Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Other Side of the Freeway

We drive the stretch of I-15 between Mesquite and Kaysville several times a year, so I'm pretty sure I have the whole thing memorized. I can tell you what it looks like at any given mile marker as well as how far you are from Cedar City, Fillmore, or Nephi. Honey Bear could probably drive it without his glasses in a snowstorm.

But what I've never really thought about is how different everything looks from the other side of the freeway. As we were coming down a hill on one of our more recent drives, I looked around and said, "Oh, my heck, this is THAT hill, the last one you drive over before you get to Beaver!" For whatever reason, that spot had made more of an impression on the southbound trip, but that didn't change the fact that it was THE SAME SPOT.

I've thought a lot about it since that day, and while I haven't come to any earth-shattering conclusions, I thought I'd share it with you. Sometimes, we don't even have to move to gain a fresh perspective; we just have to turn around.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

You Only Get One Debut

This morning, I tweeted, "You only get one debut. Use it wisely." It's short, it's sweet, it's great for Twitter, but when Alina Borger pushed me for a more detailed explanation (oh, wait, I have to explain?), I thought it would be easier to address her question on the blog.

A thread on Absolute Write was what got me ruminating on this topic. A writer published a book with a small--very small--press, but even though she only sold a handful of copies, she didn't regret it. The manuscript was never going to attract the attention of a major publisher, so she didn't see the harm in publishing with a small press now and pursuing her dream of major trade publication later.

But you only get one debut. There have been a few exceptions--Ally Condie comes to mind (though you probably didn't know MATCHED wasn't her first book)--but for the most part, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Stated another way, you can only be a variable when you're actually a variable. If you don't have a sales record, publishers have to rely on a set of complicated formulas--and possibly their tea leaves--to determine how much your book is worth. If you don't have a sales record, a publishing team can go completely crazy--editors drop everything and read your book in twenty minutes, publicists start booking your spot on the Today show--and then the dollars fly. You are the Next Big Thing. Your book is going to outsell Harry Potter and Twilight COMBINED.

But once you have a sales record, it will follow you around for the rest of your career. Publishers no longer have to guess how much your books are worth; your sales figures will tell them.

Now, is it possible for your next book to outperform your previous ones? Of course. (Just ask Suzanne Collins.) But is it probable? Maybe not. So if you want to land a book deal with a major publisher in the future, it might not be in your best interest to accept one with a smaller publisher now.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Interactive Interview with an Agent: Clelia Gore

Today's INTERACTIVE installment of "Interview with an Agent" features Clelia Gore of Martin Literary Management. Details on the interactive part are at the bottom, so enjoy Ms. Gore's answers to the usual questions, then meet us down there!

KV: How long have you been agenting, and how did you get into it?

CG: I am a new agent with experience in both the publishing and legal worlds. I used to work as an attorney in New York City and then switched over to publishing by earning my master's degree in Publishing and Writing from Emerson College and working at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Oxford University Press. Being an agent seemed like a natural choice for me, considering my legal skills and literary interests. It also happens to be a lot more fun than being a lawyer:)

KV: How would you summarize your personal agenting philosophy? What do you expect from an agent-author relationship? 

CG: My goal as an agent is always to bring quality books to children and young adults. I'd like to do so by operating with kindness, respect, and professionalism. I like clients to be communicative, responsive, open to suggestions, patient and optimistic. 

KV: What client work do you have coming out soon? What drew you to those writers and/or projects?

CG: As a new agent, I have just acquired my first clients and hopefully will have upcoming works to announce in the very near future. Martin Literary Management previously specialized only in adult non-fiction books, but has represented some young adult non-fiction books, including The Pregnancy Project (Simon and Schuster, 2012), which was also made into a Lifetime movie. 

KV: What genres do you represent? What genres do you definitely NOT represent?

CG: Everything under the children's book umbrella from baby board books to young adult novels. I am interested in both children's fiction and non-fiction. I won't be taking any adult book writers as clients and I am not usually interested in romance novels. Although I like books with fantastical elements, I would say that I usually am drawn more to "fantasy-lite" than hardcore fantasy or sci-fi. 

KV: What query pet peeves and/or pitfalls should writers avoid when querying you?

CG: The query letter really is an important piece of writing--you should be putting your best foot forward. Make sure your query is cohesive and coherent. To me, a query letter that is not well written is a pretty good signal that the sample of work below is not going to work for me. I do like to hear a little about the author, but I am most interested in the summarizing pitch. It's also important to write who your audience is--young adult, middle grade, etc.

KV: What are you looking for in a manuscript right now? What are you tired of seeing at the moment?

CG: I am open to just about anything, but my favorite genre is middle grade--it's the genre that I first fell in love with as a kid, and that love never left me! I am particularly interested in illustrated middle grade where there is interplay between the text and the illustrations. I also love anything that involves history, across all genres. I love picture book biographies, particularly about less known but very interesting people in history. I would love to see books featuring ethnically diverse characters where their ethnicity is not the focus of the plot. I also like picture books that are a little quirky that have appeal to both kids and adults. Anything with series potential is interesting to me--as a kid (and as an adult too!), I liked to develop a long term relationship with my favorite characters and see them through many adventures. For young adult, I'm looking for voice-driven books and memorable characters. The plot is secondary for me! 

