Countdown to a contest entry, part XII: a few words about respecting one’s readership, plus an answer to the burning question but how do I know which category to enter?

I could blame my last few days of visible silence on having polished off the task I set for myself in this series: we did count down to the entry deadline for a major literary contest, and I did manage to talk about the major technical bugbears that dog contest entries. I could also pat myself on the bat for giving those of you that did enter that contest a few days to recover afterward. Let’s face it, while entering a writing contest is one of the best ways for an aspiring writer with no previous publications to garner ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), it’s also exhausting, demanding, and more than a little stressful to prepare an entry well.

Oh, those are both true, and both pretty good justifications for not posting for a few days. But the fact is, I’ve just been too depressed to blog. It being your humble correspondent, my reasons for tumbling down the great blue hole that writers know so well were almost entirely literary.

How so, you ask, backing away because you fear whatever it is might be catching? Well, over the past week, I’ve had occasion to observe first-hand a couple of dozen authors (first-time, established, old hand) promoting their books. Or at least trying to promote them. Surprisingly often, that takes the form of contacting someone like me.

Not a bad choice: my family’s been in and out of publishing since the 1920s, and substantial portions of my kith and kin were writing political fiction in the 1930s and 40s, or science fiction and fantasy in the 1950s and 1960s, both now-recognized genres that nice, literate people used to pretend in public that they didn’t read, then devour in private. Just sitting back and assuming one’s publisher would take care of book sales was a luxury these authors did not have. As a direct and, I think, entirely laudable result, I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know that no matter how good a publishing house’s marketing department might be, it was ultimately up to the author to convince at least a few readers to buy a book.

And I have distinct memories of events seen through the bars of my playpen. That being literarily gifted does not excuse one from attending to the business part of the publishing business has always seemed as much a fact of life to me as gravity making things fall down instead of up.

Imagine my dismay, then, when a very good author of a decade’s worth of exceptionally fine novels asked me for advice on how to promote her soon-to-be-released book. Immediately, I began churning out suggestions for online promotion, as is my wont.

She stopped me after three low-cost promotional ideas. “Oh, I can’t do any of that. I would look desperate.”

“Um, Ambrosia?” I asked, for Ambrosia was not her name but an undetectable pseudonym. “Have you not noticed that pretty much everyone with a book out is just a touch desperate these days? Or are you under the impression that people who read don’t understand that authors would like to make a living at it, and that making a living at it is dependent upon readers buying books?”

She lit up at what I can only guess in retrospect were a few non-consecutive words in that last sentence. “Yes, exactly — my last book did not sell very well, and I’m worried about the next. If only the author weren’t completely helpless in this situation!”

Was it heartless of me to burst into peals of laughter, campers? I’d just given Ambrosia at least a month’s worth of ways not to be helpless, promotional moves that would have cost him nothing but time and energy. To add icing to what was already a mighty fine cake, she’s a friend, so this was free advice, too. (Oh, you thought Author! Author! was the only place I couldn’t stop myself from holding forth?) Yet here she was, falling all over herself not to take it.

Now, I could have just given up. It’s the golden age of authorial outreach, after all; it’s now more or less expected that an author will get actively involved in online promotion. Yet I get Ambrosia’s point of view: she started writing back in the days when it was in fact considered a bit gauche for a high literary fiction author to do anything but wait to see if the reviews were good and smile graciously at the signings her publisher’s hardworking marketing department set up for her.

Of course, I talked her down — what do you take me for? After the requisite half an hour of disbelieving what I was telling her, followed by the equally requisite ten minutes of acting as though the new realities of authorship were entirely my fault, she hung up the phone a sadder but wiser pseudonym. She might even take some of my advice.

This kind of exchange is, alas, far too common these days for it alone to have depressed me — although it does make me sad to see a good author not understand how reaching her audience has changed over the last ten years. Especially when I’m relatively certain that her assigned publicist (a terrific lady who definitely knows the current market and is enough of a boon to her publishing house that if she hadn’t specifically forbidden me to name her on my blog, lest incoming authors stampede her office, would now praise to the skies) had already tried to get Ambrosia to do some of the things I was suggesting. I did suggest that she tell her that she, like the overwhelming majority of authors new to online promotion, had been thinking of her Facebook and Twitter accounts as if they were book signings: if it’s there, the fans will just show up, right?

More on that half-true authorial presumption in a moment. I want to tell you about something that happened the next day.

I was enjoying a nice cup of tea with Trevor, another author friend and someone who also has a book in the spring’s new offerings list. As a shameless friend (and every good writer needs many), I naturally had bought a copy of his book the nanosecond it came out, because those gratis copies his publisher gave him were intended for promotion, not to hand out to kith and/or kin. (You’ve already started disabusing your friends and neighbors on that point, right? The best way to help an author is to buy his book, and the sooner your Aunt Sadie accepts that, the happier you’ll be when you have a book out. Tell her you’ll be happy to sign it.) I also, although Trevor did not think to ask his shameless friends to do this, cranked out a review and posted it on Amazon and a few other sites.

“Oh, and before I forget,” I told him, “I noticed mine is the only review on Powell’s and B & N. A single reader review can come across as a fluke, so you’re going to want to ask a few friends to post there, too, as well as Amazon.”

As a fan of the gentle art of comedy, I can tell you that his subsequent spit-take was flawlessly executed. After he had rushed over to the nearest table with back-up napkins, apologizing profusely, he returned to help me sop up the remains of our shared cookie plate. “How did you know,” he hissed as soon as our neighbors stopped staring at us, “that I’d recruited any reviews at all?”

“Experience? And the fact that nobody but your mother and the second reviewer has ever called you Trevvie?”

Okay, so I made up that last part to amuse you; his mother’s review was far subtler than that. I did hasten to assure him, though, that he had been smart to ask his relatives, friends, friends of relatives, and relatives of friends to read the book and post reviews. It’s a fairly standard practice now, if only to get the ball rolling during the inevitable lag between the professional reviews (which sometimes appear quite a bit before the book’s release) and readers who do not know the author personally having read the book.

He did not, therefore, suffer from either a shortage of helpful friends (thanks, Mom!) or qualms about accepting their help. Subsequent conversation revealed, however, that he had been squeamish about asking those very same people to post a simple hey, my son/college roommate/coworker in his hated day job had a book out — and here’s a link! on their already-extant social media pages. Or — and this made me choke on my fresh cup of tea — to post such a request on his Facebook fan page.

I’ll spare you the conversation that followed, as well as an enumeration of all the café staff and habitués that pounded me on the back in turn. Suffice it to say that I was surprised: as far as any of us knew, the people who read his fanpage were, in fact, fans. Why wouldn’t people who already enjoyed his writing want to help him promote his book, especially when he could make it so easy for them by posting a link with the request?

Since we were already the pariahs of the teashop, he had no qualms about answering that last question out loud: because most of the people kind enough to have hit the LIKE button on his fanpage were — you saw this coming, didn’t you? — precisely the same generous souls he had asked to write reviews. Since he’d already asked a favor — two, since he’d asked most of them to take pity on him and hit LIKE — he felt funny about asking another.

“I guess that means that you wouldn’t be comfortable asking them to turn your book cover-outward anytime they’re in a bookstore,” I said. “A browser’s much more likely to pick it up.”

As with Ambrosia, what made me sad about this exchange (other than that last suggestion’s practically driving Trevor to tears) was not that he was too shy to make these relatively simple requests of people he already knew loved him, but that he was apparently unaware that it would behoove him to reach out to potential readers he did not already know. Indeed, he argued with me on that point, during that requisite ten minutes of target practice aimed at the messenger I mentioned earlier: “If you don’t know,” he sniffed, as though my suggestions were terribly lowbrow, “nothing makes people more uncomfortable than a sales pitch. If the reviews are good, then the book will sell.”

“Not always,” I said gently, bracing myself for the next barrage. “And not if your potential readers don’t know about them. All I’m suggesting is that you ask your established readership to offer their friends some encouragement to follow a link to those reviews.”

Again, I’ll spare you the subsequent debate; I’m sure you clever, imaginative souls can flesh it out unassisted. To get you started: apparently, it’s cynical and literature-hating to believe not only that readers will not buy a book if they have never heard of it, but that posting something — anything — online won’t instantly attract millions of looks. Call me zany — and Trevor did, several times — but I believe that signposts are helpful in getting people from Point A to Point B.

“But you’re a blogger,” he accused, in a tone that implied the term was synonymous with convicted poisoner of dozens; need I mention that his marketing department has been urging him fruitlessly for years to start blogging? “You of all people know that if you post it, they will come.”

