It may be possible to see a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour, but that doesn’t mean a submitter should play fast and loose with the space-time continuum

green anemone

Happy Memorial Day weekend, U.S.-based readers! Since one of the many, many sacrifices those of us devoted to the difficult task of self-expression routinely make is to trade what other folks might do with their long weekends for gloriously uninterrupted hours of writing — or, better yet, revising! — I thought you might appreciate a glimpse of the world outside your writing studios. Now get back to work!

Actually, I have an ulterior motive for opening with that photo: as I’m certainly not going to be the first to point out, those of us who read manuscripts for a living are noted for looking not just at the big picture — is this an interesting story? Does it grab the reader from the get-go? And the question dear to writers everywhere, is it well-written? — but also at the granular level. It also probably won’t stop the presses to point out that the notoriously close reading any given manuscript has to survive in order to be seriously considered for publication tends to come as a great, big, or even nasty surprise to a lot of first-time submitters. And don’t even get me started on how many literary contest entrants seem to operate on the assumption that contest judges are specifically selected for their propensity to read with a charitable eye.

Does that giant gasp I just heard indicate that some of you fine people have been laboring under one or both of those impressions, or is somebody about to go for a nice, leisurely swim? If it’s the former, you’re definitely not alone: all too often, talented writers new to the game rush their manuscripts out the door the instant after they’ve typed the last page, presumably in the fond hope that all agents, editors, and contest judges are such lovers of literature that they will judge the book by nothing but how well it’s written. And possibly, to a lesser extent, by the inherent interest of the story.

Or so Millicent the agency screener must surmise from how many of those submissions apparently have not been spell-checked. Or grammar-checked. Or even read through since the last revision, because how else could the writer not have noticed that several words seem to have dropped out of that sentence on page 33?

Oh, stop groaning. Don’t you want your future agent and acquiring editor to fall so in love with your writing that they examine it from every angle, down to the last grain of sand?

Before I take that resounding, “Heavens, no!” for an unqualified yes, let me hasten to remind you that in the long run, it truly is better for your book if the agent of your dreams (and Millicent, the stalwart soul s/he has entrusted to narrowing the thousands of queries and hundreds of submissions a good agent receives to the handful that s/he would actually have time to read without sacrificing the book-selling side of the job entirely) pays attention to the little stuff. Why? Well, let me put it this way: if Millicent’s eye may legitimately be called nit-picky, a good acquiring editor’s peepers should be regarded as microscopic.

Oh, you thought it was easy to read closely enough to catch that the narrative has used the same image on page 12 and page 315? Or that the writer fell so in love with the word verdant that it appears every time that anything vaguely green flashes by the reader’s consciousness? In a book about lawn care?

So if this series’ focus upon the little visual details has occasionally seemed a trifle, well, obsessive, congratulations — you’re gaining real insight into what professional readers are trained to do. And think about it: if Millicent and her ilk must pay such close attention to the text, how likely are they to catch any formatting glitches?

Uh-huh. Hard to miss that sea anemone lying on the sand, isn’t it?

In order to give you a Millicent’s-eye view of your manuscript, for the past few posts in this series, we’ve been comparing manuscripts in standard format with improperly-formatted ones. Yes, it’s been a lengthy slog, but hands up, those of you who have never had the opportunity to see a manuscript that actually got picked up by an agent and published by a traditional house up close and personal.

See, I told you that you were not alone. Quite the forest of hands, isn’t it?

In my experience, most rookie submitter mistakes arise not merely from simple ignorance of the strictures of standard format, but from the low-level panic that comes from having to guess whether one is performing the secret handshake correctly. The better an aspiring writer understands the rules, the less guesswork is involved. It may not eliminate the stress of submission entirely, but it does at least remove one of the most common stressors from the mix.

Okay, so it’s not what the average would think of as a little light weekend recreational stress release. Were you under the impression that being a brilliantly incisive observer and chronicler of the human condition was ordinary?

Which is why I’m completely confident that you’re up to the challenge of thinking of your writing on several levels simultaneously. Particularly when, like the savvy submitter that you are, you are reading your ENTIRE manuscript IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before sending it to anyone even vaguely affiliated with a literary contest or the publishing industry. Lest we forget, it’s much, much easier to catch formatting issues, typos, and logic problems that way.

Do I sense that simmering resentment at how hard it is for a new writer to break into print beginning to bubble up to the surface? “But Anne!” I hear aspiring writers everywhere shout, and who could blame you? “I don’t have a problem with making my manuscript ship-shape on a writing level before passing it under Millicent’s critical spectacles. Granted, revision can be a trifle irritating, but what really irks me is that after I’ve done it, that lovingly worked and reworked prose could be knocked out of consideration because of some arbitrary expectations about how professional book manuscripts should look on the page. Isn’t that just an annoying additional hoop through which I’m expected to leap, and don’t I have every right to resent it?”

Well, not exactly, bubblers-up. As we’ve been discussing, the rules of standard format actually are not arbitrary; most of them have a strong practical basis that might not be readily apparent from the writer’s side of the submission desk. Let’s take, for instance, the relatively straightforward requirements that manuscripts should be entirely typed, double-spaced, and have 1-inch margins all the way around.

I hear some of you snickering, but Millicent regularly reads submissions that do not conform to standard format in one or even all of these respects. It’s not unheard-of for diagrams to be hand-drawn, pages hand-numbered, or for late-caught typos to be corrected in pen. Or for an e-mailed query to an agency that asks to see the first few pages to be single-spaced — because that’s the norm for an e-mail, right?

Let’s take a peek at why all of those rules necessary, from a professional point of view. For continuity’s sake, let’s once again call upon our old friend Charles Dickens again to see what a page of a manuscript should look like — actually, since we’ve been looking at so many first pages lately, let’s live dangerously, shall we? Here are pages 1 and two.

2 cities good
2 CIties right page 2

Relatively easy to read, isn’t it? (Assuming that you find it so, of course. If it’s too small to read easily on your browser, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + until the type is large enough to read comfortably.)

To give you some idea of just how difficult it would be to screen, much less hand-edit, a manuscript that was not double-spaced or had smaller margins, take a gander at this little monstrosity. To render it an even better example of what makes Millicent’s optician rend his garments in despair, I’ve gone ahead and submitted a fuzzy photocopy, rather than a freshly-printed original.

I believe the proper term for this is reader-hostile. Even an unusually patient and literature-loving Millicent would reject a submission like this immediately, without reading so much as a word. As would, more often than not, Mehitabel.

And honestly, can you blame them?

Did I hear a few spit-takes after that last set of assertions from those of you joining us in mid-argument? “My goodness, Anne,” sputter those of you wiping coffee, tea, or other beverage of your choice off your incredulous faces, “why would any sane person consider presentation violations that serious an offense? It is, after all, precisely the same writing. Sure, it’s a little harder to read, but if it’s an e-mailed submission, Millicent could just expand the image. And it’s not as though Millicent’s boss, the agent of Charles’ dreams, couldn’t just ask him to reformat it.”

