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!

There’s more rattling around in wit’s soul than brevity

I have time for only a quick one today, I’m afraid, campers, but at least the reasons are entirely appropriate, symbolically speaking: I shan’t be talking too much about humor in contest entries today because — wait for it — I’m in the throes of solidifying the contest rules for this summer’s Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. I shall be unveiling the criteria this coming Friday, but here’s a hint: at least one of the categories will be integrally related to something we shall be discussing today.

Ready, set — speculate!

On to the day’s business. Last week, I tempted the contest gods by bringing up the seldom-discussed topic of humor in entries and submissions. Contrary to popular opinion, not everything — or, alas, everyone — that seems funny to the writer will necessarily strike a professional readers as equally so on the printed page.

Or, as I put it last time:

Jokes that need to be explained after the fact are seldom funny to the reader.

While amusing real-life incidents often translate well directly to the visually-oriented worlds of film and TV, they do not always work equally well on the pages of a book.

Verbal anecdotes generally feature too little detail or context to be funny when reproduced as is onto the printed page.

Stop glaring at me. It’s true: funny anecdotes do not always funny prose make. Nor do hilarious real-life incidents. Also, verbal anecdotes are seldom redolent with character development, if you catch my drift. Caricature works beautifully there, but on the page, motivation becomes far more important. Not to mention backdrop and context.

All of that goes double for what’s funny on Facebook, unfortunately: quite a lot of everyday humor is situational. Or dependent upon the audience’s already being familiar with the characters and/or premise. As is quite a lot of sitcom humor, actually, but in social contexts, one’s kith and kin tend to cut one slack. Consequently, the amusement bar tends to hover quite a bit lower than it does in situations — like, say, when you enter a writing contest or submit to an agency — in which the prevailing standard of whether a piece of writing is funny is based upon whether it impresses impartial readers who could not pick the author out of a police line-up.

Translation: “But it made my friend/significant other/bus driver laugh out loud!” is not a reliable indicator of whether Mehitabel the veteran contest judge or Millicent the agency screener will find something funny on the manuscript page.

And how to put this gently?…often seems to come as a great big surprise to writers new to the art of making readers laugh, particularly memoirists and novelists that borrow heavily from their quotidian lives. “If an anecdote is funny verbally,” they apparently reason, “it should be equally amusing if I just describe the situation exactly the same way in writing, right?”

Actually, no. Why doesn’t this tend to work? Well, tone, for one thing: a talented anecdotalist puts on a performance in order to give his tale poignancy and point.

Good comic authors are well aware of this — did you know that both Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, renowned in their day as hilarious public readers, routinely used to read crowds versions of their writing substantially different from what those same readers might buy in a bookstore, or even hear in a theatre?

This was exceedingly smart, in case you were wondering. Funny on a printed page and funny in from a podium can be quite different animals. Also, it was brilliant marketing: people who had heard them read could boast about how much more amusing these authors were in person. Great way to sell tickets to one’s next lecture tour.

On the page, though, none of those stage tricks work. Mehitabel and Millicent will not be able to imagine you saying the words in your manuscript out loud, after all. Nor can they possibly see what you are picturing. All they can judge your comic vision by is what is actually on the page.

But most aspiring writers and contest entrants don’t think of that, do they? Or so agents and editors surmise from the fact that surprisingly few humorous passages in submissions seem to reflect a serious attempt to convey a comic tone. Why bother? The situation is inherently funny, right?

Not necessarily. If the narrative does not adequately convey what was humorous in that real-life incident, it’s going to fall flat on the page.

“But why?” you gasp, poised to sacrifice a goat to Thalia.

Because all too often, the writer assumes fleshing out the funny is not necessary: in that verbal anecdote that’s been slaying ‘em for years, the hearers already knew enough about the teller (and, often, the situation) to be able to fill in any narrative gaps.

That’s an extremely dangerous assumption in a contest entry or submission. Let’s face it, neither Mehitabel nor Millicent is much given to filling in the humorous blanks to the hefty percentage of jokes whose appeal is best described by the common expression well, I guess you had to be there.

But the reader — both the one that needs to fall in love with your work before it can get published and the one that you hope will want to buy it after it’s published — wasn’t there, by definition. And even if s/he was, it’s not the reader’s job to try to figure out why humor on the page is funny; it’s the writer’s job to set up the amusing bits so well that the joke does not need to be explained.

It just makes the reader — any reader — smile. Yet another reason that it’s a great idea to seek out impartial feedback: the success of the line that made your mother choke with mirth and fall out of her chair may well depend upon the reader’s knowing about something that’s not currently showing up on the page.

You can’t know for certain if the only people you’ve been showing your writing share your life, after all. Since the point of publishing a book is, presumably, to reach people who did not, say, give birth to you, sit in the cubicle next to yours, or trundle down an aisle with you whilst one or both of you were wearing white, it honestly doesn’t make sense to think of your kith and kin as your target readers.

But that’s precisely who aspiring writers usually do envision as readers, isn’t it? Or so the pros surmise from the exceedingly high percentage of first-time memoirists and autobiographical novelists that murmur early and often, “But what will they think of me after I publish this?”

