Countdown to a contest entry, part V: avoiding performing origami on the space-time continuum, or, might I recommend those contests that do not require leaping through flaming hoops?


Sorry that I did not manage to post Sunday’s planned second post on the absorbing topic of literary contests, campers: the flesh was willing, but the server was weak. Every time I logged in yesterday, it advised me to come back later.

Later turned into now, so here is the post I wished to have winging to you last night. Later this evening, I hope to be posting today’s intended topic, but my schedule’s demands lead me to believe that it will be pretty late. But then, you’re used to me posting in the dead of night, right?

All of you potential contest-entrants will want to tune in for it, I suspect: I shall be going over how to write the synopsis that virtually every contest that accepts book-length work requires. While I am tossing around confusing references to the space-time continuum, allow me to add that later in the week, I shall be going into fine detail about technical tweaking you can give your entries that will make them more likely to end up in the finalist pile.

But today — or is it last night? — I want to finish up my series of questions you should ask yourself about a contest before you invest your time, money, and hope in entering.

Before I launch into that, however op quiz: how much did all of those iterations of later in the second paragraph bug you? If they didn’t, please run, don’t walk, to scroll back to my recent series on structural redundancy. Seriously, that paragraph would have caused our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to rip out patches of her hair by the roots.

Okay, perhaps her reaction would not have been that extreme had she encountered that paragraph in a manuscript submission. But I can guarantee that her response would have included a shout of “Next!”

Ah, that observation made some of you self-editors uncomfortable, didn’t it? Share your thoughts; this is a safe space for writerly angst. “But Anne,” the disgruntled mutter, “that wasn’t really a fair test of my reading eye. By the time the quiz popped into my consciousness, I had already read to subsequent paragraphs. By then, my attention was focused elsewhere. Isn’t the important thing that I kept reading in spite of them?”

Ah, but Millicent probably wouldn’t. Neither would Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge: they both simply see too many beautifully-written (and, almost as important to this particular example, beautifully proofread) pages to feel any compunction about crying, “Next!” over one that contains craft problems. Or, if they do read on, the memory of what has gone before almost invariably colors their opinions of what comes next.

Oh, you thought I was finished tying the space-time continuum into pretty bows?

Ponder that, please, while I segue back into the topic at hand. In my last post, I discussed the pitfalls of contests that require entrants to devote extensive time to filling out entry forms, especially those that require information that should be positively irrelevant in a blind-judged contest. (Personal references? Really?) I neglected to mention, however, another potentially time-consuming side effect of entry that usually takes its toll long after the judging is over.

I speak, of course, of the fact that every time you fill out one of these forms, you are giving tacit consent to being placed upon the sponsoring organization’s mailing list.

And the masses sigh with relief. “Oh, is that all, Anne? I thought you were going to tell me something really dire. Why should I mind receiving continued mailings from an organization I admire enough to want it to give me a writing award?”

I relieved to hear that you’re relieved, formerly disgruntled masses, but I must say, it might be premature. It’s admirable that you have restricted your contest entries to only those organizations whose work with writers you otherwise admire, campers; it’s equally admirable that you have paid enough attention to this series to realize that you should be doing a spot of research on those organizations. Would it shock you, however, to learn that some writers enter literary contests without learning the first thing about that organization?

Well might you turn pale. Believe it or not, our republic is stuffed to the gills with contest entrants who — are you sitting down? — know nothing about the sponsoring organization except that it sponsors a writing contest.

Why might that be problematic down the line? Well, many, many nonprofit organizations (as runners of literary contests and conferences tend to be) have been known to scare up additional scratch for their operating expenses by selling their mailing lists to similar organizations.

Oh, come on — did you think those offers from Writers Digest and The Advocate just found their way into your mailbox magically? Who did you think told those magazines that you had a yen to write, the Literature Fairy?

