Sunday, July 31, 2011

Interview with Literary Agent Kathleen Rushall

Last fall, I received a phone call that changed my life. That call was from Kevan Lyon of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency and she offered me representation. A little over a month later, Kevan sold my first manuscript, PUSHING THE LIMITS, to Harlequin Teen in a two book deal. This past week, Kevan has continued to rock my world and she sold my third manuscript, CRASH INTO YOU - a continuation of The PUSHING THE LIMITS series, to Harlequin Teen in another two book deal.Today, I am honored to interview the newest member of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, Kathleen Rushall. Welcome Kathleen!

Katie: Can you tell us a little about yourself and what you are representing?

Kathleen: Sure! First of all, I can tell you that I’m so happy to be featured here on YA Fusion – thank you so much for this opportunity! I’m currently representing young adult fiction, middle grade fiction, picture books, and some adult nonfiction.

For young adult and middle grade fiction, my interests are across the board. I like historical fiction, science fiction, magical realism, fantasy, humor, multicultural stories, romance, revenge, power struggles, and strong voices with an unusual hook (who doesn’t, right?). Right now, I’m particularly interested in YA thrillers, reincarnation stories, the occult, Southern gothic novels, and fast-paced mysteries. For MG, I’ve noticed that I tend to err towards the humorous and adventurous with some fantasy element, and would love to find a “cozy scary” MG, while for YA I enjoy darker or edgy stories. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t consider lighter YA or darker MG though!

For picture books, I absolutely love quirk and humor, and am looking for something character driven, as opposed to board books or concept books. I recently read Michael Kaplan’s Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake and this is a great example of a picture book I would be thrilled to represent.

For adult nonfiction, I’m interested in parenting, cooking, crafts, business, alternative medicine, women’s interest, humor, pop-culture, and some how-to.

Katie: Why did you decide to become a literary agent?

Kathleen: I knew I wanted to work in publishing, to work with stories. When I discovered what it was like to work in an agency during an internship, it sealed my resolve to become an agent. I love the diversity of this job. Agents wear so many hats: editor, cheerleader, pep-talk giver, negotiator, bookseller, matchmaker… it will never get old!

And I still can’t think of anything more thrilling for me than placing a book I’m passionate about and an author I love with an enthusiastic editor who shares his or her vision. I also love working with people, and this job has a lot to do with relationships and communication, so I enjoy both the introspective and extroverted aspects of it.

Katie: What do you see as trending in the YA/MG markets and what do you see as declining?

Kathleen: Well, here’s how I think people should think about trends: authors should be conscious of, but never cater to, trends. A book that started a trend was not catering to one. I think the best thing an author can do is to write a book he or she is passionate about, and hope others resonate with it as the author did.

That being said, I know people are weary not just of the vampire/ werewolf trend, but paranormal creatures in general seem tough right now (mermaids, zombies, angels, etc.). I think the dystopian trend is quickly passing us by, but it may be replaced with something else equally dark, like murder stories, or mysteries, or psychological thrillers. I also see science fiction getting its spot in the sun, but I’m not sure it will be a full-blown trend.

It’s really hard and often fruitless to try to speculate on what could be next, though, and there are exceptions to every rule. I mean, by the time consumers know about a trend and see it on shelves, it’s most likely already been in the works for a couple years. So, what I’m trying to say is: do not ever write for a trend, only be conscious of trends so you know where your book can fit in the marketplace.

Katie: Do you attend conferences and, if so, which ones do you plan on attending this coming year? Do you take pitch appointments?

Kathleen: Yes! I do attend conferences. I’ll be at the SCBWI conference in LA this August, and I hope to attend the Orange County SCBWI chapter’s Editors Day in October. I am also attending the Southern California Writers’ Conference in February (in San Diego), as well as the Central California Writers’ Conference in April (in Yosemite). I do take pitch appointments, although it varies with the schedule of each conference.

Katie: If you could wave a magic wand and your dream manuscript would appear, what would that dream manuscript include?

Kathleen: Hmm, my dream manuscript would include a strong voice and characters that leap off the page. When I was little I would sometimes finish a book feeling disappointed that the characters weren’t real and that the book was all I would know about them. I still love that feeling – for me, every story is really about the characters. That’s why I love so many different genres. It doesn’t matter what world it’s set in, or what powers or magic someone does or doesn’t have. I get into it for the people, so you have to make me care about them.

