Saira Shah’s writing journey started with entering the 2022 WriteMentor Picture Book Award. Since winning in 2023, she is now represented by Peters Fraser + Dunlop.
How did you feel when you read the Picture Book Award winner announcement?
Shocked! I was convinced I was not going to win. So when the email came through, I calmly opened it and began reading. But when I saw my story’s name as the winning entry, all I remember is I stood up and screamed out loud, “I won! I won!” I terrified my one-year-old son in the process, but I honestly couldn’t believe it.
How did you celebrate winning the Picture Book Award?
I first told my mum, which was an emotional moment because the story is about her and she means the world to me. Then I called my husband and yelled down the phone, “I won it!” Thankfully, he wasn’t in a meeting. After that, I sent countless babbling voice-notes to my family and close friends, who were absolutely ecstatic too. In the days later, we celebrated with a lovely family meal. I’m also in the process of choosing some jewellery (thank you, husband – feel free to up the budget) to symbolise this incredible moment forever.
Tell us a bit about your writing journey to date.
So my writing journey started right here with THIS competition. Let me explain…For the last ten years, I’ve wanted to write a book. But instead, I’ve been a primary school teacher (happily, might I add). In January 2022, whilst on maternity leave and reading lots of picture books, I was inspired to finally start writing. So I did what any reasonable person does, I asked for advice from my wise, knowledgeable teacher: Google. I literally googled: How to become a children’s author. This led to a Twitter account, WriteMentor and this award. With no experience or knowledge about how to write, I made the obvious decision to write a picture book in TWO DAYS and enter it to the competition. I was convinced I’d do okay. I have a first-class honours degree, a Master’s, leadership qualifications, I can write a good essay. This would be easy, right? Nope. I was rejected. Ooooo. That hurt. My first ever writing rejection. So after eating humble pie and dusting myself off, I knew I needed to learn the craft and give it the respect it deserves. For the rest of the year, I immersed myself into the writing world. Moving forward to January 2023, I entered ‘Fatima & Nani – Bets Friends Forever’ to the competition. I was desperate to simply reach the longlist so I’d know I’m on the right lines and making progress. But then I won it. What a dream come true.
Tell us more about the winning book and what inspired the idea.
The story is about a grandmother and granddaughter, who don’t speak the same language. With a little imagination, the two of them find a new way to communicate. I was inspired to write this story after witnessing my mother and daughter’s relationship. My mother speaks Punjabi and my daughter speaks English, yet the two of them communicate with each other in their own way.
What was the WriteMentor Picture Book Award experience like for you, as an entrant?
The experience was fantastic. The WriteMentor team and Stuart show so much care for everybody in the way they announce results and the advice they offer to help deal with each stage. Also, the WriteMentor community on Twitter is just amazing. Everyone is so welcoming and kind, and they’re always ready to celebrate and support each other. I feel so very lucky to be amongst many brilliant writers. The standard is so high every year and the results are so close. The Picture Book Award winner’s prize is also brilliant. I’ve already started working through the Hub modules, and I am looking forward to being mentored by an author. Oh, and I just found out you get a TROPHY! How cool is that!?
What advice would you give other writers when entering writing awards in the future?
Here are five tips I found helpful for entering competitions:
- – Find all the competitions you want to enter for the year. Budget what you want to spend, and check which ones have prizes/exposure/feedback available that you’re interested in. Write them in your diary (I use my phone calendar).
- – All competitions have different entry requirements. I know, I know, it’s boring reading them, but try your best to do so. You don’t want to pay for a competition and then get booted out for tipping the word count over by ONE WORD! (I don’t actually think they’re that ruthless, but don’t test them!)
- – Watch the videos and reading material they upload to support you. I watched EVERY WriteMentor video on YouTube. It gives you a good feel for what they’re looking for, valuable advice for writing and just generally are enjoyable to watch.
- – Get involved with the competition’s Twitter community. Make announcements, retweet, talk to and support others. It’s nice to go on the competition journey (ups and downs) with others who ‘get it’.
- – Don’t leave your entry to the last minute. I nearly didn’t get my entry in. I had seconds left, a crying baby in my arms, and an overwhelming rush of panic. Yes, I did get an extra buzz when I submitted it JUST IN TIME (I’m easily thrilled these days). But, I do not recommend it.
- To conclude, I would simply say… GO FOR IT!
Any general writing advice for writers of children’s fiction?
I’m still learning so much about writing so I’m certainly no expert, but I am happy to share three tips that have helped me:
- – There are a wealth of FREE resources online to learn from. Youtube channels, like WriteMentor, are brilliant and have really helped me.
- – Podcasts are amazing. I have learnt so much from listening to authors talk about their writing journeys; agents and publishers talking about what they are looking for; and I’ve gained insight into many writing discussion points and the publishing industry itself. I’ve listened to all of Stuart’s podcasts and recommend them all – Rejection Diaries, The 1000/100 Project, WriteCast and This Writing Life.
- – For picture books specifically, I read out my text holding a real picture book in my hands. It helps me feel and hear what the story reads like, if I was reading it to children. Where are the bits I’m struggling to read smoothly? What sounds clunky? Is there too much text on the page? Is that a good page turner? Is suspense building? Which words do I want to read out loud in a funny, happy or sad way? Is the ending satisfying?
What’s next for your writing? Any new projects on the horizon?
I am currently working on a lower middle grade novel. It’s a funny book (or, at least I hope it is!) based on my Year 6 netball team. I’m really enjoying writing it and I’m hoping to complete my first draft soon – if my kids will let me. Once done, I have a few more picture book ideas that I’d like to continue working on too. For those of you who have read this to the end, thank you. My attention span is awful, so reading any piece of writing to the end is a MAJOR WIN. Well done! Now to go and clean up my ‘art prodigy’ son and the paint explosion in my kitchen. Nothing like a kid bringing you back to down to reality, eh? Writer hat off, mum hat back on.