth abbreviation devotee Kathy:

What if your world, so to speak, involves a skill that not everyone is familiar with? In my case, my MC is a dance student, and much of the WIP occurs during her classes at a studio.

I’ve gotten comments from critters saying both put in more details about the step or combinations and leave out the details. So how do I balance out the necessary details so non-dance readers can visualize my MC’s dance movements and not put in so many that it stalls the action?

As delighted as I am at the mental image of critters providing feedback on a manuscript (and as concerned as I am that not every reader will know that MC = protagonist and WIP = work in progress; while WIP is arguably writing-class jargon, MC is not), this question has been causing me some chagrin. As we have seen throughout this series, this is precisely the kind of question that is impossible to answer without taking a close look at the scene in question — as much as aspiring writers might like for there to be hard-and-fast formulae for figuring out this kind of proportion, what works honestly does vary from story to story.

Yet now that we have a nice, well-stocked revision tool kit, we need fear no writing fix-it challenge. So let’s take a peek at Kathy’s pages with an eye to improving them, shall we?

Before we do, though, I have a confession to make: when I use readers’ examples here, I have been known to clean up the formatting prior to posting them. That way, the reader kind enough to allow me to write about actual text gets the benefit of specific feedback, and you, dear readers, don’t become confused by seeing improperly formatted pages.

Since this is going to be the last concrete example in this series, however, I’m going to show at least the first page of this one initially as it arrived in my e-mail. Kathy’s made two extremely common mistakes for a submitter; Millicents whose boss agents accept e-mail queries and submissions see these all the time. I’m rather pleased to be able to show them to you in their natural habitat, as most professional readers will automatically reject requested materials with either.

See if you can catch them on her first page. Hint: either would be apparent to Millicent the agency screener from ten feet away.

Kathy as is

See the problem? This page is not formatted like a manuscript page: it lacks a slug line (and thus any way to identify this page, should it become separated from the rest of the submission), and there is a skipped line between each paragraph. Also, although it may be hard to tell in this version, the writer skipped only one space after each period and colon, rather than two, rendering it significantly harder to edit. (Which, admittedly, some agents would prefer; check their websites for specific instructions on the subject.)

It’s formatted, in short, as though it were intended for insertion into the body of an e-mail, not as samples from a manuscript page. Which would have been appropriate only had the professional reader in question (in this case, me) specifically asked for the materials to be sent — wait for it — in the body of an e-mail.

In case anyone’s wondering, that request is usually reserved for electronic queries where the agency likes to see a few pages of text or a bio. It’s virtually never the expectation when an agent or editor asks a successful querier or pitcher to send actual manuscript pages.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, I’m particularly pleased to be able to show you this phenomenon in action as I wrap up the Frankenstein manuscript: this level of formatting gaffe might easily be sufficient to prevent Millicent from reading any of the text at all, at least if her agency asked (as I did) for the pages to be sent as a Word attachment, the industry standard means of online submission.

In case I’m being too subtle here: formatting counts in submissions, even e-mailed ones.

That’s not, alas, as widely-known an axiom as it should be. Like so many aspiring writers, Kathy probably mistakenly believed that what this professional reader wanted to see was the content of the requested pages, but that’s not the only thing being judged in a submission. Any professional reader would also be looking to see if the submitter was aware of how manuscripts should be put together.

Why is it problematic if a submission consists of just writing, rather than writing presented in standard manuscript format? Even if Millicent read it and fell in love with the writing, the presentation just screams that this would be a time-consuming client to take on: clearly, she would need to be shown the ropes.

And that, from the other side of the submission desk, is a problem — or, depending upon how serious Millicent is about ever seeing her desktop again, a solution. Given that a good agent will routinely receive 800-1200 queries per week (yes, even during the August break), and that she gets enough properly-formatted submissions to fill her few new client spots hundreds of times over, why should she instruct her Millicent to read improperly formatted materials? By the same token, why should Mehitabel the contest judge consider those same materials for finalist status in a literary contest?

That last bit was not entirely rhetorical, by the way. In the Great First Pages contest I sponsored here in May, a good third of the entries were not properly formatted. Rather surprising, as the rules asked that entries be submitted in standard format as a Word attachment. Or it might have surprised me, had I not so often served as a contest judge; experience had taught me how often contest entrants simply do not read the rules with care. (But don’t worry, Great First Page entrants: finalists have been selected, and the winners shall be announced soon.)

The moral, should you care to hear it: unless an agency, small publishing house, or writing contest’s rules either ask you to submit your writing in the body of an e-mail or SPECIFICALLY ask for some other kind of presentation, you should assume that they’re expecting to see standard manuscript format. And if you don’t know what that should look like on the page, run, don’t walk, to the posts in the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.

Heck, for starters, you could just look at today’s example again, now that I’ve taken the time to format it as Millicent would expect to see it. (As usual, if you are having trouble reading the example, try holding down the COMMAND key simultaneously with +, to enlarge the image.) To protect the innocent, I’ve taken the liberty of changing the last name of the submitter, as well as the title of the book.

Kathy page 1
Kathy page 2

Ready to tackle Kathy’s question now? Well, probably not, if you’ve been following this series closely. I’m guessing that what jumped out at your first was all the word repetition, right?

In case it didn’t, let’s apply our usual test for word and phrase frequency, to see how this page would have looked to Millicent’s critical eye. Notice in particular the name repetition.

Kathy's marked 1
Kathy's marked 2

Colorful, isn’t it? Since we have already discussed word choice stagnation in general and name repetition in particular in some detail in this series, I don’t want to dwell too much on these problems as they manifest here. Except to point out one thing: notice how hard it is to evaluate the text on any other basis while all of that repetition is starting you in the face?

It’s every bit as hard for professional readers. So should anyone still be looking for a great first step toward an overall revision, I would highly recommend starting with word and phrase repetition.

But where, if a savvy reviser had to choose, would the next level of revision start? Would it, as Kathy suggests, be at the jargon level, reassessing the amount of actual dance steps in this scene?

That’s a legitimate concern, but I tend to doubt that would be the very next problem Millicent would notice. Assuming that word repetition is off the table, here are the kinds of issues that might concern her.

Kathy edit 1
Kathy's edit 2

Again, where to begin? My vote would be in the first paragraph, with a problem that dogs many a manuscript these days, especially in YA: having more than one character speak or think per paragraph.

Actually, paragraph #1 presents a couple of rather interesting thought dilemmas. Take a gander as it currently stands:

After class, several classmates huddled outside the large observation window while Miss Sylvia showed Melissa and Peter the first steps of the dance. Both did the same moves, which were simple enough, in Melissa’s mind. Miss Sylvia said, “Peter, offer your right hand to Melissa. Melissa, put your right hand in it and step into relevé arabesque.” Melissa’s heart fluttered for a moment. Finally, some actual partnering.

The perspective is a trifle puzzling here, even for an omniscient narrative. In the first sentence, the action is seen by third parties, from the other side of a window. In the next sentence, the narrative jumps into Melissa’s head, but in sentences #3 and #4, Miss Sylvia is speaking. Yet in sentences #5 and #6, we’re back in Melissa’s perspective, underscored by #6′s italicized thought.

A touch confusing to the spatial sense, is it not? No worries — a bit of judicious application of the pinkie to the RETURN key will instantly clarify matters:

After class, several classmates huddled outside the large observation window while Miss Sylvia showed Melissa and Peter the first steps of the dance. Both did the same moves, which were simple enough, in Melissa’s mind.

“Peter, offer your right hand to Melissa,” Miss Sylvia said. “Melissa, put your right hand in it and step into relevé arabesque.”

Melissa’s heart fluttered for a moment. Finally, some actual partnering.

See how the simple act of giving each perspective its own paragraph removes any possibility of perspective drift? Not to mention being allowing a far more conventional presentation of dialogue.

Do I see some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” italicized thought-lovers everywhere exclaim as one, “why did you remove the italics around Melissa’s thought? They were used correctly the first time around, weren’t they?”

Well, yes, they were — although that’s a qualified yes, since there are plenty of Millicents out there for whom italicized thought equals lazy writing. (Their rationale: “Shouldn’t a genuinely talented writer be able to alert the reader to the fact that the protagonist is thinking without resorting to fancy typefaces?”) Amongst those who do accept this convention, though, Kathy’s use here would definitely fly.

So why did I chose to eschew italics here? Simple: there are so many French terms in this scene. On the manuscript page, it’s rather confusing to the eye to have both the foreign terms and the thought italicized; as the French had to be italicized, the thought was the obvious one to change.

And I ask you: wasn’t it still clear that the last sentence was Melissa’s thought?

Of course, for an editorial change like this to work, it would have to be made consistently throughout the entire manuscript — altering it in this scene alone, or even only in the jargon-heavy ballet scenes, might well result in text that read like a mistake. Every fiction writer needs to decide for herself whether to italicize thought or not, and then cling to that resolve like a leech. (But if you would like some guidance on how to italicize thought correctly, you might want to check out the ITALICS AND WHEN THEY ARE CORRECT TO USE category on the archive list at right.)

There’s another structural problem, also related to RETURN key usage, that might also strike your garden-variety Millicent’s eye forcefully. Any guesses?

If you instantly sent your fingertips shooting skyward, shouting, “By gum, there are a couple of single-sentence paragraphs in this excerpt, but it takes at least two sentences to construct a narrative paragraph,” you have either been paying close attention throughout this revision series, or your eyes are sharp enough to have picked up the rather dim red marginalia above. While a dialogue paragraph can indeed be a single sentence long:

“But I like single-sentence paragraphs,” Kathy pointed out.

it’s technically incorrect to limit a narrative paragraph to a single sentence, like so:

He nodded.

As we’ve discussed, the prevalence of single-sentence paragraphs in newspaper and magazine writing (in AP style, they are perfectly acceptable) has led to an ever-growing acceptance of the things in published books, particularly nonfiction. That’s not going to help you, however, if your Millicent should happen to have graduated from a college with a particularly good English department.

If you just like the way single-line paragraphs look — many an aspiring writer seems to positively pine for them — use them as judiciously as you would profanity. To co-opt Mark Twain’s quip about taking the Lord’s name in vain, select a time when it will have effect. How about, for instance, limiting their use to when the statement that follows a full paragraph is actually surprising?

Again, we’ve already talked about this issue earlier in the series, so I shall not harp upon it. For the moment, it’s enough to realize that Millicent would notice and zero in such paragraphs — enough so that it really would behoove the writer to make sure that he’s deriving some significant benefit from breaking the rules. In this excerpt, at least, neither of the single-line paragraphs rises to that level of usefulness.

I hear a positive fusillade of fingertips drumming on desks. “But Anne,” cut-to-the-chase types protest, “while all of this is interesting, from a self-editing perspective, you haven’t yet addressed Kathy’s question. Is there a reason that we needed to discuss all of these technical matters before getting to the issue of whether she’s overusing detail here?”

Yes, actually, a very good reason: from a professional reader’s perspective, it’s difficult to assess questions of style before the more basic writing issues — spelling, grammar, clarity — and presentation requirements — our old pal, standard format; choices like word repetition and italic use that might produce eye distraction on the page — have been resolved. That’s partially why I’ve been talking about attacking a Frankenstein manuscript in waves of revision: as each level of text scrubbing takes place, the style and voice lying just beneath can emerge.

It follows, then, as dawn succeeds the night, that as a self-editing writer winnows away his manuscript’s technical problems, underlying stylistic difficulties may leap to the fore. In the case of today’s example, two related problems have cropped up — maintaining narrative tension and the use of necessary technical jargon.

Let’s tackle the latter first. Kathy had asked how best to tell how much detail to include in her dance studio scenes, but from the perspective of a reader unfamiliar with ballet terminology, there’s actually not a great deal of detail in this scene. There is, however, quite a bit of dance jargon, a series of phrases that leap off the page by virtue of being italicized.

