Earlier this year, we launched a submission feedback opportunity with Mushens Entertainment literary agency, which represents a diverse range of emerging and best-selling authors of fiction and non-fiction, to support talented new voices in commercial fiction from writers from backgrounds underrepresented in publishing.
We enjoyed reading so many fantastic submissions and we’re thrilled to announce that the winners are: Caroline Gardiner, Javaria Akbar, Jessica Douglas, Lauren Alonso Miller and Ruth Husain, who received a feedback critique from agents Rachel Neely and Liza DeBlock on their projects.
Find out more about the selected writers and their work below…
Caroline Gardiner was one of the 2019/20 Spread the World London Writers’ Awards group. The YA novel she worked on during the scheme was selected for the first stage of Penguin Write Now. Since then, Caroline has had a short story published in an Arts Council funded anthology, been commissioned to write a non-zombie audio adventure for the Zombies Run app. She was also short listed twice for the Dave/UK TV new sitcom commission, once with a script about flatmates with disabilities. Last year, she was selected for the Genesis Jewish Book Week Emerging Writers’ scheme, with her non-fiction book, Slow, which draws on her experience of disability to explore the rise of Slow movements. Her previous work includes dramatising a ghost story for audio book, co-writing a play for BBC Radio, and creating social game scenarios for the Natural History Museum. She has had a short film script optioned by the BBC, and was joint winner for the First Film Foundation Jerwood Prize for short film scripts.
About Caroline’s fiction project, Brotherhood of the Dragon: Currently, Caroline is working on a historical thriller, Brotherhood of the Dragon. Set in sixteenth Century Siena, it tells the story of the first woman to ride in the famous Palio horse race, and how she becomes ensnared in a deadly assassination plot.
Caroline says: “It was a privilege and a delight to have the chance to discuss my book with Liza. She was so enthusiastic and knowledgable about historical fiction, and offered me valuable insights into the current market, and in how to sell the book. She very quickly identified areas where I could improve my writing – both in key areas such as structure, and in smaller aspects such as individual scenes of dialogue. Liza was very skilful in the things that I had thought probably needed looking at, but where I hadn’t easily been able to identify how to address the issues. I feel more confident now about continuing to write and edit the book. What a fantastic opportunity this scheme is for the aspiring writer!”
Javaria Akbar is a freelance journalist and copywriter with a keen interest in food writing. She has contributed to Hyphen Online, Dazed Beauty, The Pool, Delish, BuzzFeed, The Debrief, Grazia, Refinery29, Vice, Munchies, The Guardian and more. She’s also published non-fiction essays in Life Honestly and The Best Most Awful Job.
About Javaria’s project: Conversations in Cars puts the nuances of falling in love after an arranged marriage under the lens. A humorous but moving women’s fiction examining grief and family, with an unlikely love story at its heart, it highlights the effects of generational trauma and how the fear of vulnerability can hold us back from love and acceptance.
Javaria says: “The feedback I received from Rachel Neely gave me a real confidence boost to continue trusting my own voice. She gave me detailed notes on my introductory chapters and answered every one of my questions with care. She also put together a query letter for me, which was incredibly useful – it’s deceptively tricky to distil an entire manuscript into a few words that encapsulates its heart and outlines its marketability, so I’m extremely appreciative to be given such expert help. We discussed comparable titles and I came away from our meeting feeling energised to refine my manuscript further and to never, ever give up.”
Jessica Douglas lives in London with her partner and cat. She was longlisted for the 2023 Penguin Michael Joseph Undiscovered Writers Prize, shortlisted for the 2022 BPA First Novel Award and longlisted for the 2021 London Writers Award. She was also a recipient of Cornerstones’ 2021 Arts Council England ELEVATE literary mentoring scheme and Greene & Heaton’s 2021 Greene Door Project. She is originally from New Zealand and holds an MA in History of Art.
About Jessica’s project: On My Mind is set in London and follows the story of Frances, an average-in-all-ways university student who becomes increasingly obsessed with Ruth, the wealthy and charismatic mother of the child she babysits. Over the course of a summer, Frances goes to extreme lengths to immerse herself – and remain – in Ruth’s life. When Ruth confides in Frances her fears of her husband Ajay’s affair, the babysitter will stop at nothing to prove his lie. Ajay is hiding a bigger secret than just a mistress, though, and when the shock truth is unleashed, all of their lives start to unravel.
Jessica says: “I’m so grateful for the opportunity to speak with Liza. She was friendly and personable, and her industry insight and advice have been incredibly useful in shaping my novel. Thanks to her feedback, I am working on editing it down to 90,000 and tweaking part of the opening. It was so validating to have been picked for this opportunity – for someone to see value in the story I’m creating – and to have Liza compliment my writing style. A real boost!”
