Our judging panel took questions from members as part of our successful launch event on Facebook TV. Rosie Best has kindly typed up a transcript of the interesting and illuminating conversation between the judges and the team.
Our amazing judging panel are:
- Helen Boyle, Literary and Illustration Agent at Pickled Ink
- Aimée Felone, Co-founder of Knights Of
- Annalie Grainger, Senior Commissioning Editor at Walker Books
- Stephanie King, Commissioning Fiction Editor at Usborne Publishing
- Polly Nolan, Literary Agent at Greenhouse Literary Agency
- Alice Sutherland-Hawes, Children’s Agent at Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency
- Clare Wallace, Literary Agent at Darley Anderson Children’s Book Agency
SARA GRANT: Hi and welcome to the UV2020 kick off, and also our first SCBWI live event. We’re excited to start the search for our seventh annual anthology, looking for those fresh new voices that are out there. Authors from the first six anthologies have contracts for more than 250 books, so UV has a great track record for helping authors in the UK and Europe launch their careers.
We do this with the help of an incredible volunteer team, and I want to start with a huge thank you to those people who give hundreds of hours to make this happen. Our videographer tonight is Candy Gourlay, and Ashley Taylor, assistant regional advisor, is also going to be online fielding your questions.
My final thanks is to Working Partners who’ve loaned us their office for this event, but they’ve also been a sponsor and financially supported Undiscovered Voices from the very beginning, we couldn’t do Undiscovered Voices without them, so I’m going to turn you over to Chris Snowdon, MD of Working Partners.
CHRIS SNOWDON: Thank you, Sara! It was Sara and another Sara fourteen years ago who bullied us into doing this, in the best possible way, and we’ve never ever regretted it. I’ve got the UV books here and it’s exciting to know that we’re going to carry on with this and it’s becoming a real cultural fixture in the publishing calendar. I’m very excited for all of you, because Sara’s told you how many books have been commissioned from these anthologies, so you might be next! So really do take the opportunity to exploit the people in the room, we’ve got agents and editors and I’d really like to thank you guys for giving up your time to help shape the careers of some of the people who’ll be sending in their entries over the coming months. It’s a great thing to do, I hope you have loads of entries, and we’re really excited as ever to read the next anthology. So good luck, everyone, and well done, Sara, and everyone here.
SARA GRANT: Thanks, Chris! We are lucky tonight, we have five of our seven judges for UV – just a powerhouse of expertise and insights for you this evening. I’m going to ask each of our panellists to introduce themselves, then I have a few questions to warm everyone up, then we’re going to take some questions that have already been sent in, then we’ll take some live questions as well. So I’m going to start here, if you don’t mind, tell us a little bit about yourself and your agency?
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: Hi, I’m Alice, I’m one of the agents at Madeleine Milburn Agency, I represent everything from picture books up to YA. We have two children’s agents, myself and Chloe Seager. I also do some of the foreign rights for some of the smaller territories.
STEPHANIE KING: Hi, my name’s Stephanie King, I’m commissioning fiction editor at Usborne Publishing. Usborne is the largest independent children’s publisher in the UK, and on our fiction list we commission books from 5+ all the way up to YA.
AIMÉE FELONE: Hi, I’m Aimée, the founder of Knights Of, we’re a new independent commercial kids’ fiction publisher, we publish everything from 5 to teen, we specialise in inclusive kids’ books, and that’s inclusive across a range of diversities.
CLARE WALLACE: Hi, I’m Clare, I work at Darley Anderson Children’s Books Agency and represent everything from picture books through to YA.
ANNALIE GRAINGER: Hi, I’m Annalie Grainger, senior commissioning editor at Walker, and I look after books from 5+ up to YA.
SARA GRANT: Great, thank you! We’re off to a good start. I’m just going to open this up to any of you: what makes a manuscript stand out, do you have any tips for our writers who are out there watching? You have slush piles, you have manuscripts coming in – hundreds a week?
CLARE WALLACE: Easily.
SARA GRANT: So what makes a book stand out? What makes you stop what you’re doing and read?