“Ah, but I’ve been blogging for nearly seven years.” I did not add that when I started blogging, my memoir’s scheduled release was within six months. “And I’ve only had a Facebook fanpage for about a year. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever asked my blog’s readership if they would be kind and generous enough to follow a link there and press the LIKE button; I shall have to rectify that sometime soon. It would certainly make my agent happy.”

“Oh, come on,” Trevor said. “You know there’s no way to do that gracefully.”

I swear I did not that last observation up. Trevor has promised to keep an eye on my fanpage‘s likes over the next few weeks. Would you mind terribly helping me convince him that it would be worth his while to make a polite request of people who already know and appreciate his writing by following that link and LIKE-ing my page?

Again, though, I do understand why he feels overwhelmed: there’s just a lot more for an author to do these days. My upbringing leads me to believe that’s a good thing — what makes one feel more helpless than not being able to do anything to improve one’s prospects? — but I do realize that Trevor, like the vast majority of aspiring writers, began writing under the assumption that if he wrote a good enough book, it actually would sell itself. Or at least that the fine folks employed by his publishing house would do it for him, which, in terms of effort expenditure, amounts to very much the same thing.

Before I leave you to ponder all of this vis-à-vis your own current and future books and get back to talking about ECQLC-generating contest entries — oh, you thought I had abandoned my teaching goals for the day? — I would like to share the final literary depressive factor of the week. It will amuse you, Trevor, to see that it was an event a publisher had arranged in order to promote not just one, but several quite good books. It was a group signing at a large, well-stocked bookstore.

Naturally, I hied myself hence: I know one of the authors, and one of the nicest things a shameless friend can do to help an author is to help swell the ranks at a book signing. (If one wants to be a genuine peach, one ostentatiously buys the book at the signing, to encourage others to do so; of course I did.) To make it an even more efficient use of my literary booster time, another of the authors on the dais writes in the same book category I do — and if I have to explain to you why it’s in a writer’s best interest to make sure her chosen book category sells well, or why one of the best ways to assure editors to keep publishing writing in that category is to buy those books, and regularly, well, I can only wring my hands and wonder where I went wrong in the past seven years.

Hying myself hence was no easy task, however, because one of the local arts-oriented websites had misreported the time it started. Another paper, a free one that’s the only print paper to list author readings habitually, had recommended the signing and listed the correct time, but had referred readers to another page of the publication for an explanation of why it would be worth their time to attend. There was no mention of the event on the other page.

No way to anticipate any of that, of course, but those were not the only attendance-discouraging factors. The event had been scheduled for the same time as the opening of the Seattle International Film Festival — and about a block and a half away. Parking was nonexistent. John Irving was also speaking across town that night; even I thought twice about which event to attend.

Considering everything, then, the event’s organizers should be quite proud of themselves: about 25 people showed up. (And in response to those of you who just clutched your chests: that’s quite a respectable turn-out for a book signing; it’s not all that uncommon for authors to end up spending an hour or two addressing one fan, two bookstore employees, and a roomful of empty chairs.) They also had piles of the various authors’ books readily available — well done! — and had obviously collected a group of intelligent, articulate, interesting authors.

Most of whom looked positively terrified throughout the entire event. A few made a substantive effort to interact with the audience, but not all of them participated in answering questions. A couple of them did not even try to have conversations with the fans handing them books. The sweet 12-year-old who’d lugged his copies of every book one of the authors had ever written was, to say the least, a little surprised that his hero talked to one of the other authors while signing his way through the stack.

Sensing a pattern here, or at least a similarity to Ambrosia and Trevor’s promotional attempts? No? Okay, let me fill in a few more depressing details.

It’s fairly standard at book signings for authors to read from their work…and do I even need to finish this sentence? Not a word. It’s also usual for the authors, or at any rate the person introducing them, to give a short overview of what the books they would like to sign are about. Nor a murmur. Why would they? Everyone in the room had already read those books, right?

Anyone but me see this as a problematic assumption at an event devoted to selling the books in question? But it’s understandable, in the light of Trevor and Ambrosia: since the books would of course sell themselves, one shows up to a book signing to reward those that have already read them, not to try to coax new readers. If I have to explain why that attitude might be a trifle self-defeating at an event featuring more than one author…again, where did I go wrong in raising you?

In the unlikely event that I am now or have ever been too subtle on this point: book signings and readings are not about bolstering the authorial ego; they’re about selling books. They’re performances.

Speaking of which, as if all of that were not enough to keep nearby browsers from dropping by to see what was going on — none of them did, although that’s pretty standard for author signings, too — not all of the authors were audible to the back row of the audience when they did speak. Nor did the moderator repeat questions, so everyone there could hear them.

Now, I’ve given talks in that particular room of that particular bookstore, so I would be the first to admit that the acoustics are terrible. The bookstore’s wonderful staff admits it, too; as I can tell you from experience, they routinely offer to set up microphones for occasions like this. So if chatterers wandering around the shelves were sometimes more audible than some of the authors, I’m disinclined to blame the bookstore’s acoustics.

Will anyone accuse me of being cynical if I suggest that it might be prudent for authors to arrive a little early check out the acoustics at any venue at which they plan to speak? Or to rack up a little practice in being charming to readers nice enough to want to have their books signed?

Or at least not to be surprised when only 7 of those 25 audience members bought books?

To be clear, I’m not saying any of this to be critical of those authors, the bookstore’s staff, or the publisher that set up the event. (Although personally, I might have checked the local events listings before I set it up.) I’m just saying that it might have gone better had everyone concerned thought about it from the attendee’s point of view. Especially that delightful 12-year-old: should I have been the only adult in the room who asked him why he loved that armload of books?

I know: hands up if you have ever been that kid. Can you imagine how thrilled he would have been had his favorite author taken the time to treat their interaction as anything but routine fan maintenance? It’s not hard to make a devoted reader feel special, especially one that staggers into an event like this with a dozen hardcover books.

Lest anyone suggest that since this bright, articulate kid had already bought the books in question, the event was not really aimed at him: that kid goes to school; that kid goes online; that kid has friends and siblings that read (his older sister staggered under her own armload of books). Wouldn’t it actually have been a great way to get the word out the author’s new book to treat him in a way that will make the boy rush to tell everyone he knows about how nice his idol was to him? And, since this was a group event, wouldn’t it have helped everybody if the author had made a few recommendations for future reading?

That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, I was so adamant throughout last winter’s Queryfest that it’s in a writer’s best interest to give some pretty serious thought to who her target reader is. I could have told the author in question that smart 12-year-olds read his work; after talking to the fan, I can tell you now that there’s a better than even chance this 12-year-old is going to grow up to be a writer. And that means that he’s going to be looking to his favorite authors for guidance about how to act while promoting a book.

Oh, that hadn’t occurred to you? It probably didn’t occur to the author, either, but it could not have been more obvious to me. I grew up watching devoted readers toting stacks of books into science fiction conventions and book signings, so my relatives and friends could sign them. An inspired fan has a light in her eye, a glow to her face; it’s visible from across the room.

So am I cynical or literature-loving to believe that creating a positive experience for that reader at a signing is an essential part of the author’s job? Or that the opportunity to do so is something for which a savvy author should be exceedingly grateful?

Can you wonder now that I left depressed? Not all of the authors missed those fundamentals, but enough did that even I, who loves good writing enough to have devoted my life to it, wondered if I should have attended the event at all.

I have not asked my friend on the dais (who, I am delighted to report, interacted with her fans exceedingly well) if her colleagues, the bookstore, or the publisher were disappointed by the sales generated by the event; my guess is that they were not. Lackluster sales at readings and signings are one of the reasons many publishers sponsor fewer these days. It’s common to blame the fans for that.

Just something to ponder. If even one of you finds yourself facing an eager 12-year-old fan across a signing table and decides to make not only his day, but change the course of his life by taking a sincere interest in him, I will indeed feel that I have done all I can here.

Back to business — and yes, I’m going to talk about contests now, because I know that some of you tuned in for it. It’s important not to disappoint one’s readership, after all.

For the sake of those of you who tuned in because you’re in the habit of tuning in, though, bless you. I’ll keep it relatively brief. I wouldn’t want to eat into any time you were planning to devote to liking things on Facebook this weekend, after all.

As I pointed out earlier in this series, although marketability is surprisingly seldom listed as one of the judging criteria in contest rules, it is very, very frequently in the judges’ minds when they read — which means, all too frequently, that if you offend their sensibilities, they will conclude that your work isn’t marketable enough to make it to the finalist round. Or at least not enough so to please current market tastes.

I introduced the change of subject too abruptly, didn’t I? As soon as I typed it, I heard the moods that had risen again after my downer of an opening over deflate hissingly once again. Sorry about that; I’m afraid that there’s just no upbeat way to shatter the ubiquitous misconception that the only thing a literary contest judge ever considers is the inherent quality of the writing in the entry.