I can set your mind at rest on that, actually: if you’re writing about real events, at least a few of the people that were there will think your book’s depiction is wildly inaccurate. Heck, even some people who previously knew about those events only through your verbal anecdotes may regard your written version as coming from out of left field. That’s the nature of memory, as well as individuality; since everyone experiences events differently, everyone remembers them differently.

That’s why we say you had to be there, right?

Forgetting that the human experience is subjective, and thus requires fleshing out on the page, is frequently an issue when writing the real, but it seems to trip writers up especially often when they are trying to convey real-life humor. It’s just so easy to presume that the reader can picture every aspect of a remembered event; the writer does, right? That presumption is often the reason that the anecdote that’s been sending coworkers rolling in the proverbial aisles, causing tears of glee to burst from relatives’ eye sockets, and prompting best friends to say at parties, “Oh, Antoinetta, please tell that one about the parrot and the fisherman!” for years tends actually to be less likely to elicit a chuckle from someone that reads for a living than fresher material.

Why? Because in scenes written entirely from imagination, the writer knows for certain that he cannot rely upon the reader’s outside knowledge. The narrative is less inclined to rely upon elements that you had to be there to know.

Thalia is a demanding mistress, you see: she has a great affection for specifics. In ancient Greek, ?????? translates roughly as abundant festivity or blooming. So I like to think of comedy writing as being about expansion — of a funny premise, an amusing situation, or an oddball character.

Where I think most contest entries — and manuscripts — go wrong is in a tendency to contract a funny scenes, rather than expanding them. Due, perhaps, to that tired old truism about brevity’s being the soul of wit. Like all sweeping generalizations, this is not always true.

There’s plenty of hilarious lengthy humor out there, after all. Anyone that tells you otherwise is either a great lover of writing aphorisms, unfamiliar with the breadth of witty writing in the English language, or just plain too impatient to read anything longer than the back of a cereal box.

So there.

That being said, allow me to add hastily that when I suggest expanding funny scenes, I’m not talking about pacing — as anybody who has watched a TV comedy that doesn’t quite work can tell you, funny that drags can rapidly become tedious. But that shouldn’t mean rushing through the comic elements — or cutting away from a hilarious moment and back to stern narrative the nanosecond after a good quip.

You don’t want that funny line to look like a fluke to Mehitabel and Millicent, do you?

Physical comedy often gets rushed on the page, unfortunately, sometimes so much so that it’s hard for the reader to follow what’s going on. That’s particularly likely to happen in a narrative containing a lot of run-on sentences, I’ve noticed: I guess that writers fond of them just like flinging events onto the page as quickly as humanly possible.

But as Gandhi said, there’s more to life than increasing its speed. To which I would add: there’s more to writing comedy than a rapid telling.

I sense some aphorism-huggers shaking their heads. You want proof that a too-speedy telling can flatten the funny. Fair enough. Here’s a slapstick moment, conveyed with the breathless pacing and overstuffed sentences Mehitabel and Millicent see so much.

Harriet grabbed her usual wobbly table at the coffee house, shoving her laptop, backpack, an extra-grande (whatever that meant) mocha, a dog-eared novel, and her lunch onto the too-small surface because she was in too much of a rush to get online and answer the e-mail that Bertrand must have sent her by now. Of course, he hadn’t, but she quickly became engrossed in reading the fifteen other e-mails cluttering up her inbox because it was Monday, when everyone came dragging into the office, then remembered an hour later the million things that they hadn’t done last week and rushed to blame their procrastination on somebody else, which she hated. When a handsome stranger brushed by to claim his latte from the counter next to her, he knocked over her drink. She jumped up to try to yank her possessions out of the way, but she was too late, everything was soaked. She only managed to save her laptop, backing up so hard that she shoved her chair into the lady sitting behind her, causing a domino effect of café patrons slamming into each other. And now it was time to get back to work, and she hadn’t eaten even a bite of her lunch.

Awfully darned hasty, isn’t it? There are some funny elements here, but they get a bit lost in the welter of frenetic activity. And cramming all of it into a single paragraph doesn’t really do the scene any favors, either, does it?

So we can’t really blame Mehitabel for wanting to shout, “Whoa! Slow down and show us what’s happening!”

Glad to oblige. Here’s that scene again, shown at a more reasonable pace.

The lunchtime crowd of caffeine-seekers had, as usual, avoided the three-legged table. Harriet always brought her own shim to shove under the short leg. By the time she had coaxed the tabletop into something close to horizontality, Alex had shouted twice that her extra-grande (whatever that meant) mocha must be getting cold.

As usual, the cup seared her hand. She carried it with her fingertips until she could balance it atop the tenuous pyramid she had constructed: laptop atop a dog-eared paperback novel supported by her backpack, with her bagged lunch teetering on the last few inches of table. Food could wait until she powered up her computer and answered the e-mail that Bertrand must have sent her by now.

Of course, he hadn’t. What a jerk. Irritably, she gnawed on a mushy apple, scrolling through pointless e-mails from her coworkers. Typical Monday: everyone came dragging into the office, then remembered an hour later the million things that they hadn’t done last week and rushed to blame their procrastination on somebody else.