I think there are a number of trends that have played out and currently pose challenges to sell--I would say editors have probably seen many YA books where the protagonist discovers he or she has some sort of magic or supernatural power, and would be less inclined to want to publish those. Also, I am generally wary of rhyming picture books, as I think the modern picture book has evolved from rhyming.  

KV: What’s the best way to query you?

CG: Please send queries to me via email at clelia@martinliterarymanagement.com. You can find my submission instructions regarding particular kinds of books here: martinliterarymanagement.com/submissions.htm

Thank you, Ms. Gore, for these responses. It sounds like you and I have very similar tastes:)

And now for the main event! If you have a question for Ms. Gore, feel free to leave it in the comments below. She'll pop in several times throughout the day and leave her responses in the comments as well. You have until 7:00 p.m. EST (or 4:00 p.m. PST), so don't dilly-dally!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

In Defense of the Romantically Clueless MC

Come back tomorrow afternoon for an INTERACTIVE interview with Clelia Gore of Martin Literary Management. She'll be taking questions from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. EST!

One of the most consistent pieces of feedback I've gotten on Bonnie is that Karina's totally clueless when it comes to Matthew. It's obvious to readers that he's interested in her, but Karina doesn't pick up on any of his cues. It isn't until her friend finally comes out and says it that Karina realizes Matthew has a thing for her, and according to my critique partners, she should figure this out sooner. Since they did.

But novels, even realistic ones, aren't necessarily realistic. We carefully construct our stories for maximum impact, then sprinkle in a lot of clues and clever foreshadowing. We want our stories to make sense, so we press them into tidy molds and tie up our loose ends.

But real life is rarely so neat.

In high school, I had a friend named Ian. He asked me to Homecoming our junior year (though I ended up going with Honey Bear, but that's another blog post), and we ate lunch together every day our senior year. After we graduated, he asked me out a few times, including once right around Christmas. We were home from school--he was up at Utah State while I was down at BYU--and one afternoon, he called and asked if I wanted to check out this comedy troupe. I said, "Sounds fun! Who else will be there?" and he said, "Me," and I said, "Oh." After one of those long, awkward pauses, I rushed to assure him that I'd love to go, that it would be great to see him, that I was looking forward to it. And I was. The show was funny, and it was nice to catch up afterward. (Even though it was December, we chatted over Frosties for several hours in his car.)

I think that night was the first time it occurred to me that Ian could possibly like me. It was also the last time we ever talked. Honey Bear came home from his mission six months later, and we discovered we still liked each other. Then Ian left on his mission a few months after that, and we didn't keep in touch.

I'm still not sure why I didn't pick up on Ian's cues* sooner. He asked me out multiple times--in fact, he's the only boy other than Honey Bear who asked me out even once, which should have tipped me off--and he went out of his way to show up wherever I happened to be. In hindsight, it seems so obvious, but I didn't see it for the longest time.

So the next time you're tempted to smack a romantically clueless MC, give him or her a break. This whole love thing is tougher than it looks.

*Ian, if you ever stumble across this post, I do apologize for my inanity. And if I completely misrepresented your point-of-view, feel free to set the record straight:)

Friday, November 22, 2013

Agent-Author Chat: Monika Verma and Alexa Donne

I can't tell you how excited I am to welcome agent Monika Verma of Levine Greenberg Literary Agency and author Alexa Donne back to the blog. I say back because Ms. Verma and Ms. Donne connected right here on Team Krista during "The Writer's Voice" last May, which means that this installment of "Agent-Author Chat" represents a direct success story for our team. Woohoo!

Check out Ms. Donne's fabulous entry (which was previously titled FUTURESHOCK), then hop back over here to learn how everything came together.

KV: Ms. Donne, how did you first come up with the idea for FUTURE TENSE?

AD: No joke--I had the idea in the shower. This was in the Spring of 2012 and I was taking a second crack at a YA dystopian I had abandoned after NaNo 2011. I was supposed to be brainstorming for the dystopian, and a stray thought flitted through my head—people always ask “if you could meet any historical figure, living or dead, who would it be?” Well, what if you WERE the historical figure? And, and… you’re famous because you become President! First female President of the United States! And then I thought the deliciously awful twisty thing (which I won’t reveal), and FUTURE TENSE was born. It may be the most productive shower I will ever have in my life.

Then, when it came to developing the idea (outside of the shower), I was a huge fan of the show Jack and Bobby on the WB, which is how I landed on the Presidential future and YA setting. I love the idea of following a teen character who is destined to become not only famous, but hold the highest political office in the land. I’m also a Doctor Who fan… and who doesn’t want a young, cute, dorky Doctor-like character showing up and taking you on adventures?

KV: Tell us a little bit about your query-writing process. Did you work on it here and there as you were writing the manuscript, or before, or after? How many times did you revise it? And how did you decide what order to put things in?