Why, we were discussing the eye-distraction potential of those words and phrases just a few moments ago, were we not? What a coincidence.

The fact that so many of these terms are in French, and thus require italicization, is not the only reason that the ballet jargon is problematic in this excerpt, however. Much of the time, the jargon is taking the place of description, not adding to it.

What’s the difference, those of you who have done some time in ballet class ask? The answer to that one is easy: please tell us, readers who don’t know an arabesque from the proverbial hole in the ground, how are you picturing the action in this scene?

Not very clearly, I’m guessing — which is almost always the case when a narrative leans very heavily upon jargon for its descriptions. Naming an action or object is not the same thing as showing what it looks like, after all.

That’s genuinely a pity in this scene, as I suspect (having put in my time in ballet class) that the movements the characters are making would be quite pretty to see. So my first choice for stylistic revision would be to replace at least some of the jargon with some lyrical description of flowing arms and tremulous balances, enough so that a reader who did not know much about dancing could still enjoy the movement of the scene.

And you thought I wasn’t going to answer Kathy’s question!

The other problem — maintaining narrative tension — also speaks to her concern. If the level of detail is too high, the tension of the scene can suffer; as we discussed last time, one way to keep an action scene moving along is the thoughtful application of summary statements.

So I ask you: is the level of detail appropriate for the ideal pacing of the scene?

I’m turning it over to you in part because personally, I find that question a trifle difficult to answer; I suspect a reader who had not spent her wayward youth glissading and pas de bouréeing would have quite a different response than one who had. If the target audience is made up solely of girls who live in leotards, the level of detail may not need to be tweaked much. If, however, the intended readership includes — and I think it should — kids who always wanted to take dance classes but have not had the opportunity, the illustrative details should be ramped up a thousandfold.

You want them to feel as though they are in that dance studio, don’t you?

Not convinced that’s a pacing issue? You bet your boots it is. A reader already familiar with the terminology would be able to skim through this scene in 60 seconds flat. She might long for more connection to the plot and characters as they exist outside of the dance studio — all three characters in this scene seem to be living entirely in the moment, a relatively rare condition for both real-world residents and characters in books — but I doubt she would feel that the scene dragged. Its characters have a goal to achieve, and they attain it in under two pages.

But what of our other reader, the one who will either be puzzled by the undefined jargon or will simply skip over it? (Not an uncommon response to encountering technical talk on the page, by the way.) To her, the scene might well seem slow, or even confusing. What are these people doing, she wonders, that cannot be described adequately in English?

Hey, I wasn’t kidding about revision solutions seldom being one-size-fits-all; a savvy self-editor is constantly juggling any number of relevant issues. Because this is a not a simple process we’re talking about, my friends — like an onion, a Frankenstein manuscript with potential has many, many layers.

And can induce tears.

Keep those good craft questions rolling in, everybody, and many thanks to Kathy for letting us take an informative peek at her manuscript. Next time, we tackle dialogue — but may I suggest taking a glance at the calendar and perhaps resolving to send out a query or two on the side?

Keep up the good work!

Naming names, part III: hey, I don’t make the rules

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Happy Canada Day, neighbors to the north! Way to combine those provinces and keep them together!

At the risk of sounding trite, my most memorable Canadian experience actually was Mountie-related. I was leaving an exhibit of ancient Egyptian artifacts in a museum in Victoria, I thought the sudden transition to bright sunlight had done something terrible to my eyes: everywhere I looked, I saw blaring red. Every square foot of public space was filled with Mounties in uniform — scarlet jacket, shiny black boots, the works — chatting with friends and relatives. Hundreds, at least, a veritable red sea.

The sight was, I need hardly say, staggering. I felt as though I had accidentally stumbled into a recruitment poster.

Back to business. In the roughly 24 hours since I wrote my last post on name selection, I have sensed a certain amount of reader bewilderment. (Never mind how I know that. Blogging imbues one with super-sharp sensory perceptions.) At least a few hands, I suspect, are still raised from Wednesday. Not too surprising, I suppose, since I have been writing all week about how to avoid confusing readers.

For the last couple of posts, I have waxed long on the Cast of Thousands phenomenon, manuscripts that name every character, no matter how minor, down to the dogs and the goat tethered in the back yard in Chapter 3. “Who,” the befuddled reader cries helpfully, “are Ernest, James, and Algernon, and what are their respective relationships to Delilah, the character I have been caring about for the last hundred pages? Have they been mentioned earlier in the book, and I have simply forgotten them, or is this their first appearance?

Don’t dismiss this cri de coeur as the just punishment of an inattentive reader, my friends — from a reader’s perspective, manuscripts afflicted with COT can get overwhelming pretty fast. Especially, as we have discussed, if the COT members have similar names, either beginning with the same capital letter (to which the skimming eye is automatically drawn, right?), ones that replicate letter patterns and sounds, or — and we have not yet talked about this much — are too like the other proper names in the book.

Still in doubt about the eye-distracting effect of all of those capitals? I wouldn’t want you to have to take my word for something like that — cast your gaze over this sterling piece of prose.

Names first letters

See the problem? No? Okay, get up from your desk chair, take two giant steps backward, and look at it again. Notice where your eye is drawn first?

Even when the names don’t look anything alike, introducing too many of them in one fell swoop can prove equally frustrating to the reader. Again, take a gander:

Names in abundance

An avalanche of characters on page 1, in particular, before the narrative has established a context in which they might be understood, tends to have a character-blurring effect.

“Who are all these people?” the reader muses. “And why are they all dressed in the quite striking uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police?”

Either variety of confusion, it pains me to say, causes readers to cast otherwise well-written books aside, it pains me to report. If that’s not a strong enough reason for a writer self-editing a Frankenstein manuscript to say, “Hmm, perhaps I should devote a few hours of my precious revision time to weeding out some of the extras lurking in the corners of my story,” here’s another: our old pal Millicent, the agency screener, tends to become impatient when characters pile up.

As, indeed, do editorial assistants, contest judges, and other professional readers; just because it’s their job does not mean that they possess a magical ability to absorb 23 names in a single page without mixing them up. “How,” the hapless peruser of a COT-riddled manuscript wonders, “am I supposed to keep all of these characters straight? Is this writer planning to market this book with a program, or perhaps dress the background characters in numbered jerseys, so the reader can possibly tell the individual members of this mob apart?”

Or, as Millicent likes to put it, “Next!”

Ooh, the notion of the pros not putting in the necessary effort to keep track of all of your characters ruffles a few writerly feathers, doesn’t it? “Wait just a minute” I hear some of you murmuring indignantly. “An ordinary reader may not have options if s/he forgets who is who, but Millicent does. If she finds she’s forgotten who a character is, she has a perfectly easy way to find out — her boss asked that I send a synopsis along with my submission. All she has to do is flip to the back of the packet. Or are you saying that if I have a lot of characters in my opening scenes, I should place my synopsis first in the packet?”

To take the last question first, no — at least, not unless an agency specifies in its submission guidelines that it prefers to see submissions packaged that order. Why is it in your interest to pay attention to such minor niceties? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: a submitter should always send a requesting agent PRECISELY what s/he asked to see.

No more, no less. Yes, even if she asked for the first 50 pages and your chapter ends a paragraph into page 51. No fudging.

And please trust a frequent literary contest judge (hey, I don’t spend all of my scant leisure time wandering around Canadian museums) when she tells you that rule applies to stated length restrictions in contest rules, too. Part of what you are demonstrating by your submission or entry is that you can follow directions, after all. Professional readers tend to harbor great affection for writers who pay attention to the details of requests; it’s so rare. Writers who start printing out pages after reading only the first line of a request for materials seem to be the norm, unfortunately, not the exception.

That giant tsunami-like rush of air you just heard was every agent, editor, and denizen of every publisher’s marketing department sighing in unison. They honestly do have a reason to be cranky on this point.

But enough of their pain — I’m sensing more conceptually-based disturbances of the ether out there, especially from those of you just on the cusp of stuffing synopses into submission envelopes. “But Anne,” the more literal-minded ether-rockers cry en masse, “I just read a blog by an anonymous agent/heard an agent say at a conference/happened to be eavesdropping in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from the dais at any writers’ conference, and this guy said he didn’t care about exact page count in requested materials; he just wanted the first three chapters. So aren’t you, you know, wrong about the importance of sticking to 50 pages?”

Actually, literal rockers, you’ve provided evidence in support of my point, not against it. Remember, no matter how much aspiring writers would like for there to be an absolutely uniform set of expectations for submissions — and a well-publicized one, at that — individual differences do exist. So once again, long-time readers, please take out your hymnals and sing along: if your submission-requester says he wants to see something specific in your submission packet, for heaven’s sake, give it to him.

Ditto with contest rules, incidentally. General submission or entry guidelines only kick in when the requester doesn’t ask for something different — which is to say, the vast majority of the time. (As always, if you’re unfamiliar with how professional manuscripts differ from printed books or other commonly-scene formats, I implore you to check out the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right. Actually, I would strongly recommend any reader new to this blog to take a gander at those categories first.)

Which is to say: if the agent you overheard wants four chapters, you should send four chapters. If she asks you to give your pitch in mime while juggling seventeen oranges, you should consider doing that, too, because she’s the one who is going to be deciding whether she wants to represent you or not.

That being the case, is your first professional contact with her truly the best time to say (at least implicitly), “Look, I know what you said you wanted to see, and that request was based upon your far greater knowledge of both how the publishing industry works and how you like to read, but I’m just going to assume that I’m right and you’re wrong. Got a problem with that?”

I can tell you now: she will. So will her Millicent and any contest judge you might see fit to treat in a similar fashion.

That being said, don’t revere such requests so highly that you fall into the extremely common trap of generalizing any such quirky individual preferences into industry-wide expectations. Writers brand-new to the biz make this mistake all the time, learning only through hard experience that such extrapolations seldom pay off. Just because one agent, small publisher, and/or contest has a wacky preference doesn’t mean that any other agent, small publisher, and/or contest will share it.

Or, to express it in mathematical terms, 1 agent’s preference ? every agents’ preference.

Bear that in mind, please, the next time you find yourself confronted with the latest panicky iterations of “Oh, my God, I heard an agent speak last week, and submission standards have completely changed!” that trouble the literary world in the wake of every conference season.

Whenever you encounter any hyper-specific submission guidelines that deviate sharply from the rules of standard manuscript format that an agency might post on its website or an agent might specify at a conference — like, say, specifying that submissions may only be in Helvetica or that they should be bound, both usually no-nos — should be treated as applicable to THAT REQUESTER ALONE, rather than to every authors’ representative currently walking the earth.

Everyone clear on that? Good.

Back to the original question, and thence to my argument already in progress: why wouldn’t a professional reader who got a large character list mixed up simply fish out the synopsis for reference? And if helping a busy Millicent keep the characters straight is a legitimate purpose for a synopsis, shouldn’t it come first in the packet?

In a word, no. If you put the synopsis at the front of your packet, Millicent is just going to toss it aside and go straight to the first page of your manuscript. If dear Millie reads all the way through your submission and likes what she sees, THEN she will read the synopsis.

Maybe.

You’re hoping that I’m kidding, aren’t you? Bizarre but true, that synopsis you slaved to make short enough is not always considered at the submission stage. Reading the synopsis is often not necessary to determining whether to ask to see the rest of the book — and why would Millicent bother to read the synopsis of a manuscript she has just finished reading in its entirety?

Seriously — ask at the next writers’ conference you attend. There’s a certain logic to this, at least for fiction. After all, if a book made it to the submission stage, presumably, the novel’s premise was deemed acceptable by the query screener or the agent to whom the writer pitched it. The only reason to read the synopsis at the submission stage, then, would be to find out what happens after the last page of the submission.

