First Novel Prize

Each year, The Writer's Center awards $1,000 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 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 unselfishly nourish and inspire students and fellow writers.

Previous winners are: Sheila Martin for The Coney Island Book of the Dead (2017), Nadine Darling for It Came From Beyond! (2016), Bret Anthony Johnston for Remember Me Like This (2015), Raoul Wientzen for The Assembler of Parts (2014), Karen Thompson Walker for The Age of Miracles (2013), Ismet Prcic for Shards (2012) Heidi Durrow for The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (2011).


1) All first novels published in print in 2017 are eligible, including those published by major and independent presses. Only American authors publishing in English are eligible. Non-eligible books include: short story collections, flash fiction, memoirs, biographies, 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.
3) Following the judging process, books will not be returned unless accompanied by a self-addressed, stamped envelope with sufficient postage. The Writer’s Center is not responsible for lost or damaged books. Writer’s Center staff, board, and workshop leaders may not enter.


The Writer’s Center will solicit 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:

The winner will receive $1,000 and will be featured in The Writer's Guide and our blog, First Person Plural. In addition, if feasible, they will be invited to read at The Writer’s Center during a reception to honor their work.

The submission period is currently closed.

Send entries to:

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


2017's Winner

Sheila Martin's Illustrated Novel

The Coney Island Book of the Dead


Congratulations, Sheila!

First Novel Prize Winner Sheila Martin 


The Writer’s Center is pleased to announce that Sheila Martin has been awarded the McLaughlin-Esstman-Stearns First Novel Prize for her premier book, The Coney Island Book of the Dead, An Illustrated Novel (Narrioch Books, 2016).
70 first-time authors applied from across the country, and a diverse pool of voices from a variety of backgrounds and traditions competed for the honor.
The novel is a fantasy thriller, and captured the love of the Center's qualified judges and avid readers on the staff. Set in Coney Island in 1957, the book begins on the evening of Memorial Day, the first night of summer. Yiddish folklore and twists and turns reveal themselves through the eyes of an 11 year old girl named Brooklyn.  The Coney Island Book of the Dead is riveting and hard to put down.
First time novelist Sheila Martin is a painter and author. She graduated from New York University, where she earned a B.A. in Fine Art and owned a successful graphic design business specializing in non-profits. In 2006, she started working closely with master fiction editor, Renni Browne, co-author of the classic, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers who helped her write  The Coney Island Book of the Dead, An Illustrated Novel, as well as her second novel, The Time Artist.
The staff fell in love with Sheila's book and her art, and the accomplished painter sent us a large print of one of the original illustrations from the book. It currently hangs in the Book Gallery. We also have a smaller print - another gift from Sheila - on our staff bulletin board near the executive director office. We are grateful to Sheila for her many talents! Congratulations!




Undiscovered Voices Fellowship

The Writer’s Center seeks promising writers in the Washington area earning less than $25,000 annually to apply. This program will provide complimentary writing workshops to the selected applicant for a period of one year, but not to exceed 8 workshops in that year (and not to include independent studies). We expect the recipient will use the year to make progress toward a completed manuscript of publishable work.

Previous winners include: Julia Tagliere (2017), Carol Solomon (2016) Margaret Sessa-Hawkins (2015), Caitlin Reid (2014), Marija Stajic (2013), Rose Fitzpatrick (2013), Nicole Idar (2012), Gimbiya Kettering (2011), Lee Kaplan (2010) and Susan Bucci Mockler (2009).

The Writer’s Center believes writers of all backgrounds and experiences should have an opportunity to devote time and energy toward the perfection of their craft.

The recipient will be able to attend writing workshops offered by The Writer’s Center free of charge. In addition, he or she will give a reading from his or her work after the close of the scholarship period (June 2018) and will be invited to join our community in ways most interesting to them. 


a)  a cover letter signed by the candidate that contains the statement: “I understand and confirm I meet all eligibility requirements of the Undiscovered Voices Scholarship.” The cover letter should include information on the impact this scholarship would have on the candidate.

b) contact information for two references who can speak to the candidate’s creative work and promise

c) a work sample in a single genre:

8 pages of poetry, no more than one poem per page
10 pages of fiction, double-spaced, no more than one work or excerpt
10 pages of nonfiction (essay, memoir, etc), double-spaced, no more than one work or excerpt
15 pages of a script or screenplay

Submissions must be sent to by June 30, 2018.