How to Get an Agent

Announcing A New YouTube Channel: Agent Brain / Writer Brain

Hey there #amwriting crew, you may have noticed things have been a bit sleepy on the blog lately, but that’s not because we haven’t been busy!

The past few months have been a whirlwind both personally and professionally (lots of exciting announcements to come).  But you may have noticed I’ve been a bit lax on the craft and business posts lately. Well there’s a good reason, I swear.

The past few weeks my wife (former lit agent and all-around publishing maven Molly Cusick) and I have been working on a video series. We want to take the same advice, feedback, and how-tos you’ve found on this site and via our conference visits and webinars, and offer them in a new way. Now you can start watching our new YouTube channel all about the craft and business of writing. We call it: Agent Brain / Writer Brain.

Why not check out this video on querying? We’ve posted a few so far, on topics like raising the stakes, writing with scenes, and crafting your query letter, and if you like what you see, please give us a like and subscribe. That way you’ll always know when we’ve posted a new vid, and it will also help more writers find us through YouTube’s search algorithm (which is pretty cool).

We’ll be posting new videos pretty much every week, so check back in for more. And in the meantime– keep writing!

– John & Molly

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Interview with Author / Illustrator Julie Bayless

Julie Bayless_picI first saw Julie Bayless‘s phenomenal work at the SCBWI Oakland conference last year. She participated in the “Best Portfolio” contest, which I judged along with the other visiting editors and agents, and she was our unanimous choice. In fact, I now use some of Julie’s samples in my conference talks as examples of character, relationships, and story in illustrations. Julie’s debut picture book ROAR! (the beginnings of which were in her Oakland portfolio) is coming from Running Press Kids, Fall 2015.

When and how did you start writing?

I wrote and illustrated alphabet books starting at age eight.  “Irving Iguana Icked.” is a line from one of them, and the illustration shows Irving saying “Ick!” to several creatures offering him nasty-looking food. I like to think my writing and illustration has taken on a bit more nuance since then, though I like the sound of the line.

WildebeestwithPieCan you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?

I loved If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss and  How the Rhinoceros Got his Skin  from old, politically incorrect Rudyard Kipling. I fondly remember Caps for Sale, by Esphyr Slobodkina, and Rosalie the Bird Market Turtle, by Winifred and Cecil Lubell. I later got my own box turtle and named her Rosalie.

Tomi Ungerer’s Crictor the Boa Constrictor and The Three Robbers were also favorites.  Tomi has some of the most beautiful compositions, which are simple and powerful, and his drawings make me laugh, no matter how many times I look at them.

Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments

I remember thinking , “I’ll write a story with just a very few words; that’ll be MUCH easier!” Ha. 

When I showed my first storyboards to my husband, I was so pleased with them, and he (who has a fabulous sense of humor) didn’t think they were amusing at all.  He thought I was telling a story about a lion cub who has a deeply flawed relationship with her own family.  I trust Doug’s taste in a number of things, but I felt the idea of the book, un-formed at that point as it was, was worthy.  So I forged ahead. Doug has since come around!

Was it hard to get an agent ? Can you talk us through the process?

I joined SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) in 2009. Without that organization, I doubt I’d have an agent today.  Attending talks, getting portfolio reviews, and finding critique groups for my stories and illustrations; that, and drawing like a madwoman was how I got better. 

I sent postcards of my 623542illustrations to publishers every few months for three years, but never got any response.  I decided I needed to win “Best Portfolio” at a conference in order to land an agent to promote my work, and was astonished when it worked!  I met John at the 2013 Oakland SCBWI conference, where I did win “Best Portfolio”.  He said he’d like to see a book from me, so I came up with an initial draft of Roar! in four months.  I got feedback from as many people as I could while I was creating it. When I sent it to John, he offered to represent me, which was only slightly less thrilling than when my husband asked me to marry him. 

Describe your day.   Where do you look for inspiration? 

