Increasing your chances, part III: keep your wig on, Rapunzel!

I have been thinking all day about the story of Rapunzel, and how it relates to the writer’s life. The past couple of years has been rather fairy tale-ish for me and my work — not in the Disneyfied sense of some man one has never seen before showing up and improving current conditions by taking one away from them, but in the older, darker fairy tale sense. Wicked Stepsisters trying to prevent my memoir from going to the ball where it might be recognized; a frightened monarch locking my book up in a dungeon, far from the sight of day, in the superstitious belief that it might start a war; incorporating an editor’s feedback is very much a case of spinning straw into gold, and as a freelance editor, I’m often called in like Rumplestiltskin to ease the process heck, I’ve even been working on a proposal of a NF book about a lone woman fighting to save a bunch of miners from the machinations of a foreign power into which Snow White could step with only a slight change of make-up.

But in thinking about contests and querying, Rapunzel is our girl. See if this sounds familiar to any of you: a well-meaning person, due to conditions that prevailed before she was born, finds herself locked in a tower. (History does not record whether she was locked in there with a computer or not, but let’s assume for the moment that she was.) Her only hope of getting out is for someone to notice her, so she grows her hair as long and as shiny as possible, to be seen as far away as, to take a random example, an NYC-based agency or publishing house. When the prince is intrigued by her querying locks, she is overjoyed, more hopeful than she has been in a long time.

And then what happens? A nasty old witch tosses the prince out of the tower window and shears off all of Rapunzel’s beautiful hair. Cast into despair again, all poor Rapunzel can think to do is grow another few stories’ worth of hair.

So it is all too often with the hopeful contest entrant and the contest judge. The entrant toils in solitude, trying to produce something prince-attracting, and sends it off to the contest that promises fame and glory. (Well, actually, all it technically promises is a nice ribbon, boasting rights on future query letters, and perhaps a small check, but work with me here.) The judge grasps the entry – but if there is anything in it that disturbs his sensibilities about what is and isn’t professional-level writing, out the tower window it goes. And the poor writer’s ego shares the fate of Rapunzel’s hair, lopped off until such time as the writer can regrow it.

Well, so much for my pep talk du jour. On to other matters…

No, but seriously, folks, I talk to many, many writers in the course of an average month, and the most common complaint is that the publishing world is hostile to their respective books, as evidenced by not making it to the finalist round in contests and query rejections. And literally every individual writer believes that this is a personal problem, that there is either something so good or so bad about his book that the judges, agents, and editors of the world are in unprecedented agreement that it should be given a chance.

In the first place, poppycock: judges, agents, and editors tend to conform to certain basic expectations of format and presentation, but taste is and has always been individual. Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: a rejection by ANY single person, be it agent, editor, or contest judge, is just that, a rejection from a single person. No matter how universally folks in the industry describe their opinions (“No one is buying books on horse raising anymore.”), it just doesn’t make sense to regard their opinions about your work as identical to those of the industry until you have a whole lot of evidence that it’s accurate.

As in, for instance, 100 letters of rejection.

However – and this is a BIG however – there are plenty of non-writing problems that can get work rejected in agency and contest alike. I cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining in your mind a clear distinction between the TECHNICAL problems that might get a contest entry disqualified – improper margins, odd spacing, not using the kind of binding specified in contest rules, etc. – CONTENT problems that might keep it out of the finalist’s round, and STYLE issues. Until you have ruled out the first two levels of problem, you cannot legitimately conclude that your work isn’t winning contests or attracting agents because of a lack of talent.

Obviously, all three factors need to be in fighting trim for an entry to make it to the finalist round. But the VAST majority of the time, writing style – what almost every writer sees as the ONLY thing being judged in a literary contest – is not what knocks an entry out of the running.

So really, Rapunzel, do you need to grow a new batch of hair between contest entries, or do you just need to wash and style it differently?

How can you find out which is applicable to your work? As I mentioned earlier, contests that give entrants written feedback, regardless of where their entries place, can be a real boon for the aspiring writer. Sometimes, they give great advice – and actually, the cost of the average entry fee is often less than what a professional editor would charge to give feedback on the average-length entry. So if you get a conscientious judge, you can glean a great deal of practical advice.

If you get a grumpy judge, however, or one who disqualifies your entry on technical grounds, getting feedback can be a real ego-saver. If the judge missed the point of your piece (it’s been known to happen, alas; remember, until the final round of judging, the vast majority of readers are volunteers, and as such, their reading skills vary), it will be very, very apparent from his feedback. And if you got a judge who simply did not like the typeface you used (again, it has been known to happen), it is far more useful to you to learn for certain that the typeface – and not, say, the quality of your writing – scuttled your chances.