Try not to waste any energy being annoyed about this. If Ernest, James, and Algernon appearance in Ch. 2 was brief enough, chances are that they wouldn’t have shown up in the synopsis, anyway.

While I’m apparently free-associating about any and all topics related to character names, and since this contest entry season, this seems like a dandy time to talk about character name choice that could get a writer into a whole lot of trouble. Yes, Virginia, I’m talking about that pesky but oh-so-common literary contest rule that forbids entrants from mentioning their own names anywhere in a submission.

Kind of inconvenient for memoirists and other writers of the real, isn’t it? In practice, this ubiquitous rule means that entrants in memoir and personal essay categories, not to mention those many fiction writers who like to blur the line between fiction and nonfiction by making themselves characters in their own narratives, have to select new monikers for themselves.

Stop laughing, oh writers of thinly-veiled autobiographies passing as fiction. For a writer who has embraced the unique difficulties of thinking of herself as a character in a book, renaming himself can be a genuine chore. Novelists attached to their characters’ names should be sympathetic to that: if it’s trying to track down and change every mention of Monique to Madge when she’s your creation, imagine the emotional difficulties involved when Monique has to rechristen herself.

That’s not to say that the no-name rule itself is objectionable. However annoying renaming may be to contest-entering writers of the real, it exists for a very good reason: for a contest to be worth its salt, it must be able to claim that its judging procedures are not biased; the first step to assuring lack of personal bias is to institute blind judging, where no judge knows the name of any given author. Admittedly, some competitions are only apparently unbiased, but for the most part, contest organizers take authorial anonymity very seriously indeed.

So no, finding a clever way to get around the rules is not going to endear you to them. Not at all.

Which is why I am about to turn very hard-line: if you are submitting a memoir entry, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. And do bear in mind that this rule applies to not only your entire name, but either your first or your last appearing alone as well.

That may seem like rather redundant advice — every contest entrant everywhere should follow all the rules in the contests he enters, right? — but this is the single most common way memoir entries get themselves disqualified. For a memoir entry, you should never just print up the opening chapter of your book and send it in; check the rules very carefully and apply them to your pages first.

You could, of course, sidestep the issue entirely by not entering a piece of writing in which dear self is a character — which is, again, a trifle difficult for memoirists and other habitual writers of the real. The second-best way that I’ve found is to christen oneself anew with the name that you wish your parents had had the wit and wisdom to give you in the first place.

Come on — none of us had the name we wanted in junior high school. Pick the one you believe would have made your life lovely and do a search-and-replace.

Obviously, you’re going to want to make a duplicate document of the chapter or essay you’re planning on entering in the contest before you perform this bit of minor surgery — as I said, it’s never a good idea just to print up the requisite number of pages from your already-existing manuscript and send off to a contest. (Your slug line in your submitting-to-agents version will have your name in it, for one thing.) Perhaps less obviously, you’re going to need to perform the search-and-replace function for both your first and last name, as well as any nicknames you might have incorporated into the manuscript.

Even when you’ve gone to all the trouble of using a pseudonym, it is a good idea to add a note on the title page, saying that since the contest forbids the author to mention his own name, you will be using “Bobby” (not your real name) throughout.

Why take that extra precaution, you ask? Because it’s practically impossible not refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life. Since judges are aware of that, and become accordingly eagle-eyed.

And don’t think being coy about it will help you evade their scrutiny, either. Make yourself comfortable; I’m going to tell you a little story.

I went to college with Danny, a very clever, very ambitious writer who eagerly contributed pieces to the on-campus humor magazine. (As those who happened to be hanging around Harvard at the time would no doubt be quick to point out, I use the term humor loosely here: the magazine was seldom actually funny to those who were not in the writers’ clique, but bear with me.) Danny had every reason to try to get his articles published: the magazine had long ago spawned an extremely profitable off-campus humor magazine, so a successful Lampoon piece could be a stepping-stone to a career as a comedy writer.

Despite or perhaps because of these articles’ worth as resume-candy, it was the practice of the magazine to publish all of its pieces without bylines, to encourage collaboration amongst members of the writing club. But as I said, Danny was ambitious: he, like many of the other writers in the club, was anxious to graduate with clippings he could use to promote his work later on. So Danny did something exceptionally crafty: he inserted his own name into every ostensibly anonymous piece he wrote, much as Jerry Lee Lewis used to refer to himself in his own lyrics, so radio listeners would know who sang the song.

His favorite way of doing this was to insert an imaginary conversation with himself into the text, so an alter ego could address him by name, as in, “Danny boy, you’re really in trouble now!” Occasionally, he would vary it by having an authority figure yell at his narrator: “Wilson, you’re out of line!” (Because Danny is now a fairly prominent magazine writer, I should say straight away: to protect his identity, Wilson is not Danny’s actual last name. See me practicing what I’ve been preaching?)

Now, as my parenthetical aside just told you indirectly, Danny’s little stratagem actually did help him generate the clippings he coveted, but he was relying upon his club’s editorial indulgence to let him get away with breaking the rules. In a contest, however, this practice would have gotten him disqualified immediately.

I bring this up not because I suspect that there are legions of Machiavellian-minded rule-breakers out there, but because I have seen so many contest entrants apparently doing inadvertently what Danny did on purpose. Within the first-person narrative common to memoirs, narrators tend to talk to themselves all the time, à la Hamlet: “Danny, you get ahold of yourself, now.” And that single reference, to a judge who was looking to pounce upon contest rule violations, could get a memoir entry disqualified.

Yes, Virginia (if that’s even your real name), even though it would be highly unlikely, without the judge’s having the list of memoir entrants by his side for first-name cross-referencing purposes, for the judge to guess the author’s identity. Simply the implication that the author might have referred to himself can appear to be a rule violation.

So a word to the wise: innocent naming mistakes can knock your entry out of competition. It would behoove you, then, to prepare your entry, like your queries, under the assumption that the judge who is going to read it is the nastiest, most curmudgeonly nit-picker since, well, me.

“But Anne,” I hear you cry, quite rightly pale at the prospect of encountering yours truly as a contest judge, “if this mistake is usually made inadvertently, how can I hope to avoid it?”

Well asked, oh fearful trembler. Experience sharpens the editing eye. Rest yourself upon the judge’s reading couch for a moment, and take a look at where these slips most commonly occur.

Let’s say the memoir’s author is named Biddy MacAlister-Thames, not a name anyone’s eye is likely to encounter on a page without noticing. Even if Biddy has had the foresight to rename herself Libby McPherson-Seine and do a search-and-replace accordingly, she should double-check her entry especially carefully in the following places:

(1) When another character directly addresses the narrator: “Biddy, have you seen the our pet tiger, Max?”

(2) When another character is talking about the narrator behind her back: “Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver. He’s paying too much attention to that Biddy next door.”

(3) When another character refers to the narrator by an abbreviation that a search-and-replace might not catch. “I’m talking to you, Bid,” is substantially less likely to get changed automatically than, “I’m talking to you, Biddy.”

(4) And, in the VAST MAJORITY of childhood memoirs, when the narrator gets in trouble, some adult shouts some version of: “Elizabeth Deirdre MacAlister-Thames, you come in this house this instant!”

Remember, in order to violate the rule, even if a character other than the author appears with the author’s last name, it can cost you. So keep our Biddy should keep her eye out for these kinds of situations, too:

(5) When a third party addresses a family member: “Mrs. MacAlister-Thames, your daughter is under arrest.”

(6) When the narrator refers to her family collectively, or to a possession as theirs: The Easter Bunny had been unusually generous to the MacAlister-Thames family that year.

Remember, as I pointed out above, self-references to either your first or last name, not just to both together, count as rule violations. So Biddy would be wise to do a search-and-replace for BOTH her first AND last names in her entry before she printed it up, would she not?

Yes, it’s a tedious thing to have to do, Biddy (or whatever you’re calling yourself these days), and yes, you have my sympathies for having to do it. But frankly, I would rather see you annoyed and on the finalist list than not proofread and disqualified.

I’m funny that way, at least since I was partially blinded by a Mountie convention. Keep up the good work!

Partials, part III: “Wait — what do you mean, they wanted 50 CONSECUTIVE pages?” and other cris de coeur of submitters and contest entrants

neighbor's tulip tree

No, I shan’t be writing about tulip trees today — I just wanted to share my favorite of my latest batch of yard-in-bloom photos, for the benefit of those of you in stormier climes. While I was setting up this shot, I did invest a few moments’ thought to how I could possibly work these outrageous blooms into this post as a metaphor.

That’s the problem with metaphors: they actually have to relate to something.

In non-floral news, I’m feeling especially virtuous this evening: my excuse for running outside with my camera on this beautiful day (other than searching for images to divert you fine people, of course) was that I finally finished incorporating my first readers’ EXTENSIVE feedback into my recently-completed novel. Yes, even writers who edit for a living solicit opinion, technical and otherwise, from readers before showing their work to their agents.

The smart ones do, anyway; professional critique is so cut-and-dried that emotionally, it just doesn’t make sense to have an agent be the first soul on earth to read your work. (Hear that, aspiring writers planning to submit before showing those pages to anyone local?) Not to mention the practical pluses of good feedback — contrary to popular opinion amongst the shy, even the most battle-hardened pro can benefit from objective critique.

Emphasis upon objective, of course. Long-time readers, whip out your hymnals and sing along, please: no matter how extensively your kith and kin happen to read in your book category, by definition, people who love you cannot give you completely objective feedback on your writing. Even if your significant other is a published author, your best friend a Pulitzer Prize recipient, and your father the chief librarian of an archive devoted exclusively to your type of book, it is in your — and your manuscript’s — best interest to hear the unvarnished opinions of people who do not love you.

Trust me on this one. The sterling soul who gave birth to me has been editing great writers for fifty years, and even she doesn’t clap eyes upon my manuscripts until I’ve incorporated the first round of feedback. (Not that she hasn’t asked.)

I’m bringing this up at the end of our mini-series on partials not merely to celebrate polishing off that always rather taxing job — if any writer actually enjoys working critique into a manuscript, line by line, I’ve never met her — but also to remind those of you planning to rush those requested materials off to the post office that it’s an excellent idea to have another set of eyes scan those pages first.

Ditto with contest entries and residency applications; it’s just too easy to miss a crucial typo yourself. Particularly if you’re really in a hurry to meet a deadline — and what entrant or applicant isn’t? — and neglect to read your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Oh, as if I would let an opportunity to slip that golden piece of editorial advice into yet another post. Why repeat it so often? Because I can already feel some of you gearing up to blow it off, that’s why?

Specifically, those of you who huffed impatiently at that last paragraph. “But Anne,” those of you who pride yourself on your attention to detail point out, “I must have read those pages 75 times while I was revising them. I’ve read them so many times that two-thirds of my brain cells think they’re already published. What could I possibly learn by reading them again, much less IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Quite a lot, actually. Like, for instance, if when you changed your protagonist’s sister’s name from Mona to Maura, you changed every reference. Or if every line of the requested synopsis printed out legibly. Or — brace yourselves; this may be a hard one for some of you – if the minor changes you made in the course of the 71rst read are consistent with the ones from read 72.

Shall I rephrase that, to drive home the point a little harder? Okay, how’s this: had you re-read every syllable of your partial, contest entry, or writing sample tucked into a residency application between the time you made those final few changes and when you popped your last submission into the mail? Or since you popped your last submission into the mail?

Wow, the crowd’s gone so quiet all of a sudden.

And for those of you who were not suddenly flung into retrospective panic about what kind of typo or printing snafu you might have inadvertently passed under Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge’s weary eyes, you needn’t take my word for how often writers realize only after something’s out the door that it wasn’t quite right. Many members of the Author! Author! community have already shared their horror stories on the subject; it makes for some enlightening reading.

