Mary Cummings, Agent and Founder

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Backstory to books

Inspiration and tips

Recent and forthcoming titles

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Creative Book Promotion

Your publisher will work to make your book a success through visibility at book trade shows, utilizing social media vehicles, and by sending review copies to journals, newspapers and other outlets. But sales and impact will be much greater if you, the author (or illustrator) also devote time, energy - and creativity - to its promotion. This is something you can begin to plan for even before the book is published.

Elizabeth Verdick, author of SMALL WALT, SMALL WALT AND MO THE  TOW and SMALL WALT SPOTS DOT (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) asked the publisher to work with her to create a colorful four-page booklet to bring to readings and events that she set up across the Midwest. She writes: "I said I was open to whatever they would provide. I mocked up some ideas myself, and Sylvie [Frank, editor of the SMALL WALT books] sent them along to the art department. The art department took my ideas and then made them much better! They added the maze and provided the booklet in printed form for me to use. They did the design, copy, and printing and then sent the materials to me in printed form. They also gave me the template so I can reprint in the future. Older children enjoy the maze and make-your-own-plow sections; younger kids like to color Walt. I bring snowflake-shaped stampers and a variety of inkpads so children can decorate the pages with fun snowflakes. This has been a great way to extend the story and invite children to participate."

Identifying its underlying themes will help give you ideas about where and how to promote your book. Elizabeth notes: "One of the themes in my Small Walt stories is taking pride in your work. Gus and Sue (the drivers), and Walt and Mo (their machines), are hardworking and determined, just like real-life drivers and their machines. I knew it was important to reach those drivers as part of my audience, because most of them probably have kids in their lives - and my books can perhaps serve as a connection. I contacted places like SnowPlowNews.com and Tow Times Magazine. The publishers [of those trade magazines] agreed to review my books, which turned out to be a great (and inexpensive) way to connect with a professional audience. SnowPlowNews even ran online contests in which my books were the prizes. This was publicity outreach I could do on my own, while the publisher continued promotions on their end. Simon & Schuster agreed to send copies of SMALL WALT AND MO THE TOW to towing associations across the country from a list I compiled. This was so helpful, because the cost of doing that type of mass mailing wouldn't be possible for me as the author. I also found the International Towing Museum in Chattanooga, TN and asked S & S if they would provide publicity materials and a book sample. I was so happy to learn that the museum now carries SMALL WALT AND MO THE TOW." 

The collaborative efforts of the author and the publisher have propelled sales of the SMALL WALT books. Authors are often a bit shy and uncertain about asking their publishers for help, but identifying what you would like and clearly articulating it to the publisher - while also being willing to do your part in research and outreach - can make a huge difference, as Elizabeth Verdick's experiences demonstrate. 




Interviews

These recent interviews will give you tips about the children's book marketplace, as well as insights into my tastes and suggestions:

https://www.pbspotlight.com/single-post/agent-spotlight-mary-cummings-new-agency-alert

http://www.literaryrambles.com/2021/07/agent-spotlight-mary-cummings-interview.html




Revising the mg novel HORUS AND THE CURSE OF EVERLASTING REGRET

Different agents have different outlooks and ways of working with clients. I only take on projects that  I really am excited about, and that are in very good shape. I use my experience and insights to work with authors (and author/illustrators) to open up other possibilities for revision for projects to become even better. 

I take an editorial approach, but exactly what that looks like depends upon the client's needs and the particular manuscript. Sometimes a story is too long and I'll suggest areas to cut. Sometimes the chapter endings in a novel need sharpening. Sometimes there are fuzzy passages or unclear transitions or underdeveloped characters. Or other issues. 

Here's what author Hannah Voskuil had to say on how we worked together before submitting her engaging, suspenseful first novel to editors:

"Mary suggested edits to my middle grade novel that proved extremely valuable. One useful change she proposed was to make the Horus character, whom I originally had written as an adult, a child character. It wasn't a difficult change to implement, but it solved numerous problems. I wished I'd thought of it! She also offered insights into how to maintain momentum throughout the story: punching up the chapter endings, focusing less on minor characters that didn't forward the plot, and building out others that did. The robot character WindUp, and by extension WindUp's owner Peter, became more fully imagined under Mary's guidance. I also really struggled with finding a good title, and I credit Mary with developing a memorable one."

Here's the note from Melanie Nolan at Knopf, which arrived with their offer notice: 

"Horus ticked all the best boxes for us when it comes to charming, affable middle grade. Peter and Tunie are such likeable characters - earnest and relatable, with demons of their own to chase, and the set up in the museum, the curse, the mummy, and the kidnapping all add up to a suspenseful, accessible young mystery. We were smitten! Though we both feel the story would benefit from some revisions - chiefly, developing some of the plot strands, and setting up the mummy and the curse in a more careful way - the essentials are all here, and we'd be delighted to make an offer to publish the novel here at Knopf, with Allison to edit upon her return in January."