Yes, I did just say that I have seen good writing disqualified for reasons as minor as typeface selection – and in contests where the entry requirements did not specify the use of a particular font. I have seen good writing tossed aside for reasons as arbitrary as the first-round judge not liking semicolons much. And in a contest where the entrant doesn’t receive feedback, the writer would never know it.

You see now why I’m so adamant that Rapunzel should keep her hair on until she’s sure what’s going on?

To be successful, your entry needs to speak to readers with the broadest possible array of prejudices about what is and is not good writing. Effectively, your work is not just being read by the judges, but by the spectre of every writing teacher they have ever had – and their own interactions with the publishing world.

So when you submit your work to be judged in a contest, you are expected to adhere to not only the contest requirements (see yesterday’s blog for guidance on that all-important insight) but also to the contest judges’ conception of how a professional manuscript should be presented. As a result, it is VERY much in your interest to make your entry look as close to a submission to a top-flight agent as the contest rules permit.

You should make sure, in short, that your work is in standard format.

I can hear my long-time readers groan: yes, I am harping on standard format AGAIN, and with good reason. It adds significantly to the prestige of a contest if its winners go on to have their work published; to obtain this wholly delightful result, contest judges tend to screen entries not just for quality, but for marketability as well.

So if your entry contains the type of non-standard formatting that the judge believes would cause the average agent or small-press editor to cast it aside, it’s not going to make it to the next round. (Particularly in those contests where final-round judging is performed by agents, editors, and/or celebrity writers; the screeners want a very clean set of manuscripts to send to them.)

Trust me on this one: the exact same entry, if you entered it once in standard formatting and once in more eccentric format, would almost invariably place at different levels in any writing competition held in North America. I have judged contests where formatting counted for as much as a quarter of the final score. If you are serious about making it to the finalist round, use standard format.

You can save yourself SIGNIFICANT bundles of time during contest entry season if you just go ahead and adhere to standard format from the FIRST day you start working on a project, of course. Sending out queries will be swifter, and you will definitely be in better shape on that great day when an agent or editor asks to read your first 50 pages. Think of it as having your interview suit all pressed and ready, so you can leap into it the second you get the call from your dream job.

Since I went over the strictures of standard format as recently as early December, I shall not go over them again. (Pleasantly surprised, long-term readers?) If you missed my last diatribe about it, feel free to peruse the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.

However, for the benefit of those of you planning to enter the upcoming PNWA contest, I wanted to give you a heads-up about one of its rule peculiarities that deviates from standard format. The rules specify that the first page of the entry should not contain a page number in its slug line, which has never been a provision of standard format.

So what does this mean, in actual practice? Not numbering the title page? If you begin with a synopsis, should you not number that?

I’m anticipating myself a little here, but I ALWAYS advise including a professional title page in a contest entry: it looks more polished, and it renders it a snap to include the information pretty much every contest asks entrants to include somewhere in the entry. However, title pages are never numbered, under any circumstances, nor they are never included in the page count. (0r word count, for that matter, for submissions to agents and editors.)

Perhaps more importantly, nor do title pages count toward the contest’s page limit.

What the PNWA is asking to see is no page number on the first page of TEXT in the entry — because, although they do not say so, they are assuming that page 1 of your entry will be the first page of text proper, rather than the synopsis. If you choose to place your synopsis first in the packet, go ahead and leave the page number off that page.

Do be aware, though, that old school judges tend to prefer a synopsis to come at the end of an entry, for much the same reason that it should come at the end of a submission to an agent: that way, the reader is encouraged to judge the writing first and book’s premise second. Not a bad idea. If you decide to do it in this order, DO number the synopsis’ first page, just like the rest of the entry, rather than providing the synopsis with its own title page.

Phew! That was a long one, wasn’t it? Keep an eye on those technicalities, everybody, and remember, your ego should be tied up with the beauties of your writing style, not whether you remembered to double dashes in your manuscript. By removing any technical reasons that even the grumpiest judge could dun your entry, you increase your chances of your gorgeous prose being appreciated a thousandfold.

Keep up the good work!

Picking the right contest, part VIII: choosing to jump through only the NON-flaming hoops

Welcome back to my resumption of the absorbing topic of literary contests. Next 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, 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.