But as we’ve been discussing, what constitutes good writing at one time — or in one book category — is not necessarily what was or will be considered good writing at all times or in all settings. The literary market is notoriously volatile. Then, too, contest judges, like agents, editors, and any other reader, harbor personal tastes. We would all have different takes on what makes a book good, what sentiments are acceptable, and, perhaps most for the sake of contest entry, different ideas of what is marketable. Or even of what fits comfortably under a particular contest category.

However, there are a few simple ways you can minimize the possibility of raising red flags before the eyes of our old pal, Mehitabel the veteran contest judge. Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, quite a few of these pitfalls tend to turn up on pet peeve lists in agencies and publishing houses as well.

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #1: avoid clichés like the proverbial plague.

Oh, you may laugh, but clichés are amazingly common in contest entries, for some reason I have never understood — unless it is simply that clichés become clichés because they are common. It puzzles Mehitabel, too, because isn’t the goal of entering writing in a contest to show how you phrase things and conceive of stories, not how people tend to phrase things in general or how TV shows present storylines?

You really do want to show contest judges phraseology and situations they’ve never seen before, so try to steer clear of catchphrases (I know, right?), stock characters (Here’s your badge back, rookie-who-cannot-follow-the-rules, and here’s your new partner. He’s supposed to retire next month!), tried-and-true plot twists (You don’t mean — you’re my FATHER?!?), and anything, but anything, that you’re tempted to include just because it’s cultural shorthand for how a particular group of people act (“Whatever!” said the teenager, rolling her eyes.

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #2: minimize current pop culture references.

In general, you should avoid pop culture references in contest entries, except as indicators of time and place. Not only do they tend to be clichés (Hey, Betty Sue, want to go down to the malt shop and sock-hop to the latest Chuck Berry record in your poodle skirt?), but in a contest entry, they take up space that could be used for more original description.

Yes, yes, I know: dropping in the odd Bee Gees reference to a story set in 1976 feels like verisimilitude. It can be. But you wouldn’t believe how often Mehitabel sees entries that seem intent upon proving that every single soul on the planet liked the same music in 1976.

Current cultural references run all of these risks, but they suffer from an additional problem: even the most optimistic judge would be aware that an unpublished work entered in a contest could not possibly be in print in less than two years from now — and thus the reference in question needs to be able to age at least that long.

In answer to that collective gasp I just heard from those of you new to the publishing world: books don’t typically hit the shelves for at least a year after the publication contract is signed — and often more than that. Print queues are long, and before a first-time author’s work enters one, the acquiring editor often requests changes in the text.

That’s not counting the time the agent spends shopping the book around first, of course. And that clock doesn’t even begin to tick until after the writer has found an agent for the book in the first place.

So even if a cultural reference is white-hot right now, it’s probably going to be dated by the time it hits the shelves. For instance, do you really think that anyone will know in five years who Paris Hilton is, or why she was famous? (I’m not too sure about the latter now.)

Also, writers tend to underestimate how closely such references tend to be tied to specific eras, regions, and even television watching habits. Which brings me to…

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #3: never assume that the judge will share your worldview.

You would be astonished at how often the writer’s age — or, at any rate, generational identification — is perfectly obvious from the cultural references used in a contest entry. Ditto with political views, or lack thereof, sex, gender (not the same thing), socioeconomic status…

All of that is fine, especially for a memoir or first-person fiction, but you need to be careful that the narrative does not assume that the judges determining whether your work makes it to the finalist round share your background in any way. Why? Well, nothing falls flatter than a joke that the reader doesn’t get, unless it’s a shared assumption that’s shared by a group to which the reader does not happen to belong.

It’s exceedingly common for contest entrants to assume (apparently) that the judges assessing their work are share their age group, sex, sexual orientation, views on foreign policy, you name it. So much so that they tend to leave necessary references unexplained.

And this can leave a Mehitabel who does not happen to be like the entrant somewhat perplexed. Make sure that your story or argument could be followed by any English-reading individual without constant resort to the encyclopedia or MTV.

Did you catch the problem with that last sentence? It shows my age.

That’s right: I’m old enough to remember when MTV was entirely devoted to music videos. Seems strange now, doesn’t it? I’m also old enough (but barely), to shake my head over the fact that if Mehitabel is of the Internet generation, she may never have touched a hard-copy encyclopedia.

It could easily go the other way, of course — and probably will, in a contest entry. (Most literary contests require some writing or publishing background before allowing someone to judge.) It’s not beyond belief that Mehitabel will never have seen a music video. Or know what Glee is, beyond a good mood.

The best way to steer clear of potential problems: get feedback on your entry from a few readers of different backgrounds than your own, so you can weed out references that do not work universally. Recognize that your point of view is, in fact, a point of view, and as such, naturally requires elucidation in order to be accessible to all readers.

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #4: if you are taking on social or political issues, show respect for points of views other than yours.

This is really a corollary of the last. If you’re going to perform social analysis of any sort, it’s a very, very poor idea to assume that the contest judge will already agree with you — especially if everyone you know agrees with you on a particular point. A stray snide comment can cost you big time on a rating sheet.

I’m not suggesting that you iron out your personal beliefs to make them appear mainstream — contest judges tend to be smart people, ones who understand that the world is a pretty darned complex place. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Mehitabel may well get her news from sources different than yours; her view of current events might well make your jaw drop, and vice-versa.

And that’s a problem, because an amazingly high percentage of contest entries, particularly in the nonfiction categories, are polemics. Novels often they use the argumentative tactics of verbal speech. But while treating the arguments of those who disagree with dear self as inherently ridiculous can work aloud (although it’s certainly not the best way to win friends and influence people, in my experience), they tend to work less well on paper.

So approach your potential readers with respect, and keep sneering at those who disagree with you to a minimum. And watch your tone, especially in nonfiction entries, lest you become so carried away in making your case that you forget that a member of your honorable opposition may well be judging your work.

This is a circumstance, like so many others, where politeness pays well. Your mother was right about that, you know.

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #5: recognize going in that you have absolutely no control over how an individual judge will respond to your work. All you can control is how you present it.

Trust me, you will be a much, much happier contest entrant if you accept that you cannot control who will read your work after you enter it into a contest. Sometimes, you’re just unlucky. If your romance novel about an airline pilot happens to fall onto the desk of someone who has recently experienced major turbulence and resented it, there’s really nothing you can do about it.

Those of you trying to land an agent recognize this dilemma, right? It’s precisely the same one queries and submissions to agencies face.

To revert to my favorite gratuitous piece of bad luck: if Millicent the agency screener has scalded her tongue on a too-hot latté immediately prior to opening your submission, chances are that she’s going to be in a bad mood when she reads it. And there’s absolutely nothing you can do about that.

The same holds true for a contest entry. Ultimately, you can have no control over whether Mehitabel has had a flat tire on the morning she reads your entry, any more than you can control if she has just broken up with her husband, or has just won the lottery.

All you can do approach the process with a sense of professionalism: make your work the best it can be, and keep sending it out until you find the reader who gets it. Which brings me to…

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #6: don’t expect a single contest entry to make your writing career all by itself.

Okay, so this one is really more about your happiness than the judges’, but do try to avoid hanging all of your hopes on a single contest. That’s giving way too much power to a single, unknown contest Mehitabel.

Yes, even if there is only one contest in your part of the world for your kind of writing. Check elsewhere.

And, of course, keep querying agents, magazines, and small presses while your work is entered in a contest. (No, this is not a contest rule violation, in most cases: contests almost universally require that a entry not be published prior to the entry date. You’re perfectly free to keep submitting after you enter it — and to enter the same work in as many contests as you choose.)

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #7: be alert for subtle clues about style expectations that may not match your writing.

As I mentioned earlier in this series, if a contest does not have a track record of rewarding your type of work, it’s just not a good idea to make it your single entry for the year. You might even want to think twice about entering that contest at all.

Yes, even if the rules leave open the possibility that your kind of work can in theory win For instance, a certain contest in my area has a Mainstream Fiction category that also accepts literary fiction — and in many years, has accepted genre as well.

Care to guess how often writing that wasn’t explicitly literary has won in this category? Here’s a hint: for many years, the judges had a strong preference for work containing lots and lots of semicolons.

Still unsure? Well, here’s another hint: in recent years, the category description had devoted four paragraphs to defining literary fiction. Including a paragraph specifying that they meant the kind of work that tended to win the Nobel Prize, the Booker Award, the Pulitzer…

In case that didn’t shake up those of you considering entering an honestly mainstream work, I should also add: there have been years in which there were only four paragraphs in the description.

