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A meeting with an agent can launch a career and also lend key insight that you need for building a solid future in the writing industry. Get ready for that moment.
Transcript of Episode 43: #TenQueries With John M. Cusick
Julie Kingsley: Welcome to the Manuscript Academy podcast.
Jessica S.: Brought to you by …
Julie Kingsley: A writer.
Jessica S.: And an agent.
Julie Kingsley: Who both believe that education is key.
Jessica S.: The beauty is the people you meet along the way.
Julie Kingsley: And that community makes all the difference.
Jessica S.: Here at the Manuscript Academy you can learn the skills, make the connections, and have access to experts. All from home.
Julie Kingsley: I’m Julie Kingsley.
Jessica S.: And I’m Jessica Sinsheimer.
Julie Kingsley: Put down your pens, pause your word counts, and enjoy.
Jessica S.: I would like to welcome John Cusick. Agent and VP with Folio Literary Management and Folio Junior. He’s the author of Girl Parts and Cherry Money Baby, and he is mostly harmless. That’s from his Twitter bio. Welcome, John.
John Cusick: Thank you so much for having me.
Julie Kingsley: So John taught a really amazing class. We had a really fun recording day and the folio offices, which are incredible. Can I talk a little bit about like the amazing stuff that’s in your office.
Jessica S.: I want to hear. Tell us.
John Cusick: I was super excited for Jess to see it because we had just finished renovating and expanding our offices. So they’re all fancy and new and bigger than they used to be. So yeah, I’m very excited about the office space that I work in.
Jessica S.: It’s so cool. It’s in this building that like starts out deco on the outside, but it’s super tech savvy on the inside and it’s beautiful. So this is a class not just about first lines. What about first impressions? Why does the first line matter and why does that first impression matter?
John Cusick: You know, to start with every word in your book should matter, right? You shouldn’t, you should always be choosing your words carefully and why not your first line, why shouldn’t your first line be something really impactful and exciting and grabbing, you know, your first line is really, you know, it’s the world’S first impression of you is as a writer. It’s the first impression of your, of your book.
John Cusick: And so you want to make it something that’s really gonna grab people and maybe even stay with them. You know, and for me as an agent, you know, frequently I read the query letter first and then the sample pages. So the query letter is a big, a big thing for me and that’s a whole conversation unto itself. But I really learned so much about an author based on how they … They opened their, their work and it tells me a lot about who this person is in a very, very short span of time. So, there’s the tremendous reason for really focusing on your first line is creating the best first impression you can.
Jessica S.: I also feel like sometimes one line can carry so much energy that you know right away if you want to know more. Have you ever had that experience?
John Cusick: Yeah, absolutely. You know, sometimes my favorite openings aren’t even ones that are necessarily the most weird or out there by any means. They’re just really concrete. Like I love to see a book open with scene or like some physical detail because I immediately have something to imagine and that pulls me right into the story, you know, right off the bat and books that sort of tend to open with monologue or sort of long, you know, sort of backstory or whatnot.
John Cusick: There’s just less to picture. I guess I must be a really visual person. But yeah, those books that really open with a really clear image are some of my favorites, like Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book always jumps into my mind, and I think the opening line is something like “There was a, there was a hand in the darkness and the handheld and nights,” like, oof, it’s such a great image to open on, you know.
Julie Kingsley: I love that. Neil Gaiman is that, that book trailer just as a side is one of my favorites. So John, did you ever feel like you knew something was or was not a good fit? Just from the first line?
John Cusick: Yeah. You know, an example actually comes to mind, and it’s, Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali, which was called Saint, Misfits, Monsters and Mayhem, when she first submitted it to me and the first line of that book, if I’m going to get this right, is just the words, “I’m in the water,” and it’s so simple, but it really, really grabbed me.
John Cusick: That present tense is really great. It’s a physical description right, immediately. And there’s also something sort of chilling about how simple it is. Like I’m in the water, I don’t know, usually when people are in the water, they’re happy about it, right? Unless something really bad is going on. And by the way, this isn’t, you know, Saints and Misfits isn’t a thriller, it’s a contemporary young adult, sort of coming of age story, but the opening is sort of sad and that first line is simple as it is just really grabbed me and kind of encapsulated the tone of the opening chapters.
