When she was a little girl, her father asked: what do you want to be when you grow up? Hannah Mary McKinnon told him: I want to run a company. She did that, for a while at least, but life changes and plans change, too. Eight or so years ago, after several companies and three growing sons, her husband asked her almost exactly the same question: What do you want to do with the rest of your life? This time she said: I want to write a book.
And, in Canada, now she’s writing bestseller number five. And a riveting psychological thriller, her brand new suspense standalone SISTER DEAR, has just been released. To universal acclaim. It’s never too late, right?
1. What book changed your life?
Without hesitation, Creep by Jennifer Hillier. I’d written my first novel, rom-com Time After Time, which my agent had submitted to publishers, and I’d made a start on a second book called The Neighbors. I knew it was a darker, grittier and more complex story, and when I picked up Creep at the library by chance, and devoured it in two days, I realized I wanted to write thrillers, too. Jennifer’s book gave me a push in that direction, and the confidence to go there. When we met at a writing conference a few years later, I fan-girled, hard. We now live in the same town and have become good friends. Life is a beautiful, funny thing.
2. Was your first published book the first manuscript you ever wrote?
Yes, Time After Time published in 2016, about four years after I’d written a first, abysmal draft. It took me a while to get feedback and rewrite the manuscript multiple times before acquiring an agent and getting a deal. Now I’m on a book a year schedule, with The Neighbors in 2018, Her Secret Son in 2019, Sister Dear in 2020, and books scheduled for 2021 and 2022.
3. Stephen King says, “The hardest part is just before you start.” What’s the hardest part of writing for you?
The first pass after I’ve written a skeleton draft. Let me explain my process: I’m a plotter, and the more books I write, the more I plot. First of all, I work on the concept—the initial idea, the main characters, a rough beginning, middle and end. Next I write an outline that I break down into about 30 chapters, each of which with three to five bullet points. Once done, I’ll write a rough skeleton draft, which is about two-thirds of my target word count, or around 60,000 words. This means I’m writing about 2,000 words per outlined chapter, which seems far more achievable than thinking “I have to write 90,000 words!”
My skeleton draft is bare bones. Not a lot of description or emotion, lots of talking heads but hardly any dialogue tags, and plenty of stage directions. The skeleton draft takes me about 6 weeks, and then comes the first pass, the one I enjoy the least. It’s painfully slow. Sometimes I’ll only edit 10 pages a day, but little by little I build up the story. Once I get to the end, I start again, and go over the manuscript about eight times, adding more and more complexity and detail until it’s ready for my editor. That’s the point where the real work begins…
4. Do you know the story’s ending before you start?
I think I do when I’m plotting…but often my characters head in a different direction. I’ve found their ideas are always better than mine, so I follow them wherever they take me.
5. When you’re having a difficult writing day, what do you tell yourself to get through it?
The only way I’ll finish my manuscript is by putting my butt in my chair and getting on with it. Hard day or not, if I don’t write, or at least think about the story, I won’t make any progress. I also remind myself to trust my process. Five books in I accept self-doubt will rear its ugly head and I’ll have a love/hate relationship with my characters and manuscript for a while. I’ll think all of it sucks, and then as I edit, I’ll fall in love with them and the story all over again.
6. Do you read your reviews?
For the most part, yes, whether good or bad. To be honest, I’m always relieved when I get my first one-star review because I know it’s going to happen, and when it does I can put it behind me. Besides, once my book is out there, on physical or digital shelves, there’s nothing I can do to change the contents. You have to have thick skin in this business. However, you also have to realize your work won’t please everyone, and it would be foolhardy to try.
7. Besides being persistent and correcting your spelling errors, what’s your best advice for a new author?
Read your work out loud. All of it. Doing so will help identify issues with cadence, repetition and stilted dialogue, for example. Another piece of advice I received that changed my approach was “if you don’t know what happens next, skip to a part where you do know.” I’d never thought of it that way, but trust yourself to come back and fill in the blanks. What’s the point in staring at an empty page when you could be writing that killer scene you’ve been thinking about or a magnificent ending? Who said a book has to be written in sequence, anyway?
8. What’s your definition of writer misery?
Worrying about never having a good idea again. Or not getting another book deal. Or sales being terrible. My husband says I worry too much…
9. What’s your definition of writer happiness? Speaking of which–what’s your newest book, and how do you feel about it?
The writing community! Never have I ever seen such a wonderful group of individuals—readers, fellow authors, publishers—it’s incredibly supportive and welcoming, and I absolutely love it.
My newest book is the psychological thriller Sister Dear. It’s a tale about two half-sisters, who don’t know the other exists…until one of them finds out. She realizes her glamorous sibling is and has everything she could only ever dream of, and so she decides to infiltrate her sister’s life without telling her they’re related.
I’m so excited about this book. It’s the darkest of all the ones I’ve written so far and I can’t wait for readers to meet Eleanor and Victoria.
10. What’s your favorite book on writing?
On Writing by Stephen King and by Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Both of them were are full of wisdom and insights that helped me streamline my approach.
11. What book are you reading right now?
Psychological thriller Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel. It’s fascinating, creepy and compelling. I love it!
What do you think about Hannah’s elaborate structural system? Come chat with all of us on the Career Authors Facebook page!
Hannah Mary McKinnon was born in the UK, grew up in Switzerland and moved to Canada in 2010. After a successful career in recruitment, and an unsuccessful Canadian HR start-up that prompted an early mid-life crisis, she made a deal with her husband: she’d follow her creative passion and write a book. Without too much prompting she quit the corporate world and put fingers to keyboard.
While her debut, TIME AFTER TIME, was a lighthearted rom com, she quickly transitioned to the dark side. Her suspense novels include THE NEIGHBORS, HER SECRET SON and SISTER DEAR and Hannah Mary’s known for her “I wasn’t expecting that” endings.
She lives in Oakville, Ontario, with her husband and three teenage sons. When not writing, Hannah Mary tries to keep up with feeding them (nearly impossible).
Visit www.hannahmarymckinnon.com to learn more.