publishing

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!

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…

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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:

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Where…

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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.

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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:

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Get the idea?

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

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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!

CHERRY MONEY BABY has arrived!

 

 

 

Basically, this is me today:

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It was almost three years ago I had the idea for CHERRY MONEY BABY– while washing dishes, as it happens. After countless drafts (on laptops, notebooks, and index cards) and months of revision, I’m so thrilled Cherry and company have arrived. And I feel such intense gratitude to the many, many people who helped bring this book into being, including Scott Treimel, Deb Wayshak, Lucy Earley, and all the phenomenal folks at Candlewick Press, my friends Evan Simko-Bednarski, Helena Fitzgerald, and Vicki Lame (who kept me sane through most of 2011), my parents Kate and John, and of course my GFF and first reader, Sarah Elmaleh (who voiced the audiobook, people!).

So if’n you like a story about hopes and dreams, glitz and fame, fast-cars, burritos, trailer parks, high heels, Converse All-Stars, Daisy Dukes, Louis Vuitton, British architecture, rented wombs, caviar, orange marshmallow circus peanuts, Italian cinema, Edward Hopper, She Hulk, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Auto-Tune the News, push-up contests, pregnancy tests, Alice in Wonderland, envy, champagne, and Pop Rocks…

…this is the book for you.

CMB Final Cover

Buy It / Read It / Review It:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

IndieBound

Goodreads

What folks are saying:

STARRED REVIEW, PUBLISHERS WEEKLY:
Author/literary agent Cusick (Girl Parts) gives Cherry a sarcastic and often profane voice. The supporting cast—Cherry’s blue-collar father, her chill boyfriend, and Ardelia’s caustic manager—round out a plot that continually surprises. Cherry is a highly memorable character, prone to violent outbursts but possessing a strong moral compass, a rare smalltown girl who isn’t consumed by anxiety over getting into college or out of town—even when she has the chance to dip her toe into the pool with some big-time celebrities. Ages 14–up. (Sept.)

“Cherry Money Baby is fabulous in every sense of the word! It’s earthy and smart and moving, laugh-out-loud funny, surprising, inventive, suspenseful, and — Oh, Hell — just gorgeously written!” — Tim Wynne Jones, author of Blink and Caution and The Uninvited

“Smart. Funny. A terrific read. I love that Cherry loves her family and loves that things aren’t perfect. I want to be her friend (though she might beat me up).”— Carol Lynch Williams, author of Waiting and Glimpse

“A witty and wise exploration of living big, living small, and figuring out which size will make you happiest. Unpredictable, smart, and deliciously satisfying.” — Lindsey Ribar, author of The Art of Wishing

“Beautiful, insightful, and unpredictable — just like Cherry herself.” — Leila Sales, author of Past Perfect and Mostly Good Girls

“Cherry Kerrigan–rhymes with “heroine”–will kick you in the teeth with her vim, wit, and homespun charm. John M. Cusick’s sophomore, but never sophomoric, novel captures the thrill of a teen’s unexpected adventure with an adult’s wry eye toward the inevitability of the unexpected. Cusick’s nuanced premise that home is who you are weaves the entangled threads of class, change, and circumstance into a tightly plotted, full-hearted bildungsroman.  CHERRY MONEY BABY is better than cherry cola.” — Laura Goode, author of Sister Mischief

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!

Gimmicky vs. Personal: A Query Tip


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I normally hate query gimmicks, but this one, if you can call it a gimmick, sort of worked. So I figured I’d share it.

I just received a query letter. The introduction was personal. The author mentioned following me on twitter, having taken one of my writing webinars, etc. Always good to include such details if you can.

The synopsis was succinct, describing the protagonists and their conflicts. Okay well done.

Then in what I’ll call the “About the Author” section, this author did something novel. Rather than a long, overly-detailed c.v., she broke her “bio” into two sections: Some Interesting Things About Me, and Some Writerly Things About Me. The latter detailed, in brief, her writing credits. Good to know.

Some Interesting Things About Me was what caught my eye. The author included two or three just…well…kind of interesting autobiographical facts, totally unrelated to her writing, her project, or the business at hand. They were succinct enough not to distract, and also gave my brain something specific and personal to associate with the author. Even though I ultimately passed on this particular project, I’ll remember this person. She will stand out the next time she queries me (which I hope she does). Oh yeah, the ___ lady.

Whacky and gimmicky queries don’t work. Agents have heard every joke and we’re rarely won-over by attention-grabbing snark or goofiness. Your writing, your project, speaks for itself. But you do want your query to catch the eye. So maybe next time, after your short synopsis, try including one bizarre or interesting fact about yourself. Just one. To this agent, it won’t read as gimmicky, but personal, and it may get my eye to linger those few extra precious seconds. Will it sway my decision? Probably not. But it won’t hurt either.

Image via http://fusedlearning.com/

 

The Greenhouse Funny Prize


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Hey gang, check it out. The Greenhouse Funny Prize is back. And guess what: this year, it’s open to North American writers!

Last year’s competition saw over 700 entries, and Pip Jones was our winner. Julia Churchill quickly sold Pip’s book, SQUISHY McFLUFF, THE INVISIBLE CAT, to Faber Children’s Books in a 4 book pre-empt.

So we’re putting out a call for funny stuff, from quirky picture books to wry y.a. The winner will receive an offer of representation from Greenhouse.

Wait, what?

That’s right. The winner gets rep’d people. Not bad.

Entry guidelines:

The Greenhouse Funny prize is open to un-agented writers writing funny fiction for children of all ages.

To get a good sense of the voice and where the character is headed, we’d like to see the first 5,000 words PLUS a short description (a few lines) of the book AND a one page outline that shows the spine of the plot. Please send this as a Word doc attachment.

If you’re submitting a picture book (or shorter fiction that comes in under 5,000 words), then send the complete text.

Please send your entries to funny@greenhouseliterary.com

If you’re writing from the US or Canada (ie, North America), please put NA in subject line. If you’re writing from UK or the rest of the world, please put UK in subject line.

The deadline for submissions is Monday, 29 July.

The shortlist will be announced Monday, 12 August.

The winner will be announced Monday, 19 August.

The US/Canada and the UK will have separate judging and shortlists and we will choose a winner in each territory.

Entrants will receive an acknowledgement on receipt of script, but only shortlisted candidates will be contacted.

North American entries will be judged by myself and guest judge Jill Santopolo, Executive Editor at Philomel, Penguin. UK entries will be judged by Julia and guest judge Leah Thaxton, Publisher of Faber Children’s Books.

Winners will receive an offer of representation from the Greenhouse and the UK winner will also get full weekend ticket to the wonderful Festival of Writing (worth £525). The runners up will each get five of Greenhouse’s favourite funny books.

So get writing!

Chatting with the Middle Grade Ninja

In case you missed it this weekend, check out my interview with Middle Grade Ninja. It gets real, yo.

Question Three: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

 My ideal cninja stufflient works hard and writes a ton. He or she handles rejection like a champ, and is always striving to improve. I feel some kind of bond with all my authors; connecting on a personal level is vital for a positive professional relationship. I like to joke around too, so a sense of humor is a bonus (I feel like I’m filling out a personals ad!).

Read the whole thing here!