Guest blog: Last-Minute Nerves (Clare Harlow)

In our final guest blog post before submissions to UV2022 closes on Sunday 18 July 2021, previous finalist Clare Harlow (UV2020) offers some last-minute words of wisdom to give you confidence in your entry and some practical tips to give it that extra edge.

For Anyone Struggling With Last-Minute Nerves

Remember, you are not alone

Almost everyone suffers from nerves when a deadline looms. Personally, I’m a serial last-minuter. Give me a deadline and I’ll meander towards it, procrastinating as if I’m training for the procrastination Olympics, which always leaves me in a crisis as the clock ticks down.

But whether you’re frantically rewriting your opening chapters, wondering how you’ll ever distil your story into an impossibly short synopsis, or panicking about whether to give your pages ‘one last’ polish, take heart from the fact that there are plenty of people in the same situation.

Trust your gut

And trust your story too. Maybe you’ve had feedback on your manuscript from critique partners. Maybe you’ve just finished your first draft. Maybe your story has been sitting on your computer for years. Whatever the circumstances, it’s natural to have doubts about whether this is the time to send your work out into the world.

Ask yourself two questions

Firstly, do you love your story? I mean really love it – because if you don’t, it’ll show on the page.

Secondly, have you told it the way you want to? I don’t mean that the manuscript has to be perfect, far from it, but it needs to communicate the story you have in your mind — and for Undiscovered Voices, your first 4000 words really need to showcase your writing as well as hooking the reader with your premise.

If the answer to both these questions is ‘yes’, ignore any little whispers of doubt and get submitting!

Take time to check your work

Leaving it late can be a good thing. Yeah, yeah, I would say that, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants serial procrastinator that I am. But it’s true. I tip my hat to all you early birds, but it genuinely doesn’t matter if you enter on the first day or in the last hour of the submission window. And if you haven’t hit that send button yet, you can take advantage of my top tips for proofreading.

1. Change the font and text size

Someone recommended this to me, and it’s the best technique I’ve found for getting a fresh perspective on my rhythm and phrasing. It’s also a great way to catch typos, especially if you don’t have access to a printer. (Just don’t forget to change the formatting back afterwards!)

2. Read your pages out loud, or use the read-aloud function on your computer.

There’s nothing like hearing a stilted automated voice mangle your words to let you know whether your writing flows well.

3. If you can, be brave and ask a friend or family member to proofread your pages too.

Sometimes, a word or phrase might have a dual meaning you haven’t noticed, or multiple edits might have led you to reuse a piece of descriptive language.

Lastly, accept that there is only so much you can do

Competitions, like everything in publishing, are enormously subjective. You’ve worked hard on your story, polished your pages and synopsis, and given the whole thing a good proofread. Now, all you can do is submit your work and let it go. Don’t worry if you spot typos or spelling mistakes after you’ve entered — your story won’t be rejected because of those. Be proud of yourself for getting this far. Hit send, take a moment to celebrate, then try to forget all about it until the longlist announcement.

And for anyone still feeling those nerves and unsure about whether to enter, remember, you have nothing to lose — and it might just change your life.

Clare Harlow was an actor in a previous life but has stepped away from the stage to work as an English tutor and devote more time to writing. Since being selected for Undiscovered Voices 2020, she is delighted to have signed with Amber Caravéo at Skylark Literary and is working hard on getting her middle-grade fantasy novel ready to go on submission.

Guest blog: So, what’s this ‘voice’ thing anyway? (Kathryn Kettle)

In our penultimate guest blog post before submissions close, previous finalist Kathryn Kettle (UV2018), speaks up for the joy of finding your voice and offers valuable shortcuts to finding yours hopefully a little sooner than she found hers. And find it she did as you’ll be able to see in her debut novel, The Boy I Am.

So, what’s this ‘voice’ thing anyway?

The first three books I wrote, I was trying to write. By which I mean, I had an idea what books should sound like in my head, I’d read enough, after all. The few stories I was brave enough to submit went somewhere, but never far enough. Eventually, after working ten years on a book, I couldn’t do it anymore. For a while, I didn’t write, but inevitably I couldn’t leave the itch unscratched.

I returned to write for fun: flash fiction, short stories, fan fiction, and I didn’t write to please anyone but myself. Looking back that’s when it started to happen, I think, when I began to find a voice (*insert choir of triumphant trumpets here*).

Now, don’t get excited… I had NO IDEA I’d achieved this holy-hand grenade of writing goodness until several weeks ago.

After sending early chapters of my second book to my editor, one thing I didn’t expect to hear in return about my second book was, ‘It sounds like you.’

Having been a finalist in the Undiscovered Voices 2018 competition, I must have some kind of ‘voice’ because, after all, that’s what the judges are looking for, but until now I’d attributed it to my main character, his voice.

Hearing my voice

I didn’t think when writing a second, completely different story, with completely different characters, that there would be any similarities. Yet, somehow in the last 10 years, I’ve found a rhythm of my own. After all these years I finally know what ‘voice’ means: being authentic to you, and no one else.