“George!” Alex screamed. “Do you want your latte or not?”

Suitably chastened, a handsome hipster lunged toward the counter. Sympathetic to his embarrassment, Harriet pretended to be engrossed in what was in fact the single most boring e-mail ever constructed by human hand. The hipster’s mailbag swung through her peripheral vision, and abruptly, she was covered with coffee.

Automatically, she yanked her computer away from the spreading lake soaking her possessions. Leaping to her feet, she sent her chair sliding backward into the cramped couple at the next table. They scrambled to save their drinks, but their sandwiches flew onto the floor. The woman reached to retrieve the plates, unfortunately at the same moment that a good Samaritan at a neighboring table dove for them as well. Their heads smacked together with a sickening thud.

“Oh, God,” the hipster said, battering Harriet with fistfuls of paper napkins. “I’m so sorry.”

She wished she had time to enjoy his mauling. She had to get back to work, and she hadn’t eaten even a bite of her lunch. Typical Monday.

Much clearer what actually happened now, isn’t it? Do I hear a cheer for showing, not telling?

I sense some disgruntlement in the peanut gallery. “But Anne,” brevity-lovers moan, “that’s a lot longer! The contest I’m entering has a short page limit — if I expand my scenes like this, I won’t be able to enter as much of my manuscript as I had planned! And what if Millicent’s boss asked me for the first 50 pages of my manuscript. I want to get as much of the story under her nose as possible!”

Ah, these are both common concerns. Would it astonish you hear that they simply wouldn’t make any sense to Mehitabel or Millicent?

Why? Well, Millicent’s is perfectly aware that if submission request specifies a page limit, there’s going to be more manuscript beyond what the writer has sent. So will Mehitabel, if she’s judging a book category that calls for the opening pages and synopsis. That means, in practice, that a writer would be better off making those opening pages sing than trying to cram as much plot into them as possible.

If you’re genuinely concerned about length, there’s another option here, but I hesitate to suggest it: if the story overall is not humorous and it would take too much page space to render a comic bit unquestionably funny, consider taking it out altogether. Humor is a great way to establish your narrative voice as unique, but as I mentioned earlier in this series, it can be a risky contest entry strategy. Ditto with submissions. Funny that fails tends to be disproportionately punished.

Why, you ask? Comic elements in an otherwise serious manuscript can come across as, well, flukes. They don’t fit comfortably into the overall narrative; the individual laugh lines may be genuinely funny, but if there aren’t chuckle moments and fleeting smirk instants throughout as well, the funny bit can sometimes jar the reader out of the story.

I know: it’s kind of counter-intuitive. But true.

You might also consider cutting comic bits that you’re not positive will work on strangers. Unless you are lucky or brave enough to be a stand-up comic, a teacher, a prison guard, or have another job that allows you to test material on a live audience unlikely to run screaming from the room, you honestly cannot tell for sure if the bits that seemed hilarious to you in the privacy of your studio would be funny to anyone else.

In case I’m being too subtle here: it’s a bad idea for your first test of whether a joke or comic situation works to be submitting it to a contest, any more than it should be when you submit it to the agency of your dreams. The stakes are just too high, and it’s just too easy to imagine theoretical readers laughing at the funny parts.

Not that I’d know anything about that, writing a blog.

“But Anne,” some of you complain, and who could blame you? “I love my comic bits, but the contest deadline is imminent. I don’t have time to track down impartial first readers. Is there a faster method to test-drive my funny parts?”

Until you’re sure that your narrative voice is consistently diverting, it can be very helpful to read it out loud to somebody. See where the chuckles come, if ever. If an expected chuckle does not come, flag the passage and rework it, pronto. (I’ve been known to ask, when a line elicits only a fleeting smile, which of the following three possibilities is funniest.)

Reading out loud is also one of the few ways to weed out the phenomenon I mentioned last time, what movie people call bad laughs, the unintentional blunders that make readers guffaw AT a book, not with it.

Fair warning: any given listener will be able to respond spontaneously only once to a particular scene. So after you have reworked the problematic parts, you’re going to need to track down another victim listener.

Thalia is nudging me to point out that living with a comedy writer is no picnic. Yes, ma’am.

This strategy only works, of course, if you are philosophically open to the possibility that the sentence that you thought was the best one-liner penned in North America since Robert Benchley died is simply not funny, and thus should be cut. Admittedly, this kind of perspective is not always easy to maintain: it requires you to be humble. Your favorite line may very well go; it’s no accident that the oft-quoted editing advice, “Kill your darlings,” came from the great wit Dorothy Parker.

Yes, that’s right: she was talking about laugh lines. That’s not how your high school English teacher introduced you to the aphorism, was it? God, I hate sweeping generalizations about writing; they’re so often applied indiscriminately.

It is pretty good advice about comedy, though. Be ruthless: if it isn’t funny on paper, it should go — yes, no matter how much it makes you laugh. Or your best friend, or your spouse, or everyone around the water cooler at work. (Do offices even have water coolers anymore?)

