The Good Story Podcast

Episode 12: John Cusick, Agent and Author

Episode Summary

A conversation with John Cusick, literary agent and MG/YA author. We delve into writing for MG and YA readers, what agents are looking for, and breaking writing rules.

Episode Notes

A conversation with John Cusick, literary agent and MG/YA author. We delve into writing for MG and YA readers, what agents are looking for, and breaking writing rules. 

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Mary Kole: Former literary agent Mary Kole founded Good Story Company as an educational, editorial, and community resource for writers. She provides consulting and developmental editing services to writers of all categories and genres, working on children’s book projects from picture book to young adult, and all kinds of trade market literature, including fantasy, sci-fi, romance, and memoir. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and has worked at Chronicle Books, the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and Movable Type Management. She has been blogging at since 2009. Her book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, a writing reference guide for middle grade and young adult writers, is available from Writer's Digest Books.

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Episode Transcription

Mary: Hello. This is Mary Kole, and the "Good Story Podcast," helping writers craft a good story. With me, you will hear from thought leaders related to writing and sometimes not, about topics important to writers of all categories and ability levels. Here is to telling a good story.


All right. Welcome, everybody, to the "Good Story Podcast." This is Mary Kole. And with me today, I have my esteemed guest, John Cusick, love of my business and book life. He is fantastic. We are partners in a soon-ish-to-be-announced venture perhaps, and old-time friends. So, I'm especially excited for this interview. But I don't have to tell you all about him. He can introduce himself. John, over to you.


John: Hi, everyone. First, Mary, thanks so much for having me. As Mary said, my name is John Cusick. I'm a literary agent. I've spent the past 12, 13 years or so representing authors of kids' books — that's picture books, middle grade, and young adult — for the past, I guess, five years and change now. I've been with Folio Literary Management and Folio Jr., literary agency where we're specializing in fiction what have you. And in addition to being a lit agent, I'm also an author myself. I've written two YA novels that came out a few years ago with Candlewick. And most recently, just this past September, my first middle grade book came out, first of a two- part series, two parts so far. It's called "Dimension Why: How to Save the Universe Without Really Trying." And that's me, in a nutshell.


Mary: Fantastic. I would love to do so much without really trying. So, this really appeals to me. And don't be modest. This came out just last week as we're recording here. It's a new publisher, it's a new category. Why don't we jump in and you tell me what's it like to sort of switch gears. And was it different? Was it the same? How'd it go?


John: Well, I'll say, you know, writing for middle grade is very different than writing for young adult. I think, in a way... You know, you might think of middle grade as being more restrictive in terms of, say, content or language or subject matter because you're writing for a younger audience. In practice, my experience is that it frees you up a little bit. I like to write funny stuff. I think you can be a little bit zanier and sillier in middle grade than, you know, YA readers necessarily have the patience for or necessarily looking for. Humor in YA can be very, very difficult to do well.


Mary: Yes.


John: You know, I... When I was working on "Dimension Why," I was really in a headspace that reminded me of... When I was in college, I used to write radio dramas for this radio show called "The Water Pipe Theater" that was out of my school's radio station. And we could only write the radio dramas, you know, within 24 hours before the show went up. It's usually the way it ended up happening. So, I wrote them very quickly, and they were just designed to make my fellow radio drama actors laugh. That was the beginning and end of the goal — you know, if they enjoyed it, if we had a good time. Because that was sort of all we had the time and bandwidth for.


So, that's not to say that writing this book was slapdash by any sense. But I very much came at it just trying to, in this case, make my wife, Molly, laugh. I was kind of writing it for her, you know, and reading it to her a little bit every day. Yeah. We just kept the approach very light. It was always meant to be fun, first and foremost, which in certain ways took some pressure off. You know, I think when you're writing YA, especially if you're writing serious YA, you know, you might be taking up some very serious and deep issues, which might require a different kind of energy or focus to get across well on the page.


I guess, the short answer to your question is that it's just a lot more fun to write middle grade, in my experience, you know.


Mary: Yeah. And so, you straddle a very interesting line professionally in which you're an agent. You represent writers, you help writers with their creative ideas. You sort of shepherd their careers and keep an eye on the marketplace. And then in this other area of your life, you are a writer. You know, a lot of people who work in publishing write, obviously. It's a passion. Otherwise, you know, we wouldn't really be where we are. And do you find it difficult to sort of occupy both headspaces? How do you sort do you allow yourself the creative freedom to have ideas and execute them while also sort of wearing an agent hat? Are you able to shake it? Are you able to compartmentalize? How does that work?


