Why I Entered the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

Don’t ever enter the Amazon Break Through Novel Award if you’re prone to anxiety. The contest starts with 10,000 entries in March and whittles them down through a series of cuts to one grand prize winner. The names of the five lucky semi-finalists in the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror/Kitchen Sink category were announced today.

The first cut is based only on a three-hundred word pitch. Here was mine for Generation Apocalypse:

Orphaned at ten during the apocalypse, Tevy survived his teen years scrounging with the other Brat Pack kids through the ruins of Chicago’s suburbs, seeking out canned food and guns.

Rippers—humans infected with parasites that produce vampire-like side effects—control the Loop, but at eighteen, Tevy is bold enough to scout deep into downtown and discovers that the architect of the apocalypse, an ancient evil presumed dead for eight years, has reappeared and is building a new ripper army, one that threatens the human cantonments north of the Chicago River.

Tevy travels through a dangerous, sparsely populated world, short of gas and ammunition, where defending strong walls at night is essential to survival. His mission is to secure volunteers to aid the Chicago cantonments, but he’ll discover competing religions and old enmities among rival outposts will complicate his task.

Kayla, a woman who survived the apocalypse by abandoning her dorm in favor of a fortified college building, ventures with Tevy back to Chicago, along the way earning the respect of the volunteer militias during desperate engagements with marauding rippers.

But a dark secret and sectarian discord threaten to tear apart the human alliance in Chicago just as the rippers begin their offensive. Tevy and Kayla will need all their speed, fighting skill, and luck to survive chaotic nights of brave stands and frantic retreats.

They must learn to trust one another despite following different religions, and they need to keep their growing love a secret. But just as the battle nears the worst, they learn the greatest evil may not lurk with the rippers, but among fellow humans, and that their greatest challenge will be to save one little girl in the face of unspeakable betrayal.

It worked! Generation Apocalypse sailed through the first cut, which slashed the SF/F/H/Kitchen Sink category last March from roughly 2000 contestants to 400. I was delighted since I rank writing pitches on the fun scale right up there with going to the dentist for a root canal.

The next round is judged on the first 5,000 words of the novel, and the judges are Amazon Vine Reviewers: people who’ve been invited into the Amazon Vine Review program because so many customers have voted positively about their reviews. Many of my beta readers expressed certainty that Generation Apocalypse would make this cut because the opening is the strongest I’ve written to date. Alas, the bomb dropped in April: one of the two reviewers didn’t like the novel. Damn!

Viner One had lots to say, including great things like:

I loved the tension and excitement of your excerpt. The characters are complex and multi-dimensional and I couldn’t help being concerned about what would happen to them in the future.

Viner One also stated in the closing paragraph:

I would definitely want to read more of this book. Great characters well drawn, an interesting and believable setting, clear writing, and excellent use of tension. The world building isn’t over the top and doesn’t overpower the story. Well done.

But Viner Number Two had very little to say about the excerpt, panning it with comments like:

Whereas in the prologue, you’re rushing the pace of your story at the expense of sentence structure.

By the way, I didn’t cut that statement out of context. That was the first sentence of the paragraph that Viner Two wrote as a critique of the excerpt.

I’m happy to say that my editors, both of whom work full time jobs editing, disagree with Viner Two. There was nothing wrong with the sentence structure. Luckily, I was warned on the forums by previous contestants that, like submitting to an agent or editor, it’s all a subjective crap shoot. If you luck out and get two reviewers who like your work, you’re on to the quarter finals.

That was the cut I had hoped to make, because then Publisher’s Weekly reads the whole manuscript and offers a review. That’s why I entered the contest. That’s what I wanted to be able to put on the product page of Generation Apocalypse: a (hopefully) positive review from a trusted source.

Sure, it would have been fun to win the whole shebang (a $50,000 publishing contract with Amazon) but the odds of getting the PW review were pretty good, making the time and effort to put together my entry worthwhile.

I’ve been a bad boy over the last year. I haven’t promoted my novels at all, and I’m a year late finishing book three. My sales have crashed as a result. I admit that getting deep into the Amazon contest was one way to quickly get some reviews and publicity. In other words, I was being lazy, hoping for a long shot contest to drag me out of the sales doldrums.

The good news is I’m invigorated by finishing Heretics Fall, and I think I’ve found a new editor, who will get the work just as soon as the beta readers have finished commenting. I’m ready to start a program of self-promotion and marketing.

I tried a quick and easy path to publishing success, and it was educational, but now it’s time to get to work and find success on my own. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be satisfying.

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