I spend as much time as possible drawing.  I love the iterative process of refining an idea, working out the composition, the characters, the colors.  I know I’m going in the right direction when I do a drawing that makes me laugh. 

I belong to both a writing critique group and an illustration critique group, and I get a huge amount of support and inspiration from them.  Conferences also provide a great deal of information and inspiration, and remind me to keep my portfolio and website updated.

Every week, I go to the library and grab any picture book that has an appealing cover.  I steal as many ideas as I can from other authors and illustrators!

EmandRafonStump005Are there any tips you could give aspiring author/illustrators who are looking to get published?

Join SCBWI, attend the conferences, familiarize yourself with what other books are being published in your genre, and draw and write as often as you can.  Find a group of people you trust who will give you honest feedback.  When you tell yourself you suck, don’t listen.  Besides, sucking for awhile is the only way to get better!  Don’t edit yourself in your first draft, just push forward.  Send it out, hope for the best, don’t give up.

Find out which tools make you happy, and try out some new ones from time to time. Be open to accidents, in whatever form they arrive.  Art accidents are a great opportunity to surprise yourself. 

See more of Julie’s artwork on her website.

Congrats to Christian Heidicker on His Debut Deal!

A big power-up high five to Christian Heidicker, whose debut y.a. just sold to Simon & Schuster! From Publishers Weekly:

29145-1Christian Trimmer at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers has bought debut author Christian Heidicker‘s YA novel, Miles in the Infinite Sandbox. Told in “censored” blog posts, the novel follows basement-dweller Miles after he is sent to video game rehab, and touches on issues of pop culture, sexism, and human connection. Publication is slated for summer 2016; John M. Cusick at Greenhouse Literary brokered the deal for world rights.

(You read that right. Christian’s editor is also named Christian. No, that’s not going to get confusing at all.)

When and how did you start writing?

Christian: I was cleaning a deep fat fryer. It was one of those crappy fast food jobs you get in college so you can afford to buy crappy fast food.

While the charred gloop of a thousand dead French fries splatted out into the bucket, images kept popping into my head of a small girl wandering into a forest with a plastic crown and a stuffed gorilla. I had to keep snapping off my rubber gloves to scribble notes on a pizza order sheet. Hold on to your crappy jobs, kids. They can inspire miracles.

IMG_3692Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?

Matilda is the first book I can remember finishing and then starting right back over again. I loved Matilda’s power over her teachers and parents. Being an only child with a New Age mother who healed my cuts with white light instead of Band-Aids, I’d always had a problem with authority figures. In fact, who are you? Why are you asking me these questions?

My childhood storytelling heroes were C.S. Lewis, Beatrix Potter, A.A.

Milne, Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak, and Brian Jacques . . . But everyone knows about them. You’re here for the goods. The work that turned me into a storyteller has to be Jim Henson’s Storyteller. The Soldier and Death episode specifically. Oh, look! It’s on YouTube! You lucky devils: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvsnV0yNddc If you don’t like the crappy eighties special effects, don’t tell me.

Was it hard to get an agent? Can you talk us through the process?

Someone else got my agent for me. Valynne E. Maetani* and I co-wrote a book about kids that used to eat brains together. (Not really though, it was hamburger.) We worked really hard on it, and when we were finished, Valynne threw on a Safari hat, grabbed a harpoon, and set off into the publishing wilderness. Eight days later, she returned bloodied and sweaty and covered in bruises. She had a lavender sack slung over her shoulder with a man-sized object struggling and screaming inside.

“I have good news,” she said, and poured John M. Cusick out onto the floor.

I highly recommend this approach.

10689931_10152987842073888_9040703992534659725_nDescribe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?

I wake up between the hours of 7 and 11 a.m. (That’s not a joke.) I don’t care where I write so long as I’m standing. People may give me funny looks at coffee shops, but I feel like hell if I sit for too long, and how else am I supposed to break into interpretive dance if I’m super excited about an idea?

