Interview with literary agent Fiona Kenshole.

Today we have literary agent Fiona Kenshole from the Transatlantic Agency visiting the blog. Welcome, Fiona!

FK Coraline premiere_2

Me: How did you become an agent?

Fiona: I had been drawn to becoming an agent for a number of years, and last year a number of things came together. I felt that I now had a useful range of skills to offer my clients: I had many years as a respected editor and senior publisher and had worked – and had books win prizes and acclaim – in fiction from chapter books through MG to YA, picture books, non-fiction, dictionaries and reference. I had eight years of acquiring and developing feature films, and understood the process and the business side of going from book to film. I had run book events for the Oxford Literary festival, so I had a good grasp of working with authors on promoting their work; I had sold rights and run a couple of auctions, and I am a published author. I’ve always been a bit of a geek about contracts- even those tricky film ones – so that part was fine.

The place was right. I live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and only a few years ago it would have been difficult, even impossible to be an agent based so far away from New York or London. Yet there is so much writing talent out here! My agency Head Office is in Toronto and we Skype together every week. I have authors based all over the world, and continue to have a foot in each continent, UK and USA.  I have a home in Oxford UK and one in Portland, Oregon.

The timing was right: the rise of self-publishing, digital publishing and social media make this an incredibly interesting time. For the first time since Gutenberg, the publishers no longer control the sole means of distribution, and the codex may no longer be the dominant literary form in the future. Now more than ever, talented creative people need support to help them with the business end of their work, freeing them up to write and illustrate, knowing they are in safe hands.

Me: What are three things that elicit automatic rejections from you when reading the first 50 pages of a manuscript?

Fiona: Lack of character development. If I am not engaged by the character in the first 30 pages, it feels like I am starting a long car journey sitting next to someone boring on about himself.

Flat use of language. “I was terrified” rather than showing us the situation so we also feel terrified. Chuck Palahniuk has a brilliant piece on thought verbs which I recommend when I present workshops:

Talking down to the reader – I look for a real authentic voice.

Extra bonus thing: telling me what the “message” is. I want a good story, not a message wrapped up in a novel.

Me: What are you looking for right now in fiction submissions and not getting? Are there any subjects or genres that are near and dear to your heart? And on the flip side, what are you getting too much of?

Fiona: I love animal stories. I grew up on THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY, CHARLOTTE’S WEB and 101 DALMATIANS. I would love to find a truly classic animal story for the 21st century. I like horse stories. I love books with unreliable narrators or compelling anti-heroes.  I like bold narrative forms in YA, books that take risks with the structure and the language. I love a good romantic comedy. I’ve always been drawn to real children in magical situations: NARNIA, A WRINKLE IN TIME, HALF MAGIC, anything by Diana Wynne Jones. I like historical stories with compelling characters. I’ve mentioned voice – really great contemporary realistic stories with a strong voice fill me with joy. And I adore anything that makes me laugh. More funny books please.

While I personally love reading dystopia, it’s a tough market out there. The same for paranormal, especially vampires, werewolves and fallen angels. Unless this is what you absolutely WANT to write, and you have the skills of a Holly Black, this is a tough area for a debut novelist right now. If you are writing an epic sword fighting fantasy, I’m probably not your woman.

Me: What is one thing about you that a writer would be surprised to learn?

Fiona: I had the unusual experience of taking a book from first idea to (almost) finished feature film. While at Oxford University Press, I worked with Alan Snow on his first ideas for his debut novel, HERE BE MONSTERS, published in the US by Simon and Schuster. I optioned the book while at Laika, Inc, and worked with the wonderful director Tony Stacchi on commissioning screenwriters for the movie. The film releases next year as a major animated feature from Focus Features: THE BOXTROLLS. I think this may be a unique experience – to have worked on the project all the way through!  I still remember seeing the very first couple of pages more than a decade ago!

Me: Best piece(s) of advice you can give a writer we haven’t talked about yet?

Fiona: Write from the heart. Write the book you want to write. Don’t be swayed by fashion or genre. No one was looking for Harry Potter when it came along.

Me: Are you open to submissions? If so, how should a writer go about submitting?

Fiona: I am open to submissions, and hoping to double my client list in the next 12 months. My guidelines are at I like to see the first three chapters plus a detailed synopsis and a short biography of the writer.

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