AD: I didn’t write my query until I was done with the “draft zero” of the book. I did, however, write my “hook” (which became the first paragraph of the query) during the writing process, mostly because I was really excited about querying/entering contests and I am incorrigible.

I went through two iterations of my query--the first one I used for Pitch Madness, but didn’t send it to any agents via traditional querying. I waited until I did some more revising, and then I entered The Writer’s Voice. This is where I got my second and final version of my query, via mentorship with you (Krista). The advice I received from several sources, including a friend that works for an agency, was to throw all my best hooks into my query. So query #1 gave away a major spoiler, for a reveal that doesn’t happen until you are about 80% into the book. But the query felt very kitchen sink, I think, and Krista worked with me to rein my query in and focus on the personal and romantic conflict. So query number two teased the suspense, but did not give away the ending. I was so happy with this query (which better reflected the tone of my book), that I used it for all of my traditional querying--I sent it to approximately 19 agents. The only thing that changed mid-way through was I tweaked my YA book comps.

Format-wise, I shied away from a personalized query that drops the book title, genre and word count up front, and instead dove right into the characters/conflict/stakes. I prefer this format for a number of reasons, but partly because I know when I'm looking at a query, my eye jumps to two things first: first paragraph (hook) and then down to second to last paragraph, where I hope to see all the book details. I sound like a sycophant when I personalize my queries, so unless an agent specifically said they like to know why you’re querying them, I didn’t personalize. I also am a big believer in dropping your book hook immediately, in paragraph one. Some agents only read your first paragraph before deciding to read on. So make it good.

KV: Butting in to say I appreciate the plug. If I participate in “The Writer’s Voice” next year, I’m definitely pointing prospective teammates to this post:)

So how did Ms. Verma come to request your manuscript?

AD: Monika voted for me during The Writer’s Voice. She was one of two agents that voted, so she got a partial. A few days later, she upgraded her request to a full.

KV: Ms. Verma, when you saw Ms. Donne's entry in “The Writer’s Voice,” what caught your attention?

MV: I’m a big fan of contemporary YA, time-travel stories and all things British, so this entry was tailor-made for me. I was also struck by how strong the voice was, and I could tell right away that the author had a sense of humor. These are all things I’m on the lookout for when I read submissions.

KV: You and Ms. Donne ended up working through several rounds of pre-offer revisions. How do you decide whether to request revisions or offer representation?

MV: I always want to be confident in my ability to sell a book before I offer representation to the author, and much of the time that means working through some revisions before making things official.  In the same vein, I like to make sure that the author and I are on the same page regarding revisions before she or he signs on, just to avoid any snafus down the road. Some authors have a particular vision for their work, and if it turns out that my vision differs from theirs, it’s best to find that out early.

KV: Obviously, these revisions met--or exceeded--your expectations. What did you love about FUTURE TENSE?

MV: I love that the protagonist is strong, smart and unapologetic about her decisions. I also very much appreciate that while there is a romance storyline, it isn’t front and center; the character’s decisions about her future and her friendships take precedence. I laughed out loud at certain lines when I first read the manuscript, and I still laugh when I read them now, several drafts later. Finally, I love that the story embraces high school nerd culture and celebrates it.

KV: Ms. Donne, now that you’ve reached the querying finish line, what do you wish you had known when you were back at the start gate?

AD: Relative to my query, I have few regrets! I made some missteps with my first query, but I didn’t actually send it to anyone (outside one contest). Even though I wanted to query, I sat on it--something was niggling at me that it wasn’t The One. I’m glad I waited and got help in The Writer’s Voice. It was meant to be! Once I was ready, I queried smart--in small batches and using Query Tracker to keep track of things--and got a good number of requests.

As far as my manuscript is concerned, probably the only thing I would change is I would have made the harsh edits I ended up making to my first eight chapters earlier than I did. A few of my passes from agents remarked that it was slow to start, and later I fixed that. However, que sera--things happen the way they happen, and I’m happy with it!

KV: Ms. Verma, what querying tips do you have?

MV: The best advice I can give authors is to be clear and concise. As an agent sifting through queries all day, I want a query to provide all the basics about the book--synopsis, genre, similar titles, author bio--in an easy-to-digest way, but to also pique my interest and make me want to read more. I would also recommend checking out agent bios and wishlists, and adjusting your submission list accordingly. I personally like to hear about what inspires authors to write about whatever they choose to write about, whether it’s a love for the genre, personal experience etc.

KV: Any last words of advice or encouragement you’d like to share with us?

MV: There are tons of great tips floating around on how to ace your query or pitch an agent, but with YA it all comes down to the voice. If I read a submission and can immediately relate to the protagonist (as I did in this case,) I’m likely to keep reading regardless of any other factors. Focus on the voice and the rest will follow!

AD: Be brand-minded, marketing savvy, and gather as much information as you can about the industry before, during and after you write. Write what you love and are inspired to write, but be smart: mindful of trends, how to package your book as well as you can (title, query, comps, etc.), your public persona. Agents will appreciate and respond to someone that shows knowledge of the market, which means read as many YA (etc.) books as you can, use great comps in your query, and understand how your novel will fit into the current marketplace. Make yourself the ideal client--a great writer, who can write hooks that can sell, who is flexible but passionate (so you’ll work with your agent/editor to make changes… but you know when to stick to your guns), and is constantly working to improve your craft. This means dealing well with criticism (get some honest, borderline brutal critique partners!), and editing smart and well.

