Contest Update: April Retrospective

I wrote a while back about how one of my entries in WEbook’s PageToFame contest had been rejected. That post turned into a lengthy criticism of the methodology of this stage of the contest, and it’s been a couple of weeks, so today I’ll explain where I stand currently. (I’ll tag those who gave me advice earlier in the Facebook version of this post, so they know how their recommendations fared.)

I originally entered three novel first half-pages in the contest: The Invasion, Sunshine Civil War, and An Internal Conflict: The Second Time Around. Of these, only Sunshine Civil War remains “in play”; Internal Conflict was removed by WEbook after 73 people had rated it and only 17% voted to promote it, while The Invasion was removed after 105 people had rated it and only 20% had voted to promote it.

When WEbook offered a free entry in either half of the contest to anyone who entered two pieces in either half of the contest, I entered two poems (“If you’re not she” and “A Love Unknown”, the two recommended by one of my trusted critics), then used the promotional code to enter “A Murder, A Mystery, And A Marriage”. So far, as of Wednesday, Sunshine Civil War has been rated 108 times, with 36% voting to promote it, while “A Murder, A Mystery, And A Marriage” has been rated 21 times, with 38% voting to promote it. From the FAQ I understand that a work has to be rated at least 100 times and meet their dynamically-calculated “rating threshold”; Sunshine Civil War meets the first requirement and has around twice as much appeal so far, so I have some hope it will be selected. Rating of poetry hasn’t started yet.

On the other hand, I still think that An Internal Conflict would have the most potential if it had gotten past this stage, and I think the reason it was so disliked was the nature of the prologue, which consists almost entirely of Persephone’s recollections. If some benevolent soul would be willing to help me turn the beginning of the first chapter into a polished, presentable “first page,” I would be very grateful.

On the poetry front:

As I am a notoriously bad critic of my own work, I’ve been seeking your advice as to what poetry to enter in the “shorts” half of the contest. As mentioned above, I did enter two poems, but I’m still having trouble narrowing my choices down. I’ll list the poems that remain on my short list below; please help me decide what to submit by telling me which of these (or my other poetry, or for that matter any of my essays) you think I should submit, and which I should cut, and any ideas you have on how to make them better.

The remaining poems:

Comments? Please review!

Contest Update: First prose results

I recently got an email about my entries in WEbook’s PageToFame contest. Apparently An Internal Conflict has gotten so few positive scores that their model predicts it can’t succeed, so they’re removing it from the contest. I have two pieces left in play, Sunshine Civil War and The Invasion.

This is not entirely unexpected. If the rules of the contest had given me two full pages to develop each piece, I think that Internal Conflict would be by far my strongest entry. Even with a single full page it’s a somewhat compelling read. But no, WEbook decided to only give each entry half a page. Even Sunshine Civil War, which is the closest to starting in media res, hasn’t quite gotten going before it hits the length limit.

If this stage were merely designed to weed out the really, really, bad stuff, that would be one thing. Using the contest’s five-point scale (higher is better), such a system would take everything with a plurality of scores at three or above. But no: only scores of four and five are votes for “promotion.” This system is thus designed to weed out anything that is not exemplary and excellent. (The problem is compounded by the extreme rarity of five scores, which the contest says mean “heavenly.”)

The problem with this is that to give an impression that your story is “exemplary” or “excellent” in one hundred fifty words, you have to be basically writing “short-short” or “flash” fiction, stuff that works well in that length but falls apart when given greater scope. WEbook has set up a contest where the first heat is a sprint and the last is a marathon; just as very few athletes excel at both the marathon and the hundred-meter dash, so too vanishingly few stories (in which I include everything from flash fiction to trilogies and beyond) work well both when truncated to less than two hundred words and when expanded to thousands of words.

Of course, it’s possible that all of this is merely that the contest is just designed to pick the sort of fiction that I don’t want to read.

WEbook goes to some length to ensure that all rating is done as a blind test, so I can’t ask you to go and rate my remaining work highly, but I think it could be helpful if you did some reading and rating so that excrable prose doesn’t get elevated over gems as so often happens.

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.

Contest update: Intentions

(I’ll tag those who gave me advice or criticism in the Facebook version of this–thank you!–and those whose advice I still hope for.)

I’ve repeatedly appealed for your help selecting and revising pieces to enter in a novel-first-page contest. My quasi-deadline is today; after today the entry fee roughly doubles from just under $5 to just under $10, so I intend to make my entries today. (I’m scheduling this post to run somewhat earlier than usual so that anyone with last-minute advice can give it before I actually enter, but “speak now or forever hold your peace.”)

(As an aside, the “shorts” side of the contest has quite a bit of time left; I narrowed my choice of poetry down somewhat but still need your help on that front.)

After receiving excellent advice from Nate, Amanda, Hannah, and Holly, I have made my selections and made some small improving revisions. First, the three pieces I will not be entering:

  • “A Backwater Rebellion”: I have come to agree with most of my reviewers: This story is far too abrupt and confusing, particularly as it begins. It desperately needs revision.
  • Castle Commander: I agree with the initial review: There’s no obvious difference between this and your stereotypical fantasy novel. This was an experiment, and while I may return to it at some point the experiment was not really a succcess.
  • A Calculated Wager: This is one that reviewers seemed to overlook. It’s promising, but not there yet. As one would expect from its origin (I began it around the same time as the original version of An Internal Conflict, of which the piece of the same name in this set is a rewrite), it needs substantial revision.