Yes on both counts, but surely you can appreciate why the Charles who submitted that last page would strike anyone accustomed to handling manuscripts as a much, much more difficult writer to work with than the Charles behind our first set of examples. The latter displays a fairly significant disregard for not only the norms of standard format, but also the optical comfort of the reader. Not to mention just shouting, “Hey, I don’t expect any feedback on this, ever!”

Oh, you didn’t spot that? Anyone who handles manuscripts for a living would. Even with nice, empty page backs upon which to scrawl copy edits, trying to cram spelling or grammatical changes between those lines would be well-nigh impossible. Knowing that, Millicent would never dream of passing such a manuscript along to the agent who employs her; to do so would be to invite a stern and probably lengthy lecture on the vicissitudes of the life editorial — and that fact that, despite impressive innovations in technology, intensive line editing a single-spaced document in either hard or soft copy is well-nigh impossible.

Too hard on the eyes — and where on earth would the comments go on the hard copy?

Don’t tempt her to reject your submission unread — and don’t even consider, I beg of you, providing a similar temptation to a contest judge. Given the sheer volume of submissions Millicent reads, she’s not all that likely to resist. The contest judge, on the other hand, will be specifically instructed not to resist at all.

Yes, really. Even if the sum total of the provocation consists of a manuscript that’s shrunk to, say, 95% of the usual size, Mehitabel is likely to knock it out of the running on sight.

Are some of you are blushing? Perhaps some past contest entrants and submitters who wanted to squeeze in a particularly exciting scene before the end of those requested 50 pages?

No? Let me fill you in on a much-deplored practice, then: faced with a hard-and-fast page limit, some wily writers will shrink the font or the margins, to shoehorn a few more words onto each page. After all, the logic runs, who is going to notice a tenth of an inch sliced off a left or right margin, or notice that the typeface is a trifle smaller than usual?

Millicent will, that’s who, and practically instantly. As will any reasonably experienced contest judge; after hours on end of reading 12-point type within 1-inch margins, a reader develops a visceral sense of roughly how many characters fit on a properly-formatted page.

Don’t believe me? Go back and study the correctly formatted page 2 in our first example. Then take a gander at this wee gem of tricky intent:

2 Cities cheating page 2

Admit it: you can tell it’s different, can’t you, even without whipping out a ruler? Yet I shaved only one-tenth of an inch off each margin and shrunk the text by 5% — far, far less of a reduction than most fudgers attempt when, say, they’re trying to fit 26 pages of manuscript into a contest entry with a 25-page limit. So how likely is this little gambit to pay off for the submitter?

Exactly. Amazingly enough, people who read for a living very seldom appreciate attempts to trick them into extraneous reading. No matter how much Charles felt that last example added life to his opening — or how right he was about that — Millicent will simply notice that he tried to cheat in order to get more of his words in front of her eyeballs than writers conscientious enough to follow the rules. Next!

The same principle applies, incidentally, to query letters: Alarmingly often, aspiring writers, despairing of fitting a coherent summary of their books within the standard single page, will shrink the margins or typeface on a query. “What’s two tenths of an inch?” they reassure themselves. “And honestly, who is going to be able to tell the difference between 12-point type at 99%, rather than 100%?”

Help yourself to a gold star for the day if you immediately answered: “Someone who reads queries all day, every day. And two-tenths of an inch all around can, as Uncle Charles has just demonstrated, add up to a great deal more text on a page.”

Another common means of fudging spacing: incomplete adherence to the rules bout skipping spaces after periods and colons. Specifically, skipping two spaces (as tradition requires) in most instances, but omitting the second space when doing so would make the difference between a paragraph’s ending with a single word on the last line and being able to use that line to begin a new paragraph.

Shame on you, those who just bellowed, “Wow, that’s a great idea — over the course of an entire chapter, that might free up a page of text for my nefarious purposes!” Don’t you think inconsistent spacing is the kind of thing a reader trained to spot textual oddities might conceivably notice?

And for good reason: waffling about how often to hit the space bar can be a tell-tale sign that a writer isn’t altogether comfortable with writing in standard format. Such a writer’s work would, presumably, need to be proofread for formatting more closely than other agency clients’ work, would it not? And that in turn would mean that signing such a writer would inevitably means devoting either unanticipated staff time to double-checking his manuscripts or training in the delights of consistent rule application, right?

Those rhetorical questions would be equally applicable whether the agency in question happened to favor either the two-space or one-space convention, incidentally. Consistency is the key to proper manuscript formatting, after all, and all the more likely to be valued if an agency’s guidelines ask for something specific in a submission.

Why? Well, think about it: when you first thought about querying and submitting, would it have occurred to you to check each and every agency’s website (if it has one; not all do, even at this late date) for submission guidelines? So if you were the Millicent screening manuscripts for an agent with a desperate aversion to that second space after the comma (she had a nasty run-in with a journalist on a cross-country flight , perhaps; he may have menaced her with a copy of the AP’s formatting guidelines), and your boss had been considerate enough to post a reference to that aversion on the agency’s website, on her blog, and in 47 online interviews, wouldn’t that be one of the first things you looked for in a submission?

Let’s all chant it together, shall we? If an agency or publishing house’s submission guidelines ask for something specific, for heaven’s sake, give it to them. But don’t generalize that individual preferences to the entire industry, okay? And if they don’t express a preference, stick to standard format.

Yes, regardless of what you may have heard online about how nobody is using double-spacing after periods and colons in book manuscripts anymore. It’s simply not true that it’s generally an instant-rejection offense, on the grounds that manuscripts including the second space look hopelessly old-fashioned to agents and editors.

Well, guess what, cookie — standard manuscript format is old-fashioned, by definition. That doesn’t seem to stop most of the currently-published authors of the English-speaking world from using it. In fact, in all of my years writing and editing, I have never — not once — seen an already agented manuscript rejected or even criticized for including the two spaces that English prose requires after a period or colon. Possibly because those that feel strongly about the single-space convention tend to be up front about not being likely to fall in love with submissions featuring what they perceive to be extra spaces.

I have, however, heard endless complaint from professional readers about those second spaces being omitted. Care to guess why?

If you said that cutting those spaces throws off word count estimation, clap yourself heartily on the back: standard estimates assume those doubled spaces. (If you don’t know how and why word count is tallied, please see the HOW TO ESTIMATE WORD COUNT — AND WHY category on the archive list at right.) Give yourself a nice, warm hug if you also suggested that omitting them renders a manuscript harder to hand-edit. Because we all know about the lecture Millicent is likely to get if she forgets about that, right?

I can sense blood pressure rising over this issue, but honestly, inconsistent application of either rule is far more likely to raise red flags with Millicent than clinging like an unusually tenacious leech to either the one- or two-space convention. Particularly if that inconsistency — or slightly off sizing — seems to allow more words per page than is usual.