Here’s a list of questions to ask yourself, and exercises to do, to help identify if you’ve nailed ‘voice’…

  • Are there words that jump out to you or trusted readers that take them out of the story? What makes them jump out? If it’s not something you’re intending, probably think about the word choices.
  • Are you trying to capture a particular style, can you avoid that and put down the words in a unique way to you? Try different styles, sentence structures, poetry, or humour where you wouldn’t before.
Photo by Jessica Da Rosa on Unsplash
  • Tell some part of your story out loud in a voice recording app, not as it’s written, but as an anecdote. What do you learn about your way of telling stories in this way? How does it differ from the way you lay it down on the page?
  • Use your editorial eye to analyse your writing style. Take a few pages from different points across the work. Are there sentences, paragraphs, dialogue, metaphor techniques etc that you use regularly and how/why do you use them?
  • Look also at your themes, the things you are interested in and the ‘problem’ of the story, are they unique way to you and your writing. How can you make them ‘yours’?
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash
  • Do some of the above with books in your collection, especially writers lauded for strong voice… can you see what makes them stand out?
  • Listen to your gut, when you’re laying the words down do they feel unnatural to you in your head, like you’re laying down bricks, not feathers? If so then it may not be a problem of plot, character or description, but one of voice.
  • Most importantly… write it for yourself not anyone else, not a particular judge, crit buddy, friend, family member. Your edit is when you write it for your reader, but your voice will be in your first draft, the one you write for you.

Made in Birmingham, Kathryn Kettle now lives, works and writes in London. The opening of her debut YA novel, The Boy I am, was shortlisted for the Society of Childrens’ Book Writers and Illustrator (SCBWI British Isles) Undiscovered Voices 2018. She has won competitions and been highly commended for her flash fiction, including being longlisted as part of the 2017 Bath Flash Fiction Award.

When not writing, Kathryn can be found travelling and working around the world transforming business with technology. She is passionate about promoting the role of women as leaders, the value of creativity, and the need for diversity at all levels in STEM and business-based careers.

Kathryn is also the creator of the ‘Book Chain Project’ which you can learn more about here.

Guest blog: The Hot Seat (Andi Ipaktchi)

What of life after Undiscovered Voices? Previous Finalist, Andi Ipaktchi (UV2016), takes a wry look at her journey from illustrator and printmaker to comedy writer and performer in our latest guest blog post.

The Hot Seat

“What are you working on?”

With those five words, our entire dinner table full of artists, writers, actors, and composers fell silent, not just me. Seconds before the question, I was chattering away like a chipmunk. Now I was staring down at my dish. Perhaps a good answer would appear inscribed in the log rings of my roasted parsnips. I could hear someone pouring himself a very, tall glass of wine.

“Well?” the blockhead insisted. He was looking straight at me. He would have addressed me by name, if he had known it, but I was new. I was here to reunite with my friend. We had made plans months ago to and now she was seated right next to me.

I waved my napkin to my mouth to feign a mouth full of food and looked at the actors. Surely, they would be happy to talk about themselves? But they just stared back. My friend tapped my boot heel with hers.  She was on to me. I didn’t have a good answer for the blockhead and she knew it.

The truth was that we had shown up at the arts residency together because we brought out the best in each other. We liked volleying stories back and forth while the other diners fueled us with their laughter. In fact, they were the ones who encouraged us to return to write it all down.

She is a short story writer; I’m an illustrator and printmaker. We had returned to create a comedy of some kind, or another. Maybe a scripted sketch for Youtube. Or a podcast. Or a cartoon strip. Or why not a play? Or a live performance for kids.. or a Tiktok dance for old people. But definitely not a book. (Or maybe a book.) We had no idea, but we were there to figure that part out.

It had felt like a pretty solid plan, but now I felt exposed. Naïve. Foolish.

Being asked too soon into the creative process, “what are you working on?”  can feel like a stranglehold on a newborn’s neck. I wanted to give him a simple but satisfying answer so he would move on. Being too vague might sound coy and incite even morequestions. I stopped chewing and put my napkin down on my lap.

“My partner and I are taking a leap of faith that our combined creative energies will transform into something artistically viable.” But I didn’t say that because only a twit would talk like that.

Instead, my partner piped in. She blew across her green tea and said, “We’re working on something together.” (She has such a way with words, doesn’t she?)

“Like a creative collaboration?” asked the blockhead.

“Yes. A creative collaboration.” And that was enough. He was satisfied. He stabbed a small potato with his knife and popped it into his mouth.

Each evening at dinner, our collaboration process drew more interest than the project itself. We became a two-headed monster novelty. Our project began to take form.  Our stories began to volley back and forth across the table once again. (Even the blockhead laughed.)

