Add It to the List: THE ANCHOR & SOPHIA

Picture it: Bologna. Dusk. A crowded plaza of happy tourists and locals in light coats and sweaters, enjoying the gorgeous spring weather. The pigeons stay close in hopes of enjoying some of the food the city is so famous for. An Aperol Spritz rests in front of me and across from it sits the legendary John Cusick. "I have something I'd like to pitch to you," he says. And so it begins...

Nearly four months later, I'm so HAPPY that I can finally talk about this deal. I'm also ecstatic that I have three more manuscripts to look forward to from the truly gifted Tommy Wallach. I was first introduced to Tommy's work in July 2013 (two years ago!) when John submitted the manuscript for We All Looked Up. I instantly fell in love with the writing and was overjoyed to add the novel, plus an untitled second novel, to my list. That second novel became Thanks for the Trouble, which is so different from We All Looked Up. For one thing, it's written in first person from a single point-of-view. Still, as my boss mentioned in his recent presentation of the novel at our Spring 2016 Sales Conference, the beauty of the writing is unmistakably Tommy Wallach. And so is the case with Tommy's next project, a plot-driven tale of two brothers who will play key--and opposing--roles in a growing conflict in their young civilization. 

Book One in the Anchor & Sophia trilogy comes out in Spring 2017.

John and I dined here after he was done pitching. Photo (C) John Cusick

John and I dined here after he was done pitching. Photo (C) John Cusick

Making the Book: The Agent

Numerous people dedicate hours of their lives and bits of their souls to the creation and production of each and every book...and I plan to interview all of them in the order a book is produced. (It's going to be tricky.) A month ago, I crafted the first entry in my "Making the Book" series, focusing on the writer's experience. In this edition, I attempt to answer big questions like "What's a literary agent?" and "What does an agent actually do?" by interviewing, you guessed it, an agent, specifically the charming and smart John M. Cusick.

John Cusick moonlights in a jazz quartet once the sun sets.

John Cusick moonlights in a jazz quartet once the sun sets.

CT: I must begin by saying I love the books you send to me. Of the five submissions I've received from you, I bought two (Tommy Wallach's We All Looked Up and Christian McKay Heidicker's Cure for the Common Universe), made an offer on one (Rahul Kanakia's Enter Title Here, which ended up at Hyperion), and was devastated not to be able to make a play on another. Only one--also by Rahul--was a pass for me. Beyond that, Barnes & Noble had three novels you represent on their list of most anticipated YA novels of 2015. So, my question for you: How do you have such amazing taste?

JC: Wow, thank you! I wish there was some secret formula (I really do, because then I’d be RICH), but it really comes down to connecting with a project on a gut level. When I first read Last Year’s Mistake (Simon Pulse, June 2015), I wasn’t a particularly avid consumer of contemporary romance, but there was something in Gina Ciocca’s writing that struck me as so special. I still remember an early scene wherein two characters eat taffy on the beach— an image I just couldn’t get out of my head, Gina had drawn it so deftly and so simply. It’s that moment where a book pulls you in, either with a plot twist or choice detail, and you know something magical is happening. Whether or not that’s taste, I can’t really say.

I think part of finding great projects is tuning into really unique voices. I have a short attention span, so I always like something that really keeps me guessing, that feels *different*. Certainly with Rahul, Christian, and Tommy, I saw something in their writing that jumped off the page, whether it was a particular ear for character voices, a bent sense of humor, or wonderfully skewed view of the world. I think as readers we’re drawn to voices that feel unusual in this way, and I’m certainly drawn to the same as an agent.

You call out one of the more challenging aspects of our jobs. We're both regularly asked what we're looking for, right? And it always comes down to voice, which is a really vague and unsatisfying answer. So then I add all of these specifics (a YA novel that explores the affects of the wars in the Middle East, a picture book about being biracial, a middle grade novel with elements of Chinese folklore), but really, it's just voice. And then there have been plenty of books I've passed on that had amazing voices but no clear selling angle. Before I acquire a book, I have to convince my publisher and the sales and marketing teams that the book will sell. But you don't have that same pressure, do you? You ultimately decide what clients you take on. So beyond voice, what other factors are you considering when you're signing up projects? 

It’s interesting you say that, because I definitely have the publisher and sales force in mind when I submit a project, as well as the editor. That’s why I always want to send only the most polished and perfect manuscripts, as I know the editor has to turn around and sell them to the team in-house. It’s not enough for a manuscript to have clear potential— anyone must be able to read and see immediately the project is a winner, something special.

