Hannah Mary McKinnon was born in the U.K., grew up in Switzerland and moved to Canada in 2010. After a successful career in recruitment, she quit the corporate world in favor of writing. Hannah took our six-month online novel-writing course back in 2014. Her third novel Her Secret Son will be published next week, to celebrate Hannah shares with us the writing advice she wishes she could give to her younger self …
With my third book, Her Secret Son, set to be published on May 28, 2019, my fourth in the editing stages, and my fifth being plotted, I’m often asked if I have advice for aspiring writers. Do I ever! It took me four years to get a book deal, and during that time I made a number of mistakes, some of them cringe worthy. Here’s a list of things I wish I’d known from the start.
1. Rules are rules (part 1)
When drafting my first novel in 2011 my mantra was “I read, therefore I can write.” Turns out I was wrong, at least back then. Who knew when it comes to writing stories, there are important rules other than good grammar? Uniform points-of-view, consistent use of tenses, avoiding dreaded clichés… Authors heed these rules so discreetly readers may not notice, but agents and editors will when they’re broken. Free, online resources for writers are but a click away.
2. Don’t look back…until you get to the end
At the very beginning of my writing journey I’d write a paragraph and edit it, write another and edit that, too. It was exhausting, not to mention slow and disheartening. I’ve since realized my very first draft isn’t meant to be close to perfect (or shared). It’s a skeleton, the bones of the story, something to work with. I no longer waste time editing a paragraph I’ve just written, and which may not make the final cut. Consequently I’m writing stories faster and more efficiently than ever.
(Want more tips about slaying your first draft? Read my previous CBC blog post here.)
3. Lip-service is the enemy
It’s reassuring and encouraging to get positive feedback (and sometimes the one thing that’ll keep even a seasoned writer going), but if it’s the only input sought, opportunities to improve could be missed. Having people read your work is daunting, but sharing it only with friends and family—who may not want to upset by pointing out plot holes, lacklustre character arcs, and saggy middles—will be counterproductive in the long run.
4. Writing group wonder
I was two years into my writing journey before I joined a local writing group, and I wish I’d done it sooner. Having them critique my stuff was eye-opening in itself, but critiquing theirs and listening to others give feedback on different pieces taught me just as much about their writing as it did my own. The other benefit? Meeting kindred spirits. I’m no longer in that writing group, but five of us get together regularly and have developed a close bond, celebrating each other’s successes and milestones along the way.
5. Going pro
While writing groups are fabulous support, sometimes we need an even more critical eye to look over our work. Professional editors give structural feedback on plot, scene setting, consistency, characters, pace, dialogue, voice, etc., all of which help shape and polish manuscripts, getting them ready for querying and submission. Yes, these are paid services, and yes, the feedback can feel overwhelming, but in my case it was invaluable.
6. Take a course, stat!
It took me weeks to apply to Curtis Brown Creative’s six-month online novel writing course after I’d seen it online, and I submitted my application a day before the deadline. That decision was one of the best I could’ve made early on. The course had a profound effect on both my story-telling abilities and my confidence as an author, making me more structured yet more creative, and breaking bad habits I’d picked up along the way.
7. Sometimes it’s about who you don’t know…
One of the biggest surprises about being an author is how helpful and interested people are when I’m conducting research for my novels. While writing Her Secret Son, I needed to speak to the police (including a detective and a forensics specialist). I also had to connect with a family lawyer, a school board and a coroner. I didn’t know many people in upstate New York where the book is set, and searched online. Without exception, every single person was happy to assist, giving me information and pointers to make my story more authentic and genuine. All I needed to do was ask.
8. Rules are rules (part 2)
Polished manuscript. Professional query. Perfected synopsis. Everything’s ready to go… Time spent researching agents, tailoring query letters to each one and following their submission guidelines is a wise investment. Some agents only want a query letter, others a query, a synopsis and the first three chapters, thousand words, or ten pages. Making a good first impression by delivering exactly what they’ve asked for is easy, and yet not something everyone does.
Not my strong suit since I was a kid. While seeking an agent (and subsequently when my novels went out on submission) I had to frequently remind myself a “no” in publishing is faster than a “yes.” Agents and publishers receive hundreds if not thousands of manuscripts each year, so patience is a great asset.
10. Know when to do a Frozen…
“Kill your darlings!” can be sound advice. We get too attached, fall too much in love with our characters, plot and story, even when everyone else tells us it’s “just not working.” If one person says so I’d recommend not giving up, it’s a subjective business, after all. However, if everybody echoes the same feedback, it’s time to listen, saving yourself both time and effort by pivoting your story, or letting it go and writing something else.
11. …but also never, never, never give up!
Countless times I wanted to give up on my first book, thinking I’d never bag an agent or be offered that elusive book deal. The road to being published is littered with the corpses of fictional characters other writers abandoned. Some of them were worth fighting for. I’m glad I went to battle for mine.
You can pre-order Her Secret Son here.
If you’re currently working on a novel and are interested in the writing course that Hannah Mary took our next Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell is currently open for applications.
Or, you can take a look at all of the creative-writing course we currently have available for enrolment or application (in London or online) here.