CLARE WALLACE: I just really love a really punchy opening line. I think that first page and that opening line is possibly the most important thing you’ll ever write, it’s going to open doors for you with agents and with publishers, so I think, yes, that first line for me.
AIMÉE FELONE: I would agree as well, and I don’t think it even has to be something particularly smart or witty or like ‘this has got all the words I can put into one super-long run-on sentence’, it just has to grab your attention and make you stop what you’re doing, and make you not look at your phone which is the mark of a good manuscript!
ANNALIE GRAINGER: I think it can be a confidence thing, sometimes, that you just feel completely confident in what the writer’s writing about, and like Aimée said it doesn’t have to be something completely different or original, but just that confidence is something I definitely like to find.
STEPHANIE KING: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. Sometimes you get a manuscript and you just know that the author’s really in control of their work and knows exactly what they’re trying to achieve. And it’s really difficult to work out exactly what that is, but it’s about a writer that’s writing and knowing exactly what the story is that they want to tell.
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: I don’t think I have anything to add, they’ve covered it!
SARA GRANT: That’s great! And Kate Rosevear said: do you usually know from those first few pages, or even the opening line, if you’ve got something special?
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: Yes – I have quite a full list at the moment, which means that something really has to stand out for me to want to take it on, and on Tuesday a submission came in and the opening page was so powerful that three hours later I’d read the full manuscript and called the author. Everything else just kind of fell by the wayside, it completely hooked me in on the first page. And then, you can also tell within a page if it’s not for you, unfortunately.
SARA GRANT: That’s great! I think everyone out there wishes that we were that person, that would make you stop and take notice. So what are any common pitfalls in those opening pages? (to AIMÉE FELONE) You said cramming as many words as possible into a very, very long sentence that may be difficult to read, that might be a common pitfall, anything else that’s a don’t?
STEPHANIE KING: If you’ve got a complex world or a lot of history to your characters, don’t throw in a load of exposition in the first chapter! It needs to come out organically and gradually, we want to spend time with your characters, we want to get to know them slowly – a big info dump is a no-no.
CLARE WALLACE: I think, because we get so many submissions, we see so much of the same thing that authors wouldn’t know about. One of the things that I see all the time is things opening with people waking up, and that’s logical! It’s starting at the beginning and people start at the beginning of the day, but unless that’s really, really integral to the beginning of that story, we just see it so often that for me it’s almost an immediate ‘oh, what a shame’.
SARA GRANT: So if you wake up as a cockroach…
CLARE WALLACE: Then that’s different – but if your story’s set in a world of cockroaches…
SARA GRANT: So getting to the action, getting to the heart of what happens. And also I see some that talk about ‘I’m just an average, ordinary person, a boring person’, which makes me go ‘well…’ and I know it’s going to change, I know you’re going to tell me why that’s not the case, but don’t start your story by telling me it’s not going to be interesting. Any other dos, don’ts?
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: I have two. One is a very well known YA trope – ‘I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding’. (General laughter of agreement). Honestly whenever I read that line I’m just like, ‘oh, god.’ The other one is that as an agent, I get the first three chapters and if I like them I’ll ask for the rest of the manuscript, and more often than not the rest of the manuscript is not at the same standard as those three chapters, which can be a real shame.
AIMÉE FELONE: If anything I would also just add, don’t over-promise in your covering letter, don’t set us up to be really excited and then when we get in there we’re disappointed. I think it can be difficult because you want to show your ideas and you want to convince the person who’s reading, that what it is is actually amazing, but when we open it up and find that it’s not, that’s very disappointing.
CLARE WALLACE: I was going to say maybe a lot of people just don’t start in the right place, they haven’t found the point of intrigue or the point at which the story really leaps from and I think that’s a really common mistake I see, and if they just spend a bit more time thinking, ‘well, have I started in the right place?’ they’d give themselves a much better shot.
ANNALIE GRAINGER: That’s what I was going to say! It’s such a good point. I think going on from that as well, it’s also finishing the book. So you could spend years perfecting those first three chapters, but I think you don’t know what you’ve got or where to start until you’ve written the whole thing, so I think just keep going, get that first draft out and then worry about finessing it afterwards.