This is yet another reason — in case, you know, you needed more — to read not only the contest rules very carefully, but the rest of a contest’s website as well. Skim a little too quickly, and you may not catch that contest organizers have given a hint to what kinds of work they want to see.

You know, something subtle, like implying that they expect their contest winners to be future runners-up for the Pulitzer.

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #8: be alert for subtle clues about content.

Most literary contests will break down judging categories by writing style and book category, rather than content, but a surprising number of them harbor content preferences. They tend to be fairly upfront about them, too., referring to them either overtly (in defining the categories) or covertly (in defining winning criteria for the judges).

This is particularly true in short story and essay competitions, I notice. Indeed, in short-short competitions, it’s not at all uncommon for a topic to be assigned outright. At the risk of repeating myself, read ALL OF THE RULES with care before you submit; such contests assume that entrants will be writing work designed exclusively for their eyes.

This should not, I feel, ever be the expectation for contests that accept excerpts from book-length works. Few entrants in these categories write new entirely new pieces for every contest they enter, with good reason: it would be quixotic. Presumably, one enters a book in a contest in order to advance the book’s publication prospects, not merely for the sake of entering a contest, after all.

Because the write-it-for-us expectation does sometimes linger, make sure to read the category’s definition before you decide to enter work you have already written. If the category is defined in such a way that writing like yours is operating at a disadvantage, your chances of winning fall sharply. The best way to careful with your entry dollar, and enter only those contests and categories where you have a chance of winning.

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #9: make sure that you’re entering the right category — and that it’s the category you think it is.

Stop laughing. I would love to report that entries never come in labeled for the wrong category, but, alas, sometimes they do.

Why should you worry about something so easily corrected on the receiving end? Contests almost never allow judges to drop a misaligned entry into the correct category’s pile. Leaving Mehitabel to read the out-of-place entry, and to wonder: did the entrant just not read the category descriptions closely enough?

Often, this turns out to be precisely what happened.

This is not a time merely to skim the titles of the categories: get into the details of the description. Read it several times. Have a writer friend read it, then read your entry, to double-check that your work is in fact appropriate to the category as the rules have defined it.

This may seem like a waste of time, but truly, it isn’t. I have seen miscategorized work disqualified — or, more commonly, given enough demerits to knock it out of finalist consideration right away — but never, ever have I seen an entry returned, check uncashed, with an explanation that it was entered in the wrong category.

Next time, I shall discuss category selection a bit more. Yes, entering a literary contest is a complex task, but you’re a complex writer, aren’t you? You can do this.

Admit it: you’ve known that you could do it since you were 12 years old. And if you are 12 years old now, do you have any idea how jealous your elders are that blogs like this exist now? Why, back in my day…

Notice how close to 100 years old I sound already? Not an accident. Mind those cultural references, and 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!

Countdown to a contest entry, part VII: one of these things is not like the other, or, not everything called a synopsis should be identical

Or, to put it graphically:
01_01_53-vulture_web.jpg is not the same fowl as 01_01_7_thumb.jpg

What, you ask, am I talking about? Well, last time, I began talking about the differences between a synopsis that an aspiring writer might submit along with a query or requested pages and one that works well in a contest submission. Although they are called by the same name, they actually serve different purposes, so it’s in your best interests to craft them differently.

Hey, both vultures and peacocks are birds, but you don’t expect them to move from Point A to Point B precisely the same way, do you? Would you feed a peacock Vulture Chow?

Of course not. You’d feed it Peacock Yummies.

So, to separate the fish from the fowl, I spent our last post talking about how and why a successful contest synopsis and a killer submission synopsis can and should be different. I have to say, I had expected to hear a little more groaning from the peanut gallery about this — I am, after all, suggesting that you write a 3 – 5 page summary of your book for contest submission that you will pretty much never be able to use for any other purpose on God’s decreasingly green earth.

See? Nothing. You people must be getting desensitized to the idea that reading this blog may lead an otherwise perfectly rational writer to say, “More work for me? Bring it on!”

I was especially surprised not to hear much squawking from the nonfiction writers, particularly those of you brave souls gearing up to enter a memoir in a literary contest. I think that nonfiction entrants typically have a harder time producing a winning synopsis — or perhaps I merely believe that because I have more often been a judge in nonfiction than fiction categories.

For fiction, the task at hand is a bit closer to writing a submission synopsis: tell a good story in a reasonable amount of juicy detail. If this sounds vaguely familiar to those of you who suffered through last summer’s Pitchingpalooza series, you have an excellent memory: that’s more or less the goal of the 2-minute pitch as well.

Seems perfectly straightforward, now that you’ve seen me say it, right? Yet you would be flabbergasted — at least, I hope you would — at how few contest synopses-writers seem to realize that the point is to tell a terrific story. Seriously, in my experience, less than 10% of the entries include synopses that indicate storytelling ability, rather than going through a rote exercise in summarization.

Where do the other 90% go wrong, you ask? Good question. Strap a parrot to your shoulder and follow me.

As I explained yesterday, all too often, writers just state the premise of the novel, rather than taking the reader through the plot, blow by blow. If the plot has twists and surprises, so should the synopsis. You’re going to want to show the entire story arc, and make it compelling enough that the judge will scrawl on the evaluation sheet, “Wow, I want to read this book when it comes out.”

Trust me, pretty much every contest winner and placer’s evaluation sheet has this sentiment, or something very similar to it, scrawled upon it in a judge’s hand. So make it your mission in the synopsis to evoke that wonderful response.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s a tall order. But don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting. Both need to be engaging reads that draw the reader into the story you’re telling.

The easiest way to get the judges involved is not merely to summarize the plot as quickly as possible — yes, even if all you are allowed is a 1-page synopsis — but to give the feel of a number of specific scenes. Don’t be afraid to use forceful imagery and strong sensual detail, and try to have the tone of the synopsis echo the tone of the book.

Yes, you read that correctly, too: a good synopsis should be written in the same voice as the book, for both contests and for submission.

Changes the way you think of the synopsis, doesn’t it? Again, this should sound familiar to some of you: a good pitch conveys the same tone as its book, too.

So if you’re writing a comedy, you had better make sure that the judge at least chuckles a couple of times while reading your synopsis — and, word to the wise, as nothing is more stale than a joke told twice with a ten-minute period, repeating the same funny line in both chapter and synopsis is not the best means of invoking hilarity.

A sexy book deserves a sexy contest synopsis, too, and a thriller’s synopsis had better be, well, thrilling. If your horror synopsis doesn’t make the reader blanch (try it out on strangers in a coffee shop), add gory details until it does.

And so forth. You’re a writer; you’re good at this sort of thing.

For nonfiction, the assignment is slightly less straightforward. You will need to make it plain that you’re a good arguer making an intriguing argument, but it would also behoove you to include certain elements of the book proposal that you would never include in a submission synopsis.

Some indication of the target market, for instance. A passing reference to why your book is better at conveying this set of information than anything currently on the market. A minuscule tease about how the publication of this book, as opposed to any other entered into the contest, will make the world just a little bit better for those who read it.

All of which would be completely inappropriate in a synopsis sent along with requested materials, right? Right? Anybody out there?

For starters, such a submission synopsis would be redundant with the both the book proposal and, most likely, with the query letter as well. Think about it: you might, if an agent’s listing or website asked for it, include a synopsis with your query letter, but if you’re going to make the case that the agent should drop everything and read your book proposal, the argument belongs in your query letter. You might conceivably be asked to send a synopsis along with requested materials, but for nonfiction, an agent or editor is far more likely to ask to see the entire book proposal — which, naturally, would include entire sections on who the target audience is, why they would benefit from your book, and how your book is different and better than anything remotely similar currently on the market.

For a memoir, admittedly, an agent is slightly more likely to ask to see the first couple of chapters plus a synopsis, but still, most memoirs, like other nonfiction, are sold on proposals, not the entire manuscript. (And no, Virginia, I’m not sure why there are so many sources out there that say otherwise. I’ve sold two memoirs to publishers without having written more than the first chapter and a proposal for either.)

But as I mentioned yesterday, the trick to a memoir synopsis, for a contest or submission, is much closer to the goal for fiction: it needs to sound like a great yarn well told. What it does not need to be — and should not be — is an extended discussion of why you decided to write a memoir in the first place.

Did some jaws just hit the floor out there? I’m not entirely surprised. For some reason, it is hugely common in contest synopses for memoirists (and sometimes other NF writers as well) to treat the synopsis as though it were a response to an impassioned crowd storming their writing spaces, demanding to know who the heck the author is, to think he has the right to think his pet topic might interest even a single other human being, let alone thousands or millions.

Defensive does not even begin to describe it.