Feel free to add stories of your own on that list; sharing them honestly will help other aspiring writers. But do not, I beg you, set yourself up for a spectacularly instructive anecdote by failing to read the very latest version of your partial, contest entry, or writing sample IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

While I’m hovering over you like a mother hen, here’s a post-submission regret I hope I can wipe from the face of the earth forever: including a business-size (#10) envelope as the SASE for a partial or a contest that returns materials, rather than an envelope (and appropriate postage) large enough to send back everything in the submission or entry packet.

That made some of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne!” half of those with submissions currently languishing at agencies across the U.S. cry. “I thought the point of the SASE — that stands for Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, right? — was so the agent who requested the partial could mail me a letter, asking me to send the rest of the manuscript — or, heaven forfend, a rejection letter!”

Well, the agent (or, more likely, the agent’s Millicent-in-residence) usually does include at least a form-letter rejection in a homeward-bound SASE, but that’s not the SASE’s primary purpose, from the agency’s point of view. Its primary use is to get all of those pages out of its office and back to the aspiring writers who sent them.

That’s not just because if they didn’t, the average agency’s halls would be so filled with rejected pages by the end of the first month that Millicent wouldn’t be able to fight her way to the coffeemaker through the chest-high stacks of pages. (She would have had to give up her traditional lattes by the end of the first week, since she couldn’t find the front door during her lunch break.) They also return the pages because it’s in the writer’s copyright interest to know precisely where his pages are at any given time — and if that seems paranoid to you, you might want to take a gander at the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the archive list at right.

If, on the other hand, the idea of a submission’s tumbling into unscrupulous hands doesn’t strike you as particularly outrageous, but the logic behind the writer’s providing the postage to convey her own rejection to her does, I would recommend a quick read through the posts under the SASE GUIDELINES category.

And for those of you reading this post in a tearing hurry because you’re frantically trying to get a partial out the door and into the mail, or whose fingers are itching to hit the SEND key for electronic submissions, let me just go ahead and state it as a boldfaced aphorism: with any submission, always include a SASE sufficiently large for the agent to send the entire submission back to you, with enough stamps attached to get it there safely.

Yes, I said stamps. Attaching metered postage to a SASE is another fairly common mistake in submitting a partial. Generally speaking, agencies will not use a stamp-free SASE. (If you’re interested in the rather convoluted logic behind that one, I would refer you again to the SASE GUIDELINES category. Otherwise, moving swiftly on…)

A third common mistake submitters of partials often make comes not when they are packing up the partial, but later, after the agent has approved the partial and asked to see the entire manuscript. That’s the agency parlance for the request, anyway; in writer-speak, it’s usually called asking to see the rest of the book.

Therein lies the root of the mistake: the semantic difference is crucial here. All too often, successful partial submitters think that a request for the entire manuscript equals a request for only the part of the manuscript the agent has not yet seen.

The agent asked to see the rest of the book, right?

Actually, she didn’t — what asking to see the rest of the book means in agent-speak is that the agent is expecting the ENTIRE manuscript to show up in her office, neatly boxed and accompanied by a return mailing label and enough postage to get the whole shebang back to the sender, if it’s rejected. (If that last bit came as any sort of a surprise to you, I would strongly urge you to peruse the posts under the MAILING REQUESTED MATERIALS category at right before you comply with any request for your manuscript.)

Starting to see a pattern here?

I do — and have for years: when aspiring writers just assume that they know what a request for materials entails, submissions often go awry; when they take the time to do their homework, irritating Millicent by such mistakes is 99.999% avoidable. (Hey, there’s no accounting for how moody she might get when she burns her lip on that too-hot latte for the fiftieth time this year.) Much of the time, the difference isn’t even the result of conscious step-skipping: first-time submitters frequently don’t know that there are rules to be followed.

Want to know what half the Millicents currently screening would say in response to that last sentence? It’s illuminating about the harshness of professional evaluation: “So I’m supposed to make allowances because these writers didn’t do their homework, effectively penalizing all of those conscientious writers out there who take the time to learn the ropes? I’ll bet that most of these mistaken submitters didn’t even bother to check if my agency’s website has submission guidelines.”

To which Mehitabel would add: “And virtually every contest on earth includes very specific submission guidelines in its rules, yet I’m continually astonished by how few entrants seem to read them. I’ll seldom actually disqualify an entry because it violates a presentation rule, but how can I justify penalizing all of those nice entrants who did follow the rules by allowing a violator to proceed to the finalist round of judging?”

Okay, so maybe they wouldn’t be quite that forthcoming. Or prolix. If I’m going to be completely honest, I would have to admit that this is what either of them is most likely to say when such a submission crossed their line of vision: “Next!”

Please, do your homework about the recipient’s stated preferences before you submit any requested materials. Not every agency is kind enough to writers to post specific guidelines, but if you happen to be dealing with one that has, you absolutely must follow them, or risk the wrath of Millicent.

It’s not pretty. Neither is Mehitabel’s, or the as-yet-to-be-named individual screening applications for that writers’ retreat you would give your eyeteeth to attend.

I’m taking christening suggestions for the application screener, by the way. I’d originally dubbed her Petunia, but that doesn’t exactly inspire awe and fear, does it?

Another major mistake that dogs contest entries involves confusing a partial with a writing sample. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, chant it with me now, followers of this series:

A partial is the first X number of pages of a manuscript assumed already to be complete, numbered consecutively and stopping at the bottom of the exact page the requester specified as the maximum. A writing sample is a selection of a book’s best writing, regardless of where it falls in the book.

In a pitching situation — the place an agent-seeking writer is most likely to be asked to produce a writing sample — 5 pages is usually the maximum length. However, a lengthy writing sample might include more than one scene, and those scenes might not run consecutively.

Everybody clear on all that? Now would be a marvelous time to ask a question, if not — I want to make absolutely, positively sure that every single member of the Author! Author! community not only understands these two separate concepts to be separate concepts, but can explain the difference to any confused fellow writers he might encounter.

Are you wondering why am I being so very adamant about this one? A deep and abiding dislike for seeing good writers waste their time and money: being unaware of this distinction trips up a simply phenomenal number of contest entrants every year.

How, you ask? Sadly, they misinterpret the rules’ call for X number of pages from, say, a novel, as permission to send X number of pages from anywhere in the novel. Sometimes, these hapless souls take the misunderstanding one step further, sending in a few pages from Chapter 1, a few from Ch. 8, perhaps a couple of paragraphs from Ch. 17…in short, they submit a bouquet of writing samples.

Understandable mistake, right? And extremely common, particularly in entries for contests that simply ask entrants to send a specified number of pages of a novel, without mentioning that those pages should be consecutive — oh, and if the entrant might by some odd chance want to win the contest, those pages had better begin on page 1 of Chapter 1 of the book.

Shall I take that gigantic collective gasp of indignation as an indication that some of you past contest entrants wish you had heard one or more of those tidbits before you entered?

Again, let’s state it as an aphorism, for the benefit of last-minute skimmers: unless a literary contest’s rules specifically state otherwise, assume that the entry should begin on page 1 and proceed consecutively. Part of what entrants in any prose contest are being judged upon is the ability to construct a strong narrative and story arc.

In answer to the question that most of you are probably screaming mentally, I have no idea why so few contests’ rules don’t just state this point-blank. It’s not as though it’s a rare problem — every contest judge I’ve ever met tells a sad story about the well-written entry that knocked itself out of finalist consideration via this error. And I’ve judged in a heck of a lot of literary contests, so I’ve met a whole lot of judges over the years.

I could spend a few more minutes of my life shaking my head over this, but over the years, my neck has gotten sore. I’m going to take the warning as heard — it was, wasn’t it? — and move on.

Writers asked to submit partials occasionally fall into the writing sample trap as well, but frankly, it’s less common. Perhaps writers marketing books harbor an inherent desire to have their stories read from beginning to end, just as a reader would encounter their work in a published book. Perhaps, too, agents’ requests for materials tend to be for much heftier portions of a manuscript than many contest entries would tolerate: 50 or 100 pages for a partial is fairly normal, but many contests for even book-length works call for as few as 10, 20, or 30 pages, sometimes including a synopsis.

But just to head any problems off at the pass, as well as to illustrate why a nonconsecutive partial made up of even superlative writing would not be a good marketing packet for any manuscript, from an agency perspective, let’s close out this short series by going over the expectations for a partial one more time. Come on; it’ll be fun.

When an agent or editor requests a partial, she’s not asking for a writing sample consisting of 50 or 100 pages of the writer’s favorite parts of the book, a sort of greatest hits compilation — if that’s what she wants, she (or her submission guidelines; check) will tell you so point-blank. She is unlikely to prefer a writing sample as a submission, however, because part of what her Millicent is looking for in submissions is storytelling acumen.

Think about it: in an unconnected series of scenes gleaned from across your manuscript, how good a case could you make for your talent at arranging plot believably? How well could you possibly show off your book’s structure, or character development, or even ability to hold a reader’s interest, compared to the same story as you present it in your manuscript, beginning on page 1?

If you have any doubt whatsoever about the answer to that last question, run, don’t walk, to an objective first reader to help you figure out whether the current running order of events tells your story effectively. (Didn’t think I’d be able to work in another plug for feedback from an independent-minded first reader, did you?)

What an agent or editor does expect to see in a partial, then, is the opening of the manuscript as you plan to market it to, well, agents and editors: it’s precisely the same as the full manuscript, except it doesn’t include the pages after, say, page 50.

And if Millicent loves that partial and asks for the rest of the book, what will you do? Send the entire manuscript, right? Right?

I couldn’t resist tossing in the pop quiz, to see if you’d been paying attention. I wouldn’t want any of you to end the post still confused about any of this. (And if you are: please, I implore you, leave a question in the comments.)

And remember, read any submission guidelines very thoroughly before you invest your heart, hopes, energy, and/or precious time in preparing a partial packet or contest entry. This is no time to be skimming; make a list and check it twice, like Santa Claus.

Yes, even if the request consisted of a grand total of three lines of text in an e-mail. In fact, I always advise my editing clients to read the guidelines once — then, on the second read, make a checklist of everything you are being asked to do. Wait a day before going back to triple-check that the list is accurate.

Then, and only then, put together the submission or entry, checking off each item as you place it in the envelope. Re-read the original guidelines or letter before you even think of sealing the envelope. If you’re not much of a detail person, you might also want to hand your list to at least one person who happens to love you, ask him/her/that ungainly mob to check it against the guidelines or contest rules, then to verify that what’s in your envelope is in fact what you have been asked to send.

You didn’t think I was going to leave the kith and kin I’d disqualified from giving you objective feedback from helping you altogether, did you? Everyone has a task here at Author! Author!

That’s what how a supportive community works, isn’t it? Keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XII: the little things that matter (honest), and what happens when a writer tries to make things too little

Before…gulliver astride
…and after
incredible shrinking man 2

Now that we’ve been comparing manuscripts in standard format with improperly-formatted ones for a few posts now, are you starting to feel a few glimmerings of sympathy for Millicent the agency screener?

Admittedly, she is also the one who rejects the vast majority of queries and submissions sent to her agency — remember, at a US agency of any size, a manuscript typically has to make it past one or two Millicents before getting anywhere near an agent’s desk; that’s one reason average turn-around times have risen in recent years from weeks to months. However, given what a small percentage of these documents are properly formatted and spell-checked and original and book category-appropriate, much less well-written, it’s hard to blame her eye for becoming a trifle jaded over time. As enviable as her job sounds (Reading for a living! Sign me up! many writers think), reading for errors is actually not very pleasurable, usually.

And make no mistake: it’s a screener’s job to read for technical errors, with an eye to weeding out the aforementioned vast majority of submissions. Unfortunately, as a group, aspiring writers make that easier than it should be to reject a promising voice. Technical mistakes are so common that the lack of them is sometimes the difference between a well-written manuscript that strikes Millicent as well-written enough to keep reading beyond the first page or two and one that makes her exclaim, “Oh, too bad — this writer isn’t ready yet. Next!”