When I signed Courtney Alameda (whose debut Shutter released from Feiwel & Friends in February), it was on a ten-page sample at a conference. This is *extremely* rare in my experience, but it wasn’t just her amazing voice that sold me. At that same conference I met Courtney for a critique, and I could see immediately she was someone I wanted to work with. Firstly, she was a teen events coordinator for Barnes & Noble at the time, with a strong network of authors and industry professionals and a first-hand appreciation of author promotion. She was also passionate about her work. Shutter was far from the first manuscript she’d ever written; she’d been honing her craft for years before seeking representation, which told me she was both prolific and committed to improving. Finally, Courtney and I just hit it off personally. We talked for an hour about books, movies, video games (she’s a sci-fi nut like me), and I could tell she’d be easy and fun to work with. When I take on a new client, I’m looking for some combination of these qualities. Not just talent, but industry, commitment, marketability, and a personal rapport. 

Those are incredibly valuable traits for any artist trying to make it these days. And I absolutely agree with you--a personal rapport is essential. I also like to make any author I'm considering working with do a bent-arm hang. If you can't hold your body up for at least twenty seconds, I probably don't want to work with you.

One of the reasons I very much enjoy partnering with you on novels is that you're a talented editor. The manuscripts you send are, indeed, polished. I also work with agents who do little to no editing. Their sense is that the acquiring editor will have his/her own vision for the book. It's worth noting that you and I had differing opinions on the second half of We All Looked Up. So how do you strike that balance, between editing a novel and accounting for the would-be editor's point-of-view? How do you know when to stop editing before you submit a project?

This question really makes me stop and think, because when I’m editing, there’s no part of my brain saying “oh, I’ll leave this bit to the editor” or “I don’t want to mess with this section because the editor will want to put his spin on it.” Really what I’m trying to do is help the author create a strong foundation which will inspire the editor to build up. When I submit a project, the writing must be polished, the arcs cohesive, the conflicts compelling and layered—but all that is really a jumping-off point in the creation of a great book. Those are the basics. I also know that even if an editor *loves* the foundation the author has created, he might be inspired to totally tear up that foundation and rebuild almost entirely from scratch. But how can you ask an editor to have that kind of vision if you don’t give him a solid jumping off point?

I’ll also note that occasionally I send projects that are much rougher, because there seem to be a few directions the story could go, and I’m honestly not sure which is the strongest. When I submit such projects, I let the editor know I’m sending a manuscript in a rougher state, and why. In those instances, firming up the foundation might be a disservice to the author, when the editor may have a stronger vision for the book at this earlier stage. 

It's worth mentioning that you're also a very talented writer. [John is the author of Girl Parts and Cherry Money Baby.] I can only imagine how that side of John figures into all of this. Here's what I'm imagining: John reads a page from a submission. He starts yelling to an empty room. "What the--?! THAT'S how he decided to handle that scene? Ah, hell no. I totally would have done it differently. And by "differently," I mean "better." John pours four fingers of scotch and continues reading.

That is nearly dead-on accurate, though more often it’s me reading something amazing, crying “Why can’t *I* do that?” and then pouring four fingers of scotch.

I've half-joked at conferences that one way to get a book deal is to secure a job in publishing. (Two cases in point: you and me.) I'm guessing you became an agent for reasons other than selling your own manuscript. I know it has been years, but do you remember what those reasons were?

In college I worked as a permissions assistant for my school’s independent press, handling requests to reprint portions of our large poetry backlist. I was working on my first novel (the first of several that never saw the light of day), and I loved writing, but I was interested in the business, too. I loved the blend of artistic and professional, the mechanics of making a book—that sacred object I was studying—and how an idea transforms into a physical object you can discover, purchase, and enjoy.

I came to New York looking for a publishing job, but I fell into agenting somewhat by accident. After interviewing for editorial assistant positions around town, I answered an ad on Craigslist for what was essentially an agent’s assistant/dog-walker. I was literally the guy tripping down Broadway with two lattes, a phone to my ear, dry-cleaning over one shoulder, and a 100-pound American bull dog straining at the leash. But the agenting part—man, I fell in love with that almost immediately. I was a writerly wall-flower type as a kid, and here was a job that forced you to pick up the phone and get things done, to be social, outgoing, even forceful when necessary. It’s a job that requires you to think on your feet, where you survive by your wits and hustle alone. If it all sounds dramatic—it is! And even when the job’s a slog or thankless (and it certainly can be), it’s that unpredictability and excitement that keep me going. 