Oh, and rejection isn’t personal--really!--and is par for the course in any creative industry. If you think of the whole querying/agenting/revision/submission process as an adventure, the knocks are easier to take. It truly only takes one yes.

Thank you, Ms. Verma and Ms. Donne, for these insightful answers. I got to see a lot of this unfold behind the scenes, and I'm SO thrilled the story had a happy ending.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Humanitarian Aid for the Philippines

My grandfather was born in Manila in 1922. He joined the United States Merchant Marines in the late 1930s, then transferred to the United States Army just after the start of World War II. After the war, he moved to the States, where he met and married my grandmother, the blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter of a pair of Danish immigrants. (In a roundabout way, their story inspired Steve, now known as THE REGENERATED MAN, as my grandparents faced mountains of prejudice in the early days of their marriage.) 

In other words, I feel connected to the Philippines and the people who live there. I always want to help people whose lives are touched by natural--and not-so-natural--disasters, but this is different. These people are MY people. Even though most of my grandfather's family immigrated to North America several decades ago, I probably have third and fourth and fifth cousins still living in the Philippines. Which is why I plan to donate to the relief effort straightaway.

I know how you donate to a relief effort is a very personal decision, but if you've been looking for a reputable charity, you might consider LDS CharitiesThey bring clean water to small towns and villages in developing countries, provide neonatal resuscitation training to doctors and nurses in these same nations, and supply food and vaccinations to those in need. They also provide disaster relief through their Helping Hands initiative--you may have seen their bright yellow shirts around--as well as the Humanitarian Aid Fund, which you can donate to directly by clicking on that link. Because they cover their overhead with other funds, 100% of your donation will reach the survivors in the Philippines.

I don't always like the Internet, but at times like these, I'm glad it gives us the capability to reach across the world and help those in need. Feel free to link to your favorite disaster relief organizations in the comments!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Mr. Cusick's Winners!

If you were following along with the contest last week, you probably already know that Mr. Cusick asked for two 50-page partials from the first half of the entries:


He'd also like to see the fulls of two of the second-half entries:


Congratulations, winners! If you haven't already sent your requests, please e-mail me at kvandolzer(at)gmail(dot)com for submission instructions. I look forward to hearing from you!

Last but not least, a huge thank-you to Mr. Cusick for sharing his expertise with us, and a huge thank-you to all of you for entering, critiquing, and reading along. I've already scheduled another round of "An Agent's Inbox" for the end of January, and I might schedule another for sometime in December (if I can get on top of my own revising and critiquing), so stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Go, Go, Go!

And we're off! Check out the entries, then leave some feedback in the comments if you feel so inclined. (ENTRANTS, PLEASE REMEMBER TO CRITIQUE AT LEAST THREE OTHER ENTRIES!) And I'm sure this goes without saying, but please keep your comments constructive (i.e., not rude or mean-spirited). If you want to think like The Agent, you might consider the question, "How much of the entry did you read, and if you didn't read it all, why did you stop?"

I'll announce Mr. Cusick's winners and prizes at the beginning of next week, but until then, have at it!

(Also, just so you're aware, I always take out profanity when I'm formatting the entries. In other words, any asterisks you see in the entries are mine, so you don't need to point them out to the entrants. I just prefer to keep things as PG-rated as possible on the blog:) )

An Agent's Inbox #20

Dear Mr. Cusick:

I’m submitting this story because from what I read you like mystery, humour and fairy tales. My story has all three.

GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE MISSING BEARS is a 425-word picture book mystery for ages four-and-up. This story takes place after Goldilocks initial encounter with the Bear family. Goldilocks arrives for breakfast and finds the house empty. Cast into the role of detective, she must discover what folded pyjamas, a broken beehive and a recipe for porridge have in common if she has any hopes of rescuing her missing bear friends.

I hold a diploma in Professional Writing from Grant MacEwan University. I’m a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators and The Writers’ Guild of Alberta.

Thank you for your time.



Goldilocks stumbled up a familiar scene, but this time she had an invitation to breakfast.

“Baby Bear. Mama Bear. Papa Bear,” she called.
No one answered.

Strange, thought Goldilocks.  She slipped inside to investigate.

In the kitchen a pot of porridge bubbled. Mama’s bowl was in pieces.
In the living room the TV blared. Papa’s chair lay on its side.

Upstairs their rooms were clean, too clean. Even Baby Bear’s pyjamas were folded neatly on his bed.

Doubly strange. Goldilocks knew something had happened to her bear friends. 

An Agent's Inbox #19

Dear Mr. Cusick:

Roger McGillicutty, 12, wakes up one Saturday morning and finds out he’s unexpectedly transformed into a five-foot praying mantis!

His parents seem to be coping with it fairly well, and his dog Lou is okay with it, but how will the rest of the town of Highland Falls handle it?  Roger has school on Monday, the carnival’s coming to town next week, and his Little League team is playing their biggest rival Centerville next Saturday.  Being a giant bug will seriously cramp his style!

