Tag Archive | NaNoWriMo

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: http://fychuckpalahniuk.tumblr.com/post/9285901274/thought-verbs-by-chuck-palahniuk

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 www.Transatlantic.com. I like to see the first three chapters plus a detailed synopsis and a short biography of the writer.

Conflict vs. Tension in Your Writing

Okay, everyone, The Literary Mom has been doing lots of “mom” stuff, and is exhausted. Please enjoy this article I wrote last year about conflict vs. tension in your writing, and have a nice Wednesday!

One of the most important elements in fiction writing is conflict. You can’t write a good story without it, period. But conflict has a counterpart that is equally important; tension. What’s that you say? Aren’t tension and conflict the same thing? No, they’re not, and here’s why: tension is what your readers experience when waiting for the conflict they know is coming.

As I get nearer and nearer the black moment (You don’t know what that is? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post!) in my NaNo novel, I’ve been thinking more and more about tension and conflict. Today, I had a breakthrough. I realized I had my two final scenes in the wrong order. The way I had it originally had the most conflict. However, today I realized that if I reversed their order, it will actually increase the reader tension. Reader tension is what keeps the reader turning the page, even when it’s one in the morning and they know they have to get up at six for work.

Sometimes, you have to hint to your readers that a big conflict is on the way and then delay it. The delay is what creates the reader tension. They know it’s coming, but when? They continue reading, breathless and anxious, waiting for that ugly conflict to pop out from behind a bush and scream “BOO!!”

What is Voice in Literature?

Ask any agent or editor what they’re looking for in a writer and they’ll say “a fresh, new voice.” But then ask that same agent or editor what voice is and they’ll probably look at you for a second before saying, “I know it when I see it.” Honestly. That’s the standard answer. So a few weeks ago, I set out to discover what exactly voice is.


The first thing I did was a Google search. I didn’t find a single, helpful thing. Hmm… I then read every writing guide with a section on voice, as well as analyzing novels that are described as having good voices. Here’s what I think:


There are two parts to voice: 1. the author’s voice and 2. the character’s voice. In most books the two are probably equally important, except for in YA novels. I feel that the character’s voice becomes more important, especially in novels that are written in first person. Now that I think about it, I suppose the character’s voice is most important in ALL first-person novels.


The author’s voice is the style in which one writes. For example, Nora Roberts writes in lush, descriptive, and lyrical sentences. I could pick up any one of her romance novels and almost immediately identify her as the author. Earnest Hemmingway writes with short, concise, and to the point sentences. Same goes for his books. Janet Evanovich’s voice in her Stephanie Plum books is fast, fun, funny, and a little racy. These are their author’s voices.


The character’s voice is basically how the main character views the world. What words do they use when talking, or describing things? How does the character speak (short, breathless sentences, or long, rambling ones)? What are the character’s emotions and how do they describe or show them? How might they compare one thing to another?  For example, an older person might compare a bright sunset to a bomb bursting over his aircraft carrier during the Second World War, whereas a teenager might compare it to the flash of fire in her boyfriend’s eyes.


As far as I can determine, these are the things that make up voice, and the things editors and agents are looking for. I hope this helps!

Writing: Fiction Phobias

Well, a good part of my Saturday evening was spent in Urgent Care with my son. He had a small fever, rash, and was limping, but hadn’t been injured in anyway. Ugh. He seems like he’s much better today, but we go back to the Dr. this afternoon. The whole thing got me thinking about themes in fiction, and what I will and won’t write about.


I’m not a superstitious person by any means. I’ve opened umbrellas indoors, walked under ladders, stepped on cracks, petted black cats, and broken mirrors, all without the slightest twinge. (Well, maybe the mirror gave me a teeny-tiny twinge. I mean, come on seven years is a LONG time!) But I’ve got one huge superstition that involves writing and, to some extent, reading as well.


Have you ever read Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult? It’s an excellent book, one I would highly recommend. The synopsis from Jodi’s website reads: “When Charlotte and Sean O’Keefe’s daughter, Willow, is born with severe osteogenesis imperfecta, they are devastated – she will suffer hundreds of broken bones as she grows, a lifetime of pain.”

Stupid me, I read it while I was six months pregnant with my son. For the remaining three months, I had a secret, hidden, but very strong fear that he would be born with osteogenesis imperfecta. (He’s fine, by the way, beautiful and wonderful!) I know, right? You probably just laughed out loud at me.

I haven’t had any more problems with books I’ve read, but I’ve found there are some topics I won’t write about, manly involving children, illness, and death, all because I have some vaguely discomforting idea that I might be tempting fate. Like someone is sitting there, monitoring me and thinking, “You’re not allowed to be too happy, and you’ve passed the allowable threshold of happiness, so now we have to take it all away.”

So I’ve revealed my writing superstitions. How about you? Do you have any?



My Two Favorite Words

Yesterday, I typed my two favorite words: THE END!!!!! So my rough draft is finally done. Now it’s on to revisions. Right now, I’m thinking a lot about my characters and the arcs they’ll be following over the course of the story.

My protagonist is a teen girl, and there is a romantic subplot, which got me thinking a lot about male heroes in novels. Hence the poll! Let me know what you think about male heroes, what you think is most important to make them believable, to make a romance believable. I’d appreciate it!