SARA GRANT: I think that’s a really great point because a lot of times it takes you that first draft to figure out the story you’re trying to tell, and those themes and what’s going to bubble up. I also think starting the inciting incident, the younger you’re writing for, the sooner you should get to the inciting incident. And the inciting incident, for anyone who’s not sure, is the moment that changes the character’s life forever and puts the story in motion. Do you have examples of something you’ve acquired that our writers could go to that ticked all these boxes?
ANNALIE GRAINGER: I bought a book – it’s a buy-in actually from the States which means it’s already been edited – it’s Blair Witch meets Stranger Things, and I just remember I was a bit like Alice, I could not put it down. I just remember I was at home and reading it, and I was just so terrified! And just that, when you’re absolutely absorbed in the world. And it is our job and we love reading but I think if you can forget you’re reading for work that is the moment you know you’ve got something you really, really want.
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: Leading on from what you were saying about when you forget that you’re reading for work, one of my authors recently delivered a middle grade book, I started reading it on a Friday night thinking, ‘oh my god, I’ve got so much work to do I just have to read this,’ and it was just the most staggering thing, two hours later I was staring at a blank wall like ‘what the hell just happened?’, and I’ve been so excited about that book ever since, so, 2021!
STEPHANIE KING: I recently acquired a YA thriller that started with just the voice of the main character, first person protagonist narration, and that voice just grabbed me by the throat and I just wanted to spend time with that teenage boy, it made me laugh, and it started in a place that should be absolutely terrifying. Basically the main character had been outed at school, and then the story took this unbelievable twist, I thought I was getting one story and then I realised I was getting a thriller, and I just could not put it down. And when I took the manuscript to acquisitions, I didn’t give them the full manuscript, I cut it off at a cliffhanger, and I said, ‘if you let me buy it, you can read the whole thing’! So I think that’s it, you need to pull people in early, and keep them with you.
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: I want to know what that is, and also can I have a proof, please?
SARA GRANT: We all want in on that! Any other books that are out, any other suggestions for people to go to that were especially hooking?
AIMÉE FELONE: I remember the first time I read Sharna Jackson’s High Rise Mystery which has just been published, and her opening line was ‘If you think finding a dead body is a fun thing, you’d be 33% right.’ And I just had so many questions! Like, why am I finding a dead body, why is it a fun thing, where have we got this statistic from? And it was that classic thing, it was the first line that really hooked and pulled me in, and that intriguing fun voice carried on throughout the entire book, but it was definitely that opening line that sucked me in.
SARA GRANT: There was a question that ran on from what you were saying, Stephanie, Katherine Latham asked, is there a preference for first or third person? I know it depends on a lot of things but I think it’s a question that a lot of people have, they think there’s a right or a wrong answer. Do you have any thoughts about age ranges, is there a preference?
STEPHANIE KING: I guess maybe in the slightly younger end, the 5-8, I definitely see more that’s in the third person, but really it’s all about the voice. I don’t think there’s a right answer, and with some more complex YA that I edit, there’ll often be like three different perspectives, like a first person and a third person perspective or maybe two first person perspectives. It’s just the voice that you need to tell the story you want to tell.
SARA GRANT: Have you ever asked a writer to change it, so they come in as third person and you think actually it’s first person, or vice versa?
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: I do it all the time.
SARA GRANT: Really?
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: Yeah, it drives my authors mad! I don’t really have a preference but sometimes you just really feel that it should be the other way round. Like for example, if it’s in the first person and you kind of want to hear from other characters a bit more, then third person lets you get into the other characters heads a bit more than you normally would, so for that reason sometimes I turn around and say ‘do you want to try this the other way round?’ and they’re like … ‘no’.
SARA GRANT: But the ones you sign say, ‘yes, I’m happy to try’.
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: We have a conversation about it, maybe a couple of chapters!
SARA GRANT: I also think it’s a great exercise, to whatever you’re doing, try the opposite. I do first person naturally, and you can turn it to third person and see what comes up, and vice versa. Zoe James Williams asks, any tips on editing your manuscript? How do you balance editing with losing the original flow and freshness of the original story? Basically, how do you stop over-editing?
