Hello lovely humans! I am a writer (mostly YA novels and also short stories for the grownups), creative writing facilitator (and co-founder and co-director of the Big Smoke Writing Factory creative writing school in Dublin), and now also (because really who needs to sleep?) the new children’s and YA editor at Penguin Ireland. I drink absurd quantities of tea, and yap a lot about feminism and mental health. I’ve completed masters degrees in popular literature and creative writing, even though I originally wanted to be a psychologist when I grew up. I love Netflix a lot. A lot a lot. My favourite song alternates between David Bowie’s ‘Rebel Rebel’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Closing Time’, and Tori Amos’ s ‘Crucify’. Anything ‘reality’ TV-wise makes me twitchy. I own way too many books – both print and digital – but they make me so very happy. I like to say it’s a cheaper addiction than heroin but I’m not sure it is anymore. So hi there!
Why do you do this to me, Sarah? Why?
Okay. Grownup – The Fever, by Megan Abbott
YA – Only Ever Yours, by Louise O’Neill
Kids – The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
I can’t believe you made me pick just one. Cruel. The cruelness of it.I have a copy of Only Ever Yours on my desk that I have not read yet, but this has given me the push to do it. I listened to Ocean at the End of the Lane on audiobook at a dull data entry job earlier this year: such a gorgeous, horrifying story. What do you feel about the sort of industry-implemented divide around YA and adult fiction? We both know that as many grown-ups read books marketed to teenagers as teenagers read themselves (woah that’s a funny sentence) – but as a YA author and now editor/scout, I’d love to hear your perspective.The divide makes sense to me. I do think that even though lines are blurring, there’s still a difference between YA and adult fiction with teen characters. The very wise Deirdre Sullivan put it thusly in Eimear Ryan’s piece about YA fiction: “Adult narratives about teens focus on the loss of innocence, whereas YA focuses on the acquisition of experience.” (You can read the full article here) ) I am not sure that is always entirely the case (sometimes YA books can feel quite bleak) but there seems to be a tad more hope in YA, a sense of growth rather than loss. The implied reader in YA is also one who is predisposed to take the teenager characters really seriously, rather than one who smiles in a bemused or rueful or nostalgic manner and thinks back to when they were young/foolish/naive/innocent/
My policy at the moment is to be nice without being a martyr. Obviously it’s not practical to provide editorial feedback to submissions – by the time work is being sent out it should be as polished and ready-to-go as an author can make it; there are plenty of resources out there for people who are looking for a manuscript critique. But I’m also conscious that not everyone is aware of this, or that they might need general advice about submissions – so I’m going to try to do as much of that kind of thing as possible.I’m speaking at the Talk Shop event at the Irish Writers’ Centre on the 23rd October, for example, and I’m also on twitter @clairehennessy if people have general questions. It’s actually really cool to be in a position where you’re actively looking for work – it means everything is potentially of interest. And being open to unsolicited submissions – as everyone at Penguin Ireland is – means that you’re a bit more approachable for people who are just starting out, while still also interested in talking to people who are further along with their writing careers.
The other thing is to take each submission seriously. As I say, it isn’t possible to send on detailed feedback to everyone explaining why something doesn’t work (or isn’t right for this particular list), but that doesn’t mean that work hasn’t been read, and carefully considered. Everything gets a fair chance – regardless of how fancy the person is sending it. It’s up to the work itself to hook me in.
Each submission should feel like a real commitment, right? Nobody should be sending out their manuscript like it’s confetti paper. The information on what individual editors are into and what’s needed is easily accessible – conversations like this are part and parcel of what authors will hopefully be looking for before they hit send.
So tell me, what are your turn offs? Don’t hold back – you’re amongst friends (and folks who can really learn from this!)
Cover letters are the main source of ‘oh, no’ for me. Cover letters – people apologising in advance that their novel ‘needs a bit of work’ – are such a warning bell. Writers who think children’s fiction must have a clear moral message and explain this at length. Word counts that don’t match up with the parameters for a particular age group. ‘A book for all ages’. Too much personal information (keep it relevant, and it’s fine if it’s short). People sending submissions to a whole bunch of places and having all the email addresses visible.
Synopses – too long, too meandering, too many characters, not enough showing the cause-and-effect of particular events in the story (plot is ‘X happens, and Y happens as a result of that’ rather than ‘X happens and Y happens’). I know synopses are heartbreaking to write, I know. I think people need to remember that they are not designed to encapsulate absolutely everything in the book that you have slaved over for many months and years. The book is the book. The synopsis is a useful document to consult to get an overall sense of where the book is going, but it’s not a substitute for reading the opening pages and getting a sense of the voice, the characters, the pacing, the cool stuff that makes up a story.
First pages – not enough happening, too much backstory, too much of the ‘in general’ (summarising what characters always do rather than showing us something that they’re doing in the ‘now’ of the story), not getting a sense of what makes the main character different. Also – and these two are standard dislikes, ones I’ve been warning my creative writing students off for years – opening with a character waking up (and everything they do in the morning) or else having them looking in a mirror and describing themselves. These can be great exercises to do for yourself when you’re developing a character, but they shouldn’t be in your finished book.
And what is most likely to make you fall in love with a manuscript? That’s not an easy question. I know, given the utterly insane and unpredictable nature of fiction, that we’re all liable to surprise – but do you have a type?
VOICE. This is another cliche, but it’s so true. It’s strange being on this side of the desk and realising that all the advice and information you’ve gathered over years as a writer and speaker and reviewer and teacher still holds true. If there is something a bit quirky, a bit special, a bit mischievous, a bit snarky, a bit dazzling, a bit surprising about the tone of the book, that’s the number-one thing that works as a hook. It’s not really something you can force, either – it’s just about trusting yourself as a writer and not trying to sound like someone else.
Some more general things: characters with flaws and who do some quite stupid or regrettable or messed-up things early on in a book (I think often writers are afraid to let their characters lose their temper or screw up in some way). Humour laced with moments of ‘oh, ouch’ (I love how much harder the sad moments hit when they follow something funny or wry). Plot that kicks off straight away, with something happening right from the beginning (which doesn’t necessarily mean you need a car-chase scene or something exploding).
And finally, the totally-biased list of things I would love to see, with the caveat of ‘if they’re done well!’ and also ‘not at all an exhaustive list’: boarding schools with a twist, horror, kid or teen detectives, a funny book featuring mental health issues, fairytale retellings, something with politics, something set on a space ship/space station/colonised planet, alternate history, contemporary stories where the parents (or stepparents) actually matter (instead of being conveniently absent).
Here’s a tougher one – what can turn a crush on a manuscript into full blown love – what separates a fling from moving in together?
I’m a commitment-phobe so it really needs to be true love – something that you can’t put down and get evangelical about. I get this feeling a couple of times a year when reading published books and occasionally when reading a student manuscript – the kind of story you keep thinking about, and you keep telling people how brilliant it is – and that’s what I’m looking for with a manuscript. Not just that sense of ‘this is good’ but ‘this is a favourite and you all need to read it, NOW’.
For more information about Penguin Ireland’s submission procedure, check out
And follow their procedure TO THE LETTER!