Or maybe not.  Something changes when Roger uses his new insect abilities to perform a spectacular rescue of his classmates from a broken Ferris wheel.

Roger McGillicutty: six-legged freak, or superhero?

Roger’s story takes off from the famous beginning line of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and then flies in an entirely different direction.  Behind the adventure and the humor is a story about accepting who you are--your talents and limitations--and learning how to make the most of it.

ROGER MANTIS is a middle-grade fantasy, complete at 35,500 words.  Thank you for your time and consideration.



As young Roger McGillicutty awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

Aw, geeze! he thought.

There was no mistake about it. The drapes in Roger’s bedroom were closed, but the Saturday morning sun was shining brightly outside and the drapes glowed, illuminating the whole room.

Roger stared at his hands, which had been replaced by vicious yellow hook-like claws at the end of big, spiky green arms. Clumsily, he kicked off the covers using a lot more legs than he used to have, and looked down at himself.

It was worse than he thought. He was lying on his back, and below his shoulders his middle was now a hard, skinny green cylinder leading down to where four long, spindly jointed legs wiggled aimlessly at the ceiling. Past the legs was a long, greenish-yellow wormy-looking thing that was apparently his butt.

Roger’s freaked-out brain suddenly remembered that this was called an “abdomen” on an insect, and that his middle part was called a “thorax.” Stuff that was still stuck in his head from that insect chapter last month in his hated seventh-grade biology class. Well, at least “abdomen” was a better word than “butt.” As Roger looked at his...abdomen, it squirmed and bent as though that end of him was waking up separately.

“Eww! Gross!” he said. His own voice startled him. It was a little buzzy, like his art teacher Mrs. Clancy, who talked through her nose.

An Agent's Inbox #18

Dear Mr. Cusick,

First, congratulations on your publishing success!  I love that your writing inspirations included both classical and modern influences.  My inspirations were similar as I folded history into a contemporary story.  ENCIRCLED is a 97,000-word YA Contemporary Fantasy, where a dash of magic and a love deeper than darkness put a new twist on the historical mystery of the disappearance of two English princes.

Sixteen-year-old Elisabeth Bell Pierce is hiding her broken heart and disfigured face at Bell Hall, the crumbling English castle she inherited when her mom died.  While her father, a fanatical historian, excavates the grounds to unravel the ancient mystery of the Lost Princes, Elisabeth searches the gloomy corridors for relief from her heart's perpetual darkness.  But when she discovers a secret passageway that leads deep beneath the castle, Elisabeth learns she isn't the only person hiding at Bell Hall, and that darkness itself may be her best chance at relief from her scarred past.

Bewitched to live in endless night until his stolen kingdom is restored, Richard of York, Lost Prince of England, is still faithfully awaiting a rescue that's never come--until now.  In their shadowy haven, Elisabeth's scars and Richard's tragic past fade, and together, they remember what it is to be alive.  But as her father digs closer to unearthing England's greatest secret, Elisabeth must find a way to hide Richard forever, before her father reveals him to the world--because not everything that's lost wants to be found.  

I graduated summa cum laude from the University of Utah with degrees in English Literature and Theatre.  My love affair with British history began in the seventh grade, when I stole my social studies textbook for some light summer reading, and got hooked on kings, castles, and betrayal. 

I have included my first page below, and would be happy to send more upon request.  Thank you for your time and consideration.



The smell of hot metal and the tang of blood were overwhelming.  My labored breath was harsh in the crushed space.  In.  Out.  In.  Out.  I focused on the tempo against the too-still dark.  A small sound joined in.  Plink.  Plink.  Plink.  In-Plink-Out-Plink.  I tried to slow my racing pulse to its time.  In-Plink-Out-Plink.  But each throbbing beat pounded in my head, where a torturous pressure was mounting.  I pushed the wet tangle of hair from my face and twisted, but couldn't right myself: I was upside-down.  I craned my head to the right, a slow motion trip to hell.  My breath caught in my throat and its comforting rhythm died.  I licked my lips and tried to find my voice, but found my hand first, and pushed at the quiet form next to me, my seat belt catching and straining to keep me still.

"Momma," I croaked out in the barest whisper, the night shattering into pieces around me.  She didn't answer.  I found her hand and held it in mine.  I thought it twitched a bit.  Just a bit, but I felt it.  A thin beam of moonlight broke through the window and flitted over her haunted face.  Her fingers whispered over mine, and then her eyes opened--the grey-brown irises wide against pain and darkness.  Her lips moved soundlessly and a dull roar started in my head, the scream of blood and fear.  And then her hand went still.  A tear rolled to the tip of my nose and clung on for dear life, frozen.  I stared into my mother's empty eyes and wished to be somewhere, anywhere but here. 

And then I was gone.