Nor is that the only hazard. Entities that purchase mailing lists often sell them to businesses that resell them, and so on. By blithely providing contact information on an entry form, many a writer has ended up receiving masses of junk mail — and junk e-mail — from those only related to the original contest by the most tenuous of links.

The moral: just because a contest is literary doesn’t mean that its organizers aren’t making money on it. If you don’t want to be placed on mailing lists, add a note to your entry saying so.

Also, as with any information you submit to people you do not know, be careful not to provide any data that is not already public knowledge. Every piece of information you share here is subject to resale to marketing firms, unless the contest sponsor states outright on the form that it will not do so.

But that is a minor consideration, and a long-term one. We have been concentrating on the short-term and up-front costs of contest entries, have we not? Here’s a good guideline for limiting your investment on both scores: you can save yourself a lot of time if you avoid contests that make entrants jump through a lot of extraneous hoops in preparing a submission.

Why are you laughing? “Oh, come on, Anne,” those of you new to literary contests chortle. “We’ve already discussed the pros and cons of writing a completely new piece for a contest, and I know that a reputable contest will usually require that I remove my name from the slug line — that bit at the top of each manuscript page that contains the author’s last name/title of the project/page #. Beyond, that, though, how much could a contest’s rules make me tinker with my manuscript?”

Oh, you would be astonished; some of these requirements have to be seen to be believed. In the last year, my aged eyes have beheld demands for:

/coolclips_wb024789.gifSpecific typefaces that differ from the ones required by standard manuscript format.

/coolclips_wb024789.gifFancy paper (three-hole punched, anyone?).

/coolclips_wb024789.gifBizarre margin requirements, such as two inches on the left and 3/4 inch on the right — or vice versa.

/coolclips_wb024789.gifExpensive binding, binders, or printing that a writer could not perform at home.

/coolclips_wb024789.gifAn unprintable entry form that must be sent away for with a SASE — presumably because the contest organizers have yet to hear of the Internet — and needs to be filled out by typewriter, rather than by hand.

Don’t think that sounds particularly time-consuming? Okay, pop quiz #2: does anyone out there still own a typewriter?

Even if you do, each of these strictures will eat up your time and money, without the end result’s necessarily being truly indicative of the quality of your work. Because, really, all conforming to such oddball requirements truly demonstrates is that an entrant can follow directions.

Which, admittedly, is something that an agent or editor might legitimately want to know about a writer s/he was considering signing. However — and I’m sorry to shock anyone, but I want to be truthful here — my notion of a literary contest is one where the entrant proves that she can write, not that she can read.

But I suppose that could be my own absurd little prejudice, rather like my unsubstantiated belief that gravity should make things fall down, not up. Or that a clock’s hands should turn in only one direction.

Given how common such requirements are, how can a time-strapped aspiring writer tell whether a particular contest’s rules are too hoop-heavy? My yardstick is this: if you can pull together a contest entry with already-written material within a day’s worth of uninterrupted writing time, the contest’s demands are probably pretty reasonable.

I like this standard: the more time you have to write, the more entry-ambitious it encourages you to be.

If a contest requires time-consuming funky formatting, or printing on special contest forms, or wacko binding, you might not want to bother — unless, of course, you happen to have a week’s vacation between now and the deadline. Even so, you might want to think twice: the more hoops the entrant is required to leap through, generally speaking, the more exacting the judging.

What makes me think that? To my contest-experienced eyes, such requests are not for your benefit, but the contest organizers’.

How so? Because — and hold onto your hats, everybody, because I am about to reveal a deep, dark secret of the contest trade — the primary purpose of these elaborate requests for packaging is to make it as easy as possible to knock entries out of finalist consideration at first glance.

That’s a matter of simple probability, really. The more that contest rules ask entrants to do to package an entry, the more ways an entrant can get it wrong. By setting up stringent and easily-visible cosmetic requirements, the organizers maximize the number of entries they can simply toss aside, unread.

Yes, you read that right: it’s so they don’t have to read all of the entries in full. Does that make you feel better or worse about the possibility of their selling your contact information to a third party?

