Increasing your chances: the niceties

Okay, we’re heading into the home stretch of the contest-entry process. I hope that all of you eager contest-entrants have improved your entries – and I hope that those of you who have no interest in entering any contest at all have not been bored to death. I don’t feel too guilty about the latter group, actually: most of these presentation tips work beautifully with query letters and manuscript submission, too.

Today’s installment should please both sides of the aisle: deals with the fun stuff, the last-minute touches that can give your entry an edge.

Do I see the bleary-eyed contest entrants out there waving feebly to get my attention? “Whoa there,” they say, “you’ve just spent weeks on end telling us about restrictions on what doesn’t work in a contest entry. How much fun stuff could there possibly be?

Well, okay, you have a point there: when you first read through contest rules, it may not seem as though they allow a great deal of leeway in how you package your work, but often, there is some wiggle room. Proportion, for instance, can make a difference in how your work is received. And I’m not just talking about how your text looks on a page.

Although while I’m at it, allow me to reiterate two points that sharp-eyed readers have asked me to clarify in comments: no matter what anyone tells you about how skipping two spaces after a period or colon makes your manuscript look “dated,” DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM. Printing standards have indeed changed on this point; standard format has not. Technically, periods and colons should have two spaces after them, not one. (If you’ve already sent in an entry with only one, you’re likely to elicit a nasty comment about it on your feedback form, but you’re unlikely to be docked points. Make sure to have those spaces doubled before you send those chapters out to agencies, though.)

Also, another point that had slipped my mind earlier: turn off your widow and orphan control (in Word, this is located under FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. This is the annoying little feature that automatically hijacks a single line of a paragraph at the bottom of a page and sticks it on the next, with the rest of the paragraph. The result: uneven numbers of lines on pages.

Turn it off. In standard format, every page of full text is SUPPOSED to have the same number of lines. (A fringe benefit for those of you who, like me, are wordy: this will result in your being able to cram more words into your contest entry. Yippee!)

Okay, back to other proportionality issues. Take a look at your entry: does the synopsis seem disproportionately long? Is there good writing that you would be able to squeeze into the chapter if it were shorter?

If your synopsis runneth over its assigned page limit, try this trick o’ the trade: minimize the amount of space you devote to the book’s premise and the actions that occur in Chapter 1.

Yes, you will need this information to appear prominently in a synopsis you would show an editor or agent, but you have different goals here. If you are submitting Chapter 1 (or even beyond) as part of your contest entry, and if you place the chapter BEFORE the synopsis in your entry packet, the judges will already be familiar with both the initial premise AND the basic characters AND what occurs at the beginning in the book. So why be repetitious?

In the average novel synopsis, over a quarter of the text deals with premise and character introduction. Trim this down to just a few sentences and move on to the rest of the plot.

Allow me to use a practical example – and because I KNOW you don’t have time to read anything between now and the contest deadline, I’ll pick a storyline you probably already know. Let’s say that you were Jane Austen, and you were submitting the first 25 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY to a literary contest. (You should be so lucky!) For submission to an agent, your query synopsis might look something like this:

ELINOR (19) and MARIANNE DASHWOOD (17) are in a pitiable position: due to the whimsical will of their great-uncle, the family estate passes at the death of their wealthy father into the hands of their greedy half-brother, JOHN DASHWOOD (early 30s). Their affectionate but impractical mother (MRS. DASHWOOD, 40), soon offended at John’s wife’s (FANNY FERRARS DASHWOOD, late 20s) domineering ways and lack of true hospitality, wishes to move her daughters from Norland, the only home they have ever known, but comparative poverty and the fact that Elinor is rapidly falling in love with her sister-in-law’s brother, EDWARD FERRARS (mid-20s), render any decision on where to go beyond the reach of her highly romantic speculations. Yet when John and his wife talk themselves out of providing any financial assistance to the female Dashwoods at all, Mrs. Dashwood accepts the offer of her cousin, SIR JOHN MIDDLETON (middle aged) to move her family to Barton Park, hundreds of miles away. Once settled there, the Dashwoods find themselves rushed into an almost daily intimacy with Sir John and his wife, LADY MIDDLETON (late 20s) at the great house. There, they meet COLONEL BRANDON (early 40s), Sir John’s melancholy friend, who seems struck by Marianne’s musical ability – and beauty. But does his sad face conceal a secret?

