Lessons from ABNA Contest 2009: Cool Things I’ve Learned

As promised, I’m still posting occasional updates from Amazon’s 2009 Breakthrough Novel Award Contest.  The first round has ended, but no one yet knows the results until they announce the Quarterfinals on or around March 16. Whether I make the Quarterfinals or miraculously win on my birthday, I have learned some pretty cool things by entering this contest. Below are a few of my favorites:

1 )  If you’ve ever wondered whether you “write like a girl,” you can find out here. I love the Gender Genie! More than just trivia, this little gizmo can actually help your writing. For example, if you blog and want to appeal primarily to women, then you can run your excerpts through the Gender Genie to have it tell you if “your voice” is male or female. If you write fiction from multiple points of view, the Gender Genie can tell you if your writing has a masculine or feminine slant.

Author’s gender may not always matter, but knowing where you fall on the spectrum can help you tweak style based on your intended audience. Very cool find brought to my attention by VisionScript a.k.a Rachel Rights!

2 ) It helps to have a sense of humor about rejection. This little gem was brought to my attention by Laura M, right after I had written a post on Rejection, Projection and Reflection. While I certainly don’t condone the writer’s reaction, it warmed my heart that people posted humorous pieces at a time when some of the contest writers expressed feelings of low self-confidence or negative feedback. Though a joke, the video does present an over-the-top glance into the inner workings of a projector.

3 ) There are sub-genres of Fantasy known as high fantasy and epic fantasy. No one seems able to agree upon exactly what falls into those categories, but I never knew they existed! Apparently, I write high fantasy (which includes lots of mythic elements and literary allusions), but this little English major with a Masters degree from the University of Chicago had never heard of the genre until she read a thread on ABNA. Thanks especially to Jacob Gowans and D. Howell for their thoughts and explanations.

4 ) It may have taken twenty-fold the editing of some parts of my novel, but I now know that I can write an effective “pitch.” Most writers dread having to market their writing, especially fiction. Unfortunately, it takes marketing know-how to sell books to publishers unless synchronicity’s on your side. Whatever happens, the process of distilling my plot and themes into 300 words, including a marketing analysis, taught me skills I never knew I had in me.

5 ) And here’s the one that feels most significant, even though it probably will have the least effect on my or anyone else’s life: 18-year-long mystery solved!

In college (actually it began even before college during summer orientation in 1991), I met two friends named Matt and Eric.  They taught me fun things like how to smoke a single Camel Light after calculus on Tuesdays and Thursdays. OK, so they didn’t stop with just one, but I did!  To this day, the smell of Camel Lights makes me nostalgic, although I normally hate cigarette odor and haven’t smoked in nearly two decades.

Eric became my calculus tutor, because this “ditzy English major” (me) was convinced that she knew nothing about math. Each Tuesday and Thursday, I would walk to South Campus with Eric after calculus class, watch cartoons while we did our homework, and then smoke a single Camel Light while listening to Pink Floyd’s “Animals.” 

After losing touch with these guys, I spied Eric again during senior year and ran up to him with profuse thanks for helping me pass calculus. He eyed me warily, then asked, “Are you serious? What grade did you get?” “I got an A-,” I said, then practically bowled him over with a hug. He laughed so loud the librarian shushed us. “I got a D! We just liked hanging out with you. I have no idea how you got an A.”

Chock another one up to the power of belief.

But I digress! These guys had introduced me to Pink Floyd, Camel Lights, “Abbey Road,” calculus by cartoons, afternoon naps, and linguistics. Everything they liked intrigued me, especially their love of language. Herein lay the mystery: they were both obsessed with Tolkien, and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why.

Keep in mind, I was kind of a snobby English major who only read Renaissance Lit and The Sun Also Rises. I didn’t have time for Fantasy or cartoons (except during calculus homework). I tried to read the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings, and try though I might, I just couldn’t move beyond it. I liked the movie, but my goodness, that’s one long first chapter! Everything else Matt’n’Eric had recommeneded always turned out to be spot on, so I couldn’t figure out the lapse.

Occasionally, this mystery would cross my mind, even 12, 15, or 17 years later, because it just did not make sense. … And then, one day on an ABNA forum about first chapters, I discovered the answer quite by accident. According to the thread, TLOR’s first chapter does require patience and persistence — not my strongest qualities as a pleasure reader. (Pre-head-injury, I could slog through just about anything on a required reading list, but even when reading came so easily, I was picky with the novels!) According to this thread, I was not alone in my aversion to Chapter 1 of TLOR, and Matt’n’Eric were not alone in thier deep respect and admiration.

On this same ABNA forum, I learned that Tolkien was a linguist. He used TLOR to create a British mythology and also to create different types of language. Of course! That makes perfect sense, and now I get why Matt’n’Eric spent so many hours obsessing over their Tolkien class.

While this may seem like a small discovery, I really can’t do justice to the sense of satisfaction it brings. It feels like I have finally finished a book I left sitting bookmarked on the shelf for nearly 18 years without reading the final 2 pages.

Now I get it. Will I wade through Chapter 1 of TLOR? That remains to be seen, but the part of my mind going “why, why, why?” has discovered yet again: “Ask and you shall receive.” It may take 18 years, but you can always find an answer for a sincerely asked question.

So, thank you, ABNA! And thanks to all the forum folks. I don’t drop by often, but when I have, you’ve taught me much.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. With the exception of the epic/high fantasy thing, those are probably my top favorite things I’ve learned as well. I was particularly glad that I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t make it through LOTR.

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  2. I’m a total Tolkien fan, I even play Lord of the Rings Online (an mmorpg). If you want to read it, read the Hobbit first. You might be able to get through that easier.

    Great post. ABNA has been a great experience for me so far as well. The best thing for me is all the new writers, and friends, I’ve met.

    max

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