As any good comedy writer can tell you, in the long run, actually doesn’t matter if the author laughs herself silly over any given joke: the reaction that matters is the audience’s. And no, the fact that your spouse/mother/best friend laughed heartily does not necessarily mean a line is genuinely funny. It may mean merely that these people love you and want you to be happy.

A little hard to resent that kind of devotion, isn’t it?

Lacking an audience, it is still possible to work your way into Thalia’s good graces by editing out the only marginally comical in your manuscript. As a contest judge and editor, I can tell you with certainty that aspiring comedians’ less successful efforts seem to rush to array themselves into easily-identifiable groups.

Next time, I’ll give you a guided tour of ‘em, so you may recognize them if — Thalia forefend! — they should rear their less-than-funny heads in your contest entries. In the meantime, polish up those laugh lines, burnish those chuckle-inducing moments, and keep up the good work!

The joys of originality in humor, or, why your contest entry should not resemble the love child of Jane Austen and Owen Wilson. Or Flip Wilson, for that matter.


Yes, I’m posting late again — and yes, my tardiness is due in part to the delightful rigors of fine-tuning the rules for the latest installment of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, a writing contest I shall be announcing this coming weekend. Not to pat myself on the back, but I flatter myself that this year’s iteration will please a broader swathe of writers seeking Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy than ever before.

Hint: the judges are going to be rewarding showing, not telling. But perhaps I have already said too much.

Back to the topic at hand. The prim miss sporting the clavicle-concealing garment above is, of course, Jane Austen, and she has come to preside over today’s topic, how to write comedy that ages well.

What’s that you say, potential literary contest entrants? That since writing contests tend to be annual events, any humor contained in your entry would have to seem fresh for only a few months, at most?

I can see why you might think so, but actually, Mehitabel the contest judge is usually as wary of jokes topical enough to have a short shelf life as Millicent the agency screener could possibly be. Why? Well, literary contest organizers hope that the works they reward with prizes, finalist ribbons, and other ECQLC will ultimately go on to be published. In a contest that accepts book-length unpublished writing, all of the Mehitabels will be quite aware that this year’s winners would at best be hitting the shelves a couple of years hence.

So I ask you: how well do you remember the pop culture events of two years ago? I thought not. Neither will Mehitabel.

Some of you have gone quite pale. Were you not aware that it typically takes quite some time for even the best-conceived manuscript to move through the traditional publication process? Even if you signed a book contract tomorrow, you might well not hold the bound book in your hand for a year or two. Sometimes more. And that’s not counting the time your agent might spend shopping the manuscript around to editors — or the time you might invest in landing an agent.

So for any cultural reference gracing your book not to seem dated to the reader of the future, it’s going to need to have at least a five-year expiration date. And if that doesn’t strike you as a trifle intimidating, may I remind you that back in 2007, iPhones were a brand-new phenomenon?

Oh, you don’t remember where you were when the last HARRY POTTER book was released? That’s okay; neither do Mehitabel or Millicent. So why would you expect them to recall, say, who the Secretary General of the U.N. was on January 3 of that year?

Oh, you may laugh (or, if you don’t follow the news, you may be wondering who the Secretary General is now), but you would be amazed at how often Millicent and Mehitabel encounter topical humor in submissions and contest entries. Or how often it’s the topical humor of a couple of years ago.

Don’t believe me? I recently read a scene in which approximately 95% of the hilarity was dependent upon the reader’s being able to recall the individual steps of the Macarena.

Well might you avert your eyes. Or roll them, if you happen to be too young to remember (shudder) a major political party’s candidate doing the Macarena on television. (I’d link to the video, but apparently, it’s so embarrassing that it’s been removed from YouTube.)

“Okay, Anne,” you say, trying desperately to believe that because it was so popular at the time, you could not possibly have looked ridiculous doing the Macarena (but knowing in your heart that was not the case), “I take your point. Before I send off a contest entry or manuscript submission, I should cast my eye over it to check for outdated or soon-to-be-outdated cultural references. But now I’m deeply curious: what makes you think that waving an admittedly rather comely line drawing of a 200-year-old author under my nose will help me remember to do that?”

An excellent question, former Macarena-doers. If you are familiar with Jane Austen’s work only through film adaptations, you might not be in the habit of thinking of her as a comedy writer, but for my money, she’s one of the most talented who ever scrawled English prose on a page. Her timing is impeccable — and, remarkably, her humor has not become less amusing with the passage of time.

Her books remain, as the British used to say, as fresh as paint.

Which is interesting, because the first novel she sold, NORTHANGER ABBEY (published posthumously in 1818, even though Aunt Jane had signed a publication contract more than a decade earlier; yet another reason that she should be the patron saint of modern novelists), was in fact very topical in its day. Quite a lot of its humor relies upon the reader’s familiarity with the most popular novels of the day.

Quick: what were the blockbusters of 1803, when she sold the manuscript for ten pounds? Or of 1798, when she evidently began writing it?