Used with client and publisher permission 




Evolution of a Picture Book Text

Although picture books are relatively short, writers know all too well that there are portions which come easily - but other sections are really tough to get right. Critique partners, teachers and others can help with insights to polish the story before it is sent off to prospective agents.

I liked Ariel Horn's DO NOT GO IN THERE! very much. A perpetually nervous and pessimistic Bogart is not at all happy about his friend Morton's desire to open a door. As I do with virtually all potential new clients, there were some tweaks I requested, which she made, before I took on the project. I was delighted when this email arrived:

Hi Mary,
Thank you so much for sending DO NOT GO IN THERE! This concept is so much fun and I love the wild scenarios Ariel has dreamed up.
I am intrigued, but I do think it would need some revising ... so here are some thoughts and if the author is open, I would love to see another draft!
We discussed internally, and we think it would be a lot of fun if Morton imagines what is behind the door as well! In contrast to Bogart, perhaps Morton dreams up outrageously light, fluffy and happy situations. Seeing each of these kids' imaginary scenarios escalate until the end would allow for some really adorable and wild illustrations, while still hitting the message.
Let me know if Ariel would be interested in exploring this direction!

All the best,
Erin
Erin Stein
Publisher, Imprint     

Here's what Ariel had to say in response, and here's the opening of her stab at a revision:

I don't "like" the idea - I LOVE IT!!!! I think it would make a story I love so much stronger - I only feel totally silly I didn't think of this myself!

     Bogart and Morton didn't always see eye to eye on things.
Do not go in there!
Why not?
There is probably a scary wolf with beady red eyes who eats bunnies for supper in there.
Or there might not be. There might be a HUGE pile of marshmallows and chocolate chips waiting for us on the other side of that door!
Trust me. DO NOT go in there. I bet it's a wolf. There's always a scary wolf in these kinds of stories.
Well, I'm going to eat the marshmallows and chocolate chips before the wolf gets them, then.
No! Do NOT go in there!
Why not? Wait, maybe behind that door, there's this gigantic mountain just made of spaghetti - nothing but spaghetti - and we can get sleds and go down it!

Although Ariel had added some very fun lines, Morton still primarily reacts to Bogart rather than half-listening to his friend and expressing his own personality and emotions. Here's an excerpt of what I replied to Ariel about the revision:

Instead of Morton always listening and responding to Bogart, he could be in his own fluffy, puffy, dreamy realm ignoring what Morton's imagining. In many areas of the manuscript as you now have it he says "Why not?" and that takes away from his autonomy. He isn't outrageously light, fluffy, happy (not yet, anyway! But I know you can get there!).

How about if his first line is something to the effect of the door looks so inviting, it has a cute curly cue doorknob or something like that (instead of "Why not?") so he's ignoring what Bogart says and is reaching for it?

Maybe he imagines he can smell the goodies on the other side and he's salivating because they are yummy yummy. Maybe he argues that "no no. This isn't that kind of story - this is a happy happy story."

I think you have too many food images going - need more variety.

Could Morton give a quick dismissive comment instead of the more prolonged "Well, I've never seen a scary wolf ..." and maybe he's on to talking about cute, cuddly, furry puppies behind the door?

Ariel did a second revision, and emailed it to me with this comment:

I think it is a MILLION times better, no question! Such great feedback and guidance from you - it felt so good to revise it with those ideas in mind!

Among her many adorable and hilarious new bits, Morton now says:

But look how RED that door is! Ooh, what if it's like a scratch n' sniff sticker and it smells like cherries? (in the final, "cherries" was changed to "candy")

And:

Not wolves: PUPPIES! Snuggly, soft, cuddly puppies going into outer space for the very first time! With names like Captain Chewy and Mr. Slappy! With puppy-sized space helmets!

I felt she'd really nailed it, and sent off to Erin - who snapped it up! Only a little was changed from this version, though one crucial line at the end ("Or ... a magic wand that can make us invisible!") was moved from Morton to Bogart, which shifted Bogart's fears towards optimism and wondrous hope.

Kirkus Reviews called it "Tender, affirming and lots of fun" - and they are right!

Used with client and publisher permission




Some 2020 and 2021 Titles

LOTS of new titles have recently come out, or will be coming out throughout 2021. 

In late 2020, the third book in the Small Walt series by Elizabeth Verdick came out: SMALL WALT SPOTS DOT (Wiseman/S & S). Walt is adorable, kind and helpful - even when that is more than a bit challenging for a small snowplow. Also late in the year, Rachel Tawil Kenyon's radiant YOU KNOW HOW TO LOVE (Philomel) was published, and in late 2021 we'll see her first board book, ALPHABET LOVE (WorthyKids).