A year later, we have written Season 1 of our audio comedy about a house full of international guests and staff at an arts residency in rural Ireland. But you probably want to know more about the collaboration. I’d tell you, but I can’t. There is no way to explain it, without sounding like a twit.

So, tell me… What are you working on?

Andi Ipaktchi is an American illustrator, printmaker, comedy writer and performer. She is an illustration graduate from Parsons School of Design. Since Undiscovered Voices 2016, she continues to exhibit her prints and paint. In 2021, she co-wrote and co-directed a scripted, audio comedy with Aoibheann McCannn called: RETREAT (Another Painful Irish Family History) due out in the autumn.  She encourages the UV community to contact her when travelling to Paris to take her famous Deux Centime, French, kid-lit tour. Her family really doesn’t mind.

Photos of Andi Ipatchi thanks to Noura Gauper.

Guest blog: The pressure of time (Kate Scott)

Welcome to one of our original Undiscovered Voices finalists, Kate Scott  (UV2008). Her guest blog talks about the forces that seek to whittle away the precious time that writers have to write. There are times to write slowly, she suggests, and some occasions that require writing quickly!

The pressure of time

Whether published or pre-published, it’s easy to feel under pressure as a writer. The pressure to produce a book, to submit it (or, if under contract, to market it), then to write another, and another, and another. But writing books with frazzled speed is not the way to produce your best work – and if you’re not producing your best work then maybe it needs a new approach…

Slow writing

We have slow cooking, why not slow writing? Wallow in your words. Ponder your paragraphs. Curl into your chapters. Submerge yourself in your story. (And avoid too much alliteration.) Creating good stories takes time – so take the time. What you produce will be the better for it. What sticks is a good story, so don’t rush or you’ll write something that slips from the reader’s mind, rather than lingering there.

R. J. Palacio, author of Wonder, is about to publish a new book, Pony. She says: “I love to tell stories, and writing is my preferred way of doing that. But I also love spending time with family and friends, and I can’t say I’m one of those writers that writes ever day even when I’m not working on a book. I write until a story is finished, then I do other things. Then when I have another story to tell, I write that one.”

She talks about how she put her new manuscript aside when she realised it wasn’t working. She only went back to it a few years later when she’d figured out the way to fix it. The result? A better book. The lesson? Take your time.

The pressure of the brand

As a writer or an illustrator, you’re also pushed to create a brand, to promote that brand, extend it, and work to make it ‘sticky’ (among other vaguely unpleasant-sounding marketing terms).

You’re told to network, promote, create acres of content. You’re told to choose your social media platform and to dance on that platform until your feet bleed and you have followers in their thousands…

To which I say (and editors and marketing managers may want to cover their ears at this point): No.

It’s not that having a social-media platform or a brand is a bad thing – of course it’s not – but it’s not what should come first.

If you are spending more time online networking and promoting than you are offline writing and editing your stories, then you have things the wrong way around. Funny memes may get the likes, but good stories pull in the readers. Social media fans are fickle, readers of good books are anything but. Take your time.

Don’t do what makes you feel uncomfortable

Some people are natural networkers, happy to share their lives online. If this is you, that’s wonderful – use your gift-of-the-online gab. If it’s not you, don’t worry that you are losing out. It’s unlikely that your online presence will have as much as an effect on sales or reach as you might have been led to believe. Other people’s recommendations will snag sales, your own promotions? Not so much. And other people’s recommendations will come if the work is good.

So again, take your time to make it so. Just like the Field of Dreams quote: ‘If you build it, they will come.’

The exception proves the rule

BUT. If you’re reading this and you’re thinking of entering the Undiscovered Voices competition? Ignore everything I’ve just said and HURRY UP.

This is the chance of a children’s writing career lifetime…

type at your fastest speed and grab it!

Kate Scott is the author of 35 children’s fiction and non-fiction titles, including Giant, Just Jack and Spies in Disguise: Boy in Tights, which won a Lancashire Fantastic Book Award. Kate has also written over 90 episodes of children’s television for CBeebies, C5, CITV, Disney and Netflix. She was the script-editor for the animation-film, A Christmas Letter, narrated by Kate Winslet (Sky) and was recently commissioned to write the treatment for a 45-minute TV film special based on the classic children’s series, Brambly Hedge, by Jill Barklem.

She is currently the Story Editor for a new pre-school show coming to Apple TV. Kate co-founded the Book Pen Pals initiative with Sara O’Connor in May 2018.

Guest blog: Crossing the finish line – three writing hacks (Michael Mann)

In our latest guest blog post, Undiscovered Voices finalist Michael Mann (UV2020) reveals three of his favourite pre-submission writing hacks, which were tried and tested on his forthcoming debut novel Ghostcloud.

Crossing the finish line – three writing hacks for the submission sprint

The UV2022 submission window is open! You are (hopefully) almost there, fine-tuning your piece, or perhaps (more my style) sprinting madly to the finish line.

