Friday, 8 April 2011

How to Win Undiscovered Voices

Now there's a grand title! I'm generally suspicious of authors who describe the right way to do something, because it's always their way of doing things - how they plot a book, how they found an agent, how they got published. What works for them invariably won't work for you. The other key thing about Undiscovered Voices is that it's all about the shock of the new - the winners will succeed precisely because their work is unexpected and surprising. So I can't predict what you can write to win the competition, but I can help you with some other strategies for standing out.

I will say that these tips have been arrived at retrospectively - all I did to prepare for the 2010 competition was write a really good book. But if that was my only piece of advice, this would be a very short article!

  • Be crafty - This doesn't refer to a campaign of dirty tricks against the other entrants, more that craft is everything. You may be the best plotter in the world, but over such a short sprint you won't get much chance to demonstrate that. What will show through is the quality of your writing, your command of voice and language and rhythm and ability to punctuate lists properly.

  • Write for a younger age group - I'm already encouraged by the people who are saying they will submit early reader texts this year. Each time the competition is launched, Sara Grant and Sara O'Connor beg for more texts in the younger age groups and so far, the majority of the submissions have been YA. It's not too late to change direction - you probably have time to write a book for younger readers from scratch before the competition closes. Be a young fish in a small pond.

  • Frontload your story - This is good advice for any children's writing, but especially for a competition where you will be judged on a short extract. The good stuff needs to happen early, ideally on the first page. And it needs to keep happening - exposition be damned!

    I'm convinced my success in the competition came because of my experience when submitting a previous novel to agents. I realised that most took the first three chapters as an initial submission, so I vowed to make those chapters in my new book as mind-blowing as possible. Of course, I had another advantage in writing quite short chapters, which meant those three were under the 4,000-word limit for Undiscovered Voices.

  • Write something that no-one was expecting - Be daring, experimental, individual. Read my post about author-led fiction from the other week. Come out of left field and score a home run.

  • Don't submit something the judges have already seen - Although the submissions are judged anonymously, a judge is very likely to recognise something they have already had on their desk. More than that, if they've previously rejected it, why would they now choose it as a winner or honorary mention? If you've comprehensively reworked a piece, it might be worth entering, but you'll have to weigh up the risks and benefits.

  • Don't worry if the rest of the book isn't perfect - Concentrate on those first 4,000 words, polishing them just enough to shine. Providing you have the rest of the book finished, you can work on that in the three months between the competition closing and the results being announced.

  • You are not expected to be the finished article - If you were, you would already have an agent or be on your way to a publishing deal. Some of what is attractive about you as a new writer is your rawness and willingness to think differently. There is nothing more pleasurable for an agent or editor than to engage with a promising writer and shape them into something extraordinary.

  • Leave them wanting more - You need to motivate the reader (the judge) to want to see the rest of your book. There's a vein of self-interest that runs through the altruism of the contest - the judges don't only get to enjoy some great writing, they also get first dibs on your manuscript. Make them desperate to know what happens next.

  • Winning Undiscovered Voices is easy - Believe me, it gets a lot harder after the results are announced! It's worth taking a few minutes to think about your writing and how serious you are about building a career. If you know you won't be able to put the hours in afterwards, you might not want to enter in the first place. As another previous winner so aptly put it: Be careful what you wish for.


You can see the entry rules for this year's competition here. You can also read about the experiences of last years' winners in my Notes from the Slushpile guest blog.

Follow Undiscovered Voices 2012 on Twitter and Facebook.


  1. Great advice, Nick! And good luck to all those who enter!

  2. Do you think you need to submit the start of your story or could it be an extract from further on?

  3. George, this is from the submission rules:
    "Maximum word count for each submission is 4,000 and it must be an extract from the beginning of an already completed novel."

  4. Ahhh, must have missed that when I scanned it the other day. But worry not! I have a fortnight off now and can give it its proper attention!

    Thanks for the help :-D

  5. It's all so exciting I want to enter! Can we do a Nearly Discovered Voices?

  6. Excellent summing up Nick - I don't think there's anything I'd add except be brave - I almost didn't submit mine last time and I ended up being one of the twelve!

  7. Thanks for this post - I'll probably be entering so it's very helpful!

  8. Nice one, Nick. Especially about crafting.Thanks for the summary.