Sunday, September 20, 2009

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Or, in this case, the rules....

This past week has seen me on the other end of the writing game. Usually, I'm one of those sending out short stories, anxiously awaiting to hear from an editor or contest judge about how I've done. This week was my turn to play judge. More than that, I was the only "real writer" -- not my words, but the words of some of my judges -- to read the entries. In its own way, judging these stories was as difficult as waiting to hear how one of my stories has done.

To start, I have to say I'm thrilled with the response we had this year. Ours is a little library, one of a number located between Dallas and Fort Worth. So we never expect to have a lot of entries. This year, however, we quadrupled the number of entries over last year. That's a big feather in the cap of everyone who helped organize the contest.

But, with the increased number of entries came the increased need to apply the rules of the contest across the board. Hence the title -- and most particularly the subtitle -- of this post. You can follow your muse down the yellow brick road, but you have to follow the rules as well. Don't count on the beauty of your prose to blind the judges to the fact your entry is too long -- or too short, your margins don't meet the requirement or -- and this is a very BIG one -- you submitted it in font so tiny the judges need a magnifying glass to read it.

I guess my point is that I hadn't realized just how badly I wanted some of the writers who submitted to follow our very simple rules. We had some good stories that simply could not be passed into the final round of judging because they had failed to read the guidelines. Even worse, there were several stories where it really seemed like the authors didn't include all their pages. In the middle of a scene, the story just stopped. Never again am I going to assume I know the guidelines or that I've included everything I'm supposed to. It's a checklist for me from now on.

So, for those of you who have submitted to contests before -- or to editors or agents -- what is the strangest thing you've seen in their guidelines? Conversely, what piece of advice would you have for those who are trying to successfully submit their short stories to either a contest or an editor?

**(Image is, of course, from The Wizard of Oz.)


John Lambshead said...

Most important rule?
If the editor wants 500 words don't send him 501,

Amanda Green said...

I'll add a caveat to that, John, if I may. Find out HOW the editor counts words. Some use the word count function included with word processing programs. Others tell you to count every word on three pages, divide to get the average and then multiply by the number of pages. While still others say count the words in x-number of paragraphs, divide by the number of lines to get an average, multiply by the number of lines on an average page...well, you get my drift. You need to be a mathematician to figure it all out.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Judging can be tricky.

I used to judge for a state competition held through schools and high schools, run by Austcare. (The organisation helps international children in danger from famine and war).

One year I had two entries from the same high school with exactly the same theme and the last lines were almost identical. Plagiarism was the obvious answer, but the names sounded foreign and there was something about the stories. They were totally sincere and they were just so grateful to be living with their families without fear, so I rang the school.

Turns out the two teenagers were refugees from Bosnia. English was their second language and their counselor had helped them create their stories.

On the strength of the story, I couldn't award them a 'placing' but the central theme was so powerful I gave them each a Highly Commended.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, last Spring I judged the youth short story contest and we had a situation where one of the stories simply did not The wording, phrasing and general theme just felt older, if you know what I mean. Then, as we were discussing if we needed to look more into the situation, the real problem arose. One of the judges also happened to be the child's parent and they hadn't mentioned to anyone -- nor had the librarian coordinating things -- that both of his kids had entered the contest. I know that judge didn't influence our final decision but, because one of his kids placed, I worried about how it would look if anyone happened to ask who the judges were. So, this year, the potential judges were told very clearly they could not be related to any of the entrants. It saved a couple of headaches.

I give it to you for contacting the school and looking into it further instead of just assuming and disqualifying the kids as a result. Hopefully, if I even find myself with a similar situation, I'll do the same.

Kate said...

Read Miss Snark. If you're still not sure on the idea, read Miss Snark again. Repeat until you understand. It doesn't matter how stupid the rules look (and in some cases are), you still have to follow them.

The rules serve a few purposes. The stated one, to make life easier for the slush readers/contest judges/etc, is just one of them. Probably the biggest never-stated purpose is to filter out a big chunk of entries/queries/submissions. When you've got a pile that's taken over the desk and is threatening to push you out of the room, you need a quick easy way to take out the majority, and you know from experience that almost all of them will be... shall we be polite and say not suitable?... so you have rules that are gate-keepers.

While there are always exceptions (except for Rule 34), if someone doesn't take the time to get at least close to your format rules, then they probably didn't take the time to write well, either.

Naturally, once one ascends to the rarified heights accorded a Name, the rules no longer apply. For the rest of us, it's jump those hoops until the editor says you can stop.

KylieQ said...

I've recently started reading slush for an Australian mag and I've been surprised by how little some writers bother to proofread before submitting. I guess the same would apply to contests but certainly with slush, if it needs too much work, you're likely to be scored lower (and you also come off looking unprofessional for not fixing up your typos first).

On a similar note, when I have to go through job applications, the first ones to go in the "no" pile are the ones that contain more than one typo...

Anonymous said...

The rule works for e-submissions too.

"Must be RTF. Must not be zipped or compressed in any fashion." Otherwise the software tosses it, and even a soft hearted slush reader can't overlook a minor infraction if the file simply isn't there. It's getting close to 25% of submissions have no file attached, this last year or so.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, you know how much I love Miss Snark and miss her blogs. That is also one of three or four blogs I list as must-reads for anyone who wants to have a chance at being successful in this business. And you're right. The rules are one way of narrowing down the number of submissions that will be read and, imo, rightly so. Other professions have rules and guidelines that must be followed or there will be consequences. So why not ours?

Now, that doesn't mean I think the person receiving the submission shouldn't use a bit of judgment before just automatically tossing something because it doesn't fit the guidelines to a tee. For ex: if the guidelines say 1 inch margins all around and you have a bottom margin at 3/4 of an inch, I'm not sure that should be an automatic DQ. BUT you have to be consistent. Which is what we tried to do with the short story contest.

Amanda Green said...

KylieQ, you hit one of my bot buttons there. You'd be surprised -- or maybe not -- by the number of people who rely on spell check and grammar check to do the work for them. Sure, spell check makes things easier but I bet each one of us has had a situation where it has put the wrong word in and we've missed it the first time through. It's the same with the grammar check. In fact, I have that function turned off in my word processing programs and keep both Strunk & White and Chicago Style Manual close at hand to check when I'm not sure about something.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, YES! In fact, I was discussing this very thing in the writers group I run for the local library today. In my opinion, it's even more important to make sure you follow the guidelines on e-subs for the very reason you stated. Software can be configured to dump a submission that doesn't meet the guidelines. It's harder to do with a hard copy, especially if you've already read the cover letter/query letter and like what you see.