An Agent's Inbox #17

Dear Mr. Cusick,
I recently read your interview with KidLit network where you mentioned you'd love to see something "scary in a fresh environment", and your example was very close to my MG urban fantasy (kid trapped in a cave). Hopefully, you'll find DARCY DARKLING AND THE FORGOTTEN CITY to be what you're looking for.
Twelve-year-old Darcy is bored of her city, with its high walls, fake grass and a whole lot of sameness. That is, until she finds a secret tunnel leading to an abandoned underground city. Every night she sneaks away to explore more of the winding tunnels and empty streets of The Forgotten City.

Her very own secret.

The underground seems empty at first, but the creatures who live in the dark don't appreciate a little girl poking her nose in their business. They don't trust the "sun-dwellers," a.k.a. humans. But Darcy refuses to stay away. She belongs to the dark, whether they like it or not.

When the creatures push her too far, Darcy gets lost in the labyrinth of tunnels and doesn't make it home by sun up. Now the humans know she's missing and they're coming after her--into the underground.

Because of Darcy, the forgotten race of goblins will come face to face with humans for the first time in two hundred years. An old feud turns into a fight over a girl who belongs nowhere and everywhere at once. Half human, half goblin.

DARCY DARKLING AND THE FORGOTTEN CITY is complete at 45,000 words. Thanks so much for your time.


The best place in the whole world is a mile below my feet.
Damp sludge drips from the stone walls of the underground tunnels, surrounded by darkness so thick it's like a living, breathing thing. There are new adventures everywhere. Every turn is a new secret waiting to be uncovered. I've found my share but I plan on finding a whole lot more.
Too bad I'm not supposed to go there, and if I was ever caught I'd be a lot worse than grounded. So right now I'm stuck above ground, in my boring apartment, doing my boring homework just waiting until I can sneak back to the tunnels.
It's my secret. No one can keep me away, not even Mom.
“Darcy!” Mom calls.
“What?  I’m doing my homework, just like you said.”
She walks into my room carrying a pair of muddy tennis shoes. “Explain to me how these got so dirty.”
Whoops. She wasn't supposed to find those.
I shrug, playing it off. “I was playing bee with Joe.”
I hold up a Frisbee. Lucky for me it’s got some dirt on it too. Otherwise she might suspect I’m not telling the truth.
“Leave it to you to find the only dirt in the whole city."
Here we go.
"Why do you think they did away with those parks I played in as a kid? They were dangerous. Stick to the astro-turf, okay?"

She says it so serious that I can't help but roll my eyes.

An Agent's Inbox #16

Dear Mr. John Cusick:

Twelve-year-old Maya didn’t know she was born on another galaxy until the day she makes a near-death escape from Earth in a giant avocado.

When a man named Gorak arrives on Earth to catch Maya, she dodges him by slipping into an avocado spaceship. She plops out on Pralayan, a galaxy where humans inhabit many of the planets. Maya finds out she has a twin sister, who has been enslaved by Gorak on Pralayan, and now Gorak needs Maya to complete his evil experiment to live forever. Maya’s sense of safety on Pralayan and her hope of finding her twin both dwindle when Gorak returns to Pralayan from Earth. Now Maya is shipped off to Navkaalam, a guarded planet for Pralayan’s human kids.

On Navkaalam, Maya befriends two boys, the fainthearted Yani and the half-plant-boy named Dhroon. But Maya’s connection with her twin runs much deeper than she imagined. Her dreams are haunted by the pain her sister feels, and the scar on her palm burns and leaves her longing for her twin. When she uncovers hidden symbols of a fiery eye, she is convinced it will lead her to her twin. Despite her fear that Gorak would show up any time and snatch her up, Maya and her friends set out to uncover the powerful secret behind the fiery eye symbol. But Dhroon goes missing, and Maya and Yani steal a space vessel to search for him, only to find out it’s a trap by Gorak to draw Maya out of Navkaalam. Their space vessel crashes on a planet where Maya spots the mysterious fiery eye, an energy source from outside our known universe. Now Maya must find a way to fend off Gorak so she can save Yani, and unite with her twin sister.

THE FIERY EYE is a 51,000-word middle grade science fiction. My story will appeal to readers of Karen Sandler’s TANKBORN and Dan Krokos’s The Planet Thieves.

Your interest in a fast-paced story set in an original science fiction world has compelled me to query you. This is a simultaneous submission. Thank you for your consideration.



Chapter 1: The Glowing Man

Maya dug her hand in the seat of the police cruiser until her fingers found the coin. A quarter. She eyed Officer Mike, who was busy pulling into the driveway, before she drew the coin out and stuffed it in her pocket. Backseats of cars were the best places to find loose change, and police cruisers were always loaded. Unless, Maya thought, you got in one with hard plastic-molded seats instead of the smooth black leather. Tough luck then.

Officer Mike opened her door. 

Maya hopped out. The key chains on her backpack jangled like rusty cans.

“Do you ever take that thing off?” Office Mike asked.

“Never,” Maya replied. At least never in daylight. Why would she? Everything she needed she carried in her small canvas pack. A roll of watermelon bubblegum, two pairs of clean socks, and loose paper clips. Seventeen old key chains she had collected over the years. They didn’t make for stealthy exits but she hated making silent entrances where no one looked up or noticed. Everyone heard her jingle-jangle when she walked.

