Increasing your chances: the pentultimate checklist

After my rather peevish little post yesterday, I’m going to stop giving big-picture advice on your contest entries, and return to the nit-picky level. At this point, I have to assume that those of you who are planning to enter the PNWA contest have already finished the basic writing and paperwork for it.

If not, I can only assume that you are either the world’s fastest writer or an incurable optimist. Having been both myself — I actually did once win a major contest with an entry I wrote in a single day. In a book category, no less – I would be the last person on earth to castigate you for either. Write like the wind and keep your hopes high, you crazy kids.

But for most of you, the essential writing is done, right? You’ve read and reread your chapter, and it is both grammatically impeccable and one hell of a good story; John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, and Dorothy Parker would all gnash their venerable teeth, if they still had them, in envy over your storytelling skills. Now it’s time to start asking yourself a few questions, to weed out the more subtle problems that can make the difference between making the finalist list and being an also-ran.

You may recognize some of these questions: many of them are boiled-down versions of earlier posts in this series. Sort of contest-wisdom bouillon, as it were. Take a few sips, to keep your entry from catching a cold fatal to its chances of winning.

Okay, so that was a lousy analogy; I’m trying to get a book proposal out the door by, oh, tomorrow, so I’m punchy. So ignore that last joke and concentrate on making absolutely, positively sure that your entry does include any of the most common mistakes.

Batten down your hatches, boys and girls: this is going to be a long one.

(1) Is my entry AND the length specified by the contest rules? Is it double-spaced, in 12-point type, with standard margins?

Yes, I know – I’ve been harping on standard format for, well, ever. I’ve also seen a whole lot of contest entries in odd formats, or with standard format in the chapters and single-spaced synopses.

To be precise, I have seen them be disqualified. Unless the rules specifically state otherwise, keep EVERYTHING you submit to ANY professionally-geared forum in standard format. (If you’re in doubt about what this means, please check out the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)

Oh, and because I realized only last night I hadn’t mentioned it specifically: in standard format, there should be TWO spaces after every period and colon, one after semicolons and commas. Yes, I know, there are plenty of sources out there that will tell you two spaces after a period is obsolete, and in fact, it is seldom used in books anymore, as a tree-saving measure.

But what can I say? Publishing is an old-fashioned business. Don’t worry; no one will think your manuscript is dated if you preserve the traditional two-space norm.

(2) Is every page that should be numbered numbered? Does every page (except the title page, or as specified by the rules) contain the slug line TITLE/#?

This is sort of a trick question for those of you entering the PNWA contest: quick, which page do the rules specify SHOULDN’T be numbered?

Kudos to those of you who said that both the first page of text and the title page should remain numberless. Remember, title pages are never numbered, and are never counted in the page count.

How, you ask does one PREVENT a page number from appearing on the first page of a numbered document? Well, in MS Word, under FORMAT, there is a section called DOCUMENT. Under LAYOUT, you may select “Different first page.” Then go into the HEADER/FOOTER and make sure the first page header doesn’t have a page #.

Alternatively, you could just copy the first page of the entry into a separate document and print it from there. Just because technology is rigid doesn’t mean you have to be.

But no matter how you do it, NUMBER YOUR PAGES.

(3) Does the first page of the synopsis SAY that it’s a synopsis? Does it also list the title of the book? And does every page of the synopsis contain the slug line TITLE/SYNOPSIS/#?

Again, this is nit-picky stuff – but people who volunteer as contest judges tend to be nit-picky people. Better to over-identify your work than to under-identify it.

(4) Have I included all of the requested elements on the title page? If it asked me to specify genre and/or target market, have I done that? And is it in the same font and type size as the rest of the entry?

This is not the time to experiment with funky typefaces or odd title page formats. Unless the contest rules specify otherwise, put the whole thing in the same typeface AND TYPE SIZE as the rest of the entry. List only the information you are ASKED to list there. (Although if you want to add something along the lines of “An entry in the X Category of the 2007 Y Contest,” that’s generally considered a nice touch.)

(5) If I mention the names of places, famous people, or well-known consumer products, are they spelled correctly?
Surprised by this one? You’d be amazed how many points are lost this way.

Writers very often misspell proper nouns, possibly because they tend not to be words listed in standard spell-checkers’ dictionaries. In a contest, that’s no excuse. Check.

And when I say check, I don’t mean just ask your spell-checker. To revisit every editor in the Western world’s pet peeve, most word processing programs are RIFE with misspellings and grammatical mistakes. I use the latest version of MS Word for the Mac, and it insists that Berkeley, California (where I happen to have been born) should be spelled Berkley, like the press. It is mistaken. Yet if I followed its advice and entered the result in a contest, I would be the one to pay for it, not the fine folks at Microsoft.

Double-check.

(6) Have I spell-checked AND proofread in hard copy?

Again, most spelling and grammar-checkers contain inaccuracies. They can lead you astray. If you are tired (and who isn’t, by the time she finishes churning out a contest entry?), the path of least resistance is just to accept what the spell checker thinks your word should be. This is why you need to recheck by dint of good old proofreading.

