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Ten Cliches That Make Agents Roll Their Eyes

f3fc3c45fd59bc3cb7fe8ad224519132Great books break these rules all the time. I’ll say it again: great books break these rules ALL THE TIME.

But here are ten cliches agents see so often in queries and samples, they make us go “ugh, not again.”

 

  1. Characters running hands through their hair. This move almost certainly springs from the era of Jonathan Taylor Thomas hair.

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  2. Dead parents. It needs to be said, even though everyone does it, including me. But remember, grief is not a shortcut to character development.

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  3. Redheaded best friends. Poor redheads, always relegated to the position of bestie. Also, why are best friends so often the fun one, while the hero is a stick in the mud? Yes, shyness is relatable, but it’s okay for your main character to be a firecracker, too.

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  4. Alcoholic moms, especially ones that drink boxed wine. Like ‘Busy Dad’, ‘Drunk Mom’ has become a shorthand for suburban ennui and inattentive, embarrassing parenting. Unless your story is truly about substance abuse, try and find a fresh way to signal mom is less-than-perfect.

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  5. Car accidents! If you’re a parent in YA, you’re probably drunk or dead. If you’re a boyfriend, you’re probably two pages away from a horrible car accident. If Kaydan has to go, why not have him get hit by a falling tree, or skateboard into a meat grinder? Get creative!

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  6. Stories that open with characters moving to a new town. I’m not sure why this is such a common set-up, especially in YA and MG, but rather than kickstart the plot, this device can leave agents feeling like they’ve covering the same old territory. (Oops, slipped into “listicle” voice there. Sorry.)

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  7.  / being forced to spend the summer with grandparents / relatives / country bumpkins of any stripe. I think this one originated in romantic comedies, where the too-busy, too-snobby hero is brought down to earth by the love of a simple man. (There are actually quite a few great books that follow this trajectory, but again, agents see it too often.)

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  8. Amnesia. In chapter one. A great story can explore a hero’s rediscovery of her past, and this plot device isn’t an instant turn-off to agents, but if you’re setting out on your first draft, this may not be the best place to start.

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  9. “I bet you’re wondering how I got myself in this situation.” Direct-address to the reader pulls us out of the story and reminds us we’re being narrated to. I think this is something we’ve picked up from movies and t.v., but in novels we’re ALREADY being narrated to, and don’t need reminding. We want to be immersed in your story and identify with your hero, not hear her monologue.

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  10. Heterochromia. This is one of many writer shortcuts for ‘there’s something different / special about her.’ For some reason it’s usually attributed to girls rather than guys, and sometimes suggest the supernatural. Speaking of which, this picture is creepy.

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If you’ve already queried a sample with one or more of these elements, don’t panic. Agents look past this stuff to see what’s truly original about your work. BUT, while there’s nothing wrong with the above in an artistic sense, the best and most enticing writing feels fresh, so in the future, kill these darlings!

Are there any I missed? Add them in the comments!

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Publishers Don’t Want Good Books

This conversation has happened at every agency in the world (particularly in the kids and teen department).

Agent 1: I’ve got a new project.

Agent 2: Yeah? How is?

Agent 1: It’s good.

Agent 2: Good?

Agent 1: Yeah, good.

Agent 2: Oh…Damn.

Agent 1: Yeah.

Agent 2: *Sips martini* That’s too bad.

imgres.jpgAgents, editors, and maybe you, the author, know the curse of the “good” book. The book that’s perfectly fine, that works, that tells an interesting story, and that is, sad to say, darn near unsellable. The rejections often contain phrases like “didn’t fall in love,” or “just didn’t feel strongly enough,” leavened with genuine compliments about the writing or characterization. After years of learning the craft of story and voice, you’ve finally created a nearly flawless novelone you know is as good (heck, better!) than a lot of stuff on the shelf. And it just…doesn’t…sell.

What’s going on here? Are publishers just crass, cowardly, visionless hacks who take pleasure in crushing the dreams of talented writers, refusing to give even promising careers a chance to get started?