Way back in the dim days of yesteryear, before you had been initiated into the mysteries of standard format, that peculiarity of the system probably annoyed you just a bit, didn’t it? Now that you’ve passed the Rubicon and are formatting your manuscripts like a pro, you can afford to smile compassionately at both Millicent and the literally millions of queriers and submitters who ply her with unprofessional-looking pieces of paper, right?

Or does that smirk off your face mean that I’m once again overestimating my readers’ saintly willingness to walk a mile in the moccasins that routinely kick aspiring writers’ dreams into the rejection pile?

Okay, let me speak to the more practical side of your collective psyche: even if you aren’t in the habit of empathizing with people who reject writers for a living, there’s a good self-interested reason you should care about her state of mind — or an agent, editor, or contest judge’s, for that matter. Simply put, Even with the best will in the world, grumpy, over-burdened, and/or rushed readers tend to be harder to please than cheerful, well-treated, well-rested ones.

And she does tend, alas, to fall in the former categories on more days than the latter. Millicent is the Tiny Tim of the literary world, you know; at least the Bob Cratchits a little higher up on the office totem pole uniformly get paid, but our Millie often gets a paycheck that’s more an honorarium than a living wage. Heck, some Millicents are not paid at all. Some even do it for college credit.

Phenomena that one might reasonably expect to become increasingly common, by the way: the worse a bad economy gets, the better an unpaid intern is going to look to a cash-conscious agency. Or, heaven help us, a worried publishing house that’s been laying off editors.

Fortunately, literary contests in the U.S. are almost exclusively judged by volunteer Mehitabels, at least prior to the finalist round, so they continue to be judged very much as they ever were. The Hitties of the world tend to be public-spirited authors, freelance editors, writing teachers, etc. who honestly are in it to help discover exciting new voices. If anything, however, that let’s-improve-the-literary-world orientation usually renders them less tolerant of technical errors in entries than Millicent is, not more.

Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Which is why — you can hear this coming, can’t you? — a wise writer always reads her ENTIRE manuscript IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before submitting it to anyone even vaguely affiliated with a literary contest or the publishing industry. It’s much, much easier to catch formatting issues, typos, and logic problems that way.

But I digress, don’t I?

Even if Millie’s not an intern, she’s still unlikely to be paid very much, at least relative to the costs of living in the cities where the major publishers dwell. Her hours are typically long, and quite a lot of what she reads in the course of her day is, let’s face it, God-awful. Not to mention poorly formatted.

Oh, wait; I have mentioned it. Repeatedly.

“So why are you bringing it up yet again?” you shout indignantly.

On the outside chance that I’m being too subtle here: it’s vital to any aspiring writer’s happiness to be aware that while God-awful manuscripts and book proposals are, naturally, inherently rejectable, every year, thousands upon thousands of otherwise well-written manuscripts get rejected on technical grounds.

Millicent’s job, in short, is not the glamorous, power-wielding potentate position that those who have not yet passed the Rubicon of signing with an agency often assume it to be. Nor, ideally, will she be occupying the position of first screener long: rejecting queries and manuscripts by the score on-the-job training for a fledgling agent, in much the same way as an editorial assistant’s screening manuscripts at a publishing houses is the stepping-stone to becoming an editor.

You didn’t think determining a manuscript’s literary merits after just a few lines of text was a skill that came naturally to those who lead their lives right and got As in English, did you? To be good an their jobs, agents and editors have to learn to spot professional writing in the wild — which means, in part (out comes the broken record again) having to recognize what a properly-formatted manuscript should look like.

Actually, the aspiring writer’s learning curve is often not dissimilar to Millicent’s: no one tumbles out of the womb already familiar with the rules of manuscript formatting. (Okay, so I practically was, growing up around so many authors, but I’m a rare exception.) Like Millicent, most of us learn the ropes only through reading a great deal.

She has the advantage over us, though: she gets to read books in manuscript form, and most aspiring writers, especially at the beginning of their journeys to publication, read only books. So what writers tend to produce in their early submissions are essentially imitations of books.

The problem is, the format of the two is, as I believe that I have pointed out, oh, several hundred times before in this very forum, quite different — and not, as some of you may have been muttering in the darkness of your solitary studios throughout this series, merely because esoteric rules render it more difficult for new writers to break into the biz.

A few things that many an aspiring writer often does not know before submitting for the first time: manuscripts should be typed (don’t laugh; it’s not unheard-of for diagrams to be hand-drawn, hand-number, or for late-caught typos to be corrected in pen), double-spaced, and have 1-inch margins all the way around. Let’s see why all of those things are necessary, from a professional point of view.

You had hoped that I’d gone too far afield to get back to the topic at hand, didn’t you? Not a chance. Let’s call upon our old friend Charles Dickens again to see what a page of a manuscript should look like:

Nice and easy to read, isn’t it? (Assuming that you find it so, of course. If it’s too small to read easily on your browser, try double-clicking on the image.)

To give you some idea of just how difficult it would be to read, much less hand-edit, a manuscript that was NOT double-spaced or had smaller margins, take a gander at this little monstrosity:

I believe the proper term for this is reader-hostile. Even an unusually patient and literature-loving Millicent would reject a submission like this immediately, without reading so much as a word. As would, more often than not, Mehitabel.

Did I hear a few spit-takes during that last paragraph? “My goodness, Anne,” those of you who are wiping coffee, tea, or the beverage of your choice off your incredulous faces sputter, “why would any sane person consider it THAT serious an offense? It is, after all, precisely the same writing.”

Well, think about it: even with nice, empty page backs upon which to scrawl copy edits, trying to cram spelling or grammatical changes between those lines would be well-nigh impossible. Knowing that, Millicent would never dream of passing such a manuscript along to the agent who employs her; to do so would be to invite a stern and probably lengthy lecture on the vicissitudes of the editorial life — and that fact that, despite impressive innovations in technology, most line editing a single-spaced document in either hard or soft copy is well-nigh impossible.

Too hard on the eyes — and where on earth would the comments go on the hard copy?

Don’t tempt her to reject your submission unread — and don’t even consider, I beg of you, providing the same temptation to a contest judge. Given the sheer volume of submissions Millicent reads, she’s not all that likely to resist — and the contest judge will be specifically instructed not to resist at all.

Yes, really. Even if the sum total of the provocation consists of a manuscript that’s shrunk to, say, 95% of the usual size, Hitty is likely to knock it out of the running on sight.

Some of you are blushing, aren’t you? Perhaps some past contest entrants and submitters who wanted to squeeze in a particularly exciting scene before the end of those requested 50 pages?

No? Let me fill you in on a much-deplored practice, then: faced with a hard-and-fast page limit, some wily writers will shrink the font or the margins, to shoehorn a few more words onto each page. After all, the logic runs, who is going to notice a tenth of an inch sliced off a left or right margin, or notice that the typeface is a trifle smaller than usual?

Millicent will notice, that’s who, and practically instantly. As will any reasonably experienced contest judge; after hours on end of reading 12-point type within 1-inch margins, a reader develops a visceral sense of when something is off.

Don’t believe me? Go back and study today’s first example, the correctly formatted average page. Then take a gander at this wee gem of tricky intent:

I shaved only one-tenth of an inch off each margin and shrunk the text by 5% — far, far less than most fudgers attempt. Admit it, though: you can tell it’s different, can’t you, even without whipping out a ruler?

So could a professional reader. And let me tell you, neither the Millicents of this world nor the contest judges appreciate attempts to trick them into extraneous reading. Next!

The same principle applies, incidentally, to query letters: often, aspiring writers, despairing of fitting a coherent summary of their books within the standard single page, will shrink the margins or typeface on a query. Trust me, someone who reads queries all day, every day, will be able to tell.

The other commonly-fudged spacing technique involves skipping only one space after periods and colons, rather than the grammatically-requisite two spaces. Frequently, writers won’t even realize that this is fudging: as we’ve discussed, and recently, ever since published books began omitting these spaces in order to save paper, there are plenty of folks out there who insist that skipping the extra space in manuscripts is obsolete. Frequently, the proponents will insist that manuscripts that include the space look old-fashioned to agents and editors.

Well, guess what, cookie — standard manuscript format IS old-fashioned, by definition; that fact doesn’t seem to stop most of the currently-published authors of the English-speaking world from using it. In fact, in all of my years writing and editing, I have never — not once — seen an already agented manuscript rejected or even criticized for including the two spaces that English prose requires after a period or colon.

I have, however, heard endless complaint from professional readers — myself included — about those second spaces being omitted. Care to guess why?

Reward yourself with a virtual box of chocolates if you said that cutting those spaces throws off word count estimation; the industry estimates assume those doubled spaces. (If you don’t know how and why word count is tallied, please see the WORD COUNT category on the archive list at Author! Author!)

And give yourself a nice bouquet of violets if you also suggested that omitting them renders a manuscript harder to hand-edit. We all know the lecture Millicent is likely to get if she forgets about that, right?

Again, a pro isn’t going to have to look very hard at a space-deprived page to catch on that there’s something fishy going on — and again, we’re going to take a gander at why. Since Dickens was so fond of half-page sentences, the examples I’ve been using above won’t illustrate this point very well, so (reaching blindly into the depths of the bookshelf next to my computer), let’s take a random page out of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s VERA:

There are 310 words on this page; I wasn’t kidding the other day about how far off the standard word count estimations were, obviously. Now cast your eye over the same text improperly formatted:

Doesn’t look significantly different to the naked eye, does it? The word count is only slightly lower on this version of this page — 295 words — but enough to make quite a difference over the course of an entire manuscript.

So I see some hands shooting up out there? “But Anne,” I hear some sharp-eyed readers exclaim, “wasn’t the word count lower because there was an entire line missing from the second version?”

Well spotted, criers-out: the natural tendency of omitting the second spaces would be to include more words per page, not less. But not spacing properly between sentences was not the only deviation from standard format here; Millicent, I assure you, would have caught two others.

I tossed a curve ball in here, to make sure you were reading as closely as she was. Wild guesses? Anyone? Anyone?

The error that chopped the word count was a pretty innocent one, almost always done unconsciously: the writer did not turn off the widow/orphan control, found in Word under FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. As we discussed only the other day, this insidious little function, the default unless one changes it, prevents single lines of multi-line paragraphs from getting stranded on either the bottom of one page of the top of the next.

As you may see, keeping this function operational results in an uneven number of lines per page. Which, over the course of an entire manuscript, is going to do some serious damage to the word count.

The other problem — and frankly, the one that would have irritated a contest judge far more than Millicent — was on the last line of the page: using an emdash (“But—“) instead of a doubled dash. Here again, we see that the standards that apply to printed books are not proper for manuscripts.

Which brings me back to today’s moral: just because a particular piece of formatting looks right to those of us who have been reading books since we were three doesn’t mean that it is correct in a manuscript.

Or book proposal. Or contest entry.

Remember, Millicent reads manuscripts all day; contest judges read entries for hours at a time. After a while, a formatting issue that might well not even catch a lay reader’s attention can begin to seem gargantuan.

Please don’t dismiss this as unimportant to your success as a writer. If writing is solid, it deserves to be free of distracting formatting choices. You want agents, editors, and contest judges to be muttering, “Wow, this is good,” over your manuscript, not “Oh, God, he doesn’t know the rules about dashes,” don’t you?

Spare Millicent the chagrin, please; both you and she will be the happier for it. Believe me, she could use a brilliantly-written, impeccably-formatted submission to brighten her possibly Dickensian day.