Yes, it is wildly unfair that we writers should be penalized for the mistakes of the multi-million dollar corporations that produce these spelling and grammar checkers. But that’s one of the hard lessons all writers have to learn: the world is not in fact organized on a fair basis. People whose job it is to make sure the dictionaries and grammar-checkers are correct are collecting their hefty salaries and cashing in their stock options without apparently being able to spell Berkeley or hors d’oeuvre.

Sorry. I’m sure Dante could cook up some especially appropriate permanent lodging for such souls in the afterlife, possibly involving nails on chalkboards or having to listen to that annoying Gilbert Godfrey voice that used to be standard on their programs asking them what they want to every time they move so much as an eyelash. But in this world, alas, all we can do is refuse to bow down to their low, low standards.

Before you boil over about the inequity of it all, though, think about misspellings and grammatical errors from the contest judge’s perspective. The judge cannot tell whether the problem with the entry is that the author can’t spell to save his life, or he hasn’t bothered to proofread — or if some Microsoftie just couldn’t be bothered to check Strunk and White to see when THERE should be used instead of THEIR. (My grammar checker routinely tells me to use the former instead of the latter in cases of collective possession, believe it or not.) From the judge’s point of view, the author is invariably the one who looks unprofessional.

This doesn’t mean not to spell-check electronically: you should. But you should NEVER rely solely upon a spell-checker or grammar-checker’s wit and wisdom. They’re just not literate enough, and again, it’s just too easy to accept an incorrect change when you’re over-tired. In my undergraduate thesis, my spell-checker saw fit to change my references to “longshoremen’s coalitions” to “longshoremen’s cotillions.” Lord knows what my readers would have made of that, had I not proofread, too.

As it is, I have never been able to get the image of burly stevedores mincing around in sparkly Glinda the Good ball gowns out of my poor brain.

(7) If I use clichés for comic effect, have I reproduced them correctly?

As a general rule, I frown upon the use of clichés in print. (You can’t see me doing it, but I assure you, I am frowning right now.) Part of the point of being a writer is to display YOUR turn of phrase, not the thought of others. Occasionally, however, there are reasons to utilize clichés in your work, particularly in dialogue.

You would not BELIEVE how common it is for writers to reproduce clichés incorrectly. (Heck, I would not believe it myself, if I had not been a judge in a number of literary contests.) And an incorrectly-quoted cliché will, I assure you, kill any humorous intention deader than the proverbial doornail.

So make sure that your needles remain in your haystacks, and that the poles you wouldn’t touch things with are ten-foot, not 100-foot. (Both of these are actual examples I’ve seen in contest entries. How would you pick up a 100-foot pole, anyway?)

When in doubt, ask someone outside your immediate circle of friends — your own friends may well be making the same mistake you are.

(8) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?

The synopsis, like everything else in your contest entry, is a writing sample, every bit as much as the chapter is. Make sure it lets the judges know that you can write — and that you are professional enough to approach the synopsis as a professional necessity, not a tiresome whim instituted by the contest organizers to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim of their own.

Even in those instances where length restrictions make it quite apparent that there is serious behind-the-scenes sadism at work. Believe me, writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis.

Don’t worry about depicting every twist and turn of the plot – just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary. Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.

(9) Does this entry fit the category in which I am entering it?

If you have the SLIGHTEST doubt about whether you are entering the correct category, have someone you trust (preferably another writer, or at least a good reader with a sharp eye for detail) read over both the contest categories and your entire entry.

Yes, even this close to the deadline. Categorization is a crucial decision.

(10) Reading this over again, is this a book to which I would award a prize? Does it read like finished work, or like a book that might be great with further polishing?

It’s a very, very common writer’s prejudice that everything that springs from a truly talented writer’s keyboard should be pure poetry. Even first drafts. However, there are in fact quantities of practical storytelling skills that most of us poor mortals learn by trial and error.

Although contests tend to concentrate on as-yet unrecognized writing talent, they are simply not set up, in most cases, to reward the writer who is clearly gifted, but has not yet mastered the rudiments of professional presentation. And this is very sad, I think, because one of the things that becomes most apparent about writing after a judge has read a couple of hundred entries is that the difference between the entries submitted by writers with innate talent and writers without is vast. An experienced eye — of the kind belonging to a veteran contest judge, agent, or editor – can rather easily discern the work of what used to be called “a writer of promise.”

In the past, writers of promise were treated quite a bit more gently than they are today. They were taken under editorial wings and cherished through their early efforts. Even when they were rejected, they were often sent notes encouraging them to submit future works. (Occasionally, a promising writer will still get this type of response to a query, but the sheer volume of mail at agencies has rendered it rare.)

Now, unfortunately, writers of promise, like everybody else, tend to have their work rejected without explanation, so it’s extremely difficult to tell — even after months or years of patient querying — where one’s own work falls on the talent spectrum. To put it as kindly as possible, until you have weeded out all of the non-stylistic red lights from your contest entries, you truly cannot gain a realistic feel for whether you need to work more on your writing or not.

If you are indeed a writer of promise – and I sincerely hope you are – the best thing you can possibly do for your career is to learn to conform your work to professional standards of presentation. This is one of the best reasons to enter contests like the PNWA that give entrants feedback, just as is one of the best reasons to take writing classes and join a writing group: it gives you outside perspective on whether you are hitting the professional bar or not.

Oh, and it helps to be lucky, too. Keep up the good work.

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