Thursday, January 31, 2013

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award: Six Lessons

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

With a publishing contract from Amazon Publishing and a $50,000 advance at stake for the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (January (9th-27th), that alone should entice 10,000 writers from the far flung corners of the globe, including Borneo where I call home.  Unlike previous years, there are now five categories: General Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror, Romance, and Young Adult Fiction.  Last year my novel The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady was a Quarter-finalist; however, I enter the competition for the six lessons that I’ve learned.

Lesson 1: No matter how good your novel is, it won’t get read if your pitch is ineffec­tive.  The first round of judging by Amazon-selected editorswhereby 80% of the competition gets cutis based solely on that 300-word pitch.  Use those 300-words wisely; every word has to count, and pack as much punch as you can.  You will not get a second chance.  This also applies to when you’re pitching your novel to agents/publishers. If the pitch doesn’t entice them, they will quickly delete and move onto the next query. 

They don’t have time to think, ok the pitch is fairly general, the plot a bit vague, but let me read the novel—maybe the writing is great.  It’s the opposite, if the pitch is weak, there’s a great chance the novel is weak, too.  Instead of complaining about this, accept it and make darn sure your pitch is good!  Your novel deserves to be read. 

The top 400 novels from each category will advance.

Lesson 2: Ok, your pitch got you through to Round 2, which will be judged by Amazon Expert Reviewers.  Congrats.  But despite how brilliant your pitch is, and how great the premise of your novel is, if you fail to deliver the goods in the first 3,000-5,000 word excerpt, you’re out of luck.  Also agents/publishers often look at only the opening five pages or the first chapter (even when they request three chapters).  If those opening pages don’t grab their interest or if they see too many red flags (grammar mistakes such as verb tense problems, style mistakes like relying on trite expressions and clich├ęs, or point of view problems) they will stop reading.

So put extra time into those early chapters or the rest of your novel may not get read.  Good questions to ask yourself:  Are you starting the novel in the most effective place?  Is there too much backstory and not enough forward momentum?  Is this the best viewpoint character for your story?  Could changing it to present or past tense improve it?  Can you make your writing style or the plot more compelling?  What other changes can you make to improve your manuscript?  The more questions you ask yourself, the more likely you'll find the answers.  

The top 100 novels from each category will advance.

Lesson 3:  The Quarter-finals is judged on the full manuscript by reviewers from Publishers Weekly.  Never assume that your novel is good enough to enter, let alone good enough to win.  I’m always surprised when I take out my novel and read it out loud with fresh eyes and fresh ears . . . . I often catch stuff that I previously overlooked or find a better way of saying something or find words (usually adjectives and adverbs) that detract more than they add, or stuff I can cut.  I also look at the pacing, the paragraphing, and the dialogue. 

I look at the logic, too.  Why would a character logically say or do something in that situation?  Are their motives or backstories clear?  The more times I go through each chapter before moving on to the next chapter, the more ways I find to improve it.  Remember, there are a lot of well written books and great story ideas that your book is competing against.  Having been a judge before, I know that judging is subjective.  Some may love your novel; others make dismiss it for a dozen valid reasons.

Only five novels from each category will advance.

Lesson 4:  The Semi-finals is judged by the editors with Amazon Publishing.  At this level all the books are probably deserving publication, so how does yours stack up to the others?  If there is any room to improve your book, take the initiative to do so before you enter.  Keep asking yourself questions about your characters, the minor ones, too (do they really add to the scene or detract from it by being bland or predictable?)  Are they memorable?  Do others care about them?  When it comes right down to it, your story is about people (even non-humans) doing something.  Do we like or care about them?  Do we like or care about what they are doing?  

Sometimes a small change can make a big difference how people react to your novellike the title.  Will it prick a reader’s interest the first time they hear it or see it mentioned somewhere?  Is it too literary, too cryptic, too vague, or does it immediately resonate with the reader, even tell them what the book is about?  The Hunger Games, for example, raises many questions on different levels.  You’re intrigued, thinking, what’s this hunger about?  Yet you know it’s going to involve a competition.

Run your title by your friends and have them rate it on a scale of 1-5.  Maybe you’re thinking one thing, but it makes them think of something totally different, possibly a turn-off, too.  Then brainstorm for an even better title. 

Another novel of mine that made it to Round Two in 2011, I did exactly that this year; I changed the title from A Gun for Christmas to An Unexpected Gift from a Growling Fool.  I also changed the name of the town from Sharpton to Growling where the story is set, hoping to make the title a little more intriguing.  That then caused me to add a whole new first paragraph, an anecdote about how the town got its unusual name, thus setting the mood for the opening chapter.  Each change, I’ve learned, can have a ripple effect.

Only one novel in each category will advance to the final
Lesson Five:  The Finals will be judged by Amazon customers based on that 3,000-5,000 excerpt again.  Again if the beginning of your book doesn’t pull the reader into the story and make them care about the characters and what the characters are trying to do, they will never know about your great ending, read your other great scenes, meet all of your unforgettable characters, or be swept away by your incredible plot. 

Once I upload my pitch, excerpt, and manuscript, I take a deep breath.  I'm in.  But then each day I keep revising that pitch, that excerpt, and that novel right up until the competition closes.  I'm not taking any chances.  Any one of those three could prevent my novel from advancing.  All of them are critical to its success. 

Lesson Six:  Preparing for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award is not only a great way to end the year by revising my novels (I usually start by mid-November or early December), but also a great way to start the New Year by being pro-active in my career.  Even if my novel fails to win in Amazon or even advance beyond the First Round, I know that the extra work I put into it has vastly improved my chances to land that agent or do well in another competition.  It sure worked last year, when two of my novels made the finals of the 2012 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition and a third was a short-list finalist.

More importantly, revising my novel also gives me hope that this year will be the year of the novel.  Hope is a good thing to have for all writers, especially those like me who live in the far-flung corners of the world.
                 —Borneo ExpatWriter

*Update: The five finalist.

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


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