The answer, of course, is no. Nobody is more motivated (apart from the author) to see a book succeed with flying colors than publishers. Believe me when I say us soulless agents and our human counterparts- editors- are wishing and dreaming as hard as you for that Newbery Medal, the debut on the New York Times Best Sellers list, the book signing line that wraps around the block.

It pains me to say it- and it pains all of us in publishing, I promise you- but there typically just isn’t room for “good” books. Publishing is an increasingly competitive space. More and more people want to be published, and the standard for what constitutes a “success” gets higher every day. Publishers have limited space on their lists, and so each novel has to be more than good. It has to be something special.

Of course there are many kinds of special. Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star, Chris Grabenstein’s Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s LibraryVictoria Aveyard’s Red Queen– four completely different novels, with pretty different audiences, and they all have something in common. These are novels that demand you sit up and take notice. They are more than just functioning stories. They refuse to be ignored.

images.jpgWhen I say publishers don’t want good books, I don’t mean they’re after bad ones either. Nobody is more passionate about compelling fiction than your friendly neighborhood editor, whether the novel in question is a beautiful, heart-breaking, cry-on-the-subway coming of age, or a heart-pounding, unforgettable, so-damn-sexy-you-need-a-time-out fantasy, romance, or action/adventure. Though you may have found writing on the shelf at Barnes & Noble that makes your skin crawl (in the bad way), fiction is a subjective business, and I guarantee that even if it isn’t your brand of beer, every novel published made someone, somewhere, feel something profound- whether it was excitement, intrigue, or love.

Awesome, thanks for that John. Of course I want to be better than good. I want to be special, too. So what do I do?

My advice to my clients, to all novelists (and to myself), is always the same: push yourself. Don’t settle for your first idea, or even your second. Don’t stick with a project simply because it’s written, when you know rewriting or moving on to the next thing will be even better. Can you tell a story? Great. Now ask yourself, why does my story need to be told? What about it is new, what about it pushes boundaries? What about it has, at least, the potential to change a person’s life?

Teens need you. Teens need writers. I know I did. Novels saved my life, and I am one of thousands in that club. So be fearless. When you tell someone what your story is about, what’s their reaction? You want “Wow,” you want, “Oh my goodness, really?” You even want, “You can’t write a book about that!”

We’re all striving to do something great, and most of us ultimately land somewhere between where we started and the stars. If you want to be a novelist, you have to want to be the best novelist, or you’ll never get off the ground. As maddening as it can be, I’m glad the publishing biz is so competitive. It pushes us to be more.

So get good, write a good novel, hone your craft until you are a master of structure.

Then start again.

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11/19 Webinar: How to Be a Writer Without Losing Your Mind


Hi all! If you’ve enjoyed some of the craft-focused and inspirational posts I’ve done on this blog, you should check out my November 19th webinar with Writers Digest, HOW TO BE A WRITER WITHOUT LOSING YOUR MIND: Balancing Work, Life, and CraftThere will be a Q and A as well as query critiques for all attendees. You should check it out!

ABOUT THE WEBINAR

Being a writer can make you crazy. The writer’s life is at once invigorating and exhausting, it can be isolating and wonderfully social, inspiring as well as demeaning. As writers we bring our deepest, most sensitive selves to the page, and often the world can feel like a hyper-critical and uncaring receiver, where competition, criticism, and even the success of others can make writing feel like a chore, or worse-utterly terrifying. And yet, we’re driven to return to the page and express ourselves despite the uncertainty and the demands of day-to-day life.crazy writers block

How do we deal with all these contradictions, the isolation, the rejection, the irrational joys and sorrows of being a writer? In this live webinar you’ll learn many ways to kill the fear, or, as Robert Leckie said, shoot that old bear under your desk between the eyes.

With practical tips and tricks, examples from dozens of famous writers, and inspiration culled from years of experience as both an author and agent, instructor John Cusick provides the tools for tackling the writing life with gusto, enthusiasm, and balance. Learn healthy, productive techniques for combating the inner critic, utilize envy envy, and summon motivation. With humor and insight, this webinar will give attendees the skills to conquer the maddening uncertainties of writing and publishing, and to create a space for one’s writer self in the world.

