09 June 2021

Announcing the Discoveries Prize winner

by Discoveries Author Interviews, Discoveries, Events

We’re delighted to announce the winner and runner-up of the inaugural Discoveries Prize, selected by our judging panel from the 2,300+ unpublished women that submitted their works of fiction.

The winner of the prize is Emma van Straaten, her novel-in-progress Heartstring takes inspiration from her time working as a cleaner within her own London block of flats. As the winner of Discoveries, Emma will receive an offer of representation by Curtis Brown literary agency, a £5,000 cheque and a desk to write at her local NatWest Accelerator Hub.

The runner-up to the 2021 Discoveries programme is Lucy Keefe, who started out by writing fan fiction about Taylor Swift. With her original and energetic urban fantasy story Pantheon Lucy wins a place on our flagship three-month Writing Your Novel course worth £1,800.

Chair of judges Kate Mosse says: ‘We are absolutely delighted by the winner that we have chosen for our 2021 Discoveries writing programme. We were looking for potential, imagination and a distinctive voice and have found all of these things in Emma van Straaten. Her brilliantly written submission, Heartstring, is suspenseful, disquieting, brave, and eloquent. To be able to offer Emma representation with Curtis Brown literary agency is very exciting and I look forward to hearing more about her next steps. Finally, a huge thank you to my fellow judges – Abi Daré, Anna Davis, Sandeep Mahal and Lucy Morris – and once again congratulations to all the authors, especially our runner-up Lucy Keefe. ‘

Curtis Brown literary agent Lucy Morris and Curtis Brown Creative founder and Director Anna Davis said:
‘Emma van Straaten is an exciting new writer and a worthy winner of our first Discoveries prize: Heartstring is a gleaming gem of a novel – compelling, beautifully rendered and wonderfully ominous. We can’t wait to read more. Pantheon, by our runner-up Lucy Keefe, is a highly original and witty fantasy detective story, with great series potential. We loved reading the openings of these two terrific novels – and indeed all of the wonderful material from our shortlisted and longlisted writers. We’d also like to take the opportunity to thank and congratulate every writer who sent us their work this year – it’s not easy to write a novel, and you have embraced that challenge wholeheartedly.’ ‘

Read on to find out more about our talented winner and runner-up.

Winner: Emma van Straaten, Heartstring

Emma van Straaten was born in London and raised in West Sussex, receiving her degrees in English from Durham University. A swiftly abandoned career in law led her to the V&A Museum where she now works in fundraising. She lives in Putney with her husband and baby daughter.

‘Emma van Straaten is such an exciting new talent. Heartstring presents a deliciously sinister premise, told with dry humour and precise observation – and her lead character’s voice is one that echoes in your head long after reading.’ – Lucy Morris

How does it feel to be the inaugural winner of the Discoveries Prize? 

I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it! It’s been an amazing few weeks – I learned of the shortlisting just days before having my first baby, and read the email saying I had won in a sleep-deprived newborn haze. I am surprised and delighted – it still doesn’t feel real. I’m incredibly grateful to the judging panel for the faith they are putting in me, and am really excited to have the support and guidance of Curtis Brown as I work to turn my submission of 10,000 words into something more. 

If there any advice you’d you like to share with the writers thinking of submitting to Discoveries when it opens again for entries in September? 

Just write! You have nothing to lose, so find those 10,000 words and submit them. The Discoveries Prize is wonderful and unique in that no one is expecting a polished final draft – the judges know they’re reading works in progress and are here for the journey. I wasn’t totally happy with my submission, and had doubts that anyone would want to read my work – but I can tell you now that if you want to write it, someone will want to read it. 

What initially inspired your novel-in-progress?

When I first moved to London, I became a casual cleaner for a couple who lived in the same block of flats as me. I’d advertised in the communal post-room, and after a five-minute interview with Sarah, was hired to pop round twice a week. They left cash on the counter, and communicated by the odd note, so I never saw her again, and never met her husband at all.

