My dad used to encourage my brothers and me to brawl like this.
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.
I made an offer on this book the day I received it. THE DAY I RECEIVED IT! I think that might be a first for me. But I immediately fell in love with Kelp, who is the unicorn at the heart of the story, the art, and the writing. The supremely gifted Jessie Sima knocked it out of the park.
Though Jessie is brand new to all of this, she speaks like a seasoned veteran, expertly discussing how she approaches her illustrations, the numerous revisions she made to each drawing to get the angle, emotion, and narrative quality just right, and her feelings about the industry. I know this because I had a chance to speak with her ahead of the auction that agent Thao Le organized (I wasn't the only one who saw the potential in Not Quite Narwhal). Jessie and I chatted for nearly an hour. (When was the last time you spoke on the phone for an hour?!) We had such a lovely conversation, and I hung up the phone wanting the book even more.
I was on vacation the day of the auction, so my fearless boss went into battle for me. As I came out of the New Amsterdam theater after seeing Aladdin with my partner's kids (and getting a backstage tour!)...
...I checked my email and discovered that I, Christian Trimmer, was going to be the editor of Not Quite Narhwal, along with a to-be-determined second picture book.
It was a great vacation.
Not Quite Narwhal is scheduled for Spring 2017.
Stacey Kade has been one of the few constants in my publishing life. When I was an eager and hungry assistant editor, I acquired her touching and hilarious Ghost and the Goth Trilogy: The Ghost and the Goth, Queen of the Dead, and Body & Soul. As an enthusiastic and hungry associate editor, I signed up her sexy, dark Project Paper Doll series: The Rules, The Hunt, and The Trials. I departed Disney Hyperion after editing the first draft of The Hunt, and I was sad to leave that amazing series behind. Still, I had faith that Stacey and I would work together again. And as a savvy and hungry senior editor at S & S BFYR, I acquired Stacey's first contemporary YA novel, Life, After. That novel, coming out in Fall 2016, follows a young man who has lost his faith, and because he's a pastor's son, he really has lost his whole sense of self.
And now, as a wise and hungry executive editor, I have bought Stacey's next YA novel, Finding Felicity. Shortly after Stacey finished the first draft of Life, After, we got on the phone to talk about what she wanted to do next. The conversation went a little something like this.
Stacey Kade: Okay, so this next idea is rough, I've only just started developing it. But it begins with a girl, Caroline, on the day of her high school graduation, and she's having a party. Her mom, who is this really busy doctor, has pulled out all the stops and is throwing this big event for Caroline. But here's the thing--no one is coming to the party. Because...Caroline has completely fabricated her entire social life!
Christian Trimmer: [gasp]
SK: Uh huh, she's made up friends, parties, extracurricular activities. And get this--they're all based on late nineties TV shows. So her friends are people like Joey and Willow and Felicity--
CT: Do that one.
CT: That's the one. Do that one.
SK: Really? Do you want to hear more?
CT: Don't need to hear more. Do that one.
I'll admit I'm a bit of a crazy Felicity fan. I present exhibit A:
Now, I'm not so crazy as to sign up a book just because the protagonist also enjoys Felicity. But I loved the premise--a slightly odd young woman is determined to set aside the fictional social life she created in high school and make some real, three-dimensional friends in college. And if she turns to her hero Felicity Porter for guidance, so be it. I've also been eager to work on a book set in college, and the hook is super timely--1990s nostalgia is back in full force.
(I'll admit that I begged Stacey to include a cameo of Keri Russell in the novel. My dream is to run into Keri on the street--we live in the same neighborhood--and pass her a copy of the book.)
I'll leave you with this.
As I did with my Fall 2015 list, I wanted to gather for you, dear reader, all of my gorgeous Spring 2016 covers in one place. And what a difference a list makes! For Fall 2015, I edited four fantastic young adult novels, which will start to hit bookshelves right before Labor Day. This season, I have just one YA book--Tommy Wallach's sophomore effort, Thanks for the Trouble. (In a post reminiscent of his cover reveal for We All Looked Up, Tommy took us step by step through the design process, sharing all of the cover concepts that didn't get selected.) My other three titles in Spring 2016 are picture books. For her cover reveal, Ashlyn Anstee sent a tweet that included the cover of her No, No, Gnome! Matt Roeser and Brad Woodard took to Facebook to show off the cover of their Oh No, Astro!, as did Terry Fan and Eric Fan with their The Night Gardener.