John: It's interesting. You know, I often talk about...if I'm giving presentations or whatnot or talking to authors I'm critiquing, I'll say, "Okay. We're going to use, you know, our agent brain and our writer brain." And in fact, my YouTube series took that title, "Agent Brain/Writer Brain," because I do think that sometimes they can feel like complementary but very different ways of thinking or looking at writing.


So, when I talk about the writer brain, I'm thinking of that pure creative force, you know, the you that just wants to sit down and invent something, and tell yourself a story, and just finds joy in the imaginative process of making a book and trying to make it the best book you possibly can. The agent brain is a little bit more specific and goal-driven. You know, when I'm bringing my agent brain to something, I'm thinking about, you know, what is the market for this project. You know, who's going to buy it? How would it be, you know, publicized? What shelf on Barnes and Noble is it going to sit on? It's much more practical with an end result in mind, which is commercial success as well as a critical one.


So, those two brains, you know, do...can be complementary. They can kind of be at odds. I will say, you know, even when writing my own book, I'm bringing my agent brain to the forefront. I'm thinking about, you know, before I even get started, is this something that someone other than me is going to enjoy? And I'm thinking to myself, well, what's the market for this going to be? Is there a market for this kind of, say, middle grade book if I'm writing a middle grade book?


You know, I had the luxury of not really thinking about it too much when I started "Dimension Why" and that's probably why I was able to finish it and kind of get off and running is I really wasn't thinking about it getting published. So, I was kind of allowed...I kind of allowed myself to have the fun of writing it, you know, to begin with.


It's sort of, like, that Ernest Hemingway quote about, you know, write drunk, edit sober. I think the writer is drunk, an agent is sober. Ironically, usually, the agent is not sober. But in this particular...


Mary: Right. I was going to say...


John: This particular analogy.


Mary: I think nobody is sober in this scenario.


John: But, you know, even in working on "Dimension Why," once I had a book deal, I was editing stuff, you know, the agent brain started to take over and I would think to myself, "Well, John, you know this isn't the most commercial way to do this scene. This isn't the most accessible way to write this joke." But there is the little insistent part of me that just like, "Well, I don't care. That's what I want to do." That's my inner muse, and that's what it told me to write. So, you know, you can be at odds with yourself, but the hope is that those two different ways of thinking complement each other. And I definitely try to bring the writer brain into my agenting work, particularly when I'm editing clients, you know.


Mary: So, let's talk about your agenting work. What do you see as sort of a current want of yours to represent or a current thing going on in the industry that you'd really like to be a part of with, some of the books that you choose for your list?


John: First and foremost, I think right now, you know, it is early October 2020. I'm definitely really keen to see projects that give me a sense of hope and optimism. You know, I think that the world is a scary place right now. I think it's doubly scary when you're young. And, you know, whether it's for middle grade or YA, I'm really looking for something that is going to have, you know, not just an uplifting message but the tone of the story itself, you know, maybe has a sense of humor or has some brightness or lightness, some romance, some joy, something that's uplifting. Because I think we all need a bit of that right now.


And, you know, for me, that could be something that's uplifting in the sense of, you know, a romantic comedy. But it could also be something that's really escapist, like, you know, a book about someone, you know, fighting vampire or something. Like, it's so removed from our real life circumstances that it's exciting and it's fun and it's joyful even if we're talking about, you know, a battle for life and death, if you see what I mean. So, that's definitely something that I'm looking for.


I mean, I think... It should go without saying, but it doesn't, that, you know, I'm definitely really eager to continue to build a list full of underrepresented voices, however you want to define that term. You know, I think, for me, that means authors writing from backgrounds that are not cis and white backgrounds. And that doesn't just mean projects that are, you know, say, solely issue-driven books or, say, about issues that are stereotypically linked to a particular background. I think it's about all kinds of stories that just are written, you know, from points of view that aren't solely white points of view or solely cis points of view or straight points of view. That kind of diversity is what we need in any industry, but you know, particularly in a world where we're writing for kids and showing them, you know, the broader world.


