Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013, Quarter-Finals: Stupid Questions

The 500 quarter-finalists for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award were announced today, and for the first time since entering in 2011, I didn’t make the cut. I’m actually surprised because I thought I had a better chance at making quarter-finals than I did at making the second round; usually my writing is stronger than my pitching skills. But even though my reviews were not particularly negative, I’m guessing either my reviewers graded me harder than their reviews indicated OR I just had a lot of excellent competition.

My critique partner and friend J.C. Fann did make the quarter-finals and I’m very proud to have been involved in helping prepare the book for the contest, so if you’re interested in downloading and reading/rating/reviewing the excerpt, here is a link to The Queenschair!

And if you’d like to see my reviews and analysis of the comments:

Reviewer #1:

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?
The realistic banter-like quality of the dialogue, which flows easily back and forth between the characters. I felt I was following the narrator’s point of view, especially with his friendly interactions with his friends. This reminded me especially of E. C. Myers’ “Fair Coin”.

What aspect needs the most work?
The writer should think seriously of writing another draft, even though this segment is a most promising beginning to a YA paranormal romance novel of the kind which Myers is writing, or, for another example, Ned Vizzini, in his “The Other Normals”.

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?
It’s a very good example of a YA Paranormal Romance novel.

This review didn’t shed much light for me. The only constructive criticism was “write another draft.” Which gives me no glimpse of what the reviewer thought was not final draft material about it. It’s like saying a baker needs to “make it taste better” or a sports coach saying “you need to win more.”

I’ve never heard of either of the authors or books mentioned, and my book was not entered in the YA category (it was entered in the adult science fiction category) so I’m a bit puzzled to see it repeatedly referred to as “YA Paranormal Romance.” I assure you I did not write Twilight. There are no supernatural creatures in this book, either. And the protagonist is twenty-five. (He’s at work during the excerpt, not school, and he mentions going to a bar, so I’m not sure how the reviewer got the impression that this was YA.)

Reviewer #2:

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?
This excerpt is fast-paced and involving, taking the reader rapidly through the familiar fantasy-novel scenario of the protagonist being shocked to discover the existence of the supernatural, and getting right into the relationship that will be at the heart of the story. Sparse description doesn’t often work for a novel (or an ABNA excerpt), but this author can make it work, painting a quick picture of the setting so that the reader progresses quickly through the story while remaining fully involved in it. The prose is simple and direct, but never awkward, true to the protagonist’s voice. Few ABNA excerpts are as purely readable as this one.

What aspect needs the most work?
The biggest thing holding this excerpt back, trivial as it seems, is that the humor isn’t particularly funny. Even accepting that Nick has a crush on Summer, “you should do standup” is overselling how amusing she is, and “you’re a pretty funny guy” is overselling him. Working on the wording of their jokes will make the light-hearted, ironic tone of the excerpt feel more natural, and increase its flow and readability. Good jokes are quick and punchy, and delivery is what separates the kind of funny that everyone can be from the kind of funny people will pay to read. Humor may not be a particular focus of this novel or excerpt, but the material is especially appropriate for some mood-lightening, if it’s done right.

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?
This is a charming excerpt, one that makes the reviewer somewhat curious about the further development of the story in the complete novel. The prose is solid, and the pace works. However, at present there’s no overwhelming reason to keep reading. As noted elsewhere, playing up the humor would make the excerpt more delightfully compelling. It might also help to deepen the characterization a little. Nick and Summer are likable, and we get a sense that Summer is (reasonably enough) having issues with her discoveries about herself, but they’re both drawn pretty superficially at this point. Giving little hints of the deeper personality traits they’ll reveal deeper into the novel will heighten the reader’s interest. The pitch describes the novel as character-driven, and that’s not on display enough here. With a little work on character and/or humor, this could be one of the better ABNA excerpts I’ve seen.

I at least understand where this reviewer’s coming from. I think instead of trying to make their jokes funnier, it might be better to make it clear that they’re both responding more enthusiastically than they normally would because they’re flirting and trying to flatter each other with compliments. People who are attracted to each other laugh at each other’s half-assed jokes. Neither one of them is really a funny person, and though there was a scene where Nick was trying really hard not to laugh at something Summer did, it was mostly giddiness, not actually laughing at what she said. (His thought was actually Did I even wake up this morning?) So I guess I could be clearer—lampshading, I suppose—that these guys aren’t supposed to be interpreted by the reader as hilarious.

“No overwhelming reason to keep reading” is fair enough, I think. If I haven’t managed to get you invested in their relationship in Chapter One, you probably don’t care that the chapter ends with them going out to dinner, where you will get to see a lot more authentic interaction in Chapter Two. (Pretty much the entirety of Chapter One occurs while Nick is behind a camera and cannot interact with Summer.) It’s possible their personalities will seem less “superficial” if I work on giving hints to their layers earlier, like the reviewer was saying. They’re pretty complicated people and I spend most of the novel swimming around in their personalities, so I guess I felt like I didn’t need to dive in immediately. If I’ve only got one chapter to show them to you, I’ve got to give it to you right away, and one chapter (or less) is sometimes all a reader is going to allow you.

Anyway, I’m not sure I will want to enter this contest next year, partly because I was kind of skittish about entering it this year (the switch to Amazon as the publisher kind of squicks me a little), and partly because I hope to have a publishing contract for my other book by long before then (hey, thinking positively!). My other book Bad Fairy is on submission to major publishers through my literary agent, and I keep getting nibbles from very big names, so if I were to get a book deal I’d feel like kind of a jerk entering the contest with an unrelated book. I’d feel like the kid who already ate wandering into somebody else’s snack time and trying to eat up all the cookies.

I am disappointed that I don’t get to see what Publishers Weekly thinks of my book, though. I’ll just have to vicariously enjoy it through my friend, and hope the book does well in the contest!

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