As a writer as well as agent, John was aware that being both ‘is definitely a balancing act’, but one that helps him in both roles. ‘Being a writer helps me discuss writerly woes and difficulties with my clients,’ he confesses. ‘Sometimes, it's a kind of two-way therapy.’
A large focus of the chat was on the booming YA/teen marker in the US and UK. One particular concern was the danger of ‘over-saturation’. John didn’t think the teen market is in danger of being over-saturated, although he warned that ‘because the market is so competitive, you should always be sending out your absolute best work. Even *good* books can have trouble finding traction. Your work also needs to feel unique, fresh, grabbing.’
John highlight that there's a ‘wonderful swell in minority voices in YA’ with diverse characters and authors, although in his submission pile, he is seeing a lot of ‘boyfriend died in car accident only girlfriend knew he wasn't a good guy’ themed work (so it’s perhaps best to avoid that!). He thinks paranormal YA romance is still ‘tricky’ (‘It has to have a very fresh concept.’) and debut dystopian is another problematic area. It’s possibly better to avoid the label on submissions and instead use ‘fantasy or sci-fi’ to describe the work. John pointed out, just because ‘a story is taking place in the future doesn't necessarily make it dystopian’.
Other good advice to writers included:
· On Trends - ‘I believe you can't write to trends. By the time your book is published, the trend has passed. You've got to write the most compelling version of *your* story, with high stakes and emotional impact.’
· On Recognizing Your Best Work - Get critique partners! ‘Crit partners can give you notes, and also show you how your writing is landing with others.’
· On author PR - ‘I don't like promoting myself either (no, seriously), but that's part of the job these days. It's more about engaging with your readers than *selling* your book.’
· On submitting to agents - ‘If many agents pass, it may be time to try a different project. Keep writing, keep improving, try again [with a new project].’
One of the most interesting discussions was about the change and growth of a novel’s main character. John pointed out, ‘Without change, there is no story. What's the point? We're right back where we started at the end. We read to feel that our lives mean something - that our experiences are changing us, helping us grow.’ He talked about getting feedback from readers to see whether the change works for them, and offered this simple litmus test: ‘Look at who character is at the beginning vs. the end. Would she make the same choices?’
If you’re thinking of submitting to John M Cusick: he revealed he’s particular looking for some ‘adventurous’ or contemporary ‘realistic’ middle-grade. His top tip is to ‘always query one project at a time, but let the agent know if you have other books, should he/she be interested.’
Many thanks again to John M Cusick for joining us for such a varied and full-on discussion. Thanks to our moderator for the evening, Benjamin Scott.
Our next #AskSwanwick is on Wednesday, June 3rd, 8pm, where will be talking to editors Rosie Best and Catherine Coe, more on that soon!
About John M Cusick
John M. Cusick joined the Greenhouse Literary Agency in January 2013. He represents picture books, middle-grade, and young adult novels. John is also a YA author in his own right, having written GIRL PARTS and CHERRY MONEY BABY (both published by Candlewick Press).
John co-foundered of Armchair/Shotgun, a magazine started in January 2009 that reads all submissions anonymously, concealing even an author’s name until a piece has been selected for publication. Armchair/Shotgun accepts poetry, fiction, non-fiction and visual arts submissions for publication on real honest-to-goodness paper.
You can find him online at www.JohnMCusick.com and on twitter, @johnmcusick.