My point, should you care to know it, is that a pro isn’t going to have to look very hard at a space-deprived page to catch on that there’s something fishy going on, so let’s work a bit more to increase your visceral sense that something is wrong. Since Dickens was so fond of half-page sentences, the examples I’ve been using above won’t illustrate my next common gaffe very well.

Reaching blindly into the depths of the bookshelf next to my computer, I seem to have grabbed Elizabeth Von Arnim’s wonderful take on the Bluebeard myth, VERA. Taking a page at random, let’s take a look at it properly formatted in manuscript form.

Vera correctly

There are 310 words on this page; I wasn’t kidding the other day about how far off the standard word count estimations could be. Now cast your eye over the same text with a couple of very minor formatting alterations.

Doesn’t look significantly different to the naked eye, does it? Yet the word count is slightly lower on this version of this page — 295 words. That may not seem like a big difference, but it’s enough to make quite a difference over the course of an entire manuscript.

“But Anne,” I hear some sharp-eyed readers exclaim, “wasn’t the word count lower because there was an entire line missing from the second version?”?

Well spotted, criers-out: the natural tendency of omitting the second spaces would indeed be to allow more words per page, not less. But the scanter space between sentences was not the only deviation from standard format here; Millicent, I assure you, would have caught two others.

I tossed a curve ball in here, to make sure you were reading as closely as she was. Wild guesses? Anyone? Anyone?

The error that chopped the word count was a pretty innocent one, almost always done unconsciously: the writer apparently did not turn off the widow/orphan control, found in Word under FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. As we were discussing only the other day, this insidious little function, the default unless one changes it, prevents single lines of multi-line paragraphs from getting stranded on either the bottom of one page of the top of the next.

As you may see, keeping this function operational results in an uneven number of lines per page. Which, over the course of an entire manuscript, is going to do some serious damage to the word count.

As would tinkering with the bottom margin to allow an extra line on the page. Here it is with only a minor change, a .9 inch bottom margin instead of 1 inch, a modification so minute that a non-professional reader would probably not notice that it was non-standard. To compress a bit more, let’s have only one space after each period.

Vera with extra line

A bit claustrophobic, is it not? If you don’t find it so, consider it as Millicent would: not as an individual page, isolated in space and time, but as one of the several thousand she has read that week. Lest we forget, most of the ones she will have been taking seriously will have looked like this:

Vera correctly

See it now? While Millicent is highly unlikely to have either the time or the inclination to whip out a ruler to check whether that bottom margin is really a full inch (although Mehitabel might), she will be able to tell that this page has more words on the page than the others she has seen that day. She might not be able to tell instantly precisely how this page has been modified, but she will be able to tell that something’s off.

“But Anne,” clever rule-manipulators all over North America shout, “I’ve been modifying my submissions this way for years, and nobody has ever called me out on it. Therefore, I do not believe it’s ever been a factor in my work being rejected — and it does allow me to stay under that all-important 400-page limit.”

Perhaps, rules-lawyers, but let me ask you a question: have you ever had such a manuscript accepted?

Well might some jaws drop. It’s an extremely common submitter’s misconception, especially amongst those brand-new to the game or who have only submitted pages as part of a query packet, rather than as requested materials, that if they were really doing something wrong, the rejecter would tell them so. And tell them what it is, naturally, so they could do better next time.

In these days of form-letter rejections — and even no-reply rejections — this is simply an unrealistic expectation. Unless an agent or editor is asking for the writer to revise and resubmit the manuscript (in itself something of a rarity these days), why would they take the time?

Well, yes, to be nice would be a perfectly acceptable response, from a writer’s perspective. If a well-established agent received only a hundred queries per month and asked for one manuscript — not all that uncommon a ratio thirty years ago — writing personalized rejections would be both kind and not unduly time-consuming. Presuming, of course, that the rejected writer of the month did not consider a detailed rejection an invitation to argue about the manuscripts merits.

Consider for a moment, though, the agent that receives hundreds of queries per day. See why kindly advice-giving rejection letters might have become something of a rarity?

Especially if the rejection reason had to do with a formatting error. Honestly, it would eat up half of Millicent’s screening day. Why? Well, most submissions contain at least one — formatting problems, like typos, grammar gaffes, and wolves, tend to travel in packs. Even with the best of wills, it would be prohibitively time-consuming for Millicent to scrawl try learning how to format a manuscript, honey.

No, regardless of whether the ultimate rejection trigger for VERA was that extra line per page, the second misspelling in paragraph 2, or a premise that Millicent has seen seventeen times that week, the reasons given for sending back the submission would probably run like this: I’m sorry, but this manuscript does not fit our needs at this time. I just didn’t fall in love with this story, and I don’t feel that I can sell this in the current tough market. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.

The moral of this sad, sad story: it seldom pays to assume that you’re doing it right just because you haven’t been told you are doing it wrong. It pays even less often to conclude from the generalities of a boilerplate rejection that there can’t have been any specific technical problem that caused Millicent, if not to reject it outright, then at least to take the submission less seriously.

Besides, another notorious agents’ pet peeve was lurking in the background — although in all probability, it would have irritated a contest judge far more than Millicent. Here’s the page again; see if you can spot it this time. Hint: it was not in the properly-formatted version.

Crown yourself with a laurel wreath if, while running your eyes thoughtfully over that last example, your peepers became riveted to the next-to-last line of the page: an emdash (–, one long line) instead of a doubled dash with spaces on either end. Here again, we see that the standards that apply to printed books are not applicable to manuscripts.

Which brings me to yet another moral for the day: just because a particular piece of formatting looks right to those of us who have been reading books since we were three doesn’t mean that it is correct in a manuscript. Or book proposal. Or contest entry.

Or a professional reader wouldn’t instantly spot a trifle imported from the wonderful world of published books. Remember, Millicent scans manuscripts all day; contest judges read entries for hours at a time. After a surprisingly short while, a formatting issue that might well not even catch a lay reader’s attention can begin to seem gargantuan.

Please don’t dismiss this as unimportant to your success as a writer. If writing is solid, it deserves to be free of distracting formatting choices. You want agents, editors, and contest judges to be muttering, “Wow, this is good,” over your manuscript, not “Oh, God, he doesn’t know the rules about dashes,” do you not?

Spare Millie the chagrin, please; both you and she will be the happier for it. Believe me, she could use a brilliantly-written, impeccably-formatted submission to brighten her possibly Dickensian day. Be compassionate toward her plight — and your submission’s, proposal’s, and/or contest entry’s. Pay close enough attention to the technical details that yours the submission that makes her say, “Oh, here is good writing, well presented.”

My, all of those individual grains of sand are attractive, aren’t they? Keep up the good work!

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!

Countdown to a contest entry, part XI: a few more cosmetic points, or, three cheers for the emperor of ice cream!

Okay, you caught me: that’s not ice cream; it’s tiramisù. What do you want from me? The ice cream truck does not start circulating my neighborhood until summer starts.

