Interview with Christabel McKinley

Q1: Christabel, thanks for joining us: could you tell us a little more about you and how you became an agent?

Thanks for the intro Stuart! As you mentioned briefly, I work at David Higham Associates where I’ve been for about 2.5 years now. I’ve always liked books for children – don’t think I could work in adult publishing! (they are less colourful)

I first became interested in children’s publishing when I was teaching English in South Korea. A big part of my job was teaching English through children’s books. I loved thinking carefully about them and what the kids would enjoy in them and learn from them. It made me want to get more involved in creating them.

In some ways I felt our range of books was quite limited, so I started thinking about the types of books I WANTED for the kids. The journey to then actually build a career in publishing was a bit more complicated. I did a bit of time in a scouting agency (not to make it sound like prison…) and then worked in children’s rights at Macmillan.

The rights experience was fantastic because a global approach is so important. It also was a good test run of a sales job to see if I liked that side of things. And luckily, I did!

I was interested in agenting from the start because it has the sales aspect and also the editorial aspect. We get to spend a lot of time working on manuscripts with authors, whereas editors are often quite restricted. I also love the social side of it – I spend a lot of time talking to people and making friends! (or at least I think we’re friends)

Q2. Not everyone will know the details of what a literary agent does, and it’s bound to vary from day to day, and agent to agent, but what would an average day be like for you?

Oh yes, it’s hugely varied. And a lot of it is quite unglamorous! Some of the things I do basically every day are have a chat with someone and spend some time on contracts.

There are lots of people to be checking in with constantly. I speak to clients – to talk editorially, or just to check in; to editors, to maintain relationships and see what they’re looking for; to other staff in the company to check we’re all on top of developments in the industry.

Contracts is also a huge part of the job – discussing terms, arguing over boilerplates, arranging them for signature, putting them on the database. It’s really vital work and well worth all the time put into it!

The most fun part of the job is probably going out with submissions. It’s a bit like playing matchmaker – you already love the text and want it to find the best home that will love it the most! So you get to share all your excitement and enthusiasm with others and, hopefully, see it reflected back.

Ah, boilerplates! A strange term that sounds like dinner is ready but also in a cupboard! That’s the agreed standard contract terms we will have with each individual publisher. We’ll have one for PRH, one for Hachette, one for S&S etc. They’re all slightly different.

Yes, we do the dull/tough stuff so authors don’t have to! That sometimes means playing bad cop when there’s awkward or difficult news to deliver or opinions to share.

Thanks so much for the insight – it’s really interesting to know more about it! And hopefully it helps writers appreciate that you’re only job isn’t just to read their submissions???
Talking of which:

Q3. Our writers are reaching the end of a 12 month novel course, and some will be wondering just how polished their work needs to be before submitting to an agent – what would your advice be to them?

Ah no, reading submissions is unfortunately a very very small part of the job, and often done in free stolen hours of the evening or weekend!

I would say it needs to be pretty polished. It’s so worth taking the time to put your best foot forward. I completely understand the excitement about wanting to get your story out there into the world, but we can only see things for the first time once. So make that time count, if you can!

I don’t know if anyone has seen the Neil Gaiman university commencement speech where he talks about the 3 skills you need to be a freelancer in the arts world, and how you need at least 2/3 of them?

I think it’s the same for writing! Ideally you’ll have strong Concept, Plotting, and Writing. But if you have only 2 of these then you have potential!

If you feel more than one of these is weak, you need to slow down and rethink your story.

Agents will be looking for a) a strong concept, something that immediately captures the attention or feels like it hasn’t been done before, or not in this way. Then the story needs to be a) well plotted, so we feel it’s taking us on a journey, at the right pace, and with a satisfying ending. And then c) good writing is such a gem. A lot can be forgiven for beautiful writing, but alas, it still needs a good story idea!

So think about these three things in isolation. Which of them feels like your weak point? How can you improve it? Which is your strength? Have you really highlighted it as much as you can?

Agents can help with things like plotting – but the writing and concept really have to come from the author.

Great advice! The link for that Neil Gaiman speech is here if anyone wants to watch:
Q4. And on that note, what is your best advice to them when preparing to send their stories to agents?

You’re a star, Stuart!

I think the best way to prepare is to do as much research as you can. Firstly, about which agents and agencies might be a good fit. No point sending to someone who doesn’t read in that field!

Then I would recommend test pitching to your friends. Not all of them or you won’t have many left. Pick a couple who you know won’t sugarcoat things for you! Pitch them the story and watch their reactions closely. Does the ‘elevator pitch’ get a reaction from them? Do they follow the short plot?

Often I see people fall down at pitching their story – even though the story itself is great and full of potential. You need to make sure you’ve told us: what is at the HEART of this story? What do I want to get across here? How will it move the reader and leave them changed?

