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.

UV Masterclass report, part 3

This year’s Undiscovered Voices preparations are bigger than ever with our very first UV Masterclass series proving hugely popular. But if you missed out, don’t panic! Here’s a breakdown to clue you in.

Our final report focuses on HOOKING YOUR READER FROM THE START, which saw editor and author Catherine Coe and author and screenwriter Simon James Green discussing how to polish those opening lines, including dispelling the most common myths about openings and highlighting the key components your openings really do need.

Hooking your reader from the start

What were the common myths? You’ve heard them all before: avoid exposition, start with action, make sure your first line sparkles and never, ever, ever use a prologue. I know what you’re thinking. Should you now ignore these conventions? Not exactly. They’re just not necessarily absolutes, nor should each be taken to extremes.

Lights, Camera, Exposition

With exposition, readers don’t want to see lots of clunky backstory, but they do need to know some details, otherwise it’s confusing. Exposition should come naturally. Trust your writing to be strong enough so you don’t need to cram the twists and turns into your opening.

Action’s great to start with, but don’t be fooled by the word action. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something physical. E.g. Alan Garner’s The Owl Service merely has the children hearing something in the attic. It’s intrigue we want. Physical action might work brilliantly for some genres but not for all, so try your best to interpret this into something appropriate for your story.

If a prologue is key to your story, if you absitively posolutely have to have it, then why not just name it Chapter One? And a sparkly first line? Really, the whole book really needs to sparkle. If it does, you won’t need to worry about the first line. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

So, what’s the big idea of dispelling myths you’ve worked so hard to adhere to? It’s all about not letting yourself get bogged down trying to follow rules, but instead using your common sense to write your story with these conventions as guidelines.

That’s what not to do. Here are the six key components every opening should have:

One – Start in the right place

Start where your story really starts. You’ve heard it before, I’m sure, yet aspiring writers continually make this mistake. Get to your inciting incident ASAP. It doesn’t have to start where it starts in your head.

Two – How are you going to say it?

Voice! Oh, I know, you’ve had that feedback before. It is key though. The voice of your character, narrator and your voice as the author all have to shine through. Isn’t that why you love your favourite writers so much

Three – Get under the skin of your characters

Use your characters to create engagement and connection. You have to know your characters inside out, but we don’t need every detail on the page. We can see brushstrokes in their actions and reactions, but again, this should feel natural. Don’t list their traits. It’s a classic show, don’t tell situation.

Four – Everyone should know where they are

Setting is vital. Just because you can see it in your head, doesn’t mean your reader can. Your setting is likely as important as your characters, so use it.

Five – Making sure you keep the reader reading

How do you? Intrigue! You need to think about how you begin and end your chapters, the pacing of your story and how to hook the reader to keep turning those pages.

Six – Give us enough clues to know what we’re reading!

It’s important to give a sense of genre to your writing. It helps our judges (and your readers) understand where your story falls and what might come next. Conventions are useful but again, not absolutes. They can be broken, but that’s all part of your intrigue.

And, lastly…

One final brilliant tip from our wonderful Benjamin Scott regarding your 50-word bio. Re-visit the previous anthologies (all free to download) and read some. You want the judges to be interested in you and see that you take your writing seriously. Think about how you present yourself.

There you have it. All three of our amazing Undiscovered Voices Masterclasses in a nutshell. So, what’s stopping you? Get to work!

Good luck and remember, it’s supposed to be fun!

Don’t miss the great tips in our UV masterclass report, part 1 on Titles That Sell and part 2 on Writing your Synopsis.

Andrew James is originally from the Lake District and teaches English, Film and Media. He completed his MA in Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths in 2018 and for the past five years, he has organised and hosted monthly agent pitch evenings for his local writing group. He has a passionate dislike for anything referred to as an ‘easy peeler.’ Satsumas are the only way to go.

Getting Ready for UV2018 – Guest Blog with Imogen White

In the first of a series of guest blog by past finalists, Imogen White, whose debut book The Amber Pendant launches in June, talks of her emotional Undiscovered Voices journey and her tips for writers preparing to enter UV2018.

 

When I entered the first 4,000 words of my book (then called Shadow Inclusions) to the Undiscovered Voices 2014 competition it was a big moment for me. It was the first thing I had EVER put out there publicly.

I wasn’t expecting anything to come of it. For me it was more about getting over my jitters and taking that first bold step of pressing the ‘SUBMIT’ button. After all, what did I have to lose?

The moment I learnt I had been selected for the longlist remains my most thrilling memory. Thoughts like there must have been some terrible administrative error were eventually replaced with sheer joy, and tears too, if I’m honest. It was the first time that I felt like an authentic writer. All those embarrassed conversations over many years with family and friends playing down why I dedicated so much time to writing when I had nothing tangible to show for it, were finally laid to rest. The more I thought about it the more my head spun. Would I now be put to the top of the slush pile when I eventually put my work forward to agents and publishers? That was the pinnacle of my aspirations.

Then, quite unexpectedly I got “THE CALL!” from the lovely Sara Grant letting me know that I had been chosen to appear in the Anthology. WOW! What a total privilege. Now the beast of my writing ambitions had become something else; it had grown arms and legs and had a momentum all of its own. Actually, I was also pretty terrified! I felt like a total fraud compared to the other worthy winners, especially as I am mildly dyslexic and had no previous writing experience. But as soon as I met the wonderful Sara Grant and team, I was put at ease. They led us all through the whole process – and best of all my work was printed in the Anthology.

It really is the most brilliant competition. I met so many industry people at the launch party, including the amazing Anna Power from Johnson & Alcock, who became my agent. I feel so fortunate to have met Anna, she believed in my work from the very beginning and her expert editorial advice helped me tidy and develop my story.

So, I am absolutely delighted to announce that the first book in my series of historical mysteries, is to be published by the fantastic team at Usborne in June 2017.

None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t entered Undiscovered Voices. And if it happened to me, it could happen to you too. Go for it!

Imogen White’s Undiscovered Voices Tips:

  • Start with a bang! – Open your submission with a moment of great mystery or high drama, and don’t get bogged down in boring details. Grab the judges’ attention from the off.
  • Get other writers to critique your entry before you send it. These 4,000 words must be the very best you can present. You want honest and considered feedback (not undiluted sunshine!) from people who write themselves and whose opinion you trust. I need help with my punctuation and spelling – so this was a must for me! Thankfully I had a fabulous writing group to share work with.
  • Do a final line edit to make sure every word has earnt its place.
  • Take a deep breath. Press “SUBMIT.”

GOOD LUCK!


Imogen’s debut The Amber Pendant will be published by Usborne, June 2017. the first of the The Rose Muddle Mysteries. It features the plucky workhouse girl, Rose Muddle, whose world is turned upside down when she is given a magic pendant. It is a tale full of necromancy, shadows and adventure. As Rose bravely tries to unpick the clues set in and around Edwardian Hove, she must find out who the baddies are and stop them before an unimaginable evil is let loose… Becky Walker, Usborne Fiction Editor, writes, “The Rose Muddle Mysteries have everything I look for in a series – full to the brim with magic, mystery, myth and history, and pacy stories that are impossible to put down.” You can follow Imogen on Twitter at @imo0030, or visit her website: https://mysteryverse.wordpress.com/author/mysteryverse/