Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Discovering a voice

Nearly two years ago now, I got in my car and drive north to an unfamiliar venue in Staffordshire, to be guest speaker at the SCBWI retreat. If you are not familiar with this almost unpronounceable acronym (Scooby, Skiboowy, Skibwee), it stands for Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. The great thing about it is that, unlike the Society of Authors, for which you need a book contract to join, it is open to unpublished writers.
Now, if this sounds like a gathering of wannabes, think again.

The thing about SCBWI is that there is a very high standard of commitment and professionalism. People being kind to aspirant writers often refer to them as the "pre-published" which presupposes that anyone who wants to will make it as a published author one day. It's well-meaning but inaccurate.

Lots more people want to write, especially for young readers, than have a chance of ever being published, especially in these difficult times. And many of these talk in vague terms about things like "inspiration." They are far less like to complete a book, let alone find a publisher for it, than those who do their homework by joining SCBWI.

They have 19,000 members worldwide, who form a support and friendship group; there are conferences and retreats where agents and editors come to give one-to-one sessions and there is the marvellous anthology idea Undiscovered Voices. There have been two of these so far 2008 and 2009 and 13 of the featured authors - more than half - have gone on to be published or are contracted for publication.

At the retreat I went to in 2009, I met three authors who have gone on to be published (and many more who have become Facebook friends!) One was Candy Gourlay, who was an "undiscovered voice" in the first anthology of 2008. Since then, her first novel, Tall Story, has been published by David Fickling Books and shortlisted for Waterstone's Children's Book PrizeBlue Peter Favourite Story Prize, the Leeds Children's Book Prize and the Hillingdon Secondary School Book Prize. It has been nominated for the Branford Boase, the Redbridge Children's Book Award, the UKLA Book Award and the Carnegie Medal.

Candy is from the Philippines and half the book is set there, alternating with what is going on in London. It's a highly original story, with memorable characters and a touch of magical realism. It's a 9-12 story, with strong themes of family, responsibility and difference. Oh, and basketball.

Another person I met on the same retreat was Jonathan Mayhew, who had a three-book deal under his belt already, with Bloomsbury, two of which have since been published.
The first was Mortlock, a grisly piece of junior fiction for lovers of horror, with some terrifying aunts who are half human and half crow, and some real deaths.

That too was shortlisted for the Waterstone's prize and nominated for the 2011 Branford Boase Award. And Mayhew's second book, The Demon Collector, is just out.

So you see, these SCBWI-ers really do have a high success rate.

A third writer I met in Staffordshire was Miriam Halahmy and her first book is so recently out that it hasn't had time to be put on any lists but I'm sure it will. Hidden is the only one of the three aimed at teenagers and is set on Hayling island, a location Miriam knows well. When I first heard that, I thought it might involve sailing but it doesn't. It's about illegal immigration, prejudice, ignorance and the gradual growth of trust, respect and tolerance. Apart from the arrival of Mohammed by sea, hit over the head and dumped in the water by unscrupulous people-smugglers, the plot that unwinds could take place anywhere in the UK.

Alix is a 14-year-old girl living with her single mother on Hayling island and sympathetic to Samir, an Iraqi boy who has achieved legal refugee status. They are walking on the beach when they find Mohammed, half-dead and seriously wounded, both by the smugglers and torture he has undergone in Iraq.

Halahmy knows a lot about family life and customs in Iraq because she has been married to an Iraqi for more than thirty years and that experience makes her book all the more authentic. She has also addressed an increasingly common situation about which most teenagers know little and has cast an uncomfortable spotlight on their reaction to the strangers in their midst.

SCBWI are now accepting submissions from members for the 2011 Undiscovered Voices anthology - see www.undiscoveredvoices.com for details.

The judges have been announced - including agents and editors - and  the Chair is Malorie Blackman. But for all who don't make it into the anthology, take heart - Jonathan Mayhew and Miriam Halahmy were not in the two previous ones.


karen ball said...

Everyone I've met through SCBWI has been lovely and their mutual support shines through on Facebook.

Katherine Langrish said...

I loved 'Tall Story' and am looking forward very much to reading 'Hidden'.

Ness Harbour said...

Mary this is a wonderful post and is so true.

Karen I agree, the facebook support I have been given from SCBWI members has been outstanding.

Tracy said...

SCBWI is such a supportive group and I've read all three of the books mentioned and they're all fab!
I'm keeping my blog post about UV up-to-date so shall add this post to the official blog tour list.

catdownunder said...

I love the idea of SCBWI but the expense of signing up (especially without a credit card in a foreign currency) is quite a commitment. And, unfortunately for those of us who live outside the UK, UV is only for people who are permanant residents of the UK. That was very disappointing indeed! I can understand their reasoning but I hope they will one day consider doing a non-UK UV as well. It may be too late for me but there are many much younger writers who would benefit - especially as finding an agent is even harder if you live in the Antipodes!

Nick Cross said...

I can't agree more - SCBWI is a brilliant organisation. I only wish I'd joined five years earlier!

Jon M said...

Great post. SCBWI is a fantastic organisation that puts you in touch with so many talented and friendly people both published and unpublished. And DO take heart, I did submit a piece for UV but wasn't selected. SCBWI did start the ball rolling publication-wise for me.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Many thanks for such a lovely and informative post, Mary and thank you for your review of HIDDEN. I also submitted for UV and wasn't selected. UV is a marvellous SCWBI initiative, but do take heart folks, there are many routes to publication and those of us who make it have trodden a long hard road. Good luck to all of you along the path.

Mary Hoffman said...

Ca, I didn't know that. I hope you get your chance some other way or that the rules change in future. And it's never too late!

Mary Hoffman said...

That was addressed to Cat btw!