On Being a Finalist

So the big news is actually already a week old: I am a finalist in this year’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. This contest is held every year, and 10,000 writers split between the categories of Young Adult and General Literature can enter their novels for a chance to win a publishing contract and a $15,000 dollar advance. The judging involves several rounds of elimination, and entrants have to have a pretty solid pitch and excerpt if they hope to beat out their competition.

I entered A Chant of Love and Lamentation last year and didn’t make it past the Quarterfinals. Following that, I put Chant through a pretty extensive reworking, where I even took a primary character and shifted her back to become a secondary character whose POV we never enter. That was a great change because I just couldn’t get her “right” for some reason. Maybe that’s because she is female, maybe because she is young, maybe something else. Whatever the reason, it just wasn’t happening. I also trimmed down the first part to make a more streamlined excerpt.

As mentioned in my earlier blog posts, I put it up for sale on Smashwords and other sites in December. Then in January I decided to enter the ABNA contest again on a whim. Unlike last year, I swore this time I wouldn’t let it get under my skin. I’d enter my novel and let it go and see what happens.

Well, as I passed through each round it became harder and harder to ignore it. Finally, when I was on the list for the Semi-Finalists, limited to 50 people in each category, it suddenly became all too real.

This stage is perhaps the hardest, because there are so few people and yet only three get to move on. Those lucky three are actually notified a week before the official Amazon press release, because there is a raft of paperwork that must be filled in — quickly — and anyone who fails to do so gets left behind in favor of the next person. Amazon needs a little buffer period so they know for sure that their selections will be available.

When I got “The Call,” I was in southern California, in the little desert town of Victorville, visiting my mother-in-law. At first, when the woman on the phone said she was calling from Amazon, I thought someone had made a customer complaint (I also sometimes sell used books online). But my wife, Rae, knew instantly what it was about and started jumping in elation. The woman started telling me the process of what would happen and I did my best to listen and write it down. Then the brief call was over and I was left floating around all afternoon, giddy and terrified.

The next day, just as I was finishing a sandwich, the phone rang again. This time it was a conference call with several bigwigs over at Penguin headquarters in NYC. They wanted to interview me and ask some questions about the book. It’s a good thing I didn’t know that call was coming, because I would have been terrified. It’s also a good thing I had enough caffeine so I could think quick enough to answer their questions.

For another week we couldn’t say anything, and keeping it under our hat was very hard. I had to scramble to print out, sign, and fax all the paperwork back in time. Then when they finally made the announcement, it became real.

As of this writing it has been two weeks since I got “The Call,” and I’ve been very busy. For one, I had a bunch of student essays to read and critique for the online composition course I teach through Chemeketa Community College. I also wanted to revisit this site and do a bunch of remodeling work. There has also been the slow work of getting the word out about the competition.

It’s now just after midnight, Wednesday, June 30. That means there is less than 21 hours left for voting in the contest. Once that voting period ends, I will be both relieved and more anxious — relieved because I can start worrying about things other than the votes, and more anxious because then fate has been decided for one of us (the three General Literature entrants: Alan Averill, Charles Kelly, and myself). But we won’t know who was chosen by popular vote until June 16th.

On that date, we will all be in Seattle for the awards ceremony. From what I’ve gathered, each of us will present a short excerpt from our novels and talk about its inspiration (my heart already wants to skip a beat at the thought of this). Once we’re all done, the winner will be announced. Something I read in the account of a past year’s winner leads me to believe Amazon will have a poster — maybe even a cover mock-up? — under a sheet, and they’ll pull off the sheet to announce the winner. So, you know, no stress or anything!

Already being a Finalist has brought some attention. Some of this has been in the form of good reviews, which you can see in my “News & Mentions” section. But I’ve also been interviewed by bloggers and members of the press, and have received other attention. I hate to be all mysterious about that, because I always hated when other writers became evasive about what is happening to them, but now I understand why. Some of this stuff can be sensitive and I’d hate to blow anything by running my mouth.

So, that’s the update. It’s funny that I never said a peep on this blog about the process as I made my way through the contest, or even about other matters. I’ll try to be a little more present, especially now that things are heating up.

Thanks for your support.


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