The Skinny

November 16, 2009

What I used to be, but am no longer. Which makes my mom very happy.

My favourite jeans. Especially the new Gap cords (excellent with boots).

The cappuccino I must remember to ask for but frequently forget.

The muffin that is apparently going to reduce you rather than expand you. (What is this thing made of – flavoured air?)

The sliver of time between one incredibly hectic week and the next. In this case, a few hours, which have comprised excitements like the removal of a picked-over deer carcass from the backyard. The Greenhouse certainly lives up to its name – there’s a lot of nature, red in tooth and claw, in these parts.

But moving swiftly on from festering entrails . . .

Skinny is a big word right now, but today I want to give you another version of the word – the skinny on what kinds of manuscripts I am particularly looking for at the moment. This menu (tall, vente, grande, you might say) partly comes from my meetings with editors in New York last week, partly from what I see (or don’t see) in my own submissions inbox, and partly from my own tastes and interests.

Before I even start, I have to say that there are absolutely no rules here. I am quite capable of saying I want one thing and then taking on another – simply because the biggest driver of all is quality writing, quality voice, quality plot, quality craft. Where all those elements come together, all other considerations are overturned. The most repeated word on any publisher wish-list is this: voice. Voice, voice, voice. And when voice meets amazing storyline, my heart starts to leap, whatever age group and whatever genre.

With all this in mind, here is Sarah’s Skinny as it stands right now, looking down the barrel of the week of November 16:

I would love to find a very funny book for middle-grade boys. Funny as in clever, smart and laugh out loud (rather than simply relying on the tried-and-tested boy-shorthand of farts and slapstick, which aren’t quite enough). Basically, almost every publisher right now wishes they had WIMPY KID. But they can’t have WIMPY KID, so they’d like something equally funny, absolutely non-derivative, and great in its own right. Funny writers are very hard to find, so if you are someone, or know someone, who is great at comedy – stand up, screenwriting, who knows what – it’s a good time to test out that voice and get in touch.

I believe there is a market right now for beautifully voiced, middle-grade fiction for girls. Fiction with a classic quality; the kind of story children today will still remember when they are thirty because it somehow sums up their childhood. Writing that is wonderful to read, has longevity, and that you can’t help but pass from hand to hand. I don’t just look for ‘what’s hot today’ – I love writing that has a good story, but which feels timeless because it is beautifully delivered. This novel might also have a strong sense of family and warmth?

I would love to find a bold, brilliant, heart-stopping story set in another part of the world. What would life be like growing up on the West Bank, for example, on either side of the apartheid wall; what would friendship be like between children from radically different viewpoints? How does it feel to grow up a part of political events far outside your control – for your small life to play out against that backdrop, where violence is a daily possibility? Where maybe, in fictional terms, in story arc, that child could play a part in some small piece of change? This story is not going to grow on trees – it would need so much authenticity and I know I may never find it, but there’s no harm dreaming. Maybe you are the one person out there, with your unique background, to write this?

Next up: I think there is a shortage of really child-friendly ideas and I’d love to find a middle-grade project answering to that description. Fun, pacy, adventurous, exciting, relatable. I’m open to what form this might take, but I’m prompted by Greenhouse author Harriet Goodwin’s shortlisting in the ‘book I couldn’t put down’ category of the UK’s Blue Peter Book Awards. I love that idea – the book I couldn’t put down. What more can we ask for – the book a child just can’t bear to relinquish. Isn’t that what turned YOU into a reader?

It’s true that so far the skinny has chiefly applied to middle-grade fiction, because most editors right now are looking to redress imbalance in their lists. There has been such a boom in YA that it’s become very hard to find great middle grade. Please note – no one is saying publishers won’t buy any YA – they do and they are – but publicly they are announcing a need for middle grade, and I would love to see more because it is definitely the minority of the submissions I receive.

But if you ARE writing for teens, what might particularly leap out at me?

As I said last week, I would personally love to find a big, ambitious novel that in some way relates/addresses/comments on ideas that are around us at the moment – that casts a light on how we feel about the world right now. Maybe – rage in society; the failure of financial systems; insecurity; racial tension; fear of the future; war . . . . This is very vague, I know, but this is a novel of depth and layers and big ideas. Yes, it might well be bleak and futuristic, but if so it has to feel really fresh because we’re starting to see a lot of fiction set in future times.

Dark fiction: It is still overwhelmingly what new writers are bringing into my inbox. Which is fine, if the storyline feels really new and special. I have become very interested in the idea of ‘What If’ stories, and perhaps that will help you to focus your plot? For example, what if a girl woke from a coma and realized she didn’t fit in her own body and her own life? THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX. What if a weird virus has made the dead en masse come back as predators? THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH. What if a girl committed suicide, but before doing so sent out a box of 13 tapes to those she wanted to implicate? THIRTEEN REASONS WHY. WHAT IF enables you to think strange thoughts, create a weird scenario – and then solve it. WHAT IF is about mystery and suspense, and that’s something we all enjoy.

Historical fiction: People ask me constantly whether I’m interested in the historical genre. I always say I don’t assess by genre, I look at the character, voice and writing. If you can create a mysterious, mesmerizing story like Jennifer Donnelly’s A GATHERING LIGHT or the child-friendly tension and colour of Sally Gardner’s THE RED NECKLACE – then yes, I’d LOVE a historical novel, with rustling silk, suppressed emotion, but ideas that resonate in our contemporary world.

I’d also love to find a wonderful love story – authentic, moving and bold. This might be a story of gay love, because there are very few in fiction, but many in the real world. If you want to write this, the characters will be fully realized and not token, and they will touch us for reasons other than their orientation.

Does this help? I hope so, because the skinny sliver I can give to this week’s post has expired and now it’s back to contracts, inbox and editing. But fortunately no deer carcass.

Wishing you all a productive and WHAT-IF kind of week.