Bestselling novelist Abi Daré was part of the inaugural judging panel for Discoveries 2021, our writing development programme. Discoveries 2022 is now open for submissions, seeking the most talented and original new writing voices in the UK and Ireland.

Here, Abi Daré talks about her experiences getting published, about speaking up, and about the importance of kindness.

Your debut novel The Girl with the Louding Voice won The Bath Novel Award in 2018 and quickly became a New York Times bestseller – can you tell us a bit about your journey to publication?

When I started writing The Girl With The Louding Voice, I did not envision that my book would be published. I did nurse a spark of hope but I had heard stories that the process of getting a publisher could be difficult and fraught with rejection. And so that spark of hope flickered on and off as I focused primarily on writing for myself – and getting through my MA.

At some point, I decided (with support from my MA course supervisor) to submit the manuscript into competitions. My novel was the last entry into the Bath Novel Award (due to my battling doubt about whether to submit or not) and was shocked and thrilled when I was longlisted, then shortlisted, and eventually emerged as the winner. I signed up with my wonderful agent shortly after – and everything moved so quickly from then on. We revised the manuscript a few times and when she told me it was ready for submission, I nearly had a heart attack. The first offer came within 24 hours and then it went on to an auction. I loved every moment, meeting enthusiastic publishers, and just listening to their vision for the book. We went with Sceptre and I have no regrets whatsoever. It’s been such an incredible, life-changing process.

The novel follows Adunni, a 14-year-old-girl from a small town near Lagos, who is illegally married off to help pay her family’s rent. Despite many hardships Adunni is resolved to pursue freedom and an education – to became the girl with a ‘louding voice’. How would you define ‘louding voice’ and how important was it to you to write a story with a strong message of speaking up?

In a society (Adunni’s village in this instance) where poverty is rife, the girl child can be used as a commodity and her dreams are often silenced. For Adunni, a Louding Voice is the ability and opportunity to a) have an education, b) to have a legacy and to influence and change lives of girls like her for good, and c) to reject the silence that comes with being a girl child born into poverty. Adunni wants the freedom to make choices about the direction of her life and her dreams and she strongly believes that having an education is the first step, the foundation to making her dreams reality. It is so critical to understand that speaking up transcends the ability to help just the person speaking up, but knowing that whenever we use our voices, we are doing so for many others who have suffered the same experiences or injustices. It is about starting crucial conversations that would hopefully lead to positive change. It is about refusing to be complacent, to accept what is seen as the norm.

I love this quote by Martin Luther King Jr: ‘A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.’

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

I must have been about five or six when I started to journal (scribbling thoughts into the back of old exercise books and notepads). Then I began to write letters to family members, detailing, with care and attention, how they might have offended or pleased me. Fiction came a little later, in my late twenties, and that was when I knew that I had to do this.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Matilda of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. She is likeable, brilliant and a voracious reader and child who is not afraid to say her mind. A born fighter, she fights injustices in her own way and often finds joy in the most difficult circumstances.

Which book do you always recommend to others?

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. A novel that is heartbreaking and inspiring of two women and their struggles and battles in Afghanistan against patriarchy and harmful tradition. A truly brilliant book on the courage and strength of women.

What’s your favourite debut novel of 2020 so far?

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. It is engaging, and refreshing, and I enjoyed how Reid navigated the often complex discussions around social issues of class and race and still managed to be compelling. A wonderful debut.

If you could tell your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Most of the things you worry about will probably never happen. You will be afraid, but that’s okay. Feel the fear and take the step, anyway.

Kindness costs less than most things – offer it to everyone even if you will not get anything in return.

Do you have any writing rituals – and can you tell us what they are?

I tend to write only after I have a story to work on. The story is the most important thing for me to start with and so I could work on building the story for months. Once I get excited enough, I start to write. As a busy mum and currently still working full time, I tend to write in snatches of time – a moment here and there, moment by moment, scene by scene until I have a completed manuscript. If I am not writing, I am thinking about my characters and planning the next scene in my head.

We’re so pleased to have you onboard as a judge for the inaugural Discoveries Prize – do you have any advice for aspiring authors getting ready to submit to the prize?

I am so excited to be a part of this prize. I am keen on books that leave a reader feeling like you cannot imagine life without the character. I love books that educate and inspire, an unforgettable book. Aspiring authors should try and create a wonderful world – atmospheric, stunningly described but not overdone. It is important to hone the voice and focus on the opening chapters to ensure they are engaging, and gripping. It doesn’t have to be fast paced, but we as readers must feel an immediate sense of what the character wants, and an idea of who they are, where they are. Reading books that are similar to yours often provides some of the best training on how to write – so get reading!

[Interview conducted by the team at Curtis Brown Creative, read the original piece here]

Novelist Abi Daré joined author and founder of the Women’s Prize Kate Mosse, CBC’s founder and managing director Anna Davis, literary agent Lucy Morris and Director for Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature Sandeep Mahal as judge of the inaugural Discoveries programme.