I also particularly love complex relationships and how they can affect plot. For example, this is partly why I’m on the lookout for a story that incorporates reincarnation. Can you imagine how complex a current relationship that also existed in a past life could be? I also really enjoy the unexpected and being scared a little. One of my favorite authors is George R. Martin (Game of Thrones series) and it’s partly because none of his characters are ever safe – not only do you care for them, but you fear for them. Other elements I would be happy to see in a manuscript include humor (some of the best dark stories still have some snippets of humor in them), magical realism, a bromance, ghosts, witches, a LGBT theme, twins interest me, multicultural elements, and boy POV.

Katie: In your bio on the Marsal Lyon Literary website, you said you have a soft spot for edgy YA. What do you define as edgy?

Kathleen: I think of edgy as anything that pushes the envelope of the expected or safe. I think of ‘edgy’ as a book that delves deep and goes dark – it involves tough subjects to tackle or sticks its characters in truly frightening or difficult situations. That situation may be internal or external, a gut-wrenching decision a character must make, or a terrifying place or situation they’re put in. I think edgy can be anything that keeps you up at night. I prefer the more thrilling or supernatural edgy over contemporary issue-book edgy, but I think both can fit this definition.

Katie: What are your favorite YA and MG books?

Kathleen: Ah! The dreaded question because it’s so difficult to choose. Here is a smattering of favorites that have stayed with me throughout the years:


The China Garden by Liz Berry

Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause

His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman

Harry Potter series (this is a given though, right?) J.K. Rowling

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

Anything by Tamora Pierce, especially the Song of the Lioness and the Immortals series

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares

The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

Clarity by Kim Harrington


Juniper by Monica Furlong

Wise Child by Monica Furlong

Quest for a Maid by Frances Mary Hendry

The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw

The Druid’s Tune by Orla Melling

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret of the Ruby Ring by Yvonne MacGrory & Terry Myler

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth G. Speare

Katie: What do you think of book trailers?

Kathleen: I think they’re fun and an interesting way to promote a book. I don’t know if every book needs one, but they certainly can’t hurt!

Katie: Because I'm an Apocalypsies (a YA author debuting in 2012), one of my favorite questions to ask people is what 5 music albums would you take with you into the bunker in case of the apocalypse?

Kathleen: Any Tegan & Sara album

Lily Allen/ It’s Not Me, It’s You

Adele/ 21 (pretty much on constant replay in my office)

Metric/ Fantasies

The Kooks/ Inside In, Inside Out

Bonus nerd track: I love the soundtrack from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie by Dario Marianelli

Thanks for spending time with us Kathleen! Okay guys, Kathleen told us what music she would take with her if she had to go to a bunker, continuing with the theme of music from last week, what music would you take with you?

Monday, July 25, 2011

My Muse Is Of The Musical Mentality…

If there was a soundtrack to go with my life, it’d be pretty damn diverse. Everything from Elvis – I can’t help falling in love with you (my grandfather’s favorite song) to Marilyn Manson – Personal Jesus. Other than books—and food—music is my thing. Oh. And animals. And the outdoors…

Okay. I have a lot of things.

Seriously though, music is a huge part of my existence. I can think back to most of the crucial events in my life and tie them to a song. Sometimes it’s a tune from that particular time period. Other times it’s something newer. Something that reminds me of the event. It could be anything from a single line or chorus, to the singer’s voice. Disturbed – Inside The Fire reminds me of a very dear friend. Not only does the laugh in the beginning of the song sound just like his, but he took his own life two years ago.

When I think about my husband, it’s Vain – Without You. He played it for me one of the first few times we hung out. When I hear Loudon Wainwright – Dead Skunk—and yes I have this on my Zune—I think of the trip Hershey Park my family took when I was twelve. There was a skunk, a Nun, and some candy bars. Don’t ask.

When I hear Muse – Supermassive Black Hole, I think of vampires. Playing baseball.

Come on. You know you do, too. No one’s judging. Promise.

This applies to my writing as well. Scenes play out in my head like a movie. And everyone knows all good movies need a killer soundtrack. A playlist for perfection. For my latest fight scenes, it’s been Marilyn Manson – Ka-Boom and Limp Bizkit – Break Stuff. Buckcherry – Bliss is all about my hero and heroine. And Ke$ha – Blow helped me write an awesome chase scene revolving around a rave. (PS if you haven’t seen the video—watch it. Funny as hell)

If a scene isn’t working for me, it’s usually because I haven’t found the right music to go with it. Eight times out of ten, if I don’t find a suitable tune, I scrap the scene. Sounds drastic, eh? But it’s seriously how my brain works. I did NaNo a few years ago and it wasn’t until recently that I figured out why the manuscript never worked. Every word was forced, and when I went to revise, I found myself wanting to guzzle the stuff under the sink rather than work on it. I was never able to come up with a decent playlist. I never felt the characters.