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? Huh?) You can also save yourself a lot of time if you avoid contests that make entrants jump through a lot of extraneous hoops in preparing a submission.

Some of these requirements have to be seen to be believed. Specific typefaces, if they differ from the ones required by standard manuscript format. Fancy paper (three-hole punched, anyone?). Bizarre margin requirements. Expensive binding. An 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 need to be filled out by typewriter, rather than by hand. (Does anyone out there still OWN a typewriter?)

Each of these will eat up your time and money, without the end result’s being truly indicative of the quality of your work. Because, really, all conforming with such oddball requirements really shows is that an entrant can follow directions.

I’m sorry to shock anyone, but 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.

I don’t enter contests anymore, of course – most agents frown upon their clients’ entering them, and really, pros skew the scoring curve. But when my clients ask me whether a particular contest is worthwhile for them to enter, my rule of thumb is that if they can pull together a contest entry with already-written material within a day’s worth of uninterrupted writing time, I consider it reasonable. I like this standard, because the more time you have to write, the more entry-ambitious it encourages you to be.

So if a contest requires time-consuming funky formatting, or printing on special contest forms, or wacko binding, you might not want to bother. To my contest-experienced eyes, such requests are not for your benefit, but the contest organizers’

How do I know? Because — and hold onto your hats, everybody, because I am about to reveal a deep, dark secret of the contest trade here — the primary purpose of these elaborate requests for packaging is to make it as easy as possible to disqualify entries. As a matter of simple probability, the more that they 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. Interestingly enough, many of the organizers of contests that establish these demands are quite open about its 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’d 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? (If you are not already aware of the requirements of standard format, do yourself a favor and check out the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right. Manuscripts not conforming to standard format tend to be rejected unread in both contest situations and in agents’ offices.)

Instead, the organizers in this type of contest can merely assign some luckless intern or 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. Voilà! The number of entries the judges have to read has magically decreased!

I find this practice annoying, frankly, and not being crystal-clear about the costs to the entrant of deviations from these non-literary requirements despicable. 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. And that, my friends, is unfair to writers everywhere.

Which brings me to a specialized question aimed at those of you who are 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?

Yes, a contest win or fellowship award looks great on your query letters, but it is possible to spend so much time on them that you are left with very little time to write. I once met a writer at an artists’ colony — we’d both won a competition to get in, one with a VERY involved application that I wouldn’t recommend anybody take the time to fill out — who spent literally three weeks of our month-long retreat there applying for other retreats, filling out grant applications, and entering contests. Apparently, this was her standard MO.

The result: a resume crammed to the brim with impressive contest wins and prestigious fellowships – and a grand total of two short stories and a few chapters of a novel completed in 9 years’ time. In her frantic quest to fund her writing habit, she had turned herself into a non-stop entering machine with no time or energy to write anything new.

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 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. I would be the last to deny that, as I met my agent as a direct result of winning the Nonfiction Book/Memoir category in the PNWA contest in 2004. It CAN lead to the fast track, and you should definitely enter a few for that very reason.

However – and this is a serious consideration – I meet a LOT of aspiring writers who turn to the contest route as a SUBSTITUTE for querying, and that can definitely slow the road to publication to a crawl. It’s understandable, 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 one thing, the turn-around time for contest entries is significantly longer than the response time for even the least organized agencies: four to six months is common, and if you have a finished novel or NF book proposal in hand, that’s FAR too long to wait.

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.

Oh, yes, I know – that’s true when you send a query to an agent as well, but as I shall demonstrate next week, there are a great many reasons a submission might get knocked out of a contest competition that have little to do with the actual marketability – and sometimes not even the writing quality – of your work. To make it to the finalist round in a contest, you have to avoid every conceivable pet peeve that the initial screeners might have.

And, believe it or not, contest judges tend to have MORE pet peeves than agency screeners.

Mind-blowing, isn’t it? But true. 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 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 be knocked out of consideration the first time you use one. Ditto with the passive voice, or multiple points of view. You never can tell who is going to be a contest judge, so the outcome even for very good writing is far from predictable.

So please, keep sending out those queries while you are entering contests – and 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.

Happy weekend, everybody. Keep up the good work!

Your query letter, part VI: The body of the letter

Yesterday, I urged you to take a long, hard look at the first paragraph of the query letter you’ve been sending out, to make sure you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer destined to be discovered any minute by another agent IF the agent you are querying does not have the good sense to snap you up first. Today, I want to talk about the body of the letter, the part where you talk about the book itself.