Fear not. Both methods work. And now, as I cheer you on from the sidelines, I will not share deep, wise words (Annaliese and Anna stole mine anyway) but a few tried and tested hacks I used on Ghostcloud ahead of submission (which worked, I think, as it’s coming out in October!).

1. Shake it like a polaroid picture (aka Robot Voice)

In the film Clueless, Alicia Silverstone’s character Cher states ‘I don’t rely on mirrors’, explaining she takes a polaroid of her outfit each day. Why? Because polaroids are less flattering than mirrors. If she looks good on a polaroid, she knows she looks good.

Reading your work aloud is like looking in the mirror. You round up. You hear what you want to hear. The good news is that an (unflattering) polaroid lies just around the corner: the robotic voice of your Mac/PC. It’ll read it horribly, butcher it even, but that’s what you need. If it still sounds good in robot voice, then it’s ready.

In a Mac, you just highlight the text, and press Option+Esc. I’m sure there’s a shortcut on PCs too. I use it all the time – it helps so much with rhythm, pace, typo spotting – and is a great way to give your eyes a screen break.

2. Cut out the ‘wases’ (and ‘weres’ and ‘ises’…)

When my friend Louise gave me this tip, I was angry. How ridiculous! I mean, the novel was in the past tense, how could I avoid was?

But after I cooled down, reworked the passage and sent it round, most preferred the ‘was-less’ version. They just said it was tighter. Here’s a before and after, when my protagonist, Luke, enters the haunted corridors of the East Wing.

Before: It wasn’t just the length that made him feel dizzy. The lights were flickering, the dark paint was peeling, and the black and white floor tiles were zigging and zagging.  

After: The corridor stretched into the darkness. Lights flickered dimly, flakes of dark paint hung from the walls and black-and-white tiles zigged and zagged underfoot.

In fact, I still like the original, and sometimes a ‘was’ is what you need… but so often, when I check my ‘wases’, I find stronger verb or more concise expression. In kids’ books, every word has to earn its place, so this is usually a good thing.

3. Make it smelly. (Or touchy. Or tasty.)

I know we all know this, but I still forget daily, so I want to remind you because the UV2022 finish line is so close! You can practically see the white ribbon. You can hear the crowds cheering.

But can you smell it?

I doubt it. A smelly crowd would be slightly off-putting. And usually ribbons don’t smell at all. I’d go as far to say that people avoid smells, both in life and writing. But I dare you to stick in a smell in your extract. I’ll raise that, why not try the first page or two?

A simple one will do. For our sprint, maybe cut grass, old trainers or cheap deodorant. Or if it really doesn’t fit, at least try some touch (a chafing sports t-shirt, a powdery start line) or taste too (salty-sweat, minty lip balm). Suddenly that finish line feels so much closer.

Mark Haddon (I think) said he tries to get all five senses in each chapter. And he’s wiser than me. 

Now, stop reading this blog and start editing! I’ll be cheering loudly (in cheap deodorant) from the metaphorical sidelines.

Good luck!

Michael Mann is a teacher by day, dad by night, and mostly writes when he should be sleeping. He was a UV2020 finalist and a 2019 London Writers Award winner.

His debut middle grade novel, Ghostcloud, is a thrilling, magical adventure that will be published by Hachette in October 2021 with a sequel the year after. He owes the idea for the story to his coal-mining grandad and a lifelong love of cloudspotting.

He lives in London with his (patient) partner and their (less patient) toddler, and can be found playing board games when he’s not busy losing his wallet.

Guest blog: The power of seeing yourself as the hero (Serena Patel)

Undiscovered Voices finalist Serena Patel (UV2018) shares the importance of making sure children can see themselves in the stories they read and how diverse voices are a gift to every reader.

Seeing yourself as the hero

Imagine loving stories, inhaling book after book, books being such an important part of your life. Now imagine never seeing yourself in books. Imagine never seeing someone like you as the hero of the story. Imagine never believing you can be a hero in your own story.

I loved books as a child. Reading was comfort, escapism, mystery, adventure. Books held my hand through difficult times and kept my head above water when I couldn’t express how I felt as a young person growing up.

I never realised that in the stories I loved I never saw myself. I was never the hero of the story.

The hidden impact of being invisible

I’ve only realised as an adult what the impact of that can be. Seeing yourself in stories can be validating, empowering, educating. We know books create empathy. We know books help children make sense of the world around them. The world I was seeing was white centred, not just in books but in my primary school too as I was the only child of colour there. I felt like I didn’t belong, that there was no place for me.

I hadn’t realised that was the message I was receiving but it makes sense now. If I couldn’t see anyone who looked like me in stories, what did that make me? Invisible? Not to say there weren’t books about people of colour but those that did exist were not made accessible to us, not given the same visibility.

Don’t stop believing

I had always loved writing, but had never shown anyone my words, never believing anyone would want to hear what I had to say. Then much later as a mother, I remember looking at our bookshelves and thinking something is not right here. Where are the books that reflect our life, where are the British Indian main stories?

