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The Wisdom of John Cusick

This past weekend I spoke at the excellent and first ever YA A to Z conference. While the Writers’ League of Texas has been connecting writers to the publishing industry and helping them reach their goals for 30 years, this YA-centric conference is just beginning. If this first year is any indication, I know it will be around for a long time, and you should all look out for next year’s. It was really well-organized, had a great roster of faculty (if I don’t say so myself), and got some really fabulous writers to the show.

I did three panels, some consultations, and still had enough time to explore amazing Austin, see some bats, catch up with an old writing friend and meet some new buddies (including the fabulous ladies from PR By the Book and the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, who were in town on an agency retreat), explore the food scene, play some midnight piano, and get into a little worthwhile trouble. ;)

Speaking of worthwhile trouble, one of my esteemed agent colleagues and friends who I got to hang out with this weekend is John M. Cusick of the Scott Tremeil Agency (whatever bad joke you’re thinking about the name, he’s heard it before…I tried all of them, much to his fascination, I’m sure). He’s also the author of GIRL PARTS (an excellent book) and the upcoming CHERRY MONEY BABY, both from Candlewick Press.

Now, I know you come to my blog to hear me say brilliant things on a mostly regular basis. And I appreciate that. But I’m not the only one who says brilliant things (shocking, I know). On one of my panels on Saturday, this one about Agent Secrets (dun dun dun), my new BFF John said something wonderful and I wanted to share it with y’all (still getting the Texas out of my system). We were talking about character development and relatability, and John said:

Relatable doesn’t mean generic.

Wise words! Storytelling in the Middle Ages would’ve laughed Mr. Cusick out of Ye Olde Hyatt ballroom. A lot of their traditional “character development” included naming some poor shmo John Everyman and then getting all allegorical on his ass. The character was basically a cipher, a blank screen that readers could project themselves onto in the watching of his or her tale.

Now it’s the opposite. Or at least it should be, for the tastes of me and my fellow agents on the panel. Specificity is the key to good fiction, and generalization is where fiction goes to die. The best characters, the ones that stick with me, are the ones who have very specific quirks and characteristics. I am not going to relate to a character because they are very much like me. That’s boring. I know myself, spend all day in my own head, and sometimes just want to get out…that’s why I crack a book. I relate to a character when they are thoroughly fleshed-out and unique, just like I am thoroughly fleshed-out and unique as a person. When I feel like I know their quirks and their particular outlook on life because the author has made those elements really comprehensive. We don’t just love people who are like us: we love loud, larger-than-life, authentic characters. (At least I hope so, ‘cuz that’s what I’ve pretty much been basing my entire personality on for as long as I can remember.) Those are the ones we remember in books and movies, and the people who spark our imaginations when we meet them in real life.

So aim for a really complex character, someone who is exactly who they are. That will pull a reader in so much more than trying to reflect and please everyone with your literary cipher. An example is this: I was reading either a book or a manuscript a few years ago. In it, a character was cooking something while home alone. Some food dropped on the dirty counter and, even though the character knew she was home alone, she glanced over her shoulder before succumbing to the guilty (and, for many people, gross) temptation of picking the food up and slipping it into her mouth. This taught me so much about the character and was so specific that I remember it all these years later. I can’t relate to the shame of eating counter food — I don’t care about the 5 second rule — but it’s so dang human that I could really see a person doing it in real life. And that’s what grabs me in a good character. Well said, John!

Also, I am in love with Carrie Ryan, and with a dude name Jeremy, who chopped all my hair off on Saturday. You like?

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