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN:writing-center-wordlie

  • Techniques for balancing writing time and your day-to-day life
  • Tips for staying focused when distractions demand your attention
  • How to set up a mental and physical space for your writing
  • Tricks for staying motivated and inspired
  • Techniques for coping with insecurity, uncertainty, and rejection
  • How to deal with your internal critic
  • Daily practices and meditations specifically designed for the writing life
  • How to take the measure of yourself as a writer, and keep writing!

Sit Down and StartWHO SHOULD ATTEND?

  • Anyone looking or inspiration and motivation to KEEP GOING
  • Writers feeling hounded by their inner critic
  • Sufferers of “writer’s block”
  • Long time authors in a rut
  • New writers looking to form strong writing habits
  • Writers with day jobs and families, in school
  • Writers who feel distracted
  • Anyone who feels they “don’t have time to write”
  • Writers who feel they’re on the verge of “giving up”
  • Writers who find it difficult to get started
  • Book lovers who want to pursue writing seriously
  • Any writer seeking an agent, a publisher, a first book deal, that break out novel, or feel they are ready for their craft and career to take the next big step

ABOUT THE CRITIQUE

All registrants are invited to submit a query letter to be critiqued. All submitted queries are guaranteed a written critique by Literary Agent John Cusick.

If you’re busy November 19th, no worries– the webinar will be recorded, and you can re-watch it for up to a year. So sign up today!

Courtesy of Alex Thayer Stewart, who took these notes during a live version of this talk 🙂

“Am I Any Good?” Taking the Measure of Yourself as a Writer

Am I any good?

I get this question a lot. Mostly at conferences, in one-on-one critique sessions. It usually pops up late in the conversation, after I’ve discussed the writer’s sample pages and given my critiques. Then there’s a pause, and the aspiring author sitting across from me looks as if he’s about to make some awful confession, like the curtain of polite discourse is about to fall, and we’re going to get to the real, unvarnished and possibly painful truth.

“So, am I any good?”

There are subtle variations. Sometimes it’s “Is this any good?” or “Do you think I can get this published?” But even when the question seems to be about the pages in hand, I can tell the real question is:

“Me— am I any good at writing, a craft which defines my life and my hopes and anxieties? Am I any good at this thing, which is another way of asking: am I, as a human being, as a person, any good?”

And that’s a lot to ask a guy you’ve only known for ten minutes.

An important thing we writers often forget is this: We are not our writing, and we are not our manuscript. It’s so easy to take criticism personally, to hinge our egos and self-worth to 100,000 words eked out on the evenings and weekends while our families and jobs clamor for our attention. I’ve often heard the advice “You need to claim yourself as a writer. When people ask, say I am a writer.” Which is great, but perhaps the better thing to say is “I write.”

I write. I also play music. I cook. I watch too much television. I read. I dance (poorly). I spend time with my friends. I’m a literary agent—a job I love. I’m many things, which is what I remind myself when I’m not feeling too hot about my writing (which is often).

Remember too that you are not your manuscript. No one book or selection of pages can cast the final vote on whether you are a good writer. By my definition, a good writer keeps writing—and crummy manuscripts are part of that process.

I think where this question really comes from is the idea of talent. Sure I can hone my craft, I can work hard, but if I don’t have the talent— something kind of mystical and inborn— I’ll never make it. Yes, some people have an innate knack for telling a story or writing a pretty sentence. But in my experience, the relationship between talent and success is slim. It’s the hard-workers, the grinders, the folks who write a lot, then listen and take criticism and grow, that make it.

So when authors ask me “Am I any good?” I always respond with a question of my own.

“Do you want to keep writing?”

Some hear this question and then, slowly, smile—not for my benefit, but inwardly, to themselves. They’re anticipating their next productive day, their next great story, the bliss of meeting a new character.

Yes. These folks, I think, are good.

New Webinar on Character (for Kids & Adult Books)!!!