Mary: Mm-hmm. And I think it's interesting to your point. I would love to get your take on this idea of... I completely agree with you that there has been historically this, "Oh, it's an issue book about civil rights. It's an issue book about, you know, sexuality." But to your point that you just made about hope and joy and something uplifting, do you think...or do you have any examples of books from the shelves that are able to sort of overcome this heavy, dreary issue book sort of mantle of YA and children's books of the '90s and manage to strike the hopeful note that you're kind of talking about?


John: I think a great example of this — specifically because you also reference sort of the issue books of the '90s, which is definitely an era when these were very, very big — one of my clients is Abdi Nazemian. His most recent book is called "Like a Love Story." It was a Stonewall nominee. And it takes place during the AIDS crisis. And it's, you know, about a young man. He's, you know, queer and he's just coming out to himself and just coming out to his friends and whatnot, you know, during this incredibly intense and dark period of American history. But the tone of the book...I mean, it's right there in the title. It's "Like a Love Story." It deals unflinchingly with, you know, these very real issues of death and systematic oppression and whatnot, and disease and homophobia. But the story itself is full of joy and full of love, and not just romantic love either. You know, intergenerational friendships and bonds like that.


So, there's an incredible, uplifting joyfulness to this story. It's not looking at this time period with rose-colored glasses or, you know, the way in which our own time period is dealing with these issues. You know, it doesn't sort of paint it with a broad brush at all. It's unflinching, but it's still very joyful. And even though that might be considered, say, a historical novel because it doesn't take place in 2020, it still feels very contemporary and relevant. That book, "Like a Love Story," I feel like, is in the center of the Venn diagram of things that we've been talking about and that I know I'm really keen to see as an agent.


Mary: I think, I mean, at the end of the day, it's not about an issue novel or a coming-of-age novel or, you know, a romantic comedy. It's a human story, and I think that nuance can be really difficult to not only access, but to render on the page in terms of weaving together all of these different elements and then making them ring emotionally true, and sort of cover all bases of the human experience and tie them up in a nice novel for young readers. That's a tall order.


John: Yeah. It's very difficult to do. You know, I think when we're talking about people writing from underrepresented backgrounds, an important additional note there is that, as writers, we should all be bringing whatever is unique to our point of view in the world to our writing. So, that doesn't mean, like, I grew up in Massachusetts so all my characters have to come from Massachusetts or [inaudible 00:14:18]. It doesn't always have to be that literal. I think that writers who are just getting their start are trying to find that great idea that's going to help them find an agent or a publisher or whatnot.


Oftentimes, the last hurdle they have to overcome is really tapping into their own imagination to bring out something that is really unique to their experience in their stories. There could sometimes be this conception that if your characters are more generic, that they're more relatable, and therefore, more sympathetic. And it's actually specificity in story and in character that make characters relatable. Right? So, only, you know, you can bring the specificity of your experience and your imagination to a story. And I think where we go wrong as writers too often is trying to create something that we think other people will relate to or that, you know, kind of we've softened the edges off of our characters or events to make them more general, more, like, we think other people will understand when really it's our own unique point of view that makes a book kind of spark.


Mary: And this goes for character detail, but also voice. I feel like a lot of the time I'm drawn to voices that use this specific verb, that use a specific expression, maybe not going all the way over to slang but that have a specific point of view not only for character, but how the character expresses themselves. And I think you're completely right. I mean, this is why we get along so well. But the generic and sort of the zoomed out and the "I want everyone from 9 to 99 to relate to this character." You know, that, I completely understand why some writers go in that direction, but it sort of is counterproductive at least for me. I'm always bowled over in a book when a character has a very specific thought that, like, I've had and I thought I was the only person on the planet to have a thought like this, you know. And I'm like, "Oh, somebody's looking over my shoulder." Like, this person has taken the time to observe human nature and they're not embarrassed or, you know, they're able to actually put it on the page.


John: Yes, exactly, because that's one of the thrills of reading a novel, is discovering those little gems and feeling like, "Wow. It's like this person has know, a window into my soul." Right? That's part of the joy of it. So, yes. If you can find a writer who brings that sort of energy to just even their line level writing, that's really exciting as an agent.


Mary: So, do you think that starts the intentional level for the writer what they're trying to accomplish? I mean, can you, in any way, generalize about sort of the type of writer and how they approach their writing that you tend to gravitate to? Especially in the children's world, it can know, you run into people who are like, "I think the youth need to know this." Is there sort of a common thread among your clients of what perspective they're really hoping to bring to the page?