A lot of contest synopses go off on these tangents, to the detriment of the entry, and it costs them a plethora of presentation and professionalism points. Which means, unfortunately, that an experienced judge’s knee-jerk response to a synopsis that engages in this practice even a little tends to be exaggerated.

Yes, I am saying what you think I’m saying: “Next!”

“Wait just a minute!” the sore-jawed cry. “Why would personal revelation in a synopsis be regarded as a sign of a lack of professionalism? In a memoir, I would think that it would be downright desirable. Why aren’t my reasons for writing my own life story worth mentioning in the contest synopsis?”

It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? In the eyes of the professional readers, though, there are only a few contexts where a lengthy discussion of why you chose to write a book is considered appropriate behavior:

(1) Within a nonfiction book proposal, where it is a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing. There, you may state your case in market terms in the section dedicated to that purpose.

(2) In a query letter or pitch, to show that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are pitching. There, you may indulge in this impulse for as long as a couple of sentences, as long as your reasons give Millicent the agency screener some hit why those reasons will prompt readers to be interested in the story you are telling..

(3) After you have signed with your agent, when she asks, “Are there hidden selling points in this book that I should mention while I’m marketing it?” At that point, you may discourse for as long as it takes for the agent to drink a cup of coffee — or until her other line rings, whichever comes first.

(4) To your publisher’s marketing department just before your book is released, so they can include any relevant points in the press packet. They will be far more interested in your listing the addresses, phone numbers, and websites of every bookstore where any local might recognize your mug, but they’re going to want you to come up with a nice sound bite about why you wrote the book as well.

(5) Within the context of an interview after the book is released. Interviewers love hearing about writers’ motivations — which, I suspect is why aspiring writers so often want to tell everyone they see what is and is not autobiographical in their novels. So you can go to town after the book comes out.

(6) When you are chatting with other writers about why they wrote their books. You have my permission to do this for the rest of your life.

Other than those few occasions, it’s considered over-sharing — yes, even for memoirists. In a contest entry, it is never considered anything but self-indulgent.

Just don’t do it. In your contest synopsis, stick to the what of the book, and save the whys for later.

The only exception to this in a contest synopsis is if you have some very specific expertise or background that renders your take on a subject particularly valid. If so, and if your entry is in a nonfiction category, make sure that information is stated within the first paragraph of your synopsis.

If you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned to the judges, go back and reread that list above three more times. If you are still wedded to the idea after that, imagine me sighing gustily — then stick the explanation at the end of the synopsis, where it won’t be too intrusive.

For nonfiction, keep reminding yourself that your goal in a contest synopsis is threefold:

a) to show the argument of the book in some detail, along with some indication of how you intend to prove your case,

b) to show that the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and

c) to demonstrate that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book.

In 3-5 pages, no less. Piece o’ proverbial cake, right?

In pursuit of Goal A, it is helpful to have an outline of your proposed chapters in front of you, so you can use the synopsis to demonstrate how each chapter will build upon the next to make your overall case. Even if you are writing a self-help book, history book, or memoir, you are always making a case when you write nonfiction, if only to argue that your take on the world around you is interesting, unique, and valid.

Make absolutely certain that by the time a judge finishes reading your synopsis, s/he will understand very clearly what this argument is – and what evidence you will be bringing in to demonstrate it. (Statistics? Extensive background research? Field experience? Interviews? A wealth of personal anecdotes? Etc.)

In doubt about whether you’ve pulled this off successfully? Hand your synopsis to an intelligent non-specialist in your area (smart adolescents are great at this), have her read it — then ask the reader to summarize the argument for you without looking at the paper. Take notes on what parts come back to you fuzzily: those are the parts of the synopsis that need work.

If you are pinched for space in your entry, you need only devote the first paragraph to marketing information. State outright why the world needs your book. If you are writing on a subject that is already quite full of authorial opinion, make it plain why your book is different and better. As in:

Have you ever wondered what goes on underneath the snow while you are skiing on top of it? Although there are many books currently on the market for snowboarding enthusiasts, MOUNTAINS MY WAY is the first to be written by a geologist — and a successful climber of K2.

Then go on and tell us what the book is about. If you have statistics on your prospective market, this is the place to mention them, as you would in a query letter or book proposal. Remember, one of the things that the judges are evaluating is the book’s marketability.

Yes, yes, I know that those of you who have been following this series closely you are sick of my pointing that out. (But not as sick as seeing yes over and over throughout this post, right? Chant it with me now: redundant phrasing annoys readers!) However, how likely is a judge who thinks your target market is a quarter of its actual size to give you high marks?

By making its actual size plain in a nonfiction entry’s synopsis, you can minimize that dreadful possibility. As in:

Two million Americans have been diagnosed with agoraphobia, yet there are few self-help books out there for them. GET ME AWAY FROM THESE PEOPLE! is written from an agoraphobic’s perspective, someone who truly understands what it feels like to have fear shrink the space around him

The third desiratum is what is known in the industry as your platform. Admittedly, it is a trifle hard to explain why you are the expert best qualified to write this book without saying a little something about yourself, a potentially dangerous strategy in a contest where you might get disqualified for inadvertently mentioning your first name.

But rest assured, no one is going to disqualify you for mentioning that you have a Ph.D. in the topic at hand or went to a specific culinary school. Go ahead and state your qualifications –- just don’t slip up and mention yourself by name.

I sense that I’ve lost some of you. Or does all of that impatient sighing merely indicate that the bus for which many of you are waiting while reading this is behind schedule? “I get it, Anne,” those of you not lingering under a bus shelter moan. “A well-crafted synopsis can increase a contest entry’s overall chances of winning. But no matter what you say, I simply don’t have time to fine-tune my contest synopsis. I’ll be lucky to get my entry postmarked on time as it is!”

Okay, now it’s my turn to sigh: while certainly understandable, this is an exceedingly common attitude for contest entrants, at least in competitions for book-length works. You wouldn’t believe how often a well-written chapter is accompanied by a synopsis obviously dashed off at the last minute, as though the writing quality, clarity, and organization of it weren’t actually being evaluated at all.

I suspect that this is a fairly accurate reading of what commonly occurs. All too often, writers (most of whom, after all, have full-time jobs and families and, well, lives to lead) push preparing their entries to the very last minute. Frustrated at this crucial moment by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement — it’s the writing in the manuscript that counts, right? — it’s tempting just to throw together a synopsis in a fatal rush and shove it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it.

Trust me on this one: judges will pay attention to it. Many a fine entry has been scuttled by a slipshod synopsis.

I won’t go so far as to say, of course, that if you do not expend careful consideration over the crafting of the synopsis for a book-length category, you might as well not enter at all. It is entirely fair to point out, however, that if you have a well-written, well thought-out synopsis tucked into your entry packet, your work will automatically enjoy an edge over the unhappy many that do not.

I have a few tips up my sleeve on how to increase that edge, of course — but you don’t have the time for that, do you, gusty sighers? Okay, let me spend what time we have left today on a quick, easy way to make a contest synopsis come across as the work of a serious writer: correct formatting.

Oh, stop laughing. Every year, hundreds — nay, thousands — of contest entries get, if not actually disqualified, then at least read with a less kindly eye, simply because they are presented incorrectly.

Sadly, even those conscientious aspiring writers that have taken the time to learn how to format their work professionally (by, say, consulting the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right) often mispresent their synopses. First, let’s look at the first page of a synopsis one might submit to an agent:

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As you may see, a submission synopsis simply adheres to the rules of standard manuscript format: one-inch margins all the way around, slug line in the top left margin, page number in the slug line, indented paragraphs, the works. (If you’re unclear on the hows and whys of standard manuscript format, were previously unaware that such a thing existed, and/or are unsure how proper formatting for a short story or article differs from a book manuscript or proposal, you’ll find plenty of visual examples under the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category.)

Note, too, that the first time a character is introduced to the story, her name appears entirely in capital letters. That makes it easier for skimming eyes to follow — and if that seems like an invitation to screener laziness, bear in mind that Millicent and her compatriots are reading literally hundreds of pages per day. Their eyes are tired.

Do you want to be the writer who makes those eyes’ little lives easier or harder?

The title of the work is on the first line of the page, with the information that it is a synopsis on the second double-spaced line. Why state up front that it’s a synopsis? Well, remember a few months back, when I described that catastrophic collision between two interns in an agency hallway? Does “Hey, you got memoir in my thriller!” “No, you got thriller in my memoir!” ring a bell?

Since submitted manuscripts are unbound in any way, individual pieces of them tend to wander off on field trips of their own. Slug lines can go a long way toward allowing those hapless interns to piece the manuscripts back together.

Guess what? So can clearly-labeled synopses.