“Where was she this time?” Mother stood on the porch, her arms planted on her hips.

“Same place. Today she was napping on that unmarked grave,” Officer Mike said, as he urged Maya up the gravel driveway toward the house.

“I don’t know why she wants to run away,” mother said. “Go inside and wash up,” she ordered.

Maya stomped inside. The screen door slapped shut behind her.  I wasn’t running away.

An Agent's Inbox #15

Dear Mr. Cusick,

I read in an interview on Middle Grade Ninja that you are interested in stories set "in our contemporary world with a sci-fi or fantastical twist." My YA magical realism novel THE ART OF BREAKING, complete at 90,000 words, is exactly that.

When rule-breaker Luca Grable drowns at seven years old, she doesn't go to heaven. Instead she becomes an imaginary friend. But when her best-friend-from-life Katie Tayloe is unable to get over her death, the Council of Imaginaries breaks its own rule and assigns Luca to Katie. And the girls spend the next decade growing up almost like nothing ever happened.
But now the council is considering a new rule that will terminate their friendship on Katie’s eighteenth birthday. If they move forward with The Grable Clause, Luca only has a month left before she never sees Katie again. And with her crush Wes Burnley suddenly able to see her after she saves his life--and the chance at a once-in-an-afterlife romance within her grasp--Luca is too caught up in trying to have a normal life to notice that the Imaginary world is breaking apart around her. Or that it’s all her fault.
Luca must learn what it means to be a true friend, or risk the lives of everyone she loves.
THE ART OF BREAKING will appeal to fans of Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall and Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere.
I earned a BFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina – Wilmington. My adult magical realism romance, LOVE AND CUPCAKES, will be released in January 2014 from Swoon Romance. For the past ten years, I have worked as a marketing copywriter, proposal editor, and graphic designer.
Per the contest guidelines, I have included the first 250 words of the manuscript below. Thank you for your consideration.



The rules of summer were simple--only one ice cream sandwich per day, no swimming without appropriate supervision, and always be home before dark. On the day Luca Grable died, she broke all three. The first two were acts of seven-year old rebellion. The third was an unintentional side effect of drowning in her best friend’s pool.

But even dying couldn’t keep Luca from growing up. It was one of the perks of becoming an Imaginary friend instead of going to heaven. She got to keep aging along with her best friend as long as Katie needed her. And there was nothing her mentor Math could do about it, no matter how late she was for their weekly meeting.

He could, however, put her on bathroom duty. Again.

Luca checked her watch as she hauled a** the last few feet to the entrance of Imaginary House. Ten more minutes and not even being a few months shy of legal age could save her from scrubbing toilets and bleaching tile grout every Saturday night for the next month.

She flung herself through the front gates, gripping the smooth metal bars for balance, and shot up the sidewalk. The house cast dozens of crooked shadows on the lawn from the various additions that jutted out at odd angles from the main building. A few younger Imaginaries chased each other around the half-acre of thick grass, using the shadows as safe zones. Their laughter pierced the air. Their knees were stained with grass and dirt and remnants of melted chocolate.

An Agent's Inbox #14

Dear John Cusick,

Belinda Gallagher is mere months away from aging out of the Georgia foster care system, when a seductive and terrifying woman claiming to be her mother arrives to take her home. And introduces herself as Lilith, the Queen Succubus Extraordinaire.

Belinda isn’t totally surprised by her demonic genetics, since strange things were always happening around her, like her ex-boyfriend being hit by a car seconds after she imagines it. But she is surprised that her new home is Limbo, a place where the dead work off their sins, which looks very much like the suburbs. Despite living in a mansion (gardener included) and having all the trappings of the perfect life, everything is far from picturesque. Lilith has plans for world domination and insists her daughter learn how to be a proper succubus via regular visits from Lilith’s demonic sisters. Goat intestine for breakfast, then school at a prestigious Christian academy, followed by lessons in seduction, deception, and how to crush a person’s soul are not the standards for normalcy.

As Belinda tries to suppress her demonic urges (worst superpowers ever), she struggles to keep up the appearance of an average suburban teenager. The more she rebels against Lilith’s sinister ways, the harder it becomes to hide the evil lurking under the surface. And keep Mommy Dearest from destroying the world.

BELINDA LIVES IN LIMBO is a 90,000 word YA paranormal novel, and potential start of a series. Fans of THE UNBECOMING OF MARA DYER will appreciate Belinda’s inner battle.

I graduated summa cum laude from the Savannah College of Design with a degree in Motion Graphics. I designed and produced the trailer for the award winning novel The Technologists, written by Matthew Pearl, and published by Random House in 2012. I have published an ongoing fiction novel on Wattpad, which has drawn in a significant amount of readers and has over 35,000 reads.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best Regards,


I don’t belong here, but everyone thinks so. County Corrections Orange looks particularly right on me. I have that “damaged goods” look. Perhaps at one time I had potential but now that I’m wearing this jumper that works nights as a traffic cone, I’m just another poor miscreant on her way to a life of crime. Here is the secret though: I never had potential. At least I never had potential to do any good.

