Writing

Thoughts on writing

On the Passing of Kit Reed

reedOne of my earliest writing mentors, Kit Reed, passed away recently. If you don’t know her work, I highly recommend you check it out.

I first knew Kit as RedWriter in our online writing class. Later, when she offered to tutor me one-on-one, we would sit in her warm kitchen and eat wafer cookies or pizza bagels, and she would offer her critiques on my work, and advice on the writing life. When my other classes or personal life became overwhelming (which they did, often), Kit would shake her head and say, “Triage.” She meant: set aside everything that’s less important than your writing. Do what you have to in order to prioritize your art. Even at a sprightly 75 years of age, she got up every morning to work. To craft whatever strange and heartbreaking new novel was currently thudding in her veins.

Kit was a fan of a process I termed the “Brick Shithouse” method of writing (at least I think I termed it– it may have been one of her own foul-mouthed inventions). She would write one page at a time, finishing that 500 words or so, then start over and rewrite it. Again and again she’d rewrite a single page until it was right, only then moving on to the next page, building her novel brick by solid brick. “You learn what you’re trying to say as you say it,” she’d tell me. She was the first person to introduce me to this deliberate, sometimes plodding, language-first style of storytelling. And for a sloppy speed-demon like myself, it was the best advice.

One afternoon I turned in a draft that was riddled with typos. The story was there, I figured. I could fix the tiny mistakes later. When we sat down at the kitchen table, Kit handed the half-read manuscript to me and said, “Don’t ever waste my time like this again.” There would be no class that day. I was to go home and fix my shit. If I expected respectful critiques, I better damn well respect my reader enough to deliver a clean draft. Today, I still call myself the King of Typos, but I reread everything I send or post again and again; errors do slip by, but never from laziness. Today, I return sample pages that aren’t numbered, or don’t include the author’s name. My feedback is a bit softer in tone, but the message is the same. Respect your reader. Don’t waste my time with this shit.

Kit never minced words. As such, our sessions weren’t always comfortable. But I learned more from her than anyone. I learned to treasure the gift of being a writer. The tools it gave me for navigating the world. When I was in pain (which was often, those years), she told me, “It’s all copy.” And she was right. Nothing in life is wasted. It all comes out in the work.

Kit Reed was brilliant and fearless. She told me to always put “…and is currently working on a novel” at the end of every ‘about me’ or bio. “Even if you aren’t,” she’d say. “Someday some publisher might read that byline and ask to read your book.” After all, that’s how she got her first book deal. “Don’t get a day job that involves writing,” she also told me. “Or it will burn you out for your own stuff.” Yet more invaluable advice.

I came to Kit’s kitchen at a time when my life was changing. I was giving up on a lot of things— a relationship, some friendships, some old ways of thinking, and old notions of who I was and what I wanted. It was a difficult period for me, with much uncertainty, but the rules were never clearer than sitting at Kit’s kitchen table. Don’t get it right, get it written. Respect your reader. Triage. It’s all copy.

My relationship to writing has changed a lot since then, but few things were more formative to who I am than my time with Kit Reed. She gave a shit, she gave me her time and attention and wisdom. She was never soft, always giving. She was brilliant, and her work remains so.

I have other stories about Kit, like the time I had to break into her house via a second-story porch, because I’d agreed to watch her dogs and locked the keys in the house (I never told her, not even when she wondered aloud how her trellis got chipped). Or the last time I saw her, meeting at her club in New York, and being so late she just shook her head and said, “Well there’s no time for a coke now. Your loss.” She rarely saw me at my best, but she was always so giving of herself anyway. I’ll be forever grateful.

So long, RedWriter. Thank you. You were a teacher and friend to so many, and we will miss you.

Advertisements

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.

    2015-07-29-1438212463-9583390-hairgelformenlonghair-thumb
  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.

    gsawredo2

  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.

    pretty-redhead-young-teen-girl-freckles-20448276.jpg

  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.

    karen-box-wine.gif

  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!

    hqdefault

  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.)

    gettyimages-200299935-001_super-1

  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.)

    190516_grandmother_grandkids-720x405

  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.

    giphy

  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.

    1af

  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.

    cc7b136cdf49bd8371e8d434459932d8

 

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!

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.

Publishing-industries-pic.jpg

Images Inspiring Fiction

I’ve heard various artists say they’re often inspired by images. Most famously Ron Howard claims he draws inspiration for his movies from single still images and photographs.

On Tumblr today I stumbled across this painting by Edward Hopper, which was the initial inspiration for my book CHERRY MONEY BABY. Something about this woman (an usher?) alone, apart from whatever’s transpiring on stage / screen, lost in her own thoughts…it got me thinking about a young woman who feels tangential to someone else’s larger drama, a girl on the outside looking in, and I wanted to tell her story.

tumblr_o3a9223Hpv1qz6f9yo1_540.jpg

Fellow writers, are there pictures and images that inspire your stories? I’d be curious to hear about them (and see them).

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.

