Make a List and Stick to It
I have a checklist, much like an old friend, Eddie, had when he took his seat in the cockpit of his small plane and prepared for take-off. Everyone who knew Eddie casually–that is, anyone who had not been flying with him–thought of Eddie as an almost careless individual who lived life spontaneously. He embodied cliches like on-the-spur-of-the-moment, on-the-fly, by-the-seat-of-his-pants. Eddie was an adamant opponent of planning of any kind. I recall vividly the first time he took me up in the plane. He pulled out a yellowed card on which someone had written a checklist with a small diagram next to each brief, numbered instruction. Eddie’s reading skills were minimal.
I am a retired English teacher. I read with the best. I am one of those mostly undisciplined people who give the impression of great order in my life and, to preserve both my reputation and my sanity, I make lists. I am, in fact, a compulsive list-maker, a person who can rewrite a list several times a day because it has gotten messy or to add a new task to the bottom of the list every time I cross off one at the top. This is a terrible way to live, especially given my total dependence on those lists. If I don’t write it down on my list, it doesn’t happen.
In the case of the entry process for the high-end literary contests, these omissions can eliminate you from the competition before the judges even see your manuscript. There is one contest in particular that I entered last year–honorable mention, only–that issues veiled warnings like,
“It is important to label your documents properly. Unlabelled documents will not be opened.”
So, with a deadline of May 1 looming, I now have a completed novel, proofed and edited several times, still needing some tinkering but a clean manuscript and, I believe, a good piece of writing. I am girding up my loins to read this year’s instructions very carefully, as I have been reminded of the importance of tracking down those misplaced commas because,
“No judge wants to read your errors!”
I recall asking myself a year ago, “Is this really worth it?” The answer, of course, is yes.
Below you will find my personal checklist, to which I adhere slavishly:
- Create a new folder on your computer for each competition.
- Choose the first competition you’ll enter and, if possible, work on only one at a time.
- Read every word of the competition’s guidelines and requirements. Read them at least twice.
- Copy and paste the instructions specific to the submission of your manuscript into a Word document.
- Print those instructions and the required forms and read them again, highlighting the essential regulations.
- Go ahead and create a Word document for your manuscript.
- As you do your last editing, copy and paste one chapter at a time into the document that you’ll submit.
- If at all possible, find at least one reader for your manuscript.
- Read the manuscript out loud with your reader.
- Carefully re-reading the requirements, continue to transfer one edited chapter at a time into the document you will submit.
- Double-check details. Last year, I did everything precisely and correctly and, on the form for payment, I transposed two digits on my credit card number and it took a couple of weeks to get it sorted out.
- Final check that you’ve followed their directions.
- Keep good records, to include your own list of contests entered, with the dates you entered, and the emails you receive acknowledging your submission and your payment.
- Send it off, take a 24-hour break, and move on to the next competition.
At this point, I am not quite halfway through the list. I have two people reading and editing. When I get a chapter back with notes, I read it again, out loud, then move it to the form for my first contest. I am about as obsessive about having a system as it’s possible to be, and I circle each number as I complete it.
My first competition is the very one that gave me the most trouble a year ago, including my credit card error. The process is difficult and confusing. The payoff is impressive, both in prize money and in prestige. I expect I will re-submit last year’s revised manuscript again.