But enough frivolity: I’m worried about your recovery from yesterday’s magnum opus on contest entry formatting. Surprisingly stressful, isn’t it, to go over contest rules that closely? That never palls, for some reason; I judge contests, and I still found writing last night’s post a trifle nerve-wracking.

Why, other than my habitual deep and abiding empathy for the writer just starting out? I guess it’s because writing contests are in some ways the last bastion of what aspiring writers everywhere would so like to believe the literary world to be: many, if not most, actually are devoted to rewarding good writing first and foremost.

If that’s not the only criterion, well, it’s hard to blame anyone concerned: style is quite a bit more complex to judge than most contest entrants suppose, and it’s only human nature to want their winners to go on to get published. Of course, the market-readiness of the text is legitimate to judge. So is aptness of subject matter, and vocabulary vis-à-vis intended audience. And realistically, how can the first- and second-round contest judges not give some thought to how an entry in a book-length category is likely to fare in the current book market, when the opinions and tastes of the agent, editor, or established author judging the finalist round have been formed (or at any rate informed) by market trends?

“Whoa!” some of you purists shout indignantly. “This is beginning to sound an awful lot like how our old nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, looks at submissions. Next, you’ll be telling me that if my contest entry does not conform to some specific cosmetic standard, it won’t make the finalist round, no matter how well-written it is.”

Oh, didn’t you read yesterday’s post? It’s rare that a literary contest doesn’t require entries to conform to at least a few specific cosmetic standards of presentation. That’s why I always urge serious contest entrants to go over every syllable of contest entry literature with a magnifying glass, bloodhound, and possibly a psychic, to make sure that you are aware of every tiny little rule that might be lurking in the small print.

Try not to think of such strictures as extraneous to the question of writing quality. Try to think of it as evidence of Mehitabel the contest judge’s being so committed to evaluating writing style that she does not want any mere presentation concerns to get in the way of that laudable endeavor.

How so? Just as submitting a manuscript in standard format minimizes the probability that Millicent will be concentrating on anything but your writing, following contest rules to the letter is a writer’s best bet for assuring the judge the freedom to focus on the words on the page. That’s what you want, isn’t it, purists?

What’s that you say? You hadn’t been thinking of deviations from contest rules as distractions from your good writing? How could they not be, to someone who reads entry after entry in the same format?

I must caution you, though, that not every writing contest embraces the same format — and not every category within a contest might call for the same formatting. Read the rules carefully every single time.

Yes, even if you have entered the contest in question before; contests change their rules all the time. Don’t assume that what was required the last time you entered a contest will be what’s required next time.

What kind of things might change, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, the last time I wrote a series on this topic, a local writers’ contest of my acquaintance stated very clearly in its entry guidelines: Have the title of the submission and page numbers located in the upper right hand corner of each page.

Other than the grammatical problem with that sentence, do you see any problems it might raise, in light of what we discussed yesterday? Why, the slug line for this contest is on the opposite side of the page from what’s expected in standard format for books! And it’s also on the opposite side of the page from where this same contest dictated the slug line should be the previous year!

Followed much woe and uproar, as you might imagine, as well as much speculation amongst repeat contest entrants. “Are the organizers trying to place those of us familiar with standard format at a disadvantage?” entirely theoretical potential entrants came to me in private to complain, as if I were still affiliated with the organization sponsoring the contest. “Or are they just attempting to discourage those of us who have been entering this contest every year since space travel was only a pipe dream?”

Who do I look like, the Amazing Kreskin? I have no idea what was going on in the rule-changers’ minds. Having served often as a contest judge, however, I can engage in some wild speculation about why it might be to the organizers’ advantage to change the rules from time to time on issues like this.

Okay, on with the unsubstantiated guesswork: it would render weeding out entries in the first round quite a bit quicker. How? By making it instantly apparent to Mehitabel which entrants had read the rules carefully and those who simply took their names out of the slug lines of the manuscripts they were already submitting to agents, printed up the requisite number of pages, and submitted them as they were to the contest.

And I do mean instantly apparent. Specifying an odd location for the slug line may not seem as though it would change the entry much, but actually, it would be one of the easiest rule violations possible to spot, other than using the wrong typeface or not indenting paragraphs. Take another look at our example from earlier in this series — and, to make it interesting, I’m using one that adheres to another of the Unnamed Local Contest’s rather oddball requirements, asterisks to designate section breaks.

asterisk.jpg

Now, that page would make pretty much any Millicent in the land happy, in terms of formatting, right? The asterisk line is a bit old-fashioned (translation: Millicent’s boss is going to make you take it out if she signs you), but still, it’s basically in standard format otherwise. And it would been considered perfectly acceptable in a ULC submission at any point between, say, Apollo I and the advent of the space shuttle.

But see how different the same page looks with the slug line as the ULC’s rule change directed a few years back:

as-rules-direct-jpeg.jpg

Don’t need the aforementioned bloodhound or magnifying glass to spot that difference, do you? Neither would Mehitabel.

I’m not saying, of course, that ease of first-round disqualification was the actual motive behind the rule change; as I said, I’m engaging in irresponsible speculation here. I’m saying that this year, the ULC’s contest guidelines specified that All pages of the submission must have the category number, manuscript title, and page number listed in the upper right-hand corner.

Which means, of course, that both our first and second examples would be, if not actually disqualified, then at least had enough points subtracted to render making it to the finalist round particularly likely. And all for a change that, while it would leap off the page at Mehitabel, might not even be noticed by a reader unfamiliar with manuscript format — and that would drive those of us accustomed to properly-formatted book manuscripts nuts.

The space shuttle has been grounded, and time has moved on. Take a gander:

“But Anne,” the eagle-eyed among you will no doubt exclaim, “that’s not the only difference between this example and the previous two. Earlier, there were five asterisks indicating the section break; here, there are only three. What gives?”

What gives, ladies and gentlemen, is yet another change in long-standing contest rules. This year, the wording changed at the bottom of the rule page: Indicate scene breaks (such as: POV/Location/Time change) by three spaced asterisks.

The moral of the story is — let’s all shout it together, shall we? — always, always, ALWAYS go over the contest rules more than once and follow them to the letter. Don’t assume that you know what they say after only a cursory glance, and for heaven’s sake, don’t blindly follow the advice of any given yahoo with a website who happens to give advice to writers.

Yes, including yours truly. Heck, I WON that contest once, and if I hadn’t combed the new rules, I would not have been aware of either of these newfangled requirements.

That being said, let’s move on to another element many contest entrants overlook: the title page for your contest entry.

Already, I hear dissension in the ranks. “But Anne,” I hear those of you planning to enter next year’s version of the ULC, “I realize that the contest you were discussing yesterday did require a title page, but if I’m reading the rules correctly, the contest I’m entering doesn’t ask for one. I’m afraid of breaking the rules — do I really need to add it?”