Yes, the tabloid rumors are true. I’m doing another webinar.

Writer’s Digest Presents…

“FULL CAST: How to Enrich and Expand Every Character in Your Novel from the Leading Man to the Background Extras.” 

1 p.m., EST
Thursday, May 16, 2013

(If that time doesn’t work for you, don’t sweat it. The whole thing will be available to watch and rewatch for a year or so.)

Every novel is driven by character. We fall in love with heroines, cheer for heroes, and loathe our villains. Characters draw us in, and through them we experience our favorite stories. Without a compelling cast, even the most engrossing tale can fall flat. What makes some protagonists iconic, while others go up in smoke? How can we create rich motivations without burdensome back-story, or nuanced supporting characters without stealing focus from our protagonists? How can we populate our novels with an unforgettable ensemble our readers will love? The answer involves giving your characters a great blend of relationships, history and motivations.

And, also, learning a ton of cool stuff by signing up for this webinar.

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN:

  • How to create an unforgettable ensemble of empathetic, unforgettable characters

  • How to develop compelling motivations to drive your story

  • How to craft rich histories to inform your characters’ journeys

  • How to intensify relationships, creating intimate, intense connections within your tale

  • How to lend nuance and depth by creating “mini-arcs”

  • How to employ impressionistic details to bring background characters to life.

And there’s MORE. What? Yes. There is.

Everyone who attends is invited to submit a query letter for their novel. Every query is guaranteed a written critique by yours truly.

So, an amazing class, Q&A, and personalized query critique, all from the comfort of your living room / boudouir / computer dungeon? Yep. I can promise you this will be the greatest thing you’ve ever done that involved the word “webinar.”

So sign up!

Writing SciFi & Fantasy for Kids and Teens Redux

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It’s back! If you missed my August webinar, here’s your chance:

Writing and Selling Sci-Fi & Fantasy for Kids and Teens

LIVE!!!! IN COLOR!!! ON THE INTERNET!!!

DECEMBER 13th! 1pm EST! Sign up NOW!!!

Well, this is a humdinger. I’m so psyched to be doing a webinar with Writer’s Digest, and on a topic very near and dear to my heart.

I personally guarantee this webinar, and the personal query-letter critique that comes with it, will utterly melt your face and blow your mind.

Seriously.

Your brain is Alderaan and this webinar is the Death Star.

A visual representation of the planet-shattering awesomeness of this webinar.

ABOUT THE WEBINAR:

Young adult and middle grade are two of the fastest growing and most robust fiction genres in publishing. These juvenile categories have a tradition of fantasy and sci-fi narratives that continues today with wizards, vampires, and clockwork princesses. The young adult and middle grade markets are rich with imaginative and fantastical stories, worlds, and characters.

What makes some stories stand out, and others unsuccessful, cliché, or—worst of all—left buried in the slush pile? How can you refine your craft to create novels at once lasting and fresh? How does writing for kids and teens differ from writing for adults? How can you capture the attention of an agent in this rich and extremely competitive market? In other words, how can you give your story the best chance to get published?

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN:

  • How to write for young people—capturing the voice, narration, story, and style
  • How to use tropes, myths, and archetypal story structures to create striking, unforgettable fantasy & sci-fi tales
  • How to craft detailed, unique, engrossing worlds, full of history and depth
  • How to bring to life layered and compelling heroes, anti-heroes, villains, and antagonists
  • How to avoid cliché and trend-chasing, and create wholly fresh, standout novels
  • How to win the interest of an agent in this competitive market.

Only a few days remain to sign up, so check it out and spread the word. Your face will thank me.

How to Open Your Book With a Bang

Okay, so NaNoWriMo is drawing to a close. You’re nearing your word count goal. The heady promise of triumph makes you tingle all over. But there…in the back of your mind…like a ghost at the feast…a niggling doubt.

You scroll up. And up. And you reread that first page you wrote way back at the beginning of the month, when the world was young, when all was innocence and possibility.

And lo. Your first line sucks.