Writer’s Block or Writer’s Haze?

Everyone always talks about writer’s block, what happens when you get it, how to defeat it, how to avoid it all together. Writer’s block is a pain in the butt; staring at a blank page, completely out of ideas, not able to write even a single word. It sucks.


I’m lucky in the sense that I hardly ever get writer’s block. Do you know what my real problem is? Writer’s haze. What? You’ve never heard of it? I’d be willing to bet that you’ve had it though.


Have you ever sat down to write, and then immediately realized your brain feels foggy, confused, like you can hardly string a sentence together? You manage to slog through it, pulling each word out of your brain like a greased pig through a dog door (a Chihuahua’s dog door at that). You might get your quota of words done for the day, but they feel dry, uninspired, like it’s nothing but crap. That’s writer’s haze. You can thank me later for coining the phrase.


There are lots of reasons for writer’s haze; not enough sleep, not enough caffeine, overworking, disliking the project you’re working on, etc. However, there aren’t many cures. Other then getting enough sleep and a good pot of coffee or two, the only thing I’ve found that helps is loving your project. Like, I-can’t-wait-to-wake-up-so-I-can-work-on-it-in-the-morning love. When you’re really excited, the haze almost completely disappears.


You’ll always have episodes of it. Sometimes, the best thing to do on those days is just walk away, go for a long walk and come back later, or even the next day. If you’re still feeling The Haze, you might be working on the wrong project.

Writing YA Novels: a High School Do-over?

Someone recently said to me that they loved to write YA novels because it was like getting to live high school all over again. I literally shuddered. If that was why I wrote YA novels, I would never touch a keyboard again.


Despite the fact that Hollywood repeatedly tells us that our high school years are our golden years, I have to disagree. If you gave me a million dollars, I wouldn’t go back and relive it again. Don’t get me wrong, high school wasn’t horrible, it just isn’t as wonderful as my life is now. I mean, I guess there are some things I might do differently, some misunderstandings I’d want to clear up, some people I’d want apologies from. But to go back and relive it… Ugh. I just got creepy-crawly goose bumps.


I think the reason I write YA novels is because I’m trying to reach out to that girl I was. To all the other girls and guys out there who are hiding the fact that they’d rather gouge out their eyeballs then go to another day of class. Or maybe, I’m trying to give them an escape, a place where teenagers like them get to have their dreams come true, or make peace with their parents, or realize the BIG MISTAKE before they make it.


If I could give one message to all the teens out there, it would be this: Life gets better. It might take a while, but it does. I promise.

How Poetry Can Help Your Fiction


I don’t write much poetry although I’ve dabbled in it. I’ve always been a fiction kind of girl. There is one good reason to dust off the iambic pentameter: poignant descriptions.


Sometimes, I feel like my writing becomes a little flat, a little muddy. That’s when I know it’s time to write a little poetry.

 The sparseness of poetry forces you to consider each word carefully. You only have so many words to paint a picture, emotion, or idea in your readers mind. You weigh each word; is this what I really want to convey? In prose, you have pages to say what you want. Mark Twain said: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Being wordy is easy. To be austere with your words is much harder.


Spend a few days writing poetry, even if it will never see the light of day. Your fiction writing will thank you, I promise.

Family and Writing

My family has gathered together for a pre-thanksgiving vacation,which has made my writing a little slow (try non-existent). In a sense, though, time spent with your extended family is excellent fodder for your writing. Need some odd characters for your novel? Look no further than that one oddball every family has. What? Wait? What do you mean I”m the oddball? No, I’m pretty sure it’s you…

Need some good dialogue? Here’s a good exercise. Crack open a couple of bottles of wine, wait until everyone is sloshed, then get out your notebook and pen. Then, when the wine -induced haze wears off and your novel is on bookshelves, swear up and down that they gave you permission to use their conversation verbatim. It’s not your fault if they don’t remember.

Need some good descriptions? When your family is driving you nuts and you can’t take it a moment longer, take a long walk (or snowshoe like I do!) through the woods, storing up descriptive words and scaring the local wildlife by yelling at the top of your lungs to relieve stress and frustration. Ah, the joys of family vacations…

The Black Moment and Resolution

The black moment is a device that’s used a lot in fiction. Not all books use it, but I think they should. It’s one of the best ways to heighten reader tension. So, what is the black moment?

Right before you resolve your novel, there should be a moment when whatever your character needs seems completely unattainable.  In a romance novel, this is where the heroine and hero seem like they’re not going to be able to make their relationship work. In a thriller, the hero might  have reached an insurmountable obstacle and seems ready to give up. In a paranormal novel, the flesh-eating zombies might have the heroine trapped with no way out, her death and subsequent consumption by the zombies seemingly inevitable.

The black moment usually happens in the chapter before the very last chapter. Then, you must have a resolution. This is where the heroine realizes she needs to learn to forgive and lets the hero into her heart. Or maybe, the heroine finds a loose pipe, bashes the zombies brains in, and makes her escape. Whatever. Just make sure that the resolution isn’t based on a happy coincidence, i.e. “And then a zombie-killing rain fell from the sky and I was saved.” While that might happen in real life (the happy coincidence, not the zombie rain), it can never EVER happen in your writing. Readers hate it and will never buy another one of your books again.