Reflections on the application stage: what did we learn?

It seems incredible that it has been seven years since Megaphone Mentoring opened for applications for the very first time. Since then we have mentored 13 brilliantly talented mentees in total, of whom 7 are now either published or signed with literary agents. Our wonderful judging team of editors has now selected our 8 mentees for this year, and every unsuccessful applicant has been offered 30 minutes feedback with Stephanie King or Leila Rasheed and membership of the Community group on BAND. I thought at this stage, some reflections might be interesting to anyone who is thinking of applying in the future.

General observations on the applications: Both Stephanie and I read all the applications and thought this year they were of a very high standard. We saw lots of confident writing, assured pacing, laugh-out-loud humour, entrancing description and fresh originality of voice and concept. This year we noticed a lot of Gothic or dark comic fantasies, which were very welcome. There were also some really strong contemporary YA voices that instantly struck us as compelling and authentic. On the other hand, sometimes, we’d see writing where the actual narrative was much less engaging and dynamic than the dialogue – it’s always good to remember that the narrator has to be characterised too.

The biggest problems we saw suggested that the writer had perhaps not read enough contemporary children’s or teenage fiction, and thus were not sure of the narrative voice. Reading one or two books is not enough; it has to be a passion. Stephanie King has started a book club for Megaphone Community to encourage more reading of contemporary children’s books.

Sometimes, we saw very good writing that seemed to be for adults rather than for children or teenagers. Stories need to be from the perspective of young people. YA will tend to look forward, not back – readers live in the moment with the main character. While books don’t have to be in the first person, it can be helpful to write a bit in first person to get into the character’s mindset.

A very strong original concept, by a less experienced writer, might in the end stand out to judges more than high quality of writing with an unclear story or over-familiar concept. Concept is also a factor in how publishable a book is. To know whether you have an original concept or not you need to read lots and lots of contemporary books in your intended age group – spend some time in the children’s / YA section of a large bookshop like Waterstones and look at what is on the tables.

A slow pace to the story was sometimes a problem, as were child characters who were too passive, spending the time watching or listening to lectures from adult characters. Sometimes dialogue felt forced and wooden because it was there mainly to get information across to the reader rather than being something that a child might actually say . Especially with fantasy or science fiction, where world-building is difficult to get right, dense writing was sometimes a problem. Choosing a telling detail, and not trying to put too much information into a single sentence, is important. A good critique group or someone to read your writing over is very useful.

Most applications were for books intended for 9 and up, and we would love to see more applicants writing chapter books for younger readers (to date, picture books have been outside of the scope of the scheme)

We’re always interested in the statistics so we can find out who we’re reaching:

This time round we received 55 eligible applications, very slightly fewer than last time we ran (58). Applications tend to number around 55 to 60, which is less than some competitions but I think reflects the fact that applicants are signing up to a demanding and serious year of writing. Of these, a shortlist of 16 was sent to the judges. As stated on the website, we were looking for applications that we felt could reach a publishable standard in a year, and in cases of equal merit, we gave preference to
– those resident in an Arts Council England Priority Place
– those who had not received similar mentoring before

  • Just under a quarter of applicants stated they were resident in an Arts Council England Priority Place.
  • 90.9% stated they had not received mentoring as a children’s writer before.
  • 80% of applicants were applying for the first time (unsuccessful applicants were welcome to re-apply).
  • Most applicants are based in London or Birmingham, although we received applications from most areas of the country. This is similar to other years, and reflects a higher ethnic minority population in those cities.
  • As in other years, we had applications from a wide range of ethnicities, including mixed and complex ones, in proportions broadly reflecting the ethnic make-up of England. We had fewer applications from BESEA applicants than last year, when Maisie Chan was involved. This tells us that having a particular, intentional focus can be effective in drawing applications from particular groups, and is something we will continue to bear in mind when designing future schemes.
  • Most people heard about us through word of mouth/ personal recommendations from mentors or former mentees. Others mentioned hearing about it from the RCW workshop, the Jericho Prize, Write Mentor, All Stories, Middleway Mentoring. It’s heartening to see schemes supporting each other, and to see a small but mighty network of organisations growing up who are eager to break down barriers for new writers so children and teenagers can get the wonderfully diverse bookshelves they deserve.

And that’s it – I hope that’s useful to future applicants or anyone interested in the scheme. We’re very excited to get going on the mentoring and will be back soon with a bit more information about the talented mentees and their projects for the next year!
– Leila Rasheed

Published by Leila from Megaphone

Writer and runs Megaphone: a writer development scheme for people of colour who want to write for children. Tweets @MegaphoneWrite and @LeilaR

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