June 19, 2019

The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize – Tim Ellis: A Winner’s Story


You’re the winner of the 2017 Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize. Congratulations Tim!

Thank you. It’s been a dream come true.

Tell us about Harklights, your winning entry? Talk us through your writing journey.

It’s about a boy called Wick, who lives at Harklights Match Factory and Orphanage. After finding a tiny baby in an acorn, Wick discovers a race of miniature people who are guardians of the nearby forest. I first wrote Harklights many years ago. The essence of the story hasn’t changed, but my writing has matured over the years. After a few false starts, and a handful of other novels in between, I started again from scratch at the beginning of 2016. I was standing at Epsom station, waiting for a train, and found Wick’s voice and new opening lines.

How did you hear about the prize? Where were you when you found out you’d won?

I kept coming across the prize on Twitter. I made lots of notes to self, reminding me to enter, which I still come across in my writing notebooks. I was teaching a class of pre-degree art students the day I won. There were lots of air punches in the studio, but I waited till no one was around to see them.

The prize was a meeting with Julia Churchill, as well as £1,000. Tell us about that meeting? How did it go?

My feet still hadn’t touched the ground when I met with Julia at the AM Heath offices. Before entering the prize, I felt I’d taken Harklights as far as I could. Julia’s feedback in the meeting was fantastic—it opened up a whole new level of thinking, and made me see how I could make the story structure even stronger.

Sending your book out to publishers must be very exciting. Talk us through the key points.

After reworking and polishing, and working up some sample illustrations, Harklights was sent out to a selection of publishers. This soon whittled down to four who expressed strong interest, and then down to three when it came to putting in best offers. I loved meeting the editorial teams with Julia, and discussing their respective visions for Harklights. It was very tough deciding, I could see Harklights published with each of them. Ultimately, it had to be Usborne as they’d pulled out all the stops to show how much they loved the book. Will, the senior designer, made a Harklights matchbox containing feedback from everyone at Usborne, mocked up a cover and recreated a matchstick soldier that Wick makes.

Your book is being published by Usborne in 2020. That feels like a long way off, but talk us through the process so far?

I’ve been working with Rebecca and Stephanie, my two amazing editors, on further refining Harklights. I’ve also been busy working on illustrations and laying the groundwork for another novel set in the same universe.

Thanks so much for your time, Tim. Any advice for people who want to submit to this year’s prize?

  1. Read your work aloud. It helps you focus on the rhythm and flow of your sentences and see where they might be clunky.
  2. After writing your first draft, put it away for a few weeks, then read it afresh and make honest notes on what needs fixing. Tighten plot, scenes, character, dialogue and tension. To borrow the brilliant wisdom of S.F. Said, ‘no-one can write a great book in one draft’.
  3. Get feedback on your writing. Ask writer friends, find a writing group, go to a conference and workshop your work. I highly recommend working with the following books – The Way to Write for Children by Joan Aiken, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas, On Editing by Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price, Into the Woods by John Yorke
  4. Pay attention to your opening chapters, especially the first page. These chapters need to hook your reader. Polish them till they shine.
  5. Write the book you always wanted to read.