Interestingly enough, many of the organizers of contests that establish these demands are quite open about their being merely an exercise in rule-following — and that they do it in order to preserve that most precious of commodities in this industry, time.

Not that you would have to be Einstein, Mme. de Staël, and Confucius rolled into one to figure it out. Think about it: if contest organizers really only were only seeking uniformity amongst the entries, they could easily just say, “We will only accept entries in standard manuscript format.”?

No fuss, no bother, and besides, all of their entrants who want to get published should be using standard format, anyway, right? Manuscripts not conforming to standard manuscript format tend, after all, to be rejected unread in both contest situations and in agents’ offices. (If you are not already aware of the requirements of standard format for manuscript, do yourself a favor and check out the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category at right.)

Instead, the organizers in this type of contest can merely assign some luckless intern or exceptionally virtuous volunteer to go through the entries before the judges see page 1 of them, plucking out any that are in the wrong type of folder, printed on the wrong type of paper, don’t have the right funky margins…well, you get the idea.

Voil? ! The number of entries the judges have to read has magically decreased! Shades of Millicent, eh?

One of the quickest and most reliable ways to find out if a good writer has entered many contests is how annoying she finds this phenomenon. Or the surprisingly common corollary of contest rules’ not being crystal-clear about the costs to the entrant of deviations from these non-literary requirements. Over-adherence to nit-picky presentation issues provides the organization with the illusion of selectivity on bases that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing.

Still happy about providing your contact information? Or investing more than a day’s worth of your irreplaceable time in prepping an entry?

While we’re on the subject, here’ a specialized question aimed at those of you who are currently embroiled in preparing contest entries: how much of your writing time is being eaten up by contests these days? If you have been entering quite a few (and we’ve just finished a season of deadlines for contests and fellowship applications, and are about to enter another), would your time be better spent by passing on the next one?

As I intimated earlier in this series, there are so many literary contests out there that if you entered them all, you would never have a chance to get down to serious writing. Equally seriously, if you have a finished piece that you should be marketing to agents and/or small presses, it is very easy to tell yourself that entering contest after contest — at the expense of devoting that time to sending out queries — is a time-saver, in the long run.

Unfortunately, that soothing self-talk isn’t always true. Yes, a win (or place, or finalist status) in a reputable contest can indeed speed up your agent-seeking process exponentially. It would be kind of pointless for me, of all people, to deny that, as I met my agent as a direct result of winning a contest.

It can lead to the fast track, and you should definitely consider entering a few for that very reason. Yet, contrary to many, many entrants’ expectations, it doesn’t always lead to landing an agent, even if you win.

True, a contest credential frequently moves a query up in the pile, and sometimes even allows it to jump the Millicent screening stage entirely, hop-scotching directly to the agent’s desk. That’s gotten rare, however: these days, all queries tend to go through the same screening process — sometimes even if the letter opens with a recommendation from a client.

Then, too, a contest judge’s idea of what is marketable at the moment is sometimes a bit outdated; an agent or editor might not agree. And many contests attached to conferences feature categories that do not correspond to the interests of the agents and editors invited to the conference where the winners are announced.

Word to the wise: entering contests probably should not be your only agent-seeking strategy.

It’s an understandable choice, of course — sending out query after query is discouraging, and in the current ultra-competitive writers’ market, it can sometimes take years to pique a good agent’s interest.

Not that it will take my readers years, of course. You’re one market-savvy bunch.

However tired of the querying grind you may be, please do not fall into the trap of using contests as a complete substitute for querying. For one thing, the turn-around time for contest entries is usually significantly longer than the query response time for even the least organized agencies: six months is common, and if you have a finished novel or book proposal in hand, that’s far too long to wait for a single response.

Also, if you hang all of your hopes on a contest win, even if you enter a plethora of contests, you are relying upon the quirky tastes of people you have never met to determine your fate.