Lauren Alonso Miller: I have an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck. My short stories have been placed in The Bridport Prize, The Cambridge Short Story Prize, and the Dinesh Allirajah Prize with Comma Press, as well as been published online in Five Dials, The Fiction Pool, MIR Online. Excerpts of my fiction writing were included in Spread the Word’s City of Stories Anthology, the Dialect Writers 2022 anthology, and Calyx Press Journal. Additionally I’ve had a poem longlisted in the Fish Poetry Prize and a novel longlisted for the Mselxia Novel prize. The opening to Jolly Old Hawk! has recently been longlisted for the Retreat West First Chapter Prize.
About Lauren’s project: Jolly Old Hawk! follows Hannah, a young teacher in 1960s Yorkshire, who is responsible for placing two young girls into care. Suspecting they were victims of abuse, Hannah believed she was doing the right thing, but 40 years later the incident still haunts her.
Lauren says: “Rachel was an agent I’d had in mind to send my novel to once it was complete, so it was wonderful to be paired with her for feedback. While I think it’s important to primarily be writing for your own development and exploration, having someone from the industry give their opinion on elements of my submission package was gold-dust, especially as I intend to send my novel out into the world soon. Rachel and I worked on my cover letter, which is in much better shape with a great elevator pitch that she suggested! It was really great to chat, and I believe opportunities like this really helps de-mystify an industry that can often feel intimidating to writers.”
Social media handle: @LAMillerwriter
Ruth Husain was a full-time parent-carer to her autistic children until recently, when she returned to a health, safety and wellbeing role. Now she works flexibly around her caring responsibilities. Ruth writes as a creative way to relieve stress and explore ideas. As someone who is autistic and experiences emotions differently, she was interested in the idea of what it would be like if emotions were visible. The answer to this question developed into her novel Ninety-Three Percent. Ruth has done several writing courses with The Novelry. In March 2022, she received an ‘honourable mention’ in their Firestarter competition for the first 1000 words.
About Ruth’s project, Ninety-Three Percent: Consumed by her work in a bureaucratic and hierarchical afterlife, Stella works in a factory processing dead souls’ colourful and tangible emotions in readiness for their judgement. Stella is more adept at the afterlife than she was at life. Management even crowned her ‘employee of the month’. Though she cannot cope with her own emotions and takes substances to blot out flashbacks of the accident that killed her. But Stella’s newest client, Adam, brings memories of their shared past flooding back and, with it, a discovery. Stella has a choice: to walk away from life or somehow find a route back. But for this, she must learn to process her own emotions, which might just trip her up.
Ruth says: “It was amazing to hear Liza’s feedback about my story. I found it so helpful to hear how she would categorise my book, as it doesn’t fit neatly in one genre. Liza gave me some wonderful tips on how I could improve my submission letter and synopsis. Speaking to Liza has given me a tremendous boost of confidence to finish my edits, knowing what parts she thought worked well and armed with her advice on how to improve it. Thank you so much to Mushens Entertainment and Spread the Word for this opportunity.”
Agent Liza DeBlock says of the opportunity: “Working with Spread the Word was very important to me as they are dedicated to helping writers from all walks of life be creative and share their stories. Running this competition for feedback is important because I want all authors to feel as though their voices are heard, and have the skills and knowledge to present their books to agents in the best professional manner. I really enjoyed speaking with the writers at the event where Rachel and I talked about writing a pitch letter. It was great to hear such smart questions and see authors walk away feeling better equipped to approach agents.
After the seminar on pitch letters, it was great to see all the applicants who applied for feedback in the competition. We chose a lot of people that we thought would really benefit from specific feedback to help make their ideas stand out even more than they were. The authors had fun, unique pitches that presented innovative stories from previously unheard voices. Their books ranged from thrillers, to fantasy, to women’s fiction and more, but all had a uniqueness that made me sit up and want to read on. I hope that our conversations encouraged them to keep going, keep editing, and listen and take onboard critiques that will help them succeed in the future.
There are so many resources out there to help authors looking to break into the industry, and I’m happy that Rachel and I could add to that with this competition.”
Agent Rachel Neely says: “Coming from a low socio-economic background myself, I know how challenging it can be breaking into the publishing industry, whether as an agent, editor or author. I have followed Spread the Word’s work supporting diversity and inclusion in the industry for several years and was delighted to have this opportunity to partner with them. We know that querying agents can be really daunting and were thrilled to be able to contribute to the great work that Spread the Word do to demystify the process.
As an agent I’m always on the hunt for unique stories from previously underrepresented groups, and I was thrilled to have such a diverse and talented collection of voices to sample as part of this competition – it made picking our finalists very difficult!
It was fantastic to read the work of all the writers that had submitted a sample for consideration, which spanned from historical fiction to sci-fi and everything in-between. I was thoroughly impressed by the quality of the work and the range of ideas, but what really stood out about the writers I did one-to-ones with was the quality of their voice, the intrigue they built in their short samples and finishing their submission with a genuine desire to know what happened next!”
Published: 11 September 2023