Want to experience the real-life suspense of a closet novelist, who’s waiting for news of her novel?
In the ‘real’ world, Jan LaFountain Melnik of Durham is a career strategist, resume writer, and author of seven career/business books (you can find her at www.janmelnik.com or www.C-SuiteCareerCatalysts.com). She’s been in private practice for more than 20 years and is also a professor in the business school of a private college. But in addition to loving her work, she’s a closet novelist who has finally gotten around to writing one of the many stories that’s been milling around in her head. “Telling Tales: On Merlin’s Island” is her first work of fiction, and she has submitted it to Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award contest, along with (we’re not exaggerating here) 10,000 other would-be novelists.
And so began a tale of real suspense.
Here is Jan, to tell her story, Part One:
Like the UConn Women, I’m Hoping to be in the Paint
It’s the NCAA basketball playoffs… for writers. And I’ve made it to the dance. When a good friend who has watched me painstakingly find time to write my first novel over the past few years told me about Amazon’s contest, I panicked. Suddenly it felt real to think of sharing my story with the world. Other than my creative writing partner from grad school, no one had read the novel and I had only finished final edits several weeks earlier.
Every January, Amazon, the behemoth of online bookstores, holds a Breakthrough Novel Award contest (who knew?). For a two-week window or until 10,000 entries have been received, the minions who toil at putting their stories to paper scurry to polish their manuscripts, tease out a provocative pitch, write a compelling description, and ensure that the first 3,000 or so words of their work make for a decent excerpt. I decided to be brave and enter the fray.
After the worries that accompany online submissions (did I remember to remove my name from the footer? am I sure that the pitch did not go over the 300-word limit? did I settle on the right tone for the description, also limited to 300 words?), I hit ‘enter’ two days before the deadline. Good thing: Amazon closed the contest early, as threatened, when the full complement of 10,000 entries was reached before midnight of the final day.
That was back on January 27th. A numeric acknowledgment did little to still the anxieties of competition, but within a few days, I was back to my busy life as a career strategist and resume writer penning stories that really matter for clients. The calendar ticked along slowly toward the first round of cuts, which would be announced February 11th. From Amazon’s discussion threads, I’d picked up that it would probably be noon Eastern when the names of those writers advancing in the contest would be published online. Amazon is based on the West Coast, so 9 a.m. their time made sense. I had a lengthy client consultation that morning, which helped to distract me. When we wrapped up, it was just after noon and I eagerly signed on to the site. Would my novel, “Telling Tales: On Merlin’s Island,” be deemed worthy by Amazon’s editors to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, solely on the basis of the pitch? Oh joy, it was! In a happy dance that rivaled the publication of my first nonfiction book some 20 years earlier, I rejoiced to see “Jan LaFountain Melnik” on the list with 399 other writers who’d made it into this round.
Amazon accepts only one entry per author and it is the writer who determines into which category their work will be placed: General Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, Romance, Mystery-Thriller, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror. I struggled initially about Telling Tales best belonging in General Fiction or Romance. I ultimately succumbed to the latter on the basis of two key relationship threads that run through the storyline (alternating between present day and World War II) and the fact that there was a good sprinkling of erotica in some of the scenes.
To make it into the Sweet Sixteen, so to speak, Amazon selects the top 400 entries in each of the five categories, thus narrowing the field of 10,000 entries to 2,000. Big sigh of relief. My feeling that cold, snowy February day was literally, “Wow! My inaugural run at writing fiction—at least in putting together a 300-word pitch—was determined by an Amazon editor to be worthy of consideration in a group with 399 others. If I go no further in this contest, at least I can take some satisfaction in the fact that my story idea has some merit.”
The days advanced toward the next cut off, one month later, when, on March 12, those titles going on to the Elite Eight would be announced. Same drill: noon on the East Coast was the expected official posting. By lurking on Amazon’s discussion boards, though, I’d read postings from previous years’ candidates that the 100 novels moving ahead would see their excerpts published on the site and available for free download by everyone’s family members, neighbors, high school buddies, other authors, and readers-at-large early in the day. In order to upload the 100 excerpts per category (500 novel excerpts in all at this point), Amazon obviously couldn’t wait till 9 a.m. Pacific to flip a switch. So a savvy thread-writer said, “Start plugging your name into Amazon’s search field early in the day… if it comes up, you know you’ll be on the list that will be released at noon.”