So I started writing again, but still disbelieving even as I embarked on the journey to publication that anyone would want to read this book.

Sharing stories with the world

When I entered the Undiscovered Voices competition I had no idea what could happen. It was the most wonderful thing. The judges heard my voice, they valued it and they put it in front of publishing and said ‘look at this!’ I am forever grateful to them for providing this platform to new writers.

How wrong I was thinking no one would want to hear what I had to say – the reception for the book from readers, librarians, teachers, parents and children has been amazing. They all accept and love Anisha as the hero, no questions asked. And now it feels so simple – of course, Anisha can be the hero. Why couldn’t I see it before?

How I wish I’d had these books as child, how validated I would have felt, I might have felt differently about myself? Seen myself and my culture through a positive lens. Seen myself as a hero of my own story?

But how glad I am we have a chance to give this to the next generation. Those books that reflect realities, act as windows and mirrors can make a real difference to our children. Reading those stories, hearing new voices, opening up the world and our minds. What a gift that is.

Serena Patel is the author of the Anisha, Accidental Detective series which won the Sainsbury’s Children’s book Award for Fiction and the CrimeFest award for Best Children’s Crime Fiction.

She lives in the West Midlands with her family. Serena believes all children deserve to feel seen in the stories they read and that books are an important tool for empathy. When she’s not writing Serena enjoys watching movies, reading and eating cake. Chocolate cake preferred.

Guest blog: Being inspired by the past (Susan Brownrigg)

In our latest guest blog post, Undiscovered Voices finalist Susan Brownrigg (UV2016) reveals the joy of using historical settings and research, as well as offering advice on how to use both effectively.

Being inspired by the past

A question I’m frequently asked by schoolchildren is “why do you write books set in the past?“.

There is, of course, the joy of not having the dual plot/drama spoilers of google and mobile phones. However, the main reason is that I enjoy immersing myself in another time and place and sharing my passion for what I’ve learned through story.

Settings that come with questions

I always begin with a real place. With my debut book – Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest – I knew I wanted to reflect my working-class northern upbringing by writing about Blackpool.

The spark for the plot came when I discovered that a fifteen-year-old girl switched on the ‘Blackpool Lights’ in 1935.

I knew I wanted it to be an adventure and a mystery and the plot around Ma’s disappearance is made up. As a writer, you have control over what you choose to include and how much you veer from actual events.

In the sequel, Gracie Fairshaw and Trouble at the Tower I wrote a scene set in the Blackpool Tower ballroom. I chose to have the Wurlitzer come up through the floor, although this wouldn’t be possible for another twenty years. It is only a small detail and only cinema organ enthusiasts are likely to notice!

Licence to thrill (and make changes)

It is fine to alter things for the sake of drama. You can always write a historical note if you feel you need to spell out where you have used artistic licence.

I also enjoy writing historical magical fantasy adventures. My UV winning entry, Girl Churns up Trouble, was set in a real time and place, Angkor Thom, Cambodia. It was inspired by reading an account by Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat who travelled to the Khmer Empire in 1296. I wondered what would happen if a child had gone in his place.

My new children’s book Kintana and the Captain’s Curse set in 1733, Madagascar is a treasure hunt with lemurs inspired by the real-life Pirate Island.

How to bring the past to life

Sadly, time machines don’t exist, so we can’t journey back to see what life was like centuries ago. Instead, I have developed different research techniques to help me create verisimilitude.

For Gracie Fairshaw, I was fortunate to be able to visit Blackpool on several occasions. I was able to visit lots of the attractions that were around in 1935 as fortunately Blackpool still has a lot of its seaside heritage.

I went on the same fairground rides, took a trip on the heritage tram, listened to the Wurlitzer in the Tower ballroom and went to the Switch-On.

Think about how you could follow in your character’s footsteps

Look out for heritage open days (September) talks and tours. I’ve been on behind the scenes tours of the heritage tram depot, the Illuminations Lightworks depot and Blackpool Town Hall.

Are there specialist museums or enthusiast groups? I joined the Blackpool Civic Trust and the Winter Gardens Trust.

When you go on research trips, if allowed, take lots of photographs and video for reference. (They are often useful for publicity too).

Use a notebook to quickly capture your emotional and sensory reaction to new locations. I try to capture the tactile experience as well as sights, sounds and smells.

And don’t forget taste…

I like to eat the food I write about. For Gracie, I scoffed fish and chips, munched delicious warm Eccles cakes and nibbled minty sticks of rock.

Food and drink are a great way to give a flavour of the past. The scene in Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest where Gracie and her pals eat chips has really resonated with readers, especially those who remember them being wrapped in newspaper!

Going small for your sources

As a historical writer, I rely on a range of sources, both primary and secondary. The most useful research resource for Gracie Fairshaw has been back issues of the Lancashire Gazette kept on microfilm at Blackpool’s local history centre.

