SLUSH PILE CHALLENGE Big Summer Slush Pile Challenge 2019 Winner Claire Watts

Claire Watts, winner of the Big Summer Slush Pile Challenge 2019, tells us why she entered the competition and about her experience of discussing her submission with Ben Illis, of The BIA.

Claire won this challenge by submitting:

Outline of the book, including why you think there is space for it out there
• Some market research on competing titles in the market-place, which might include publisher, publication date etc
•  Target readership, including (if applicable) any syllabus/key stage tie-in
Why you are the writer to tell this story
A sample of up to 2500 words of text (give or take) from your proposed narrative non-fiction title.

Ben chose Tell Me a Story about Medicine by Claire Watts as “it was a very clear and well-crafted proposal. It dealt with the vagaries and probablies of handling ancient facts very well and was honestly absolutely fascinating and perfect for any budding medic. It was meticulously researched and clearly laid out by an author who both knows their stuff and knows exactly how to convey this information in just the right tone and with just the right depth. Very excited to hear more about this one and we have lots of ideas to share with the author too. Excellent stuff!”


I’ve been a writer and editor of children’s nonfiction for almost thirty years, but in all that time I’ve never had an agent. When I started out agents weren’t interested in taking on nonfiction children’s writers. There just wasn’t enough money in it. Most publishers generated their own nonfiction ideas to fit their lists and commissioned writers like me to write them. They weren’t interested in buying ideas from writers. But over the last few years, things have changed for children’s nonfiction. It’s now front and centre in bookshops. People are talking about it. Agents are asking for it. So when I saw that Ben Illis had set a nonfiction challenge, it seemed like a challenge set especially for me.

It wasn’t hard to get my entry together. I’ve been concentrating on writing fiction over the last few years, but since there’s been such an upsurge in nonfiction, last year I started working on some nonfiction ideas. Most of the nonfiction books I’ve written has been image-led with short blocks of text. As it’s longer-form narrative nonfiction that is driving the market right now, I decided to turn my attention to this. When Ben’s Slush Pile Challenge appeared in W&P, I already had a concept, contents list and some text. I had to put together a market research document, but that wasn’t hard since what I’d been working on was a response to the market. And I had to tell Ben why I was the person to write this book. Why? Because I’ve been doing it for years. Because I know the market. Because all the years of writing fiction have trained me to make an engaging story out of information.

I was thrilled to discover that I was one of the winners. Being called ‘an author who knows their stuff’ is the type of comment that makes a nonfiction writer like me feel properly valued. I was as casual as I could be about my win to other people, but I allowed myself to be quietly thrilled. I told myself I was interested to hear not just Ben’s response to my work but also an agent’s point of view about the market for children’s nonfiction.

I had taken myself off to France on a solo retreat when I had my ‘meeting’ with Ben via Skype. We’d been supposed to talk the previous week and I’d been ready then, but Ben had to cancel. By the time we were actually talking, I realised I hadn’t looked over the copious notes I’d made and I couldn’t remember what I’d meant to say. It didn’t matter. Ben was so excited about what I’d written, full of ideas and suggestions, disappearing from the screen and reappearing with books to show me. We talked for an hour and then the internet cut out. There was a bit of texting back and forth but we decided we’d talked enough – for the moment. And do you know what? Ben honestly sounded like he was as excited to be speaking to me as I was to be speaking to him. And he wanted to see more.

So after a couple more long conversations and sending stuff back and forth, I’m over the moon to announce that Ben is going to represent me. *Happy dance*

Signing my contract during a long and chatty lunch

Ben and me with photo-bombing shark

Photos: Claire Watts

A special thanks to Ben Illis, of The BIA for setting the competition, judging it and providing such valuable feedback to Claire.

Elaine Cline has been a SCBWI member for over six years and loves to write picture books, middle-grade and teen books. She lives by the sea and has one dog and one cat. Elaine is a member of the Words & Pictures editorial team, managing The Slush Pile Challenge.


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