SLUSH PILE CHALLENGE July 2021 Winner Jo Baker



Jo Baker, winner of the July 2021 Slush Pile Challenge, tells us why she entered the competition and about her experience of discussing her submission with Catherine Pellegrino, of Marjacq Scripts Ltd.


Jo won this challenge set by Catherine Pellegrino:


“Catherine was looking for great new contemporary YA voices and wanted to meet a 'kick-ass girl' or 'bad boy'. She requested 500 words about the main character and a half page synopsis of the story. The manuscript didn’t need to be completed.


Catherine chose Vita in The City of Dark Ink by Jo Baker as “ the voices of the characters, the quality of the prose and the world created with so few words were totally gripping and left me bereft that I couldn’t read on and spend more time with them. Interestingly, the reader learns most about the characters from those around them.


‘Reader Dram, would say that I am stubborn and cold and arrogant and brilliant….’


‘You… you used to say that I have a soft centre, sweeter than toffee but just as intractable. Hard work, but worth it. That I am kinder than I think I am, and that my cleverness matters far less than my good heart. I am not convinced. I have done far worse things than I could ever admit to someone like you.’”




When I read the challenge that Catherine Pellegrino of Marjacq had set, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to do, and never in a million years thought I would actually win. So, I wrote 500 words from the point of view of my protagonist, sent it off, and promptly forgot all about it.


The book 

I’ve been working on my book, the City of Dark Ink (working title), since 2016. It started life as a middle grade book about a girl who could control dragons with her mind. Now, several thousand edits later, there are no dragons. Instead, City of Dark Ink is set in a society that has a tradition of Binding souls into books after death to ensure they rest in peace. The Scholar, a dictator, has subverted this magic to Bind the souls of his political opponents. His ward, seventeen year old Vita, has fallen in love with Martha, a servant girl. The Scholar finds out, and Binds Martha’s soul into a book to punish Vita. Now Vita must rescue her beloved before a flaw in the magic causes fragmented parts of the bound souls to leak into the ether, creating an unstable force that - left unchecked - will destroy everything.


The meeting

It was very useful indeed to speak to Catherine. I am about 40k words into the rewrite, she gave some really insightful feedback and asked some excellent questions that really got me thinking - and have pushed me to refine and rework the plot. It helped that she was lovely, too.


Key feedback
She suggested that I could bring my protagonist ‘to the surface’ a little more. We talked a little about how I might do this. My protagonist is very isolated at the beginning of the book, but there are a few key relationships that I could develop.
My antagonist is really scary and cruel to my protagonist right from the beginning. Catherine suggested that I might think about why my protagonist stays given how cruel he is to her. I have really thought about this since, and have made some major changes - now he is manipulative but much more ambiguously cruel at the beginning, which gives me room for him to escalate and become truly terrifying towards the end, and also means that Vita can uncover more about her relationship with her guardian as the book goes on. This felt like a particularly important change for my book.

Catherine also said some really lovely things:

That she thought my concept was really strong.
That the voice is good, and that I am a skilled and talented writer (who also doesn’t like to blow her own trumpet so this bit is very difficult not to delete!)

Catherine also asked if I would like to keep in touch after our call, and perhaps bounce ideas off her every so often, to which I replied with a resounding ‘Yes Please!’ She also said that she would like to see my manuscript when it is finished, and finished the call with an encouraging and warm ‘Keep going’.


So, thank you Catherine, and thank you also Words and Pictures for running the Slush Pile challenge and working so hard in the background. It’s been a brilliant experience.


Photo: Jo Baker


A special thanks to Catherine Pellegrino, of Marjacq Scripts Ltd for setting the competition, judging it and providing such valuable feedback to Jo.



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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