When it comes to organizing time, I’m my own Nurse Ratched. I don’t let myself do things like eat or read or go out on the town until I finish an assignment or a chapter. Right now, I’m eyeballing a cup of tea and a book on the history of Scientology.

I pull inspiration from EVERYWHERE. I believe in the Ray Bradbury reading diet. I read picture books, comic books, books on science and history, the news, classics, music lyrics, anything. Lately, however, I’ve found that just listening to how people speak is crazy valuable.

The other day, I was putting on a puppet play for kindergartners. One of the little girls raised her hand and said, “I don’t know what’s a puppet.” I couldn’t make up that kind of cuteness if I tried.

Can you tell us about your next book?

It’s about a kid who’s committed to video game rehab. Or, if you want to get more specific, it’s about a kid who gets the first date of his life only to be committed to video game rehab where he must earn one million points by learning real-life skills in order to be released and make it back to his date.

Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?

YES. Read outside of your genre. The most famous creators out there bring something new to the table. Just look at sci-fi and fantasy.

J.R.R. Tolkien studied language. J.K. Rowling studied mysteries.

George R.R. Martin studied world history. George Lucas studied Akira Kurasawa films. C.S. Lewis studied theology. Of course you should read a bit in your genre to get a feel for what’s out there . . . but I’d like to see the Young Adult romance by someone who studied corn pollination or something . . .

1958461_10152470253823888_2118769219_nCan you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?

1.     Learn how to finish things. You learn more by finishing and sharing your stuff than by doing anything else. (I’m hoping to reach Nirvana at the end of this questionnaire.) If someone can look at one your work as a whole, they can point out your weaknesses and strengths. Keep a tough skin and pay attention to how they really feel about it.

2.     Give yourself permission to completely screw it up the first

time. It’s super intimidating to approach a blank page, difficult chapter, or even a questionnaire. I’ve found that if I remind myself no one’s going to read the first draft, I can take big sloppy risks and throw in whatever jaunty crabjectives I spoon like.

3.     Start working on the next thing. Writing stings. Sharing

writing stings. Having that writing rejected over and over and over* again stings. BUT if you start working on a new project as soon as the first one is finished, then you won’t think about that poor first manuscript being blown to smithereens and tumbling down to the earth as a papery carcass. Also, you can mentally tell whoever rejected it that you’ve got something WAY better on the way. In fact, I think I’ll go start another questionnaire right now.

*and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over

This is a tricky question because I think the most brilliant writers were kind of . . . well, a-holes. Salinger was a hermit. Truman Capote was in love with himself. Roald Dahl hit his wife apparently. I’m not feeding that guy dinner. So here’s my list of people whose writing I greatly admire and would actually like to hang out with:

The Living:

Toni Morrison

Alan Moore (tolerably grumpy)

Ursula K. LeGuin

Kate DiCamillo

Sherman Alexie

And FINE, Neil Gaiman, you can come. (Ug. I feel like I’m inviting the prom king that everyone’s in love with. Although . . . he is pretty handsome. Er, good at writing.)

The Dead:

Maurice Sendak (charmingly grumpy)

Ray Bradbury

David Foster Wallace

Joseph Campbell

John Steinbeck

Kurt Vonnegut

(Whoa there, all white men.)

A character I wish I’d invented?! Ooh, that’s a good question.

Matilda, The Storyteller, and Swamp Thing all jump to mind . . . But then I wouldn’t have been able to experience them as a reader. So I’ll say . . . L. Ron Hubbard. Imagine a character who could brainwash tens of thousands with a simple sci-fi story . . . WHAT? That guy’s real? I still wish I invented him.

* Valynne’s amazing debut, INK AND ASHES, is coming from Tu Books in Spring 2015. Watch for it! Also Valynne is amazing and you should follow her and check out her websites. Add INK AND ASHES on Goodreads. – JMC