John: I think a lot of my clients come from a very inclusive and progressive perspective, which is my own. And so, I think that that is why I probably gravitate towards their writing, but I also think that's just oftentimes the perspective of youth. And I don't mean that in a bad way at all, just like when we're teenagers, I think we want to believe that, you know, the best of humanity and that we can sort of be moving forward as a civilization. I will say that I think that there is a transition that most writers go through as they're getting better and in more command of their craft. And the transition is moving from writing for yourself, for your own enjoyment and self-knowledge and starting to write for other people, where the book that you create is really crafted to be a gift for someone else, whether that's an individual reader that you have in mind or just for readers, you know, in general.


And I think, when you start thinking about your book as a gift for someone else, you start thinking about everything you include from the line level writing to the scenes you're showing us, in terms of what the reader is experiencing as they're reading. Okay? And that's a super exciting and joyful place to write from. Like, I don't know if you've ever, you know, planned a surprise party for somebody or even if you've just know, you've made something for someone else or bought them a present. There's that feeling of anticipation like, "Oh, they're going to love this little detail. They're going to love this little detail. I'm going to put this joke in the card. They're going to like this wrapping or whatnot." All those little details are things you're thinking about for the end user. Right?


So, I think that writers who have made that transition into thinking of their writing as gifts for someone else, really know how to transform kind of their internal imagination into something that can be shared with others, where they immediately understand what feeling they're supposed to have at this moment or, you know, what you want them to know at this beat in the story. It's that change in focus from inner to outer that I really look for in writers that I'm taking on.


Mary: I love that. And I think so much of what I talk about when I teach writing is crafting that experience for the reader. And I think that's exactly what you might be referring to, thinking about their emotional experience of the story, like you said, at this point via the character as sort of an entry point in the story. How does the character guide the reader's emotion? And it's really when you make that pivot, like you said, to including an audience that the shift really does seem to happen.


John: Yeah. I think so. You know, a shorthand version of this that I sometimes espouse to writers is, you know, the early drafts, you write what you see in your head. And then your later drafts, you write what you want your reader to see. You know what I mean? So, maybe your character walks into the room with the orange scarf and the big boots and they're wiping their nose and, you know, like, all these little details that aren't really important to the story. But you see them because you're seeing this whole, you know, 3D multisensory movie in your head as you're writing.


When you get to your later drafts, you start to think about, like, "Okay. Well, what do I want to convey about this character when they walk into the room?" Really doesn't matter that the scarf is orange. What matters is that they're a slob. And so, they're wiping their nose on their sleeve and they're, you know, running it through their hair and whatnot. Like, that's the detail that the reader needs to see. So, you adjust what you're including on the page.


Mary: Oh. Can I have you say that to everybody who is a detail addict that I work with? Because some details are much more important than others.


John: Yeah. I think, you know, you want to include details which are unexpected, you know. So, if you walk into a room and you say, "He sat down at the brown, wooden breakfast table." If you picture a breakfast table in your head, it's probably not too far from brown and wooden. You know what I mean? Maybe it's the collapsing table, but that doesn't matter.


Mary: I'm sorry. Yeah. I fell asleep there while you were describing the table.


John: Yeah. And the thing is readers, you know, unconsciously, they understand every detail you include to be relevant. So, sometimes, you know, I'll be reviewing a manuscript and I'll give a critique and I'll say, "Oh. Was this... Like, I totally missed that this person was the younger sister." And they'll say, "Well, it's right there on the page." And they're right, but it's right there on the page in between 6,000 other detail that I totally just lost it in all...because I'm thinking about, "Oh, okay. Well, you know, the folding card table, breakfast table, that's going to come back later. This is important and that's important." So, that's why I think it's... Again, it's not leaving everything that you see in your mind's eye on the page. It's only showing details, the shots if you're thinking, like, you know, a director or a cameraman. Right? Only showing what you want your audience to see.


Mary: Because they're doing their work. They're doing detective work. And to your point, they're going to be picking up on the details and wondering about their significance. And if you overload the system, then everything is going to seem important to your reader, but if everything is important, nothing is. And some details that you really intend to place their...with more intention may get lost because it's impossible to internalize everything.


John: Exactly.


Mary: And some details, characterizing details, if you will, are just that much more important in terms of pulling additional weight. It's not just something completely arbitrary about them. Like, they like pistachio ice cream. It's that they do wipe their mouth on their disgusting scarf when they're eating. That, to me, tells me more about character, which at the end of the day, should be the spotlight of this detail work.