Is everybody comfortable, query letter in hand? Read the entire letter aloud, so it is clear in your mind (and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar), then ask yourself the following questions. The numbering, of course, is a continuation of yesterday’s list:

(6) Is my brief summary of the book short and clear?

Many writers try to cram the whole synopsis into the query letter, going on for paragraphs at a time about the storyline or argument of the book. Given that the entire query letter should never be longer than a page, your summary needs to be very short and sweet. You really only have 3-5 sentences here to grab an agent’s interest, so you might well be better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are, rather than trying to outline the plot.

I hear those frown lines starting to form: here we go again, yet another arbitrary agency requirement. Actually, there is a pretty good reason for this one, something that can work to your advantage – it forces the writer to minimize distracting details. After all, if you are querying fiction, it took you an entire book to tell the story well, didn’t it? And if you are querying nonfiction, didn’t it take you a whole book (well, okay, a book proposal) to make the argument well? So how likely is it that you would be able to convey the entire complexity of your plot in a paragraph, anyway?

To get a sense of how too many details can confuse an agency screener, pretend to be our old pal, the unpaid intern who has already read 75 queries this morning, has just burnt her tongue on her latte, and is reading her last query before her lunch date. Obviously, it’s in your own best interest to read that last one as quickly as possible, right? So consider the following two summaries: which would be more likely to make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book?

“Murgatroyd, a blind trombonist with a lingering adolescent passion for foosball, has never fallen in love — until he met Myrtle, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel. But what chance does he have? Myrtle’s just been dumped by the world’s greatest Sousaphinist; she has vowed never to look at the brass section again. Can Murgatroyd win the heart of his first love, without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?”

Snappy, isn’t it? The characters come off as quirkily interesting, and the basic conflicts are immediately apparent: request away. Contrast this with the more common type of summary:

“BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows Murgatroyd, the child of a smothering father and absent-minded mother who was blinded at age six by a wayward electrical wire. As a child, Murgatroyd hated and feared electricity, which causes him to avoid playing conventional sports: football fields are always brightly lit. This light metaphor continues into his adult life, where he performs in symphony halls with lights trained on him all the time. Life isn’t easy for Murgatroyd. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. He makes friends in the woodwind section, but the people who play next to him remain aloof. A mysterious woman is hired to conduct the symphony. Murgatroyd is intrigued by her, because…”

Hold it a minute: We’re all the way through a lengthy paragraph, and we still don’t know what the essential conflict is!

To phrase this in the language of the industry: next!

(7) Have I made it clear what the book is actually about – and how it is different from other books?

This might seem like a flippant question, after the last, but frequently, writers get so carried away pushing the book in principle that they forget to mention the theme at all. Instead, they rely upon the kind of summary that writers use in casual conversation, chestnuts along the lines of, “My book is a political thriller about a man who tries to kidnap a third of Congress.”

“Um,” our little friend the screener thinks, “are you going to tell me anything about who this guy is? His motivation, perhaps? Who might conceivably try to stop him in his attempt?”

Burnt-lip screener has a point here: without some indication of the characters and conflict, stories start to sound very, very much alike. The result is that summaries like “LOVE SONG is the story of a romantic woman seeking the love of her life,” tend to be dismissed out of hand: this could, after all, describe the vast majority of romances, no?

Hint: if your summary in the letter does not include any mention of the central conflict of the book, you might want to rework it. And it’s always a good idea to mention your protagonist by name (by first name, at least) in the first line of the description

(8) Is my summary in the present tense?

Okay, this one is genuinely a weirdness of the industry: one-paragraph summaries, like pitches, are always in the present tense. Even if you are describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire. Go figure.

(9) Does it emphasize the points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?

If you find being direct about why your book is needed by your target audience (“PIGSKIN SERANADE is designed to appeal to the romantic football-lover in all of us”) a trifle gauche — and actually, even if you don’t — it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers.

The easiest way to do this is to make sure that the tone of summary echoes the tone of the book. If you have written a comedy, you’d better make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a chuckle. If you have written a steamy romance, you’d better make sure there’s some sex in the summary. And so forth.

(10) Wait – have I given any indication here who my target audience is?

Most query letters include no reference whatsoever to the target audience, as though it were in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched. But if an agent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it out of hand, is there really time for the agent to think, “Hmm, who will buy this book?”

In pretty much every instance, no. To translate again: next!

How’s your query letter holding up? This honestly is a quiz where you want to score 100%. Tomorrow, I shall wrap up the checklist, so you can send out your queries with confidence. In the meantime, keep up the good work!