23 January 2012

It's ABNA season!

With the start of a new year the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards is once again open! 

Among my writer colleagues, impressions of this event seems to be equally divided between enthusiastic and wary. I tend to fall in the middle, as usual. I see the good and the bad. First, a little history, then a major plug for my indulgences....

After a hospital stay which had me worried about the future, I decided to shift into higher gear with regard to my writing, the only thing that really mattered to me. The first thing that came up was ABNA. I thought it might be a good test of my "best" novel, A BEAUTIFUL CHILL. At least I could claim to have something "out there" in some form. Meanwhile, I learned a lot from discussions with fellow writers. I got a query together and began sending them out. As I said, at least I was doing something.

Previously, I had revised my novels to within an inch of their lives, then set them comfortably on the shelves inside my computer. Too busy with other matters, I longed for the day I'd dust them off and hand them over to an agent or a publisher who would shower me with the praise and money from all my dear readers. Dreams tend to wait patiently, I've learned, especially if you don't call them forth to do something.

In the 2011 competition I was, as they say, pitched at the "pitch" stage. I think we all agree it's rather difficult to condense the essence of a 100,000 word novel into 300 words. Hook the reader rather than tell the whole story seemed to be the consensus of advice. Others thought we had to hint at the direction of the story. Others still complained that the instructions for writing the pitch led many to write something that would not be effective.

That led to my excerpt being dismissed. Since then, I have further revised the first chapter until it was so thick with blubber that it needed to be taken to a meat slicer. But amazing things did happen. I didn't win anything but I got noticed. And in that moment of time, that was quite enough.

I submitted my ABNA entry to an independent publisher and it is now on its way to being published (A BEAUTIFUL CHILL). I also was able to submit another novel to a publisher who noticed my writing through ABNA, and it is now "out there" for mass consumption (AFTER ILIUM). (Shameless plug: Available now at Amazon.com in ebook and paperback editions!)

So I'd chalk it up as an overall good thing. Some of my colleagues had less pleasant experiences. On the discussion boards where writers in general but particularly ABNA participants asked questions and received answers, shared writing samples and various links, and critiqued each others' work, it seemed at times to become a battlefield full of conflict. Noses were bloodied and backs were stabbed! I twisted an ankle.

Having sat through a few writing workshops over the years, I know how easy it is for personalities to clash and how different interpretations of a text can cause people to come to blows. I was not too involved in that side of ABNA; however, as a result of being supportive of some of the people there, I was also attacked. Attack, in this case, means an especially hateful critique was posted about my novel excerpt, more general vitriol than substantive criticism. The fighting went on.

I was out of the competition anyway, was now working with two independent publishers, and so I gradually faded from the discussion boards. Until now....

Once again, like spring following winter, the ABNA has returned! With two novels spoken for already, and another "on order," I had to choose something new for my entry. My remaining crown jewel, however, is a science-fiction novel: THE DREAM LAND (click to read ABNA excerpt).

Sci-fi never gets far at ABNA, apparently. There has been much discussion of genre bias, though much may depend on the personal tastes of the judges along the way. If any sci-fi work was to succeed, I considered, it would be mine. Why? Because my sci-fi tome is about as minimally sci-fi as any sci-fi novel could be. Indeed, it is overall a relationship story. It just happens to be set half the time on another planet, reached through an interdimensional doorway. Once there, my characters engage in the usual business of life: loving, fighting, traveling, eating and drinking, more loving and fighting, learning alien languages and adapting to alien customs. Like I said, the usual.

THE DREAM LAND must be classified for ABNA purposes as sci-fi because it does involve interdimensional traveling, but it also has significant elements of contemporary hard-luck stories of working class people trying to get by in government jobs, a police case involving the search for a serial killer, a reluctant psychiatrist trying to help a recent widower regain his connection with society. And, on the other side, we have two high school sweethearts who discover an invisible doorway through which to enter a strange new world. What follows are their sordid adventures, repeatedly returning to Earth and back to the world of Ghoupallesz, where they eventually become a famous warrior and his queen, both with families and responsibilities. Then, as all good stories must, there are twists, and twists upon twists which bring everything together in a stunning climax meant to blow readers' minds!

Wow, that should have been my pitch! I can't complain. It won't win. Probably the judges will never see it. I could be pitched at the pitch stage again, or I could go on living another few weeks as the 5000 word excerpt is scrutinized. Beyond that is the uncharted territory of the full manuscript, quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals. By then, of course, we will all be staring at the summer. By then, many of us will have started our next projects. Or we will be revising the one we tried at ABNA. (See a sample of THE DREAM LAND.) By then, ABNA 2012 will be forgotten and few will be thinking ahead to 2013.

It is a valuable learning experience, no matter the outcome. Even hard lessons are valuable. My skin is a couple layers thicker now, thanks to that experience. And my writing has improved. Or, perhaps, it is my revision skills that are better now. Either way, I give two thumbs up to ABNA and encourage anyone who has a novel length work to give it a try. I did, and I'm doing it again.

So...good luck to everyone! 
But better luck to me!

p.s., Reading The Dream Land will greatly benefit those who may wish to understand everything about the Sekuatean Empire.
(C) Copyright 2010-2011 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. It has also been said (by me, channeling other famous readers) that THE DREAM LAND is like Roger Zelazny meets Stieg Larsson and they discuss Dostoevsky over milk and cookies. But I ran out of words in the ABNA pitch box.

  2. I'm entering the contest again this year - third time is the charm? First time I was out at the pitch stage, different book and second time - I made it to the excerpt which was torn apart by the reviewers. Hopefully this year will be a little better. It's a rough experience and you do have to get some thick skin, but I agree it can be very rewarding. :) I met a lot of blogger friends through this contest. :)

  3. Krista, if one of the two if us wins, the winner buys dinner. Deal?

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