Half-Page To Fame

Yesterday I entered three pieces in WEbook’s PageToFame contest. But I was brought up short, and forced to do some on-the-spot unwelcome revision, because of one big problem.

The guidelines in the FAQ say only:

Start by submitting some basic information about your book—like a title and genre—plus a short, engaging summary and your book’s 1st page.

So I put my six candidates in an OpenOffice document, truncating each at a single page. After getting comments from my friends (thank you!) I worked to get the essentials of each piece onto the page, in one case not quite succeeding. But each page was roughly 4,000 characters long, or about 650 words, not including titles and the statement of “Chapter One” or “Prologue.” This might be a little longer than a standard manuscript page, but while I used single line spacing I also used a larger font than I might have and used the default margins (wider than professors tend want for class papers, and so shrinking the page). This is also vastly fewer words per page than I used to manage writing by hand.

But WEbook’s idea of a “page” is drastically smaller than that. You are limited to 1500 characters. That’s about 250 words, and less than half of each of my pages. While that might actually be a typical first page of a printed novel, there are several problems with this.

First, it’s just not possible to get a story going in that little time unless you begin in the middle and fill in all of your background later. And those are a kind of stories that I can’t imagine anyone wanting to read. The book that comes most easily to my hand is Mercedes Lackey’s The Fairy Godmother (in paperback); I can be pretty sure within the first 250 words (which is actually a couple of sentences more than the first page) that this is the Cinderella story and about to get tumbled upside down because I have the title, I am more than passingly familiar with the fairy tale and several modern takes on it, I am more than passingly familiar with Mercedes Lackey’s writing. And that’s about all that passage can give me, besides introducing the protagonist and several major characters (not even by name). The only way to know even that much is to read the blurb, which is both a great deal longer than WEbook allows for a teaser-slash-plot summary and written in a way that does not fit WEbook’s guidelines for the summary at all.

Second, I can’t imagine choosing a book based on a single page. Discarding, sure, but a (metaphorical) book-wall collision can be the result of a single paragraph, while an unknown book by an unknown author takes at least a chapter to prove itself one way or the other. (A known author is a different matter; I don’t even need to know the content of a new Bujold to want to read it “nownownownownow!”, for instance, and if I select a page at random from a Lackey I’ll probably be able to tell whether her anti-Christian prejudice will be too much to stomach.) WEbook’s old “voting” system, where completed manuscripts had around three or so chapters marked for voters to read, let readers get a feel for an author’s writing and where the story was going. In correcting the other problem—of politics rather than quality determining the results—WEbook has undermined my ability to determine quality.

Third, and most egregiously, WEbook never tells us that a “page” is actually less than half a page until the author is actually entering text. We can learn to live with any length or formatting requirements the contest-giver specifies; what we cannot do is read their minds. Especially if what they say is only tangentially related to what they actually mean: I can fit as few as one or as many as a thousand words on a page, and they said “page.” What they meant was “fifteen hundred characters” (or perhaps “two hundred fifty words,” which works out to about that number of characters). I would not be complaining publicly and at such length if they had made this length restriction obvious, by making it a question in their FAQ, for instance.

WEbook, you’re dealing with unpublished authors here. Unless we remember that you’re a publisher and adjust our thinking accordingly (and with creative types, it’s not safe to assume we will), to us “first page” has little if anything to do with the size of a page in a printed book, let alone of a page in a mass-market paperback. That won’t come until we get our first proof copies. To us, a “page” means a manuscript page, either hand-written (anywhere from 500 to 1,000 words, or twice that if we’re thinking “sheet of paper” and write on both sides) or word-processed (six or seven hundred words or so, depending on font, margins, and line spacing). In any case, “check your assumptions at the door.”

Readers: Keep in mind that what the system shows you is nowhere near enough to make an accurate and positive impression.

And anyone thinking of entering this contest: By “PageToFame”, they really mean “Half-PageToFame.” You’ve only got 250 words.

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