Thursday, 21 May 2015

How to Write a Winning Opening

2015 is a good year to write middle grade fiction. Actually, any year is a good year because where else can you spend your days in the company of pirate ships and man-eating penguins, but this year is particularly good because it sees the launch of a new Undiscovered Voices. Run by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the competition is open to all unagented, unpublished children’s writers living in the EU, and has helped launch the careers of more than 20 authors so far, including my own.

For anyone thinking of entering Undiscovered Voices, or any other writing competition, here are a few pointers I learned as a finalist.

- Finish your book.  Not just because you’ll need to have it ready to send out to all the excited competition judges who’ll be asking to read it, but because your opening chapters may change radically once you’ve written the whole book. The original opening of my book fell as flat as a pancake’s shadow.  Most of it was set-up for chapter three, where the story really started. Once I'd finished the book, I could see what needed to go up front and I rewrote, but I had to finish first. 

- Find your strong points and build on them.  When I read over my original beginning, I saw how the story took off when my main characters met in chapter two. So I started them off together and dumped them both into a crisis they had to work together to solve.  Success!  If you have a character, a scene, even a single sentence that really stands out, make that your starting point.

- Don’t hold back. Know what you’re aiming for in terms of genre and tone, and go at it like a bull in a red-flag-and-china shop.  Whatever you do, don’t try to analyse everything that’s worked before so you can copy it. If you look back through the judge’s comments on previous winners, you’ll find some common threads such as strong characters and good pacing, but mainly you’ll see words such as ‘fresh’, ‘unexpected,’ ‘original.’  So be yourself.  Be dark, be funny, be scary, be ridiculous, be anything except the same as everyone else.

- A few practical points.  When you think you’ve finished, put your opening chapters away for a week or two, then read them again.  Read out loud.  I use an electronic text-to-speech voice because nothing highlights dull writing like hearing it read in a robotic monotone.  Get someone else to proofread it before sending it in.  I’m still embarrassed that I failed to do this and repeated a sentence halfway through my first chapter.  It didn’t spoil my chances, but I really wish I’d made time for a final check.

- Once you’ve submitted your entry, start writing something new.  This has multiple benefits.  It’ll help you forget you ever entered the competition and stop you from going mad.  Then, if you don’t win, you’ll have the start of a whole new book.  But if you do win, everyone is going to want to know what else you’re working on and you’ll have something to show them.

Undiscovered Voices opens to submissions on July 1st.  Best of luck to everyone who enters.

Claire Fayers was a finalist in Undiscovered Voices 2014.  Her debut novel, The Accidental Pirates: Voyage to Magical North will be published next year.


  1. Dear Claire, I just wanted to thank you for your great post which has inspired me to revisit my completed MG novel from a different perspective. It had been lying dormant after one too many rejections and I've been working on other novels since, but I'm determined to go back and get it ready to submit to the next UV competition! Thanks again.

  2. Thanks Dawn, I'm really pleased. My novel had also been lying dormant before I revised it and entered UV 2014, so definitely go for it. I'll keep my fingers crossed for you.