For this reason, I like to label subsequent pages of the synopsis as such as well. It’s not strictly required, but hey, the subsequent pages are every bit as likely to go wandering as the first, right? The result looks like this:

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All clear on the format for the submission synopsis? May I suggest that this would be a dandy time to bring up questions, if not?

Okay, on to the contest synopsis. The primary difference is — anyone? Anyone?

Yes, that’s right: in a blind-judged contest (i.e., in the respectable ones that are worth your time and money to enter), the writer’s name cannot appear on any page of the entry. Not the first, and certainly not the last.

Obviously, this is going to affect the slug line, but that’s easily resolved. Lookee:

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See? Very simple, very swift to implement. Notice any other differences between this and the submission synopsis?

If you are looking for purely cosmetic differences, there aren’t any, other than the slug line. However, on the content level, I did tighten up the synopsis a bit for the benefit of the contest judge.

Why, you ask? Because I happen to know (having read the contest rules as closely as I urge you all to do) that this contest accepts entries up to fifty pages long. Almost everything that happened within the first two pages of the submission synopsis occurs during the first fifty pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY.

Even so, the judge will most likely read the chapters before turning to the synopsis — that way, if the writing in the chapter is not good, they can skip the synopsis altogether. So why recap more than is necessary, especially if including a 4-page contest synopsis will allow Aunt Jane to include another page of text?

Seem rules-lawyerish? Exactly; contests are run by people who just adore rules. Go with the flow.

Next time, conditions permitting, I shall polish off the hot topic of contest synopsis-polishing. Keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part VI: what do you mean, the contest page limit includes a synopsis? Or, how to be brief without feeling as though you’ve just sailed off the ocean’s edge

Okay, I’m just going to accept it: the universe has been conspiring to slow this series down. Not to a crawl, by any means — have you been enjoying my posting on a daily basis again, Author! Author! habitu?s? — but not at the accelerated, oh-my-God-the-deadline-for-the-William Faulkner/William Wisdom Literary Competition-is-next-Monday (yes, really) pace I had anticipated.

Had I mentioned that there are cash prizes? And that I shall be there to shake the winners’ hands at this year’s award ceremony?

I shall press on as swiftly as I can — including, those of you planning to enter that particular contest this year (not that I’m trying to influence you or anything) will be glad to hear, a close examination of its entry guidelines over the weekend — but before I launch into today’s topic, I am going to pause for just a moment.

It’s more than worth it, for I have joyous news to report: D. Andrew McChesney, Author! Author!’s very first commenter, blogger, and a genteel fellow better known in these parts as Dave, has released his first novel, Beyond the Ocean’s Edge today! Congratulations on the successful completion of a long and fruitful voyage, Dave!

Just between us, I’m hoping to blandish our Dave to share his thoughts on the publication process with us later this month. As you may recall, he was generous enough to write a guest post last September on the ins and outs of self-publishing, a piece that provoked quite a bit of fascinating discussion. I am an inveterate blandisher, so I suspect I shall succeed.

I’m also an inveterate cheerleader for good writers’ work, so allow me to add: you may purchase the book here. And would I deprive you of the blurb?

Hotchkiss continued on. “Ed! You didn’t see it?” The use of his captain’s first name on deck attested to the first lieutenant’s growing apprehension and maddening confusion.

“See what, Isaac, my old friend?” Pierce recognized his comrade’s state of mind and did not correct his lapse of quarterdeck etiquette. Clearly, a more personal and comfortable approach was needed.

“The stars! The stars, sir! We weren’t just looking up at ‘em. We were amongst them. There was the sea, and then there wasn’t. An’ the stars were below us as well! And we were there, right among them, like we were the stars themselves, or the moon, or. . .”?

“I’m sure you saw what you’ve described. Unfortunately, I chanced not to see it, although I have had a strange feeling of timelessness.”?

Is it possible to sail beyond the ocean’s edge to another world? In 1802, Royal Navy Lieutenant Edward Pierce is ashore on half-pay because of the Peace of Amiens. He fortunately gains command of a vessel searching for a lost, legendary island. When the island is found, Pierce and his shipmates discover that it exists in an entirely different but similar world. Exploring the seas around Stone Island, HMS Island Expedition sails headlong into an arena of mistaken identities, violent naval battles, strange truces, dangerous liaisons, international intrigue, superstition, and ancient prophecies.

I’m not saying that I’m excited about this, mind you. I’m saying that I’ve already ordered my copy and already have a pencil ready to take notes for my Amazon review. (One of the nicer things a writer can do for a fellow keyboard-tapper, by the way, and something I hope you take the time to do for your favorite living authors.)

Aglow with that fine resolution, let’s move onward and upward. I’ve spent the last week talking about the various types of literary contest that an agent-seeking writer might conceivably want to enter. Today and tomorrow, I’m going to concentrate on an aspect of contest entry that seems to frustrate nearly every entrant: the synopsis.

Already, the chorus of groans shakes the skies. And frankly, I can’t say that I blame those of you who feel that way about churning out a synopsis, especially on a tight deadline. Like, say, in time to be postmarked Monday.

I hate to be the one to break the bad news (yet how often I seem to be), but just as synopsis-writing is a necessary evil of querying and/or submitting to an agent, if you are entering a category that covers book-length material, you will pretty much always be asked to include a synopsis. And while you’re already braced, let me rip off the Band-Aid quickly to add: since contest rules often specify an overarching page limit intended to cover both the submitted manuscript pages and a synopsis for the whole book, many entrants yield to the temptation to skimp on this important part of the contest puzzle.

What do I think of this strategy? To summarize what promises to be a couple of long posts’ worth of advice in a word: DON’T.

Contrary to widely-held writerly belief, a synopsis typically weighs more heavily in a contest entry’s success than in a submission packet agent, not less. Not to give away trade secrets or anything, but synopses tucked inside submission packets are not always read. Those accompanying query packets usually are, if our pal, Millicent the agency screener, feels that the query letter shows promise, but generally speaking, she will hop directly to the manuscript in a submission packet.

So which submission synopses tend to get read? Well, if the agency requested a partial, and Millie likes those pages, she will frequently glance at the synopsis before asking to see the rest of the book. Or, if her boss asked to see the whole thing, she might read the opening pages — and then, if she likes what she sees, take a peek at the synopsis. Or not.

Which is to say: not very many actually get read. The agent of your dreams will almost certainly want to have one at her elbow when she picks up the phone to pitch your work to editors, however. And that means — you’re sitting down by now, right? — that the more books you write over the course of your agented life, the more synopses you are going to have to write.

Had I mentioned that most writers, agented and pre-agented alike, consider the task a necessary evil?

The synopsis that accompanies a contest entry, on the other hand, virtually always receives some critical attention at judging time. That means — and you might want to rush into the kitchen and grab some dry crackers to munch; the nausea might come on suddenly — that every syllable of a contest synopsis is as important as any passage in your entered pages.

Actually, if you write it well, it might be even more important. Since so many perfectly lovely writing contest entries are marred by an obviously tossed-together synopsis, a well-constructed one tends to leap out at the judges, shouting, “Pick me! Pick me!”

Last year, I spent a month of posts on the ins and outs of writing a strong synopsis. (Now well hidden under the startlingly opaque category title HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD SYNOPSIS. Why oh why do I not make these things easier to track down?) Heck, I even devoted some serious attention to the most hated specimen of the species (and the one most necessary for anyone thinking of entering a book-length work in the aforementioned Faulkner/Wisdom competition), the 1-page synopsis.

Following my tradition of concealment, I have secreted those posts under the code name HOW TO WRITE A 1-PAGE SYNOPSIS. But don’t tell anyone I told you.

Unless any of you kick up a hue and cry, demanding that I revisit the issue now in very great detail (anyone? Anyone?), I’m going to proceed on the assumption that most of you have already mastered the basics of writing an (ugh) synopsis. For the next couple of days, I would like to focus on the differences between a synopsis that might wow a Millicent and one that might impress a contest judge.

In answer to that deafening unspoken question my readership just flung in my general direction: yes, I am indeed suggesting that you write two separate synopses, one to accompany contest entries, and one to send out with your query and submission packets. Got a problem with that?

Judging by the widespread rending of garments and troubling of heaven with bootless cries on the subject of all of the extra work that would entail, I gather that you do. Hear me out, please. Most contest synopses read as though their authors regarded them as — get this — an annoying nuisance to be polished off as quickly as humanly possible, much in the same manner as a child will gulp down a hated vegetable his parents have told him he must eat, simply in order to clear it from his plate.

And this, frankly, mystifies Millicent’s Aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. “If I didn’t know better,” she clucks over hundreds of entries every year, “I would think that these writers were laboring under the impression that the writing there were not being judged, too, in addition to the writing in the entry proper.”

