As a Greenhouse Lit client, I’m especially excited to welcome John Cusick to KLN! John joined Greenhouse in January 2013 after several years with a small New York agency, where he began as an assistant and rose to be an agent with a fast-developing client list. As well as being a YA author in his own right, John is a sought-after speaker on writing, both at writers’ conferences and via webinars. Visit his blog, and say hi on Twitter!

Agent John Cusick1. I’d ask what your favorite book was as a kid, but I’m sure you had a million. So what I what to know is this – if 12 year old John could be the main character in any of his favorite books, which one would he pick and why?

Most definitely 12-y.o. me wants to be Ford Prefect from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Ford is a fast-talking journalist from Betelgeuse who knows how to hitch a ride on a passing spaceship. Pretty much the coolest dude ever. Actually, 27-y.o. me would still like to be Ford Prefect.

2. Ford is the reason I always carry a towel! Ever get tired of hearing “man, that book would make a great movie?” If you could make any movie or TV series an MG book, what would you choose?

Last year I tweeted I wanted a Downton Abbey YA, and three months later sold Sharon Biggs Waller’s debut, A Mad, Wicked Folly, to Viking, so I know what a powerful question this is. MG is tough, since most television shows are so adult, and lend themselves to YA., I think.

I’d still really like a Lost for middle-grade readers: by that I mean something sprawling and bizarre, with a billion questions that need answering. It’s a tall order to write a complex and original universe (even the Lost writers sort of lost the plot at the end there), but I’d love to see something that mind-bending in for young readers.

3. Lost MG? Downton Abbey YA? I’d so read those! And speaking of – you’re a YA author yourself! Other than sympathizing with the whole riding-the-query-go-round trauma we all must face, what about Author John do you think most helps Agent John help his clients?

Girl Parts NovelAll agents, I believe, want to be helpful and never hurt feelings, but I think Author John tells Agent John how to best deliver constructive criticism, or bad news. I always want my authors to remember that even if a project isn’t working, it’s not the ideas or the feelings that are inadequate, but the execution. Author John is sensitive to the creative process, the ups and downs, the late-night crying jags.

Also, and maybe most importantly, Author John also knows that at the core of every project is something beyond critique, something immutable and unchangeable. It’s the heart of the story, the reason the author wrote it. So I always ask my clients to let me know if I’m treading too close to that special, personal detail or theme — so we can work to make it the center piece, the crown jewel of the novel.

4. You’ve got a great list of what type of fiction you’re looking for on the Greenhouse website. Looking at MG, what kind of stories would you really love to see in the slush pile?

Generally, I like middle grade with a sense of adventure and fun, a rollicking goodtime, a blockbuster story. Specifically, I have a yen for stories in Tsarist Russia (don’t ask, I don’t know why). I want sensitive protagonists, but also heroes who aren’t reluctant, or quite so nice.

I’d love something scary in a fresh environment. What about the first family to colonize mars? Or a kid who gets trapped in a cave on a spelunking field trip? I’m less interested in Chosen Ones carried off to other dimensions to fight the Dark Lord, and more interested in memorable, everyday kids trapped in impossible, scary, exciting situations.

5. For all the aspiring MG authors reading this, what’s your biggest tip on querying? And what’s the biggest query faux pas you see?

It’s very difficult to come up with a fresh, original concept, but one way to avoid writing a familiar story with familiar characters is to read lots of middle-grade, especially novels published within the past few years. Know your market, and know that publishers (and agents) are seeking stories with original flare, a novel setting, or unique take on an old story.

As for the actual nuts-and-bolts querying process, remember that your query is a professional letter between you and a potential future business partner (your agent). I’m not saying you should strip away all personality, but avoid querying in your protagonist’s voice, or overusing cleverness or gimmicks. The thing is, we’ve heard every joke a billion times (“It’s gonna blow Harry Potter out of the water!”) and we really just want to know about you and your project.

6. Is there anything you feel like you’re seeing too much of in the slush pile right now? Anything you’d like to see more of?

Vampires, werewolves, and dystopian projects are less likely to interest me. I’m a little tired of the future and would rather read stories about the present or past (unless we’re talking space exploration, which I’d still really love to see). I receive too many what I’d call “Looking Glass” stories, where a contemporary protagonist steps through a mirror, or portal, or puts on a special hat, and suddenly arrives in a historical period or other world.

Really, what I’d love is something like Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me: a combination coming-of-age with a fantastical twist that takes place in a world recognizably our own.

The next few questions are for 12 year old John.

Star Wars1. What do you want to be when you grow up?

When I grow up I want to be a science-fiction writer. I just read A Sound of Thunder and Fahrenheit 451, so I’d pretty much like to be Ray Bradbury, thanks. Also, I’d like to write one of those “expanded universe” story collections for Star Wars, like Tales from Jabba’s Palace or Tales of the Bounty Hunters. If that doesn’t work out, I want to work counter intelligence for the C.I.A.

2. Who’s your best friend…and who’s your worst enemy?

My best friend is Tim Beauregard, who is also my worst enemy. We spend pretty much all our free time together, either running around in the woods or getting really mad at each other for no reason and fighting. Actually, I’d say Tim is my Arch Nemesis. Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty.

3. What book(s) do you really really wish your teacher would put on your summer reading list?

Dude. The Lost World by Michael Crichton, which I’ve read three times already, but it’s that amazing. The hardcover has a map in the front to show you where on the island the different dinosaurs are. Also The Stand by Stephen King. I want to read it but it’s so long, I think it would help if I had to read it for school.

Both adult and 12 year old John have pretty awesome taste in books! Thanks so much for joining us, John!