Gah! I love it! Anne Hathaway as John Cusick in The Agent Wears Ill-Fitting Suits!

Actually I always saw myself as more of a Ryan-Reynolds-in-The-Proposal type and oh wow I’m going to stop talking now…

Let's go with America Ferrera in Ugly Betty.

I, too, love that our jobs present something new every day. Each manuscript has its unique challenges, every author his/her own quirks. And the industry is always evolving. Speaking of quirky authors, do you have any stories you want to share with our readers, maybe of a particularly tough client? Or maybe some advice for writers letting them know what not to do? I have one: Be mindful of the language you use in your correspondence. I've received emails from writers I'm working with that are inappropriate/offensive. Not like dirty pics or crude jokes, but abrasive, where you get the sense that the writer thinks s/he is your boss (P.S. my actual boss doesn't speak to me that way). What's more maddening is when you hear from a co-worker that one of your writers has spoken down to him/her. That's just stupid. Your editor can do a lot to protect you and your image, but only if you contain your bad behavior.

I definitely receive plenty of nasty correspondence from authors I’ve rejected. Snide quips, digs, and sometimes outright threats. This to me seems like such a shame, because though I know it’s frustrating to be rejected, I always encourage authors to try me again…assuming they haven’t burned the bridge by calling me a know-nothing jerk who wouldn’t know a good book if it slapped him in the face etc etc. I wonder if these authors know that agents talk to one another. We especially like to share these nasty responses with our colleagues, partly for the entertainment value, and partly to say “Hey, watch out for this nut.”

The other gnarly author behavior that really gets to me is an unwillingness to work. I hate the word “lazy”— I think what often manifests itself as laziness is often anxiety, fear, or an ignorance of just how hard and long you have to work to make a book a success. However, I’ve met quite a few authors who aren’t willing to edit *at all*, and this really boggles my mind. I think things may be a bit different in the trade fiction world, but in kids books and young adult, I take it as a given an as-yet-unpublished writer will be willing to work with me— or at the very least his editor— to shape and reshape a book until it’s ready to go. The market is just too competitive not to, and those who are unwilling to roll up their sleeves get relegated to the recycling bin, in my experience.

Also, authors looking for agents: never ever ever under any circumstances cold call an agent. This is a major pet peeve of mine, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Agents receive hundreds of queries a week, and our job is to service our clients, not spend twenty minutes on the phone hearing your pitch. The best way to get an agent’s attention is to follow his or her submission guidelines and submit great work. Don’t send cupcakes, don’t knock on our door, and don’t call. Okay, rant over.

This is FANTASTIC advice. (I do accept cupcakes.) You and I have been in the publishing industry for a while now, so we probably take some of our knowledge for granted. I can imagine it's a bit intimidating just getting started if you're an aspiring writer trying to figure out first steps. That get hate mail?! 

I can't let you go without asking what you're reading.

As ever my reading list is three books deep. I'm currently reading Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone (I know, late to the party), Confessions of an Imaginary Friend by Michelle Cuevans, which comes out in September, and rereading my client Hannah Moskowitz's A History of Glitter and Blood, coming this August from Chronicle Books. These are definitely the sorts of books that make me slap my forehead and go "now why can't *I* write like that?"


We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach came out in March 2015, received three starred reviews, and became a New York Times best seller. His next book, Thanks for the Trouble, comes out in February 2016. Christian McKay Heidicker's Cure for the Common Universe hits bookshelves in Summer 2016. All three books are represented by John Cusick.

Tune in soon for the next Making the Book featuring...the Designer.




Making the Book: The Debut Author

What are books? What is this thing known as "reading"? And how does one do it? In an ongoing series called "Making the Book," I'll look to answer these questions by interviewing folks who make books. And what better place to start than with someone who has crafted a story that will eventually become a book, commonly referred to as "a writer." In this first edition, I interview Christian McKay Heidicker, whose novel, Cure for the Common Universe, I recently acquired.

So, I hear you just sold your first manuscript to one of the best editors in the business. What was that like?

Amazing. I tackled the first Doberman Pinscher I saw (fortunately there was one in the house I was housesitting) and I rolled around the floor with her and laughed and cried . . . and I might have playfully bitten her ears a bit. This isn't some exaggerated, authory simile for my feelings on having sold a book. This is a real thing that actually happened. The Doberman's name is Tesla.

