Nothing lasts forever – even when it’s sponsored by Amazon.com

I discovered today that the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) competition has been discontinued. This is disappointing, but judging from the comments in the ABNA forum, I’m not as heartbroken over it as some other would-be contestants are.

I have participated in ABNA since its inaugural year, which I believe was 2008. It was an annual event, allowing 10,000 novelists from around the world to compete for a healthy royalty advance and a publishing contract from Amazon, with all the marketing advantages that we 10,000 imagined that entailed. Based on the quiet death of the event, perhaps we were imagining too much.

I experienced varying degrees of success in my seven attempts at ABNA. I never won, but I never expected to. It was a great opportunity to get feedback from total strangers who were avid readers and reviewers. That was enough to make it worthwhile, especially since it was free to enter.

Sure, it was exciting to scan the list of entries moving ahead to the next round. It felt good to advance, and it was always deflating to be booted from the competition. Some took it hard, but most recovered fairly quickly. Just as for Cubs fans, there was always next year.

Except there is no next year now, because there’s no this year now. The announcement came just as people were expecting the new submission period to be announced. The unfortunate timing left many sorely disappointed.

Bad news coming

“What’s that? You’ve discontinued the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award? How delightful!”

My disappointment is mild by comparison. Over the years, the ABNA highs got less high and the lows not as low for me. It became more of a yearly routine than a special event. It was a nice routine, like a free lottery ticket, and I’d take it when offered, but I had my chances so I can’t complain.

I do feel for the folks who discovered ABNA in the last year or two – those who learned from the experiences of their rookie seasons and were ready to come back at it with renewed vigor – those who toiled to rework their manuscripts specifically for this chance, only to discover at the final hour that the chance was no more. I wish they had time to come to see ABNA as just one of many opportunities before it got yanked away from them.

Amazon has replaced ABNA with its Kindle Scout program. I haven’t read many details about Scout because it only accepts three genres, in which I have no manuscripts ready. From the little I have read, it seems like a social media popularity contest more than anything else. I admit, there is some value in knowing which authors can rock social media, but it doesn’t seem to account for the quality of their work very much.

Bad news here

“And you’ve replaced it with a program that relies on social media? I’m absolutely giddy over it!”

Scout may turn out to be a good program. I don’t know enough about it, and it hasn’t had time to prove itself. Time will tell. Meanwhile, I bid a fond farewell to ABNA. I won’t cry, but right around this time every year, I will miss you, if only just a little bit.

 

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Be careful where you step; there’s misunderstood artistic genius everywhere

Accepting criticism of your work in a positive manner comes in two distinct levels. The first level is reacting graciously. This means saying thank you to the critic for taking the time to provide feedback, even when that feedback seems harsh or off point. This is not easy to do, the first time that stinging critique comes back. But any writer who refrains from beginning his reply with the words “Your Mama . . .” is on the right track.

This level of positive response gets easier, until it becomes second nature. That’s good, because (a)getting into a screaming match with a critic never improves a writer’s image, and (b) this is the easier of the two levels.

The harder level happens within the writer’s own mind. Have you ever received a disappointing review and immediately thought, “They just don’t get what I’m trying to do here.” on your way to politely saying thank you out loud?

The harder level is reached when you don’t allow yourself to think that.

It’s very difficult sometimes, but it is key to better writing.

I'm so misunderstood

“They just don’t get what I’m trying to do here!”

The publishing delays I experienced with A Housefly in Autumn allowed me to enter it into consecutive ABNA (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award) competitions. I achieved different levels of success, with a wide array of feedback.

One year, both judges of my 5,000 word excerpt were overwhelmingly laudatory in their comments. The next year, both judges (different people each year) had reservations. Their reservations were about the language used. It just so happened that the language was one of the foremost things “I’m trying to do here.”

I knew the language would be somewhat unusual to the contemporary reader. I hoped it would add some old fashioned charm to match the setting of the story. Since it wasn’t an issue the first year, I began to feel more confident about my choice.

My confidence was misplaced. Even though one of the second year judges admitted that the language grew on him/her, and that the excerpt turned out to be one of his/her favorites, the language was still an issue.