Which digs deeper. To create a playlist for a WIP, at least for me, I need to get into my characters heads. I need to know them. If I don’t know them, and I can’t feel them, then I sure as hell can’t pick out music for them. If I can’t pick out music for them, then I can’t write them.

What about you guys? Do you write like this? Live like this?

Share so I don’t feel like such an incredible goober :)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

My Writing Process in 20 Simple Steps

It’s probably fitting that I like roller coasters, because otherwise the time leading up to publication would be jarring enough to give me whiplash. Not that it’s bad. It's actually awesome. Just an intense, nail-biting kind of awesome. The highs are oh so high, and the lows are…well, you get the point. So, in case you’re a writer who likes roller coasters too, jump on board, and try these 20 easy-to-follow steps for a peaceful, productive writing experience:

Step 1: Type, type, type. Feel brilliant and creative. Walk to kitchen for a healthy snack when brain gets tired. Race back to laptop mid-snack when spontaneous idea strikes. Check clock when husband says, “So are we eating tonight, or…???” and realize several hours have passed. Gush at dinner about thoroughly productive day.

Step 2: Struggle to focus on tasks at hand. Drive around town without remembering where or why. Carry notebook and pen everywhere so not to miss any flashing moments of genius. Refuse to complete any other activities until ideas have been purged into laptop.

Step 3: Uh oh. Hit snag. Tear apart last few chapters. Force a new scene to fit where it clearly doesn’t. Pace through house. Snack on potato chips. Work out. Feel better. Start again with fresh mind. Ahh. Everything is Zen.

Step 4: Race to finish. Too much caffeine. Ideas keep coming. Chocolate? Yes, please. Can’t stop typing. But wait, were those the last words? Am I happy? Shouldn’t I be happy? Why am I not happy?? Is first draft euphoria…over?

Step 5: Work out. Sweat butter and chocolate. Swear to eat better this week. Catch up on three weeks of laundry. Write a shopping list that includes vegetables and other such foods that don’t identify high-fructose corn syrup and red dye #7 as main ingredients.

Step 6: Miss the characters. Miss the plot. Miss the process.

Step 7: Read through entire manuscript with a bottomless mug of caffeinated tea.

Step 8: Realize idiocy. Nothing makes sense! Nothing flows! What was I thinking?! Several more pots of tea required. Goodbye vegetables. Hello Reese’s.

Step 9: It’s okay, it’s okay. No one knows I messed up. I can fix this before anyone sees. Swear off caffeine. Switch to health foods. Do yoga. Tweak manuscript until it makes sense. Feel accomplished. I am not just creative; I am attentive and detail-oriented.

Step 10: Call agent, but minimize brilliance just in case she hates it. Email manuscript. Freak out that she really will hate it. Work out. Work out. Work out.

Step 11: Resist calling/emailing agent 10 times a day to see if she hates it. Refresh inbox every 30-45 seconds. Fantasize about snuggling with chocolate cupcakes. Cry reading books written by authors who are clearly a gazillion times more talented.

Step 12: Agent calls. Too anxious to process anything she says. Later recall feeling good about phone call, but with no memory of why. Receive 8 page editorial letter. Seriously consider moving to Alaska and living off the land.

Step 13: Reality sets in. Manuscript sucks. I suck. Every suggestion from agent makes sense. There are crater-sized holes in the plot. Character inconsistencies. Lack of follow through. No other author in the world is this bad. I am the queen of Craptown. Someone kill me now.

Step 14: Finally call agent. Sound pitiful and pathetic. Allow agent to cheerlead using words like “capable” and “talented.” Half believe her.

Step 15: Allow one week to pass. Then two. With week three comes panic. Still no ideas. I have let agent down. I have let family down. I am not good enough to be published. Who ate the last piece of chocolate cake? THAT WAS MY PIECE OF CHOCOLATE CAKE! Pace around house carrying baseball bat (to stimulate thinking). Husband and dog stay clear.

Step 16: Wait.
Was that an idea?
It’s been so long I hardly remember what one feels like.

Step 17: Open manuscript. Read through pieces. Remember. Apologize to characters for self-indulgent absence.

Step 18: One idea leads to two. Tear apart pages. Copy and paste text. Agonize over two lines for six hours; return the next day and delete them anyway. Snap at people for no reason. Gesture rudely in traffic. Apologize to husband for the twentieth time for glaring at him unintentionally, then attack him mercilessly for forgetting to recap the toothpaste. Piece by piece things come together.

Step 19: Return manuscript to agent. Feel nauseous and exhausted.

Step 20: Say nothing when agent calls to gush about revisions. Skepticism turns to shock. Shock turns to joy. Not a fluke; I am brilliant! But now I must submit to editor.