Here’s a hint: in the text, she very self-consciously identifies herself in as the literary descendant of one of the great early comic novelists, Fanny Burney. In fact, the title of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1813) is a direct homage to Burney, a massively popular author a generation older than Austen. PRIDE and PREJUDICE — in all caps, no less — is are identified in Burney’s CECILIA (1782) as the main villains of the plot:

The whole of this unfortunate business,” said Dr. Lyster, “has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. Your uncle, the Dean, began it, by his arbitrary will, as if an ordinance of his own could arrest the course of nature! And as if he had the power to keep alive, by the loan of a name, a family in the male branch already extinct. Your father, Mr. Mortimer, continued it with the same self-partiality, preferring the wretched gratification of tickling his ear with a favourite sound, to the solid happiness of his son with a rich and deserving wife. Yet this, however, remember: if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination: for all I could say to Mr. Delvile, either of reasoning or entreaty — and I said all I could suggest, and I suggested all a man need wish to hear — was totally thrown away, till I pointed out to him his own disgrace, in having a daughter-in-law immured in these mean lodgings!…Such, my good young friends, is the MORAL of your calamities.”

I like to bring this up, not only because Burney was a fine comic writer in her own right (EVELINA is, after some rather pompous opening platitudes, arguably the funniest epistolary novel ever written), but also because most of us grew up in English classes that presented female writers as aberrations in an otherwise male-dominated field — or even acted as though Austen were the first worth reading. As a matter of historical fact, there have been prominent female novelists practically since the novel was invented. In the 19th century, it was considered predominantly a women’s art form. Aunt Jane not only grew up reading other women’s writing, but she tells us point-blank that she learned some of her craft from the best.

Which I strongly suspect would come as a surprise to my ninth-grade English teacher, if not yours.

But then, my ninth-grade English teacher was so suggestible that she once caught a cold because she believed that I had placed a hex upon her. Yes, really: she was famous for misplacing her chalk — not infrequently by depositing it upon the shelf just below the blackboard designed for its reception — so her students were forced to endure many, many repetitions of — wait for it — “Who took my chalk?” There are only so many times a humor-minded person can hear a rhetorical question without providing an answer. As I recall, “I used it to stuff a voodoo doll,” was neither my first nor my best riposte, but it was the one that got me sent to the principal’s office.

His response was much funnier: “I know there’s no voodoo doll. Tell her you destroyed it, anyway. Otherwise, she’ll be sneezing for the rest of the year.”

See, that’s a joke that’s likely to age pretty well, at least for the next decade or so: although not all readers (or, brace yourself, all currently-employed Millicents) may remember chalkboards, the voodoo doll and the clueless teacher are likely to be around for a good, long while. If I’d mentioned that I was wearing an English Beat t-shirt at the time, the story would have seemed more dated, wouldn’t it?

While we’re engaging in multi-temporal analysis, why is Austen so much more popular today than Burney, other than those often-humorless film adaptations? Partially, of course, it’s due to the heavy-handed moralizing: hot in the late 1700s, but as dated as last year’s catchphrase today.

Don’t believe me? Do you really want me to force you to shout, “Hey, Macarena!”

Also, Burney’s social satire is very specifically aimed at social problems that no longer trouble English-speaking readers all that much: the trials of an 18th-century maiden raised in retirement, then forced into high society without being aware of its rules, for instance, or the trials of an orphaned heiress in a country where a young woman did not have legal control over her own property would have resonated far more with readers when her books were originally published than now.

Whereas pretty much everyone can identify with an Austen heroine who is in love with someone who doesn’t seem to love her, whilst simultaneously being pursued by someone she can’t stand. Heck, even my ninth-grade English teacher was able to identify with that.

If you want more current evidence of just how badly topical comedy tends to age, look no further than a sketch comedy show like Saturday Night Live or its many imitators. Its satires on current events are seldom amusing even a few months after the show originally airs.

Are you wondering why I am bringing this up within the context of a series on contest entries? For one very simple and seldom-mentioned reason: many contests’ rating forms specifically ask the judge to assess whether the entry is likely to seem dated quickly.

Actually, older agents and editors tend to worry about this, too, out of sheer experience: you don’t have to be in the biz for very long to see how frequently books that appeal to the hip trend of the moment have very short shelf lives. These books become stale all the faster from their perspective, since they know — as we all do now, right? — that a book often takes a year or two to sell to a publisher –and then it’s typically at least another year before that book is available to the public.

So it really isn’t all that unreasonable for a contest judge to want to give higher marks to a book that will still not have readers scratching their heads in a few years, is it? In fact, I think it’s worth stating as an aphorism that what is humor today probably will not be in a decade, and one generation’s humor will not be another’s.

Or, to put it another way: hands up, anyone that still owns a pet rock.

Here’s a radical piece of self-editing advice for would-be comic writers of both fiction and memoir: go through your manuscript and highlight any jokes that you have borrowed from TV, movies, radio shows, other books, or the zeitgeist. Keep a sharp eye out, too, for recycling comic premises from any of the above.

Then go back and examine each in turn: would a reader find it funny five years from now? Or have found it funny five years ago? If not, it probably does not belong in a submission — and it definitely does not belong in a contest entry.

