We asked 2020 Picture Book Award Winner, Sophia Payne, to reflect on her experience with the award, and what has happened since…
It was a friend in my critique group who told me about the WriteMentor novel award, and I very nearly didn’t enter. I hadn’t long switched from writing MG to picture books, and I was still discovering how useful reader feedback was to a writer. I decided to enter ‘Faruq and the Wiri Wiri’ largely for the feedback that was promised with every entry. But I also secretly hoped to get my work in front of the literary agent judging the shortlist – Alice Williams. She had always been my first choice of agent after I had a lovely, brief chat with her as we passed in the corridor at a writing event in London back in 2018. I never for a moment thought I would actually get anywhere close to the shortlist, but it didn’t stop me from dreaming. Through WriteMentor I also had a one-to-one with Alice booked for early 2020, and I thought that at very least the competition would be something to talk about with her, and something to mention when I was ready to start submitting again.
It was a very surreal time when I saw my book title on the longlist in February. It was a few days before my daughter’s birthday and we were on holiday visiting family. The one-to-one I had booked had sadly been cancelled, and Corona was about to hit the world in a way we could never have anticipated. It was hard to wrap my head around anything, but of course I was absolutely delighted that Faruq had somehow scrambled through. Mine was one of 20 picture books on the list, which also included an entry from my crit group friend. I genuinely felt that this is where my path would end in relation to the competition.
When the shortlist was announced in April, I remember feeling shocked. In fact the shock was so great that I felt totally numb. Nothing was sinking in. The pandemic was continuing to ruin all of our plans, and I was struggling with home-schooling. I had less time to write, which made me feel that any chance of a career was now paused indefinitely. Yet somehow, just somehow, my little story was muddling on. We were down to 3 picture books, and here I was – up against my crit group friend! I was so excited for her that she had been chosen for the shortlist, and it was surreal that we were experiencing this together. I was sure that either hers or the other entry would win.
When Stuart uploaded the winner announcement videos in May, a few days after my own, slightly underwhelming lockdown birthday, we all gathered around my iPad to watch. They wouldn’t play! ‘Who won, mummy?’ my daughter, Willow nudged. I had no idea! I finally got the video to work, and we sat there quietly listening. There was Alice, talking about my book. No way! I could see her eyes sparkling as she made her comments, announcing Faruq as the winning picture book. It was utterly surreal and totally overwhelming. I burst into tears and sobbed into Willow’s hair. I was over the moon to have won the picture book category of the WMCNA, even though the news still refused to sink in. The sun was shining, we were all feeling full of energy, so decided to go for a bike ride up to the house where our cats were staying. My daughter and I cycled ahead and reached the house first. As we leant our bikes against the wall, I heard my phone ping.
Just hours after the winner announcement, Alice had sent me an email directly. She wanted to set up a Skype call. I couldn’t believe it. My emotions were all over the place and I burst into tears again! Sobbing into Willow’s hair as she cuddled me, my husband and our little boy caught up to us and thought something terrible had happened. Through all of my years of writing, this is what I’d been working towards. It was only a hint; a small chance that it might be the call, but it was absolutely everything I had ever wanted. All because I fought the doubts in my head and decided to go ahead and enter the competition. Surely this would be where my path ended?
Nope! One week later, Alice and I spent over an hour on Skype discussing my writing. Feeling a little deflated that I wasn’t able to message my crit group with anything more exciting than ‘she was really lovely to talk to’, I resigned myself back to the slush pile. But later that evening, just after my kids had gone to bed, Alice emailed again offering me representation. I ran and woke Willow up and we jumped up and down on the trampoline in our PJ’s shouting ‘mummy’s got an agent, mummy’s got an agent!’ Even as I write this, I am in tears of happiness for how this all turned out. Because I clicked send. Because I took a chance. Because I kept writing, even when I felt I wasn’t getting anywhere.
I cannot thank Stuart enough for all the opportunities he creates with WriteMentor. I never would have predicted what entering the WMCNA was going to mean to me – How it would change and forge my path in this industry! I entered because of hope – Because my friend told me about the competition and I thought ‘why not?’
‘Faruq and the Wiri Wiri’ went out on submission the same week I signed my contract with Alice. It had wonderful feedback from many different editors, and we have accepted an offer of publication. Yesterday I signed the contract, and can now say that news about my debut picture book will be coming soon!
So if any of you are still wondering if you should click send.. I say do it! Let my story rejuvenate your hope. While everyone’s path will invariably be different, we are all on the same journey. And the beautiful thing about this journey is you never know when something big is about to happen.
‘Hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you can see it, you’ll never make it through the night.’ (Leia Organa)