John: Exactly. And here's where you can tie this neatly into point of view on the page because... Let's say you're in third person. A really common reason I reject manuscripts in both YA and middle grade, if they happen to be in third person, is that there's too much distance from the narrator. Meaning, the narrator feels... Rather, there's too much distance from the main character. What I mean by that is that the narrator feels like a very separate person telling me a story about this main character. And when writing for kids and teens, you know, we really want to occupy that main character's shoes. We want to be that person.


So, one way of conveying this on the's a subtle thing, but the details that you choose to describe about, say, your setting, say, the room that the main character is in. Those details are going to be interpreted by your reader as details that the main character sees because even though we're in third person, everything is being filtered through their close third-person point of view, we'd call it. Right?


Mary: Yes.


John: So, the details you choose to show about your room not only show the room, it shows how your main character sees the room, which also tells us something about your main character. So, the example that I always give is, you know, a fastidious main character is going to be sitting in a room and they're going to see that, like, you know, the magazines haven't been fanned properly or there's, like, you know, grime on the [inaudible 00:25:10]. Right? Whereas, like, a character who is an interior designer is going to see how the paint doesn't really match on the accent wall or someone who doesn't think about either of these things is going to be the air in the room is too close because I'm anxious to be here. So, the details about the room tell you something about character and that's one of the ways in which you can kind of situate the reader more inside your main character's head.


Mary: Even in third person. So, do you find yourself attracted to third-person narratives? There's a lot of... There's sort of this opinion that a lot of middle grade YA works really well in first person because it's so immediate. Right? And here we are talking about third person, a little bit of narrative distance, overcoming that. On the other hand, I hear a lot of people in the industry clamoring for really well-rendered third person. Do you have a preference? Is it just whatever works for the story?


John: I think that this is a question of, you know, how many caveats do you want to your answer. I think if we're going to be totally frank, the reality is, most kids' books are written in first person because it's more immediate and accessible. And personally, as an agent, I am more drawn to first person particularly in YA than third person. That said, there can be amazing and very commercial and accessible projects in both markets, middle grade and YA, that are written in third person. So, that's not to say you shouldn't be writing in third person if that's what you're drawn to. But I do think it's only reasonable to let writers, you know, who want to be agented and published and whatnot, you know, come away with the understanding that, like, the majority of projects that work out in YA are in first person. Because it's just the more popular and perhaps better suited to the market point of view. But it's not a must by any stretch. You know, it's not a hard and fast rule. It's just the way that things tend to go.


You know, I feel like I'll sometimes hear editors ask for things that are very uncommon. Like, they'll say, "Well, you know..." I've had editors say, "Well, we really want to get more guys reading young adult books. Send us YA books that is just for boys." And I don't believe them. I'm like, I believe that they, like, think that they want that. But there's a reason why there's not, like, a lot of really, like, hardcore guy bro YA. It doesn't work. You know what I mean? And so... Or it doesn't sell well.


Mary: Let's talk about that for just a second.


John: Sure.


Mary: So, that is something that you hear all the time, the boy problem. Much more endemic in YA because if you wander into a bookstore and you look at how YA is packaged mostly, they're signaling what kind of reader and it's, you know, girls, pretty covers, lots of kind of like, you know, purple...whatever. It's signaling pretty feminine energy. And I don't see a lot of self-respecting teenage boys browsing in the YA section, which is not to say that they don't. But the common line goes around middle grade, boy readers either tend to fall off the map or they bounce up into Stephen King and kind of adult sci-fi fantasy horror, these kind of...these other categories. There are not a lot of boys who progress, as we would like them to, into young adult. And there's this argument of, you know, is it because publishing is sort of failing at publishing great male-centric YA, or is it that the audience hasn't materialized despite publishing's best efforts? Like, a chicken or the egg type of thing. What's your read on what I just described?


John: My read is that it's a bit both chicken and egg. But the question then for me is, like, and is that really a problem? Is this an issue either for the market or for young readers? My experience and take on it is that right now, young men who read and who are going to keep reading, they might read middle grade novels. And if they don't go into YA, they start reading adult. You know what I mean? They go to... You know, they might pick up a Michael Crichton-esque, you know, or, like, procedural police drama if that's the thing that they're into. Again, we're talking in huge generalizations here.


Mary: Broad, broad swaths.


