Visitors to this site have many times asked how they too can get some ink in the Style Invitational. Grace Fuller herewith tells us what she knows about it. She notes that she may no longer be the ideal person to ask about this, because her ink position has eroded considerably with respect to others, old and new. However, this is what she used to tell young kids coming up in this business, considerably updated.
1. Begin competing as early as possible in Year 1, because the competition was much less dense then, and the Czar used to pick stuff for publication that is just plain embarrassing now.
2. Can't do #1, laws of physics and all that? Then try this—be an educated fortyish Judeo-Christian woman from the east coast who likes baseball and classical music. All fooling aside—it long ago became clear that those of us who roughly matched the Czar's demographics could do well. This is not because the Czar looked for the right sort of contestant to use stuff from, but rather that we were more likely to share cultural reference-points with him, and could therefore, given some other talents, write gags that he, and now the Empress, would immediately get the point of.
Case in point—what might an otherwise bright but un-baseball-schooled 23-year-old female performance artist in Burke make out of the reference to "Tinker to Evers to Leibniz" in an "Ask Backwards" contest a few years back? I could, and did, go look up Leibniz in the encyclopedia to flesh out my understanding of him, in those simple pre-Internet days, and thereby got an HM. But even now, where, if one did not have Google skills, would one look up the "Tinker to Evers" part?
3. As to things you can actually do now, Chuck Smith said long ago: "volume, volume, volume." We've all had the experience of thinking up one brilliant bon mot, sending just that in in anticipation of winning no worse than a high Runner-Up, and getting squat. We are all hostage to 1) what the Empress thinks is funny, because she decides; and 2) what everyone else thinks is funny, which will cause your similar idea to fail for lack of originality.
Chuck and now a few others are famous for the quantity of stuff they send in consistently, unlike some flashes-in-the-pan I can think of, who have sent in huge amounts (400-500 items) for a single contest, and then took a year off. I personally feel I have not made a proper effort unless I have a full page, which usually translates to about 20 one- or two-liners, 10 paragraph-length ideas, or 6 complex things, like certain types of poetical forms.
But you should not substitute quantity for quality. A good example is the effort required to cover all the permutations when we have to match items from a list and describe the result. If there are only 20 such items, there are only 190 unique combinations, which anyone can scan through in an hour or so and pick out the most promising candidates. But if there are 100 items in the list, as in the annual horse-mating challenge, that comes to 4,950 combinations. In that case you could spend all your time compiling a list of permutations and not so much thinking up funny stuff, unless you happen to be retired and are sending in your stuff from an Internet cafe in Romania. It might be better in such a case to consider in turn each of the 100, find a funny match, and move on to the next one. You will find you discover many other matches by accident and will soon have a couple of pages' worth.
How you generate that quantity is left as an exercise for the student. I try to spend an hour first thing Sunday morning, sketching out ideas as fast as they come to me. Then I spend 30 minutes each day the rest of the week to flesh them out, edit, polish, and so forth, and ship them off on Saturday, so I have a clean worktable to start with when the next contest is announced on Sunday. Chuck I know tends to work long hours on weekends mostly, and he is now joined in that by high-producers Russell Beland, Tom Witte, Chris Doyle, Brendan Beary, and Kevin Dopart, who each has his own method. Find your niche.
But give the poor Empress a break. Even though the Czar told us that there was a certain group of Losers whose submissions he customarily gave a careful reading, there is still a ton of stuff to go through. Lead off with your best stuff, as you see it.
4. Consistency. Many Losers routinely discuss how they decide whether to enter a particular contest. Chuck was once called a "smart .290 hitter" [there's that baseball stuff again] because he supposedly knows what he can do and what he can't. But that analogy is false. The Empress's pitches come at you at different speeds, but the speeds are all clumped together. If you don't like the haiku curveballs she's offering up this Week, you can't wait for an Ask-Backwards fastball during this at-bat—you have to wait for your next ups to get something more to your liking (OK, there were a few Weeks in which we could submit something from any previous contest, but those are quite rare).
The point is that I think there is value to entering every contest, no matter how uninteresting it may be to you or how difficult it may appear. To be sure, many times I know what I have is not likely to survive, but I do make a good-faith attempt. The value is this:
5. Content. Topicality is of course a requirement, but I would guess that most of us Losers are up on the news—I have even taken to glancing through People Magazine to figure out who some ephemeral Hollywood maggot is, the better to use his or her personal tragedies for cheap laughs.
6. Transmission. For a long time I sent mine in via dual modalities; say, fax and snail-mail. Then I shifted to e-mailing twice, at different times during the contest Week, making it clear on the second one that it was a "redundant transmission". The Empress does not mind this, but says that few do it, and it seems less necessary now that the Empress e-mails back a receipt.
But the point is to make sure above all that your work gets there. Some have questioned whether I am not going overboard, but my answer is that any time spent on this stuff is going overboard if the Empress never sees it. Don't get panicked about the Monday deadline, but do try to get it in by Tuesday. The Empress is more exacting about that than the Czar was.
That is all.