Sue Cunningham, winner of our 2020 WMCNA, spoke with us last week about her win and her overall experience.
How did you feel when you watched Alice announce you as the winner?
I’d spent the morning doing telephone consults (I work for the NHS as a physio practitioner) but arranged my break to see the announcement. Unfortunately, the signal is so poor at the hospital, I had to hang out of the window to get Twitter on my phone and none of the videos would load! When I scrolled down to see my name, I was stunned. By the time I got home to watch Alice’s generous feedback, I was amazed by the number of supportive and positive messages on Twitter.
How did you celebrate?
In lockdown! It was sunny so I had pizza in the garden with my boys and a glass of wine with my husband, Col. It was a double celebration as, just days before, I was accepted onto the #Writementor summer mentoring programme.
Tell everyone a little bit more about you and your writing journey to date.
I loved reading and writing stories as a child but only started again about ten years ago after my husband (who is fantastically supportive) encouraged me to give it another try. I started with short stories – I won a competition and sold some stories to women’s magazines but I really wanted to write novels. My first attempt was a (rather cathartic!) rom-com set in the NHS but (as was nicely pointed out to me later) my main character had no character arc whatsoever! I read books, watched tutorials, attended writing events where possible, entered lots of competitions. And I was lucky to find a brilliant online critique group. We all began with short stories but over the years, our paths led in different directions (from literary flash fiction to psychological thrillers). Somewhere along the way, I realised that YA was for me. I love that our group is small but eclectic – I’m the only YA writer but I find critiquing a wide range of other people’s work really helps me spot the character flaws and plot holes in my own. Like many others, I’ve had dozens of form rejections, a few near misses (requests for full MS) and some very kind constructive no thank you emails along the way. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to win this.
Tell us more about 49 SISTERS, the winning novel.
49 Sisters is my fourth completed novel (although only the third with some sort of plot!).
My MC is Alice, a 17year old bass guitar playing witch and it’s set in the real world with magical realism, feminism and hopefully some humour thrown in. I started writing this after reading an article about the varied life of Emma Hamilton (most famous for being Nelson’s mistress) and a ‘what if’ moment led me to a twist on that quote about famous men in history:
Behind every great man stands a great woman. Or a great witch.
What was the #WriteMentor Children’s Novel Award experience like for you, as an entrant?
Amazing! I’ve entered a LOT of competitions over the years – some good, some terrible. The WMCNA is outstanding for many reasons. Entering competitions can be stressful (and at times, soul and confidence destroying) but Stuart and his team prioritise the mental wellbeing of their entrants by keeping them supported and informed throughout. My favourite thing was the unique reading process of having two adult and two kid readers for each round (before the shortlist was judged by the lovely Alice Williams, literary agent). This process limits subjectivity and puts your story right in front of your target audience. Each entrant gets the opportunity to see their reader feedback if they wish. Reading the teens’ comments was the icing on the cake for me.
What do you plan to do with £500 prize?
I’ve already treated myself to some books on writing technique and couldn’t resist some fab new YA releases! I’ve also bought a gorgeous watercolour through the #artistsupportpledge which is a great way of artists supporting other artists in lockdown. I’m going to hang it above the sofa where I write!
What advice would you give other writers?
Remember you’re not alone! Despite the lockdown, there are loads of opportunities out there, books, magazines, free content and courses online. I’ve only been on Twitter for a few months but the #writingcommunity is so welcoming. Read widely in your own and other genres. Seek out critique partners or an online group, be prepared to give as well as receive constructive criticism. Apply for mentoring, enter competitions. Be brave, put your work out there. And, as Stuart says, once you’ve pressed send, put it out of your head. Don’t expect to win, start something new. You might get a fantastic surprise like I did.
I’ve just started the #Writementor summer mentoring programme with the fabulous Melissa Welliver so I’m currently editing and polishing 49 Sisters in preparation for the agent showcase in September. I love working for the NHS but I also love writing so I’ll boldly go on with my ongoing mission to seek out new agents and traditional publication (I know you’re a Star Wars guy, Stuart, but I’ve always preferred Captain Kirk so maybe you’ll allow me this Star Trek reference)!
May the Force be with you!