ANNALIE GRAINGER: This is one of my favourite questions! So I think you have to finish something first, totally finish it, and then you have to put it in a drawer or somewhere, for a few months, a week, as long as you can bear, and then come back to it with fresh eyes. I don’t think you should edit as you go because your little brain will be going, ‘aah, this is terrible I don’t know what I’m doing,’ so you just have to finish it and then take a step back. That’s my top tip.
SARA GRANT: Also, we can spend so much time polishing those first chapters and then we send it to Alice who says, ‘cut those first four chapters’ and then we’re like ‘but those are sparkly polished diamonds!’ Any other editing tips?
AIMÉE FELONE: I completely agree with Annalie, but also just to say know your characters outside of the world you’ve put them in, so say ‘what would they do if I took them to this place?’, or ‘what would they do if they were in this situation?’, so really envisage them as full complete people outside of the world that you’ve set them in, just to really give them character and to give them little nuances as well that will add to the story.
STEPHANIE KING: I know with some of my authors, they have people that they really trust that they send their work to first – maybe not someone who’s very close to you emotionally, but someone you know is going to be honest with you and whose opinion you trust, and that can really help. And also they might notice things, like plot holes or inconsistencies that you haven’t caught before you send it off to an agent, and it just might help to have some feedback before you put yourself out there on the submissions front line.
SARA GRANT: And SCBWI is a great place to find those people! I’m in a group of SCBWI members and have been at different times throughout my writing life. It’s amazing what you think is on the page, and then someone will ask you a question and you’ll go, ‘well, obviously they’re a redhead’, then they’ll go well where is it and you’ll say, ‘well, it was in the draft from 2017 but apparently not now’!
So, we ask the writers to send in a 75 word synopsis and we’ve had a few questions about this, one is: any suggestions how to pitch your story in a short, punchy synopsis? Which is tough! I always say that I would rather write a 50,000 word book than a synopsis, because I find them very hard. Any thoughts about comparison titles, because (to ANNALIE GRAINGER) you talked about ‘it’s this meets this’…
ANNALIE GRAINGER: I don’t know how helpful that is if you’ve only got 75 words, though. I think it’s really hard, I know one of the things I find hardest is writing blurb, I can spend – this is really bad, but I can spend six months on and off writing a shout line. Obviously I do other things as well! But it can sometimes take that long to find those few perfect words. So I would be inclined for this to just focus on what your story is. And maybe, I’m not sure what you guys think, but maybe just think of it as if you’re writing a blurb, so back cover copy. So you want something that’s pithy and engages people.
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: I’d also have a look at the Twitter pitching events like DVPit and PitchWars, because I think it’s less than 75 words, it’s however many characters you can fit into one tweet, and you would be really surprised by how much people can get across in that one tweet, I have signed people basically on the basis of that tweet. So have a look at those, because they manage to get comps in, they manage to tell you what the question the book is asking is, and it’s really quite impressive! I couldn’t bloody do it, so…
SARA GRANT: The other question someone had about synopsis was, should they contain spoilers or be more of a blurb? For UV, because it’s going to be so widely published, I would say no spoilers. Do you agree with that?
CLARE WALLACE: I think for this purpose, definitely. Otherwise, definitely check agency websites because people will have very different tastes, everyone’s quite divided over it. I really like spoilers if you’re submitting to me, but I work with a colleague who absolutely hates them because she wants to just have the reading experience and not to know anything. So if you’re at the point where you’re submitting to agents, I’d say definitely check the website.
SARA GRANT: And that’s just good advice in general, checking the website to see what they’re interested in, how many chapters and do they want spoilers and all those kinds of things. Do we have any questions from the chat?
ASHLEY TAYLOR: We do, yes! One question was: will my submission be read by every judge?
SARA GRANT: I can take that question, we have a team of editors – not the judges – who will read every submission, every submission has a minimum of two readers, and the farther it goes into the process, the more readers it will have.
ASHLEY TAYLOR: Another question: someone is dying to know the title of this Blair Witch meets Stranger Things book!
ANNALIE GRAINGER: That makes me very happy! It’s called Rules of Vanishing and it’s out in October, and it’s by Kate Alice Marshall. And it’s really good so please read it!
