Undiscovered Voices: Changing Lives

By Nicky Schmidt

One of the “Big Events” on the SCBWI-BI calendar is the biennial Undiscovered Voices competition. Offering unpublished and un-agented UK and European SCBWI members a unique window of opportunity, the competition is the proverbial golden carrot of dreams and hope dangling before a writer’s nose. And if you’re wondering why, then, very simply put, being an Undiscovered Voices winner can be a life-changing experience.

I spoke to three authors, Bryony Pearce, Dave Cousins and Jane McLoughlin, to find out how winning Undiscovered Voices has changed their lives.

What made you decide to enter Undiscovered Voices – and did you harbour any secret hopes and dreams?

My final decision to enter was driven by a combination of hope and laissez-faire. I had a completed manuscript (Windrunner's Daughter) and nothing to lose. I really wasn't expecting to win, just hoping that maybe someone, somewhere would like it and that they might remember my name if and when I decided to submit to publishers. 

Secret dreams? Certainly. Hopes? Not a chance! For years I’d been getting up at 5am to do an hour’s writing before work, but never produced anything I was happy with. However, my wife had read an early draft of 15 Days Without a Head and she persuaded me to send it to Undiscovered Voices. I have much to thank her for!

Luckily, I had just shown my manuscript At Yellow Lake to a literary consultant who suggested it might be suitable for the competition. I don’t know if I harboured any secret hopes or dreams, but I remember thinking that an honourable mention would be pretty good...

How did it feel when you discovered you were one of the Undiscovered Voices?

I was utterly shocked and completely delighted. Sara O-Connor called and left a message to call her back. I had no idea who she was (not being an SCBWI member at the time) and her message hadn't mentioned Undiscovered Voices, so when I finally got hold of her we had a moment where I had no idea what she was talking about. When it finally hit home I was over the moon. To go from outright rejection to winning a competition was a huge step. It felt like going from nothing to everything. It was amazing.

Surreal – especially when I started to receive emails from agents and editors! But I don’t think I truly believed it, until I had a copy of the anthology in my hands, and saw the story in print.

At first I was confused. Sara Grant left a message on my answering machine, and I couldn’t figure out why my sister-in-law in the USA would be calling me about At Yellow Lake. The similarity in their accents is uncanny! Once I realised who it actually was, and why she was calling, the excitement set in.

Once your piece appeared in the UV Anthology and the launch party took place, what happened?

I had two swift offers from agents. One from one of the judges and one from an agent who had read it as a result of the win. I had to choose between the two - it was a difficult decision. Then I had to rewrite Windrunner as my agent wanted many changes. Finally it was sent to publishers ... and rejected. A lot.

In the meantime I was developing close friendships with some of the other winners, and keeping up with their own news. Sarwat Chadda, in particular, landed a huge book deal for his Undiscovered Voices entry and it was both inspirational and a little depressing - why was mine getting rejections, while his was getting snatched up?

I decided to take a break from being rejected and write another book. This novel, Angel's Fury, was bought by Egmont in 2009 and published in 2011. My next book, The Weight of Souls will be published by Strange Chemistry in August and Windrunner's Daughter has had a total rewrite and is going back out to publishers this year.

Angel's Fury was long-listed for the Branford Boase, won the Leeds Book Award and has been shortlisted for the Cheshire Schools Book Award. 

Things are great.

That year, the judges were allowed to contact the winners straight away, so by the time the anthology appeared, I had already signed with my agent Sarah Manson.

At the start of the launch party, all the selected authors were fairly terrified I think, but the two Sara’s (Grant and O’Connor) were brilliant, introducing us to agents and editors. In the end, I had a great time. It was incredible having respected industry professionals coming up and saying nice things about the story.

Afterwards, a number of publishers contacted Sarah, asking to see the full manuscript. While it was tempting to send it off straight away, there were sections I still wasn’t happy with, so we waited. I rewrote the second half completely and then did a couple of full edits with Sarah until we both felt that the story was a strong as it could be. Only then, did she send it out.

Waiting to hear was like endless Christmas Eves! Then, after all the years of typing and dreaming, everything happened really fast – offers, meetings with editors – and then I had to choose!

By the time of the launch, At Yellow Lake had already been turned down by several agents who’d asked to see a full manuscript, so I wasn’t feeling too confident. But the launch itself turned out to be much more auspicious than I could have imagined, as I met my wonderful editors who really understood what I was trying to say with the book. I have to add, though, that it was many, many months, before I actually signed a deal with Frances Lincoln, and I didn’t sign with my agent until after I signed the deal. Not a straightforward journey, by any means, but a very exciting one!

How do you feel your life changed by being an Undiscovered Voice?

The obvious change would be getting an agent. Getting off that slush pile and onto the first rung of the ladder was a huge step that would have taken so much longer without SBCWI and Undiscovered Voices. Also it was a giant confidence boost. I hadn't shown my work to anyone at that point (except Cornerstones) and having a competition win was enough of a boost to make me feel as if I had a talent worth nurturing and to brave those publishers. 