Let's take a look at how these four covers came together.
First up, we have No, No, Gnome! (2/9/16) by Ashlyn Anstee. Ashlyn's first book, Are We There, Yeti?, is on-sale 7/21/15, and I bought that title and an untitled picture book at auction from the wonderful Kelly Sonnack at Andrea Brown Literary. For her second book, Ashlyn pitched me a few stories, and I immediately fell for No, No, Gnome! I loved how the book's title and refrain were, yeti again, a play on words. (See what I did there?) I found Gnome ridiculously cute. And I really liked the school garden setting. So, Ashlyn got to work crafting the story of an energetic Gnome who wants nothing more than to help but whose eagerness sometimes gets the better of him.
Ashlyn is filled with ideas, and she delivered a bunch of options for the front cover. Like these...
Chloe Foglia, the book's designer, and I discussed these options with "the group" (which includes the other editors and the other designers, along with my publisher). We really liked the composition of Number 3 (top right) and the title treatment of Number 6 (bottom right), which is reminiscent of what she did on Are We There, Yeti? Chloe asked Ashlyn to bring Gnome through the plants a bit more so that we could see his cute outfit (and not mistake him for someone else with a white beard and red hat). We also wanted a slightly more mischievous expression on Gnome's face. With those notes, Ashlyn went to final art and delivered...
Like Are We There, Yeti?, the cover of No, No, Gnome! will be printed on uncoated stock with a spot gloss on the title and the author/illustrator's name.
The Night Gardener (on sale 2/23/16) began with this image (and two sample spreads).
My gracious and thoughtful boss showed me the piece of art and asked if I saw any potential. If memory serves, I screamed, "Yes!" I felt like I was getting pulled into the Night Gardener's world, and I wanted to go to there. Terry Fan had just finished working on the gorgeous Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell with designer Lizzy Bromley. He had enjoyed the experience so much that he reached out to her with this image of a topiary-loving gentleman to let her know that he and his brother, Eric, were eager to turn it into a picture book. Lizzy, the Brothers, and I got on the phone to talk about the character, the world he lived in, and the motivation for his clippings. We ended up with a truly magical story about a gray little town in need of some creative inspiration.
When it came time to talk about the cover, I think we all kind of knew that it would be a version of the Brothers' original idea. The story is told through the eyes of a young boy, so we brought him to the cover image. His wonder is ours.
Lizzy is bringing so much magic to this jacket. It will be printed on a textured, uncoated stock, and the title will be a silver foil.
I half-expected designer Lucy Cummins to suggest a cover similar to We All Looked Up's for Tommy Wallach's second novel, Thanks for the Trouble. You know, another group of teens in a cool environment shot with some eye-catching technique. But while Lucy wanted to go photographic, she had a wildly different concept in mind--no people, just stuff. She was inspired by a scene relatively early in the book that takes place in a mall food court, and she had the perfect photographer in mind to capture the energy and tone of the novel: Keirnan Monaghan.
On the day of the shoot, I headed to Dumbo, where Keirnan has his studio. While he and his partner, Theo Vamvounakis, a brilliant props and sets designer, prepared, I took in the environment.
I'll admit I was a little nervous. Everything looked kind of drab. I was having a hard time imagining how the title and byline were going to work with the image. But why do I ever doubt Lucy?
(You'll notice that the above image does not have pizza. We needed pizza. Lucy rushed out to get some.)
Lucy considered having the title on loose scraps of paper (the protagonist communicates by writing on slips of paper) or scratched into the table. But neither approach was having the impact she wanted, so she went big and bold.
The finished jacket will be printed over metaltone with embossing and spot gloss on the title and byline.
