Posted in Writing Fiction

Literary Competition Season

 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:

  1. Create a new folder on your computer for each competition.
  2. Choose the first competition you’ll enter and, if possible, work on only one at a time.
  3. Read every word of the competition’s guidelines and requirements. Read them at least twice.
  4. Copy and paste the instructions specific to the submission of your manuscript into a Word document.
  5. Print those instructions and the required forms and read them again, highlighting the essential regulations.
  6. Go ahead and create a Word document for your manuscript.
  7. As you do your last editing, copy and paste one chapter at a time into the document that you’ll submit.
  8. If at all possible, find at least one reader for your manuscript.
  9. Read the manuscript out loud with your reader.
  10. Carefully re-reading the requirements, continue to transfer one edited chapter at a time into the document you will submit.
  11. 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.
  12. Final check that you’ve followed their directions.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.


Posted in My Writing, Personal

On Writing #3: They Don’t Like My Novel??

My mother’s favorite word was “Shit!” and she wasn’t even a writer. She was a Southerner, though, and that probably explains it.

This morning, “On Writing #3” was a short essay describing the next phase of the writing of my autobiographical novel.  It followed smoothly and logically from “On Writing #2”– some thoughts on the first four pages and the elaborate techniques I developed to avoid writing them.  All as planned. These are, after all, summaries of the stages of a completed novel. They are re-workings of my original on-the-spot reporting of the process as it unfolded, lost to me–and, no doubt, to the ages–by the recent flame-out of my three-year-old website and blog.  I am able, with a little effort, to blame this not-entirely-unexpected event on any number of villains, but the real culprit was the fact that I had no hand in the building of that site and hadn’t taken the time to learn enough to save it.

However, I digress.

In one twenty-four-hour period, John McCain died, Neil Simon died, and my autobiographical novel was rejected by the most significant of the three literary competitions to which I submitted it.

Possibly “rejected” is too strong a word. I made it into the list of 158 semi-finalists, a fact that might have ameliorated the pain somewhat except that it came immediately before I learned that being a semi-finalist did not constitute being a “winner” and therefore, if I wish to revise and resubmit for next year, I am eligible, along with the people whose names appear nowhere but whose manuscripts have been judged–not just inadequate for a prize–but “rejected as not ready to place.”  I can’t help wondering if anyone spoke up in favor of a search for a gentler word than “rejected.”

Whatever the case, during the period between submitting the manuscript in March and  receiving today’s email, I have already made substantial changes.  In order to re-submit (not until December), I must attach to the newly minted book a letter describing my revisions and making a case for a reconsideration.  Already I’m worrying that they won’t even let it in the door.

The subject of the rejected (let’s just say it) novel is my mother’s family, and I found the whole experience of writing it both painful and transformative.

Tentatively, cautiously, I am feeling my way towards a novel about my paternal grandmother, and have begun, as I seem to do, with images, photographs of the fifteen-year-old girl who married a twenty-seven-year-old cavalry officer, a boarder in her parents’ home, and just nine months later gave birth to my father.  She was a  beautiful girl. This photograph was taken on her wedding day.