Arriving often minutes after they’d left for work, it wasn’t long before I felt I knew them. Their surroundings seemed to give me clues as to their personalities and I grew oddly fond of them. I began making all sort of involuntary judgements and assumptions from this strangely intimate relationship I had with their belongings, as I washed up their breakfast bowls, straightened the books on their bedside tables and folded their clothes. They eventually moved away (which I’d known would happen because of the twelve-week pregnancy scan that appeared on their corkboard and the subsequent estate agent brochures spread on their kitchen counter), but the experience stayed with me.

Several years later, I signed up for an evening creative writing course for which I wrote a short story, drawing on this uneasy knowingness. My classmates found my depiction of an obsessive cleaner who blindly loves the inhabitant of a flat she cleans unsettling. I wanted her story told more fully, her fixation made more frightening, so I started writing Heartstring.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Write what you want to read. This has essentially given me permission to keep at it, even if what I am writing seems unpublishable as I’m writing it! It has reminded me that despite any potential pitfalls – this draft not falling neatly into a genre, or having a main character people might not connect with or particularly like – it’s what I’d like to read, and that’s enough for me.

Alex Preston’s advice to write whenever or wherever you can has also been invaluable – I am just the type of person to become fixated on the idea of the ‘perfect’ writing environment (a shepherd’s hut with a special pen) but if you abandon this romanticised ideal of novel-writing, it’s actually very freeing. As a result, typing into a phone note while on the 430 bus from Putney to South Kensington has produced some of my best work!

Where do you like to write?

In an ideal world, a garret in Paris! The reality is more prosaic – I write wherever I can carve out a period of solitude. This used to be during my hour-long commute to work, tapped out into my phone, or at my desk during a spare lunch hour. During the pandemic, however, this has changed to the kitchen table an hour before I need to log on for work in the morning, where I type at my failing laptop as the world slowly wakes up. I also take the odd day of holiday here and there to devote to writing, which once I would have imagined taking place in a café with frequent cake breaks, but now actually spend writing on the sofa in our sitting room for a change of scenery from the kitchen table!

What is your favourite novel by a female author?

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, which has been my favourite for years and will probably never be usurped. When I first read it at school, I loved the romance between Jane and Mr Rochester and the gothic excitement of the madwoman in the attic. All subsequent readings have just added layers to this enjoyment; it still feels comforting to read but throws up new challenges: explorations of violence and oppression, and troubling depictions of class and gender. Nevertheless, I recognise in all the female characters I love in fiction this unapologetic, fierce heroine who refuses to simplify herself to seem more acceptable to others. It has also coloured my own writing in unexpected ways – I have only just realised that the physical connection, the tightly knotted string, that Mr Rochester imagines between his and Jane’s hearts has directly influenced my manuscript and its title.

Which woman writer inspires you most and why?

This is an impossible question! I am inspired by so many. I think I’d have to say Margaret Atwood, for the sheer richness and depth of her literary career, the beauty and imagination of her writing which I have loved since childhood, and the willingness and ease with which she defies genre, to great success. This flexible attitude to genre is also why I admire authors Sarah Waters and Tana French, who write so magnificently and purposefully, thwarting any expectation a reader might have about historic fiction or crime writing. I welcome the attitude that all types of writing can be beautiful.

Runner-up: Lucy Keefe, Pantheon

Lucy Keefe writes urban fantasy characters who sound like the women she knows, and eat like the woman she is, living vicariously through her characters’ stomachs. Raised in Dorset, Lucy made it through five years in London, before settling in Kent with her cat, Detective Inspector Fred Thursday. Her influences are John Wick, Jill Mansell, Mario Puzo and Taylor Swift.

‘Lucy Keefe delivered her story with a confidence that demonstrates her mastery of the genre. We loved the world building, the sharp and at times funny prose and the quirky characters. We are very excited for the future of this book and for Lucy.’ – Abi Daré

How does it feel to win the inaugural Discoveries Prize runner-up commendation?

