Cate Haynes won the WriteMentor Novel Award 2023 for ‘Nan Crabapple is Spellbound‘. She shares her experience and writing advice.
How did you feel when you found out you won the WriteMentor Novel Award ?
Extremely surprised and grateful! I was totally convinced that I wouldn’t have won, so I had to re-read the email at least 20 times.
How did you celebrate?
With some jumping up and down and screeching…until I scared the kittens (sorry Eric and Tor, please forgive me!), followed by many teary and over-excited messages with a few friends, then fish and chips that evening with a glass or two of Prosecco.
Tell us a bit about your writing journey to date.
Long and winding! I’ve always written, but decided it was time to really take that side of myself seriously about 15 years ago. Since then, I’ve taken part in countless courses, workshops, agent 121s and critique groups and finally feel like I’m improving. I’ve also entered goodness knows how many competitions and have got through to the longlist for the WriteMentor Novel Award three times before now with different projects. In 2021, I was lucky enough to place third in the Wells CNA and was shortlisted for the Searchlight award with my middle-grade mystery adventure, which was inspired by a piece of my family history. I also write poetry and flash fiction and am published in the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology 2022 (the same story also received a Best Short Fiction nomination) and Glittery Literary Volume 4. I’m a member of the WriteMentor Hub and of SCBWI-BI, and volunteer as a sub-editor for Words & Pictures. Writing has proven to be a steep mountain to climb and of course, there’s no map, but I’m enjoying the company and the views so far.
Tell us more about the winning book, ‘Nan Crabapple is Spellbound‘.
It’s a magical fantasy adventure for upper middle grade readers who enjoy A Pinch of Magic and Howl’s Moving Castle with a hint of Encanto and is about self-acceptance, family and courage. Spells cast by twleve-year-old failed witch, Nan Crabapple, always break because she stammers, but the moonlit streets of Juno City are infested with Soulrazers and when Nan sees them take her sister, Alba, she has only a few hours to make her own magic flow and rescue her before Alba’s soul is lost.
What inspired the idea?
I’m a – mostly recovered – stammerer myself, but I’m also a Speech & Language Therapist. One of my two specialisms is working with children with special needs, but the other is working with children who stammer. There isn’t much representation of stammering in children’s literature beyond the idea that people who stammer are nervous, are lying, or are doing it on purpose to get attention. Unfortunately, many portrayals of stammering in literature can be unfair and often just plain wrong. Many children (and adults) who stammer grow used to being ignored, talked over, ridiculed and dismissed, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I wanted to offer a more realistic idea of what stammering is like without being didactic about it. Hopefully one day, Nan Crabapple is Spellbound will be published and will help to create an opportunity for people who stammer to talk about their experiences. Most of all, I want children who stammer to feel less alone and to know that they are so much more than this one thing. During Nan’s story, she begins to accept herself as someone who is capable of amazing things, and who also happens to stammer. It took me a good many years to think of a strong enough world and structure, plus a lot of help and guidance from my critique groups (shout out to the Story Cats, SCBWI Southampton and the MG6ers!) to make sure I was approaching the subject in a helpful, hopeful and light way.
What was the WriteMentor Novel Award experience like for you, as an entrant?
I’ve entered the WriteMentor Novel Award pretty much every year since it first began and it’s changed a lot in that time – for the better, in my opinion. I have truly appreciated all the thought, care and consideration Stuart has put in to organising it with entrants’ mental health at the forefront.
What advice would you give other writers when entering writing awards in the future?
Keep reading, keep writing, keep trying! I entered a much earlier version of this ultimately, it made me more determined to try and work out how to make my work more appealing. I’m learning to lean in to rejections and accept them for what they are – redirection towards something better. It’s always uncomfortable and disappointing to not be longlisted or shortlisted, or to get comments that are less than complimentary. I’m still working on reminding myself to read through comments quickly, then put my computer away and do something else before going back two or three days later to re-read comments. I often find that my initial reaction has changed by then and I can see what changes I might want to make and in what way.
Any general writing advice for writers of children’s fiction?
Keep reading, keep listening, keep learning, keep sending your work to competitions and agents. Probably my biggest and best piece of advice though – get some writer-mates! Writer-friends are the best kind of friends.
What’s next for your writing? Any new projects on the horizon?
I can’t not write. Even when I’m not actively putting words on the page, I’m thinking about writing. I’m currently writing a folklore-based YA thriller-romantasy. It’s way outside my comfortable magical middle-grade bubble, but I’m enjoying it so far.