So for example – make it clear if it’s a story about family, or friendship, or being brave, or listening to your heart. That’s what the reader will take away. We have to know that.

I’d say avoid vague pitches then when you get to the few lines of plot. Be specific – we need to know after all why this story is different and why it stands out. So not “a boy with a mystery”. Who is this boy, and what is his mystery?!

Q5. What is your manuscript wishlist at the moment? What would you like to see in the submissions inbox?

I quite like being surprised, so I wouldn’t say there’s anything I’m particularly looking for or not looking for, but I can share some of the things that tend to draw me in.

I’m a big fan of Place. I always tell authors to make their setting feel as real and relatable as their main character. It makes a HUGE impact on the story. One of the biggest weaknesses I come across is no space – so the story just drifts, suspended in mid-air.

I also love stories about identity, particularly if you feel a bit divided between two different ones. I guess because that’s how I grew up! But I think it’s the same for a lot of us, in different ways.

Coming-of-age stories strike a chord, no matter the setting, time period, age, gender, etc.

I also am quite attracted to oddballs! Particularly madcap adventures starring unlikely bands of misfits. I don’t care if one of the group is a dog and another is a talking skull and the third is a carrot. That’s interesting to me!

I would like to immediately retract the carrot statement. That was going too far.

Haha no but don’t feel the need to restrict yourself too much! I always talk about how much I love Howl’s Moving Castle. The protagonist is an old woman, she has adventures with a wizard, a small boy, an evil witch, a scarecrow with a turnip head, and a small dog.

Oh and a demon trapped as fire – how could I forget old Calcifer!

And in that story too, the setting is so real and so alive. Absolutely beautiful. I still love passing Kingsbury on the Jubilee line!

Okay, that was ace btw – nice to see your, ahem, tastes! Seriously though, it’s great to read this in more detail. Now, that we’re all sending our carrot stories, could you tell us:
Q6. What do you look for in a query, which would make you request?

I am going to have such a bad reputation in the vegetable community now. What have I done.

The best way to open a story is with a character or setting that is immediately arresting. I want to instantly be intrigued and want to learn more.

I notice a lot of people start their stories with conversations – this is usually as an exposition tool, to try to explain the world or where we are in the storyline.

I’d avoid that – you need to reel us in first!

So go easy on the exposition – paint this character or this setting for me. Make them feel real! Then I am intrigued and I want to keep reading.

The exposition will all come naturally in its own time, but I need to bite first.

I know this is a very vague thing to say, but I also love ‘confident’ writing. Not helpful at all because I can’t explain what it is or how to get it – but I think it’s a real sense of ‘this story is telling itself’ – like watching a beautifully functioning machine but without seeing all the cogs whirring.

This is such good advice, we are really appreciating and absorbing all of this, Christabel! Thanks for going into such detail.
Okay, very last question from me:
Q7. If you could give one piece of advice for querying writers, what would it be?

Hmmm I think the advice that Alex found most useful was: don’t take things personally.

Of course it’s personal – it’s a story from your own brain and heart! But we’re preparing it for a journey to OTHER people’s brains and hearts, which are different from yours.

So it will need some moulding and shaping. Any advice given isn’t to be hurtful – it’s to help build this bridge.

Even in my own job, I think I became much better at it when I stopped taking things personally. I did that wrong? Okay, how can I do it better next time.

You do of course have to learn where to draw the line – you don’t have to take on board EVERY piece of advice given to you. If you do then it will probably end up like a bit of a Frankenstinian monster! But learn to consider each piece of advice sincerely. Can you take something from it? Without any ego getting in the way? Are you only saying no because it looks too hard?

Sometimes it just won’t be for you – if you’ve considered it and realise it’s not, then of course feel free to disregard it. The story has to be safe in your guiding hands, too!

The other advice I would want to give is to not see things as a “waste of time”. EVER!

Every moment you’re writing you are learning something about it. That story didn’t sell? Okay – that was X many hours of practice. Time for the next.

If you were training to be a professional tennis player, you wouldn’t feel the time spent playing on off days or games you lost would be a waste, right? They’re all part of training.

We’re in it for the long haul!

Christabel will be judging our first ever WriteMentor Novel-IN-Development AWARD 2021 and represent the outrageously talented Alexandra Page, who won the 2019 #WriteMentor Children’s Novel Award.

Christabel joined David Higham Associates in July 2018. Previously, she worked in Rights at Macmillan Children’s Books and at a scouting agency. She graduated with a degree in Russian and English Literature from Trinity College Dublin, after which she spent a year teaching English in South Korea.

Christabel assists Caroline Walsh and is also open to children’s submissions across all age groups, from picture book authors and illustrators to Young Adult fiction and non-fiction. She is currently closed to Adult SFF submissions.

Twitter: @ichristmasbell

Christabel’s full profile is here.

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