Congratulations to our winner!

We’re delighted to announce that the winner of the Oh Zoe! Rising Talent Award 2017 is Victoria Richards with her wonderful entry “The Forgotten Forest”.

The Forgotten Forest was universally praised by our judging panel and we’re very excited that it will form part of our initial collection.

We caught up with Victoria to find out more about her work and dig a little deeper to see if she had any advice for other authors trying to break into the industry.

A little bit more about Victoria

Congratulations on winning the inaugural Oh Zoe! Rising Talent Award – how did it feel to find out you were our winner?

I was thrilled to find out I had won the award – once I heard there had been 581 entries, I didn’t think I would have a chance, so I was (and still am) overwhelmed. I’ve only relatively recently made the foray into writing for children, so it’s given me a huge confidence boost that I’m hopefully on the right track.

The Forgotten Forest really stood out from a personalisation perspective - what do you think personalisation adds to your story?

I remember feeling awed by the magic of hearing my name in stories my dad told me when I was a child, and I wanted to recreate that feeling of wonder. Children tend to picture themselves in a story anyway, I think – you can see their eyes light up at the mere mention of a protagonist the same age as them. So, by adding other personal details – their name, their favourite things – you’re bringing their own, very special story to life, right in front of them.

Where did the inspiration come from for The Forgotten Forest? Did it rise fully formed in your mind, or was it a slower process to build the story from your initial idea?

I lived in Japan for a few years and love Japanese folklore, such as the story of Momotarō (‘Peach Boy’), and the idea of kodama (Japanese tree spirits). There’s a majestic, 200-year-old oak tree at the bottom of my garden, and I’ve been reading Enid Blyton’s classic The Faraway Tree to my daughter. We often talk about the fairies, elves and animals that may live there, and the idea for my story really came from a love and appreciation of the beauty of the forest around us.

You predominantly work as a journalist; what is it that appeals about writing picture books, and how long have you been writing for children?

I’ve always loved writing – part of the appeal of journalism as a career is the sheer joy of crafting sentences. I also have a five-year-old daughter and nine-month-old son, so reading and telling stories is a huge part of our lives. I wrote my first picture book shortly after my daughter was born, but have only really focused on writing for children of all different ages since going on maternity leave the second time around. I’ve realised how much I love doing it, which is why it is such an honour to receive an award telling me that other people enjoy what I’ve produced.

Do you have different writing habits when writing for children vs articles for adults? Is there a different process you go through for each?

I’ve been trying to make the most of the time I do have to write, because I don’t have much! I write when I can: mostly in the evenings, and when the baby sleeps during the day. Writing for children has surprised me, because many people think it’s simple – but it’s deceptively tough. The word count may be low, but the writing itself has to be tight, yet evocative. In many ways, it’s as tricky as writing a 1,000-word feature for a newspaper. I’m used to working to tight deadlines, such as producing a breaking news story in a matter of minutes, but I’m learning to take my time while writing for children because every word matters. Editing is key. I re-write, and re-draft, all the time.

How do you feel about sharing your work with others? Do you prefer to get feedback early or develop your writing as far as possible before putting it out into the world?

I recently completed a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, so I’ve become much more used to putting my work up for critique at workshops. At first, I was terrified – I don’t feel unnerved by the idea of thousands of people reading my newspaper articles, but creative writing is different somehow, as it feels more personal. I’ve been lucky to find a group of fantastic friends and writers who are extremely talented, supportive and inspiring. Sharing ideas early on in the writing process and getting their feedback as a story develops has, I believe, made me a better writer.

All authors have to deal with rejection and criticism – what motivates you to keep going? Do you have any particular techniques which help you get through the darker days of being an author?

I feel relatively used to criticism – working in busy newspaper offices where everyone is shouting, helps! But it still smarts when you receive a, “it’s not quite right for us” rejection after submitting a beloved piece of work to a literary agent or publisher. I tend to take in those rejections, allow myself to feel that exquisite pang of disappointment, but then move straight on to the next submission – for every person who says no, there might be a different agent, publisher or competition judge out there for whom my work will fit perfectly. It’s a matter of believing in yourself, and persevering. Of course, a glass of wine and some dark chocolate, to see you through the really disappointing days, helps too.

What was it that appealed about entering the Oh Zoe! competition?

Picture book competitions are few and far between, so the announcement of the Oh Zoe! contest created a huge buzz. I’m a member of SCBWI which is a great resource for support, workshopping and information about the children’s book market, and heard about the Oh Zoe! competition through their Facebook site. It was fantastic to see some other ‘SCBWIs’ on the Oh Zoe! shortlist too. I loved the idea of creating a story from scratch with the added challenge of personalisation. It took me three attempts – I submitted three different stories to the competition – but felt I potentially had something special with The Forgotten Forest. Luckily, I was right.

Any advice for other writers entering competitions?

Don’t be disheartened if you don’t win – or don’t even get shortlisted. There are different competitions running all the time, and you have just as good a chance as anyone else. So write, write, write, and enter, enter, enter. What doesn’t appeal to one panel of judges might be exactly what another panel is looking for. I enter lots of competitions, because I like using deadlines as inspiration to write different things. And sometimes, when you least expect it, all that hard work pays off.

And finally, what's next for you as a writer?

I’ve been trying out all sorts of different writing this year – from children’s books to short stories, genre writing to poetry and flash fiction, and I’ve even started a novel. I’ve also been keeping up with journalism by writing comment pieces for the Independent’s Voices section. I’m trying to work out which one I should focus on further into my career! For now, given how excited I am to have achieved this success with Oh Zoe!, I think I’m going to continue working on a book I’ve begun for younger readers, with view to potentially creating a series, and I’m also looking for a literary agent to support me in the process.

Victoria is a freelance journalist and has worked for the BBC, Financial Times, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Times and The Sunday Times, among others.

She has also appeared on Newsnight, BBC World and ITV News and regularly contributes to Independent Voices.

For the past two years she has been working as a homepage editor at The Independent and undertaking an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, which she recently passed with distinction.

Victoria lives in East London and when she’s not looking after an imaginative five-year-old and a relaxed nine-month-old, she is working on a short story collection and a series of books for children.

Victoria has had poems published in the Mechanics’ Institute Review (online), is a member of SCBWI and has also written a novel which she is now using as inspiration to write a better one. She was shortlisted in The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award 2016, longlisted in The Guardian Short Story Contest 2016 (judged by Stephen King), picked as runner-up in The Unbound Short Story Prize 2016, shortlisted in the 2017 Stratford Literary Festival/Salariya Children’s Picture Book Competition, shortlisted in The Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition 2017 and runner-up in the ELLE Writing Competition 2017.

You can find Victoria on Twitter at twitter.com/nakedvix or see more of her Independent articles at independent.co.uk/victoria-richards.