This is especially true of catchphrases or references to characters from movies or sitcoms, which go stale with a rapidity that would make your average loaf of French bread turn pale with dread and contemplate its own mortality. Take a gander, for instance, at these zingers out of context:

From 1968: The devil made me do it!

From 1977: Excu-u-use me!

From 1985: You look mahvelous!

From 2000: I don’t know karate, but I do know cah-razy.

From 2004: Make it work.

Now, most media-following adults in the U.S. probably have some association with at least one of these, right? So much so that I would bet that if you close your eyes and conjure up vivid images of Flip Wilson, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Owen Wilson, and Tim Gunn respectively, saying these lines, these old chestnuts might still elicit the odd chuckle. (Or perhaps some puzzled consideration about why female comedians are so seldom associated with popular catchphrases.)

Go ahead and chuckle your head off, if you are given to atavistic clinging to the popular culture of your past, but please, I implore you, do not make the (unfortunately common) mistake of reusing these kinds of once-popular catchphrases in a contest entry. Leaving aside the ethical problem of these jokes having been written by someone other than you and the fact that such bits seldom funny out of context, including them will almost certainly date your book — and thus potentially cost your entry some serious points.

Yes, even if your book’s target audience is of precisely the right age to harbor fond memories of when those catchphrases were popular. To be absolutely blunt, catchphrases from your heyday will necessarily carry a very different resonance for a judge 20 years older than you are. Or 20 years younger.

Remember, you cannot be sure that the Mehitabel to whom your entry will be assigned will be of the generation you have in mind. People tend to have very strong associations with particular periods in their lives, and for all you know, the reference you choose to use may be the very one most favored in 1978 by your dream agent’s hideously unkind ex, the one who lied in court during the divorce proceedings and hid assets so cleverly that their daughter’s college fund had to be used to pay those unexpected medical bills of Mother’s. Then the car broke down, and all of those checks bounced, and the orthodontist tried to repossess Angelica’s braces…

See what happened? One little pop culture reference, and POW! You’ve lost your judge’s attention entirely.

So even if you are using pop culture references to establish a particular period, do it with care. Be sparing. Even if your teenage son quoted SHANGHAI NOON endlessly for six solid months while the entire family cringed in a Y2K fallout shelter, do be aware that your reader might not have the associations you do with those jokes. There are a myriad of associational possibilities — and almost none of them will make your writing more memorable or seem fresher.

Originality tends to age better than borrowed amusement, anyway. But that’s a topic for tomorrow’s post.

For now, if you aspire to perfecting your comic voice, it might behoove you to take a good, hard look at the careers of Mssrs. Martin, Crystal, and Wilson, all of whom started out as comedy writers, writing material for themselves and others. All became progressively less funny (in my humble opinion, at least) as soon as they started performing comic material written by other people. Ditto for one of the great comedy writers of all time, Mae West; she first came to prominence as a playwright, not a sex symbol.

An accident? I think not. They became less funny because their individual comic voices had gotten lost, replaced by the catchphrases of the moment.

Oh, the people who were writing for them have tried to recapture their quite distinct original voices, but the copy is never as vivid as the original, is it? Why any of them stopped writing their own material is a mystery to me — particularly Mssr. Wilson, who is arguably one of the most talented comedy writers of his (which also happens to be my) generation.

If you doubt this, rent THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, please. Not many writers could have pulled off a graphic suicide attempt scene (evidently written years before later events rendered it sadly ironic, I should add, and penned with a writing partner) in the middle of a genuinely funny comedy about misused potential. It’s brilliant, so much so that it’s kept me interested for years in his writing, wondering how he is going to surprise me next. I suspect that it will still seem pretty brilliant when everyone of my generation is old and gray and full of sleep.

Why? Because it isn’t like anything else. And because, like Aunt Jane’s socially frustrated heroines’ woes, it’s not a situation that’s going to be outdated in a decade. It’s a situation with which people are likely to be able to identify for some time to come.

One of the advantages to using humor in your submissions is to demonstrate the originality of your voice — not Jane Austen’s, not Owen Wilson’s, not Steve Martin’s, and certainly not that anonymous person who originated that joke your best friend from college just forwarded to you.

If your individual voice is not inherently humorous, whatever you do, don’t try to force it to be by importing humor from other sources. Lifting material from elsewhere, even if it is genuinely funny, is not the best means of establishing that YOU are funny — or that yours is a book well worth reading. Or, for our purposes today, deserving of a bright blue ribbon — today, tomorrow, and for the next three hundred years.

Make your Aunt Jane happy: be yourself. And if you want to make me happy — I ask so little — keep up the good work!

Speaking of self-editing advice that applies equally well to literary contest entries and submissions to agencies: har de har har har?

Okay, I’ll admit it: the first part of that title is a tad cumbersome. I got tired of typing COUNTDOWN TO A CONTEST, PART {fill in Roman numeral here}. The contest deadline to which I was counting down has passed (how do people feel their entry process went, by the way?), and besides, much of what I’m discussing in this part of the series would apply — stop me if you have heard this before — equally well to refining contest entries and submissions to agencies.

I know, I know. Some day, I’m going to have to come up with more descriptive titles for my posts.