ASHLEY TAYLOR: And another one: if you find something that you love, but you think it will be difficult to sell, would you still take it on?
AIMÉE FELONE: I think we make things difficult to sell, right? I mean a bestseller is made – it starts with great writing and a great manuscript, but it’s also marketing and everything else around the book, so if I fall in love with something, I’m going to want everyone to read it and I’m going to sell it in the best way possible. So I don’t really agree with that ‘difficult to sell’ mindset, I think we make it difficult. If I love it, I should be able to sell it.
CLARE WALLACE: I think as an agent it can be really really hard, particularly if someone is clearly a brilliant writer, and you just think it’s not going to be this book or this story. And it might just be that there’s been something else recently that’s doing a very, very similar thing, and there’s just not enough room, or it might be that it’s at the very tail end of a trend and you just know that everyone’s going to be full – there was a long time where dystopia was just an absolute no even if it was incredible. But, I don’t think I would not take someone on. I’d have a chat about what other ideas they had, what else they were going to work on, if there were things I thought they could do that would shift this and make it more saleable in terms of meeting the feedback we get from editors all the time. And we do do that all the time, we meet with editors and hear about things that they don’t have room for as well as all the things they’re looking for.
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: Yes, I would just agree with everything that you just said. It can be really tricky as an agent because you can love someone’s writing and just think, all the conversations I’ve just had with editors are pointing towards no. And it’s a horrible feeling because you really believe in these writers and you really believe in the story, but the market is just not there for it at the moment. So generally it would be a conversation – what else do you have, or are you willing to wait a year or so and see what happens then?
SARA GRANT: Belinda Briers asked, if you have a prologue, do the judges want it to be submitted in the four thousand words, or do they want to go straight to the first chapter of the book? I have an opinion, but…
STEPHANIE KING: Well, I would ask, if the prologue isn’t an essential part of the story, is it necessary and do you need it there? Because a prologue, really, is your first chapter in real terms. And if you think it can be detached from your submission, do you need it?
SARA GRANT: That’s what I’d say. If you can cut it and not influence the power of your story, then you probably need to cut that altogether. But we want to see the start of your story, and if that’s a prologue which is completely integral to your story, then send it.
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: I would actually argue that if you cannot cut your prologue, then why isn’t it called Chapter One? But I’m not a really big fan of prologues…
SARA GRANT: I used to say I never liked a prologue, and in my new project… there’s a prologue, so never say never!
ANNALIE GRAINGER: There is a place for them, definitely. I think if it’s something where you’re setting something up, but it’s not quite the first chapter, I think there’s a place for it. But you need to know that before you start the story. I feel like that was very inadequately put! But, yeah, I feel like sometimes you need them.
ASHLEY TAYLOR: If you’re looking at chapter books, are you always looking for something that has a potential for series fiction, or would you look at something that was stand-alone?
SARA GRANT: And by chapter books I’m assuming they mean 5-8.
CLARE WALLACE: I would absolutely look at stand-alone, but series potential is always a really good thing, I’d say. Obviously you want the story to stand alone on its own merit anyway, but if there is potentially room to revisit or continue I think that’s a really good thing.
AIMÉE FELONE: I recently acquired a stand-alone book from one of my authors who writes series, so we’ve gone the opposite way. I wouldn’t say no to stand-alones, but I would say yes loudly to a series!
Laughter and agreement
SARA GRANT: We are in the Working Partners office which is all about series fiction and I’ve worked on a lot of series – I write a stand-alone but always with a window, just a door open for a possible continuation, because if someone begs me for it, who are we as writers to say no?
ASHLEY TAYLOR: So, what would be the shorter end of YA? Is it 42,000 words? Where would you put a shorter YA?
SARA GRANT: And Kate Rosevear also asked a similar question: do you have any kind of thumbnails for the average length – she actually put it as the ‘Goldilocks zone’ – so what’s just right for chapter books, lower middle grade, upper middle grade or YA? Because I know it’s ‘how long is a piece of string’, but sometimes we’ll get submissions and they’ll say ‘I’m writing a middle grade and it’s 150,000 words’, and we all say ‘maybe not’.