Be compassionate toward her plight — and your submission’s, proposal’s, and/or contest entry’s. Pay close enough attention to the technical details that yours the submission that makes her say, “Oh, here is good writing, well presented.” And, of course, keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part VII: where you stand depends on where you sit. Or read, as the case may be.

sagrada familia ceiling3

We begin today with a pop quiz, inspired by sharp-eyed reader Jinnayah’s comment on yesterday’s post. Quick, tell me: did I take the photo above while looking down into an abyss, sideways into an alcove, or up at an impossibly high ceiling?

Hard to tell which way is up, isn’t it? (But here’s a hint: the purple stuff is flying dust.) Without some orienting landmarks, it’s difficult even to know for sure what you’re looking at, or from what direction.

That’s more or less the same problem the average aspiring writer faces when looking at her own first manuscript or book proposal with an eye to figuring out whether it is formatted correctly, right? Let’s face it, very, very few as-yet-to-be-published writers have ever seen a professional manuscript up close and personal; still fewer have had the opportunity to glance through a professional book proposal. Oh, there’s plenty of advice out there on how it should be done, of course, but as many of you have no doubt noted with chagrin, sources differ.

So how on earth is someone new to the game supposed to figure out which end of the manuscript is up, figuratively speaking?

The trick lies in remembering that the principles governing manuscript formatting are practical and historical, not aesthetic. Thus, while two-inch margins and a cursive typeface may strike a writer as the perfect expressive extension of the spirit of his novel, to someone who reads manuscripts for a living, they’re just puzzling. And distracting.

Where you stand, in other words, depends on where you sit. From where Millicent is sitting, deviation from standard format demonstrates a lack of knowledge about how the industry works, not creativity. She has good reason to feel that way: because professional manuscripts and book proposals are formatted in a particular way, she knows that her boss, the agent of your dreams, would have a hard time convincing an editor at a major publishing house to read even the first page of an unprofessional formatted manuscript.

Which brings be back to where we left off last time, right? For the past couple of posts, we’ve been engaging in compare-and-contrast exercises, showing common examples of title pages and fine-tuning your binoculars so you might see how our old friend Millie — or her boss, or an editor, or a contest judge — might view them. As I sincerely hope those of you who read the post can attest, it was pretty obvious that the professionally-formatted title page won the beauty contest hands-down. Or, if the bulk of you aren’t yet willing to attest to that, may I at least hope that everyone is now aware that as far as presentation goes, where you stand depends upon where you sit?

Case in point: a choice as small as a typeface can make an astonishingly great difference to how professional your work looks to the pros. That comes as something of a surprise to most aspiring writers — who, not entirely surprisingly, tend to regard that particular decision as a purely aesthetic one. “Why,” they ask, and not unreasonably, “should it even matter to Millicent? Good writing’s good writing, isn’t it?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, good writing is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. No, insofar as good writing tends to have less impact on the average Millicent when it’s presented in an unusual typeface.

Yes, really. To see why, let’s once again start at the top of the submission packet, taking a gander at the same title page in three different typefaces. Here it is in 12-point Times New Roman, one of the two preferred typefaces:

Austen title good

That’s what anyone sitting in Millicent’s seat would expect to see. Now let’s look at exactly the same information, assuming that Aunt Jane favored 12-point Helvetica:

Austen title helvetica

The letters appear quite a bit bigger, don’t they? Not enough so to appear to be, say, 14-point font, but large enough to make Millicent wonder whether the word count is accurate. (Estimated word count does, after all, vary by typeface: Times New Roman is estimated at 250 words/page, Courier at 200. More on that below.) And do you really want her speculating about your credibility before the first page of your manuscript?

So if we seat ourselves in Millicent’s office chair, we can see that Aunt Jane’s choice of Helvetica, while not a deal-breaker, does not necessarily present her manuscript to its best advantage. And now you want to see a typeface that might be a deal-breaker, don’t you? Happy to oblige.

Austen title brushscript

Can’t really blame Millicent for not wanting to turn the page on that one, can we? Despite containing all of the information that a title page should include, in the right places and in the right order, it’s unprofessional-looking. Not to mention hard to read.

Got Millicent’s perspective firmly imbedded in your mind? Excellent. If you want to switch back to the writer’s point of view, all you have to do is remember that the manuscript that follows even this last title page is SENSE AND SENSIBILITY.

The moral: even the best writing may be placed at a competitive disadvantage by unprofessional presentation.

I assume that all of that clanking is a thousand writers’ hackles being raised. “But Anne,” outraged voices thunder “aren’t you assuming that Millicent’s pretty shallow? Whenever I’ve heard agents and editors asked at conferences or on their websites about whether cosmetic issues can get a manuscript rejected, they often disclaim the notion with scorn. I’ve even heard a few of them say that they don’t care about issues like typeface, spaces after periods and colons, or where the chapter title lies — and that strikes me as significant, as I’ve never, ever heard one say it was okay to let a query letter run longer than a single page. Isn’t it the writing that matters in a submission, ultimately?”

Again, yes and no, hackle-raisers. Yes, the writing matters — but it’s not all that matters.

Naturally, the writing matters most in a submission, with freshness, audience-appropriateness, marketability, and fit with the agent or editor reading it jostling for second place. Equally naturally, and something that I often point out here, individual agents, editors, and even contest judges harbor individual preferences as well and have been known to express them at conferences. Or on their blogs, Twitter feeds, and over drinks at that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any literary conference in North America.

One person’s pet peeve, however, may not be another’s, and since few aspiring writers of my acquaintance either take the trouble or have the information required to find out the preferences of every agent to whom they are submitting, adhering to standard format minimizes the probability of running afoul of unknown annoyance-triggers. Because, honestly, trying to apply every single one of the expressed opinions floating around out there to your manuscript will drive you 100% nuts. The pet peeves are too often mutually contradictory, for one thing.

Which is to say: if an agent to whom you are submitting asks for something different, for heaven’s sake, give it to her; if, as is almost always the case, you just don’t know, keep the presentation unprovocative and professional so that your writing may shine.

In other words, adhere to the strictures of standard format, rather than assuming, as so many aspiring writers do to their cost, that the writing is the only thing that matters.

Remember, where you stand depends on where you sit. And from both Millicent and the aspiring writer’s perspective, taking the time to present writing professionally is honestly worth it.

Yes, admittedly, one does hear of cases where a kind, literature-loving agent has looked past bizarre formatting in order to see a potential client’s, well, potential, one also hears of isolated cases where a manuscript rife with spelling and grammatical errors gets picked up, or one that has relatively little chance of selling well in the current market. The age of miracles has not entirely passed, apparently.

But — and this is a BIG but — these cases get talked about because they are exceptions, and rare ones at that. 9,999 times out of 10,000, any of these problems will result in, if not instantaneous rejection, then rejection upon Millicent’s lighting upon the next problem in the manuscript.

Those hackles are clacking again, aren’t they? “Okay,” the hackled admit, “I can understand how Millicent would be tempted to skip reading a submission like #3 above, where she’s likely to strain her eyes. I can seen see why she might leap to some negative conclusions about #2, since, as you have mentioned before, she knows that it’s going to be more time-consuming, and thus more costly, to take on a client who needs to be trained how to present her work professionally. But if presentation is so darned important, why don’t aspiring writers hear about it more often at conferences, in articles about submission, or even just in discussions amongst ourselves?”

Excellent question, h-raisers. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that’s not just because a sane, sensible individual with a reputation to protect is unlikely to stand up in front of 500 eager potential submitters and say, “Look, if you’re planning to submit a grimy photocopy of your book, or insist upon presenting it in 10-point type, or not indenting your paragraphs, just don’t bother to query me.”

Having actually seen a well-meaning agent tell an indignant crowd that he really only took seriously query letters from writers he met at conferences (yes, really; there were many, many witnesses), I can tell you precisely what would happen if some honest soul did take this astounding step: instantly, 500 pens would scrawl on 500 programs, DO NOT QUERY THIS ONE; HE’S MEAN.

Which would rather defeat the agent’s purpose in coming to the conference to recruit new clients, wouldn’t it?

As someone who frequently teaches writing and formatting classes, I can think of another reason that a speaker might want to be careful about such pronouncements: an agent or editor doesn’t have to speak at many conferences (or blog for very long) before recognizing that anything she says about submissions is likely to be repeated with the éclat of a proverb for years to come amongst the writing community.

Seriously, it’s true. I’ve heard offhand comments made from the dais, or even jokes, being debated for hours in conference hallways, particularly if those comments happen to relate to the cosmetic aspects of querying and submission. 5-4 Supreme Court decisions are routinely discussed with less vim and vitriol. Some of Miss Snark’s pronouncements have been more commented upon than St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

Okay, so that last is a slight exaggeration. My point is, the very notion of from-the-horse’s-mouth rightness carries such a luster that such speakers are constantly in extreme danger of having everything they say quoted back to them as an inflexible rule.

Which is why, I must admit, I occasionally experience qualms about presenting the rules of standard format as inflexible rules. On the pro-regulation side, we are talking, after all, about an industry that both values creativity and considers submitting a book proposal in anything but a black folder dangerously radical. (Yes, really.) On the con side, literally nothing else I talk about here consistently raises as much writerly ire.

The very topic of presentation seems to be emotionally trying for a lot of writers — disproportionately so, from where Millicent is sitting. Tell an aspiring writer that his dialogue is turgid, or his pacing drags, or that he’s left a necessary section out of his book proposal, and most of the time, he’ll be at least curious about why you think so. (If a bit defensive.) Yet suggest to the same writer that he might be better off reformatting his manuscript to include such niceties as paragraph indentation or moving his page number to the slug line, and a good quarter of the time, he’ll look at you as though you’d just kicked his grandmother. Thrice.

Go figure, eh?

Presentation issues definitely do matter — which is, again, not to say that the quality of the writing doesn’t. But — and again, this is a BIG but — as we’ve discussed, rejection decisions are often made on page 1 of a manuscript. Sometimes even within the course of the first paragraph. And if the manuscript is hard to read, due to a funky typeface or odd spacing or just plain poor print quality, it may not be read at all.

While these phenomena are, in fact, quite widely recognized as true, the person who announced them this baldly from the dais at a literary conference would be covered head to foot with flung tomatoes in twenty seconds flat. Metaphorically, at least.

Which is why I’m going to keep saying it until I’m blue in the face and you die of boredom: from the perspective of someone who reads manuscripts for a living, professional formatting is simply the least distracting way a book can possibly be presented. Perversely, adhering to the industry’s cosmetic expectations renders it MORE likely that an agent or editor will concentrate upon the beauty of the writing, not less.

Think about it: they can’t fall in love with your good writing until they read it, can they? So don’t you want to do everything within your power to convince them that your manuscript is the one that deserves more than a cursory glance?

Of course you do; if you didn’t, you would have given up on this series a paragraph into it, right? Instead of thinking of the rigors of standard format as a series of unimportant (or even silly) superficial choices, try regarding them as translating your calling card, a means of catching Millicent’s tired eye and informing her that this is a manuscript that should be taken seriously.

Have I got you sufficiently fired up about superficial manuscript prettiness yet? Grand; let’s get back to the incredibly nit-picky issue of typeface.

As I mentioned earlier in this series, I would highly recommend using either Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces, both on the title page and in the manuscript as well. These are the standards of the industry, and thus the least likely to raise Millicent’s ever-knitted eyebrows. But like some of the other strictures of standard format, there’s a pretty good reason for this one: from where she is sitting, word count estimation is always predicated upon one of these typefaces.

Why is the question of estimating relevant on a title page? Again, we must look to Millicent’s perspective: word counts in book manuscripts are generally estimated, not the actual count; for short stories and articles, use the actual count.

Was that giant gust of wind that just knocked my desk over your collective gasp of astonishment? I’m not entirely surprised; a lot of aspiring writers are confused on this point. “But Anne,” they protest, and who can blame them? “My Word program will simply tell me how many words there are in the document. Since it’s so easy to be entirely accurate, why shouldn’t I be as specific as possible? Or, to put it another way, why would an agent or editor ask for the word count, then expect me to guess?”

