Aoife Doyle won the WriteMentor Novel Award 2022 for ‘The Music Weaver’s Call’ and is now represented by Lucy Irvine at Peters Fraser + Dunlop. They share their experience and writing advice.
How did you feel when you watched the winner announcement?
Honestly, bewildered! I went from wrestling doubt gremlins, trying to keep the comparison bear in its cage, and just enjoying the delightfulness of the ceremony, to having a moment of cartoonish shock when Lydia announced my manuscript’s title. Everything she and Clare had said about voice and character and marketability had settled me down into a content okay, I haven’t won this space so to have that flipped on its head and have all those points apply to my work and then all the other amazing things they said about my MS took quite a while to process. In the moment I just felt incredibly humbled and so delighted. The goofy grin didn’t fade for several days!
How did you celebrate?
First off I hoped on a video call with my parents, who had taken a break from their wild retirement adventures galavanting in San Francisco to watch the ceremony live. They were so proud and chuffed and to share such an achievement with them in the moment, especially when I’m at a stage in my writing career that is characterised by what looks like inaction from the outside but is filled with unseen labour, meant the world to me. Then I opened up one of the Query Earrings I’d bought preemptively for my next foray into the trenches, to celebrate/commiserate the next wave of ups and downs. These upcycled vinyl dangles shall forever be known as my Award Earrings! I was in the middle of a very chaotic few weeks but there were many little celebrations with family and friends over the next while, and the goofy grin still returns readily when I remember what the judges said.
Tell us a bit about your writing journey to date.
As soon as I realised Astrophysics wasn’t for me and jumped ship to English and Film I fully committed to my writing and started actively working on my craft instead of only thinking stories endlessly and leaving my writer dream for ‘some day’. I had already been tentatively upskilling in the arena of fanfiction and during a semester off while switching courses I challenged myself to write a novel-length story to see if I could. Spoiler alert: I could! I spent the next few years studying and writing storytelling across different media and by the time I graduated my first book was bursting at the seams. Some of its characters have been with me my whole life and, once I got through the teeth-pulling first 30k, it flowed like floodwater. Even while writing the first draft though I knew it was a story that would benefit from my being older, that there was untapped potential I wasn’t yet ready to reach. I queried it and it did fairly well, even placing runner up in the Guppy Books YA Open Submission 2020. Though it was heartbreaking to understand it wasn’t going to be picked up at the time I couldn’t be more grateful it wasn’t because since I set it aside to marinate I’ve come to understand what that story really needs – and I am now able to give it. It also allowed me to write THE MUSIC WEAVER’S CALL, which I’ll probably always consider lazy on my part since I didn’t make up 17+ species for it like I did my first story (oh, fantasies!). There’s so much to learn from writing on and through and after that no amount of research or courses or webinars can equip you for. There’s beauty in the doing, even if it takes some time and perspective to see it.
Tell us more about the winning book, ‘The Music Weaver’s Call’.
THE MUSIC WEAVER’S CALL is a story about family, both given and found, and the journey to trust in that love by having the courage to trust yourself. It’s a story about monsters, what makes them and what heals them, and how the monstrous are rarely what or where you expect. But mostly it’s a story about witty twelve-year-old Finta using her magic fiddle to tame wild beasts on an adventure to reverse the curse that stole her memories and transformed her sister into a wolfhound, guided by a teenage non-binary magic pro who is allergic to emotion and refuses to admit Finta is their antihistamene. Sass and shenaniganary ensue, interspersed with occasional peril.
What inspired the idea?
While visiting family on the West Coast of Ireland my sister drove us from Galway to Kerry. Music was playing, the sky was a blanket of cloud, and I told my sister I was going to dive into a story idea and wouldn’t be chatting. Suitably sleep deprived from her PhD, she was fine with that, so, with the Wild Atlantic Way rolling past, I let my heart and mind roam. Like it always does, it snagged on themes and figures from Irish Mythology and within the three-hour drive, I had the bones of the story set. What if siblings were separated by magic? What if one was cursed to be an animal for x years? What if creatures of the folklore were alive and up to no good for easily misunderstood reasons leading to a tense climactic battle that has the reader holding their breath for pages at a time? By the end of the week in Kerry I had the chapter outline done (a record, so far), with the beasts chosen, the names picked, the Irish language stealthily breathing through the entire world, and a very insistent first sentence rearing to go. Archetypes from the mythology, settings inspired by iconic locations on the Wild Atlantic Way, and a world inspired by Celto-Mesolithic Ireland and the culture of the mythic canon made this story come together like a rolling snowball. Writing it, of course, was another matter!
What was the WriteMentor Novel Award experience like for you, as an entrant?
Definitely noticeably more positive than other competitions I’ve entered. I’m trying the 100 Rejections mentality this year and flinging this MS into every competition I can afford/am eligible for, and have (yayfully!) been shortlisted in others as well as not placing at all in several. WriteMentor has stood out to me in both regards for how it has handled announcements, giving everyone advanced notice ahead of social media so those not celebrating (the vast majority) have time to prepare and aren’t ambushed during idle scrolling, as can too often happen. Most competitions will inform entrants of their not being longlisted to be fair, but this competition has been imbued with a sense of compassion from the start that has, for me anyway, made every step more significant. Regardless of prizes or perks I’m genuinely glad to be associated with such genuinely lovely people who actively care about the strangers who come to them for a chance at that one yes.
