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.

UV Masterclass report, part 2

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. Each of the three sessions focused on different elements of your UV submission. Our second report focuses on WRITING A SYNOPSIS with author and editor Benjamin Scott, sharing his secrets for distilling your novel into a 75-word synopsis. This might feel impossible, but Benjamin makes it look easy.

Writing a Synopsis

Firstly, it’s important you don’t try to say too much – it’s only 75-words – try to capture the essence of your story and don’t try to squeeze in all the finer details. Remember, you don’t have to keep it forever – it’s a specific tool to woo our judges.

Hot tip! The writing does matter. Fluidity and intrigue that pulls you in is key, a bit like a movie trailer. You might like to keep that in mind when you’re writing yours. They should tell you just enough to give you a picture of the story and where it might go.

What were the big pointers to look out for?

Make sure you’re pitching your story to the right age group, that the tone and style are reflective of your chapters, be sure to tell the judges about the bigger picture and read the previous anthologies to see successful examples – they’re all available for free!

You’ll notice those who’ve previously bagged themselves a spot in the anthology ensured their audience knew who their stories were about, their conflicts or goals, the stakes and what they intended to do about them, and if they had time, they’ve thrown in a small peppering of setting too.

At the end of the day, Benjamin advises not to let this task consume you – it’s a functional tool just for our judges – if you’re submitting directly to agents, they’ll likely want a longer synopsis.

Get friends and family to check it or write several different versions to let them choose. Why not also get your friends and family to read a selection of your favourite synopses from the previous anthologies? Then ask them what appealed to them.

Make every word count and trust your gut!

Discover more – UV Masterclass report, part 3

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

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.

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.

UV Masterclass report, part 1

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. Each of the three sessions focused on different elements of your UV submission. Our first report focuses on the first, TITLES THAT SELL, with freelance editor Jenny Glencross and Dani Wilson from Simon & Schuster Children’s sales team.

Titles that sell: what did they say?

Titles are important. They’re the first thing an agent, editor, publisher, or reader will see. They have to work hard to grab attention, hint towards your book’s genre and intended readership and entice them to actually open the book. The right title can make a big difference to sales! Would you pick up a book called Trimalchio in West Egg? No? But you might pick up The Great Gatsby. How about a book called First Impressions? You might be surprised to learn that one later became Pride & Prejudice.

Why not consider the titles of your favourite books – what do they tell you about the story, the intended readership, the genre and tone? e.g. The Day the Screens Went Blank tells you so much, including the timeframe the story is set in.

They Both Die at the End means you instantly know it’s YA and it gives you the ending, but you buy it hoping it’s not true.

So, how do you pick the right title for you? Jenny and Dani suggest brainstorming keywords or phrases that describe the plot, character and themes of your book or even phrases that might be in the book that encapsulate your story.

If you’re really stuck, maybe consider some of the classic title conventions and structures, such as the one-word title (Brightstorm, Cogheart, Nevermoor), the name + noun title (Amelia Fand and the Barbaric Ball, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), the play on words title (Who Let The Gods Out, Murder Most Unladylike), the juxtaposition title (Dragon Mountain, Dangerous Remedy, Demolition Dad), the noun title (The Boy at the Back of the Class, The Clockwork Sparrow) and the list title (Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging; Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow; Chocolate Mile, X-Ray Specs and Me).

If in doubt, don’t overcomplicate it and don’t try to be too poetic or clever. Remember, if you get signed by an agent, they might want you to change the title, as might an editor or publisher, or maybe even the booksellers! Keep an open mind and whatever you do, don’t use picking a title as a device to procrastinate and keep you from writing!

Discover more – UV masterclass report, part 2

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.

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: The Secret Power of Critique Groups (Helen MacKenzie)

Our second guest blog reveals the secret behind the success of three of last year’s finalists. Helen MacKenzie (UV2020), whose extract was Hagstone, illuminates the power of giving and receiving feedback to improve a writer’s chances of success. 

The Secret Power of Critique Groups

I used to be scared of critique groups. The thought of showing people my work, let alone getting feedback, was terrifying. I couldn’t do it. So I didn’t. I scribbled alone, telling myself that I was a good writer, that I didn’t need anyone’s help, and that I would make it on my own.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Maybe I would have. I’ll never know. But what I do know is that it wasn’t until I joined a critique group that my writing began to improve – and I started to do well in competitions such as Undiscovered Voices.

I’ve been trying to figure out why this was. It’s because a critique group gives you a circle of people willing to commit time and attention to your writing, your story and your characters. For free.

Ideas to tighten your plot, advice about your voice, reassurance that you’re on the right track: a critique group can give you all of this and more. And yes, they might sometimes tell you things you don’t want to hear – but after a little reflection, you’ll be grateful for it. And your chances of gaining an agent or winning a competition will dramatically improve.

https://unsplash.com/@providence

Much of the magic of a critique group also comes from having to critique other people’s work. It’s time consuming but I’ve learnt a huge amount about my own writing from critiquing someone else’s. The number of times I’ve commented on something and then thought, ‘Oh! I do that too…’

And that’s the key. Because most folk in a critique group are just like you: willing to try; scared of criticism; but not afraid to work at becoming a better writer. You learn together. Laugh together. You become friends.

SCBWI has a lot of critiques groups, but I was nervous at first to join one. But the first group I approached was happy for me to come along and observe, and I saw for myself the trust and respect that the members of the group had for one another. It was very reassuring. It taught me that a good critique group will encourage as well as critique. It will give feedback in a positive but useful way, and your confidence and your writing will improve as a result. If it doesn’t, it’s probably not the right critique group for you – try another.

I had no qualms after that initial meeting and joined in properly the next month. In fact, I’m such a convert that I’m now a member of three critique groups, one of which I run. It makes for a lot of reading – and writing – but this is actually another plus. I try to submit different chapters to each group and they’ve been a great way of getting my word count up.

So, if you’re thinking of entering Undiscovered Voices, why not polish up your writing with a critique group first? It won’t hurt. Will definitely help. Because when I entered UV2020, two members of my critique group also entered. We worked together, polishing our submissions and synopses. And guess what?

We all got in.


Helen MacKenzie writes YA, middle grade and the odd picture book. She was included in Undiscovered Voices 2020, received a Scottish Book Trust New Writers’ Award in 2017 and has been shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize, the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition and longlisted in the Bath Children’s Novel Award. She is a member of SCBWI and runs a SCBWI Scotland YA critique group.

Helen lives near Edinburgh and when she’s not working as a copywriter or entering writing competitions, she’s annoying her family on Zoom.

You can find Helen on Twitter @W1shfulth1nker