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Lessons I learned from entering the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award


This is romantic but rubbish. Only YOU can finish your book. So finish. You’ll love yourself for it!!

Woo hoo! I’ve just discovered the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award is on again. ABNA is an awesome opportunity for anyone who has a novel in their bottom drawer:

1) It’s free to enter!

2) It forces you to practice writing a synopsis or pitch for your novel.

3) There are lots of Rounds through which shortlisted entries will move, which means lots of chances for you to know: how am I doing?

  • If you get knocked out in Round 1, you need to work on your pitch.
  • If you make it to Round 2, you get to see what two reviewers think of your excerpt (whee! free feedback!).
  • If you make it to Round 3, otherwise known as the Quarter-Finals, you get a review from Publisher’s Weekly (double whee! free feedback from people who really know the industry!)

Who cares if you make it any further? If you’ve made it this far, you already know: YOU CAN WRITE!

If you were knocked out earlier, who cares? At least you know where to focus: Was it your pitch? Or the excerpt? Polish and rewrite and prepare to give it a whole new shot next year.

My ABNA experience

I first entered ABNA five years ago, with a zombie novel I’d pretty much written overnight. I knew nothing about writing a novel, let alone pitching one. But I gave it a shot. And I got nowhere.

The next year, I entered again, with pretty much the same novel. Only this time, I advanced to Round 2!! Translation? My pitch worked! I’d improved my elevator pitch, my ability to sell my novel, to get perfect strangers to sit up and say ooo, I’d like to read more. I was on the way to learning how to write a synopsis that was pithy and exciting and had voice.

And then I advanced no further. Translation? I needed to work on my writing, to develop a better killer start to my novel. And so I received and devoured my two reviews, reward for reaching Round 2 (these  anonymous people were the only  people ever to have read any part of my novel, except for me), and I used what I read to focus my rewrites. And my rewrites.

That novel is still in my bottom drawer. But the novel after that was TAKESHITA DEMONS. Translation? Practice doesn’t make perfect,  but it does help a whole lot!!

To edit or not to edit…

Remember: ABNA only open till March 2, and entry is on a first-in, first-served basis.

  • Edit too long, and you’ll miss out.
  • Don’t edit enough, and you’ll bomb out.

It’s a tough line to walk, and it’s the tightrope we all need to wobble along when sending manuscripts to publishers and agents. And the best (only?) way to master something is to practice it, so what are you waiting for?

Enter ABNA, give it your best shot, but don’t sit back to wait for the prize-winning call. Get on with your next project. Entering is all just practice. And if you practice enough, one day, that call will come.

Good luck!


How to write a synopsis: four big secrets and an example

First of all, congratulations to @LiiaAnn, who has finished writing and editing her book draft of 60,000 words, a huge effort and awesome success.  Now the fun bit: how to take all that work and mince it down into 60 words that make an agent or reader or publisher go: YES PLEASE! I WANT MORE.

Writing a synopsis used to be a pain in the rear for me, but I tried and tried and tried, and failed and failed and failed (see below for my “before” and “after” effort at writing a synopsis), and then gradually failed less often. I’m still not very good at it, but I think there are four big secrets:

1) Write your synopsis like you write your novel.
If you write in a sassy voice, use that same sassy voice in your synopsis. If your book is funny, use humour in your synopsis. And if you’ve crammed 10 tonnes of back story into the first sentence, cut it out and start again (just like writing a novel ;-))

2) Write your synopsis, then close the file for a week or three.
Just like your novel draft, a synopsis needs time to breathe. After three weeks of working on something else, you’ll see new mistakes and new room for improvement.

3) Make your words work.
Synopses are short, so pick active verbs and play with your sentences over and over until they are short, snappy, to the point, saying more with every letter.

4) Introduce your main character, what they want, and why they can’t get it.
Character development is the main jist of all stories, and if your reader knows who they’re dealing with and what drives them, there’s a bigger chance they’ll identify with your character and adopt their cause. Which means getting on board with your story and your book.

Want an example?
When I was first faced with writing a synopsis I couldn’t find a decent example anywhere. So, at great personal expense (cue red face), I’m reproducing a couple of synopses I wrote for a book I wrote a few years ago, called Beyond The Safe Zone (a zombie adventure; unpublished and will probably stay that way ;-)).

BEFORE: My first attempt at a synopsis (200 words)

Beyond the Safe Zone is an adventure thriller for readers aged 13 and up, tracking the exploits of protagonist Chase, headstrong foster brother Ari, and pals Vaio and Ben in their escape from the Safe Zone, a closed community where Walls protect living people from the horrors beyond.

Once over the Walls, the friends face a post-Outbreak world, infested with the undead and dangers they’ve only ever imagined. With Ben out-of-action and Ari injured, the four must work hard to stay alive, depending on each other, lying for each other, and challenging all they’ve known of the world within the Walls. When they discover the truth about the Safe Zone and the Mercy who run it, each must choose where their loyalties lie.

Set hundreds of years into the future of a post-Outbreak world, Beyond the Safe Zone is a human thriller, a page-turning ride written for young readers. Beyond the Safe Zone is 50,000 words and my third (unpublished) childrens novel. I am a full-time non-fiction writer and have been writing popular science for young adults since 2002, including time as editor of two national magazines. I have also worked as a roving high school presenter for two years.

(Excuse me while I die of shame; reading that (blogging that!?!?!) makes me cringe!)

AFTER: This still isn’t uber-fabulous, but it’s closer to what I want… (190 words)

Twelve-year-old Chase has never had so many reasons to lose her lunch. She’d never questioned the rituals of the Safe Zone, but then her older brother Ari climbed the walls. Even thinking of climbing was ridiculous, illegal, impossible. But try telling that to Ari. And there was no way she’d let him climb alone.

Now Chase has seen the world beyond the Safe Zone, and it’s enough to turn her stomach. But life within the walls is killing Ari. He wants to leave, to live on the other side. But it’s never been done and there’s no reason to think Ari can do it. So try telling that to Ari.

When Ari’s plan goes wrong, Chase, Ari and schoolpal Ben find themselves hunted on both sides of the walls.

Packed with adventure, friendship, terror and betrayal, BEYOND THE SAFE ZONE is a thrilling read for younger readers. Think the apocalypse behind THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH, the adventure of ESCAPE FROM SHADOW ISLAND and the cutting voice of THE MEDUSA PROJECT. Take a peek beyond the Safe Zone. Life will never be the same.

So what do you reckon? Does that help?
Does anyone have other before/after efforts they’d like to share?

Other posts you might enjoy:

Why I’m self-publishing: Takeshita Demons 4 has risen from the dead

Self publishing: How to design a cover in 5 easy steps

How to keep your New Year Resolution: Papier mache daruma dolls

Takeshita Demons: help us choose the cover art

8 cool myths about dogs, and why the inugami dog-god didn’t make it

Do you love monsters? Check out these Japanese monster activity ideas. Have fun!

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