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: I will take this, but…
SARA GRANT: We won’t hold you to it!
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: Exactly! I’m not going to go near chapter books because I don’t really do those and there are people here who’ll be able to speak about them much more eloquently, I think middle grade is 25,000 as an absolute minimum, up to about 65 at an absolute max, and then YA comes in 60 to about 90. And 90, for me you can get away with if it’s fantasy but I would much prefer it at 75-80. I will say that I have a YA novel that is 23,000 words, but it’s verse.
SARA GRANT: So all bets are off on that.
STEPHANIE KING: It’s a bit of publishing insider knowledge, but when it comes to us publishing and thinking about selling it globally, if it’s too long then international publishers won’t take it because of the translation fees. So, with middle grade, ideally you don’t want to go too far over fifty, unless it’s a big epic sprawling thing, because I think it might be hard to think about it in a wider context. But we’re publishing a YA book this summer which is 45,000 words, so…
SARA GRANT: We make rules, and we break them!
STEPHANIE KING: Yeah, absolutely.
SARA GRANT: Anybody want to talk about length for chapter books or that kind of lower middle grade?
ANNALIE GRAINGER: So I think if it’s illustrated, sort of 15,000-ish, so that would be kind of 7-9. And then younger than that I don’t know – picture books probably about 4 or 5? It’s not an exact science at that point.
ASHLEY TAYLOR: There’s another one here: are talking animals a no for middle grade?
ANNALIE GRAINGER: Well, Phillip Pullman has talking animals!
AIMÉE FELONE: I think this is a personal question!
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: I’m so sorry to whoever asked this, but I cannot bear talking animals. It’s an absolute no for me personally. But it is a personal thing, publishing is a very subjective industry, so for me I won’t go near talking animals, but someone else here might.
STEPHANIE KING: I love a good animal story, I do think they work better in the market for the slightly younger age group. But then, you know, I don’t think Animal Farmis a 5-8 so it all depends on the story. The Rats of NIMHwas one of my favourite books when I was 11, and I think lots of people would say, ‘oh, no, those are for a much younger age group’, but I loved that book.
CLARE WALLACE: Oh, yes, Redwall, they were great as well.
AIMÉE FELONE: It is very personal. I feel – and this is again very personal, disclaimers, disclaimers! – I feel like there are enough kids books with animals talking in them, and not enough books with representative characters, so I am always going to pick a story that has representation over an animal. And that’s just me personally, I just am not a fan.
CLARE WALLACE: I don’t mind them! I think they’re really, really hard to do really, really well, and that’s why I think there are a few standouts that have done incredibly well. I’d quite like to find one actually, but I work with another agent, Lydia, who’s brilliant but does not want to find any speaking animals, so if you have one of those, don’t send it to her, send it to me! But no, I’m OK with it. Watership Downwas one of my favourite books when I was growing up, I have tattoos of the rabbits! So I can’t say that I don’t like talking animal books…
ANNALIE GRAINGER: I think it depends how they’re done, really. I’m thinking of a book that has humans as well as animals or humans that change into animals – does that count? It’s very sophisticated and it works very well. So I just think it depends. I wouldn’t want to rule out the talking animals in case it was going to be a masterpiece.
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: I’m entirely with Aimée, absolutely. I think there were more talking animals than characters of colour in kids books last year, and that’s just really sad.
ASHLEY TAYLOR: So we’ve got one more: when will we be notifying about the longlist?
SARA GRANT: I’m going to ask you to hold on to those questions because at the very end I’m going to talk about the process, timelines and deadlines and some of the criteria.
ASHLEY TAYLOR: And this might fall into that: when you’ve submitted to UV, can you continue to submit your manuscript to agents and editors in the meantime?
SARA GRANT: Yes, I would never tell you not to do that, but we would always ask that if you get picked up by an agent you could let us know, and we can pull you out of the running. We would say that if you were contacted for the longlist, we would also ask you to take yourself out of the running. But again we’ll talk a lot more about that in just a few minutes. Belinda Briers asked about genres, is there anything you’d like to see in genres and why, which is a very very broad question. But do you have a genre that you love, and if so, any thoughts about what you like to see?
