Folks have been asking what happened at the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, which I attended in Seattle a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a synopsis of the trip.
In the days leading up to the trip I was growing increasingly anxious, for two reasons. First, I knew I had to speak for several minutes about the inspiration for A Chant of Love and Lamentation, and then read a portion of it. I’m no public speaker, and often find my voice clenching up in nervousness when trying to explain something friends. Second, so much was hanging on an unknown that I was growing anxious about that alone. A few days before departure, I finally pinned down the selection I was going to read at the ceremony — the end of Charlie’s section in Part One, the scene where he has killed the boar and is running with a torch through the night jungle. I chose it because I liked the evocative imagery (reminiscent of Lord of the Flies), and because it is a good moment in the book. I also wrote out a bunch of notes from which to deliver my speech. This was necessary because I didn’t want to be flailing around up there, searching for words. Under pressure, my mind has a tendency to shut down.
Rae and I have a toddler, so we needed someone to look after her. Thankfully, Rae’s mom Jeannie volunteered to stay at our house for a couple of days and do the honors. There were a couple of other complications: We were to leave mid-afternoon on what is literally the last day of school at Rae’s job, and upon returning on Sunday I had to spend hours reading and submitting grades for my college composition course.
We flew to Seattle, a short trip on a tiny plane. When we landed, we were met at the baggage carousel by a chauffeur with my name on a sign. This was a real first for me, one of many. He drove us to the downtown Seattle Hyatt in a Lincoln towncar. As Rae and I checked in (the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in, by the way — what a lobby!), the counter rep said I had a couple of packages. The first package was a long white box courtesy of my mother, stepfather, and grandmother. In it were two lei, one for Rae and one for me. I wore the long lei with the maile vines and purple flowers after the ceremony, and Rae wore the white rose lei.
The other package was a “swag bag” from Amazon/Penguin, containing several trade paperbacks from various authors. Notable among them was the Young Adult winner from last year’s ABNA contest (“Spookygirl”) and a hardback version of Kerouack’s On the Road. But to my shock, the bag also contained a Kindle Touch! Both Rae and I have wanted one for a while. Up to now, I’ve been reading my downloaded Kindle books through my iPod, so this was pretty sweet.
Our room was gorgeous. There was a large King-sized bed, a wonderful view, and a marble bathroom with a huge tub and glass shower. In fact, the bathroom alone was worth half the room’s price, I’m sure. I didn’t want to leave on Sunday!
Another entrant in the General Fiction category, Alan Averill, had kindly set up an informal dinner + drinks for everyone at a restaurant near Pike Place Market, a short walk away. This is where we first met everyone. Rae and I sat at one end of a long table where we got to chat with Charles Kelly (my other General FIction “competitor”), Rebecca Phillips (Young Adult entry: Out of Nowhere), and her husband Jason. Great conversation over a delicious meal is one of life’s pleasures.
We retired to our hotel room and got some sleep. In the morning, our host from Amazon, Thom Kephart, brought us all to breakfast at a posh restaurant. How posh? Posh enough to serve octopus for breakfast. Also on the menu: gravlax, a source of much puzzlement for all of us. At breakfast we got to meet folks from Penguin publishing — at our end of the table was Kent, a great guy who is Penguin’s go-between with Amazon.
Following breakfast, we all had several hours to kill in Seattle. I used to live there, and Rae has been several times, so we didn’t feel the need to fill the hours with touristy things. Instead, we walked around Pike Place Market looking for a gift for Jeannie and to enjoy the morning. We did a little more shopping, then retreated to the hotel room to get some rest. By this point our nerves were jangling and we could hardly do anything else. I practiced and polished my speech and tried my best to keep my mind off it all.
Then we all met in the lobby once more, filed into a white van, and drove to the Olympic Park’s PACCAR Pavilion for the ceremony. By this point all of us were beside ourselves with anxiety, excitement, and wonder at the strangeness of the experience. Inside the large, glass-walled room there was a podium, wine bar, and three food stations, plus a dozen large round tables. Already there were people waiting for the event to start, and even more arrived as we stood around, too nervous to know what to do with ourselves. We met quite a few industry people, from both Amazon and Penguin, as well as the winner from a couple of years ago who had come to speak at the ceremony.
We tried our best to eat, and somehow I managed to get through a plate of food. Then the speeches began, first from distinguished guests, and then from us contestants. They went through Young Adult first. It began with Cassandra, who was both fortunate and unfortunate to be selected first. Then Rebecca spoke and read, and finally Young Adult ended with Regina. I think everyone enjoyed her speech, which compared the way children continually try to get their parents to “look” with the same impulse in writers. She should write that up as an essay, actually.
General Fiction got underway, starting with Alan. By this point I was having a hard time focusing on the actual content of the speech, so I remember very little about what Alan said. Charles came next, and what stood out to me was how confident he appeared, but more than that, how he seemed to have his entire passage memorized, because he almost never looked down at the paper while reading!
At last it was my turn. Mine was the closing presentation. I admit I had tunnel vision as I went up to the podium and began to talk, and I thought my nervousness was apparent, but Rae says I looked very sure of myself while speaking and reading, and this was supported by video of my speech. I attribute it to preparation, as well as over ten years of classroom teaching experience, which went a long way to lessening my terror of public speaking.
Once I sat down, Thom Kephart took the podium again to announce the winners. Regina won for Young Adult, then went up for a thank-you speech. Then they announced the General Fiction winner: Alan Averill, for The Beautiful Land. I felt a moment of disappointment, but this was assuaged by the fact that Alan is a great guy who also deserved to win. In fact, as Rae and I discussed in the days leading up to the event, it’s a shame there couldn’t be three winners, and losing to either Alan or Charles wouldn’t be a terrible thing.
The ceremony over, we all rode back in the van to the hotel. I would have liked to go out some more, but I think all of us were wrung out by that point. It was the last we saw of each other in person (though we are now all friends and remain in contact). Rae and I ventured out that night for some late-night pizza, then slept like babies in the huge bed, relieved that it was all over, one way or another.
The next day we were driven in a towncar back to the airport and flew the short trip home. As I mentioned, I had to immediately retreat to my office upstairs and start grading, which wasn’t done until midnight. Not my preferred way to end such a trip, but at least most of the grading had been done long before.
As a coda to the trip, Alan and his wife came to Portland the next day, a trip they had planned long before he even knew he was a Finalist. I got to spend a couple of hours chatting with them and having drinks and just generally getting to know Alan as something other than an opponent. He’s a great guy and we share a lot in common, as it turns out.
So: No, I didn’t win. But making it to Finalist was, in itself, like winning. I’m now seeking representation from agents and starting to think about my next novel.
I encourage anyone thinking about entering the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award to give it a shot. For one, it’s free — already putting it apart from other contests out there. It also has a great support network in the discussion boards, and it draws big names in the publishing field. Even if one doesn’t win, contestants who make it into the second and third rounds receive feedback and a review which can be used to help direct their editing efforts.
What an adventure! Making it to Finalist was surely one of the biggest events of my writing career.
Also, there was this awesome crystal award…