The microfilm readers were a little tricky to use at first – but they have been invaluable. I was able to read contemporary accounts of the 1935 Blackpool Illuminations Switch-on. This not only gave me a reliable source for the event but helped me get a feel for the language of the period. I try to avoid obviously incongruous words but prefer a more accessible, modern language style.

Getting the scoop from the local press

Newspapers can provide a lot more than just news. I uncovered detailed information about Blackpool’s weather, tide times and traffic which I used. The advertisements were gold for social history too, including fashion, entertainment, typical household products and attitudes of the time. While the children’s page prompted me to create my own League of the Shining Star club.

If you are a library member it is worth seeing if your membership includes access to online newspaper collections.

On the case with factual books

My shelves are full of factual books about Blackpool, animals, magic, the circus, the seaside, film, journalism, pirates, the Incas, the Amazon, Peru, Cambodia and the Khmer Empire, the Congo and Paris used for researching my books. There are travel guides, atlases, biographies, travelogues/diaries and cookbooks.

Don’t forget you can borrow books (and E-books) from your library too.

Old cookbooks and old magazine recipes can shine a light on what people ate in the past. TV series, such as the excellent ‘Back in Time for Dinner’ and the history segments on Bake Off, are also brilliant for establishing what foods were easily available, affordable as well as changes in fashion.

Mapping out other avenues of research

I also have a collection of maps – modern, old and replica, as they are a great way to describe a place accurately. A Vision of Britain Through Time is great for digitalised old maps. Google Earth is another brilliant resource tool.

As well as books, I have a collection of DVDs including films and documentaries and music (ranging from 78s to CDs) which have enabled me to get a fuller sense of the world I’m writing about. Youtube is fantastic for old documentaries, old home video footage, 1930s films, music and dance clips.

Shopping for inspiration

Ebay, junk shops and charity shops are worth investigating for out-of-print books. I’ve also bought old postcards, photographs, song sheets, newspapers, magazines and other publicity and advertising ephemera.

Beware though, you can lose hours down research rabbit holes! And often a lot of what you learn doesn’t need to be in your story! Always ask yourself if the interesting fact is vital to character, plot or setting.

One final tip…

Lastly, remember you can ask the experts! Look out for public talks, zoom events, ask questions. Be polite and acknowledge if they have been kind enough to assist you with your research or have fed back on your stories.

Good luck to all those entering Undiscovered Voices this year – just remember whether you’re creating a contemporary, historical or purely imaginary setting to make your setting as real as possible for you, your characters and your readers!

Susan Brownrigg is a Lancashire lass. She loves bringing the past to life for children. A former journalist, Susan has worked in heritage education roles at a Tudor hall, a Georgian mansion, a cotton mill apprentice house, a zoo and a museum. Her MG debut is Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest. Her second book, Kintana and the Captain’s Curse will be published in June 2021. A sequel to Gracie Fairshaw is scheduled for October 2021. You can find out more at susanbrownrigg.com

Guest blog: Agents are not the only route (Yvonne Banham)

In our latest guest blog post, Yvonne Banham, gives an illuminating and honest account of her experience of being a finalist in 2020 and her path to her first publishing deal.

Agents are not the only route

Of all the calls to miss, I missed THAT call from Sara Grant. By the time I called her back, I was convinced it would be “close, but no thanks” so I was stunned when she told me I’d made the final twelve. After a few happy tears and celebrations, it dawned on me that I had to actually get out there in the big world of children’s publishing and talk to people, sell my story, be a writer. Panic? Not sure that covers it, but fast forward to our brilliant preparation day in London.

This is the bit that might not seem like the main prize but, for me, it turned out to be just that. I was feeling extremely anxious about meeting with industry professionals face to face, convincing them that me and my story were a good bet.

I dreaded saying the wrong thing, drying up completely or making a fool of myself. Everyone else seemed so brilliant!

But we were taught well.

Prepare. Practice your pitch. Take a few breaths when you get criticism or rejection, come back to it. Learn. Keep going. Keep writing. Be professional. Always, always be ready to make the most of any opportunity.

The launch party was challenging – yet not only did I survive, I also managed to speak to some amazing agents and publishers. I’m not saying I did great, I really didn’t, but I’d faced my fears head-on. (Ok, so I did grin awkwardly and hurriedly introduced another of the UV2020 finalists as a diversion tactic at one point, but I was learning. And there was a laureate in the room!)

I just wanted to ask…

I had some full MS requests and great feedback but no bites. So, I took my prize, bundled it up with what I’d learned at Golden Egg, and applied it to another project. I now knew how to make the best of my chances so when there was an open submission, a tiny 24-hour window, I went for it.

Then, in January, it happened. That one simple message from Penny Thomas at Firefly: lovely comments followed by “Just wanted to ask if it’s still available.” I find it hard to put into words how that felt, and I still get emotional thinking about it. It was lockdown. I had interest. There was going to be a zoom call. Me and a publisher. No agent.

