After 5 long months of writing, reading, reviewing and discussing we have finally narrowed down the 342 entries into the Guardian Hot Key Books Young Writers Prize to a long list of just 20. With 10 stories chosen for the 9-12 category, and 10 for the 13-19 category it was an almost impossible decision to choose which would go through from such a brilliant list. We had fantastic writing, original ideas, startling characters and fantasy worlds that were so complex and intricate that they must have taken years to create and refine. Cait, Naomi and I were given the difficult task of selecting those stories that we thought had enough potential to continue from a 4,000 word extract into a full and finished manuscript – harder than you might think! Ultimately we managed to put together two lists that we hope are broad, and diverse enough to produce some really winning books.
After closing the competition to entries back in June we came up with an infographic that summed up all the stats and facts about who had entered and from where. Well, we’ve done it again, the same infographic but completely updated. What do you think? We’re pleased with the broad range of genres and with long listed entries from New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Canada, the US and all four corners of the UK we can truly say that this is a world-wide competition!
But what about the 330 odd entries which didn’t quite make the cut? Well first off, they were in the most part brilliant in their own ways. Some had amazing dialogue, others had action that made our hearts race and our palms sweat. One made me gasp in horror and another had a synopsis that was entirely original and totally block-buster worthy. They all had real strong points then, but more often than not they also had a weakness that made us think, ‘this isn’t quite ready.’ Whether it was clunky dialogue, or over complex fantasy worlds, or a synopsis that wasn’t quite brave enough. So we put our heads together and thought about our best tips, and most common mistakes. We want to make sure that next year the task of long listing is even more difficult, takes more time and inspires more heart felt arguments – ‘THIS one!’ ‘No THIS one!’ ‘I NEED to have this one’ ‘I will DIE if this one doesn’t go through!’ And so on. (On second thoughts….)
- The most common problem we encountered with the submissions was highly complicated fantasy worlds that launch into long descriptions of legacy, family, history and world building without allowing the reader to get acquainted with the protagonist. Consider Harry Potter (as always), or Northern Lights. Before Rowling and Pullman get involved with goblins, ice bears, prophecies or epic battles the reader gets to know Lyra and Harry in very simple situations. The authors build in highly complicated worlds slowly and carefully, never losing their reader in the detail.
- Tread lightly with your writing. Don’t feel that you have to describe everything that happens, every item of clothing worn, everything that is eaten, said, done and thought. Allow your reader to fill in the gaps. As an author you should be providing only the essential footholds as they scale your story mountain. So let your reader do the work. Don’t give them a narrative escalator, they will just want to get to the top and get off! Patrick Ness does this brilliantly, THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO is beautifully written but never burdens the reader with description, similarly Neil Gaiman’s CORALINE is exceptional because of its style and simplicity. It’s hugely powerful but very minimalistic.
- Your biography is really important and should be interesting, but professional. It is a virtual hello and handshake with your potential publishers. It is great to include interesting points about yourself and your hobbies, but bear in mind that if you wouldn’t include it in the first five minutes of conversation it might be best left out!
- If your writing is interesting a reader will go straight to the synopsis. If it’s clear, easy to follow, interesting and original you’re onto a winner. Avoid complicated descriptions of lineage, family connections, and world building. Most importantly ensure that it is complete. The synopsis is different from the back cover blurb so don’t leave the reader hanging, include all the twists, turns, surprises and shocks, it might be what sells your idea to the reader. If you finish on a cliff hanger we have no way of knowing whether what you’ve got has any potential! There are lots of tips online to help you with this.
- Don’t be scared to be original. Sure there are lots of very successful books about magic, fairies, wizards and vampires. But be a trendsetter – write your own story. Your writing might be brilliant and your characters charming, but if it’s competing against 50 other fairy stories, it has to work a lot harder to stand out from the crowd!
- On a personal note… Please, no more faires. None. No more. No Fairies, no Fae People, Fai folk, Pharie, feairy or any other sort. Dark and dangerous or cotton wool and candy floss.That’s just me though… you might get luck with a fairy loving reader somewhere else!
- Finally, and most importantly, as well as writing prolifically you should read widely, and outside of your comfort zone. If you love fantasy try science fiction or mystery. Give something unexpected a try and if it all seems a bit daunting why not try a Carnegie challenge like we did? That way you will ensure that you read a great range of fabulous authors from all sorts of genres.