Julie Kingsley: It’s also really nice and its simplicity because it makes you pause and think about it and as an agent to get something that makes you pause is actually pretty rare.
John Cusick: Yeah. And it sort of suggests a kind of confidence to open with such a short and simple declarative sentence. That to me before I read anything else tells me that this is someone who might be, you know, pretty in control of their crafts. You know, I mean that could be proven wrong in subsequent paragraphs right, but at these opening lines can really suggest that someone really knows what they’re doing.
Jessica S.: It’s kind of like when you walk down the street, and you see someone, and you’re like, “There’s something about you.” “There’s a story there.” “Like I’m interested.”
John Cusick: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I think that that’s a great metaphor because, you know, your opening line, you can almost sort of think about it as like the clothes you wear to work, or the clothes you wear out in your town. It’s not all about that first impression, right? There’s more to you than, than how you dress. But it’s the first thing that people see and if, when they’re making sort of a snap judgment about you as indeed, you know, agents are to be frank. You know, you kind of want to put your best foot forward.
Jessica S.: But intuition is really fast too.
John Cusick: I think that’s true. I heard an agent whose name I’m now going to forget, I’m on a panel once, say that you get to the point where you can almost smell a good manuscript. And I kind of know what she means, like you do sort of develop an intuition, I think.
Jessica S.: Gulp. And how do you know if your manuscript smells? That’s the problem, right there.
John Cusick: I think, you know what? Here’s, what I think because I was just a few minutes ago I was reading something that I had written, out loud, to my wife Molly who used to be an agent and then as a foreign rights scout now and man, I was really proud of the pages that I had written but there was some stuff in there that needed to be trimmed, and you can bet that reading it out loud to her, I was hearing the stuff that wasn’t funny, that went on too long, like it just jumped right out at me.
John Cusick: So I think the way to like tell if your book is smelling or smelling in the right way is, you know, read it out loud and like, are you excited to read people your opening paragraph? And if you feel like nah, I kind of want to get … I can’t wait for them to hear the stuff at the end of the page, then that’s where you should be starting.
Jessica S.: You did mention something in your class about starting as close to the end as possible or as close to the heart as possible. How do you know where that is?
John Cusick: Well, so starting to the end … Starting as close to the end as possible, that’s a … I’m paraphrasing a Kurt Vonnegut quote. You know, he was talking about … Well starting as close to the end of your story as possible. So there’s not a lot of run up.
John Cusick: My spin on that is to start as close to the heart of your novel as possible. So for instance, you know, the opening line of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, is, “I am the invisible man,” and an opening word of Lolita is “Lolita.”
John Cusick: So thinking about what is really at the heart of my story, is it an adventure? Is it about learning a lesson? Is it about, you know, the kid in my class that I’m obsessed with, you know, really finding what is sort of beating life into your story. What is it all about for you? And opening with it, you know, kind of directing our attention, right, spotlight on what you think is most important.
John Cusick: And then you have time to go back and kind of give us context or sort of, you know, get us situated in your world, but starting close to the heart and the theme is sort of the object and desire of your book is, you know, a really great way to open it off in a way that’s really compelling.
Jessica S.: Julie, do you always know where that is on your books?
Julie Kingsley: No.
Jessica S.: What do we do?
Julie Kingsley: I just did a huge revision this weekend, and I knocked off 5,000 words in the beginning of my current work and I just sent it off and because I knocked off the 5,000 words, my beta reader was like … She basically said that she noticed a bunch of things she didn’t see before because it was buried and that it is emotionally in the right space now. So that’s really resonating with me. Few. Yay.
John Cusick: Yeah, that’s amazing.
Jessica S.: You chip away at what is not David or your protagonist? Yeah.
Julie Kingsley: Yeah. Let’s talk about what research can do for a first impression.