John: And, like, know, gender stereotypes as well. But I think it's... A helpful way to think about it is, imagine if people looked at the contemporary Hollywood action movie scene and looked at it and said, "There's a problem that women don't watch these movies." So, yes, there are gender issues associated with that. But that's not to say that women don't enjoy action movies. That's not to say that action movies aren't incredibly successful with female leads. But the reality is, you know, this is a market that is gendered as male. Men tend to gravitate towards it because, you know, either from birth or however you want to think about it, you know, we're gendered to find certain kinds of stories appealing.


I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't think it's a problem that young men don't want to read YA. I think they're going to read what they want to read. And that I think that it is unrealistic to assume that we can make that change unless... You know, 90% of the editors that I work with are women. And I wouldn't expect them to find the same sorts of things that I in my most, like, masculine most, like, stereotypical male moments find really compelling. Maybe some of them would, but I wouldn't send out a book that is, you know, let's say, a YA James Bond that's also not sexist. I wouldn't expect it to do well in YA because I just don't think that the readership is there on the retail side. But I don't think that the interest is there on the editor side either. But I don't see that as, like, a big problem. You know, the market is primarily young women. That's shifting. I think that that's positive.


Mary: Yeah.


John: But I think that that's okay. You know, let's make sure that those young women have positive and empowering stories from many different points of view.


Mary: So, let me put this question to you. And this is something that is tough for me to answer. And so, I'm really hoping you give me, like, crib notes, an answer that I can just copy and paste. But I often work with clients in my editorial practice who have written a kind of "unmarketable project." For example, a very male-dominated YA with a male protagonist or, you know, right now with all the conversations that we're having about representation and race, and different perspectives in publishing. I have my white cis female writers saying, "You know, I've written a project with a white cis protagonist." So, you know, these kinds of projects that aren't necessarily unmarketable, but are a tougher sell whether it's because of market conditions or just prevailing trends or the retail aspect not really being there. And so, how do you...


You know, as an agent, you obviously have a choice in terms of risks you want to take or risks you feel are worth taking with projects that you feel might be kind of on the fence or niche. But if one of your clients say...or somebody else came to you and just said, "This is what I want to do and I think the odds are long," do you advise them to try it anyway? Do you advise them in a more marketable direction? How do you handle this situation?


John: That's a good question. And I think that it really depends. There's, like, a million ways I want to answer this question. I would say, if a client came to me with a project that they were sincerely really passionate about and they said to me, "Look, I know that this is a long shot..." or maybe they didn't realize it was a long shot to begin with, but I say to them, "Hey, this is a long shot."


Mary: Sure.


John: But for them, it really is something that they're personally passionate about. What I would say is, "We'll do the best we can because you're my client and we're going to get it out there," because, you know... Anytime I give a read on the market, it's always in generalities. Right? There's never a guarantee. So, something could work. That said, I think if you're looking at this from a... Let's say, you're the writer in question. You have to ask yourself some very difficult and tough questions. One is, is this book the book of your heart because it's the book that you've just written and been working on maybe for years? Or if you could snap your fingers and magically have a more commercial book and not go out with this book, would you take that more commercial book? Because then it's just the effort that's in between you and having something that is better for the market. So, I think that's a really tough question that you have to examine. So, I will say that, you know, as an agent and as a writer myself, I'm very suspicious of this book of my heart label because every book is the book of your heart, you know.


The other thing I'd say is that, as an artist, you get to do whatever you want. You get to create whatever you want. You get to write any kind of book that you want. The moment you want to have a publishing deal, you are creating a business venture with a company. So, it ceases to be about what kind of art you want to make, and becomes about, does that company think this book is a smart investment?


So, when you get back to this idea of, like, as an agent, if an author comes to me and says, "Hey, this is a hard sell, but it's the book of my heart," what I would say is, though I love to talk shop and think about the creative process and get [inaudible 00:35:39] on occasion, I do feel like my job as an agent is to help you make money with your writing. That is the agent's job at the end of the day. You know, we're not actually a therapist. We're definitely not writing coaches.


Mary: Although, those are the hats piled on top of the agent hat, oftentimes.


John: Absolutely. And we do these things. We do these things. But I think it's important to remember that at the end of the day, we're there to help you make money with your writing. So, if an author comes to me and says, "Well, I don't want to make money. I just want this book to be out there." I would say, "You don't need me to take 15% then." You know, "You don't need me for that. You can self-publish it." But I think what sometimes happens is that we want the commercial success, but also doing the book that we want to do. And those two things don't always line up and I don't think that that's... I don't think that writers are entitled to having whatever book they write be paid for with money. You know what I mean? When you're asking somebody to give you money for your art, like, you do have to take into account their experience.