I understand your fear, cringing pre-entrants, but in my opinion, yes, you do need one, for precisely the same reason that a professional writer always includes a title page with any book-length manuscript or excerpt therefrom she plans to submit to an agent or editor. It’s just the way the pros do things.

Not to mention that a title page in standard format is stuffed to the proverbial gills with all kinds of information that’s highly useful to folks in the industry. Look at what Millicent would expect to see topping a manuscript:

See? A great many of the basic facts an agent would need to know to acquire and sell a book are right there at her fingertips: what kind of book it is, how long it is, the title, the author — and, most importantly from our point of view, how to get ahold of that gifted author in order to proffer a representation contract. (For more of the hows and whys of a standard format title page, please see the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A TITLE PAGE category on the archive list at right.)

For a contest, however, these are not the relevant facts Mehitabel needs to know — in fact, the mention of a couple of ‘em might well get you disqualified. But almost without exception, contest rules will specify that an entrant must provide certain additional information — and the logical place to do that is on a title page.

Let’s take, for instance, the ULC’s entry guidelines — or are these the guidelines from a few years ago. Do check. At one time, at least, its rules demanded that, in addition to filling out an entry form, the entrant should include other information:

*The Contest Category name and number (e.g. Category 3: Romance Genre) must be printed on the first page of the submission and on the mailing envelope.
*All pages of the submission (chapters and synopsis) must have the title of the manuscript.
*Do not type your name on any page of the submission. It should appear only on your registration form and return envelope.

And, from elsewhere in the rules, our old friend:

*Have the title of the submission and page numbers located in the upper right hand corner of each page.

We dealt with quite a few of these criteria yesterday and earlier today, right? Even though the rules do not invoke the magical words slug line, we’ve all had enough experience now with manuscripts to know that is what they’re talking about, right? So no worries here.

Except for that pesky requirement to name the category. Sure, it says to place it on the first page of the submission, but does that mean on a title page or on the first page of text?

Most contest entrants go for the latter. Technically, there is nothing wrong with this — except for the fact that including information other than the chapter name and number on the first page of text makes it look to anyone familiar with standard manuscript format as though the writer just doesn’t know the difference between short story format.

Oh, you’re not familiar with the latter? It looks like this:

short-story-jpeg.jpg

And the proper format for the first page of a book-length manuscript, which looks like this:

chapter-jpeg.jpg

I ask you once again: did you require either a magnifying glass or a bloodhound, or even a psychic, to ferret out the difference between those two pages? I’m hoping not, but if you did, you might consider consulting a qualified eye specialist.

So while you could comply with the rules (if they are for the right year) by shoving the title, category, and genre onto the first page of text, it’s not going to look very market-ready to trained eyes. And we all know by now how your garden-variety contest judge feels about marketability, don’t we?

Before you stress out too much about this seeming Catch-22, your fairy godmother is here to make it all better. I’ve got a simple, elegant solution that will both satisfy the rule-huggers and make your entry look spotlessly professional.

You guessed it: by adding a title page.

Don’t worry about its adding length to your entry: as I mentioned in passing yesterday, in neither contests nor manuscripts are title pages either numbered or counted in page counts. What might it look like otherwise, you ask? Well, obviously, it would vary slightly from contest to contest, depending upon what the rules called upon the writer to provide, but were our pal Gus entering the ULC, I might advise him to make his entry’s title page look a little something like this:

Admittedly, there have been more exciting title pages in the history of the world, but this one offends no one, adheres to the contest’s stated guidelines, and gives the necessary information. Everybody wins, so to speak.

Note, too, that just like a title page in standard format, the contest entry title page is in the same font and typeface as the rest of the manuscript. Resist the temptation to add bells and whistles such as boldfacing, larger type, or (heaven preserve us) designs. This is not the place to show your creativity: it’s the place to show your professionalism.

Show your creativity in the text you submit.

Resist, too, the astonishingly common impulse to include an epigraph of any sort on either the title page or the first page of your entry. You know what I’m talking about, right? Those little quotations and/or excerpts of poetry that authors so love to tack on to the front of their work, presumably to demonstrate that they are well-read, the source of their inspiration for the book to follow, or a subtle announcement that this work is ready to join the community of well-loved published writing.

I have to admit, I like ‘em, too, but do you know what they start to look like to professional readers after only a year or two of seeing them emblazoned on title pages, first pages, or pages of their own in manuscripts? Like little picket signs reading, I’m just as good as the writer I’m quoting — take my word for it.

To which the professional reader is likely to respond, after being confronted with the 1500th manuscript this year similarly picketed, “Oh, yeah? You’ve just raised the bar to prove it, baby. You’d better write like Gustave Flaubert!”

Just don’t do it in a contest entry, no matter how integral to the plot that opening poem may be, even if you wrote it yourself. Even if one of the characters wrote it. The judges show to assess your writing, not those of the people you like to quote.

I sense some of you scratching your heads. “But Anne,” deep thinkers everywhere ask, and who could blame them? “I don’t get it. Oh, I get why a contest’s organizers might want to render it this tricky to follow its rules. They’re entitled to test which entrants are paying attention. What I don’t get is why, if they’re going to do it that way, they don’t just post the rules for standard format.

That’s a good question, thinkers. I suspect that if you asked most contest organizers and judges, they would be flabbergasted at the suggestion that writers who haven’t been submitting their work fairly regularly to agents, editors, and magazines would be entering their contest at all. “So wouldn’t,” Millicent muses, “their writing already be in standard format?”

If you doubt this, take a gander at most literary contests’ rules: most of the time, specific expectations are compressed under terse statements such as, submit in industry standard format.

That should make those of you who have been hanging out on this site for a while feel pretty darned good about yourselves — because, believe me, having some idea what standard format should look like, or even that such a thing exists, places you several furlongs in front of aspiring writers who do not. (If you fall into the latter category, you might want to hie yourself hence to the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category at right.) Because — correct me if your experience contradicts this — this is an industry that tends to conflate lack of professional knowledge with lack of artistic seriousness.

That is as true for contest entries as for submissions to agents. That’s why, in case you have been wondering, I harp on standard format so much here. No one is born aware of how the industry expects to see writing presented, but the rules are seldom shared with those new to the game — and almost never explained in much detail.

Certainly not on your garden-variety contest entry guideline page. Admittedly, sometimes one sees the rules asserted in an aggressive do this or fail! tone, but it’s pretty difficult to apply a rule unless you know what it’s for and how it should be implemented.

That’s my feeling about it, anyway. Call me zany, but I would rather see all of you judged on the quality of your WRITING than on whether your manuscript or contest entry adheres to a set of esoteric rules. But unless it does conform to those (often unspoken) rules, it’s just not going to look professional to someone who is used to reading top-of-the-line work.

So try to think of quadruple-checking those rules as the necessary prerequisite to getting a fair reading for your writing — and bear in mind that most judges will expect the author of that winning entry to have been hanging around the industry for a good long time.