Let’s get back to courting the comic muse. Or, more accurately, to our discussion of how aspiring writers often think they are courting her, without actually winning her favor. Or so we must surmise, from the fact that such a high proportion of attempted humor leaves both Mehitabel, everybody’s favorite fictional veteran contest judge, and her niece Millicent, intrepid screener of manuscripts at a theoretical agency, with distinctly untickled funny bones. Further evidence might be gleaned from the startling frequency with which entries and submissions elicit spontaneous, uninhibited laughter with lines the writer did not think would pass anywhere near those aforementioned funny bones.

Ooh, nicely executed spit take, everybody. “Wha–?” would-be humorists across the English-speaking world cry, their eyes bugging out of their heads like cartoon characters (oh, you thought you were the first writer to use that simile?). “How can something intended to be unfunny provoke that response? I can understand a joke’s falling flat, but I hate the idea that Mehitabel and/or Millicent might be chuckling over my Great American Tragedy.”

Good question, eye-buggers. But didn’t the previous question answer it?

If the previous paragraph did not make you giggle, well, you are either delightfully innocent (and thus might want to avert your eyes from the next paragraph, in order to remain so), not a very detail-oriented reader (as Mehitabel and Millicent invariably are), or, perish the thought, the joke I just made was not very funny. Given the exceptionally high probability that all three are true, allow me to compound the mistake of having cracked not particularly wise by explaining why it should have been funny, as well as illustrative of my ongoing point. To render the narrative error even more representative of what M & M tend to see on the page, allow me to explain my failed joke as pedantically as possible.

You see, the would-be humorists asked how a piece of writing could provoke laughter if its author did think it was funny. I then said it was a good question — something I’m pointing out because I don’t have sufficient faith in the reader to believe s/he can remember what s/he has just read — but then turned that compliment on its head by addressing the imaginary questioners with a double entendre. That, for those of you new to the term, is when the comic value of a phrase arises from its meaning one thing literally, but also being subject to a sexualized interpretation. In this instance, eye-buggers could refer to those whose eyes protrude unusually far between their lashes, but it also — and herein lies the yuck factor — could imply that those same imaginary questioners are in the habit of performing a physically improbable sex act upon eyeballs in general. Get it? Get it? Compounding the humor: the sentence that followed raised the possibility that the phrasing in the previous sentence might have been unintentional — and thus likely to spark unintended laughter at the entry or submission stage. Har de har har har!

Hands up, those of you who thought my bad joke was funnier before I explained it. Keep those hands up if you found yourself wishing by a couple of lines into the subsequent explanation that I’d just accept that the joke hadn’t worked and move on.

Welcome to Mehitabel and Millicent’s world. They’re constantly treated to unfunny, marginally funny, and might-have-been-funny-after-a-couple-of-rewrites humor attempts. They are also, for their sins, frequently forced to read painful attempts to render an unamusing quip funny in retrospect. Over-explanation is one popular means — and, as we have just seen, it seldom works. Equally common:

Or having a character laugh in order to alert the reader that what’s just appeared on the page was intended to be humorous:

As the head bagger stomped away, Herman pictured a large brown bag descending upon him, scooping him up. Now trapped at the bottom, Ambrose would be helpless as a giant hand flung boxes of cereal and canned goods upon him, perhaps topped by a carton of eggs. He laughed at the mental image.

This, I am sorry to tell you, would cause Mehitabel to roll her bloodshot eyes. “Thanks prompting me to laugh,” she snorts, “because I couldn’t possibly have told that you meant this to be funny otherwise. I see you have also helpfully let me in on the secret that pictured referred to a mental image. Otherwise, I might have thought that the narrative had suddenly shifted from gritty slice-of-life fiction into magical realism.”

Let that be a lesson, would-be humorists: if a bit isn’t funny on the page, having a character find it amusing won’t make it more so. Also, as Mehitabel has just so kindly demonstrated for us, since readers cannot hear tone, sarcasm often does not come across well on the page. From which we may derive a subsidiary lesson: just because something generates a laugh when you say it out loud does not mean it will necessarily be similarly guffaw-inducing on the page.

Why did I put that in bold, you ask? Millicent and Mehitabel requested it; they’re tired of reading manuscripts out loud to try to figure out what on earth Herman thought was so darned funny.

Then, too, professional readers as a group tend not to like being told how to react to writing, period. Mehitabel has every right to feel irritated at being told that she should find what she has just read humorous. Self-review tends not to play well on the page, even if it is very subtle.

Oh, you don’t think what Herman’s creator did was self-review? M & M would regard it that way. They would also see the following fruitless authorial effort as reaction-solicitation. Any guesses why?

“The bookstore is closed for the night,” Gemma snapped, gesturing to the CLOSED sign on the door. “What are you two still doing here?”

“Oh, we’re just browsing,” Angelina said airily.

Bonnie laughed. “Yeah, we’re looking for a first edition of Martin Chuzzlewit.”

Gemma looked puzzled. “Why would you need to be wearing ski masks for that?”