Well, I had an initial false-positive alarm: all of my nonfiction titles are on Amazon, so my name was there many times. But my heart really did jump when, at 10 a.m., I reentered my name after refreshing the browser for the zillionth time and, lo and behold, there was the ubiquitous Amazon maize background for a book cover with the cursive lettering “Romance.” The familiar words of “Telling Tales: On Merlin’s Island” by Jan LaFountain Melnik was there on the site for all to see. Woo-hoo, I was officially a quarter-finalist! This felt like giving birth (and with three kids, I’ve had a little experience with that). For this phase of the contest, teams of two Amazon readers/editors each had read the 400 excerpts and selected the best 100. In addition to that, they’d written reviews that Amazon also posted on the site. From the discussion threads, I’d learned that authors could expect one or both reviews to be mediocre, critical, or possibly even confusing. Several quarter-finalists reported that the negative reviews posted “clearly demonstrated” that the two reviewers had not read their excerpts very carefully. Hmmm.
Prior to the reviews popping up, experienced contest participants advised newbies like me “not to expect much” from the reviewers, to just be grateful to make it to this round and know that you were strong enough to go to the next level, a step closer to the holy grail. I was relieved to have both of my reviews read positively. At this stage in the contest, readers—friends and those unknown to me—have the opportunity to read my first 3,500 words and enter their own reviews. Exciting, yes. Was I apprehensive? You bet. What if someone hated my premise? What if someone saw through to what I have felt all along was the weakest part of my whole novel (the first two chapters, obviously, not a good thing)?
So far, as of this blog writing, so good: I’ve earned 12 five-star reviews and 2 four-star reviews and some pretty darn gratifying feedback in commentary that includes at least six readers that are totally unknown to me but were somehow compelled to download, read, and offer praise for my fledgling work.
[Editor: Curious? Want to read an excerpt of the book on your Kindle? Click here.]
Now the real angst: counting the days to the next cut. Will I make it to the Final Four, to be announced April 16? Will I survive the cut from 100 top titles to just five semi-finalists? It feels more daunting, yet folks have assured me that getting from the pool of 10,000 to 400 to 100 was remarkable. I’ve comforted myself—trying not to get too anxious—with the knowledge that this round is being judged by Publishers Weekly—and it’s not just the excerpt. PW will read my entire manuscript and provide a detailed review. For better or worse. And that review will be posted on line as well. Yikes! I take additional solace in knowing that if Telling Tales doesn’t make it to the top five, I can use any encouraging words Publishers Weekly might offer plus the two positive Amazon reviews and the dozen additional online reviews to move ahead and either find an agent (the keys to the kingdom: securing a publisher) or self-publish or both.
If I do survive the April cut, my novel and four others in its category will be judged by “top Amazon editors” who will select just one to move to the championship game in May. At that point, one novel in each of the five categories will appear on Amazon and the public-at-large has a week in which to vote for the top contender, the year’s best breakthrough novel that will be announced in June based on highest number of votes received. Indeed, this four-month odyssey will end in a popularity contest.
What’s at stake? Well, besides the fingernail-biting excitement and momentum to see where this goes, the grand-prize winner receives a $50K advance and a publishing contract; the four first-prize winners each receive a $15K advance and they get publishing contracts, too. Winners all, in my opinion.
But honestly, if I don’t get any further along than where I am right now, I’ll be happy to have at least had this chance to know there’s something in what I’ve written that’s garnering some real interest. I’ll double-down in my efforts to rework the first few chapters, then seriously pursue publishing options. And if publication of Telling Tales isn’t in the works by next January? I’ll re-enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, this time as a sage who can offer encouragement to newbies testing their competitive writing mettle while, once again, pitching the merits of my protagonist Nicole and her Maine island girl’s story.
So back to the brackets, are we ready for the Final Four? Stay tuned. New Orleans would feel good right about now.
— Jan LaFountain Melnik