The two categories where this expectation is most evident are screenwriting and poetry. Almost any contest that accepts screenplays will use the same draconian standard that the average script agent does: if it’s not in positively the right format (and in the standard typeface for screenplays, Courier), it will be rejected on sight.

Now, I’m going to be honest with you here: I am not a screenwriter. So if you are looking for guidance on how to prep a screenplay entry, I have only one piece of advice for you: GO ASK SOMEONE WHO DOES IT FOR A LIVING.

Sorry to be so blunt, but I don’t want any of my readers to be laboring under the false impression that this is the place to pick up screenplay formatting tips. Happily, there are both many, many websites out there just packed with expert advice on the subject, and good screenplay formatting software is easily and cheaply available. I would urge those of you with cinema burning in your secret souls to rush toward both with all possible dispatch.

I can speak with some authority about poetry formatting, however. Remember how I mentioned yesterday that where contest rules are silent, their organizers generally assume that writers will adhere to standard format — which is to say, the form that folks who publish that kind of writing expect submitters to embrace? Well, that’s true for poetry as well.

So what does standard format for poetry look like? Quite a bit as you’d expect, I’d expect:

* Single-spaced lines within a stanza

* A skipped line between stanzas

* Left-justified text, with a ragged right margin

* Centered title on the first line of the page

* 1″ margins on all sides of the page

* 12-point typeface on white paper, printed on only one side of the page.

In other words, it shouldn’t be formatted the way you might see it in a book, where the left margin might be a few inches in, or on a greeting card, where the text floats somewhere closer to the center of a page. Basically, the average poetry submission looks like…well, let me go ahead and borrow a manuscript page from a favorite poet of mine, Wallace Stevens:

emperor-jpeg.jpg

Pretty straightforward, eh? Now let’s see what how a contest rules might call for something slightly different. To pick one set at random, let’s take a random year’s worth of the ULC’s:

* Submit three complete poems.

* Single-space within stanza, double-space between stanzas.

* Maximum length of collection: 3 pgs.

* Use 12pt Times New Roman or Times (Mac).

At the point I checked — today? Last year? Fifteen years ago? — there were all of the category-specific guidelines listed. By scrolling to a different part of the ULC’s entry guidelines page, I found others:

* One-sided 8 1/2 x 11 standard WHITE paper.

* 1” margins all around.

* Have the title of the submission and page numbers located in the upper right hand corner of each page.

* Each submission MUST show the name of the category to which it is submitted.

Okay, what can we learn from this, other than that it’s always a good idea to read the contest’s entry guidelines in its entirety, rather than merely the section on one’s chosen category? Any occasion for our pal Wallace to panic about the breadth of necessary changes to his already-formatted poem?

Not really. Oh, the rules seem pretty hostile to the notion that any worthwhile poem could possibly be longer than a single page (take that, Lord Byron!), as well as unaware that Word for Mac does in fact feature the Times New Roman font — and has for many years. But otherwise, there’s not a lot here that ol’ Wallace is going to have to change.

Except, of course, for taking his name out of the slug line and moving it to the other side of the page, along with the category number.

Do I hear some confused muttering out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you point out, and who could blame you? “What about needing to place the title in the slug line? Each of the three less-than-page-long poems will have a different title, won’t it?”

Great question, unseen mutterers. I’ll complicate it further: in the ULC’s rules for book-length works, there’s an additional regulation that may apply here:

* The Contest Category name and number (e.g. Category 3: Romance Genre) on the first page of the submission and on the mailing envelope.

Yes, yes, this bit does appear in the section of the rules that apply to categories other than poetry. But tell me: do you want your entry to be the one that tests whether the ULC’s organizers don’t think this rule should apply to the poetry category?

I didn’t think so. If I were a poet, I certainly would not omit scrawling Category 9: Poetry on the outside of my entry envelope.

You, of course, are free to do as you wish. But remember how I demonstrated earlier in this post that adding a title page can help smooth over quite a few little logistical problems? Look what happens to the opening of our pal Wallace’s entry if he takes that advice to heart:

p-title-jpeg.jpg

poempage-jpeg.jpg

Both of these pages are in Times New Roman, incidentally, created on a Mac. (Hey, I couldn’t resist.) But, in case you didn’t notice, they adhere to the 2008 rules, and it is now 2012.

Oh, Wally. Haven’t you been listening?

It’s a shame, too, because by the ULC’s standards of 2008, Wally would have neatly avoided any rule violations. Oh, he could have given his collection of poetry (if a mere three poems can legitimately be called a collection; if he were a collector of, say, teapots, he would be considered merely a hobbyist collector if he had only three) a more exciting overarching title, but this gets the job done. It also satisfies the contest’s rule requiring that the title be in the slug line, along with the page number.

What’s not to like? Other than the fact that he was operating off a 4-year-old list of rules, that is.

Amazing what a lot of explanation — and a lot of stress — a seemingly simple set of rules can engender, isn’t it? Next time, we shall depart the barren landscape of nitpickery for the fertile valleys of style. Keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part VIII: embracing the offbeat strategy

Hey, I’ve got some great news for all of you penny-pinchers — and who doesn’t make a penny scream occasionally these days? FAAB Dave McChesney reports that Outskirts Press is currently offering a 10% discount on his new release, Beyond the Ocean’s Edge if you buy it directly from the publisher’s site. If you can stop tormenting those coins for a moment, you’ll find the blurb for this exciting adventure story in this earlier post. Thanks for letting us know, Dave!

Back to business. I feel a trifle guilty about not posting yesterday, I must admit. Oh, I had pretty good reasons — the pollen count was through the roof, or rather through my studio’s window. The lilac tree has evidently hit its adolescent growth spurt, and like all developing things that bid fair to be fascinating adults, it’s asserting its independence by breaking away from the bonds I have set for it and is getting in my face. I’ll spare you a description of the resultant sneezing.

The postmark deadline for the writing contest I have been planning to use as a rule exemplar, the William Faulkner/William Wisdom Literary Competition is this coming Tuesday, however, so I regret the loss of time. I have time to go over the rules and how to follow them, as well as answer any contest prep questions you might care to post this weekend, of course, so no need to panic. However, while I was sneezing my pretty little head off, I came up with a glorious plan to make the lost Thursday up to you.

Since the contest requires a 1-page synopsis to accompany book-length entries, and since most aspiring writers would, in my extensive and sympathetic experience, rather waltz with a live rattlesnake than sit down and write a 1-page synopsis, am I correct in assuming that more than a few of you planning to enter the contest have been putting it off until this weekend? Am I further correct in assuming that it would save you some time if you didn’t have to dig through my extensive archives for pointers on how to write one from scratch? And would I be crawling too far onto that interpretive limb if I presumed that it would save you a little time and more than a little chagrin if I abruptly presented you with the relevant how-to posts?

I’ll take those vague nods, exasperated sighs, and chorus of sneezes as yes, yes, and no. So I’ll tell you what I’m going to do: because I love you people and would like to be shaking several of your respective hands at the awards ceremony, I shall be reposting my ever-popular series on how to write a 1-page synopsis successfully, if hurriedly.

