Thursday, 15 August 2013

Undiscovered voices flies again

If you’ve not come across Undiscovered Voices and you write for children and haven't yet been published, it’s worth checking it out as its one of the few competitions aimed at unpublished writers and has an enviable track record of getting its winners noticed.

Because really, writing as a hobby is kind of weird.

On the face of it, it is the simplest thing in the world. There are almost no barriers to giving it a go. You don’t need to have taken a degree in creative writing (although these days it probably helps), you can fit it in around other things in life so it feels like fun rather than anything big or serious you’re taking on.

You can potter along, not needing anything much more complicated than a pencil and a sheet of paper to get you started. There aren’t even any costs involved, anyone of any age can start it at any time. Who wouldn’t want to give it a go?

It’s when you try to take things any further that you begin to realise you might have taken on something quite different to what you thought.

It’s when you start to have those random thoughts of wondering if what you are writing is any good at all, whether anyone would actually want to read it . . . that’s when the trouble starts.

Then, writing suddenly becomes the most difficult, the most complicated and competitive, the most monstrously challenging interest anyone could possibly have chosen to take up.

Perhaps aiming for that Olympic medal would have been easier? At least then someone would probably have kindly pointed out at any early age that you have two left feet and saved you a lot of trouble.

But as a writer it’s incredibly difficult to tell if you are on the right track, or so off course you are now heading somewhere west of Jupiter. Sometimes it feels like there is the narrowest of gaps between the two, but one that seems impossible to cross.

Your crit group might say nice things (but then they are nice, aren’t they).

But it’s real, actual readers who count. And before you reach them you’ve an entire industry to negotiate, of agents and publishers, and there is marketing and sales. There are book jackets and book launches – all very well, but it all starts with that first knock at the door and that is done by going through an utterly weird process called submitting to agents.

This is highly likely to be a part of the journey that involves a lot of frustrating and depressing one-way correspondence of the ‘if we haven’t replied within eight weeks it means it’s probably not for us’ variety.

The immediacy of epublishing means it is now even possible to go avoid all that, to go straight from your brain, into a computer and out to readers with unbelievable simplicity. . . If you want to do it without a publisher.

Yet there is something about competitions that make then seem a little like the agent’s slightly kinder younger sister, a slightly more hopeful way of getting your work in front of someone, someone who is actively keen to find new writers to take on and support.

I’m sure agents don’t really view the slushpile a bit like the laundry (something that you would rather ignore, but it builds up until it’s quite unmanageable and then you end up with nothing left to wear).

But one of the great things about competitions for unpublished writers is that they make the prospect of all that raw talent in the slushpile a little more exciting. There is something that makes reading all those slightly green, nervy, unpolished new writers work a bit more thrilling.

From a writer's point of view, moreover, there is a winner. Generally, at the end of it, someone actually gets published. How great is that?

There are two competitions open at the moment and the first is closing for entries on August 15.

Run every two years, here, a submission of up to 4000 words is read by a team of agents and editors and 12 of the best submissions are put into an anthology, which is published and is then passed onto other interested agents and publishers. The competition was first launched in 2008 and from that anthology ten of the 12 winners have gone on to get into print.

The second competition is The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition.

For this one you submit a whole manuscript – and it is read, in its entirety, and judged, and around 20 longlisted from the 1,000 or so hopefuls. You’ve got until November 1 to enter this one. The winner gets published and a £10,000 advance. Brilliant.

I submitted to Undiscovered Voices two years ago and didn’t get anywhere, but Sally was Highly Commended and Jo was chosen for the anthology.

I did submit to Chicken House last year and was amazed to be longlisted. As someone who is still at the ‘if we haven’t replied within eight weeks it means it’s probably not for us’ stage with agents, I had pictured myself somewhere so far away from where my writing needs to be that I could hardly see the ground and was suffering from a lack of oxygen.

So it was beyond amazing to read a judges report and read how much someone had loved the book and wanted to champion it. It was pretty much the first bit of actual feedback I have had, so yes, I’m a big fan of competitions.

I shall be entering Undiscovered Voices and the Chicken House competition again this year.

I am becoming such a convert to competitions I have been scouting around for others. I also submitted to one organised by the Winchester Writers Conference, and I even managed to get a really nice report back from the judges even though somehow my entry actually got put in for entirely the wrong competition. How great is that?

So yes please. Why are there not more competitions?

Good luck to everyone who decides to enter. And fingers crossed.

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