AIMÉE FELONE: I’m still looking for my UK version of The Sun Is Also A Star, by Nicola Yoon. And I’ve been looking for that for about three years. It was told from alternating perspectives and featured a few black characters as well, and I just think it was done really, really well and was just a nice ‘clean teen’ book, and I just haven’t seen that or come across that. So I’m still on the hunt.
SARA GRANT: So if you have that…
AIMÉE FELONE: Yes, please, I would love to see it!
STEPHANIE KING: It’s very specific! I’ve been looking for historical queer fiction for… I don’t know, eight years? I want a YA Sarah Waters, so if you have one of those, send it to me!
SARA GRANT: Alice, are there any genres you really want to see?
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: I’m going to be honest and say no, because I have just recently found a bunch of them, so sorry! I feel smug…
CLARE WALLACE: I actually also have been looking for an incredible, real YA love story. I’ve just been searching for so long I think they must be really hard to do, and to capture that sort of first love, and the passion of that, but also without going over the top with it, I think is just so difficult. And I’ve been looking for that since I started agenting, so, yeah, if anyone’s got one of those, please send them to me!
SARA GRANT: Another question is: titles. Finding that perfect title is a very difficult thing. We also know that often as agents you’ll work with writers on their title, and publishers may also say ‘that’s very nice that that’s your title – here’s a new idea’. Any suggestions on how to help writers find that perfect title? Because it is the first thing that we see, and it can be something that the writer has to overcome, almost.
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: I’m terrible at titles so I’ll take myself out of this!
AIMÉE FELONE: I would say if you are thinking of writing a series, try and think of that for your first book and how you want to set that up, because it will help you to establish the series going forward. Yeah, titles are tricky! Be prepared to go back and forth with agents and publishers, and be open to that as well.
ANNALIE GRAINGER: I think, thinking of your competition – so other books in the same genre or age group that you’re writing in – can be quite helpful. But titles are really difficult. I guess it’s summing up what your story is, which can be quite hard – then sometimes titles come very easily because you know what that is, but sometimes that just takes longer. I think don’t stress about it too much.
CLARE WALLACE: Yeah, I’d say it’s not a deal-breaker, as well. We’re never going to not read something or turn something down on the basis of a title that’s not hitting all the right beats.
SARA GRANT: But there are also titles that, when you get them, you go ‘wait a minute, I will read that now’. I think do spend time on your titles, and again, brainstorming with other people, I find sometimes just talking about it and throwing out words can sometimes help. And again, SCBWI – advertisement! – a great place to partner with someone and brainstorm your titles, have them read part of it and you read part of theirs, and maybe suggest titles and help you polish that title.
ASHLEY TAYLOR: It seems like you’ve already answered this one: where do you stand on historic YA? It sounds like everybody’s on board for that.
CLARE WALLACE: I think there are probably periods of history that are harder to make work?
ANNALIE GRAINGER: I think it has to have something extra, perhaps, other than just being historical, I think. So maybe a ghost story or… I’m trying to think of other genre mixes. Zombies? Just something else, I think, at the moment in the market.
ASHLEY TAYLOR: And do’s or don’ts on chapter book humour?
SARA GRANT: I think humour is great – it’s tough though, because you have to get it right, and for that younger audience, it can be tricky.
STEPHANIE KING: Yeah, we had a conversation today in the office about whether we can have farts in a book. And it was a good 20 minute conversation about whether it would put parents off, and about whether you can make those jokes that you know kids find funny, but you don’t know if parents or teachers are going to be put off by them. Body humour or toilet humour will tick boxes for some, and will absolutely negate it for others.
SARA GRANT: I will say, I would love to get more funny. I don’t think we get a lot of funny submissions for UV, though we get some. And funny sells! But it’s a tough thing because it’s so individual and so contextual. As I would say with any genre, if you’re writing humour, go find Diary of a Wimpy Kidand study it, why does it work, what is that humour? Go find those funny books, look at those romcoms and look at that historical fiction, and learn from those brilliant writers. Study and analyse and dissect what other writers are doing, and see if there are some lessons in there as well.