Tonight. All of it. Back-to-back, so you have it at your itchy fingertips.

You’re welcome. It will take a while to post them all, but if you tune in sometime after 8 p.m. Pacific time, I believe I can promise you enough to read to keep you busy.

To prepare you to turn that practical gift to its best advantage for you, right now, I’m going to polish off my observations on the touches that differentiate a successful contest synopsis from one that you might tuck with confidence into a query or submission packet.

Since most writing contests that offer prizes to unpublished books do not accept entire manuscripts — although the Faulkner/Wisdom competition does, one of the many things I like about it; I also like that it features an unusual Novel-in-Progress category, as well as a special prize for a short story by a high school student — judge that book by the first chapter (or some portion thereof) and a synopsis, the synopsis is quite a bit more important to an entry’s chances of making the finalist round than most entrants assume. Effectively, the contest synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book.

Oh, you hadn’t been thinking of it that way? It’s only sensible: that page (or 3 or 5, depending upon the individual contest’s rules) is where you demonstrate to judges that you are not merely a writer who can hold a reader in thrall for a few isolated pages. The synopsis is where you show that you have the vision, tenacity, and — feel free to sing along; you should know the words by now — storytelling ability to take the compelling characters you have begun to reveal in your first chapter through an interesting story to a satisfying conclusion.

Or, if you happen to be entering a memoir, that you can tell your life story so compellingly and honestly, while simultaneously presenting it with a dramatically-satisfying story arc, that a reader will indeed feel as though s/he has walked the proverbial mile in your moccasins, and returned from the journey edified, enlightened, and entertained.

Or, should your tastes run toward other stripes of nonfiction, that you can articulate an important problem or unresolved question, illuminate the relevant circumstances, and offer a solution or interpretation so subtle and complex that Cicero himself would stand up and applaud. Nothing dry or mundane about the story you’re telling.

Sounds noble expressed in those terms, doesn’t it? Actually, it is: the synopsis is where you show that you have the writerly chops to plot out a BOOK, baby.

For this reason, it is imperative that your synopsis makes it very, very clear how the chapter or excerpt you are submitting to the contest fits into the overall story arc or argument of the book, regardless of whether you are submitting fiction or nonfiction. And although it pains me to tell you this, it’s exceedingly rare that a synopsis included with an entry even attempts that not-particularly-difficult feat.

Did I just notice many, many eyebrows shooting hairline-ward? “But Anne,” those of you about to pop your entries into the nearest mailboxes shout, “isn’t it self-evident where that chapter or excerpt falls? Why would I be submitting anything other than the first chapter(s) of my book to a literary contest that judges book-length work?”

Well, for starters: the rules. Quite a few contests allow writers to submit chapters other than the first. Still more do not explicitly specify: they merely tell the entrant to send X number of pages and a synopsis. And surprisingly often, rules do not insist explicitly that the entered pages fall consecutively in the book.

So ostensibly, it’s can appear to be up to the writer to decide which pages are most likely to wow Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. Who — spoiler alert — may not have read the contest rules recently enough to recall that entering anything but the opening of the book is technically acceptable.

Well might you clutch your throat and mutter inarticulately. “What was this entrant thinking?” Mehitabel wonders, leafing through the four-page excerpt from Chapter 8, the six-page passage from Chapter 10, and the totality of Chapter 18 that make up the 25-page contest entry before her. “This reads like random notes for a planned book, not a legitimate taste of a book already written. No agent would accept this as a submission; why on earth would this writer think we accept it as a contest entry?”

In all likelihood, because the rules allowed for the possibility, even if they did not encourage it. You’d be astonished at how often contest entrants will take advantage of what they perceive to be a loophole operating in their favor, only to find that they have inadvertently violated the judges’ expectations.

Here comes the first iteration of an axiom you are going to be seeing many, many times over the next few days: read contest rules carefully. All too often, entrants merely glance at them and assume that they understand what’s expected. And then those entrants get disqualified.

Let’s say for the sake of argument, though, that feel that your best writing falls in, say, Chapter 16, not in Chapter 1. Like a sensible person, before you printed out Chapter 16 and pop it into the entry envelope, you have read through a contest’s rules with great care. You borrowed your spouse’s fine-toothed comb to go over them again, in case you missed something. Then you had your spouse, your neighbor, and your son Joey’s third-grade teacher peruse those rules, so you could compare notes.

In caucus, all of you agree that the rules do seem to allow entering an excerpt from the middle of the book. And the contest deadline is Monday, so you don’t have time to e-mail the contest’s organizers to double-check that this is indeed an acceptable option. Even if you did have time and they wrote back with their blessing, however, if you elect to pursuit this strategy, your synopsis had better make it absolutely plain where the enclosed excerpt will fall in the finished work.

Truth be told, I think it is seldom wise to submit either chapters other than the initial ones or non-consecutive excerpts from a book, even if later chapters contain writing that is truly wonderful. Why? Well, presumably, you chose to begin your manuscript at a certain point in the story for a reason; asking Mehitabel to jump into it somewhere else might well require her to know information that the chapter you submit does not contain. If a reader would normally know by page 5 that angel-faced Georgette is a murderous maniac in cheerleader’s clothing, and Mehitabel reads only pp. 57-82, she may well be confused when Georgie slashes up that nice math teacher on page 76.

Non-consecutive excerpts are even more likely to confuse. They require the judge to make the logical connections between them — which the judge may not be inclined to do in a way that is in your best interest. An uncharitable judge might, for instance, draw the unkind inference that you had submitted the excerpts you chose because they were the only parts of the book you had written –- a poor message to send in a category devoted to book-length works. Or that you simply can’t stand your introductory chapter, the pages upon which Millicent the agency screener would naturally base her opinion if you submitted the manuscript to an agency.

Did some of you just do a double-take? No agent or editor in the world, is going to accept random excerpts from a book for which she’s been queried: she is going to expect to see the first chapter, or first three chapters, or some other increment up to and possibly including the entire manuscript. But no way, no how is an agent or editor going to ask to see unrelated excerpts out of running order.

Well, okay, not unless the submitter is a celebrity for whom it would be a stunning surprise to the industry if s/he could string three coherent English sentences together. But in that case, the celebrity would be selling a platform more than the writing itself, right? And in any case, that’s why God invented ghostwriters.

Since reputable contest judging is blind, that last scenario is unlikely to arise, anyway. So a judge might safely conclude that the entrant who mailed in this patchwork document isn’t anywhere near ready to submit work to professionals. In other words: next!

This is not, in short, a situation where it pays to rely upon the kindness of strangers, but I can already hear some of you quietly tucking page 147 into your entry packet. Fine. If you have decided, over my strenuous objections, to use non-contiguous excerpts, here is some advice on how to do it in the manner least likely to annoy Mehitabel.