Seriously, I was elated. When my agent, John Cusick, sent over the initial list of editor submissions, I zeroed in on Mr. Trimmer's name. I mean, he'd worked with Rick Riordan and Mo Willems for Christian's sake. Little did I know he also edited what would become one of my favorite graphic novels of all time: Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert. For those of you who haven't read it, buy it. Buy it now.

You took the bait! I was totally fishing for compliments. (Thank you--they were very generous.) Also, I hope Tesla gets a shout-out in your acknowledgments.

I'm glad you brought up Mr. Cusick, who is just a brilliant agent (and writer). A lot of the folks reading this are probably dreaming of their own future book deals, but first they have to get agents, which is not easy. How did you end up as one of John's clients?

Landing an agent is like trying to date in middle school. After you finally muster the courage to ask someone to check out your goods, you get rejected again and again and again and again . . . until one day you don’t . . . seven years after you’ve left middle school and stopped caring.

I was pretty fortunate. After being rejected by about twenty agents, my old writing partner, Valynne E. Maetani (her book Ink and Ashes is out in May!), courted John Cusick for us both. It was like she went to his lunch table and asked him out while pointing at me across the cafeteria . . . and he said yes! 

The author waits to hear from agents.

The author waits to hear from agents.

In the seventh grade, I frenched (one of my favorite verbs) Becky J. after seeing Child's Play. I wasn't expecting the kiss (or her tongue) on that particular night, but the following Monday, I was feeling all kinds of confident as I walked into school. Before first period, I learned that Becky had started dating Vic F. He was taller than I was, more popular, with dirty blond hair and bright eyes, so I understood her choice. I would have picked him over her, too. Still, it stung. 

You made out after watching Child's Play?! I went on a doll-burning spree . . . that hasn't stopped since .

The doll in Trilogy of Terror messed me up, but Chucky didn't really bother me. So, to use your metaphor, Becky is like the agent who is promising representation . . . only to sign someone from your writing group and then ignoring you in pre-algebra. Is that accurate? I'm going to guess that a fear of rejection keeps people from pursuing representation in the first place. Did you experience that anxiety? If so, do you remember the moment when you decided to take the plunge?

Your agent metaphor is eerily accurate. (Except the pre-algebra part.) I played the hot and cold game with a few agents before John Cusick came along and made it all hot, all the time. (Our relationship is strictly professional.) I know plenty of writers who sit on their brilliant manuscripts because they're afraid of rejection. I was never one of those. I was bold as brass as an early writer, ecstatic to fling my pages at anyone in the business. The truth is . . . I was just okay. I had lots of enthusiasm without much technique or anything to say. That changed with years and heartbreak and hours at the keyboard. I actually experience more anxiety sending things out now because I'm more aware of how hard it is to be good and how much talent is out there.

For anyone who does feel anxiety in submitting to an agent, I'd remind them that rejection is good. Keeps ya sober. Keeps ya workin'. Keeps ya chasing after that next project . . .

That's great advice. You have to experience some "no" before you get the "yes!" It makes the accomplishment all the sweeter, right? It's just like that song says: "The black the berry, the sweeter the juice."

Now, I have insider knowledge that you recently received your first editorial letter (in which an editor details his/her suggestions for strengthening a manuscript). How did that feel? As someone who has asked many a writer to make major changes in the next draft, I've often wondered how one begins the revising process. I mean, you've turned in a version that you feel really good about, and now you're being asked to rethink major components of the story. How do you begin the process?

The author goes gray upon reading the editorial letter.

The author goes gray upon reading the editorial letter.

I think I'm different than most writers when it comes to editorial letters. I've heard stories about authors receiving theirs, sobbing uncontrollably, and then locking themselves in a dark room for a week. Most describe it as an unpleasant experience. Not me.

I DEVOURED your editorial letter. I realized that you had found the heart of what I was trying to do and wanted to clear away all of the cobwebs so the reader could feel it beat. You walked into my book, tipped over a cardboard cutout of a character I thought was hilarious, passed your hand through walls to prove they were holograms, and showed me that the timelines were all messed up. Once I saw what you were seeing, I took every single suggestion you made, including the bits that I disagreed with at first. 