ASHLEY TAYLOR: Here’s another one: how about swearing in YA, bearing in mind Phillip Pullman’s language in The Book Of Dust?
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: Well, OK, Book of Dust is not a children’s book, in my opinion. That’s an adult book. Swearing is fine as long as there’s a good reason for it. A very well placed F word can be extremely powerful, but if you’re just chucking them all over the place, then it’s just like… mate, no.
SARA GRANT: And for the publishers, does that make it more difficult for book clubs and librarians, does it make it more challenging?
STEPHANIE KING: Yeah, it totally changes it.
ANNALIE GRAINGER: Yeah, it does. I think if you’re doing it for a reason then definitely it’s OK, but because it changes the market and what your audience might be, I think it’s worth thinking quite hard about whether it absolutely needs to be there.
STEPHANIE KING: I don’t know if you find this, but there are some ‘softer’ swear words that you can use, that don’t involve using the classic four letter words, that you can put in that are OK with teachers and librarians. I think there is a list that book clubs have got, of what’s OK and what’s not. And obviously the four letter words, you just can’t use them. And if it’s not going to compromise your story, I’d say don’t use them.
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: I reckon if JK Rowling uses it, then you’re probably OK. That’s sort of where I land on it. She uses ‘bloody hell’ (sorry)…
ASHLEY TAYLOR: There was a question about querying agents while you’re submitting to UV, should you wait, should you leave it till afterwards?
SARA GRANT: Yeah, I’d say go ahead, we don’t want to stop your progress if you want to query agents. We do say, if you’ve already submitted to this panel of judges and they’ve rejected your work, I’d suggest not submitting it to UV. And we’ve had that in the past, things that have made it to the final, and every agent and editor in the room said ‘we saw this two years ago’. I would say to wait, because if you’ve submitted your extract to one of the judges before, that’s going to influence their decision. But if you’ve heard something tonight that someone’s looking for and you think, ‘that’s me!’, I would send it out! The longlist is announced at the end of the year, at that point we do ask you to remain unagented and unpublished until the anthology comes out in February 2020.
Let’s end with a final top tip for writers.
ANNALIE GRAINGER: Oh my goodness, my top tip! I’m going to go quite fluffy, I think enjoy writing and love it and make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, because you enjoy it. Because ultimately there’s no guarantee of anything else, so you should just love what you do. That’s really fluffy, sorry, but that’s my tip!
CLARE WALLACE: I’m going to reiterate my earlier point about have a think about your first page and your first line, really interrogate that. And also remember that we’re all on your side, we’re all of us looking and without you we’re without jobs, so we need you too!
AIMÉE FELONE: I’m just going to say read as much as possible. I think the best writers are also the biggest readers. And if you believe in your story, make us believe in it too.
STEPHANIE KING: I’m going to say, please write the story that you want to write, please don’t try to predict what we’re looking for! I don’t really know, I’ll just know it when I see it. And just concentrate on getting your voice distinctive and original and fresh, and I really look forward to reading them!
ALICE SUTHERLAND-HAWES: I think my tip would be just to make sure that you are doing your work justice. How long have you spent writing this book? Just don’t chuck your shot away, just make sure you’re doing everything you can.
SARA GRANT: And as you’ve heard, everyone at UV is doing this because we love children’s fiction, and it’s always wonderful when we get together for judging or for events like this, for me to learn anew how much people in the room are looking for new stories, and want to find your stories, and are excited about what’s new, what’s coming up and what you’re writing. So keep that in mind!
Again I just want to say thank you to the UV team, to Simon, Rosie and Jenny, who are here, to Catherine, Benjamin and Elizabeth who are online, a huge thank you to Candy and to Ashley.
An extract from my book that would become Dark Partieswas in the first anthology, so I know what an act of courage it is to even submit your book, so do it! Be brave, take heart, and submit your work to Undiscovered Voices.
We are open for submissions from 1st June 2019 until 15th July 2019. During this period there will be a link on this website to complete the submission process.
After the 15th July, you will no longer be able to enter the contest.
Undiscovered Voices is run thanks to the kind support of Working Partners Ltd.