First, place your synopsis at the top of your entry packet, before the manuscript pages, unless the rules absolutely forbid you to do so. That way, you will maximize the probability that the judge will read it first. Second, make sure that the synopsis makes it pellucidly clear that these excerpts are far and away the most important parts of the book for some reason other than the beauty of the writing.

Oh, you may giggle, but by embracing the offbeat strategy, you’ve added another responsibility to the synopsis’ usual task of showing the overall story arc or argument of the book. Basically, the role of the synopsis in this instance is to make the judges eager to read these particular excerpts.

Obviously, this means that your storytelling skills had better be at their most polished, to meet the challenge. But really, why would you want to raise an already lofty bar this much higher?

As for selecting a chapter other than the first for submission, effectively starting midway through the book, I would advise against it, too, even if when contest rules explicitly permit the possibility. If you must, however, you should again position your synopsis on the top of the pile, and that synopsis should present the chapter you are including as the climax of the book.

Yes, even if it isn’t. I can only assume that you have your reasons for wanting to stick Chapter 17, rather than Chapter 1, under Mehitabel’s bloodshot eyes; since that is the case, surely you can make a convincing argument that it’s the correct choice, despite the significant disadvantage any judge will face in figuring out what happened in Chs. 1-16.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you point out, “the opening to my Chapter 58 knocked the socks off my mother, nearly slayed my writing teacher, and left my critique group in a state of panting incoherence. Are you saying that I shouldn’t loose that level of brilliance upon a contest judge, just because she might — silly person — want to know what anyone else who read that far in the book would already know?”

Before I answer that directly, let me acquaint you with some of the more salient’ arguments against beginning your entry at any point other than the beginning of the book. In the first place, the judge may well draw the same set of uncharitable inferences as with the non-continuous excerpts, and dismiss your submission as not ready for the big time.

Remember, they are typically judging marketability as well as writing quality. As I have mentioned repeatedly over the last couple of weeks, contest organizers love it when their winners move on quickly to publication. If your submission looks like it needs a couple of years’ worth of polishing to become market-ready, it is unlikely to win a contest, even if you are extremely talented.

In the second place, while your best writing may well lie later in your book, the advantage of starting at the beginning is that the judge and the everyday reader will have an equal amount of information going in. I’ve known a LOT of contest judges who resent having to go back and forth between the synopsis and the chapters to figure out what is going on.

Oh, please don’t look so sad. There is a sneaky way to get around this problem –- but I’m afraid I would have to scold you if you did it.

So while you did not, of course, hear it from me, there is no contest in the world that is going to make you sign an affidavit swearing that your entry is identical to what you are submitting to agents and editors. If you win, no one is later going to come after you and say, “Hey, your book doesn’t start with the scene you entered in the contest!”

And even if someone did, so what? Professional writers change the running orders of their books all the time. And titles. And the name of the protagonist’s baby sister. Pretty much no one in the industry regards a manuscript as beyond revision until it is sitting on a shelf at Barnes & Noble. With nonfiction books that go into subsequent editions, sometimes not even then.

Thus, in theory, a clever entrant who feels her best writing occurs fifty pages into her novel might, for the purposes of competition alone, place her strongest scene first by starting the entry on page 50. Labeling it as page 1, of course, precisely as if the crafty soul’s book actually did begin there.

To put it in a less clever way: go ahead and submit your strongest chapter, tricky one — but for heaven’s sake, do not label it as Chapter 8. Label it as Chapter 1, and write a new synopsis for a book where Chapter 8 IS Chapter 1. Just make sure that your synopsis is compelling and lucid enough that it makes sense as a story told in that order.

“Is there a problem, officer?” this shifty-eyed writer could then say, batting large, innocent eyes. “I just don’t like linear narratives, that’s all. I simply wanted to open with a prologue from later in the story, then leap back to Chapter 1.”

The synopsis would have to be revised, naturally, to make it appear that this was indeed the usual running order of the book. Then, too our heroine would have to edit the submitted pages carefully, to make sure that there is nothing in the skipped-over pages that is vital to understanding what happens in the chapters presented in the entry.

The job of the synopsis, then, in the hands of this tricky writer, would be to cover up the fact that the entry starts in the middle of the book. It would be just our little secret. Or it would be, if I knew about it.

Which I don’t. Look, isn’t that Superman flying by the window?

Are those eyebrows creeping skyward again? “But Anne,” some of you tireless running order-huggers maintain, “my story doesn’t make sense told out of order, but I don’t feel that the book’s opening shows off my writing skills more effectively than a section later in the book. Does that mean I am I doomed to submit Chapter 1, just so the synopsis makes sense?”

Okay, come closer, and I’ll whisper a little secret that the pros use all the time: it’s perfectly acceptable in most fiction genres, and certainly in memoir, to open the book with a stunningly exciting scene that does not fall at the beginning of the story, chronologically speaking. It’s usually called a prologue, and it’s slapped onto the beginning of the book, before the set-up begins.

Does this seem a tad dishonest? It isn’t, really; it’s an accepted trick o’ the trade. If you trawl in bookstores much, you’ve probably seen this technique used in a novel or twelve lately. It’s become rather common in submissions, for the simple reason that a book that bursts into flame — literarily speaking — on page 1 tends to be a heck of a lot easier to sell to agents and editors than one that doesn’t really get going until page 27.

And that’s doubly true of contest entries, which judges are often reading for free and in their spare time. Don’t underestimate the competitive value of not boring them; a staggeringly high percentage of manuscripts start pretty slowly.

You can and should take advantage of that fact, you know. Generally speaking, anything you can do to place your best writing within the first few pages of your contest entry, you should do. Judges’ impressions tend to be formed very quickly, and if you can wow ‘em before page 3, you absolutely should.

Just as with work you submit to agents, the first page of your entry is far and away the most important thing the judges see — which is why, unless an entry features mid-book excerpts, the author’s platform is truly stellar, or the contest’s rules specify a particular order for the entry packet, I advise placing the synopsis AFTER the chapters in the stack of papers or e-mailed document, not before.

That way, your brilliant first page of text can jump out at the judges. (After the title page, of course.) And if you can include some very memorable incident or imagery within the first few paragraphs of your chapter, so much the better.

Why, yes, that is a different running order than I advised for the tricky. How observant of you.

One final word to the wise: whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for a contest for the very last moments before you stuff the entry into an envelope. Synopsis-writing is hard; budget adequate time for it. You’re going to want to make absolutely sure that the synopsis you submit supports the image of the book you want your submitted chapter to send.

Okay, so I’ll admit that’s kind of strange advice, coming from someone planning to provide a crash course in one-page synopsis-writing this very evening, with an eye to contest entries going out on Monday. I can only provide guidance; I cannot bend the space-time continuum to my will. And heaven knows I’ve tried.

Tomorrow, I shall begin to cover the super-common entry mistakes that tend to raise even the most tolerant judges’ hackles, due to sheer repetition. Feel free to keep posting questions about synopses as you write them, though, and keep up the good work!