Ever wondered how to find the perfect critique partners or the perfect agent? Wonder what makes a perfect picture book manuscript?
I’ve got phenomenal author Jason June on the blog today to talk about all of this and more. This is super exciting, because JJ was my Writing with the Stars mentor back in 2019. He helped me finesse several manuscripts, including the one that sold as my debut!
Jason June has a whoooole bunch of books coming out, including the Mermicorn Island chapter book series in February and a YA debut, Jay’s Gay Agenda, on the way in June. You bet your bottom dollar I’ve got them all preordered! (I have a real book buying problem, but it’s fine. It’s fine.)
JJ’s latest picture book, Porcupine Cupid, hit shelves in December. In the spirit of this little matchmaker porcupine, we’re going to talk about finding the perfect match, from critique partners to manuscripts to literary agents.
LL: JJ! I’m so glad to have you here. Before we get to the matchmaker questions, tell us about Porcupine Cupid!
JJ: First off, I just have to say that you are a rock star and I’m SO EXCITED FOR YOUR DEBUT! Ah! Second, thank you so much for having me and letting me share a bit about PORCUPINE CUPID.
PC is a picture book all about love, with Porcupine fancying himself Cupid and using his quills to bring his forestmates together. While Porcupine’s overzealous methods are a tad too pokey for his friends, Porcupine himself is a metaphor for love and how the emotion springs up on us when we’re not looking for it, how love can feel so strong sometimes there’s physical sensations to go along with it (that sometimes even hurt), and how it can bring us together in really unlikely places. My most favorite part of all about PORCUPINE CUPID is that even with animal characters, we show love of all kinds with queer-inclusive cues and couples.
LL: Yes! I absolutely adore this book. The more I read it, the sweeter it gets.
So, every writer needs good critique partners. What makes a “match” with a critique group? What should a writer look for in a group, and how do you know it’s a good fit?
JJ: Critique partners/groups have been key for my whole author journey! I think what makes the best match is when you find people who understand your voice. Folks who don’t tell you how they would do something, but rather who recognize what you’re trying to go for and give you tips and tricks to achieve that in your unique voice.
I’ve lucked out both with my picture book critique group and novel critique partners that they understand the heart, zaniness, and queerness I’m trying to go for in most of my work, and they shine a light on things that either don’t live up to that trifecta or aren’t coming across as I’d like them to. Find partners who can describe your voice, who can read something and say, “This feels like YOU!”
LL: Once you find those perfect critique partners, what about manuscripts? How do you decipher the dud ideas from those that will sell?
JJ: Oh wow, this is the magic question, isn’t it, and if we could fully answer this we’d all be unstoppable!
Ultimately, we can’t ever know 100% what’s going to sell, but I do think the best ideas to follow are the ones that you feel in your gut and your heart. The ones that you can’t stop thinking about, that wake you up in the middle of the night because your characters are telling you things that you’ve got to write down.
You will never be wrong to follow an idea that resonates within you. But this doesn’t mean to just go with every single idea that pops into your head. This still requires a lot of introspection, comparison to your other ideas, asking yourself, “If somebody else pitched this idea to me, would I want to read it, or am I just getting excited because I thought of it?”
When you have that solid yes in your soul telling you that this is an idea that needs to be explored, explore it. Write it, revise it, rewrite it. Know it inside and out and be able to name why it’s important to you. Whether or not that idea sells to a publisher doesn’t make your idea valid. It’s the fact that you fed your spirit and heart that matters most. Because, more likely than not, if you’re enriched by writing it, somebody else—whether it be your critique group members or classrooms full of kids holding your book someday—will be enriched by reading it.
LL: Oh my goodnes, you might be inspiring me to pick up a story I’ve put aside! We shall see.
To take this a little further, we all have those times when we’ve been committed to a WIP for a while, but something isn’t quite coming together. Any tips for how to know when it’s time to let it go and move on?