To say that being an Undiscovered Voices author changed my life is no exaggeration. The story I entered – 15 Days Without a Head – is now being published in nine different languages across the world, and I’ve been a full-time author for two years. I am currently working on my third and fourth books for Oxford University Press, and I spend my days writing, visiting schools, libraries and book festivals all over the country. Most mornings when I sit down at my desk, I pinch myself, because I still can’t quite believe that this is my job – all thanks to Undiscovered Voices.

For me, being included in the anthology led directly to being published and signing with a wonderful agent. That’s the good, life-changing, news. The very good (and life-changing) news is that by being included in UV2010 I was introduced to my fellow anthology writers, who have become great friends and have been a continuous source of support since the initial launch in 2010. This has probably been the best thing about being a UV writer for me.

Finally, what would you say to a writer considering entering UV? Why should they do it, how should they prepare, and what might they expect?


Preparation is important. I worked on those 2000 words until I couldn't see any more improvements to make, because I figured everyone else would be doing the same thing. Apart from that I'd say, what have you got to lose? The worst thing that can happen is you don't win. The Sara's won't come round to your house with big sticks and beat you until you promise not to write another word. In fact even if you don't win, you might find you get short-listed in which case at least some of the judges liked your work. 

Enter because it's the first step to getting your manuscript out of your bottom drawer, enter because it's brave, enter because you are a writer and writers need their work to be seen. And enter because you might win.

And if you win, what can you expect? Your work in print for the first time, a boost out of the slushpile, the start of your career, a party and hopefully some lifelong friendships. 

Do it! What have you got to lose? I didn’t think I’d be selected, and could easily have decided not to enter, but look what happened – dreams can come true!

How to prepare? Read last year’s anthology – look at the quality of the writing and storytelling. Then, get your extract as strong as it can be. When you reach the editing/crafting stage, I find that reading out loud can help to identify sentences that need tightening, stilted dialogue, and anything else that isn’t quite working.

It is also important to be honest in your writing. Don’t try to write what you think the judges want. Tell your story, your way, and you have a chance of producing something original.

Finally, send in your entry, then forget about it and keep writing.

And if you get the call to say you’ve been ‘discovered’…hold on tight and enjoy the ride!

Good luck!

There’s no reason NOT to enter, if you’re sure that your work is ready—meaning your MS is complete and is as good as you can possibly make it. We are so fortunate to have this opportunity in the UK, and the anthology commands an amazing degree of respect, so go for it!

If you should be one of the lucky writers included in the UV2014 anthology, be prepared for a wonderful, heady experience! Of course not every writer’s road to publication or success is trouble-free or straightforward (mine hasn’t been—and still isn’t!) Not everyone will get an agent or a deal at the outset — for some it may take years. It’s important to remember, though, that being included or shortlisted for the anthology is probably the best writing credit a UK based children’s writer can have on his or her CV, and nothing can ever take that away!

So, there you go - life changing experiences really do happen! And if you want to be agented and published, here’s YOUR opportunity. If you’re a SCBWI member in good standing and reside in the UK or one of the current 27 countries of the EU, 4 European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries, or 5 candidate countries, enter Undiscovered Voices 2014.


For more information about Undiscovered Voices, and how to enter, please visit the Undiscovered Voices website.

To learn more about Bryony, Dave and Jane, and their respective novels, please visit their websites:

Bryony Pearce  – 2008 UV winner and author of award winning Angel’s Fury and soon to be published The Weight of Souls

Dave Cousins  – 2010 UV winner and author of award winning 15 Days Without a Head and Waiting for Gonzo

Jane McLoughlin  – 2010 UV winner and author of award-nominated At Yellow Lake

As well as being a regular feature writer for Words & Pictures, Nicky also runs the SCBWI_BI YA E-Critique group.  She blogs at Absolute Vanilla


  1. I wish we could enter, Nicky! I'd really encourage anyone who can to do it - DO IT!!! I feel like I'm saying 'There are people out there who'd love that broccoli.' But it's true - if you fit the criteria and you've a script ready to go, what have you got to lose? And just like broccoli, the whole experience will be good for you - even if you feel slightly sick during the process.

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  3. I can't add any more to what I said, Nicky, but I loved reading Dave and Bryony's comments. Thanks so much for this. I hope it encourages many writers to enter the contest.

  4. Excellent interview: it's good to hear a positive, upbeat story about what happened after those UVs became DVs.

  5. Thanks for sharing your winnings. This is the first year I've noticed that published picture book authors qualify - and I may be ready to submit before the end of August. It is an amazing opportunity. I will if you will

  6. Thanks for inviting me to take part in the interview Nicky. I hope any Scoobies still wondering about entering this year's comp will be persuaded it's worth a go. It could change your life folks! Good luck …

  7. Was great to learn more about your UV experiences, Dave and Jane and Bryony.
    And Sue - hope to see your name on that winning list!

  8. A great interview - well done, all!

  9. This really helps me: "I decided to take a break from being rejected and write another book."

    Brilliant interview, Nicky - you are the master. In a right thinking world South Africa would be in the EU just so's you can enter too!


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