It's pretty overwhelming tackling a 60,000-word document. Once you dive in, it's easy to get caught up in dialogue or that joke you love or how oddly alien your own voice sounds. It's tough to see the big picture. After I got your letter, I didn't reread the manuscript for three weeks. Instead I used your letter as a map, writing scenes you felt were missing from scratch, reordering the chapters, and searching and deleting any parts you thought didn't work. At that point I had a Frankenstein's monster of a book. I've been trying to make it presentable ever since.

The process is difficult, but I am also very grateful for the opportunity to improve. I don't think anything I write is perfect. I'm sure whatever version of this gets published won't be perfect. But I'm confident that we'll come as close as I'm able at this point.

The author works through a particularly challenging section of his revision.

The author works through a particularly challenging section of his revision.

I remember an author, the lovely Robin Mellom, telling me that she didn't cry after reading the first editorial letter I sent to her. I didn't understand what she meant--why would she have? (Forgive my naivete--I was still pretty new to the business.) I have since learned that many authors shed tears after reviewing the contents of that particular package. It is always my aim not to make my authors cry (or puke or faint, for that matter). I've mostly succeeded.

Where do you like to write? And what do you wear on writing days?

If I ever send you something sub-par, please feel free to make me cry (or puke or faint, for that matter).

I write at home in the mornings and in coffee shops in the afternoons, but when I first started freelancing, I trained myself to write absolutely anywhere any time. Just so I'd have no excuses. I once wrote a chapter while walking 17 kilometers across Spain. I tripped a lot.

I'm not very style conscious. Or very shower conscious. I like the idea of wearing a suit to the writing desk every day as a sort of gratitude of being able to do what I do . . . but then I think about how much time that would take away from writing and I don't do it. The other day my financial planner told me I look like a writer, which is kind of a backhanded compliment . . . and also great. I just hope the lack of personal hygiene manifests in the writing itself. Otherwise I look unkempt for no reason whatsoever.

Before I let you go, can you tell us what your book's about? But here's the challenge: you have to do so in ONE SENTENCE. Imagine you're in a pitch meeting with some hot young development executive in Hollywood--what's the one line you give to hook his/her interest? 

Cure for the Common Universe is about a kid who scores the first date of his life only to be promptly committed to video game rehab, which he must now escape.

(But under the surface, it's about how easy it is to believe you're doing the right thing.)

(Is that cheating?)

Nice! Sounds like an MTV Films movie to me. Last question: what are you reading these days?

I'm almost finished with the Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman. It's excellent. I just started The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (one of my favorite authors). Sitting in front of me right this moment is El Deafo by Cece Bell. I got teary-eyed on the SECOND PAGE. All highly recommended.

What are you reading?

Your revision!

Cure for the Common Universe is on sale in Summer 2016. Check back soon for the next edition of "Making the Book" featuring The Agent. 


This deal was announced a few months back on PW's Children's Bookshelf, but the young adult novel is very much on my mind. I'm in the middle of reviewing the excellent second draft. My assistant popped into my office this morning to file the fully executed contract. And we (the author, the agent, my publisher, me, people on the street) just settled on this killer title.

Cure for the Common Universe by Christian McKay Heidicker follows high-school senior Miles Prower, who suffers from a severe case of arrested development. After his mom shipped him off to live with his dad five years ago, Miles detached from real life. All of his free time is spent playing video games. His only friends are the members of his guild, guys he has never met in person. On one fateful day, as he's out washing his stepmom's car, he meets a girl, a girl who actually seems interested in going on a date with him. Could this be the moment that things start to shift for Miles? Answer: no. Because when he gets home, two very large men are waiting there to take him to video game rehab. 

Christian's novel examines themes that I've been interested in throughout my career. From my first acquisition (Carter Finally Gets It by Brent Crawford) to the upcoming The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, a lot of the books I've edited explore the growing pains boys experience as they figure out what kind of man they want to be. Miles's understanding of manhood comes from the games he plays--the characters in them are not great role models. So Miles has a lot of growing to do.

Christian's agent, the great John Cusick, expertly summarized in his pitch letter some of the other issues that the author tackles: Cure for the Common Universe "isn’t about video games, nor is it just a 'guy wants to get laid' story. Christian manages to bring real depth to Miles’s desire for connection, tapping into that universal need to be known, adored, and maybe become better *for* another person. Perhaps most compelling is the way [the novel] takes up gender issues. Miles must learn that the women in his life aren’t achievements or princesses to be rescued. In a culture that too often positions sex— and girls more precisely— as something to be won, [Cure for the Common Universe] offers important insights for young readers of any gender."

Hot, right? Cure for the Common Universe comes out in Summer 2016.