How I met my book agent

I’ve been wondering: how do we even be right now without unhinging our jaws and just SCREAMING for the next four years? How do we do normal when the world is burning?

I think the answer is we don’t. Do normal, I mean. But I thought maybe one thing we can do—because I’ll be damned if they take our sanity too—is share praise about the people and issues we care about.

Me, I’m going to focus on diversity in storytelling, because I believe with all my heart that if more people from more backgrounds get to tell our stories in print and on screen, fewer Americans will think of us as “other.” So what’s stopping those stories? What I hear over and over is: access.

Any working writer will attest that the first question they get from aspiring writers is: “Who’s your agent?” The second is: “Can you introduce me?” And maybe because we working writers worked so, so, so hard to become working writers, we don’t usually like to share.

So I’m sharing. My book agent is Theresa Park of Park Literary & Media. This is the story of how she became my agent. (If you want to skip this part: scroll down for info on how to reach her agency.)

In 2001, I had a brilliant book idea. I bought a copy of “Writers’ Market” and found a profile of her: the Asian-American agent who had discovered an aspiring writer named Nicholas Sparks by digging “The Notebook” out of the slush pile and recognizing it for the monster it would become.

Then I stalked her. I pitched her my idea. She said it was dumb (not really, but she did hate it). Still she took me to lunch. And she let me keep calling her with more dumb ideas. Until finally, YEARS later, I had an idea she liked.

She sold two books of mine, one nonfiction and one fiction, and got me nice advances that I have absolutely not earned out. I am absolutely her charity client. If you click through to the website, you’ll see the other superstars besides Sparks she represents, and you’ll wonder how in the devil I wormed my way in. I could not explain.

So here’s the plug. Park Literary is a boutique agency with a very selective clientele (except for me), and it’s got something others don’t: one foot in Hollywood. Theresa is also a producer, and shepherds her books’ transition to film and TV. (She’s also the one who introduced me to my first TV agent.)

Three PLM agents have agreed to let me post their “wish lists,” in the event you’re their next superstar. I’m setting this post on public so you can share, if you like, with the writers in your life. I hope you’ll understand I can’t read or recommend your ms or query, mainly because I’m hustling so, so, so hard to remain a working writer myself. If you’re a personal friend, you can pm me with questions or whatnot. Otherwise, please follow the links below. Good luck.

Peter Knapp represents children’s and young adult fiction, and is actively seeking to add more authors of middle grade and young adult novels to his list. Some of his favorite YA titles include “The Sun Is Also a Star” by Nicola Yoon, “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman, “An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir, “The Disenchantments” by Nina LaCour and S”imon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli. In middle grade, he loves everything from standalone literary titles to commercial series. Favorites include “When You Reach Me” by Rebecca Stead, “The Thing About Luck” by Cynthia Kadohata, “Savvy” by Ingrid Law, “Three Times Lucky” by Sheila Turnage and “Ghost” by Jason Reynolds. You can find more about his manuscript wish list here.

Abigail Koons represents both narrative nonfiction and commercial fiction. On the nonfiction side, popular science, current events and anything that could be described as “stranger than fiction” would be a good fit. Some of her favorite books of the last few years include “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,” “I Contain Multitudes,” “Do No Harm: Life, Death and Brain Surgery,” “The Lost City of Z,” “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” “Born to Run” and “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace.” Occasionally, a memoir will catch her eye, but it needs to be on the level of “Wave,” “H is for Hawk­” or “Brain on Fire”—truly exceptional books—in order for her to take it on. On the fiction end, she is always looking for commercial novels that have a sense of adventure or that tell a somewhat familiar story in a new way. Anything with an international angle might appeal to her, and she is constantly on the lookout for crime and thrillers. At the end of the day, though, she has to buy into the mystery at the heart of any story she represents, regardless of the genre. Tana French is one of her favorite authors, and she thoroughly enjoyed “Before the Fall,” “The Shining Girls,” “The Passage,” “One Day” and “The Girl on the Train.”

Blair Wilson is looking for middle grade and young adult fiction, as well as adult non-fiction. Some of her favorite middle grade novels include “When You Reach Me,” “Fish in a Tree,” and “Wonder.” Recent YA favorites include “The Raven Boys,” “I’ll Give You the Sun,” “The Serpent King,” “All the Bright Places,” and “Fangirl.” In adult nonfiction, Blair’s focus is on DIY, lifestyle, pop-culture, pets, and books dealing with issues of sexuality, identity, and culture. She’d also love to find artists and designers with a visible web presence and strong point-of-view (think Mari Andrew or Maryanne Moodie).