But, this time, I had all of the face-to-face experience that Undiscovered Voices had given me, and the certainty that (even though I couldn’t tell them anything) I had the support of my fellow UV2020s and the UV team behind me.

Always be ready

Can a conversation be relaxed and exciting at the same time? It was both and more. Not long after, I signed with Firefly.

I still don’t have an agent. Would I like one? Of course! But being agented isn’t the only path to publication and I’m more than thrilled with mine.

Your writing career can turn in a second, a moment, on a day you’re not expecting it. Always, always be ready.

Yvonne Banham grew up on an island off the Cumbrian coast and spent lots of time huddled on the beach with a scary book. She can speak Dutch (badly) and believes in ghosts though she’s never met one. She lives in Edinburgh with her husband, and when she’s not writing, she’s hiking or trail running with her very naughty hound. Her MG debut The Dark and Dangerous Gifts of Delores Mackenzie will be published by Firefly in early 2023. You can find her on twitter @Eviewriter.

Guest blog: Nine things I now know (Annaliese Avery)

As recent Undiscovered Voices finalist Annaliese Avery (UV2020) celebrates her debut novel, she reveals the lessons learnt from a simple, but career-changing piece of advice in our latest guest blog post.

Nine things I now know

A few years ago, I was chatting with SF Said about the road to publication and he said to me, and I’m paraphrasing here, that “publication should not be the reason that you write. Your aim is not to be a published writer, your aim is to enjoy what you write, it’s all about the journey”.

At the time, I nodded and agreed. But in my head, I thought to myself, “that’s alright for you to say, you’re SF Said! You wrote Phoenix and Varjak Paw!”

However, I thought about what he said on the way home. And that night. And the next day. And the day after that, too. After a week or so, I sent him a message to let him know that I finally got it and I really did.

Whether you’re just starting to think about entering Undiscovered Voices or in the final stages of polishing your extract, here are a few things that I learnt about writing while thinking about what SF said – and a few things since.

1. You can only move within your power

Sometimes, when it comes to trying to get our stories out into the world, we feel powerless, we are waiting for a yes. Waiting for someone outside of us, an agent, a publisher, an editor, to tell us that we can. We forget that there is a huge part of the process that we have ultimate control over and that part is the story.

You have power on the page. You are in command of the words you write and how you write them and when or even if you write them. You put in the work. You learn your craft. You shape your story. And, here’s the key, you get to make it the best story that you can possibly write. Our power as writers lies in creating as few opportunities as possible for someone to say no.

2. Keep your why close

Why do you write? And more importantly, why are you writing this story? Take time to think about this. Keep checking in as sometimes your why changes. Mine did after talking to SF, my Why went from being “to be published” to “to write the best story that I can”.

Once you have your why, take it everywhere and use it when things happen that challenge either the why of your story or the why of your overall writing endeavours. When this happens go back to your why – it will keep you on the right path.

3. Write towards the joy

Write the story that brings you joy. Write the characters that capture your interest. Write the themes that make you mad and the ones that make you hopeful. Write the stories that sing to you. Write the ones that make your palms itch for a pen.

Whether you get published or not, it’s important to enjoy writing. And, when the day comes and you’re asked for another book – it will feel like too much of an adventure to be work.

4. Learn your craft

Invest in yourself, invest in your skills. Never stop doing this. You will never learn all that there is to writing because some things are beyond knowing, they are innate and mysterious.

However, you can give yourself the best shot at success by learning about the craft of writing: how to tell an engaging story, how to connect with the reader, and how to write realistic characters. All of these things you can learn how to do, and put it all into action in a way that’s uniquely yours.

5. Time worries not

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

The time will pass, as time does, second by second, weeks, months, and years so write in the times that you have. Be precious about your time whether you have minutes or hours to dedicate to your writing, guard them like a bear does her cubs.

We are all given an unknown and finite amount of time to do all the things we need to do. If writing is a thing that brings you joy, a thing that you want and need and love, then give the time to it and give it with dedication, purpose, and power.

6. The journey is yours

It’s called your writing journey for a reason! There is a map … somewhere, and no two maps are the same. It’s different for everyone. There are often route markers, but they’re written in a language that you only almost understand.

Write your story in the best way for you. My advice is to keep finding joy in your journey – look for the light and move towards it. Seek assistance when you are lost. Most of all trust your internal compass – you know the true north of your story is, so believe in yourself.

7. This too will pass

There will be times when you don’t feel like writing and times when you do. Neither stays. When you experience them, embrace them or let them go – whichever works best at the time.

8. Do not ignore your doubts and fears

The doubts will be there whether you talk to them or not. If you ignore them, I’ve found, they will do the same as all things that are ignored they will brood and grow.

Take time to listen. Whether they’re fears of success, failure, or simply writing the story, step back from them and share your why with them. They won’t be as frightening as they once were.

9. The road is lonely but it need not be

Writing is often solitary, but that doesn’t mean lonely. SCBWI offers you an opportunity to connect with other writers.