Would you throw something at me if I said once again that this is a matter of perspective? From Millicent’s seat, the answer is pretty obvious: industry practices dictate how manuscripts are handled, not the whims of the fine folks at Microsoft. I mean, the Microsofties I know are sterling human beings to a man, but hardly experts on the publishing industry’s requirements. And really, why should they be?

Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, just because Word is set up to allow certain things — giving you an exact word count, for instance, or access to 200 typefaces — doesn’t mean that the publishing industry wants writers to do things that way. (And if you doubt that, consider the doubled dash vs. the automatic emdash Word favors.) Word processing programs came into use long, long after standard format for manuscripts, after all; why should agents, editors, and Millicents allow computer programmers to dictate what strikes them as professional?

Perspective, people: which makes more sense, assuming that the word count on your title page will be read by Millicent, or Bill Gates?

I cannot, naturally, speak to Mssr. Gates’ point of view on the subject, but here is why Millicent would care on the estimation front. The Times family is estimated at 250 words/page; Courier at 200. So a 400-page manuscript in Times New Roman is estimated to be roughly 100,000 words if it’s in Times — something Millicent should be able to tell as soon as she claps eyes on the submission’s title page, right? — and 80,000 if it’s in Courier. (If the logic behind that is at all confusing, please see the WORD COUNT category on the archive list at right for further explanation.)

Now, in actual fact, a 400-page manuscript in TNR is probably closer to 115,000 words; as any writer who has compared the estimated word count for her book with the total her word processing program so kindly provides, they tend to differ wildly. But word count, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder: a novelist whose title page reported, accurately, that her 400-page novel was 115,000 words might well see it rejected out of hand on the grounds that it was too long.

Why? Well, math may not have been Millicent’s best subject (as one might expect, the inmates of agencies tend overwhelmingly English majors), but she can do third-grade multiplication in her head: 115,000 words at 250 words/page would equal a 460-page manuscript. That’s quite a bit longer than editors tend to expect first novels in most genres to be these days; at around 450 pages, binding costs rise significantly.

In other words, next!

Boy, those hackles are getting a workout today, aren’t they? “But Anne, why is Millicent estimating at all? If she wants to know how long it is, why doesn’t she just flip to the last page and check the page number, for heaven’s sake?”

I could give you a long song and dance about how much her wrists hurt from opening all those query envelopes all day, or how her secret midnight e-mail orgies have rendered pinching a torture, but in practice, the answer is far less personal than practical: because the word count is right there on the title page.

Tell me, oh submitters: why on earth should she doubt its accuracy? Unless, say, the title page were in a non-standard typeface like Helvetica, she’s going to assume that an aspiring writer familiar enough with standard format to include the word count on the title page would also know how to estimate it accurately.

I know, I know: from a writerly perspective, that’s kind of a wacky assumption. But her chair boasts a different view than ours.

Besides, how exactly could she manage to turn to page 400 of a manuscript, when her boss requested that the writer send only the first 50, without resorting to some pretty impressive maneuvering through time and space?

I’m aware that I’m running quite long today, but in the interest of clarity, let’s invest another few minutes in turning to the first page of the submission, to see how much of a difference font and typeface make at first glance. Here’s a correctly-formatted page 1 in Times New Roman. Just for giggles, I’m going to use that notorious editor’s nightmare, the opening paragraphs of A TALE OF TWO CITIES:

Pretty spiffy, eh? And definitely not how this opening would appear in a published book, right?

Now let’s take a peek at the same page, also correctly formatted, in Courier. Note how many fewer words per page it allows:

Got both of those firmly imbedded in your brainpan? Good. Now format your first pages that way for the rest of your natural life.

Well, my work here is obviously done.

Just kidding — you want to see why it’s a good idea, don’t you? Okay, take a gander at the SAME first page, not in standard manuscript format. See how many differences you can spot:

Fascinating how just a few small formatting changes can alter the presentation, isn’t it? It’s exactly the same WRITING — but it just doesn’t look as professional. To Millicent, who reads hundreds of pages per day, the differences between the last three examples could not be clearer.

And yet, if we’re going to be honest about it, there were really very few deviations from standard format in the last example. For those of you playing at home, the typeface is Georgia; the chapter title is in the wrong place, and there isn’t a slug line. Also, the page is numbered in the wrong place — the default setting, incidentally, in many word processing programs.

Again, in all probability, none of these infractions against the rules of standard format are serious enough to cause Millicent to toss a submission aside as soon as she notices them. But when poor formatting is combined with literary experimentation — like, say, that paragraph-long first sentence ol’ Charles managed to cough up — which do you think she is going to conclude, that Dickens is a writer who took the time to polish his craft, or that he just doesn’t know what he’s doing?

Don’t tempt her to draw the wrong conclusion. Remember, where a manuscript stands depends upon where the reader sits.

Before any hackles start heading skyward again, I hasten to add: where the submitting writer sits often makes a difference to Millicent’s perception, too. Millicent’s reception of that last example is very likely to be different before Dickens became a household name or after, although once he was established. Unless you happen to be famous, I wouldn’t advise taking the risk.

And if you do happen to be famous, could I interest you in writing a back jacket blurb?

In fairness to Millicent, though, it’s highly unlikely that it would even occur to our Charles to deviate this markedly from standard format, if he already had experience working with an agent or editor. The longer you remain in the business, the more those little things will strike you as just, well, matters of right and wrong. As, fortunately or not, they do Millicent and her ilk.

Come to think of it, that sense of fitness may well be the reason that discussions of formatting tend to become so vitriol-stained: we all like to be right, and after all, propriety is in the eye of the beholder. After all, each of us is most familiar with the view from her own chair.

Pulling back from one’s own perspective can be most helpful. There’s a reason that it’s called the bigger picture, people. In that spirit, let’s take a longer view of the photo above, to situate ourselves:

sagrada familia ceiling

Easier to tell up from down, isn’t it? With a broader perspective, you can see that the green light on the left is coming from a stained-glass window; on the left, there’s a decorative support beam. From a myopic tight shot, we can now tell that this is a picture of a ceiling — as it happens, in the cathedral whose photo graced my last post. (Hey, Jinnayah said she liked the building.)

More show-and-tell follows next time, of course. Keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part III: pretty is as pretty does

yard with petals

Another pretty picture for you today, campers, to soothe the fractured soul and as a refresher for those you trapped in that magnificent East Coast blizzard. As Shelley wrote, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?

It’s also a reward for virtue, both for those brave enough to be learning the contours of standard format for the first time and those dedicated many who stick with it every time I revisit the topic. Believe me, feedback and questions from both categories of intrepid reader have made Author! Author! an infinitely better, more useful, and friendlier place for writers. You all deserve far more than a nice photo of my back yard, of course, but I am, as always, most grateful.

So here’s another gift, a little trifle that I was going to save for the end of this series: working your way first through this series, then through your manuscript, while undoubtedly time-consuming, will in the long term save you a whole heck of a lot of time.

Was that massive sound wave that just washed over my studio two-thirds of you suddenly crying, “Huh?”

It’s true, honest. While the applying these rules to a manuscript already in progress may seem like a pain, practice makes habit. After a while, the impulse to conform to the rules of standard format becomes second nature for working writers. Trust me, it’s a learned instinct that can save a writer oodles of time and misery come deadline time.

How, you ask? Well, to a writer for whom proper formatting has become automatic, there is no last-minute scramble to change the text. It came into the world correct — which, in turn, saves a writer revision time. Sometimes, those conserved minutes and hours can save the writer’s proverbial backside as well.

Scoff not: even a psychic with a very, very poor track record for predictions could tell you that there will be times in your writing career when you don’t have the time to proofread as closely as you would like, much less check every page to make absolutely certain it looks right. Sometimes, the half an hour it would take to reformat a inconsistent manuscript can make the difference between making and missing a contest deadline.

Or between delighting or disappointing the agent or editor of your dreams currently drumming her fingers on her desk, waiting for you to deliver those minor requested changes to Chapter 7. (You know, that lighthearted little revision changing the protagonist’s sister Wendy to her brother Ted; s/he is no longer a corporate lawyer, but a longshoreman, and Uncle George dies not of a heart attack, but of 12,000 pounds of under-ripe bananas falling on him from a great height when he goes to the docks to tell Ted that Great-Aunt Mandy is now Great-Uncle Armand. If only Ted had kept a better eye on that load-bearing winch!)

Or, for nonfiction writers, delivering the finished book you proposed by the date specified in your publishing contract. Trust me, at any of these junctures, the last thing you’ll want to have to worry about are consistent margins.

Perversely, this is a kind of stress that makes writers happy — perhaps not in the moment we are experiencing it, but on a career-long basis. The more successful you are as a writer — ANY kind of writer — the more often you will be in a hurry, predictably. No one has more last-minute deadlines than a writer with a book contract.

Just ask any author whose agent is breathing down her neck after a deadline has passed. Especially if the writer didn’t know about the deadline until it had already come and gone. (Oh, how I wish I were kidding about that.) And don’t even get me started on the phenomenon of one’s agent calling the day after Thanksgiving to announce, “I told the editor that you could have the last third of the book completely reworked by Christmas — that’s not going to be a problem, is it?”

Think you’re going to want to be worrying about your formatting then? Believe me, you’re going to be kissing yourself in retrospect for learning how to handle the rote matters right the first time, so you can concentrate on the hard stuff. (What would many tons of bananas dropped from that height look like, anyway?)

That’s the good news about how easily standard format sinks into one’s very bones. The down side, is that once people — like, say, the average agent, editor, or Millicent — have spent enough time staring at professionally-formatted manuscripts, anything else starts to look, well, unprofessional.

The implications of this mindset are vast. First, as I mentioned yesterday, if an agent or editor requested pages, it would behoove you to send them in standard format, unless s/he SPECIFICALLY tells you otherwise. Ditto with contest entries: it’s just what those who read manuscripts professionally expect to see. It’s so much assumed that s/he probably won’t even mention it, because most agents and editors believe that these rules are already part of every serious book-writer’s MO.

So much so, in fact, that agents who’ve read my blog sometimes ask me why I go over these rules so often. Doesn’t everyone already know them? Isn’t this information already widely available? Aren’t there, you know, books on how to put a manuscript together?

I’ll leave those of you reading this post to answer those for yourselves. Suffice it to say that our old pal Millicent the agency screener believes the answers to be: because I like it, yes, yes, and yes.

Second, this mindset means that seemingly little choices like font and whether to use a doubled dash or an emdash — of which more below — can make a rather hefty difference to how Millicent perceives a manuscript. (Yes, I know: I point this out with some frequency. However, as it still seems to come as a great surprise to the vast majority aspiring writers; I can only assume that my voice hasn’t been carrying very far the last 700 times I’ve said it.)

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but professional-level critique is HARSH; it’s like having your unmade-up face examined under a very, very bright light by someone who isn’t afraid to hurt your feelings by pointing out flaws. In the industry, this level of scrutiny is not considered even remotely mean.

Actually, if your work generates tell-it-like-it-is feedback from a pro, you should be a bit flattered — it’s how they habitually treat professional authors. Yet the aforementioned vast majority of submitting writers seem to assume, at least implicitly, that agents and their staffs will be hugely sympathetic readers of their submissions, willing to overlook technical problems because of the quality of the writing or the strength of the story.

I’m not going to lie to you, though — every once in a very, very long while, the odd exception that justifies this belief does in fact occur. If the writing is absolutely beautiful, or the story is drool-worthy, but the formatting is all akimbo and the spelling is lousy, there’s an outside chance that someone at an agency might be in a saintly enough mood to overlook the problems and take a chance on the writer.

