How To Be a Writer Without Losing Your MIND

Literary agent and YA author John Cusick of Folio Jr.As an agent who is also a writer, John Cusick (@JohnMCusick) of Folio Jr. knows what it’s like to juggle the demands of a day job and an artistic pursuit alongside a personal life. At our March Professional Series lecture, Cusick told the intertwined story of how his becoming an agent led to him become a published author (of the YA novels Girl Parts and Cherry Money Baby), and what he’s learned in trying to manage his own life.

Briefly: It’s not easy. But you knew that.

Finding time is difficult (“You are going to have to sacrifice something,” Cusick said bluntly). Friends and family may not always put your writing or illustrating first. “Other people will have lots of excuses to help you avoid writing—-anniversaries, birthdays, holidays…,” Cusick pointed out. Worse, they won’t care if you stop. “Maybe some loved ones would encourage you not to quit, but the only person who really cares is you.”

So how do you keep writing or drawing in the face of discouragement, disinterest and distraction? Cusick had an astonishing number of concrete suggestions on how to maintain a place in your life for your avocation, drawn from his own experiences. Here are ten of his most helpful (and one bonus):

1. Set a schedule and keep it.
Writing every day may be too difficult. Try, “Write three times a week” at a time that works well for you.
2. Set manageable goals.
Failing to meet a deadline, even if it’s self-imposed is discouraging. Better for the soul to try for something that’s achievable.
3. Keep a space for working.
Stephen King suggests having a door that you can close. If you don’t have that, you can still create a space somewhere in your apartment or house, even if it’s a very small space. (I myself have a tea tray.)
4. Keep rituals.
When Cusick is engaged in agent activities, he has a little Iron Man on his desk. When he is writing, the figure gets put away, symbolizing that he is now his other self. He explained, “Rituals can help you get into the ‘mindspace’ that you need to write.”
5. Take care of your health and your body.
Do what you need to do: Drink your coffee or tea, but be sure to get some exercise and some sleep, too.
6. Privacy.
Get rid of outside distractions. Turn off the Internet.
7. Surround yourself with your inspirations.
Cusick’s writing space has art by illustrators he represents and gifts from clients.
8. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish.
Forget about writing the whole book. Just sit down and do a little bit today.
9. Company.
Have someone you can complain to—and make sure they know that’s what their role is. “It can be very useful to moan.”
10. Write/draw for fun.
Do something that doesn’t matter. Just enjoy it.

And the bonus suggestion:

 11. Keep a folder labeled, “Nice Things People Say About My Writing.”
Pull it out and read it when you get discouraged.

After his presentation, Cusick took questions from the attendees. These ranged from questions about submitting manuscripts in general to specifics about submitting to Folio Junior. This one was particularly practical:

Q: What do you see as the biggest mistake for writers starting out?
A: Not following query directions. I get 15 to 20 queries a day. I’m looking for a reason to say, “No.” Separate yourself from 90 percent of the queries I get by doing exactly what I’ve asked for.

Adria Quiñones has written three middle-grade novels on the A train. Visit her at or follow her on Twitter: @AdriaQuinones.

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