Find your people. Find those who will support you and guide in a way that makes you feel valid, heard, and included. I have found no greater source of encouragement, support, and nurturing than among my fellow writers.

That’s alright for me to say

So, these are the things I know that have helped me on my writing journey. I hope they can help you, but it’s okay if you just nod and agree while thinking, “that’s okay for her to say, she just had a book published”.

Some advice, like some stories, takes longer to do their thing – words that seep into you and get you thinking. I still think SF is right and we should aim to enjoy what you write.

If you are entering Undiscovered Voices 2022 I wish you good fortune. Make your submission the best that you can and then let it go, the next bit is outside of your power but what you do with the time that is in front of you, how that shapes your journey, that’s all on you.

Annaliese Avery has spent most of her life surrounded by stories, both in her work as a library manager and at home writing them.

She holds an MA in Creative Writing and is a Program Leader and Editor for The Golden Egg Academy.

In January 2020, Annaliese was shortlisted for the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices 2020 anthology. The Nightsilver Promise is her debut middle-grade novel, and the first in a thrilling, new fantasy trilogy to be published by Scholastic.

Guest blog: The joy of deadlines and other tips for success (Anna Brooke)

Anna Brooke 2020

In our latest guest blog post, a recent Undiscovered Voices finalist, Anna Brooke (UV2020), shares her story of procrastination, pandemics and promising publishing potential. 

The joy of deadlines and other tips for success

I’d been a journalist and travel writer for years, but writing children’s fiction had always been the dream.

The problem? I’d never finished a novel.

Why? No deadline.

Confessions of a serial procrastinator

As a serial procrastinator and a journalist (a profession ironically incompatible with procrastination), I knew the only way to kick the P-word was with a deadline — one set by someone who’s not me. But while newspaper and travel guide editors dole them out in scores, I’d never found a way to get one for my fiction.

Then along came SCBWI and Undiscovered Voices, and suddenly, the skies filled with trumpets as the two-syllable word I’d been longing to read leapt off the competition rules page: DEADLINE. I was sorted.

Erm, no.

Starting with a monster of an idea

As a procrastinator, I didn’t have anything ready to enter! But I did have this silly image trotting around my head: a tower made of bogeys that gets struck by lightning and turns into monster.

Don’t judge me, I know! My approach to the whole novel was very pantsy – but over the next few weeks, as long as it made me laugh, I rode with it. And finally, with a deadline to work towards, I could structure my time.

And guess what? It worked. I had completed my novel in time to enter the competition.

Navigating the brain-fog of lockdown

In November 2019, Sara Grant called me to say that Sean & The Franken-Bogey had made it into the anthology! Not only that. In early February, agents contacted me to say they’d be interested in reading the full MS after the party.

I was ecstatic. But now there was another hurdle: getting it ready for those agents. The week after the party became my next deadline. But here’s where it went pear-shaped: the pandemic.

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

Like many people, Lockdown fogged my entire brain and morphed all creativity into an OCD-esque obsession with catching the deadly pathogen. Over-night all my travel writing disappeared, leaving nothing but worry in its place. That, plus 24/7 childcare, stinted all progress for six whole months.

I wrote to the agents to explain, and was overwhelmed by how understanding they were. Then from September onwards, once the schools had re-opened (I live in France), I flung myself back into the story. And here’s the great thing: it turns out that the initial deadline had carried me so far, that I didn’t need anyone to set another one. It was finally my own drive to get the book finished that thwarted any procrastination.

A hard, stressful but ultimately wonderful decision to make

Finally, in February, one entire year after the UV party, I was ready to send.

Then imagine my shock when six agents offered me representation! Choosing between six top-notch agents was a dream come true. But it was also stressful – in fact, it was the hardest, most stressful professional decision I’ve ever had to make.

Today, decision made, I couldn’t be happier. I’m agented by the wonderful Sam Copeland at RCW, and I hope to have official news to share about a deal with a fabulous publisher very soon.

Thank you SCBWI and UV and your deadlines. You literally changed my life.

They may well, fellow writers, change your life.

Here’s my three top tips for getting your UV entry ready
  1. Start bold. In the first 4,000 words, give the judges a real taste of what to expect in the rest of your book. Hook ‘em with your tone and the action.
  2. Don’t censor yourself. Allow yourself to write whatever you want, no matter how gross or weird. Write it down. Judge/tweak it later.
  3. Read it out loud. Listen to your story as it’s spoken to check the rhythm and your choice of words.
Anna Brooke 2020

Anna Brooke was a finalist in Undiscovered Voices 2020, you can download the anthology and read her extract here.

She lives in Paris where she’s simultaneously a freelance travel writer for The Times, a voice actor, a scriptwriter and a mum. She is represented by Sam Copeland at Rogers Coleridge and White.

When she’s not reading or writing, she’s composing songs. Anna never picks her nose.

You can find her on twitter at @AE_Brooke.