A Pretty Much Foolproof, Never-Fail, Silver-Bullet Query Opening

Like this post? Then check out my November 19th webinar HOW TO BE A WRITER WITHOUT LOSING YOUR MIND: Balancing Work, Life, and Craft. There will be a Q and A as well as query critiques for all attendees. You should check it out!

Hello there.

A few days ago I posted about my move to Folio Literary, and what I’ll be seeking.

As I rev up the ol’ query inbox (which is already rumbling with submissions), I figured I’d take a moment to talk a bit about the query letter.

How— I mean, for serious, how on earth— does anyone write a query letter?

It seems so difficult. Not only are you trying to put your best foot forward and stand out from the dozens— no, HUNDREDS UPON HUNDREDS— of other queriers, you’ve got to summarize your manuscript (impossible), make it sound exciting (huh?), comp it to other titles (um), talk a bit about yourself (embarrassing), and keep it all under half-a-page (yeah okay no).

As if writing the book wasn’t hard enough in the first place.

A lot has been written on strategies for great query letters. There are templates and forms online, webinars, talks, and even whole conferences dedicated to the subtle art of the pitch. I myself have gabbed on for hours about this subject without taking a breath. So how best to break down all this information, to actually put it to use?

Where, John (you might be heard to ask), does one *start*?

Though there are many paths up the mountain, for the sake of expediency, allow me to offer a…

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 2.36.34 PM

Firstly, and I can’t stress this enough (and believe me I’ve tried)— open your query:

Dear [Actual Name of Agent],

That is, the name of the agent you are querying, spelled correctly, as opposed to…

Dear Agent,

Dear Sirs,

Dear Ms. Cusick,

Dear Mr. Quetip,

Or just…

JOHN:

…which makes me feel like I’m being pursued by a creditor.

Some agents prefer last names, others are less formal. Me, I don’t mind “Dear John,” despite the connotations of heartbreak. But it’s hard to go wrong with a Mr. or Ms. followed by the agent’s surname.

Next, I recommend following a little formula. Ready? Don’t panic because it kind of sounds like math.

Here it is:

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 2.39.00 PM

Where…

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 2.39.40 PM

So, X (your main character or protagonist) is Y (in the general place, time, circumstances of the protagonist’s every day life when the novel begins) until Z (the thing that makes the story a story happens).

Here are some examples.

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 2.41.38 PM

Harry is the main character. At the beginning of the novel he’s a sad British boy (as opposed to an awkward pale girl or rambunctious mouse). That is, until Z: the thing that makes the story a story (and not just a boring portrait of a sad British boy’s life) happens.

Reading the above, I already have a sense of the genre, style, and even the market for the manuscript proposed, and the querier has only written a *single line*. Now, the writer has room to go into more detail, offer comp titles, and give a short bio. He or she has hooked me right out of the gate, without preamble. And if this first line sounds good, I’ll be much more interested to read whatever comes next.

Here are a few more examples:

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 2.44.01 PM Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 2.44.10 PM

Get the idea?

So, if you find yourself stuck with your query letter, try this formula.

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 2.45.22 PM

If you know any other query tips or techniques, or of useful online resources for query letter templates, etc., please post them in the comments!

Link Roundup: Words and Music

Cool stuff from some Class of 2015 clients last week:

Rahul Kanakia, whose amazing debut ENTER TITLE HERE is coming from Hyperion in Fall 2015 (think House of Cards meets Gossip Girl. Yeah.) has two new short stories. You can read one right now at the sci-fi and fantasy magazine ClarkesworldSeeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)

(And if you aren’t following his blog, Blotter-Paper, you should.)

Then check out Tommy Wallach performing “Madeline“, a song from the upcoming “We All Looked Up” album, to accompany his novel of the same name. Both the book and the album come out on March 31, 2015. Subscribe to his channel to see more!

In other news: it’s fall! Hooray!

WE ALL LOOKED UP on Goodreads. Pre-order now at Barnes & NobleAmazon, or Indiebound.

ENTER TITLE HERE on Goodreads

Pics, Posts, and Lists– Last Week’s Link Roundup

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 10.14.21 AMThis spring Sharon Biggs Waller‘s debut y.a. A MAD WICKED FOLLY was selected as one of Booklist‘s Top Ten Historicals. This week FOLLY is back on their list of Top Ten Romance Fiction for Youth. Go Sharon! [10.25.14 Update: MAD WICKED FOLLY just made its *third* Booklist Top Ten List!]

Courtney Alameda‘s mind-numbingly terrifying SHUTTER will pub from Feiwel & Friends in January, but in the meantime, here’s Courtney on Scream Queens with a fabulous article about creating better scares with compelling protagonists.

ByWz10UIUAAIaVo-1It’s an author’s (and an agent’s) dream to spot one of your books in the wild– but it really doesn’t get much better than these two young readers with Ryan Gebhart’s THERE WILL BE BEARS (Candlewick Press, 2013) and Hannah Moskowitz’s ZOMBIE TAG (Roaring Brook Press, 2011).

 

 

A MAD WICKED FOLLY on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, Goodreads
SHUTTER on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, Goodreads
THERE WILL BE BEARS on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, Goodreads
ZOMBIE TAG on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, Goodreads