Mary: Oh, John the shark.


John: Yeah. It's...


Mary: I mean, it's true.


John: But the thing is, I'm such a... I believe so heartily that if you think about your work that way, that it is a, like, joyful and positive and giving thing. Like, it's kind of clearing out some of the nonsense, if I'm being totally honest. In my opinion, when you start to think about, like, "I'm going to make something that people are going to enjoy," particularly when writing for kids... And that could be, you know, I'm going to make something that people enjoy in the sense that they're going to cry their eyes out the whole way through because I like writing sad book. That's okay, too. But I think if you think of your work that way and get past this book of my heart thing, you're going to actually become a real author and truly be communicating ideas back and forth with many people all at once. That's the goal that you're really after in the end.


Mary: I do think that there's also this idea of every book may have a different journey. And that's one of the exciting things about where we are in terms of technology available to us, different routes to market available to us. And sometimes... I mean, I've worked with plenty of writers on book of their heart projects where they literally didn't care. They just wanted to put it in the hands of somebody and have it be out there. And to your point, we can. We don't need just one path, one income stream, one publishing road ahead of us. We can have a career as a traditionally published writer, and then we can also issue a couple e-books that we feel may do better in the independent market because they are niche.


John: Yeah, absolutely. Or, you know, you have stuff that you want to write that brings you joy that is just... Just like we're saying, it's going to be hard to, you know, break through the noise, you know. But you could self-publish it and end up really finding an audience, you know, either through a website like Wattpad or just, you know, online with yourself. You know, that can be a really fantastic experience and really help you to find your audience.


Mary: So, I have a question also about the agenting side. I run a small group, intimate and pretty intense workshop called Story Mastermind. And in our picture book mastermind, we had interviews with two editors. This is hopping and skipping over the agent piece, and we were talking directly to these editors. And we put questions to them along the lines of, you know, is there a word count limit? Or do you acquire books in rhyme? And over and over, writers say, "Oh, agents are looking for a hard 600-word cutoff and absolutely no rhyme." And then once you get over to the editorial side of things, these editors were actually like, "Well, we'll work with it," you know. And it seemed like there were fewer guidelines kind of in place. And they were more flexible in terms of projects that they're interested in or willing to acquire. It seemed less black and white.


And so, I was wondering if you've ever heard this about your profession, and why you think some agents traffic in these absolutes like an absolute word count limit or an absolute rule about no rhyme. I know it all comes very much down to preference, but this is definitely something I noticed in some brushes I've had with editors recently.


John: So, I think, you know, when getting feedback on the industry or on your writing, you know, from an industry professional, you always have to take into account their position, what their role is in the industry, and how they think about what they work with. So, if you're an agent looking at picture books... So, I can tell you that, even as someone who doesn't really represent picture books and has gone on to say, like, explicitly, you know, I'm not taking on new picture book texts, the majority of queries I get are for picture books. There's just so many out there. Okay?


Mary: It's true. They're everywhere.


John: Right? So, there is just an onslaught of them constantly because while, you know, anyone who writes picture books knows that it is a tremendous undertaking to write a good, you know, 600 to 1,000-word picture book text, you can also write a bad one in about 10 minutes.


Mary: Yes.


John: So, people send them all the time. So, when agents know, are giving you these hard, fast rules like no rhyme, nothing over 600, the translation is, "I'm trying to cut down on the number of things I have to say no to. And the vast majority of picture books that I see that break those rules are breaking other rules and just aren't good." That's what it's about. And the truth of the matter is, whether it's rhyming, whether it's over 1,000 words, if it's genius, then you can get away with anything. But the thing that's really hard to internalize as someone, you know, trying to break their way into the industry is, most of us, 99.99% of us are not good enough to break those rules and have our projects stand out in a positive way. Everybody... You know, I'm not going to say everybody. Many of us think we are. I know that there was a time in my own writing where I thought, like, "Well, I'm just better than everybody else who's sending stuff out. So, I don't have to pay attention to this rule, you know, because I'm a guy and that's what guys tend to do."


So, that's really what agents are doing. They're saying, you know, these are the guidelines that are most likely to help you find your way into the business. They are guidelines. They're trying to prevent you from making an already very difficult task even harder.