Do I sense some disagreement out there? “But Anne,” some voices mutter, “isn’t that true when you send a query to an agent as well? You routinely spend a significant part of your time here demonstrating the difference between the things a writer can control and those we can’t, and unless I’m very much mistaken, this is one of the latter.”

Well, sort of. Just as there are certain dependable agents’ pet peeves that seem to transcend space and time, there are a great many predictable reasons a submission might get knocked out of a contest competition; I shall be talking about those later this month. But in contests, there can also be considerations that have little to do with the actual marketability — and sometimes not even the writing quality — of your entry.

To be blunt about it, to make it to the finalist round in a contest, your entry will have to avoid every conceivable pet peeve that the initial screeners might have. And, believe it or not, your garden-variety Mehitabel tends to have more pet peeves than Millicent. For one thing, she’s probably been screening pages longer.

Mind-blowing, isn’t it? With first readers at agencies (who are seldom the agents themselves, recall), you can at least rely upon certain basic rules. Standard format, for instance, is not a matter of individual whim, and while some rogue agents may prefer some slight variation upon it, you can bet your next-to-last nickel that if you follow it, you’re not going to have your submission tossed out on technical grounds if you follow it.

But in a contest, if you hit a volunteer first reader whose college English professor insisted that semicolons are always an indicator of poor writing — yes, such curmudgeons do exist, and their erstwhile students abound — your work is likely to lose its shot at the finalist round the first time you use one. Ditto with the passive voice, or multiple points of view. Plenty of professional readers actively dislike all of the above.

What can a contest entrant do about that? you ask, aghast? Nothing. You never can tell who is going to be a contest judge, so the outcome even for very good writing is not always predictable.

So please, I beg of you, keep sending out those queries while you are entering contests. Even if you do win that contest — as I sincerely hope you do; I love announcing my readers’ triumphs — you will be better off if you already have some agents interested in your work.

Some writers are shy about this, I’ve noticed, especially if they are eying competitions in which publication is a prize. Why, the very last time I discussed this topic at Author! Author!, incisive and thoughtful reader RM wrote in to ask:

I hate to be the asker of dumb questions, but I’m not sure of the protocol. Is it okay to send a piece into a contest and out to an agent at the same time?

It’s not a dumb question at all, RM. I’m quite positive that you’re not the only potential entrant that has wondered this.

To set your fears at rest, it’s perfectly legitimate to have the same piece out to agents and in a contest entry simultaneously. It’s in any literary contest’s interests to have its finalists succeed in market terms, so they won’t object, and if you do well in the contest, the agent gets boasting rights. Everyone wins!

Heck, in these days of tight editorial acquisitions, some agents actively encourage their already-signed clients to enter literary contests, in order to provide more oomph to their sales pitches. I hear you gasp, but you’d be astonished how seldom contests actually forbid this; read contest rules carefully. Many writing contests specify that entries must be previously unpublished, but say nothing about whether that writing can be represented or not.

Do take a contest at its word about the previously unpublished part — but don’t worry about what the outcome would be if you sent out a submission and an entry simultaneously, landed an agent prior to the contest’s winners being announced, and by some miracle that look forward to being able to announce on your behalf, the book in question sold before judging was completed. It’s highly unlikely that the process would move that fast, but even if it did, all you would have to do is contact the contest’s organizers and inform them that you’ve signed a publication contract.

Chances are, though, that won’t disqualify your entry: what they care about is whether a piece of writing is already under contract to be published prior to the entry deadline. So if you haven’t actually signed a publication contract by the time the entry window closes, you should be find.

But by all means, get your work out in as many ways as possible!

Try not to go overboard, however. If you find that the time to prep contest entries are starting to be your excuse for not sending out more queries, stop and reevaluate whether you are making the best use of your time in your pursuit of publication.

If for no other reason that that I would really, really like to be able to gloat when your first book comes out. I ask for so little; humor me. Keep up the good work!