If you leapt to your feet, crying, “Bonnie’s laughter is intended to order Mehitabel to laugh, too,” you deserve a gold start for the day. It doesn’t render Angelina’s joke any funnier, does it? Since M & M do not, as a rule, enjoy being told how to evaluate the writing in front of them, they would have been more likely to find the quip amusing if it had appeared like so. While we’re at it, let’s excise those other professional reader-irkers, concept redundancy and having a character vaguely point to something in order to let the reader know it’s there.

Gemma fixed the closer one with her flashlight. “The bookstore is closed for the night. What are you two still doing here?”

“Oh, we’re just browsing,” Angelina said airily, smiling through her ski mask.

Bonnie aimed her rifle just to the right of Gemma’s head. “Yeah, we’re looking for a first edition of Martin Chuzzlewit.”

“Oh, why didn’t you say so right away?” Gemma felt under the cash register for her favorite throwing knife. “We’re always happy to move some Dickens.”

Better, isn’t it? It’s funnier because the narrative trusts the reader’s intelligence more. As opposed to, say, the ubiquitous practice of just telling the reader point-blank that something is funny:

Barbara flung her banana peel on the ground. Her snarky coworker did not see it, trod upon it, and slipped. It was hilarious.

In case I’m being too subtle here: very, very few contest entries are genuinely funny. Oh, many of them try to be, and some attempts at amusing actually would be chuckle-worthy if spoken out loud, but humor is a capricious mistress. In order to work on the page, how a writer chooses to frame the funny is every bit as important as the joke itself.

Yes, really. You may have written the best one-liner since Richard Pryor accidentally set himself on fire, but if it’s not set up correctly, it’s going to fall flat. And that, my friends, is going to come as a huge disappointment to a humor-loving Mehitabel or Millicent.

Why, you ask? A funny entry, or even a funny joke in an otherwise serious entry, feels like a gift to your garden-variety professional reader. A deliberately-provoked laugh from a judge can result in the reward of many presentation points, and often additional points in the voice category as well.

Notice that I specified a deliberately-provoked laugh. An unintentional laugh, what moviemakers call a bad laugh because it springs forth from the audience when the filmmakers do not want it to occur, will cost a contest entry points. And it should: a bad laugh can knock the reader right out of the scene.

We’ve all burst into bad laughter at movies, right? My personal favorite cropped up in the most recent remake of LITTLE WOMEN. It’s quite a good trick, too: provoking a bad laugh in a scene that’s not only arguably one of the best-known in children’s literature, as well as one in which the filmmakers remained very faithful to the original text, can’t have been easy.

I’m about to show you the moment in question, but first, let’s take a gander at how Louisa May Alcott presented it to her readers. The March girls have just learned that their father, a chaplain in a Civil War regiment, is dangerously ill. Their mother, not unnaturally, wishes to travel across many states to nurse him back to health, but the trip will be very expensive. Everybody’s favorite little woman, Jo the tomboy, is frantic to help. After having disappeared for most of the day, she returns home with a wad of cash, and her family, equally unnaturally, wants to know whence it came.

…she came walking in with a very queer expression of countenance, for there was a mixture of fun and fear, satisfaction and regret, in it, which puzzled the family as much as did the roll of bills she laid before her mother, saying, with a choke in her voice, “That’s my contribution toward making father comfortable and bringing him home!”

“My dear, where did you get it? Twenty-five dollars! Jo, I hope you haven’t done anything rash?”

“No, it’s mine honestly; I didn’t beg, borrow, or steal it. I earned it, and I don’t think you’ll blame me, for I only sold what was my own.”

As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.

“Your hair! Your beautiful hair!” “Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty.” “My dear girl, there was no need of this.” “She doesn’t look like my Jo any more, but I love her dearly for it!”

As everyone exclaimed, and Beth hugged the cropped head tenderly, Jo assumed an indifferent air, which did not deceive anyone a particle, and said, rumpling up the brown bush, and trying to look as if she liked it, “It doesn’t affect the fate of the nation, so don’t wail, Beth.”

Now, Mehitabel and Millicent might well quibble over whether expression of countenance is redundant (technically, it is) or the unidentified speakers, or the unfortunate choice to demonstrate simultaneous speech by tossing aside the one speaker per dialogue paragraph rule. I also cherish the hope that you are all shaking your heads over Aunt Louisa’s regrettable affection for run-on sentences.

But there’s nothing to provoke a bad laugh here, right? It’s a sweet, evocative YA moment: the teenage heroine can’t stand to feel helpless, so she chooses to make a personal sacrifice in order to help her family. That’s a good plot twist. And if Amy (we assume) telling her that she’s now ugly hurt her feelings — “Your one beauty!” is a remarkably nasty thing to say, but she has a point: Jo’s effectively rendered herself unmarriageable for the next year or two — that’s good relationship development. And if she cries about it later that night, that’s good character development.

Here’s that moment again, as it appeared in the film. Note how the focus of the scene has shifted, doubtless as a reflection of the fact that cutting one’s hair was not nearly as shocking to moviegoers in 1994 as it would have been to readers in 1868. My apologies about the commercial at the beginning; it was the only version I could find.