Many years ago, when I first started teaching roomfuls of aspiring writers how to write query letters and give face-to-face pitches to agents, I noticed something: there didn’t seem to be nearly enough writing credentials to go around. As valuable as previous publications, writing awards, fellowships, residencies, rave reviews from Saul Bellow, MFAs, and recent New York Times articles on one’s work with orphaned children in war zones undoubtedly were (and are) in attracting the attention of those who read manuscripts for a living, the overwhelming majority of writers seeking to market manuscripts would, when asked for their credentials, just look down, embarrassed.
When I began teaching writers how to construct their author bios, the problem seemed even more acute, even amongst those who already had publishing contracts in hand. No matter how fascinating the previously unpublished were in person (to me, anyway), they seemed to regard not having been paid before for their writing as proof positive that they didn’t really have anything significant to say about themselves to an agent or editor.
At the risk of sounding unsympathetic to this feeling, poppycock.
As those of you who have been reading this blog for awhile are, I hope, already aware, there are plenty of things that a writer who hasn’t yet been offered a book contract can do in order to ramp up her ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, my term for all of those lovely credentials that go to make up a successful writer’s platform). Start a blog, for instance (hey, it’s writing for an audience on a deadline. Write free book reviews for a community newspaper. Take seminars with impressive-sounding names. Get your certificate in editing. Spend ten hours a week volunteering at a shelter for abandoned wombats, if that’s what your book is about.
Anything, in other words, that might catch Millicent the agency screener’s eye and cause her to exclaim, “My, but this is an interesting writer. I think I shall have to take a gander at his manuscript, pronto.” (For more tips on provoking this type of soul-satisfying exclamation, please see the BUILDING YOUR WRITING RÃ‰SUMÃ‰ and YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS categories on the list at right.)
I could wash my hands of the subject at this point, confident in glib advice swiftly administered, and walk away to enjoy the lovely weather outside. And I might, were I not fairly confident that my readers were not, on the whole, shallow and easily satisfied with the pat answer.
I mean, really: would someone who just wanted quick answers last more than ten minutes at Author! Author!? I think not.
So I decided that I was going to do something practical about it — the lack of credentials available for the previously unpublished or unMFA’d, that is, not catering to quick answer-seekers. Actually, I decided to do several things:
(1) Establish the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, as a helpful credential available for readers’ ECQLC;
(2) Establish the Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence for readers of pre-college age, as both future ECQLC and as a nifty credential that a gifted young writer could use on a college application;
(3) Focus the competition’s first writing contest on something genuinely important, a topic dear to writers’ hearts and one that I knew my readers would already have on their minds. This time around, the subject matter is going to be the same as our ongoing series of guest posts, with the winning entries forming the final guest slots on subtle censorship and how it affects writers.
In other words, make publishing credential part of the prize.
(4) Coordinate the announcement of the winners with the gala events surrounding my 1,000th blog post, scheduled for mid-June. (I know; time flies.)
I’ll fill you in on how to enter in a moment. But first, the important bit: the prizes.
What winners of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence will get, other than ECQLC
Obviously, undying glory and years of boasting rights. However, for those of you looking for rewards a trifle more tangible, there will be goodies, too.
Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence
1 Grand Prize: a 1-hour Mini-Consult, scheduled at the winner’s convenience, and publication of the winning essay at Author! Author!
A Mini-Consult is a telephone service I’ve long offered to my editing clients and students, an unbroken chunk of my professional attention and expertise devoted solely to the discussion of a writer’s work. How you choose to utilize that time is up to you, as long as the discussion is limited to writing and marketing issues. Past satisfied Mini-Consulters have used the time to have me help them to:
*narrow down a book category once and for all;
*ferret out the problems in their query letters, synopses, and first pages of manuscripts;
*come up with a book’s selling points;
*cull through a list of agents to figure out who would be the best potential fit for a project;
*brainstorm about low-cost book promotion ideas;
*iron out the kinks in a book proposal;
*discuss craft issues, and
*talk though some of their frustration and confusion over how the publishing world works.
2 First Prizes: a 1/2-hour Mini-Consult and publication of the winning essay at Author! Author!
3 Second Prizes: a fresh-off-the-press copy of the PEN America Center’s collection of essays on writing censorship, BURN THIS BOOK (HarperStudio), edited by Toni Morrison.
Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence
1 Grand Prize: a 1/2-hour Mini-Consult and publication of the winning essay at Author! Author!
2 First Prizes: a fresh-off-the-press copy of the PEN America Center’s collection of essays on writing censorship, BURN THIS BOOK (HarperStudio), edited by Toni Morrison.
How to enter
1. Collect your thoughts on the issue of censorship, subtle or otherwise
For the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, the brief is quite straightforward: address precisely the same question I put to the established authors in the subtle censorship series. So how do YOU think writers are discouraged from writing or publishing what they want or how they want, and how does that discouragement affect what’s available for readers?
For Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence, the question is more targeted: what limits are placed on young people’s written freedom of expression? How do you think restricting what the young can and can’t write affects public understanding of how those who cannot yet vote think?
Because I hate literary contests that contain hidden rules, I’m going to be up front with you here: creativity counts. Surprise the judges with the subtlety of your insight. Show us a take on the world we’ve never seen before.
2. Compose brilliantly for a maximum of five (5) pages in standard manuscript format
For both parts of the contest, you may choose how to make your case. A standard essay is fine; so is a short story, fully-realized scene excerpted from a novel, a play, or a poem. Heck, I’d love to see some graphic novel entries, but please, no photo essays. This is a prize for writing.
I’m quite serious about the 5-page maximum; feel free to make it shorter. If it is longer, the judges will stop reading at the bottom of page 5. Since I have been both a contest judge and editor for many years, trust me: I will notice and disqualify an entry that’s been shrunk to fit within the page limit.
Please submit only writing that has not been published elsewhere by the contest deadline (
May 18, 2009 June 1, 2009; see below for further details). You may, however, submit work that is currently entered in another contest.
3. Make sure your submission is in standard format
In order to render this competition as much about the writing as possible, only entries in standard book manuscript format will be eligible to win. To make this restriction fair to those of you new to the concept, I shall be spending the next few weeks going over precisely what that means.
Why am I being so draconian on this point, you gasp? Because I want to try to get a sense of how closely my readers are adhering to the strictures of standard format in their submissions; call it a sociological experiment.
Here’s a really, really good reason to enter the contest: if your entry is knocked out of the running for formatting reasons, I will tell you so. I’ll even tell you what rules your entry violated. (And yes, I am rather hoping that enough of you will enter that I will rue the day I said this.) So if you’re not absolutely positive that you’ve been submitting your work in standard format, this is a dandy way to find out.
For the purposes of this competition, standard format consists of the rules listed under the series following this post. (If you want to consult them sooner and in a less episodic manner, please see the posts under the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 category at right.) Graphic novels, plays, and poetry may be submitted in the standard formats for those types of writing.
Do not even try to make the argument that contradictory rules you may have heard elsewhere should be used here. Quibblers on the subject will be disqualified automatically.
4. Include a title page
This is actually redundant with the rules of standard format, but since I see so many incorrectly-formatted title pages every year, I want to reward those of you who have done your homework sufficiently to do it right. A great place to begin that homework: in the standard formatting series I shall be running over the next three weeks — or, if you’re in a greater hurry than that to enter, consult the TITLE PAGES category on the archive list at right.
Your title page (which will not count toward the 5-page entry limit) must include the following information:
Your real name
Your pseudonym, if you would prefer that your entry be published under that moniker
Your entry’s title
What book category might be applicable to it (Essay, Fiction, Poetry, Action/Adventure…)
Word count (real or estimated; if you don’t know how to figure this, please see the WORD COUNT category at right)
Your contact information, including e-mail and mailing address (so HarperStudio may ship the books, if you win one)
If you are entering in the Junior category, please include your age at the end of your contact information.
5. Before you submit, double-check to make sure the language in your entry is G-rated
Since the winning entries will be posted on this site and I have it on good authority that some of my readers regularly visit Author! Author! via school and public library computers that have content-blocking programs installed, I must insist that entries be devoid of profanity. The content is up to the entrant, but if the words would not be appropriate for the family hour, it will be disqualified.
Yes, this is its own form of censorship (feel free to write about that, if you like), but as this is a restriction I place upon all of my guest bloggers, I feel quite comfortable extending it to entries in this contest. Shock the judges with your ideas, not individual words.
6. Send your entry as a Word attachment to firstname.lastname@example.org by midnight on
May 18, 2009 June 1, 2009
Please include the word ENTRY in the subject line of your e-mail. Since my readers are spread across many time zones, midnight in this context will be where you are, as shown on your e-mail’s date stamp.
And yes, those of you who are looking at these rules for the second time, having perused them before mid-May: the entry deadline did in fact change.
7. Please enter only once.
That’s fairer to everyone, don’t you think?
8. Wait breathlessly for the judges to make their decisions.
Something to ponder while you wait: if your entry is a winner, I shall contact you (thus the request for contact information) to ask you to provide Author! Author! with an author bio and photo to run with the award-winning entry. Since it takes most of us a while to find a snapshot of ourselves we like, I’m warning you in advance. If you want to get a head start on that author bio, please see the AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right.
And that’s it!
I’m genuinely curious to see what you have to say about subtle censorship, so I hope to hear from many of you. Best of luck, everybody — and as always, keep up the good work!