JJ: I have totally been there. At this point in my author journey, I’ve written dozens of picture book manuscripts (three have sold) and six novels (two have sold). So, the majority of the things I’ve written will not be published.
My biggest tip for when you’re stuck is to get more eyes on your manuscript. Go to your critique group members, trusted family/friends, but make sure these readers are folks you know won’t just say, “I love you so I love this!”
We all know that feeling when a reader’s notes click, and we get that resounding bell of clarity ringing in our heads about how to fix whatever’s not coming together. I’d say when you’ve been going for a while, had multiple readers, read through your work a couple extra times yourself, and there are no more ideas coming, or complete silence in your head with the absence of that Clarity Bell, then it’s time to let it go. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t hear that bell when you least expect it, but don’t try to force it. Move on to the next story that tugs at your heart, and your mind will pull you back to that other story you’re stuck on when it’s time. Occasionally, it’s never time, but as you grow in your writing and develop more strengths as an author, those obstacles that seemed impossible to overcome a week, a month, a few years before, aren’t so impossible anymore.
LL: This is great advice. Sometimes time and growth are what we need to tackle those obstacles that seemed insurmountable.
Okay, let’s talk about agents. Personally, I’ve found the best agent out there for me, and I know you feel the same about your agent. What should a writer look for in an agent, and how can you tell if it’s a good match?
JJ: My agent, Brent Taylor at Triada US, is a complete and total magical unicorn of light and love and agentness! Remember when I said before about being able to name why the manuscript you choose to work on is important to you? When you’re having that call one day to discuss possibly signing together, be sure that prospective agent can also name what is important to them about your manuscript. Then, after you hear that, ask them what they think could be improved and what their vision is, and get a sense of their editorial style (some agents aren’t editorial at all, others go in depth, and you need to be sure their style fits with what you’re hoping for).
Also, for me, transparency is key. I think a good match is one where you’re able to talk about everything, so you know who your manuscripts are getting pitched to, when your agent will be out of office, tentative times when you’ll get feedback from them on your new work, that sort of thing. Of course, this comes with boundaries, and you shouldn’t be hounding your agent at all hours of the day or expect them not to have a life outside of work, but I think a good match with an agent is a lot like with a friend or partner where you have clear and open communication about what each of you needs to work best.
When first talking with a potential agent, ask them questions like how many clients they have, how long it usually takes for them to get feedback to you, what their submission style is like, and you’ll get a sense for how transparent they are from the start. But don’t forget, you need to be transparent too. Let them know how much you write, how many manuscripts you expect to get to them, where you hope your career will go, etc. Finding that perfect match is a two-way street!
LL: I feel like these insights will be so helpful for writers at every stage of the process. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat! I want to make sure readers can connect with you—and also sign up for your newsletter, which I love. Where can readers find you?
And thank you for the newsletter shout-out! That’s been such a fun way to connect with readers sporadically and no pressure-ly to just update everybody in the moment as opposed to feeling like I have to have a set schedule of blog posts! I highly recommend doing that sort of “schedule” for any authors setting up their site. It really takes the anxiety away when you say from the start, “Hey, I’m just going to post here when there’s stuff to tell you as opposed to make you read through things because I’m telling myself I need to post when I don’t actually have to.” It’s so freeing!
Jason June is a genderqueer writer mermaid who loves to create picture books that mix the flamboyantly whacky with the slightly dark, and young adult contemporary rom-coms full of queer love and lust and hijinks. When not writing, JJ zips about Austin, Texas with his Pomeranian, Pom Brokaw. JJ is a tried and true Laura Dern stan, and he is actively looking for an Andalite friend.
JJ’s queer-inclusive Valentine’s Day picture book, PORCUPINE CUPID, illustrated by Lori Richmond, is out now from Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster! His whimsical Scholastic chapter book series, MERMICORN ISLAND, releases February 2, 2021. And get ready for JAY’S GAY AGENDA, Jason June’s debut YA, queer rom-com, coming June 1, 2021 from HarperTeen!