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Good luck. Believe. #Weneeddiversebooks

Writing in a racially charged America

If you follow race issues, you may know the entertainment industry has a weensy little problem with diversity. You may also know the people in this photo (from left): Jelanimg_8925i Cobb of the New Yorker; Robin Thede, former head writer for “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore”; Jane Tillman Irving, CBS radio news; Jo Miller, showrunner/head writer for “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee”; David Simon, THE David Simon; and moderator Jamal Joseph, filmmaker and director.

Last night they gathered at the invitation of my union, the Writers Guild of America East, to discuss writing in a racially charged America. You know how you go to a non-mandatory weeknight work event because you think you might learn something and also because you had something small to do with its conception (I’m part of the guild’s diversity effort) and also because you RSVP’d—but then it turns out to be amazing and you’re SO GLAD you went? Yeah. I’ll link to the video when it’s up, but meantime, here are some takeaways that might be of interest to writer friends, no matter your medium:

• David Simon says we should all of us be watching “Atlanta” on FX, and everybody on the panel agreed. So: gospel.

• It’s important to bring stories about slavery and mass incarceration to film and TV. But audience fatigue surrounding these weighty issues is real. Give us middle-class problems too. Give us funny. Give us mundane.

• What kind of responsibility does a writer have to effect change? Opinions differed, but in TV, said David Simon, “I’m not writing to change a law. I’m writing to tell a story.” His responsibility is to the people he’s depicting, and to telling their stories accurately and honestly.

• How do you write about race if you’re, say, white? In news, it’s simple, says Jane Tillman Irving; if it happens, you write it. In entertainment—not so simple. “Full Frontal” does plenty on race, but Jo Miller notes they’re aware of where a “white Canadian lady” like Samantha Bee can and can’t tread. David Simon says, “If you’re writing outside your own experience, then you better get it right.” (PSA: if your show deals with race, hire a diverse writing staff.)

• That said, writers who write about race get to write about other things. Even though he’s known as “the #BlackLivesMatter guy,” Jelani Cobb lived in and wrote his dissertation on Russia—so don’t be a fool and jump on him when he tweets about it. Because he will take you down.

• Police shootings aren’t just a race problem but a systemic one. If you look at the statistics, “there are a shit ton of white people who get shot by cops,” says Jelani Cobb. We need to tell that story in the media to make Americans understand it’s in all of our best interests to address this.

• Also: Robin Thede is super funny, and super smart, and owns super fabulous shoes, and she should get her own show. My two yen.

Thanks to Jenna Bond, Dana Weissman-Scali, Jason Gordon and everyone at WGA East who worked so hard on putting this together. We write on.#WGAEwritingrace WGAE

 

Before September meant pitch season

It’s pitch season again, and I’m sweating and crying over producer notes. Here’s what I was doing 15 years and a lifetime ago:

My 9/11 happened mostly on 9/12. I was at the time a Tokyo correspondent for TIME magazine. When the planes hit, I was at a fancy restaurant in Roppongi. I was there to interview the Kano sisters, two women who had parlayed their beauty and bra sizes into a business empire. I arrived at my apartment in Minami Aoyama, flipped on NHK, and saw images that made no sense.

After a frantic night spent on the phone with my family, in particular with my sister, whose husband worked near the towers and whom she could not reach for hours, I headed off for a long-scheduled interview. It was with Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary animator. The interview was a big get; his press aide told me he would never have granted it but for the opening of his Ghibli Museum. I stood in the train-station pastry shop, scarfing down breakfast, shaking with fatigue and shock—and realized I’d forgotten my notes.

After a tour of the museum, Hayao Miyazaki and I sat down at an outdoor patio. And I drew a complete and total blank. I forgot everything about the dozen movies of his I’d watched and re-watched in preparation, everything I wanted to know about his method and inspiration. His press aide had already told me to keep the interview on his work and not on the huge, horrible thing that had just happened on the other side of the world. But on that day, how could anyone anywhere talk about anything else? I mumbled some questions. Miyazaki grunted some responses. Then he got up and left.

I’m pretty sure that in my almost 20 years as a journalist, that was the only time someone walked out on me during an interview. The press aide tapped his fingers nervously. The birds chirped. The sun shone. I thought about the people in those towers, the ones who jumped, and I tried not to cry. And then, Miyazaki came back. He had smoked a cigarette, someone had talked him down, and he returned to my awful interview in something like a good mood. Afterward, he even gave me a tour of Studio Ghibli itself, which his press aide giggled was like winning a lottery.

