Writing Contests And Awards: Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award

A while ago I wrote about today’s saturated book market and the challenges writers face: getting work noticed and read; earning a living; building a platform so our work can get noticed and read and we can earn a living. It’s kind of a circuitous dance of codependent steps that does this sad shuffle or frenzied spin–the music is often discordant and the steps out of sync. How do we synchronize the music and steps so we’re moving to a rhythm that gathers its own momentum?

The key lies in generating work and getting it out there through more avenues available to writers than ever before. Entering contests is one of those avenues, and while the odds of winning or even getting placed often feel as remote as the lottery, no different from finding an agent or landing a contract with a publishing house, the only people who ever win the lottery are those who buy a ticket.

Thousands of writers on every continent are gearing up to enter ABNA, Amazon’s 2014 Breakthrough Novel Award, which opens on February 16th, 2014 at 12.01 a.m. US Eastern Standard Time. The contest closes March 2nd at 11.59 p.m., or once 10,000 entries have been received, whichever occurs first. It’s open to unpublished and self-published novels in five categories: General Fiction; Mystery/Thriller; Young Adult; SciFi/Fantasy/Horror; and Romance. Entry is free, and the prizes are spectacular. One grand prize winner will receive $50,000 and five first prize winners, one from each category, will earn $15,000–nothing to be sneezed at. All the winners will receive a full publishing contract with Amazon. Now that Penguin no longer sponsors the competition, it’s entirely Amazon’s baby, and there’s no shortage of controversy around its pros and cons.

Honestly, I can’t see many cons that make a lot of sense, but it’s worth looking at most things from multiple angles, so we do what we do: our research, and then make our own informed decisions. One hurdle seems to be how much depends on luck: who the judges are until Amazon readers step in, what the commercial flavor of the month is, and whether our stars are aligned: elements we have no control over, but if we consider luck as the convergence of preparation and opportunity, we do have some influence over our chances.

Entries are assessed through various stages and criteria, and detailed official rules can be found here. The three components that are judged are:

  • THE PITCH. Even before the contest dates were announced (and there was some doubt expressed as to whether it would take place at all), writers began connecting on Amazon’s boards to share and receive feedback on their pitches, building a sense of community as they gear up for the first round. 400 of the best pitches are chosen from each category and given up to 5 star ratings according to originality of idea, quality of writing, and overall strength of the pitch. The pitch, as opposed to the synopsis or summary, needs to have a few components that make it stand out. It’s critical to know who your ideal reader is. Once you have the broad genre down, which isn’t always as easy as it sounds because your novel may be a hybrid or have cross-over appeal, then within that genre, ask yourself what more specific features your novel has that will appeal to a targeted readership. Amazon is all about classification and comparables, in much the same way that brick and mortar bookstores are–the more you know about your reader, the better your chances of accessing him/her, especially if your novel fits into a niche. Your pitch needs to have:
  1. A named protagonist. This may seem obvious, but what if you have more than one protagonist? It’s advisable to choose the most compelling character who best reflects the overall arc of the story. Because one of the pitch’s main objectives is clarity, you want to convey in 300 words (preferably less) that there’s a character readers will connect with and care about, whose conflicts and crises will intrigue and hold interest for the duration of the novel. By all means, bring in other characters, but don’t name more than three. And as you consider the excerpt, you’ll realize that it’s not ideal to have a protagonist who only appears on page 100 of the novel as your main character. Distill the aspects of your protagonist into what makes her unique, what event propels her into crisis, and the risks she faces. In other words: character, conflict and stakes.
  2. An indication of setting, atmosphere and voice. While it’s hard to capture the voice of your narrator in a pitch, because the pitch is delivered by the author and incorporates a broader, more distant overview, you still want to capture the book’s tone and framework. There’s no space or need to go into detail, but setting is part of that framework. Atmosphere and voice come into play where the novel’s tone is concerned: is it spooky, comic, light-hearted, dark? Consider all these aspects in the way you write the pitch.
  3. The driving force behind the narrative. In essence, what is the story about? Consider your plot points, and odds are you’ll be able to find the major one that sets the narrative in motion: a death in the family, a crime, an alien invasion, a declaration of war, a chance meeting. The main event will propel the protagonist into some kind of crisis that lies at the heart of the novel, and it’s that very crisis that needs to be grappled with and overcome.
  • THE EXCERPT, or the first 3,000 to 5,000 words of your novel. It needs to reinforce the pitch, which is why the selection of point of view and protagonist is so important in your pitch. You don’t want to appear to be writing a different novel from the one you’ve promised the reader. You may have a bit of leeway here if the first few pages are written from a point of view other than your protagonist’s, but the main character must appear fairly early on to avoid the perception that the story takes too long to get going. The excerpt needs to be strong, take hold and have the reader clamoring to find out what happens after page 12.
  • THE NOVEL. The novel needs to capture and satisfy your targeted readers. You’ve spent months writing it, it reflects your best efforts at writing and holding a story together, and it measures up to the pitch. A promise fulfilled. Here all your prowess as an author gets its moment in the sun; your grasp of craft, storytelling skills and writing strength come together to provide exactly what your readers are looking for.

If you’re lucky, you’ll sail through each round and find yourself reading all the blogs about whether you should sign the winning contract or not. That’s not a bad position to be in. But whether or not you make it past the pitch, try to think of the whole process as another step on the road to sure publication. With the stakes so high, remember that you’re dealing with 1 in 10,000 odds, and make it about congratulating yourself for the very act of entering. Some people are trying out for the third year running, some more. Do your best, enter, release the novel to the cosmos and move on to a new project. New contests and vistas. New possibilities. There are many, and over time, we’ll take a look at some of these together.

We’d love to hear from you. Any thoughts on ABNA or contests in general? Are you entering this year, and if you are, we wish you the very best of luck.

This post was also published at Write On Sisters.

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