What advice would you give other writers when entering writing awards in the future?
The entering stuff: Read the competition guidelines carefully and strictly adhere to it – don’t risk automatically losing by submitting too many words or a synopsis that’s juusttwo lines too long. Give them every reason to wave you through onto the next round. Don’t submit in a panic, take a breath and make time to double check.
The writing stuff: Have your writing software/the internet read out your sample to you to check (yet again) for errors and that the rhythm is just right. Ensure your opening pages are effective in 1) being full of voice as possible, whatever that means for you, your MC, and genre, 2) connecting the reader to your MC and their wound, 3) establishing the reader in the setting/space & time. Opening pages are elite writing for competition, and like any athlete, you have to make it look easy. Just like for athletes, that takes time, trial and error, discipline, and most importantly, rest days.
The emotional stuff: Celebrate entering – you shared your writing baby with fancy professional writey people! Yay you! You deserve a decadent donut or a new pin or a walk along your favourite route and a proper movie night. Actually do it though, actually treat yourself. Associate pushing against the comfort zone and investing in your writing career with positive reinforcement. (I am terrible at this, be better than me, please!) Once you get the confirmation email, make a note of when the longlist will be announced/whatever end date the waiting has, and forget about it. Move on to the next Thing, get writing, get thinking about the next story. When news does come, sit in it. Feel the sadness of the rejection and talk to friends who understand. Dealing with rejection is a skill, you will get better at it but to do that you must learn how to handle it healthily, and since rejection is a neverending and unavoidable part of writing, start learning now. If you don’t have people who understand creative rejection yet, find them now, whether through WriteMentor, other writing resources, the bird app, or local writing groups or book clubs (or other creative groups). Of course, if you hear good news, CELEBRATE! Full on fancy meal and non-zoom clothes level celebrate (however that translates to you)! Tell your writey people and share the joy! Revel in it! No matter the news, acknowledge the fact that you have put a piece of your creative self out into the world for judgement, and that is deeply vulnerable, and that makes you brave. It’s easy to forget that along the way. Have another donut.
Any general writing advice for writers of children’s fiction?
So much! I could write a writing advice book at this stage so I’ll keep this short. Two practical tidbits and one social.
If you’re ever stuck in a scene and aren’t sure how a character will react, or aren’t sure how to get the right tone for a scene, need it to be funnier, sadder, turn on a line of dialogue from silly to serious, try casting your characters out to actors whose skill you know well. They don’t necessarily have to be child actors, but just think how a Dakota Fanning would play this scene, or Millie Bobby Brown, or a teenage Chris [insert favourite version here]. Imagining how someone whose storytelling ability you see fluidly take on a section that has you snagged can often untangle you and add another layer of subtly. Having anchor characters for your characters is also very helpful. For example, my MC Finta has the confidence of Wolfwalker’s Mebh so I would often anchor myself to Finta by thinking of Mebh’s proud and sometimes reckless self-belief and how that is shown in the film, and translate that into Finta’s can-do, witty attitude that masks her insecurities and terror of making more mistakes.
Show and tell are a screwdriver and hammer, respectively, and you need both to build the house of your story. Knowing when to use which is the key. Screwdrivers are for precise, detailed, close-up work – ie, show the reader important information through cause and effect. Best done when you know the cause but only show the effect. For example, I know the character is angry but I’m only going to write about the vein throbbing in their temple and the nails biting into their palms. Hammers are for broad, basic, rough work – ie, tell the reader important information by relating what has happened. This information does not draw attention but quickly moves the plot and pace along.
Stories are such a deep and intrinsic part of who we are and who we become, they are and always have been how we learn. I think the best advice I can give that you couldn’t easily find elsewhere is to write ethically. Be aware of your word choice. What insults does your bully character use? What throwaway derogatory comments are in your MS? Do you call characters fat or lazy, when other words would work just fine? Do you equate femininity with inferiority? What do your unlikable and antagonistic characters look like, and is there a trend or bias you hadn’t noticed before? What is being said in your story that the story itself, the plot and its triumphs and comeuppances does not unsay? What behaviour is deemed cool or acceptable by the narrative? Who is being laughed at in your story, and is it fair? I don’t mean this in a plot sense, but in the sense that your story is a social construct, and there will be children reading, learning from it, and your words will teach them how to behave, how to react. You have the power to teach them another lesson in subtle bigotry, like so much of our media does without thinking. Or, with another pass of revisions when the heavy work is done, you have the power to teach them kindness and compassion in a way that many may not register, but all will feel. The world would be a more empathetic place with more people willing to risk being kind if more custodians of media took on this responsibility, and it starts with us. We won’t always get it right (and certainly not without sensitivity readers!) but we can try. And as every protagonist learns, that’s what makes the difference.
What’s next for your writing? Any new projects on the horizon?
I have several well-formed stories clamouring in The Queue, but my next MG is plotted and I’m just working on finding the time and energy to get the first draft written. It’s a portal fantasy following a chronically odd twelve-year-old finding the joy in belonging when her Nana lets her in on the family secret and together they save the magic land they both love from an ancient threat. This is very much a celebration of Irish Mythology and Gaeilge, and I can’t wait to dive in and write some of the mythic figures I’ve loved and studied for so long! Slowly but surely I will share my obsession with the world.