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Monday, February 06, 2012

The things I see (and don’t see)


Dead silence on Sarah’s blog for far too long. Why? 1) Having been quite ill over Christmas, I then got ill again in January and it went on for most of the month, making everything a struggle. 2) Been working like a dog. 3) Julia and I have been preparing for the Bologna Book Fair in March and 4) Spent 5 days in New York – firstly at the SCBWI National Conference (where I spoke three times on ‘how to write a great thriller’), and then around town seeing editors with clients Caroline Carlson, Donna Cooner, and Ashley Elston. And don’t you love the newly released jacket image here for Donna’s debut novel SKINNY, which publishes this Fall with Scholastic?

Now it’s all go as I prepare for the SCBWI regional conference in Austin, Texas in two weeks’ time. But first, I want to share some thoughts about my submissions inbox and the North American marketplace. Perhaps that will be useful as you decide where to invest your writing energies, especially if you are choosing between different ideas and projects to take forward.

Basically, I feel like I see rather too much of some kinds of stories and not nearly enough of others.  And I never, ever see some things that I would LOVE to see! So here goes . . .

What I see a LOT of:

Paranormal romance – especially demons (ie, hot demon boys) and angels (ie, hot angel boys), though vampires (ie, hot vampire boys) still appear very regularly. I also see a lot of ‘portals between the living and the dead’ and characters who are dead but interact with the living.

Girls ‘with powers’ – often they see visions, have significant dreams, predict death, have strange connections with others when they touch them. Sometimes they are deities and have to come to terms with that. In middle grade, I see girls who haven’t yet ‘come into their powers’ but surely will (which reminds me a lot of Ingrid Law’s SAVVY).

Car crashes in a prologue – often an entire family is wiped out, excluding the protagonist, who for some reason survives (often because she has powers).

Dystopia – stories set in a future world, often after a virus has swept the land, leaving humanity divided into tribes (these tend to be roughly divided into ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’). Sometimes some characters will have to fight each other in mortal combat, in a slightly HUNGER GAMES-ian kind of way.

Bullying and mean girls – this is a very big MG theme, but I see lots of groups of mean/vacuous/bitchy girls in YA.

Talking animals – especially cats, dogs and squirrels. These will usually have a mission. Often these stories are very young, but sometimes they are more sophisticated – along the lines of the WARRIORS series by Erin Hunter.

Fairies – in MG these are usually cute or anti-cute (ie, naughty fairies); in YA they will be dark, dangerous and often called ‘fae’.

What I don’t see enough (or any) of:

Adventurous middle grade – I do see a lot of younger MG, usually softer chapter-book-type stories (see above re bullying/mean girls), but not nearly enough adventure, with excitingly big themes and great action. Think Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl. Ideally characters of 12/13, and ideally with a strong boy AND girl character. Think – MG thriller!

Really fun, original MG concepts - that combine rip-roaring story with a super-strong UNIQUE concept. My client Caroline Carlson did this brilliantly with her MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT (HarperCollins 2013) about a feisty girl who longs to be a pirate, only to discover that the pirate treasure/currency is in fact magic! A great new twist on an old idea, mixed with characters that really pop. Tons of fun!

What I call ‘sexy historical YA’ – like THE LUXE or A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY.  A girl who thinks in an identifiably contemporary way, has a voice that can speak to today’s YA readers, yet lives out her story against a historical backdrop. I’d love to find a novel set in the French Revolution, Victorian times, or World War I. Big themes, candlelight, crinkling silk, corsets, characters behaving rather badly and under huge social pressures where feelings have to be suppressed (or face the penalties).

Contemporary YA with great romance and charm – this needs to be underpinned by a strong concept and standout voice. Donna Cooner’s SKINNY is a fab example – the story of a girl who embarks on gastric-bypass surgery, but finds it’s easier to change her body than to silence the voice of ‘skinny’ in her head. Donna somehow makes the reader smile AND shed a tear, which is quite an accomplishment.


Intense, exciting YA – I never get tired of clever, tense, zigzaggy thriller-type plotting. A conundrum that doesn’t seem possible until the protagonist solves the mystery. Megan Miranda did this brilliantly in FRACTURE (Walker, just published) when Delaney Maxwell falls through the ice of a frozen lake and inexplicably survives, pulled out unharmed 11 minutes later. How? Why? This kind of story can be applied to almost any genre, against any kind of backdrop.

Foreign settings – I’d especially love to find a dark, bleak, noir-ish YA Scandinavian thriller in the style/tradition (landscape etc) of Henning Mankell, Tami Hoeg or Stieg Larsson.  Spare, scary and a bit mesmerizing.  I’m also interested in the Middle East and Africa.  NB: With this kind of story you need terrific authenticity, and I’m NOT seeking stories that attempt to ‘educate’ the reader about a particular part of the world. I’m just looking for a cracking good story that nonetheless contains emotional truth.

Ghosts – While most forms of paranormal have been somewhat ‘done to death’ (hah, sorry!), I think there’s still space for a brilliantly conceived ghost story. For some reason there seem to be far fewer ghosts around than other paranormal entities (see above re hot-boy demons etc). This doesn’t need to take the form of a ‘paranormal romance’.  Perhaps the ghostly character is a sister or friend who returns to play some vital part in the protagonist’s life?

