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What Am I Looking For?

Today we're delighted to welcome Publishing Director Moira Forsyth to the blog. We're open to unsolicited fiction submissions until June 30th 2021, so we asked Moira for further information on what she's looking for.

If you’re serious about getting published you will have been scanning the websites of literary agents and publishers. There they describe the kind of books they’re looking for and want to represent, e.g. I’m looking for literary and commercial fiction, don’t read YA or children’s… Nearly everyone now says they’re also looking for diverse voices – authors from under-represented sections of society, who haven’t so far been much published or promoted.

I’m often asked this question too. What do you like? What are you looking for? What I like is to dive into a huge literary biography – preferably of a historical writer whose work I know already or whose world touches the worlds of favourite authors from the past. I’ve just finished reading John Sutherland’s biography of Stephen Spender, and although I haven’t read a lot of Spender, I do know the work of a lot of the people he was close to – Auden, Isherwood, MacNeice, Rosamund Lehman, Elizabeth Bowen and so on.

However, if Sandstone publishes one literary biography a year, that’s it. So although I’m excited when one comes to us, it’s mostly not what I’m ‘looking for’ as a publisher, but as a reader. In any case, this Sandstone open period is for fiction only, so what fiction do I like? I love reading crime fiction, but again, it’s not what we’re looking for right now for our list.

Our submissions guidelines will tell you about genre and type, but you probably want to know more – what will give you the best chance of being accepted?

With a huge number of submissions to assess, and little time in which to do it, we want to see a compelling opening chapter. I’ll print about twenty pages of each text I plan to look at more closely, then sit down with a mug of tea and read. If I get to the end of the twenty pages and feel disappointed I didn’t print more – that’s a good sign! If I struggle to get to the end of twenty pages or give up at five, that’s one manuscript that won’t make it any further.

We want novels and stories written with a high degree of literacy. If there are basic grammatical and punctuation errors in the opening pages, that one won’t make it either.

I’m looking for an elusive and hard-to-describe quality – good writing. Listening recently to the author of a debut novel reading at his launch, I felt absolutely confirmed it had been a good choice for us. In the months since I edited The Disassembly of Doreen Durand, it had slipped from my mind, overtaken by so much other reading, but hearing it afresh I fell in love with it all over again. The writing is unfussy, unshowy, and yet you’re hooked – the story reels you in. It has another quality I love in fiction – it surprised me with unexpected left turns and turned out not to be quite what I thought. Then, close to the end, it took off altogether – transcending the traditional novel form and style and yet keeping me, as the reader, on the edge of my seat until the end.

It had another quality I like – and which I also found in a very different novel, Sarah Armstrong’s spy story The Starlings of Bucharest. After I’d finished reading, I went on thinking about it, turning over in my mind what had happened – or might have happened. I like a novel to have a good resolution, but I also like open endings where everything isn’t too neatly tied up. The best fiction lingers long after you close the book.

To come back to the point about diverse voices: I love to read novels that show me a world different to my own, so that I learn something new about how others live, their culture and background. One of the reasons I was so attracted to The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, a Sandstone novel that was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 2013, was that it revealed the hidden world of Orthodox Judaism with such vividness and sensitivity. I also loved entering the rich worlds of Radhika Swarup’s Where the River Parts and of course of Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, which won the Man Booker International Award in 2019.

Finally, I like novels which tackle our present day world. This becomes more and more difficult, as the world changes so fast. But I like novels set within living memory, or now, or in a powerfully imagined near future, so that they can truly be called ‘contemporary fiction’.

Moira Forsyth

Moira Forsyth