Tomorrow, Amazon will name the winners of the Breakthrough Novel Award, its annual career-maker contest. This year over five thousand novelists submitted their manuscripts to a grueling elimination process that winnows entries down to a handful, to be chosen among by popular vote. The grand prize winner receives a $15,000 advance and a contract from Penguin; the others receive $3,000.
The contest is so valuable that writers start preparing a year in advance–and that is why I asked Tony Russo, one of this year’s semifinalists, to share his advice on what makes a strong submission. His YA manuscript was one of fifty to receive comments from Publisher’s Weekly, and some valuable advice for making his novel the most compelling story that it can be.
If you would like more information on how to enter next year’s contest, look no further than this link.
SC: First, tell us about your book! What’s it about, how long have you been working on it, and how long have you been writing?
TR: ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES takes place in an alternative past, the 1950s, where certain advances in science and technology have already come about (or in some cases, didn’t exist at all) such as space flight, flying cars, megacities and, of course, robots. It’s a throwback to the earlier days of science fiction, like the old Tom Swift stories and The Adventures of Tin-Tin, with a little young romance thrown in.
The story’s about a young teen, Zak, who has a famous uncle who once pioneered and designed robots. His uncle has been sentenced to this island prison and Zak doesn’t understand why everyone says he’s a madman and a traitor. Just the mere mention of the Corbin name sends people screaming in panic—everyone thinks his uncle is some crazed mad scientist! So Zak tries to build a robot of his own, mostly to impress a girl, and promptly gets into trouble. When he finds the plans for one of his uncle’s amazing robots, Zak decides building the machine will prove his uncle is not a madman. But when Zak wishes he could set his uncle free, the robot takes his request a little too literally and breaks his uncle out of prison.
The story’s idea hit me in a single Saturday morning. I wake up too early for my spouse’s liking, so I putter around my office and get on the computer. I have a lot of art books and publications from the 1930s and 1940s: I love the New York World’s Fair and the iconography of that period. It may have been an image from an old Superman cartoon that got me thinking about robots and the mad scientist bent on destroying some city. Then I thought, what about his poor family? Can you imagine going to school with everyone knowing your uncle is that guy? As soon as I decided the main character was around fifteen years old and in high school, I knew the story was going to end up in the YA genre. It took me three months to write the first draft and then another month for revising. And yes, I’m considering another revision.
ZAK CORBIN is my first attempt at YA fiction. I read a few books in the YA category, first the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfield and then The Hunger Games trilogy, when I decided to try my own hand at it. I’ve been writing mostly science fiction for over fifteen years but it’s only been in the last year when I suddenly became more prolific. Besides short stories for a few magazines, I was a contributor for a company that held the license for Star Wars The Roleplaying Game (D&D meets Star Wars, just how geeky is that?) and I tried self-publishing a novel way before the e-book market surged. It feels as though I’m always either ahead or behind the trends.
SC: Your manuscript made it pretty far in Amazon’s yearly Breakthrough Novel contest—ahead of some crazy number of other entries … five thousand? What can you tell us about the process? Did you get advice or feedback as the manuscript advanced?
TR: The contest was mentioned in a major website, either Publishers Weekly or Writers Digest. Prior to that, I had submitted queries for ZAK CORBIN to a number of literary agents and the responses were either boilerplate no or polite “not what I’m looking for.” The contest appealed to me because it was like submitting the manuscript to an agent: You need to craft a 300-word pitch, submit the first 5,000-6,000 words of the manuscript, and then the whole thing. So I thought, well at least this is a chance for the story to be read by a wide swath of people in the industry: Amazon Vine reviewers, readers from Publishers Weekly and then a panel of judges.
Most of the information handed out during the contest came from the discussion boards. Amazon posted reviews of the pitches and then the excerpts. Those who made it to the semifinals got their manuscripts reviewed by Publishers Weekly and those reviews were posted to each entrant. As each contest milestone approached, those who had entries would compare their reviews and talk about the positive and negative reactions they got. Each step of the contest was judged based on each entrant’s work, except for the three finalists in each category (there are YA and General Fiction categories). The finalists’ excerpts are downloaded and voted on by the public. So the winner is by popular vote.
SC: When we first spoke about your manuscript last November, you had already done a lot of preparation. Most writers enter contests on a whim (the odds seem so unforgiving!). How did you go about preparing for Amazon’s contest, and what advice would you give other writers?
TR: The first thing I did was read the Amazon discussion boards for the contest. They have a “pitch review” discussion thread, which lets you send in your 300-word pitch and allow others to critique it. They were very positive about the whole process. I got some great feedback and changed my wording and sentence structure to make it concise, exciting and appealing.