You could also have a Horatio Alger moment where you find a billionaire’s wallet, return it to him still stuffed with thousand-dollar bills, and he adopts you as his new-found son or daughter. Anything is possible, of course.

But it’s probably prudent to assume, when your writing’s at stake, that yours is not going to be the one in 10,000,000 exception.

Virtually all of the time, an agent, editor, contest judge, or screener’s first reaction to an improperly-formatted manuscript is the same as to one that is dull but technically perfect: speedy rejection. From a writerly point of view, this is indeed trying. Yet as I believe I may have mentioned once or twice before, I do not run the universe, and thus do not make the rules.

Sorry. No matter how much I would like to absolve you from some of them, it is outside my power. Take it up with the fairy godmother who neglected to endow me with that gift at birth, okay?

Until you have successfully made your case with her, I’m going to stick to using the skills that she did grant me, a childhood surrounded by professional writers and editors who made me learn to do it the right way the first time. As in my fifth-grade history paper was in standard format; I can still hear my mother blithely dismissing my poor, befuddled teacher’s protests that none of the other kids in the class were typing their papers with, “Well, honestly, if Annie doesn’t get into the habit of including slug lines now, where will she be in twenty years?”

Where, indeed? The strictures of standard format are hardly something that she would have wanted me to pick up on the street, after all.

So let’s start inculcating some lifetime habits, shall we? To recap from earlier posts:

(1) All manuscripts should be printed or typed in black ink and double-spaced, with one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way.

(3) The text should be left-justified, NOT block-justified. By definition, manuscripts should NOT resemble published books in this respect.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New — unless you’re writing screenplays, in which case you may only use Courier. For book manuscripts, pick one (and ONLY one) and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

(5) The ENTIRE manuscript should be in the same font and size. Industry standard is 12-point.

(6) Do NOT use boldface anywhere in the manuscript BUT on the title page — and not even there, necessarily.

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered EXCEPT the title page.

(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should have a standard slug line in the header. The page number should appear in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page.

(9) The first page of each chapter should begin a third of the way down the page, with the chapter title appearing on the FIRST line of the page, NOT on the line immediately above where the text begins.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, NOT on page 1.

(11) Every submission should include a title page, even partial manuscripts.

Everyone clear on all that? If not, this would be a dandy time to pipe up with questions. While you’re formulating ‘em, let’s move on.

(12) The beginning of EVERY paragraph of text should be indented .5 inch. No exceptions, ever.
The usual way this rule is expressed — and, indeed, the way I expressed it as recently as the last time I went over standard format — is indent every paragraph 5 spaces. MS Word, however, the standard word processing program of the publishing industry, automatically sets its default first tab at .5 inch.. Yet unless you happen to be using an unusually large typeface like Courier, you’ve probably noticed that hitting the space bar five times will not take you to .5 inches away from the left margin; in Times New Roman, it’s more like 8 spaces.

This discrepancy leaves some aspiring writers perplexed, understandably. Clearly, a choice needed to be made here — so why is standard indentation at .5 inch now, rather than at five characters?

History, my dears, history: the five spaces rule is from the days of typewriters. Back in the days when return bars roamed the earth, there were only two typefaces commonly found on typewriters, Pica and Elite. They yielded different sizes of type (Pica roughly the equivalent of Courier, Elite more or less the size of Times New Roman), but as long as writers set a tab five spaces in, and just kept hitting the tab key, manuscripts were at least consistent.

After the advent of the home computer, however, computer-generated manuscripts have become the norm. The array of possible typefaces exploded. Rather than simply accepting that every font would have slightly different indentations, the publishing industry (and the manufacturers of Word) simply came to expect that writers everywhere would keep hitting the tab key, rather than hand-spacing five times at the beginning of each paragraph. The result: the amount of space from the left margin became standardized, so that every manuscript, regardless of font, would be indented the same amount.

So why pick .5 inch as the standard indentation? Well, Elite was roughly the size of Times New Roman, 12 characters per inch. Pica was about the size of Courier, 10 characters per inch. The automatic tab at .5 inch, therefore, is pretty much exactly five spaces from the left margin in Pica.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that in this instance, at least, Word’s default settings are the writer’s friend. Keep on hitting that tab key.

Which brings me back to the no exceptions, ever, part: NOTHING you send to anyone in the industry should EVER be in block-style business format. And for a pretty good reason: despite the fact that everyone from CEOs to the proverbial little old lady from Pasadena has been known to use block format from time to time (blogs are set up to use nothing else, right?), technically, non-indented paragraphs are not proper for English prose.

Period. That being the case, what do you think Millicent’s first reaction to a non-indented page 1 is likely to be?

That loud clicking sound that some of you may have found distracting was the sound of light bulbs going on over the heads of all of those readers who have been submitting their manuscripts (and probably their queries as well) in block paragraphs. Yes, what all of you newly well-lit souls are thinking right now is quite true: those submissions may well have been rejected at first glance by a Millicent in a bad mood. (And when, really, is she not?)

Yes, even if the writer submitted those manuscripts via e-mail. (See why I’m always harping on how submitting in hard copy, or at the very worst as a Word attachment, is inherently better for a submitter?) And that’s a kinder response than Mehitabel the veteran contest judge would have had: she would have looked at a block-formatted first page and sighed, “Well, that’s one that can’t make the finals.”

Why the knee-jerk response? Well, although literacy has become decreasingly valued in the world at large, the people who have devoted themselves to bringing good writing to publications still tend to take it awfully darned seriously. To publishing types, any document with no indentations, skipping a line between paragraphs, and the whole shebang left-justified carries the stigma of (ugh) business correspondence — and that’s definitely not good.

Why, you ask? Well, do you really want the person you’re trying to impress with your literary genius to wonder about your literacy?

I thought not. And which do you think is going to strike format-minded industry professionals as more literate, a query letter in business format or one in correspondence format (indented paragraphs, date and signature halfway across the page, no skipped line between paragraphs)?

Uh-huh. And don’t you wish that someone had told you THAT before you sent out your first query letter?

Trust me on this one: indent your paragraphs in any document that’s ever going to pass under the nose of anyone even remotely affiliated with the publishing industry.

Including the first paragraph of every chapter, incidentally. Yes, published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. But again, that lack of indentation was the editor’s choice, not the author’s, and copying it in a submission, no matter to whom it is intended as an homage, might get your work knocked out of consideration.

(13) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs, except to indicate a section break.

I’m serious about that being the ONLY exception: skip an extra line to indicate a section break in the text, and for no other reason.

Really, this guideline is just common sense — so it’s a continual surprise to professional readers how often we see manuscripts that are single-spaced with a line skipped between paragraphs (much like blog format, seen here in all of its glory).

Why surprising? Well, since the entire manuscript should be double-spaced with indented paragraphs, there is no need to skip a line to indicate a paragraph break. (Which is, in case you were not aware of it, what a skipped line between paragraph means in a single-spaced or non-indented document.) In a double-spaced document, a skipped line means a section break, period.

Also — and this is far from insignificant, from a professional reader’s point of view — it’s practically impossible to edit a single-spaced document, either in hard copy or on screen. The eye skips between lines too easily, and in hard copy, there’s nowhere to scrawl comments like Mr. Dickens, was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could hardly have been both!

So why do aspiring writers so often blithely send off manuscripts with skipped lines, single-spaced or otherwise? My guess would be for one of two reasons: either they think business format is proper English formatting (which it isn’t) or they’re used to seeing skipped lines in print. Magazine articles, mostly.

But — feel free to shout it along with me now; you know the words — a professional book manuscript or proposal is not, nor should it be, formatted like any published piece of writing.

A few hands have been waving urgently in the air since I started this section. “But Anne!” those of you who have seen conflicting advice point out, “I’ve always heard that there are specific markers for section breaks! Shouldn’t I, you know, use them?”

I wouldn’t advise including these throwbacks to the age of typewriters — the * * * section break is no longer necessary in a submission to an agency or publishing house, nor is the #. So unless you’re entering a contest that specifically calls for them, or the agency to which you’re planning to submit mentions a preference for them in its submission requirements, it’s safe to assume that professional readers won’t expect to see them in a book manuscript or proposal.

Why were these symbols ever used at all? To alert the typesetter that the missing line of text was intentional.

That being said, although most Millicents will roll their eyes upon seeing one of these old-fashioned symbols, they tend not to take too much umbrage at it, because the # is in fact proper for short story format. A writer can usually get away with including them. However, since every agent I know makes old-fashioned writers take these markers out of book manuscripts prior to submission, it’s going to save you time in the long run to get into the habit of trusting the reader to understand what a skipped line means.

(Actually, I do know a grand total of one agent who allows his clients to use short-story formatting in book manuscripts. But only if they write literary fiction and have a long resume of short story publications. He is more than capable of conveying this preference to his clients, however.)

One caveat to contest-entrants: do check contest rules carefully, because some competitions still require * or #. You’d be amazed at how seldom many long-running literary contests update their rules.

(14) NOTHING in a manuscript should be underlined. Titles of songs and publications, as well as words in foreign languages and those you wish to emphasize, should be italicized.

Fair warning: if you consult an old style manual (or a website that is relying upon an old style manual), you may be urged to underline the words and phrases mentioned above. And just so you know, anyone who follows AP style will tell you to underline these. As will anyone who learned how to format a manuscript before the home computer became common, for the exceedingly simple reason that the average typewriter doesn’t feature italic keys as well as regular type; underlining used to be the only option.

DO NOT LISTEN TO THESE TEMPTERS: AP style is for journalism, not book publishing. They are different fields, and have different standards. And although I remain fond of typewriters — growing up in a house filled with writers, the sound used to lull me to sleep as a child — the fact is, the publishing industry now assumes that all manuscripts are produced on computers. In Word, even.

So DO NOT BE TEMPTED. In a submission for the book industry, NOTHING should be underlined. Ever.

Professional readers are AMAZED at how often otherwise perfectly-formatted manuscripts get this rule backwards — seriously, it’s a common topic of conversation at the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America. (You already knew that the conference center’s bar is the single best place to meet most of the agents, editors, and authors presenting at the average writers’ conference, didn’t you?) According to this informal and often not entirely sober polling data, an aspiring writer would have to be consulting a very, very outdated list of formatting restrictions to believe that underlining is ever acceptable.

Again, since your future agent is going to make you change all of that underlining to italics anyway, you might as well get out of the habit of underlining now. Like, say, before submitting your manuscript — because if Millicent happens to be having a bad day (again, what’s the probability?) when she happens upon underlining in a submission, she is very, very likely to roll her eyes and think, “Oh, God, not another one.”

Italics are one of the few concessions manuscript format has made to the computer age — again, for practical reasons: underlining uses more ink than italics in the book production process. Thus, italics are cheaper. So when should you use them and why?

(a) The logic behind italicizing foreign words is very straightforward: you don’t want the agent of your dreams to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

(b) The logic behind using italics for emphasis, as we’ve all seen a million times in print, is even more straightforward: writers used to use underlining for this. So did hand-writers.

(c) Some authors like to use italics to indicate thought, but there is no hard-and-fast rule on this. Before you make the choice, do be aware that many agents and editors actively dislike this practice. Their logic, as I understand it: a good writer should be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type.

I have to confess, as a reader, I’m with them on that last one, but that’s just my personal preference. There are, however, many other agents and editors who think it is perfectly fine — but you are unlikely to learn which is which until after you have sent in your manuscript, alas.

Which means — again, alas — there is no fail-safe for this choice. Sorry. You submit your work, you take your chances.

I have a few more rules to cover, but this seems like a dandy place to break for the day. Don’t worry if you’re having trouble picturing what all of this might look like on the page: next week, I’m going to be showing you so many images of actual manuscript pages that you’re going to feel as if you’d gotten locked inside Millicent’s mailbag.

You want to be able to recognize a pretty manuscript when you see one, right? Keep up the good work!