27 March 2012

So what happened...? (and other ruminations)

About that ABNA thing....

Those of you who may have been following along as I recorded the trials and tribulations of being a participant in Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award competition might have awakened at night wondering what has become of me and my entry THE DREAM LAND (Book I: Long Distance Voyager). Now that I am a few days removed from the harsh reality of Reality, I am prepared to disclose what I can.

To recap: I passed the first round, which involved a 300-word pitch for the novel. I felt gloriously privileged for a few weeks. On to the second round, which involved an excerpt of the first 5000 words of the novel. Well, folks...I, umm, did not clear the bar. (Congratulations to those who did, by the way!) 

Along with that result, both winners and losers received two reviews of the excerpt from Amazon personnel. Mine were rather revealing in somewhat obtuse ways. 

Here are the two reviews, both answering the same general questions:

ABNA Expert Reviewer #1

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?

I love the concept you have here, and this is definitely an immediate hook. We're so used to alternate worlds being lovely medieval Narnia-like places, and here you have something garish and cruel. It almost feels like "Heavy Metal", but that's a world largely unexplored in literature, and I would definitely like to read more. This is one of the few excerpts I've read this year where being cut off at the end was a huge source of frustration, so well done.

What aspect needs the most work?

I think the writing here is not as strong as it needs to be, though. At several times, the point of view seemed to wander, or I'd be left unclear if something was a memory or really happening now, or... what. That's particularly worrisome in an opening sample, which needs to be EXTRA clear in order to rope in new readers. 

Please do not start from the POV of the psychiatrist. Readers sink into the first mind they meet, so having it be a decoy to describe the protagonist is very frustrating. We could have the same conversation with more insight and clarity from Sebastion's POV, so I highly recommend that change. 

Similarly, there's kind of a leap from Sebastion into Michael and Tammy. This really isn't necessary and it leaves the reader struggling to keep up because limited third-person usually feels much more natural than omni third-person. 

You need to cut out Tammy being an airhead and Michael wanting to hit her, in my opinion. Anything "Heavy Metal"-esque is going to have a lot of brutality towards women by its very nature. If that brutality is confined to Ghoupallesz, then the reader sees the author as a mere reporter; if the brutality leeches over into the Real World (Tammy stupid; Michael frustrated to violence), then the reader rebels and sees an author who hates women. I'm not saying you do; I'm saying the reader is going to feel that way, and you need to anticipate that and make sure to avoid it. If you must have the Michael/Tammy conversation (and I think it's superfluous) there's no reason they can't be normal, non-airheaded, non-violent people sharing a conversation.

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?

You have a stellar idea, a gripping world, and a great draft here. I definitely, strongly recommend a good editor or writing team or a beta reader to go through this and circle every passage that is a little labyrinthine or confusing. (Maybe read the book out loud?) I think with just a little polish, this will be a truly unique and original piece of work.

I would say "nicely done" to this review. It gives details and context for the comments given. It shows thoughtful consideration of what the author was trying to achieve, and whether or not that strategy was effective, rather than simply declaring the style to be anathema to the reviewer's own aesthetic (e.g., "I just don't like sci-fi so it was confusing..."). Personal taste is one thing but we can't expect to please everyone, so I applaud this reviewer for letting the story be what it is and judging what worked and what did not.

This reviewer pointed to certain aspects I believed might cause problems, yet I was determined to see it through without changes. As an author, I think I'm right most of the time. I had good reasons for doing what I did and for beginning the novel--indeed, the entire trilogy--in the manner in which I did begin it. In my "defense," the "present" of the story is set in the mid-1980s, a time of big hair and more narrowly defined gender roles, a time when attitudes and behavior were not considered so inappropriate. Writing "bad" characters does not make me bad, too. Everyone gets what they deserve by the end of the novel.

Confusion is what I was going for. After all, I was introducing three storylines within that 5000-word excerpt. The storylines are on different planets and in different time periods (past and present, hinting at future). And yet, they are all linked. 

