ABNA 2012

ABNA (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award) is a contest put on by Amazon, Penguin, Create Space, and Publishers Weekly to find the next up and coming unpublished author. This year, is the fifth year of the contest and for me personally it will be my fourth year entering. As I and many others are getting ready for ABNA 2012, I thought I would write about why this contest means so much to me.

Getting feedback as a writer is something that most of us crave but it is also very scary. I remember a new member who had just come to a writers’ group I belonged to who found it necessary to leave the room while we read his writing because he couldn’t bear how vulnerable it made him feel. Not many months before that I had felt much the same way. Allowing someone else to read something I had toiled over and poured myself into made me feel as vulnerable as if I’d gotten up and stood naked in front of a crowd of strangers.

But in spite of that, many of us get used to sharing our work a bit at a time and then we want more and more feedback.

Entering a contest like ABNA gives writers that so coveted objective feedback that at this point in our writing (we’ve all completed novels) most of us now want, really bad. Because of the way that ABNA judges the participants in different levels you get a bit of a feeling of where you stand. There are a potential of 10,000 entrants allowed in the contest. You might make it into the top 2000 (20%), or the top 500 (5%) or the top 100 (1%), or the top 6, or finally the top 2 (the winners). So let’s say for example that you thought of the first cut off (20%) as a C+, 5% as a B/B+, 1% as an A/A+, top 6 as being on the Dean’s List … or something similar to that. At least you get some kind of a rough idea of where you stand. (Keeping in mind that there is a lot of subjectivity in judging.)

I can’t help but think about ABNA when I watch some kind of reality TV show like American Idol, or America’s Got Talent, or X-Factor, or such. The contestants range from those who have talent and are cocky and sure they are going to do well, to those who just have no idea how good they are. And on the other side there are always several who have no idea how bad they are. I’m not sure which is sadder: thinking about those who have gone onto the show and had their hearts broken when told they have no talent or the many out there with talent, too afraid to take the risk. (I have a very talented brother in the latter category.)

ABNA 2009 was the first contest I had ever entered, of any kind. I submitted my first novel, TRANSPLANT TOURISM but did not even make it into the first cut, the top 20%. Surprisingly, I wasn’t that disappointed. I was actually excited to get some idea of where I stood, albeit not good news. I thought of myself as a novice writer, so I wasn’t afraid to admit I had a long way to go. I still thought of it as early in the game, so no big deal. Luckily I didn’t have to wallow in exactly where I fit into that bottom 80%, but I knew I was there somewhere. My goal became to eventually get into the first cut.

I entered my second novel, WHEN A ME-OK SINGS in ABNA 2010. (I finished the last two thirds of the book in less than two weeks just on time to enter it.) When I found out I had made it into the top 2000, I had to be scraped off the ceiling I was so excited. Then later, when I read the top 500 list and found out I had made it into the top 5%, it was beyond anything I could have imagined. My hands were shaking as I cried. What happened next really surprised me though. Although I had surpassed my goal to make it into the top 2000—making it into the top 500, when I didn’t make it into the top 100, I was crushed. I had never experienced such highs and lows like that before. It was such a great and exhilarating experience.

In addition to getting general feedback as to where you fit, ABNA also provides feedback to the writers from the reviewers. In my case I got two very good reviews after making it into the top 20%:

ABNA Expert Reviewer I

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?

The originality of this story was impressive, the writing delightful, with an underlying sweetness that would appeal to children as well as to adults who enjoy fairy tales. The author created a wonderful world of Me-ok’s which seemed to dance on the pages as the story unfolded.

What aspect needs the most work?

After reading the 10 page excerpt, I found one minor area that I felt needed a second look from the author:
“Another time Stew-ok and Chet-ok had been assigned the task of researching the variety in what different children ate for breakfast. After observing more than one hundred families, the young Me-oks had seen very little variety … at least compared to that of one hundred oks”. Suggestion: A bit more description here of what the humans had for breakfast compared to what the ok’s had for breakfast, would offer the reader a more interesting comparison.

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?

I found “When a Me-ok Sings”, a sweetly written, highly imaginative story, written with simplicity, clarity and humor. It was an excellent submission from a first time author, and a lovely book children would enjoy and any adult who loves fairy tales.

ABNA Expert Reviewer II

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?

The story was very entertaining and will speak to its young audience. The creatures sound sweet and cute but are also different and interesting.

What aspect needs the most work?

The name of the creatures is distracting and it made reading the story harder. Even if the hyphen was pulled from the name it would make it easier to read.

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?

This story is told from the voice of small fairy like creatures that watch humans. It will entertain youngsters with the fantasy without giving them too much of a scare. It is interesting, well written and appropriate for the intended audience.

After making it into the next level, the top 5%, I got another review. This time only one review and it was not good. As I mentioned already, I was reeling a bit after this.

ABNA Publisher Weekly Reviewer

What starts out with a promising premise about teddy bear-like creatures called Me-oks, whose sole purpose is helping children in need, devolves into an overly simplistic story about bullying. When young Me-oks, Chet-ok and Stew-ok, venture into adolescent human Miranda’s bedroom as part of their usual nightly roam, the normally invisible Me-oks become visible to her, angering their powerful elders who have stayed out of affairs with the human world since the boy Byron took over the Me-ok world many years ago. When Chet-ok and Stew-ok finally earn the elder Me-oks’ trust to take on Miranda’s case, they discover Miranda’s mistreatment at school by her peers. The Me-ok world is never fully realized, its buildings are poorly described as looking “official and old,” and its philosophy similarly lacks detail though the story shows hints of originality and promise when the elder Me-oks tell Chet-ok and Stew-ok about their history. Miranda’s home, her relationship with her mother, and even her mother’s job, are explained in tedious detail, while Chet-ok and Stew-ok’s life remains unknown. Do they have parents? Where do they live? As Stew-ok and Chet-ok try to help Miranda with the bullies, bringing Byron along for assistance, the story becomes even more heavy-handed. Riddled with typos and grammatical errors, this fantasy reads more like a manual for dealing with bullies than a story.

Since ABNA I have entered WHEN A ME-OK SINGS into two other contests and am more convinced than ever about ABNA’s uniqueness. In one contest, I was excited again when I made it into the top 40 and then later the top 10 (5 in each of two categories—picture book and chapter book), out of 1014 contestants. But there was no feedback, and in spite of making it into the top 1% there was really no other acknowledgment. The finalists, other than the two winners in the contest, were taken off the website almost immediately and there was no feedback. It felt kind of non-eventful very quickly. Another contest I very recently entered the same novel into also seemed uneventful, as the first cut-off in the contest was less than 1%. Apparently all 16 of those getting into the top will get feedback, but for the rest of us, we got no other feedback as to where we placed. All I know was that I was in the bottom 99.?%.

Last year I reentered my first novel into ABNA 2011 after rewriting it from first person to third person. I had the same results as I did in the first year—none. I have decided it is time to tuck this book away in a dark drawer somewhere until who knows when.

I had hoped to complete my third novel, COOKIES FOR DANIEL—actually the first novel I started that I can’t seem to finish—on time to enter it in ABNA 2012, but I think that is not going to happen. It will however be ready for ABNA 2013 for sure. (I’m assuming of course and hoping that there will be an ABNA 2013.) For 2012 I will be reentering WHEN A ME-OK SINGS again now that I have had some time to polish it a bit.