John Cusick: Okay. So I think it’s really important before you start querying that you do some research, not just into the agents that you might want to query and like their email addresses, but also, you know, what’s the best way to submit to agents, you know, am I following their submission guidelines? That’s the kind of research that you want to do upfront. And I think, you know, by if you’re listening to this podcast, you’re probably already familiar with some of this research, you know, you’re already interested in what is the culture of publishing books, how do I write in effect a query letter? What is the appropriate way to communicate an agent? So you’re already halfway there.
John Cusick: You know, I think that just researching the agent’s submission guidelines, you think it would be everyone’s first step and yet I constantly, everyday I get, you know, multiple queries from folks who clearly have never just done so much as Google my name. And I know that’s the case because, you know, it’ll be, you know, dear sirs will be that way the query opens, which is awful for many reasons. Or, it will be in a genre that I completely don’t represent, or it’ll be for screenplays. I get a lot of those, people who want to write movies and so they think I’m that kind of agent, you know, those are folks who just have done no research whatsoever. So they have made a very bad first impression.
Jessica S.: And one thing we talk about in the class is where to find that line between being someone who’s obviously done research and someone who’s done a little too much research, and it will make us uncomfortable.
John Cusick: I know that most of us have Twitter feeds and Instagram feeds, and many agents are very comfortable, sort of sharing personal details about their lives, you know, on social media and whatnot. However, I think that if in your query, you know, you mentioned that you love that, you know, cute dining table set in the background of my Instagram posts from two years ago, that’s going to be a bit creepy. And sort of concern me a little but, you know-
Julie Kingsley: I’m sorry. I noticed your pinky toe is crooked.
John Cusick: You know, those kinds of things are in fact the things that I would probably dismiss it just harmless, but it is a bit weird, and I think it’s sort of sets the wrong tone, you know, so anything, you know, any detail that an agent might put on their resume or in professional capacity like, oh, we went to the same college, or you know, I see you worked here, or you represent this person. All of those kinds of details are great. Or like I heard you on a podCast say that you like this kind of book. Those are all great. I think you best steer clear of the more sort of personal at home details.
Jessica S.: So john, we’re listening to you on a podcast and you like what kind of book?
John Cusick: I like all kinds of books. Right now I am really looking for middle grade. I would love to bring on some more middle grade, both like kind of contemporary realistic stuff and sort of fantastical adventure stuff. And you know, I’m always on the lookout for young adult that has a really great book. That’s the real two second version.
Jessica S.: So, you were very accomplished literary agent and an awesome office. Did you always envision your life being like this and what did you picture when you got into the industry and what made you want to join?
John Cusick: I knew from a very young age that I wanted to live and work in New York and to do something sort of creative. So, in that capacity, I think that my life looks the way I envisioned it when I was, you know, a little kid. But, when I started looking for work after college, I looked at publishing, I looked at radio, I looked at a public television, like all these, you know, major money making ventures, right and the job that happened to hire me was a personal assistant to a literary agent for children’s books. And I was really excited to be working in publishing. I had done sort of student work at my university’s little small indie press when I was in college and I really, really liked the business of books, so I found it really fascinating, but it was really working with him. His name was Scott Trammel, that I realized that not only was agenting the thing that I wanted to do, that really felt right for me but also that kids books or where I wanted to stay.
John Cusick: And part of that is that I think everybody who works in kids’ books or writes kids books on some level, really loves kids books, you know, no one’s in it just for the money. There’s a real personal passion there and I wanted to be a part of that and I’ve never regretted it. I mean, I love working on the kids side and being an agent as well.
Jessica S.: John, what would you do if you had a venture capital?
John Cusick: If I had unlimited venture capital, I would buy a medium sized island and I would make Westworld because, I love cowboys and I love pretending to be a cowboy and I also really love robots, so this would have both.
Jessica S.: I just bought tickets to Be More Chill. I’m so excited.
Julie Kingsley: I’m still processing you and Westworld. Sorry.
John Cusick: Oh man. It’d be great. I would like to work at Westworld.
Julie Kingsley: It’s such a great show. That would’ve been amazing.
John Cusick: And alternative universe where I did not become a literary agent. And in this alternative universe there are also lifelike robots and a real Westworld, I would go. I would go write story topics for Westworld.
