McLaughlin-Esstman-Stearns First Novel Prize

Submissions for the 2023 Prize now open!

Each year, The Writer’s Center awards $3,000 to the author of an exceptional first novel published in the previous calendar year. Conceived and funded by former board member Neal P. Gillen, the McLaughlin-Esstman-Stearns First Novel Prize honors three dedicated writers and members of The Writer’s Center faculty—the late Ann McLaughlin, Barbara Esstman, and Lynn Stearns—each of whom have nourished and inspired students and fellow writers.

Previous winners: Robert L. Shuster for To Zenzi (2022 prize), Sion Dayson for As a River (2021 prize), Jasmine Darznik for Song of a Captive Bird (2019), Kayla Rae Whitaker for The Animators (2018), Sheila Martin for The Coney Island Book of the Dead (2017), Nadine Darling for She Came From Beyond! (2016), Bret Anthony Johnston for Remember Me Like This (2015), Raoul Wientzen for The Assembler of Parts (2014), Karen Thompson for Walker for The Age of Miracles (2013), Ismet Prcic for Shards (2012) Heidi Durrow for The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (2011). (No prize was awarded in 2020)

1) All first novels published in print in 2022 are eligible, including those published by major and independent presses. Only authors living in the United States and publishing in English are eligible. Non-eligible books include: short story collections, flash fiction, memoirs, biographies, self-published books, books from hybrid presses, and books published solely in electronic format.
2) Publishers (or authors) must submit three copies of their published novel along with a contact cover sheet indicating name, address, phone number, and e-mail address (no cover letter required). No galley proofs will be accepted. Additionally, we encourage PDFs of the manuscript to be emailed to Hardcopies are required even if a PDF is submitted.
3) Following the judging process, books will not be returned. The Writer’s Center staff, board, and workshop leaders may not enter.

All submissions must be received at the Center by June 30, 2023.

The Writer’s Center solicits a group of 15-20 volunteer judges to serve as first and second-round judges. These volunteers will evaluate books to determine if they meet eligibility requirements, and they will read and evaluate the submissions. Submissions advancing to the third round of judging will be evaluated by a team of three final judges. The winner is chosen at the sole discretion of the final judges.

The winner will receive $3,000 and will be featured in The Writer’s Center Magazine, online, and at a reading and reception, if feasible.

Send entries to:

The Writer’s Center
Re: First Novel Prize
4508 Walsh St.
Bethesda MD 20815

If you have any questions regarding eligibility, please email

Congratulations to Robert L. Shuster, author of To Zenzi and winner of the 2022 McLaughlin-Esstman-Stearns First Novel Prize!

Robert L. Shuster’s short fiction has appeared in North American Review, Witness, the Mississippi Review, and Stone Canoe, among other publications, and in the anthologies Micro Fiction and Yellow Silk II. For a number of years, Shuster wrote arts and culture pieces for The Village Voice. Shuster lives in Westchester County, New York.

About the Novel

To Zenzi is the extraordinary story of Tobias Koertig’s odyssey through the apocalypse of Berlin in 1945. An orphaned thirteen-year-old who loves to draw, Tobias is coerced into joining the German youth army in the last desperate weeks of the war. Mistaken for a hero on the Eastern Front, he receives an Iron Cross from Hitler himself, who discovers the boy’s cartoons and appoints Tobias to sketch pictures of the ruined city.

Shuttling between the insanity of the Führer’s bunker and the chaotic streets, Tobias must contend with a scheming Martin Bormann, a deceitful deserter, the Russian onslaught, and his own compounding despair—all while falling for Zenzi, a girl of Jewish descent (a mischling) who relays secret news of death camps and convinces Tobias to make a treacherous escape to the Americans.

With thrilling risks in plotting and prose, with moments of pathos and absurdity, Shuster richly conjures a mad, tragic world.


From our final judges

“In this award-winning novel, we see, through fresh language and vivid imagery, more than Tobias, a boy trying to survive war-torn Berlin sustained by his love for a girl named Zenzi. As the tension grows from the first page to the last, we are forced to acknowledge the price paid when peace is out of reach.

“A rich narrative written with strong prose and fast pacing, To Zenzi finds the dark humor in the horrific events of war and pulls the readers irresistibly along.”