My probation officer babbles about what happens now that the judge has signed off on my community service, something about counseling and mandatory court dates. I’m hardly listening. Three more months and I won’t have to deal with the Georgia judicial system anymore. My probation will be up and I’ll be free. She swiftly dismisses me, having about fifty other juvenile delinquents to speak to. Docile, compliant Belinda Gallagher is the least of her worries.

The air outside her office is stifling, rife with teenage breath and youthful angst. None of us want to be here, but we’ve all done something to deserve it. Now, I’ve done plenty of bad things in my life but, for the first time, I can say that I actually am innocent. Mostly.

I navigate my way through the endless hallway. It’s littered with girls wearing the exact same outfit as me. We are a sea of highlighter orange. I finally get to the locker room, change quickly, and then exit the building to meet my ride. 

An Agent's Inbox #13

Dear John Cusick,

Thank you for considering my 193 word picture book for ages 2+.

As a young child embarks on an outdoor adventure--pup tent, pajamas, crackling campfire, lantern and teddy bear (Grizzly in the story) in hand, the thrill of nature's nighttime elevates the child's imagination. The backyard campout becomes The Adventures of Wild Eyed Slim and Silver Dollar City. Told through the eyes of the child, this sweet story places the child and his companion bedtime bear in the midst of the excitement.

I look forward to your review and critique.


One starry night
Not so long ago
I had just finished my beans
And tin cup of joe
I played my harmonica
And warmed my bones by the fire
The wolves howled in unison
Like the Tabernacle Choir
When suddenly...
The earth beneath me
Began to shudder and quake
And in my cowboy boots
I started to shake
It was Wild Eyed Slim
And his band of renowned
Riding into the night
They'd been run out of town
A rootin' tootin' cowboy
A desperado if you will
With a bounty on his head
"Wanted" just like Buckskin Bill
I tied up my horse
And jumped into my tent
Pulled the flap closed behind me
And under the blanket I went
I steadied my hand
And reached for the light
I shined it on Grizzly
And gave them a fright
Their spurs jingle jangled
As they galloped away
Old Grizzly and I
Had just saved the day
I rubbed the dust from my eyes
And reclaimed my campsite
Silver Dollar City

An Agent's Inbox #12

Dear John Cusick:

Obsession reigns in ROYAL TRIAL, a 85,500-word YA novel that combines dangerous friendship with madness, opulence, intrigue, and--of course--sword fights. 

King Andonel of Danri inadvertently banished his childhood sweetheart, Lena, five years ago. Though returning to Danri means certain death, Lena’s obsession with getting revenge on Andonel drives her to surreptitiously return. Within two days, she's committed treason, created a national crisis, and rejected the king’s marriage proposal. Andonel repeatedly attempts reconciliation, but he is thwarted again and again by his scheming council. Convinced that Andonel has set her up to die, Lena attacks him, adding another treason charge to her already-marred record. Humiliated, Andonel allows the council to charge and try her, not realizing they have already decided to sentence her to death and depose him if he tries to interfere.

I am a debut novelist, and I currently volunteer as an assistant for Brenda Drake. I have taken creative writing classes and work in the writing program at the J. Reuben Clark Law School. I thought you would enjoy ROYAL TRIAL because of your preference for vulnerable villains and bad decisions made with the best of intentions. Both of the protagonists suffer from terrible decision-making skills, though the male protagonist always does so to help someone else. Also, my villain is very much a relateable, likeable individual who is arguably the most sympathetic character in the book.

Thank you for taking the time to review my query. Should Royal Trial spark your interest, I would be delighted to send my manuscript for your consideration.




The market had always been loud. Now it was deafening.

Lady Lena Zan Aurin skidded to a stop, paralyzed by the cacophony. Although she vaguely acknowledged the flashy new shops, she struggled to reconcile the market she remembered with the tumult around her. Her thoughts were as frenzied as the shoppers that scurried from stall to stall.

Taking a deep breath, the slender nineteen-year-old clenched her fists and drifted through the bustling multitude with an uneasy familiarity. Her dark traveling attire, bulging knapsack, and five-foot frame let Lena blend in with the unusually large crowd. Andon must have--

No. She wouldn’t even think that name. Not yet.

Lena tried to distract herself with the wares of the many vendors, but to no avail. The scene was much too odd for her to feel entirely at home.

Home. That made sense. Lor and Alessa would hide her until she’d exacted her revenge. But everything else had changed. They were probably gone, too.

No, she couldn’t think like that. They would never abandon her.

Lena strode in the direction of the Zan Aurin manor, as eager to reach her old home as the insatiable crowds were to buy the merchants’ wares.

“Delicacies and pastries sold here!” The smell of caramelized sugar and yeasty dough wafted by.     

“Fresh fish, caught in Da’an Sea!” Pungent brine and oil assaulted her, salty but familiar.

“Fine cloaks and gowns of all fabrics! Furs from the north!”

“A necklace for you, Your Ladyship?” The appeal rang out close by. As the blood drained from Lena’s face, one of her hands instinctively flew to her neck where a delicate silver necklace hung beneath her tunic and the other grasped her short sword.