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?

25 Replies to “The Wisdom of John Cusick”

  1. KDuBayGillis says:

    You omitted something from this post, Ms. Mary. Isn’t John also your partner in crime in your “worthwhile trouble”? : )

    This post also makes me think about your WriteOnCon vlog and cube skillz. I think that needs to resurface here, for any of your newbie followers!

  2. Kellie — Not all parental units have been informed. While said units don’t cruise Twitter or Facebook, they do cruise this blog. Shhh!

  3. Erica Rodgers says:

    Great advice, Mary! (Or John, I guess!) But thanks for bringing it.

  4. KDuBayGillis says:

    Informed about what? Your fab new hair cut and the fact John drove you there. . . . a good haircut is always worthwhile trouble.

    : )

  5. K — Nice cover. 😉

    Erica — I love this comment. “Thanks for bringing it.” As a human being, I always try to BRING IT. 🙂

  6. Love the look!

    And the advice. Hits the nail on the head with some books I’ve read recently. Not *bad* books, just… not good, either. Nothing wrong, not enough right?

    I’m so envious you got to meet Carrie Ryan!

  7. Quote of the day for aspiring writers such as myself: Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
    Mark Twain

  8. Kate — Great quote!

    Emily — Yeah, yeah, wiseass… 😉

  9. Related to characterization: I’ve read advice that the main character needs a flaw. Do you think this applies to middle grade novels? I can see quirks, but flaws seem too complex.

  10. 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)

    What bad jokes? (Apart from holding up the boom box outside his hotel room window?) 😉

    As for anti-Everyman’ing the character, I have one rule: Find, in at least one scene, the most unlikely quirky or humorous thing a character would do, and give them a plausible reason to do it. Now, all of a sudden the “identifying” character trait of the character is largely a front they’re putting up, and there’s some more quirky, less confident or more idiosyncratic character they’re trying to hide underneath…Voila.

  11. Like the hair! Also love the advice. A beloved writing professor of mine, John Furia, Jr. used to say, “The universal is discovered through the specific.” I always loved that.

  12. I am the BIGGEST Carrie Ryan fan! I think I’ve personally sold at least 40 copies of The Forest of Hands & Teeth. 😀

    Awesome haircut too!


  13. Your hair is lovely and so summery! Excellent post – character dev is one an aspect of writing that seems so straight forward and that I find can be difficult to do effectively. I am always seeking help with the subtleties of deep and quirky character development in a novel.

  14. Wow, the YA A to Z conference sounds awesome! I’d love to check that out! I’m about 30,000 words into my first YA novel (lovin’ it!)…and I can appreciate what you’re saying about specifics and character quirks, to make my characters come alive!
    Great advice as always, big thanks to Mary and John!
    By the way, love the new do…you look pretty fab! 🙂

  15. Susan Arscott says:

    Learned a lot from you, John and other faculty at the YA conference and am busy making changes to my YA manuscript. I like my characters full of quirky bits but feared they would not be believable. Thanks for the good advice.

  16. Thanks for the shout out Mary! Great to meet you and see you on your home turf next month.

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