Finally, I'm incredibly excited to be publishing Matt Roeser's first picture book. Matt is one of the most talented book designers in children's publishing. His manuscript for Oh No, Astro! (on sale 4/19/16) came to me via the ever-charming and gifted Tim Federle, and I jumped at the chance to edit it. "Manuscript" is a misnomer; what Matt delivered was a fully formed sketch dummy--and Matt's not even an illustrator. Utilizing art from this poster, Matt crafted his tale of a grumpy asteroid who takes an unexpected (and unwanted) journey through space. (Matt, of course, asked the poster artist, Brad Woodard, for permission to use the art. And we, of course, hired Brad to illustrate the book, because his artwork is awesome.)
This is the cover that Matt included with his submission:
And this is the final cover:
Matt's concept was genius, so we stuck with it. We decided to take Earth off the cover 1) to keep the ending more of a surprise and 2) to give us more room to make the title and Astro larger. The book's designer, Lizzy Bromley, selected a font that perfectly suits the retro-vibe of Brad's art. The jacket will be printed with a matte lamination. "Astro!" and Astro and part of his tail will have a spot gloss.
Check out the "Coming Soon" tab soon to learn more about these books!
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.
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 said...you 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.
Dear Readers, I have another book on the way! It's called Mimi and Shu in I'll Race You! The brilliant Melissa van der Paardt, who provided the genius art for Simon's New Bed, taps into a whole new style to bring Mimi the Kitten, Shu the Mouse, and all of their friends to life. As with my first book, the charming Justin Chanda is serving up editorial realness, and Lauren Rille is on design. Mimi and Shu in I'll Race You! comes out on January 26, 2016.
When I was little, I'd often head to Little Saigon in Chicago with my mom and my brother, Britton, to buy groceries and to have lunch at one of the many fantastic Vietnamese restaurants there. All of the restaurants had a number of things in common, including terrible lighting, amazing pho, and Chinese Zodiac menus. Britton and I would pore over the menus, first studying our own signs (I'm a Dragon*, he's a Rat) and then moving on to the signs of other friends and family members.
*I'm not a Dragon. I learned this after many years of thinking I was a Dragon. The bulk of my birth year coincides with the Dragon, but as I was born prior to the Chinese New Year, I'm actually a Rabbit. My mother loved the idea of having a Dragon, so she raised me as such. It took me a while to come to terms with being a Rabbit**, but I've found peace with it.
**In the Vietnamese Zodiac, I'm actually a Cat!
As a teen, I regularly ate and then worked at Luong Loi, a Vietnamese restaurant in Wheaton, Illinois. The restaurant had the same menus, and my little sister, Nicole, and I would study the different signs while eating banh xeo or ga xa ot.
One thing always stood out to me--there is no Cat in the Chinese Zodiac. Isn't that odd? I thought so, and when I decided to try my hand at writing picture book manuscripts, I knew that I wanted to begin with a story that answered the question, "Why is there no Cat in the Chinese Zodiac?"
It turns out there's a hilarious folktale that explains why. Briefly, all of the animals in the kingdom are asked by Jade Emperor to participate in a race. The first twelve who cross the finish line get to be in the Zodiac. Rat and Cat are best friends, and they do most of the race side by side. Then they come upon a river. Neither is a good swimmer, so they enlist the help of Ox. As they're comfortably crossing the river on Ox's back, Rat has the realization that Cat will likely win the race once they reach shore. So he pushes her into the river. HE PUSHES HER INTO THE RIVER! And then he wins the race! Isn't that amazing? (The actual reason? It's postulated that cats weren't introduced into Chinese society until after the Zodiac was developed.)
To make the story palatable for the gentle American readership, I finessed the ending and added a lot of cupcakes.
I hope to be able to tell more Mimi and Shu tales. I already have titles: Mimi and Shu in Horsin' Around!; Mimi and Shu in Rise and Shine!; Mimi and Shu in Monkey Business! I wrote the manuscript shortly after I left Disney Hyperion, where I had worked on a number of Elephant and Piggie books with the great Mo Willems, so I had "series" on the brain. We will see! For now, I'm just really excited to see I'll Race You! come together. And I can't wait to share it with you.
