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15 June 2017

Hannah McKinnon: how I found an agent and got a book deal

Hannah McKinnon Author Tips
by Jack Hadley Author Interviews, From Our Students

Hannah McKinnon (@ MrsElectrilight) took part in one of our online writing courses in 2014, before quickly securing representation then a publishing deal for her debut Time After Time. We caught up with Hannah (who lives in Canada) to find out a bit more about her journey from CBC to the publication of her first novel, and about her new novel The Neighbors.

At what kind of stage was your novel when you embarked on the course? And what state was it in by the end of that six months?

I wrote Time After Time before starting the Curtis Brown Creative course, and had submitted it to agents (which now feels cringeworthy because it was far from ready). I’d received lots of rejections, and although a few agents had asked for the full manuscript, they’d ultimately passed on it, too. I knew the premise caught people’s interest, but that the execution was flawed.

The course helped identify what some of the problems were. For example, I’d had a tendency to spoon-feed and not trust the reader enough to work things out. After six months on the Curtis Brown Creative course, the manuscript was in far better shape, the characters rounded, and I had a more satisfying resolution to the protagonist’s journey. I also knew I could write tasteful sex scenes, which was a relief.

In short, the course did wonders!

Fellow students on that particular course include Nicholas Searle (who has recently published his second novel, A Traitor in the Family). Do members of your group stay in touch?

Nicholas’ success is inspirational. I hope we meet one day so he can sign my copy of The Good Liar (I highly recommend it) and A Traitor in the Family.

We all stay in touch occasionally via Google Groups, and some of us are connected on email and social media too. I received wonderful feedback when Time After Time was published, and when I shared the news about the second deal.

I’ve found writers to be incredibly supportive of one another, offering advice, help and connections whenever they can.

Could you tell us a bit more about the period between course-end and your publication deal at Maze (an imprint of HarperCollins UK) for your first novel, Time After Time? How long did it take before you found your agent and then got a deal for your first book?

I was lucky enough to find representation within two months of finishing the course, when Cassandra Rodgers from The Rights Factory took a chance on me. We worked on the manuscript together for a few months, before she submitted it to publishers in September 2015. Within three months, Maze made an offer, and Time After Time was published early June 2016.

How did you find the experience of writing your second novel – you had one book behind you, but did it feel different without the apparatus of the writing course, and the workshop group, to support you?

In some ways it was harder. The idea for Time After Time was crystal-clear before I’d typed a single word. The Neighbors starts how I originally imagined, but develops and finishes differently to my initial outline, which felt a little disconcerting at first.

The Neighbors was more challenging too, because it’s written from multiple points of view, whereas Time After Time has one.

On the other hand, both books have non-linear timelines, meaning there are chapters set in the past and present. This was easier for The Neighbors because I had a better sense of how to interweave the chapters. I felt more confident in my writing abilities too, particularly after taking the course.

And while I missed my fellow Curtis Brown Creative students, and the advice of our tutor, Chris Wakling, I asked for in-depth feedback from my local writing group. My test readers weren’t predominantly family either. My family’s great, but too kind when it comes to critiquing. I need people to be ruthless.

Your first book deal was sold as a ‘digital first’ deal, but your follow-up was sold as part of a more  ‘traditional’ physical two-book deal. Was this model a helpful ‘way-in’ for you?

Absolutely. One of the attractions of ‘digital first’ is that novels can be published within a few months instead of a year or two, which is often the case for traditional publishing. That meant Time After Time hit the virtual shelves within a few months, at the same time as The Neighbors was being submitted to publishers.

Consequently I was no longer a debut author, and my agent could approach editors who otherwise might not have considered reading The Neighbors.

Time After Time had a quite fantastical edge it to it, and your follow-up, The Neighbours, sounds more grounded. Could you tell us a bit more about your new book? Did you deliberately set out to write something rather different from your debut?

You’re absolutely right. Time After Time is romantic and light-hearted, a tale of roads not taken – it’s the lovechild of the movies Groundhog Day and Sliding Doors.

In contrast, The Neighbors is in the domestic suspense category. It explores the impact of deeply buried secrets on a marriage where things aren’t quite what they seem, people might not be who they think they are, and the truth will have devastating consequences.

I wanted to write something darker and grittier for my second book, with more complex characters and shades of truth. While a fantastical element didn’t fit, I wasn’t particularly concerned. Time After Time hadn’t yet been submitted to publishers when I started working on The Neighbors, so I just kept going. After all, there was no guarantee my first novel would be picked up.

Is there anything you wished you’d known earlier and the writing or publishing process you wish you’d know earlier?

I wish I’d known the importance of a good writing group at the beginning – and that I’d taken writing courses earlier. I made so many mistakes with the first draft of Time After Time, which took effort and frustration to clean up. And I’m still learning – writing is one of those jobs where you can never possibly know everything.

‘Be patient’ is a good tip (full disclosure, it’s not my strong suit!). But the industry can move at a glacial pace, so when waiting for answers on a submission, don’t fret and write something else.

Most of all I’d say have fun, and be gentle with yourself. The first draft of anything is allowed to be total rubbish. Tell yourself the story first, then edit for everyone else.

You’ve signed a two-book deal with MIRA – what kind of stage is your third novel at?

Book three is another family drama, with a unique twist. MIRA approved the outline last month (phew!) and I’m working on the bare bones draft. I prefer to ‘write up’. I aim for my initial draft to be two thirds of the final word count, then layer and improve the story with each round of edits. Once finished, I’ll share it with test readers, and ultimately my agent and publisher.

Unlike Time After Time and The Neighbors, which were both set in England, the third story takes place in the US, and is slated for release in 2019.

To purchase Hannah McKinnon’s debut, Time After Time, click here.

As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.

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