(Repeat Steps 10-20 substituting “editor” for “agent.”)

What’s YOUR process like?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

It Ain't Easy Being Friends...

Have you ever had a non-writer friend come up and ask if you use real people (like them) in your books? Ever had a friend say they knew you'd used them for one of your characters?

I suspect all writers have had this experience. It creates a sort of double paranoia: Is that me? What are you going to say about me? Please use me. vs I want to keep you as a friend. Do you recognize that little hair-biting thing? I need my character (who incidentally looks like you) to act like this.

I've explained over and over that I may use bits and pieces of a collection of people to create one character. That most writers take their experiences and rebraid them to make a story. But I've never duplicated a living person on the page. (Although there is one person on a reality show that needs a story. He NEEDS it, I'm telling you!)

Still I hear: 'You better not use me in your books,' to 'Me! Use me!' It can require such a sharp balance that I'm sometimes hesitant to admit I'm a writer. But ultimately it doesn't keep me from borrowing those quirks that are endearing, or annoying, or just plain fascinating to make my characters more real.

So Kelly, if you see a biker-chick with big blue eyes in one of my books, well . . .

Monday, July 4, 2011

Drama vs Melodrama

In a few years this post may be completely obsolete, in that there may be no meaningful difference between the terms I'm using. To teens, drama means melodrama. To a writer, they are something different.

a composition in prose or verse presenting in dialogue or pantomime a story involving conflict or contrast of character.

a dramatic form that does not observe the laws of cause and effect and that exaggerates emotion .
melodramatic  behavior or events.

By my handy definitions above, the term should be high school melodrama queen. But, A. It's high school. If you get everything right in high school, you get to skip ahead 5 spaces to middle age. B. Drama queen is catchier and easier to say, and it's been used by books and movies for the last few years. 

Verdict- Melodrama Queen is never going to catch on. 

But as a writer, the difference is very important. Drama= tension and stakes. Melodrama= stuff that makes a reader roll their eyes. It can be the same stuff, the same events, the same types of conflict. The difference lies in how  the writer tackles it and how the reader responds. 

I got a little sentimental this week and took out the ARC for my first book, Handcuffs, and read the editorial letter at the beginning. Even as an adult, I'm sure you remember the giant hole that was left in your life when a relationship ended. Walking down the halls, sharing a classroom with an ex...breaking up is an experience that is only more agonizing in the high school setting. I could argue that many (read--most) things are more agonizing in the high school setting, but yeah a high school break up can be very public and agonizing. It can also be dramatic or melodramatic depending on how it is presented. 

I guess it's easy to say the difference comes back to the stakes and the tension. Right now I'm writing post-apocalyptic whole world depends on the outcome drama. So different sets of stakes, tension caused by danger and possible death! (sorry that required an exclamation point!) In an adventure story, the stakes are naturally higher. But as a former writer of the realistic and the contemporary, and as all our realistic contemporary friends can surely attest, making the everyday situation fraught with genuine drama is possible. 

Possible but not required elements for creating Drama (as opposed to that other thing)
1. High Stakes- make the reader understand why it is important. Make them believe it. 
2. Tension- get the reader on the edge of their seat. I always use the Truman show as a great movie that builds tension more effectively than many horror films I've seen. 
3. Authenticity- make it seem real so that readers can relate.

Some adults look back on high school as a roller coaster of the melodramatic. But if you really let yourself feel the pain and the angst (admittedly, you have to be crazy to do this)  you have to acknowledge that the emotion is real. The pain is hyper-real. The anxiety, the pressure, the passion... :) 

In reality, your adolescent Psyche text will tell you that teens lack a sense of the big picture. They often feel that they are the only person on earth who has ever been so in love, so devastated, so elated, so sad. This lack of perspective makes all of us adults want to A. roll our all-seeing adult eyes and B. slap them. 

As, neither eye rolling nor slapping are the desired emotional responses to our teen protagonists, in your quest for verisimilitude, you may want to leave that part out. Instead, go for depth, go for emotion, and go for the gut wrenching reality of teen emotion that your teen readers will recognize and your adult readers won't throw across the room. Drama, not melodrama. 

Back to my original definition- conflict is the heart of your story, high school/the teen years are the epitome of conflict, so the YA author should be all set up for drama. 

And, of course, that part is always subjective. I had a student who insisted, INSISTED, that the MC of The Hate List was whiny. I loved that book and was outraged. Whiny! She had tension, high stakes, and authenticity, and I believed every bit of her pain. And most of my students did, too. But to this student, it didn't ring true. By the same token, I got frustrated by Liar because the stakes kept changing with the story. My favorite realistic book of the year was Before I Fall, which I felt built high school tension beautifully.