Two weeks until Tiny Hamster Is a Giant Monster!
My brilliant colleague, Kristin Ostby, is doing a picture book by the hilarious folks behind the Tiny Hamster videos. The book, Tiny Hamster Is a Giant Monster, is out on June 2. Before the book comes out, get to know Tiny Hamster. I think you'll like him (or her).
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!
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?
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.
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?
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.
A while back, I watched a segment on 60 Minutes about the Recycled Orchestra, an orchestra made up of young people from Cateura, Paraguay, who play instruments built out of the trash on which the town is built. It was an unbelievably compelling piece, one that made me look at the garbage littering New York City and my own consumption very differently. Soon after, I called super agent Brenda Bowen to see if she had anyone who could do the story justice in the picture book format. Brenda recommended the great Susan Hood, and I'm so glad she did. Susan threw herself into the project, contacting the key players at the Recycled Orchestra and establishing a trusting relationship with them. She also reached out to the producers of the 60 Minutes piece and the folks behind the beautiful Landfill Harmonic, a documentary about the Recycled Orchestra currently doing the festival circuit. After all her careful research, she crafted a gorgeous manuscript that captures the spirit of the Orchestra's mission.
Armed with the manuscript, I then emailed the astonishing Sally Wern Comport, with whom I'd worked on Love Will See You Through, in hopes that she'd connect with the material. Happily...she did! She just delivered sketches of the book, and they are beyond amazing. The way she depicts the kids in the group, the town, the heat, THE INSTRUMENTS--I can't wait to show you.
Ada's Violin comes out in Spring 2016.
Here's the official press release in case you feel like reading more:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
SIMON & SCHUSTER BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERS TO PUBLISH PICTURE BOOK BASED ON THE TRUE STORY BEHIND THE PARAGUAYAN RECYCLED ORCHESTRA
New York, NY, March 18¾Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers announced today that it will publish Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay, the official picture book detailing the true story of the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, Paraguay. The book will be published on March 15, 2016, and in honor of its publication, Simon & Schuster will make a donation to the Recycled Orchestra.
Profiled on 60 Minutes and in numerous national publications, the orchestra is also the subject of a documentary, The Landfill Harmonic, which will have its world premiere at South by Southwest on March 18, 2015, and its East Coast premiere on March 21, 2015, at the New York Children’s Film Festival. The story unfolds through the eyes of Ada Ríos, a member since the orchestra’s inception, who had long dreamed of playing an instrument. In her small, poor town built on a landfill, doing so was never an option, until a local engineer, Favio Chávez, had an ingenious idea: What if he turned some of the garbage—the town’s only resource—into instruments? Using scraps of dirty oilcans, jars, wood, forks, and other junk in the Cateura landfill, he and other locals built beautiful musical instruments—violins, flutes, cellos, drums . . . all made from trash.
From this ingenuity, the Recycled Orchestra was formed, with the local children as its members learning and performing Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. As the children fine-tuned their skills, they started to garner attention. Ada and her fellow members have now played concerts to packed audiences throughout their home country, South America, and the world.
Author Susan Hood, who has written dozens of books for children, worked directly with the Recycled Orchestra to craft the manuscript, uncovering never-before-heard details. She plans to donate a portion of her earnings from sales of the book to the Orchestra. Sally Wern Comport, who most recently illustrated Love Will See You Through: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Six Guiding Beliefs, will provide the art.
“It seems to me that the publishing of the book is something very important, as it projects our story beyond a determined moment,” says Favio Chávez. “This book will be a testimony and a legacy of what we have done.” Ada Ríos, now sixteen and a first violinist, adds, “Music breaks social barriers. I hope this book will help more people understand that somewhere in the world exist children and young people of limited means who aspire to get ahead.”
“The Recycled Orchestra and its founders and members have so much to teach us,” says Christian Trimmer, Senior Editor, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. “Ada’s Violin is an inspiring story that will spread their message of innovation and community.”
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers retains world rights, all languages, for the text and illustrations.
Just in case "Let It Go" has managed to escape your mind, watch this!