Now, all of this does in fact occur in the first 25 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, as the contest entry would clearly show. But after all this, you don’t have much room to go through the rest of the plot, do you? So, being a wise Aunt Jane, you would streamline the contest synopsis so it looked a bit more like this:

At the death of their wealthy father, ELINOR (19) and MARIANNE DASHWOOD (17) and their affectionate but impractical mother (MRS. DASHWOOD, 40) are forced to leave their life-long home and move halfway across England, to live near relatives they have never seen, far away from Elinor’s beloved EDWARD FERRARS (mid-20s). At the home of their cousins SIR JOHN (middle aged) and LADY MIDDLETON (late 20s), melancholy COLONEL BRANDON (early 40s), seems struck by Marianne’s musical ability – and beauty. But does his sad face conceal a secret?

Less than half the length, but enough of the point to show the judges how the submitted chapters feed into the rest of the book. Well done, Jane!

Placing character names in capital letters and indicating ages (as I have done above), is no longer absolutely standard for querying synopses – but not all contest judges seem to be aware of that. To old-fashioned eyes, a synopsis simply isn’t professional unless the first time each major character is named (and only the first time), HIS NAME APPEARS IN ALL CAPS (age).

You would be perfectly within your rights not to adhere to this quaint practice, but if your work happens to fall into the hands of a judge who thinks it’s mandatory, you’ll be far better off if you stuck to old-fashioned structure.

And naturally, you should read the ENTIRETY of your entry IN HARD COPY, ALOUD, before you send it anywhere at all. As regular readers of this blog are already aware, my professional editor hat gets all in a twist at the notion of any writer’s proofreading solely on a computer screen.

And don’t even get me started again on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers! Mine disapproves of gerunds, apparently on general principle, strips accent marks off French words, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody working at Microsoft does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, I beg of you: drop me a comment, and I shall make everything clear.)

Like a bad therapist, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded, but even in the unlikely event that your grammar checker was put together by someone remotely familiar with the English language as she is spoke, you should NEVER rely solely upon what it tells you to do. If you’re in doubt, look it up.

There is an especially good reason to read the synopsis out loud: to make sure it stands alone as a story. Since part of the point of the synopsis is to demonstrate what a good storyteller you are, flow is obviously important. If you have even the tiniest reservations about whether you have achieved this goal, read your synopsis out loud to someone unfamiliar with your project – and then ask your listener to tell the basis story back to you. If there are holes in your account, this method will make them leap out at you.

Insofar as a hole can leap.

Once you have perfected your entry, print it on nice paper. This may seem silly, but it sometimes does make a difference, believe it or not.

By nice paper, I’m not talking about hot pink sheets or pages that you have hand-calligraphed with gold leaf and Celtic designs. Either of those would get your entry disqualified on sight. No, I mean high-quality white paper, the kind of stuff you might print your resume on if you REALLY wanted the job. Back in my contest-winning days, I favored bright white 24-lb. cotton.

Yes, it’s a little more expensive than ordinary printer paper; live a little. Using good paper will make your entry stand out amongst the others. If this seems extravagant to you, ask yourself: have I ever walked into an interview wanting the job as much as I want to have my book published?

Nice paper is a pleasure to hold, but frankly, there’s more to this strategy than giving your judges visceral pleasure. The vast majority of contest entries are printed on very low-quality paper – and with printer cartridges that have seen better days. When multiple copies are required for submission, they generally show up on the flimsy paper so often found in copy shop photocopiers. It tears easily. It wrinkles as it travels through the mail. It’s dingy-looking.

Spring for something nicer, and your entry will automatically come across as more professional to the judges. It may not be fair, but it’s true, so it’s very worth your while to invest a few extra bucks in a decent ream. 20-pound paper or heavier will not wrinkle in transit unless the envelope is actually folded, and bright white paper gives the impression of being crisper.

Avoid anything in the cream range – this is the time for brilliant white.

For what it’s worth, I have observed over time that agents and editors, too, seem to treat manuscripts printed in Times New Roman on bright, heavy white paper with more respect than other manuscripts. The only drawback – and it was a significant one, I don’t deny it – was that when I printed up a draft of my memoir for my editor on lovely cotton 24-pound paper, it came back to me smelling like an ashtray. Turns out cotton paper soaks up ambient smoke like a sponge. My cats shied away from my desk for weeks afterward.

I’ve told this story before, so for the sake of those of you who have, ahem, already had the opportunity to laugh at the joke, I went back and sniffed the manuscript box again. (Ah, the things that I do to amuse my readers!) And you know what? More than 15 months later, the damned thing STILL smells like a smokers’ lounge.

And before you seal the envelope, GO BACK AND REREAD THE CONTEST RULES. Have you met each and every requirement? Have you included every needed element? Are your margins precisely what the contest specified?

It may seem anal-retentive to re-check this often, but as I have been telling you all throughout this series, judges are often looking for reasons to disqualify you. It is absolutely imperative, then, that you follow every rule to the letter. And in the average contest, a good 5% of entries show up with something really basic missing, like the check or a second title page.

Good luck with your entries. And everybody, keep up the good work!

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