Mary: I think that's a really good point in that I'm always talking to writers who kind of have this, "Yeah, I know that the guideline is this, that or the other. But here's what I'm doing." And it's hard to have that conversation and just be able to communicate. Well, sometimes you have to learn the rules. You have to master the rules. You have to work within the rules. And then you learn how to intentionally break the rules once you know what you're doing. Breaking the rules when you don't know what you're doing or you think you know what you're doing is very different from breaking the rules with a sense of purpose.


John: I completely agree. Yes. I think you do have to master the...exactly as you say, master the rules before you break them. And keep in mind that these aren't rules that are being placed here arbitrarily like, "Well, you know, this form of poetry has this many syllables or this many lines." It's not about breaking the rules artistically. It's about, this is what works for the children who are meant to be read these books. Right? And it's so easy to... Again, like, I know I keep coming back to this idea of, like, think of your end reader, think of your end reader. But it's so easy to lose track of that, that, like, hey, maybe the word count is because this is sort of the attention span of a kid or, like, each page needs to have only a certain number of words on it because we need to move forward at a certain pace. Or not have too much text on one page so the kid can, like, look at the artwork and engage with it in a more deep way.


So, there are reasons for these things that aren't just to stymie. You know, they're really meant to help, you know, your project reach a greater number of readers.


Mary: So, there's always attention between the market and the art. And I think, given your position as an agent, obviously, it's very understandable that this is your focus. I mean, at the end of the day, how do you think about it in your own writing and your life? Does one trump the other or do they exist symbiotically?


John: I was just having a conversation with a client about this actually. Because we both love to analyze story in a very abstract way. Read books on writing and, you know, because of the... You know, because being an agent, because he's a professional writer, like, we both think about this stuff constantly and we talk about it a lot. And the conclusion that we came to is that it would be so great to be able to, like, outline your story ahead of time. It's almost like you could write the perfect book based on theory alone. Like, write at page 50, this is when this is going to happen. You could get it all right in theory, and it could still be the most uninspired, boring, wonderful book ever.


And, you know, it needs that kind of... We call it walking the haunted path. You kind of need to go into that unknown where you're sort of doing it for yourself and it is, you know, this, like, first draft feeling of I'm just exploring what's in my own imagination. I'm telling myself a story, like, I'm being surprised. I don't know where it's going to lead me. If it doesn't have that ingredient, I don't think all of this stuff I'm telling you about, you know, form and strategy and whatnot, it's not going to matter. Like, it does have to have that soul in it.


So, that's what I think as a writer, like, coming to know, coming to a new project. It has to be something that you care about. And I do say this to my clients. You know, if we're debating what next project they want to work on or whether or not a book is going to be marketable or whatnot, I always say to them, like, "It's got to be something that you care about." I always use the word "muse." Like, it's got to really speak to your muse. Because if you're not excited about it and it doesn't have that, like, wild energy, then you're never going to be able to put it together in a way that is exciting for other people. You know, if you're coming at it very dry and you're just like, "Well, I'm just going to, you know, just try and put this together in a way that is guaranteed to be the most commercial product possible," it just won't work. I wish it did work that way. I think we'd all be rich if we could just do that. But it does require a bit of that, like, internal personal spark to bring it to life, you know.


Mary: I love that — walking the haunted path. Very seasonal. I'm watching the leaves change outside my window. Yeah. The spirit of the art, the business of the art. John, this has been a fantastic conversation. I love that you've been able to bring so many viewpoints and such analysis to our conversation. I think everybody should check out "Dimension Why: How to Save the Universe Without Really Trying" on bookshelves now. And check out, if you are in the market for a fantastic, smart, and insightful literary agent, John's work at Folio. John, any last things you want to leave your listeners with?


John: No, I don't think so. Thank you so much for having me. This was super fun. This got really in-depth and philosophical. I'm totally here for it.


Mary: That's how we do. That's we do at the "Good Story Podcast." And thank you for joining me. And everyone listening out there, here is to a good story.


Thank you so much for listening. This has been the "Good Story Podcast" with your host, Mary Kole. I want to give a huge shout out to everyone at the Good Story Company. You can find us online at The team is Amy Holland, Amy Wilson, Jenna Van Rooy, Kate Elsinger, Kathy Martinolich [SP], Kristen Overman, Michal Leah, Rhiannon Richardson, and Steve Reiss. Also, shout out to our Patreon supporters. And to everyone listening out there, here's to a good story.