Julie Kingsley: Oh my gosh. That would be amazing. So with that in mind, with that nimble thinking, you know, robot brain, what have you changed your mind about your time in the industry? Like did you come in like, John thinks this and then pivot and now your brain works totally differently, you know, around the industry?
John Cusick: Yeah, I would say there were two big shifts for me kind of early on. One was, I remember being on a panel at a writer’s conference and the question from the audience was, do you have to personally love every book you represent? And one of the agents on the panel who was much senior to me, you know, said, “Oh yes, I absolutely loved every project I go out with,” and I of course agreed with him, but I was thinking to myself, “Yeah, right buddy, come on,” like, you know, I don’t believe that. Like we sell what sells and our personal tastes are sort of irrelevant.
John Cusick: And you know what, he was completely right and I was just young and dumb. You know, I really hadn’t had too many sales at that point and I really didn’t know how it works. And the truth of the matter is, is that, you know, stuff that I care personally about that really affects me sells and you know, and anytime in my career that I’ve tried to sort of like play to market and say like, well, you know, I don’t know if there’s a particularly for me, but I think it’s what everyone is looking for and I think it’s going to sell. That has never gone well.
John Cusick: You know, and I’m proud to say I don’t do that anymore because, you know, what has shifted for me is this feeling of like, yeah, you got to really trust your own tastes and instincts and sell what you love. And then, you know, the other thing that probably shifted for me really early on was, you know, a real appreciation for a certain kind of writing that some would not consider like literary, you know, I was like an english major and a total snob I am sure when I started in publishing and it took me, you know, probably the first year of assisting Scott to come to appreciate like great storytelling, you know.
John Cusick: At first, it was all about like, oh, well there’s the language beautiful and are there deep themes and metaphors and all this other nonsense. And nowadays, like, I’m not really, I don’t really care about that stuff as a reader or as an agent. Like I want a great story and it can be a quote unquote literary story, it can be an adventure story, it can be a deep story, can be a fun story, but it’s got to be a great story. So that’s something I don’t think I really came to appreciate until, you know, I had worked in the business for a little while.
Jessica S.: That’s awesome. Thank you. What’s one of your early memories of a fun day in New York city?
John Cusick: Okay, well the thing that pops into my mind is really early on when I first moved to New York, I had a lot of time to kill and I didn’t, you know, have a full time job yet and I didn’t really have a lot of friends in the city at first and it was before my girlfriend moved down to New York.
John Cusick: So I had a lot of time on my hands and I remember one day just getting off the train at Union Square and looking around and thinking to myself, it’s like this whole city is one giant interactive video game and I can really do whatever I want and there’s like parts that are quiet and parts that are loud and parts that are dirty and parts that are clean, like there’re all kinds of adventures to be had here and it’s all, you know, open to me. I can go anywhere and do anything.
John Cusick: I just remember that feeling being exhilarating. And the funny thing of course, I thought of it in terms of being in a video game, you know, some big open world, you know, you can explore all you want thing, when in fact it was just, you know, real life. But I don’t know, just I think that feeling of like possibility and the bigness of it all really stuck with me, which is probably why that popped into my head all these years later.
Julie Kingsley: That’s interesting. I can tell you know, when I listen to you talk, you can tell that you think like a writer because that, I mean, that’s the writer brain, right? So you’re somewhere and you can see this possibility and story and directions and you know-
John Cusick: Yeah.
Julie Kingsley: … And the tension of New York. It’s so interesting how life is story, video games are story, story, story. But it sounds to me that, that you just live it daily.
John Cusick: I think, you know, that writer brain you’re talking about, that’s so cool, and I think that is what it is. And I would say that, I feel like I kind of forgot that brain for many years, and it’s now starting to come back to me for, for whatever reason, but it is a great brain to have because yeah, you really, you just make so much of the reality around you when you’re in your mind is kind of working out story, you know, and some of the happiest times in my life are, you know, moments where I was walking around after having been writing, after having written and kind of my brain was still like half processing, whatever it is I had worked on as I kind of wandered around the streets of Brooklyn. And it’s a great feeling, you know, it’s a great perspective to have on the world I think.
Jessica S.: John, if you were a superhero, what powers would you have?