Having won two of four judges, and eventually converted the third, it would have been easy for me to discount the fourth judge’s opinion and bury it under the “They just don’t get what I’m trying to do here.” mantra. In fact, that is just what I was sorely tempted to do.

It would have been a big mistake.

That fourth judge is not just a single person. Judge #4 represents thousands of potential readers. Potential readers are not so easy to come by, and if a quarter of them find the writing awkward from the start, that’s a big loss.

Also, keep in mind that these judges were committed to reading the entire excerpt, regardless of their first impressions. In the real world, the third judge likely would have given up on the book before it had a chance to win him/her over and become a favorite.

That means that half of the potential readers probably would have put the book down because the language didn’t suit them. It would grow on none of them, because they would stop reading. This criticism had to be taken seriously.

If two of four judges “just didn’t get what I was trying to do here,” it was because I wasn’t doing it right. It’s not the reader’s responsibility to figure out my motives. It’s my job to entertain the reader, and not let my motives get in the way of that.

It's not your audience's job to figure out the secret genius to your art.

It’s not your audience’s job to figure out the secret genius to your art. That could take a lot more time than they have to spend.

It was time to go back to work. It was time to reassess “what I’m trying to do here.”

“What I’m trying to do here,” first and foremost, has to be to engage and entertain the reader. If not that, nothing else happens.

In order to do this, the language needed to be modified. It wasn’t as difficult as I feared. A word change here, a slightly different phrasing there, could alleviate the awkwardness to the contemporary reader without compromising the cohesion of the language to the story.

There may still be some readers who find the writing awkward. There’s always the danger of that. I go forward knowing that I did my best to move my motives out of the way of the story while preserving the story I needed to tell.

For that, I am thankful for the judges who “just didn’t get what I was trying to do here.”

What’s so great about those annoying publishing delays?

Now that I’m finally close to publishing A Housefly in Autumn, I can put all of the maddening delays I went through with this book into perspective. It’s never easy to push back the payoff for hard work, but I’ve learned not to try to rush past publishing difficulties that need to be carefully worked through.

Aside from the normal dangers of trying to skip past the difficulties of putting out a respectable book, there is another side of these delays to be considered. Sometimes they are a blessing in disguise.

A Housefly in Autumn would be a book of lesser quality, inside and out, had it been published when I first thought it should be published. I would also have been in a poorer position to support it. Here’s why:

Inside the book

The time between when I originally wanted to publish and now has allowed me to receive more pre-pub feedback and make adjustments to the text. I’ve gotten in a couple of ABNA competitions and received valuable comments from them, not to mention the extra eyes I’ve had time to recruit on my own to give the story a good looking over.

Even after I was sure I had done everything to the text I wanted to do, I decided that a portion of the manuscript dragged and decided to re-write it. It’s better now. Thanks to maddening delays.

Outside the book

I despaired so much at the prospect of finding an artist who could give me the cover art I envisioned that I contemplated using generic photography at one point. This would miss the mark on giving a sense of the story, but would at least be something to wrap around the book.

I’m so glad I didn’t give into that impulse. It took a while, but I finally found an artist who could give me dynamic, engaging cover art. Actually, it was my wife who found Jessica O’Brien. I’m just relieved I delayed long enough for that to happen.

It was worth the wait.

It was worth the wait.

Support

I’ve mentioned before how lame my old website was. Now I have two reasonably nice blogs. I even have some blog followers. There is a blogging community; I don’t think there is a sub-par, static website community. If there is, nobody knows it, because sub-par websites don’t handle interaction very well. I can now interact with readers in ways I never could before.

I’ve started getting diminishing returns on these delay-inspired improvements. That means it’s getting time to take that leap. It is a much more confident leap than it might have been.

It’s not for the author to say how good a read his book is. But I am a certain it is a better read, with a more appealing look, and a more accessible author, than it would have been if I’d published it when I first wanted to publish. Thank you for that, maddening delays.

Have you ever had a maddening delay turn into a blessing in disguise?