As an American living overseas on September 11, 2001, I felt img_8834utterly helpless. As a foreign correspondent in the opposite of a war zone, I felt utterly useless. While my colleagues in New York were risking life and limb to report the massacre of thousands, I was interviewing pre-Kardashians and a foul-tempered film director. I suppose you could say something like we need to read about art and pop culture even in dark times, maybe especially so. And maybe Hayao Miyazaki needed that tobacco time-out because he too was sleepless and traumatized. But I hope his press aide met Totoro in a dark alley and hasn’t giggled since.

 

How do you come up with an idea for a cable TV drama?

No, I’m asking.

Can you tell me? Because my next paycheck depends upon it.

First let me dispense with the bummer news: my network pilot did not get picked up. AGAIN.

This one hurt. They all hurt, but this one spun me around a bit. Last year, I kinda knew my network pilot wouldn’t fly. Though the characters and the world sprung from my very soul, I never quite got the pilot story to work.

This year’s try didn’t originate from inside my head. It was inspired by a real person’s life story. So it was more like an adoption. She didn’t look like me at first, but this baby became very much my own.

After much MUCH nurturing and care, she grew up powerful. Smart. She knew who she was, and she told her story well. I’m not the only writer who feels possibly delusional when she says her story works, so I’m relying not just on my questionable self-judgment but on others’ when I tell you: when there’s talk of casting, you get your hopes up.

So I waited by the phone, frantic and then frantic-er, as my network picked up one drama pilot and another and another. After its final pickup on a Friday night in February, the phone rang. If it was a go, on the call would be all my agents and my producers and my studio and my network. But no. Just my manager.

Facebook reminded me (thanks, Facebook!) that I posted the same news exactly a year ago. Which makes me wonder: why does it feel like such a gut-punch? Why am I not more prepared? I know the cycle by now, and its brutal punctuality. I know the odds. (If you’re curious, this article describes the process of the network pilot from pitch to pickup pretty accurately.)

I’ve been in this bizarro line of work for, what, five years now. This is my fifth script deal, my fourth sold pilot, third to network, one of those produced. None have made it to air. And each time one pilot dies, I feel like surely I will, too.

So before I bury this latest, please allow me a brief eulogy. My heroine was a lawyer, a veteran, a Latina and a mom. She pulled herself up from a violent past into a rarefied world of power and politics, on a mission to right old wrongs. How I wanted to see her come alive. Rest in peace, dead pilot. I loved you with all my heart.

And now: onto cable.

Got any ideas? Tweet them at me: @lisacullen. (I’m kidding. I dearly hope you’ll write your own ideas. But I’ll take your condolences, esp in the form of chocolate.)

The hardest part about writing a network TV pilot…

Maybe the part I sweat the hardest in writing a network drama pilot is the story. By story I mean the pilot story, or the A story—the main *thing* that happens in the first episode. You know: the Chinese dude in “Blindspot”; the murdered friend in “Limitless”; the rookie test in “Quantico.” Even though it typically ends in one episode, and you probably don’t even remember your favorite show’s, the pilot story matters. It requires “scale, scope and resonance,” as my producers like to say. It’s through the story you learn about the world and the characters, the tone and the pace. It matters a lot.

In the network pilot process, the very first step after selling the pitch is something called a story document, in which you detail what happens in the pilot story. Only after it’s accepted do you get to write the outline, and only after that the script.

Last year, I never nailed the story. I’d pitched and sold the world and the characters—but my pilot story never quite worked. Not for lack of trying. Holy oceans of sweat, did I try. The network finally let me go to outline in the new year, and my final script is dated January 28. But my baby had no shot.

This year, I once again pitched and sold a world and its characters to the network. I had diligently researched and prepared a pilot story—but when I pitched it to my producers, I saw that it didn’t work. Mother of Buddha. Here I was again, with a beautiful hero and great hook and cool set-up—and no story.

One night, deep in a sweaty funk, I was clicking around on Facebook. I don’t post much there anymore, but I do look. I look at the lovely families and your clever jokes and your sharp observations. And I read the links. This one was posted by my friend, a particularly smart and talented friend, who linked to an article in a publication I admire but wouldn’t think to pick up except in a doctor’s waiting room. It was a crazy, twisty, fascinating story. It had scale, scope and resonance.

I pitched a story inspired by that one to my producers, studio and network. They agreed. They approved the story doc, then the outline, and yesterday, the network sent me to script. That script will include a character named after my friend. If pigs once again take flight and this thing actually gets made, I will thank that friend in person. But for now, thank you, all of you, for being my friends, and for sharing your crazy, twisty, fascinating stories.