The three pieces I intend to enter in the contest:

  • The Invasion: I wrote my first draft of this in eighth or ninth grade, and have continued to revise it often since then. Even this first scene could be improved, but I’m relatively satisfied with it.
  • Sunshine Civil War: This is the piece most liked by reviewers so far; the tone and style of the first scene is not typical of the novel (so far), but I’m somewhat hopeful for this piece in at least the first stage.
  • An Internal Conflict: A Second Time Around: This is my current favorite, and I’m glad to say that some reviewers agreed. Its primary weakness is that the prologue, in which Persephone reflects on everything that’s gone wrong, is absolutely necessary to the plot, the most important bit (which might make some readers more interested in reading more and so make them score it higher) has to be at the end of the prologue, and I can’t really make the prologue any shorter than its current length, which is too long for a single page (and WEbook’s “page” length is probably shorter than mine). But if this gets past the first round, I’m somewhat optimistic.
  • If you think I should choose differently (or if you’d like to make your agreement known), please speak up! And I still need your help revising the pieces and improving the plot summaries (warning: both of those links are to PDFs); if you have any ideas on either front, please let me hear them before the day is out.

    Contest update: more help, please!

    [Update, March 2013: I’m dropping all connection to WEbook, after it went down and apparently bankrupt, and I read several cautionary warnings about it from others who read the Terms of Service more closely than I did. But I leave this post essentially as-is for posterity. I’m still interested in this sort of feedback, however, in my preparations for a collection of my poetry.]

    (If you’re tagged in this on Facebook, you’re one of my friends whose advice I particularly desire and trust; please read on.)

    WEbook, a social networking site for writers (and readers), is running an ongoing writing contest called PageToFame. It now has two parts: one for longer works, and one for shorter pieces. For longer works, for each entry the contestant submits the first page of the piece and a paragraph plot summary; if enough readers judge it highly enough they’ll ask for the first chapter, and so on for four stages. For works under 1,000 words the contestant submits the entire piece. At present the entry fee is the same for short and long works: just under $5. The fee for long works will double at the end of March, and the fee for short works will do the same sometime later.

    I think that my poetry has a better chance of passing muster in this contest than my fiction, but there is comparatively little reward offered for the poetry: they plan to come up with some way of distributing and selling short works electronically and would give me royalties whenever one of my poems sold. The reward for a novel’s passing all four stages of the other half of the contest, in contrast, is a book contract.

    Therefore, I plan to enter both halves of the contest with at least a few pieces. But I am a notoriously bad critic of my own work, and so I solicited your advice on what to select and how to revise or polish the pieces before entering them. I would like to sincerely thank Nate, Hannah, Libby, and Amanda for the excellent criticism and advice I received; it’s been very helpful. But I still haven’t succeeded in narrowing my choices down quite enough.

    I have eliminated one of my six novels-in-progress (Castle Commander), and twenty-five of the forty-three poems I’ve posted so far, from my consideration. But that’s about as far as I can get, so I’m again turning to you, my readers, in hope of good advice.

    Which novels-in-progress (first pages) should I submit? Which poems? Which should I cut? How can I improve my novel plot summaries? What can I title those poems still identified by their first lines? And what bits of a novel first page or a poem are weak and could be improved? (Conversely, what bits are particularly good, so I can try to use a similar technique elsewhere?)

    The (now five) first pages of novels-in-progress, and corresponding plot summaries, are in word processor files linked from here. The eighteen poems I’m still considering are linked below. (See this page for a list of all the poetry I’ve posted, with my attempts at one-sentence blurbs. If there’s a poem there that you particularly like that I’ve already cut from this list, or if you think I should include one of my essays, speak up!) I’ll try to keep this post up-to-date with any changes I’m persuaded to make, and I’ll also mention any changes in the comments on Facebook.

    To reduce my expense, I would like to enter my prose before the March 31 price increase, so other things being equal please consider the novel first pages first. But I’ll take what feedback I can get.

    The remaining poems:

    Please review! And thank you.

    Help me pick my best poetry!

    [Update, March 2013: After reading cautionary warnings about WEbook, and after it went down and apparently bankrupt, I’m no longer going to deal with it, but I leave this post essentially as is for posterity’s sake. I still want to know what’s my best poetry, but for my planned collection rather than this contest.]

    I’ve been planning on entering several pieces in WEbook’s PageToFame contest. As such, I’ve repeatedly pleaded for your feedback on which of my first pages I should submit, and how to polish them before doing so. I still need more feedback there, and the entry price will go up (I think double) at the end of this month, so I’d like to finish this process and enter before then.

    But now WEbook has added a “short work” section of the contest, for poetry, “blog posts,” etc. I have a lot more poetry than prose that I consider presentable, so I would like to enter this segment of the contest too. But, again, I need your help. Please read some of the poetry archived on my blog (listed here, but possibly more easily readable in batches here, and I can willingly produce a word-processor file like I did for the prose if asked) and tell me which you liked best. (Comments on why you liked what you liked would be still better, and suggestions of how to revise a poem to improve it would be above and beyond my hopes.) I’ve tagged several of my most reliable and valuable critics (plus a couple who were valuable and reliable critics on last acquaintance) in the Facebook version of this post, but eagerly solicit feedback from my readership at large.

    (To clarify somewhat: I think that my poetry has a better chance of success in this contest than my prose, but the possible reward if everything goes as well as possible is greater for the prose: selection in the “shorts” contest means recognition and royalties from their to-be-invented digital distribution system, but passing all four stages of the main contest would mean a book contract. So if you have time and attention to spare, please do consider my novel-first-pages, link and fuller explanation here.)
    Please review!