The most important thing I wanted to send in was a really polished manuscript. My wife went through the entire story for a grammatical and spelling edit (she’s always first in line to read my work). She also made some story suggestions and comments. I then decided to turn to a professional editor to review what I would be submitting for the contest. I actually came across your Threepenny Editor website several months before because I’m a web designer by profession (writer by choice) and your site was featured on a list of excellent web designs. So I found your site again and made the inquiry.
SC: What have you learned about this year’s YA category?
TR: Had I done my research, it may have stopped me from submitting to the Amazon contest. I had no clear idea of what was currently popular in the YA category. I wrote my story because there were parts of it that greatly interested me. I don’t follow trends because I don’t want my work to end up in the same crowd, looking and sounding like everyone else’s. I follow my own path and write what I like. So yes, dark dystopian futures (a.k.a., The Hunger Games, Divergent, City of Bones) paranormal romance (the Trylle books), and slice-of-life, coming-of-age stories (The Fault Lies in the Stars) are current bestsellers.
The finalists for this year’s contest for YA fell into those categories: Two were coming-of-age stories and the third was a dark dystopian future. I’ve read plenty of articles that suggest following trends is pointless. This year it was The Hunger Games. Before that, it was Harry Potter. As writers, we only provide the words. It’s the readers who decide whether it’s worth their time.
SC: How would you like to see YA literature evolve or expand? (Or isn’t it up to writers?)
TR: I’ve read a number of the best sellers. I’ve also gone out of the YA category and picked up some other really popular books. I really love steampunk and historical science fiction and would love to write more in that genre.
I’ve become a little tired of the tropes that hallmark YA fiction: the mopey, unpopular girl with unruly hair who doesn’t think she’s pretty but has inner strength; the mysterious, handsome, but pouty boy who never answers direct questions; unreliable or dangerous adults; dressing up in black and wearing a lot of dark eye makeup makes a character “bad”; organizations that use murder, experimentation, and subterfuge to keep young people in line; references to makeup, styling, and appearance as notable character traits (really?); teens with superpowers; angst-ridden teens with superpowers; teens who are popular or are celebrities with the shallowest of talents; teens who romance, fight, or otherwise interact with demons, supernatural creatures, and godlike figures (hey, what’s the rest of the world doing while all of this is happening?) The list goes on. I’m always hoping for some genre-busting in YA. My next entry in the contest just might do that.
SC: What was your favorite book when you were fifteen?
TR: I had a score of really favorite books when I was that age. My English teachers latched on to my love of science fiction and encouraged me to read I, Robot, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, 1984, and Logan’s Run. My all-time favorite was Another Fine Myth (#1 of the Myth series) by Robert Aspirin. It combined my two favorite topics of the time: fantasy and terrible puns! I also read James Clavell’s Shogun, my first real big fat historical novel.
SC: Do you have any wisdom for dealing with encouraging rejections? As a fellow writer and friend of writers, I know we all sometimes get sick of the advice to accept constructive criticism and move on. Any variations on this theme will be welcome!
TR: It’s a truly wonderful profession that encourages people to put themselves out there, sharing their hard work and thoughts, only to receive a slap to the face and be told their words don’t fit broad categories of marketability, trendiness, or whatever factors put a book on a shelf these days. The gatekeepers (literary agents, editors, publishers, etc.) have specific goals or targets in mind: a certain number of literary titles, non-fiction, genre fiction, etc. If your work doesn’t fit their needs, they move on. It’s usually not personal. I don’t bother trying to “pierce the veil” of rejection notices. Unless the notice has something very specific to say, that rejection letter is sent to everyone who submits. You have to develop an appreciation that what you are doing is very personal and special to you. It’s to keep your mind and soul happy.
There are other ways to getting people’s attention. Learn to socialize (ah yes, even writers must master public communication), engage with other people who share your interests, distribute your work, make real friends instead of pushing the Like button on Facebook. (Even I’m guilty of this; I haven’t been to a convention, sci-fi or otherwise, in years. I would love to get back to real face-to-face chat time.)
And sometimes, yes, rejections can be very helpful. Some years back, I got a detailed, typewritten letter from a literary agent who explained why he loved my work, but the timing was all wrong. There was a movie that had come out which had the same retro-futuristic theme as my story, but it had flopped at the box office. He told me to wait for the dust to settle and try again later. I did that with ZAK CORBIN.
SC: Finally, what kind of writer are you: the kind who loves writing the first draft and dreads revision, or vice versa?
TR: I actually love both parts. I love composing a scene and getting very excited about how well it comes together – the images in my head, the dialogue and the description just merge together. Then I’ll come back around to revising and remember that scene, how it came together, and smooth out the rough patches. Sometimes I revise to the point that I end up writing new scenes or rewrite old ones just because I enjoy the story and the characters too much. Maybe that’s why writers end up creating trilogies. We just can’t stop!
Interested in submitting next year? Learn more by reading about Amazon’s award process here.