The best way to show how they are linked was to juxtapose them within a short span of text (a chapter or two). In other words, this is actually a complex story even as it seems to be a simple tale of a confused man dealing with reality. 

Or trying to make sense of his dreams (hence, the uber-clever title THE DREAM LAND). Or are his dreams merely memories of past adventures in a world found on the opposite side of an interdimensional portal?

Reviewer #2 was a bit more succinct:

ABNA Expert Reviewer #2

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?

The writing style. The plot here is very disjointed and hard to understand but the writing style carries the reader through.

What aspect needs the most work?

The plot line is very confusing and disjointed.

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?

Overall this could use a good smoothing out. Take the plot and make it less confusing, make the writing style more in sinc [sic] with the book.

Okay.... While I often welcome straight to the point rhetoric, I feel much is missing in this second review. It seems as though the second reviewer was giving a summary of the first review, not the excerpt of the novel. Perhaps, if this reviewer had given the same degree of thoughtful consideration as the first reviewer, I may have ended up in the next round. One can only speculate. And as an author of speculative fiction, that is what I enjoy doing the most. 

What I can take from these two commentaries are what they have in common:

  • the opening scenes create confusion for readers, although not in a good way;
  • the skillfully-composed dichotomy of low-brow and high-brow prose styles does help overcome the storyline confusion;
  • adjustments to initial character depictions should be made--even though I might claim that they are faithful depictions of the people the characters are modeled after;
  • a little more hand-holding may be necessary at the beginning to get the reader started in understanding what's going on.

As I learned once upon a time in a college literature class and took to heart as a writer of fiction, within the first few pages the author teaches the reader how to read the book. If the reader does not learn that method, then it is easy to understand why the reader puts the book down in frustration. On the other hand, an author should not make it so difficult a lesson to learn. For a novel on the sci-fi shelf, titled THE DREAM LAND, a reader may expect there to be themes comparing dream and reality.

So, thanks to my dear excerpt reviewers. I only wish you, and others like you, had had the opportunity to read more, perhaps even the entire novel, all 128,000 words of THE DREAM LAND (Book I: Long Distance Voyager), for if you, like many of us, relish tales of interdimensional intrigue filled with smatterings of psychological thriller and police procedural stories, well-marbled with alien romance, steampunk decor, and darkly twisted humor, you will no doubt enjoy the sordid adventures of our hero and heroine and an assorted cast of ne'er-do-wells struggling through difficult times in a depressed economy--oh, wait, that's reality, not fiction....

Again, if you are among the curious (or the masochists), you may peruse the opening text in question at this location: Excerpt.

(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. I thought that first review was extremely helpful. It IS hard in only 5000 words. And I get what you're saying about teaching the reader to read the novel. I think maybe there is a little ABNA lesson here--because of how the excerpt is a cut-off round, I might almost alter the chpater order and stick to one in the excerpt, even if in the book you have no intention of it. (I switched my first two chapters for ABNA, as the one that is now 2nd is shorter and I felt it would be confusing to have all of a short one from one point of view and a frustrating 3rd of a chapter from the other. How I have it, the excerpt is all just the one (it is actually chronological this way, so it's fine--I just originally wrote it the other way). Sorry about not passing through!

  2. Hi Stephen. Sorry you didn't make it through this round. The first review was so well thought out. It makes the second review look rather shameful.

    Hart made a very good suggestion, I think. I recall last year, ABNA, my entry...and learning how frustrating it was to introduce two distinct story-lines in only 5,000 words. I recall thinking that if we could have included just 2,000 more words, it all would have been so clear. :-)

    Wonderful job, though--passing the pitch round. A success not to be ignored, and an emotional springboard from which to launch next year's entry. This year you got to experience the high that comes from advancing. Now, get more of that next year. You are a wonderful writer.