Oh, Hitty, if only you were sitting where I am, hearing thousands of prospective contest entrants suck in their breath sharply in surprise. An astonishingly high percentage of entrants seem to be unaware that the synopsis is part of the writing being evaluated in a contest, just as in a submission.

And that, breath-suckers, is strategically unwise. I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: every word of your writing that passes under the eyes of a professional reader is a writing sample. Treat it accordingly.

Another common Mehitbel-mystifier involves submitting a too-terse synopsis, presented in what is essentially outline form. (Sometimes, writers present it literally in outline format, believe or not.) Short on the sensual details and plot twists that enliven a story, these just-the-facts-ma’am synopses give no indication that the author is a talented storyteller. Just that she is darned good at making lists.

See my note above about every word of an entry being a writing sample. I’m going to keep repeating that depressing truth until everyone within the sound of my voice believes it.

What makes me think that most contest entrants don’t currently believe it? How about the frequent practice of lifting entire phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs from the entry itself and plopping them down in the contest synopsis, as if the judge isn’t going to notice?

After our recent series on structural repetition, I sincerely hope that last question made you laugh out loud. Chant it with me, campers: professional readers like judges are born nit-pickers: they’re going to notice.

It’s also becoming increasingly common to conflate a screenplay synopsis — which typically has separate headings for action and major characters — with a literary synopsis. How might one define the latter? Here goes:

A book synopsis is a linear narrative concerned with plot for fiction and structure for nonfiction, a brief exposition in the present tense of the story of a novel or the argument of a book. Usually, in a fiction or memoir synopsis, a character’s name will be capitalized the first time it appears, followed by the character’s age in parentheses: GEORGE (13). Typically, synopses run from 1-5 pages (double-spaced), depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent, editor, or contest.

In other words, it’s our old bugbear, a coolclips_wb024789.gif

In more other words, not everything labeled synopsis is the format that contest judges expect. In yet a third set of words: remember how I mentioned yesterday that there are certain problems that prompt judges to slide an entry prematurely into the non-finalist pile as soon as they appear? A screenplay-style synopsis is one of ‘em.

Why? Well, it makes it so very apparent that the entrant has not learned the norms of the literary world — and believe I may have mentioned several dozen times throughout the course of this series, one of the things being evaluated in a literary contest is a book’s marketability. To put the prevailing logic bluntly, the vast majority of judges will prefer an entry that is professionally presented — that is, one that adheres to standard format and resembles what a top-notch agent would expect to see in a successful submission — over even a brilliantly-written submission that does not conform to those standards.

To translate that into practical terms, few judges are going to be willing to waste finalist space on an entry that flouts the expectations of submission. They want to promote writing that has a fighting chance in the marketplace.

Seriously, I’ve seen this criterion included on judges’ rating sheets. Please, I beg of you, do not fall into the pervasive trap of believing that literary contests are the last haven of writing for its own sake. For contests that accept book-length work, that’s seldom the case.

Another type of synopsis that tends to elicit a knee-jerk reaction from Mehitabel: one that does not summarize the plot or argument of the book at all. Instead, it reads like promotional copy: This is the best book about the undead since Interview with the Vampire! This cookbook will change cuisine as we know it!

Or, even more common: This is the moving, insightful, beautifully written story of two kids in love, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll want to call up your high school sweetheart to reminisce.

Clearly, this entrant has confused a synopsis with a back-jacket promotional blurb. Judges are seldom amused by this, for precisely the same reason that Millicent tends not to be: they want to make up their own minds about how well-written/important/marketable/likely to induce drunken dialing a piece of writing is, not have it announced to them.

So what quality in a contest synopsis that the writing is good/important/market-ready/conducive to poor judgment? Once again, an old nag trots from the writing advice stable to admonish us all: showing, not telling, in the synopsis is the best way to demonstrate the high quality of your writing.

Again with the bootless cries? What now? “But Anne,” many of you protest, waving your boots around, “a synopsis is so short! I barely have time to tell my story, much less show it!”

Relax, garment-renders. There are a few tricks of the trade; we’ll be getting to them soon.

But first, let’s note one more frequent strategic error, a phenomenon often seen in query packet synopses as well: devoting virtually the entire synopsis to the premise of the book. Unbelievably often, this tactic leads to the exclusion of the major conflicts, mention of the major characters, or — in a synopsis longer than a page or two — any indication of the story arc or ending.

The usual authorial justification for this, of course, is I don’t want to give the ending away. Understandable, of course — were these writers not asking the judges to recognize the high quality of books that they had the luxury of reading in their entirety. Most contests that give awards for long-form writing, however, call for only the opening pages and a synopsis.

So is it completely unreasonable for the judges to want to be provided with proof that the author has at least thought through the ending of the book, as well as the beginning? Or — and you’d be astonished at how often this turns out not to be the case — that the manuscript they are considering for an award has actually been written to completion.

For a nonfiction work, of course, entering an incomplete manuscript in a chapter + synopsis contest would make some sense: the logical time to enter a contest is when one is circulating the book proposal, right? Naturally, though, someone who has written a book proposal will already produced an Annotated Table of Contents, demonstrating the story arc of the proposed book. Mehitabel certainly has a reasonable claim to deserving to know what that is.

For a novel — which, as I hope everyone is aware, is expected to be completely drafted before the novelist begins to query it — that claim rises to the level of a right. Mehitabel needs to know whether the author of the entry before her not only can write, but can structure an entire book.

Of course, any entrant is free to interpret the synopsis requirement as s/he pleases. It’s only fair to tell you, though, that in every contest I’ve judged, none of stripes of synopsis I’ve just mentioned would have made it to the semifinalist round, much less been seriously considered for the top prize. And that’s wasn’t my independent call: those were the rules. I just mention.

As if all that weren’t enough to make even the bravest first-time contest entrant tremble like a leaf at composition time, contest synopses often need to be shorter than submission synopses. That means, often, that writing them is harder.

Why? Well, most contest entries set absolute maximum page limits. Page space will be at a premium, therefore. For instance, if the chapter you want to submit is currently 23 pages long, and the page limit (exclusive of title page, which is never counted in a contest’s maximum page count) is 25, you’re either going to need to shorten your already-existing synopsis to 2 pages or make some serious cuts to your chapter to permit something longer.

Guess which option most contest entrants pick? You guessed it: contest judges see many, many single-page synopses.

Unless the contest rules actually call for it to be that short, however, those synopses tend to lose style points for the entry. After all, as many of you howled at me earlier in this post, it’s awfully darned difficult to tell the story of a reasonably complex book within a couple of dozen lines of text.

Even if the contest rules specify a super-short synopsis (or make it sound shorter by calling it a plot outline), though, please do not give into the quite substantial temptation to fudge a little to stay within the specified parameters. Even if you have been asked to produce a 3-paragraph synopsis of a 500-page book, DO NOT single-space it, shrink the print size, or fudge the margins to make it fit within the specified limits, unless the contest rules say you may.

Why am I being so adamant about this? Simple: if you do it, you will get caught and penalized.

It’s kind of a no-brainer for the judge, actually. Trust me, if the rest of your entry is in 12-point Times New Roman with 1-inch margins, double-spaced, almost any judge is going to be able to tell right away if your synopsis’ margins are .8″ all around. Or if the type is shrunk to 95%.

The same holds true, incidentally, if you submit a super-long synopsis. Because judges are expected to rate entries for professional presentation, unless contest rules specify otherwise, it’s prudent not to allow a contest synopsis to run over 5 pages or under 2.

Why those limits? A synopsis that is much shorter will make you look as if you are unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware that a 3- to 5-page synopsis is fairly standard in the industry.

If this is starting to sound a bit repetitious, congratulations — you’ve grasped a fundamental truth about literary contests. An entry’s synopsis, just like its chapter(s), is subject to judging for clarity, coherence, marketability.

Oh, and professionalism. Had I mentioned that?

Which is why a synopsis that reads like — wait for it — a synopsis will virtually always receive higher marks than one that sounds like a back-jacket blurb (My writing teacher says this is the best novel since THE SUN ALSO RISES!) or an exposition on why the author chose to write the book (It isn’t autobiographical, but”?).

Instead, if you are entering a fiction category, make sure that the novel sounds engaging, marketable — and like the best yarn since TREASURE ISLAND. For a memoir, ditto. And for other nonfiction, present the argument as fascinating and rigorously supported.

But use the synopsis to show that your book is all of these things, not to tell about it.

Admittedly, summarizing a 400-page book in just a few pages that’s a fairly tall order. No one contests that. You’re going to need to cover that plot or argument with dispatch. But that doesn’t necessarily mean being vague or leaving out eye-catching details.