John Cusick: So I’ve thought about this a lot, as we all do. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I could … I would really like to be able to fly. But if the superpower’s came from some sort of like internal personality trait or leaning or something, I think I’d be a mind reader because I think … Yeah. I think this is that writer brain thing, Julie, you were talking about a moment ago, like I really like to think about what people are thinking and I think I’m a fairly empathetic person so, I think if you were to like kind of extrapolate from that real, real light quality, it would probably be some kind of very creepy mind reading power.
Julie Kingsley: I’m just thinking of True Blood. That would be a lot … Really interesting. It’s funny, everyone says they can fly. They want to fly. That’s our main theme and I think like in this day and age, you know, the idea that we could just jet off and go into the sky and be up there and come back down, it’s really interesting too.
John Cusick: Yeah.
Jessica S.: Yeah, whatever’s happening on the ground you can-
Julie Kingsley: [crosstalk 00:20:11] get some oxygen, get some fresh air.
John Cusick: It’s like a disconnect, right? It’s like a desire to be kind of free for a couple of minutes and then come back, you know.
Julie Kingsley: So tell us what should writers not be afraid of?
John Cusick: Don’t be afraid that a stupid mistake is going to ruin your chances. I think that, you know, we talk a lot about how to write a query letter, how to make a good first impression, what to do, what not to do and it can feel like a million rules to follow. And really they’re just tips for, you know, best results. And you know, the overarching rule is just like be a professional and compassionate human being, as in all things in life, you know, for the most part.
John Cusick: And, and I think that if you just behave like yourself in a professional way, you’re gonna do great. You know, and all the time I see queries come in that have had goofed in some ways, someone spells my name wrong or there’s a typo in the query or you know, they call something, why A and really they mean MG and, and all this stuff and you know, it’s okay. It really is, like if I’m compelled by the story and the writing, that stuff isn’t going to turn me off. It’s just, again, it’s best I think to put your best foot forward and not let that distracting stuff get in the way, but you know, don’t be afraid of those little mistakes because I think that can be really paralyzing and it’s not worth it.
Julie Kingsley: I agree. The world definitely feels, you know, when you’re ready, when you should send, when you think you should send, someone tells you to send and then you shouldn’t have sent, you know it is a really tough thing, but you just have to have faith that as long as you’re a good person and polite and you’re trying your best, that it will work out. But it iS scary. I agree.
John Cusick: I’ll tell you what, I think when I first joined the business, maybe this is something that also changed in my head over the years. I worried that you had to be really aggressive and maybe even like mean to get ahead, especIally as an agent and that just was never me. I never felt comfortable with that kind of throw your weight around mentality. You know, I think that I’m truly, at least in the kids book business, the good people succeed and the not so good people might have a moment in the sun, but it doesn’t last. You know, it really doesn’t in this business if you’re not a good person and a compassionate one.
John Cusick: So yeah, I think that you’re absolutely right, Julie, like just to say like if you go forward with, you know, open eyes and open heart, right, can’t lose.
Julie Kingsley: Friday Night Lights.
John Cusick: That’s right.
Julie Kingsley: Open eyes, clear heart-
John Cusick: Can’t lose. Yeah, I realized halfway through my speech that I was just doing Friday Night Lights.
Julie Kingsley: I just saw the end of that series last week. John, where do we find you online?
John Cusick: You can find me on Twitter at, @jonmcusick, like M as in Michael. At Foliojr.com. And then I have a personal blog that’s just JohnMCusick.com.
Jessica S.: You can also find him at manuscriptacademy.com/john-cusick and we have his wonderful class coming up this September with a live Q and A on September 25th at 8:30 PM, New York City time. I can’t wait.
Jessica S.: So that’s going to be an opportunity for you to watch the class, think about the class and then come to John with any questions you might have. Thanks for tuning in guys.
Julie Kingsley: We are so glad that you joined us and as always we appreciate your feedback. Just head on over the iTunes store and let us know what you think. It not only helps us make this podcast be the best it can be, it also affects our ratings within the iTunes platform.
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Julie Kingsley: And if you’d like to learn more about the manuscript academy and everything we have to offer, just jump on over to manuscriptacademy.com.