Space – while dystopia is running out of steam, there’s still some potential in outer space. The trick here is to use that backdrop simply as a frame for a great human story, either MG or YA. If you go too sci-fi you lose readers who aren’t die-hard fans of the genre.

So, in conclusion: While I’d never say I’m uninterested in any paranormal romances, stories about ‘girls with powers’, or dystopia, you just need to be aware that there are a lot of them around, which means yours really has to sing. It needs to do something different and fresh with the genre. One of the keys to this is VOICE. Any story can feel fresh and vibrant if it has a unique voice and a different spin.

However, do consider writing in one of those areas I mention as being very underserved right now. Generally, I feel we don’t see enough strong and unique concepts, so trying pushing yourself that extra mile to come up with a really snappy idea - then run with it.

I hope this helps!

Posted by greenhouse

Comments (17)

Thank you! I’m an aspiring writer, and this is very helpful information.

Posted by Mandy  on  02/06  at  05:20 PM

Thanks for sharing your wish list. It is always appreciated. smile

Posted by Laura Renegar  on  02/06  at  05:36 PM

Thanks so much for this. I’ve been mulling over an MG idea for a few months and this gives me some good pointers on what direction I might want to nudge it in!

Posted by Jo Thomas  on  02/06  at  09:55 PM

This is much more specific than the usual wish-lists, with examples, and I see it probably took some time to write, so thanks for that!
Loved your Thriller talk in NYC--I was in group 2.  Also very specific, which is helpful.

Posted by  on  02/06  at  10:39 PM

I’m confused as to the distinction between paranormal with “characters who are dead but interact with the living” which you see a lot of and ghosts which are “under-served”. 

Could you please clarify?  Thanks!

Posted by  on  02/06  at  10:48 PM

I’m so surprised you don’t see much MG adventure. I loved to read it when I was a kid, and I really love writing it now. I spent this morning at my desk racing sailboats through the most dangerous dozen nautical miles in the Pacific. So much fun!  And it’s a great hook to get middle schoolers excited about reading.

Posted by Rosanne Parry  on  02/06  at  11:08 PM

Thank you for another helpful and encouraging blog post, and sorry to hear of your ills. Hope you’re back to full strength. From previous posts, Bologna sounds like a test.
Can I ask about the submissions process? If you like the query material, do you always go straight to asking to see the complete book? Is there anything else you might ask for? It’s good to be prepared.
Thank you, best wishes, Steve

Posted by  on  02/06  at  11:48 PM

Outstanding post, with great guidance for writers. Love.

Posted by Victoria "Tori" Scott  on  02/06  at  11:51 PM

I learned a lot from your Thriller talk in NY.  Helpful for me and the one I’m working on, and hopefully sending your way--soon-SOON!  Feel better.

Posted by  on  02/07  at  04:11 AM

This is very helpful. I try to write things that are different and fresh and I think topics can be over done.

Posted by  on  02/07  at  02:23 PM

Thanks for the comments. A couple of responses!

Eric: Yes, I’m not surprised you were confused - I was less than clear. By ‘paranormal romance’ I mean a strong romance/love triangle element - and so often now these involve demons, angels, vampires. Strangely, there are far fewer stories involving ghosts, and I think there’s scope for stories that have a ghostly element but not necessarily within a ‘romance’ framework. eg, A ghostly character who returns to play some other kind of role. A ghostly friend/sister maybe (righting a wrong? Pointing the way to something?) - or even some horror component like ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD. I hope this helps a bit - and I’ll see if I can rephrase to be clearer.

Steve: If I like the query pages I typically ask for the full ms as a Word doc. Occasionally I ask for a 50 page partial, but usually end up feeling that’s kind of silly when if I like the partial I’ll have to then request the full in any case! I start reading the full and just see how far I get. - how long it grips me in a way that feels commercially viable.

Thanks for your good wishes re my health - I now feel fine again, which is a great relief. This business doesn’t allow for time off!


Posted by Sarah Davies  on  02/07  at  05:19 PM

Sarah: Thanks for such a fast reply.

Posted by  on  02/07  at  10:48 PM

Thanks so much for another wonderful blog, Sarah!

Posted by Callie James  on  02/08  at  04:13 PM

Thanks for this! It’s awesome to know what agents are looking for.

I have a question: how about fantasy like GRACELING and time-travel stories?


Posted by Juliana Haygert  on  02/10  at  02:11 PM

Great post- it’s always nice to see what agents are seeing a lot of (I think I’ll shelve my “girl with powers” idea for awhile- haha).
I wonder about Time-travel. Are agents seeing a lot of that? From what I’ve read around the blogosphere, it seems like a hard sell right now.

Posted by Melanie Stanford  on  02/10  at  04:53 PM

Interesting post - I’m kind of surprised we don’t see many ghost stories in YA.  The one’s I have read I have loved!

Posted by Jesse Owen  on  02/10  at  08:38 PM

I heard you speak at the SCBWI NY conference a few weeks ago.  Thank you for all the advice AND thank you for recommending and showing off FRACTURE!!  This book was wonderful.  I downloaded it on my Kindle, and before the conference was over I had almost finished with it.  (I was very tired Sunday morning!) I even bought the hard copy to have for my collection. 

I am writing a contemporary YA romance and I look forward to submitting to you after its last polish!

Kelly Samuels

Posted by Kelly Samuels  on  02/24  at  01:11 AM
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