NOT TO WORRY. This Saturday I’m hosting an online course in startling, intriguing, unforgettable openings. AMAZING FIRST LINES! Featuring examples from y.a., pop culture, film, t.v., and even…real life!

You, dear student, will learn how to:

  • Grab attention with shock, intrigue, and the rule of “always…except!”
  • Involve the reader with your world, your characters, your point of view.
  • Leave the reader begging for more by employing the techniques of mystery, suspense, and humor.
  • Write in mystical runes that can raise the dead (results may vary)

And all without having to put on pants! Yay the Internet!

If you act now (or actually, no matter when you sign up) you’ll also get a personalized first-line critique from yours truly!

So if you’re an aspiring author hoping to escape the slush pile, or a career writer looking for fresh ways to spice up those seminal syllables, check it out.

 

Webinar on Writing and Selling SciFi & Fantasy for Kids and Teens

Writing and Selling Sci-Fi & Fantasy for Kids and Teens

LIVE!!!! IN COLOR!!! ON THE INTERNET!!!

AUGUST 9th! 1pm EST! Sign up NOW!!!

Well, this is a humdinger. I’m so psyched to be doing a webinar with Writer’s Digest, and on a topic very near and dear to my heart.

I personally guarantee this webinar, and the personal query-letter critique that comes with it, will utterly melt your face and blow your mind.

Seriously.

Your brain is Alderaan and this webinar is the Death Star.

A visual representation of the planet-shattering awesomeness of this webinar.

ABOUT THE WEBINAR:

Young adult and middle grade are two of the fastest growing and most robust fiction genres in publishing. These juvenile categories have a tradition of fantasy and sci-fi narratives that continues today with wizards, vampires, and clockwork princesses. The young adult and middle grade markets are rich with imaginative and fantastical stories, worlds, and characters.

What makes some stories stand out, and others unsuccessful, cliché, or—worst of all—left buried in the slush pile? How can you refine your craft to create novels at once lasting and fresh? How does writing for kids and teens differ from writing for adults? How can you capture the attention of an agent in this rich and extremely competitive market? In other words, how can you give your story the best chance to get published?

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN:

  • How to write for young people—capturing the voice, narration, story, and style
  • How to use tropes, myths, and archetypal story structures to create striking, unforgettable fantasy & sci-fi tales
  • How to craft detailed, unique, engrossing worlds, full of history and depth
  • How to bring to life layered and compelling heroes, anti-heroes, villains, and antagonists
  • How to avoid cliché and trend-chasing, and create wholly fresh, standout novels
  • How to win the interest of an agent in this competitive market.

Only a few days remain to sign up, so check it out and spread the word. Your face will thank me.

I’ll Be at the W.I.Y.R. June Conference and So Can You

Listen up home slices: Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers in Sandy, UT is holding its summer five-day conference, June 18-22, 2012. In addition to nine morning workshops, participants get the chance to have their work critiqued by some amazing author, illustrator, and industry pro faculty members, not to mention Yours Truly.

So obviously, already, this is an amazing opportunity.  What’s extra cool? This year the conference sponsors its first annual Writing Contest and Scholarship. Follow this link for a chance at a $1,000 award.

My fellow faculty include the brilliant Cynthia Leitich Smith (one of my favorite humans evor), Tim Wynn-Jones (who can bend spoons with his mind), Ruth Katcher (invented the internet), and Alexandra Penfold (rumor has it she ghost-wrote Infinite Jest but you didn’t hear it from me). It’s gonna be a blast. I highly recommend you go here and sign up now.

See you in Utah.

Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers

Rules for Book Blurbing

Daniel Menaker perfects that illusive perfect book blurb…

1.  Use “I should have known” at the start of any quote you decide to give.  As in “I should have known Meghan Askew would write the best vampire-leprechaun novel of the decade.” Or “I should have known that I should have known that ‘Maura’s Tears’ would sweep me away into a maelstrom of [whatever].”

2. To keep yourself somewhat closer to being honest, use “of the decade” only for books published in years ending in 1. Or 2, at a stretch.

Read the whole thing here.