By Sue Cunningham, 2020 winner

How do you win a writing competition? In my case, it was probably a fun concept that gave me the incentive to keep going, lots of editing and a huge amount of luck. Writing is such an imprecise science, one reader will enjoy a story another person might easily dismiss. The great thing about the WMCNA, compared to other competitions, is that it does address the issue of subjectivity by having a wide mix of readers (adults plus your target audience of kids) – four for the longlist and another four for the shortlist before final judging by an established literary agent. Your brilliant story could be seen by nine readers in all. (Have I got this bit right, Stuart?) Best of all, for an extra fiver, you get access to constructive feedback. Reading the comments from real teen readers was the icing on the cake for me (but if you don’t want to see your feedback, that’s OK too). 

My fellow entrants on the shortlist were all amazingly talented, so being named the overall winner was a huge confidence boost. Not only did it validate my writing but it gave me the opportunity for expert feedback from the judge, Alice Williams, who was so lovely. The actual trophy even arrived on my birthday which was perfect timing (can’t guarantee this will happen for the 2021 winner!).

Being shortlisted also secured me a place on the summer mentoring programme with support from an experienced agented writer (in my case, the fabulous Melissa Welliver). Both of my Write Mentor forays have opened the door to agent interest and full manuscript requests but an unexpected bonus was meeting so many new writing buddies – it’s more than a month since the showcase ended but I still chat online most days with fellow YA summer mentees. We hail from rainy Manchester to New Zealand, taking in the US along the way, and we’re currently in the process of planning our post-covid Writing World Tour while we share the highs and lows of having our manuscripts out on submission!

My five top tips:

  1. Attention to detail. This has been said before but I’d agree that the first draft is all about getting the story down. The real magic happens when you go back afterwards to fill in the gaps, colouring in the shiny details for both the setting and your characters.
  2. Decide what makes your children’s book stand out. I was really struggling with my main character for a long time – what was so special about her (apart from being a witch)? Teen witches are two a penny in fiction and mine seemed stroppier than most until I decided to put a guitar in her hand. This detail brought her to life for me and gave her a purpose. Decide what it is about your character that can make them believable and relatable to you and your reader, give them quirks and flaws. If it’s something unexpected, all the better – a fairy who plays football or a mafia bad guy who secretly likes train spotting?
  3. Don’t ignore your gut. If there’s a section you tend to skip when editing (maybe it’s a bit boring) or a scene you sneakily suspect doesn’t work (maybe your protagonist has to do something totally out of character to move the plot forward or worse still, let another character do it for them), then deal with it. Don’t cross your fingers and hope your reader won’t notice – if you have, they definitely will!
  4. Find a critique partner (I’m greedy so I’d say find more than one) and be prepared to give constructive feedback in return. There’s nothing like editing someone else’s work to help spot the good and bad in your own. If you need help finding a CP, the writing community as a whole is welcoming and supportive – the Write Mentor family in particular but Twitter is also a good place to find likeminded souls.
  5. Feel free to ignore suggestions 1-4! Only take advice from others as far as it suits you – everyone has a different opinion on the ‘rules’ of writing but it’s OK to make up your own mind. I was once told never to open a story with dialogue but my winning entry did just that. Even worse, it had a prologue (the debate rages on). Of course, if you love rules, feel free to ignore suggestion 5. It’s your book.

Now, if you’re still undecided about entering (surely not?), just go for it! The Write Mentor Children’s Novel Award is the friendliest, best supported writing competition out there and Stuart and his team will look after you every step of the way. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I wish you the very best of luck and look forward to hearing about your success!