When I was five I sat down in the middle of the track at sports day because I thought if I didn’t win there was no point in running (there’s an amazing picture of my mum trying to drag me to the finish line). Luckily, a good 23 years later, I’ve learned that it’s worth running the race regardless of the outcome! I’m properly excited to have been given the runner-up title: it makes writing more than a hobby. To have been shortlisted alongside so many fascinating women was amazing – I will remember this forever!

You’ve been awarded a free place on Curtis Brown Creative’s flagship three-month Writing Your Novel course – what are you looking forward to about the course?

I want to learn how to structure my work and I am excited to discuss it in-depth with industry experts. I often end up with impostor syndrome when it comes to writing, and I’m looking forward to sharpening my skills so that I have the confidence to push myself and my writing further.

What initially inspired your novel-in-progress?
I had been writing a series of fan-fiction stories on my Tumblr called Taylor Swift: Demon Hunter, and I realised I wanted to explore the urban fantasy genre further. I also loved the idea of somebody waiting for everybody else to leave the room before shouting ‘You can come out now’ to a ghost.  I decided I needed to write a female character who was allowed to be rude, to eat badly, and to turn red when she talks to dishy men, because that’s how real people are. I used to walk an hour and ten minutes across London every day, listening to reputation because it was the album that made me feel confident enough to walk through the city without fear, and I decided my lead character would capture that confident energy so that in low moments, I (and anyone who might end up reading Pantheon) can put my headphones on and pretend to be her for a little while.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

My friend Eleanor created a spreadsheet for writing screenplays, and the idea of brutally forcing myself to write 1000 words a day really propelled me through writing Pantheon. My favourite film is John Wick, the character of John is described as a man of ‘focus, commitment, and sheer will’ – a philosophy which I have taken to heart with writing. To me, writing is like fitness, you just have to keep working at it. Once I focused on writing a total number of words rather than on making them perfect, I found it much easier to forge forward with different writing projects. Writing things that I want to read has also been essential to me, if I don’t want to read it – why should I expect anyone else to?

Where do you like to write?

Anywhere! I don’t believe that there’s ever a perfect time or place to write, and once I accepted that I found myself more open to creative ideas. I’ve written on my phone on the bus, at my desk at work at lunch times (and occasionally in the back of meetings). Writing is also a process that happens as much in your head as on a page or screen, so when I’m out for a run and I’m thinking about my characters – I count that too!

What is your favourite novel by a female author?
I really love The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting by Holly Bourne. I brought this to a book club where I was the youngest person by about a decade, and the oldest member was in her 80s. Everyone loved it, because it captured the experience of teenage life so perfectly, and regardless of what decade we were born in we all related to that experience. I also loved the fact that the protagonist is not always right. She makes enormous mistakes which leave you shouting “why are you doing that” at the page. It shows how aware Bourne is that her character is not perfect and doesn’t know everything, she’s flawed in just the same way I was at 16.

Which woman writer inspires you most and why?
I love Jill Mansell. A friend of mine leant me Miranda’s Big Mistake to read and this started an ongoing love-affair with her work. I love how relatable the characters in her books are, and I find the complicated way that different stories interlink and resolve really engaging. It’s also just incredibly impressive how many books Jill Mansell has written, and how consistently enjoyable I have found all the ones I have read – so much so I find it hard to pick a favourite!

Thank you to everyone who entered their novels-in-progress to the inaugural Discoveries Prize. You displayed such a wealth of writing talent and made it very difficult to select one winner and one runner-up from the 2,300+ entries.

Watch this space, the Discoveries Prize will reopen for applications this September.

back to Blog

Our Courses

S J Parris, author

Writing Historical Fiction

07 Jul – 18 Aug
Erin Kelly, author

Writing a Psychological Thriller

07 Jul – 18 Aug

Writing a Memoir

07 Jul – 18 Aug