Q&A: Bath Children’s Novel Award 2017 Judge SALLYANNE SWEENEY

 We are delighted to announce Sallyanne Sweeney as Bath Children’s Novel Award 2017 Judge. Sallyanne, who judged our inaugural year will be selecting this year’s £2,000 winner from a shortlist chosen by our team of Junior Judges aged seven to seventeen. A former Watson, Little Director, Sallyanne joined Mulcahy Associates Literary Agency in 2013 and is Chair of the Children’s Agents’ Circle. Her growing fiction list ranges from the literary to the very commercial, with clients such as Juno Dawson, Steve Lenton, Jon Walter and Bath Children’s Novel Award 2015 winner, Lucy Van Smit.

Welcome back, Sallyanne! What would you like to find with us this time?

I’m incredibly lucky to represent some brilliant, darkly delicious YA, such as Claire Hennessy’s LIKE OTHER GIRLS, Juno Dawson’s forthcoming CLEAN, and of course, Lucy Van Smit. I’m always drawn to a fantastic hook and outstanding writing regardless of genre or tone, but would love to find some light (perhaps funny!) YA fiction, particularly if there’s also a foot-popping story of first love! A high-concept romance (think 500 DAYS OF SUMMER / ONE DAY / SLIDING DOORS for teens…) would be very exciting. 

In middle-grade, I’d love to find a fantasy or adventure story that transports me to another world and sweeps me off my feet…  I would love to find something that I feel I haven’t seen before; a story that sweeps me up in its world and characters and makes me forget about everything else. I’ve always got a huge reading pile and it’s the most exciting part of my job when a manuscript is so compelling that it feels like pleasure rather than work.

The need to increase inclusivity and diversity in publishing is something that’s at the forefront of my mind when reading submissions, and I’m always interested to see characters, worlds and situations that aren’t often reflected in children’s fiction – without becoming an ‘issues’ book. In general, anything that makes me both laugh and cry will always win me over! 

What’s made you laugh or cry recently?

Of novels I don’t represent, there have been some really exciting new voices in YA and my most recent read, THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas, blew me away with its voice, energy and fresh, sharp take on gun violence and police brutality. It has one of the best openings I’ve read in some time, too. In younger children’s fiction, THE BONE SPARROW by Zaina Fraillon was powerful, moving and very timely, and on the other end of the spectrum, Emer Stamp’s DIARY OF PIG series have made me laugh.

Further back, I adored ROOFTOPPERS by Katherine Rundell – it was magical, charming and very poignant. Liz Pichon’s TOM GATES was the funniest book I’ve read in a long time and also had tons of heart. In terms of YA, can any novel make you cry as much as John Green’s THE FAULT IN OUR STARS? I made the foolish mistake of reading it on a plane. ELEANOR AND PARK by Rainbow Rowell was also incredibly moving, with real, flawed characters you rooted for.

Growing up, I was the biggest Roald Dahl fan. I think he does such a fantastic job of not writing ‘down’ to children. I re-read MATILDA recently and it was even funnier than I remembered. Judy Blume manages the perfect tone for whatever readership she writes for and I think still resonates with children because of how she explores difficult issues with humour, warmth and sensitivity. I also love Meg Rosoff – not one word is wasted in her novels, and the voice grabs you from the opening sentence and doesn’t let you go.

Congratulations on placing THE HURTING, Lucy Van Smit’s Bath-winning manuscript with Chicken House. What was it about her manuscript that made you know it would get snapped up?

Lucy’s voice was what immediately grabbed my attention and stood out from the many other great entries for me. She has an arresting quality to her writing and a great sense of immediacy – we are there with Ellie on the fjord, and every step of the way.

Tell us about the editorial process between accepting representation and signing a publishing contract

Lucy was brilliant at pitching her own work and though the manuscript went through many round of edits and drafts along the way, the pitch stayed fairly similar, as it was so good – WUTHERING HEIGHTS for YA readers, set against the backdrop of remote Norwegian fjords and an abandoned wolf reservation. And the book is every bit as tense and atmospheric, a brilliant exploration of obsessive love, sacrifice and redemption. Lucy was a wonderful editorial collaborator and we’ve recently agreed a two-book deal with Chicken House, with THE HURTING publishing July 2018. The editorial process continues with the publisher, so it’s a long road to publication for any author, but each draft has made the novel tighter and stronger and I can’t wait for it to reach teenagers next summer.

Our word count is open for the Children’s Novel Award. What are you thoughts for middle grade and YA novels?

I’d recommend 40-60,000 words for middle grade and 50-70,000 words for YA. Fantasy novels are usually on the longer side. I think it’s useful to keep these numbers in mind but really, a book should be as long as it should be and there are always exceptions to the guidelines. If your manuscript is on the long side, make sure it’s as tight and pacey as it can possibly be. Similarly, if your manuscript is very short, look at your character and plot development.

What do you look for in a synopsis?

I know authors, both new and established, worry about the synopsis – they’re not easy to write. I think the sample chapters are much more important though and really, the synopsis is just to illustrate what your book is about, what happens in the story. I prefer one-page at most and am happy for it to read like a book blurb, or be a straightforward plot overview.

After voice, what else makes a manuscript shine for you?

After voice, it’s strong, engaging (but not necessarily likeable) characters and a plot that’s tightly constructed and surprises. I want to feel that confidence and sense of purpose from the author from the opening pages, and love to be taken on an unexpected journey by a story. I’m also looking to be moved in some way by a manuscript – whether that’s laughing out loud or sobbing at my desk (preferably both!). I think books are sold on passion, so if I don’t feel anything for the characters or story, I don’t think I’m the right agent for it.

What was the last children’s novel you took on?

downloadSarah Ann Juckes‘ YA debut, THE PROOF OF THE OUTSIDE. The Bunker Diaries meets We Were Liars, it’s the story of Ele, who is kept captive in a small room by a man known as ‘Him’ and determined to find proof there is a world Outside. I read it in one breathless sitting. It’s currently under auction in the UK so watch this space…

What do you love best about agenting?

Finding a really special manuscript in the submissions pile is so exciting, but I think the very best part is matching a debut author with the perfect publisher, and sharing that good news with the author. I love that every day is different as an agent – I really enjoy the editorial process of working closely with an author, sometimes over several drafts, but also get satisfaction out of negotiating the best contract terms for clients, and in pitching their books to publishers around the world. I still get a thrill from seeing finished copies of manuscripts I’ve worked on too.

Any other advice for Bath Children’s Novel Award 2017 entrants?

Write the book that only you can write and read over everything before submitting – a break between edits can be helpful. Good luck!


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The Bath Children’s Novel Award 2017 is for unsigned MG or YA novelists

Prize:  £2,000 | Shortlist: £500 award

Judge: Sallyanne Sweeney of Mulcahy Associates

Entry: First 5,000 words plus one page synopsis

Eligibility:  Full terms & entry details here

Closing Date: 19th November 2017 | Fee: £25 per novel


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The Bath Novel Award & Bath Children’s Novel Award are sponsored by Cornerstones Literary Consultancy