Oh, stop groaning. That’s going to be true of your first few attempts at writing a synopsis, no matter the context in which it is requested. But, unlike many of the other hoops through which aspiring writers need to jump through on the way to landing an agent, the ability to write a strong synopsis is a skill that’s going to serve you well for your entire literary career.

Don’t pretend you didn’t hear me the first time. Pull out your hymnals and sing it out: even the long-agented and often-published still need to write ‘em occasionally. Might as well learn to do it well.

In both contest and submission synopses, most fiction writers make the mistake of summarizing the plot in generalities, rather than — got a pencil handy? You’re going to want to take notes — giving a brief overview of the major conflicts of the plot through a series brief, vividly described scenes redolent with juicy, concrete details.

Not clear on the difference? Let’s take a gander at a fairly typical opening paragraph for a synopsis:

JACQUELINE (42) is experiencing severe problems in her life: a boss who alternately seems to hate and praise her, a father who calls all the time to grill her about her love life, and a wacky neighbor who is constantly knocking on her door to borrow things. She feels like she’s going out of her mind until she meets the man of her dreams, an architect whose bedroom eyes make her swoon, but who may already have a wife. After a series of disturbing “chance” meetings with Josh, she finds that it’s easier to accept a temporary demotion than to keep on fighting battles on all fronts.

Okay, let me ask you: how many lines into that summary did your attention start to wander? How many lines before you started to become confused about what was going on? And if you made it all the way to the end, did you find yourself wondering whether Josh was the architect, the boss, or the neighbor?

And what the heck was up with those quotation marks around something that clearly wasn’t spoken aloud?

Good; you’re thinking like an agency screener. And like a contest judge.

Why doesn’t this excerpt doesn’t hold the attention? It’s stuffed to the gills with generalities and clich?s. But a synopsis does not need to resort to either. Take a look at the same premise, summarized with a bit more pizzazz and a lot more specifics:

Freshly-divorced graphic designer JACQUELINE (42) is finding it hard to sleep these days. Staying awake isn’t much of a picnic, either. Her boss, ALBERT (87) cannot seem to make it through a staff meeting at the magazine without criticizing her layouts while running a warm, greasy hand up her stockinged thighs under the conference table.

You already want to read this contest entry, don’t you? So will Mehitabel. That’s because the details are compelling and unusual.

Oh, you want to see that magic trick again? Okay, let’s see where else dialing back the vague helps us:

Every morning at precisely 9:24, her habitually-marrying father (OWEN, 67) telephones her at work to see if she met Mr. Right the night before — and when she sheepishly says no, he regales her with tales of his latest paramour. Even her nights are disturbed by her lonely neighbor, CLIVE (24), who can’t seem to make it past midnight without scratching on her door to ask to borrow something — her milk, her hairdryer, her cat.

She manages to run carefully-balanced chaos of her life runs with relative smoothness until dreamy, suspender-wearing architect JOSH (48) comes to measure her office for long-overdue renovations. But does that untanned line on his left ring finger mean that he, too, is recently separated — or that he’s the kind of rat who slips his wedding ring into his pocket every time he comes within smoldering range of an attractive woman?

Yes, this second synopsis is a trifle longer, but aren’t those few extra lines worth it, when they give the story so much more oomph? Oomph is, after all, important in a contest entry.

A contest judge, like an agency screener, typically reads quite a few entries within a single sitting. If you want yours to end up in the pile with the finalists, you’re going to want that judge to remember the story or argument of your book, as well as the quality of the writing.

Remember them for positive reasons, that is. If your synopsis doesn’t cause Mehitabel to make a mental note to rush out and buy that book the nanosecond it hits the shelves, it may be lacking something in the oomph department.

Do I see a raised hand or two out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you asking, “wouldn’t everything you’ve just said be applicable to either a submission or a contest synopsis? I thought we were talking about contest synopses specifically.”

Good point, ethereal questioners. Yes, these principles would apply equally well to either type of synopsis. However, for a contest synopsis, since you will also be submitting the opening of the book — even if the rules merely say that you should include A chapter, rather than specifying Chapter 1, you’re pretty much always going to be better off submitting the beginning — you can get away with covering those early pages only very lightly in the synopsis.

Actually, since those opening 10 pages (or 15, or 25) are all that the judges are going to see of the book, you would be well within your rights to streamline the plot more than you might for a regular synopsis. You could also — you’re still sitting down, right? — lose a subplot or two.

Stop glaring at me: your job here is not to present Mehitabel with a morbidly accurate summary of every aspect of the book, but to convince her that the manuscript it represents contains an enjoyable, well-written story or argument. If you can construct a more vivid, compelling story by sticking to only the book’s primary plotline (which, in a short synopsis of a long novel, is often the case), go ahead.

The point of the contest synopsis, after all, is to wow the judges with what a great storyteller you are, not to reproduce every twist, turn, and minor character’s angst. This may feel a touch misleading, but after you are wearing the first place ribbon, no one is going to come running up to you crying, “?Hey! Your synopsis left out three major plotlines, and didn’t mention the protagonist’s sister! Foul! Foul!”?

Trust me on this one. I hear contest judges yell things all the time.

For memoir, it’s especially important to streamline the story. Why? Well, most memoir contest synopses include a little too much information extraneous to the primary plotline. For the synopsis, hit only the dramatic high points — and make sure to give some indication of how the main character grows and changes throughout the book.

Yes, I’m talking about you, memoirist. You hadn’t been thinking of yourself as your own protagonist? Mehitabel and Millicent will.

Oh, and avoid making the common mistake of mentioning in either a contest or submission synopsis for a memoir that the story being told here is true. Actually, you should eschew it in a query, too: in publishing circles, all nonfiction is assumed to be based upon truth.

Just ask James Frey, he of the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal.

Seriously, the true memoir is as much of an pet peeve as the fiction novel or the nonfiction how-to book. To the ears of the industry — and to contest judges that pay attention to publishing norms — all of these terms are redundant.

For other non-fiction entries, you’re going to want to reproduce the basic argument of the book in the synopsis. Try starting with a thought-provoking question (In a society as complex as America’s, why isn’t there more social acceptance of squirrel-lovers?), then moving on to why that question is important enough to answer. Present the essential planks of your argument in logical order, and give some indication of the kind of evidence you intend to use to back it up.

But again, remember to be specific in your overview, not vaguely general. Remember, just as Millicent does not have time to fill in any logical holes in a query, Mehitabel neither has the time nor is allowed to project her notions of what your book is about onto your entry. Sing it out, series-followers: a contest judge must evaluate an entry based solely upon what is on the page. Don’t expect a lenient reading.

I hear some throat-clearing out there. “Um, Anne? Again, dandy advice for either kind of synopsis, but how should I handle nonfiction in a contest synopsis in particular?”

Tenacious, aren’t you? I can refuse you nothing.

In a contest synopsis for any kind of nonfiction book (including a memoir), it is usually a good idea to include some brief indication of the target market and why your book will serve that market better than what is currently available. Essentially, you’re giving Mehitabel a free taste of the argument that you will be making in your book proposal.

Do keep it short and to-the-point, though. Hyperbole does not work well in this context, so steer clear of grandiose claims (Everyone in North America will want to buy this book!) and stick mostly to explaining (in vivid, specific terms, please) what the book is about.

But most of all, make sure that the synopsis makes the book sound like a great read. If Mehitabel doesn’t want to place an order for your as-yet-unpublished book, believe me, your contest entry is not going to make it to the finalist round.

As with a novel or memoir’s story arc, the best way to achieve this in just a few pages may well involve leaving out some of the less important planks of your argument. Do not feel compelled to give the chapter-by-chapter summary you would in a book proposal. Just because you spend 80 pages on the spiritual life of tadpoles in your book on frogs doesn’t necessarily mean than a description of it will read well in a contest synopsis.

That use of specifics made your eyes light up, didn’t it, coming after those two generalizations? It would for Millicent, too.

See now why you might benefit from writing one version of the synopsis for agents, and another, more streamlined one that gets tucked into contest entries? Different contexts — and sometimes even different contests — may call for different approaches.

Flexibility, after all, is as important a component of the writer’s tool bag as the ability to write an eye-catching opening paragraph. Don’t worry that a judge is going to assume that you don’t understand how to write a submission synopsis — a contest entry is a different animal, and everyone concerned understands that.

Next time, I shall give you a few more pointers on how to make that synopsis appeal a bit more to contest judges. As if that weren’t enough to set a contest entrant’s heart aflutter, I shall be showing visual examples of how a synopsis should be formatted.

Oh, the excitement is palpable. Keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part III: I need a road map!