Dawn Young has a hilarious holiday and event-based series also with WorthyKids. Two in the series are 2021 titles: THE NIGHT BAAFORE EASTER and THE NIGHT BAAFORE THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, featuring a boy struggling to get to sleep the night before a big happening, only to have the sheep he's counting add to his problems.

Ariel Bernstein's WE LOVE FISHING (Wiseman/S & S) is about three friends who love to fish and one who - well, does not. 

Maggie Rudd debuts with two picture book titles this year: SOMETIMES IT'S HARD TO BE NICE (it really is, isn't it?) (Albert Whitman) and I'LL HOLD YOUR HAND (FSG), a gentle and sometimes wryly funny look at the bond between parent and child.

A FLOOD OF KINDNESS by Ellen Leventhal (WorthyKids) is a look at a child's displacement and loss through a flood, but its message of kindness as a solution to grief resonates in many situations.

THE YEAR OF THE BUTTERED CAT, a "mostly true story" for middle-grade readers is by Susan Haas with Lexi Haas (Penelope Editions), about a girl with severe cerebral palsy facing a surgery which may help her to speak - or may cost her her sense of self. It came out in April 2021. 

Joy Keller has two books in 2021 featuring a plucky girl scientist, her dog assistant and her slime friends in FRANKENSLIME and VALENSLIME (Feiwel & Friends). 

Angela Dalton's RUBY'S REUNION DAY DINNER (HarperCollins) is a touching story of finding a role in the family circle. It's full of luscious imagery on food preparation for a family feast. 

Melissa Martin's THOSE ARE NOT MY UNDERPANTS! (Random House) features what may be the funniest word in the English language (don't know? It's "underpants," silly) as a little bear searches the woods for the owner of a pair of underpants he found hanging from a branch.

PANDO: A LIVING WONDER OF TREES (Capstone) by Kate Allen Fox lyrically evokes the wonder - and the potential fate - of the largest living being on the planet: a grove of aspens. 

2021 titles conclude with a board book edition of J. Theron Elkins' A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR SANTA (Zonderkidz), which features marvelous rhyme in a sweet story about remembering Santa with a present on Christmas, too. 






Upcoming Events

I gave the Keynote and several breakout sessions and critiques for the SCBWI AZ Regional Conference September 24 - 26, 2021, held virtually. It was fun and I'd love to be able to do a similar session for another conference. 

Keynote:
Creativity: Lovely, Elusive, Essential and Joyous
The pandemic has pounded us all. We've felt boredom, fear, frustration, isolation. And we've suffered losses. We're still not able to gather in person today, but we are able to have this time for celebration of our creative lives. This keynote touches on some insights about the nature of creativity and the need for it, and includes some experiences related to creativity with the development of books by Mary's clients.

Agent - Author session: Mary Cummings and Dawn Young
Our Inside Scoop
It can be mysterious, exciting and intimidating (all at once!) to move to the next level in your writing and seek an agent. In this session, we'll talk about knowing when you're ready (hint: there's no one-size-fits-all answer); tips for your search; how best to prepare for and use time on the call with a potential agent; what to expect in a working relationship; how a book offer comes about, and more. Dawn and Mary will discuss COUNTING ELEPHANTS, the book that began their relationship and will touch on several others, including related communications, editing, brainstorming, submissions, etc. Questions are welcomed! 

The 2022 SCBWI Midsouth Conference will be held in Nashville from March 25 - 27. I'll be teaching two break-out sessions and holding manuscript critique sessions. The first break-out is called "The Next Big Step: Reaching Out to Agents" and the second "Is it 'working'?" Details to follow! 






Sample Workshop Topic

I've always enjoyed nurturing writers and writer/illustrators, working with them to bring out the very best in their work. From time to time I teach workshops and do pitch sessions or critiques. I'm happy to consider invitations to conferences and workshops (email me at greatriverliterary.com). 

I had lots of fun with pitches, networking and a workshop at Ft. Collins CO on Friday and Saturday, May 3 and 4, 2019 at the Northern Colorado Writers' Conference. Here's the workshop description, which was geared to writers and writer/illustrators of picture books:

From tips to developing a picture book manuscript to insights about why agents and editors say "no" (and "yes"!), this session will give you new tools and inspiration for attaining your goals. Bring two copies of your work-in-progress for a writing exercise that may unlock exciting new possibilities. We'll save time for Q & A, too. Attendees may wish to bring or to read ahead of time: THE WOLF, THE DUCK & THE MOUSE by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen (Candlewick 2017); SMALL WALT by Elizabeth Verdick, illustrated by Marc Rosenthal (Wiseman/S & S 2017); and LITTLE THINGS by Nick Dyer, illustrated by Kelly Pousette (Peter Pauper Press 2019). 




Rhyming Couplets

Many writers hoping to have a picture book published assume that the last word in each line should rhyme with its preceding line, producing a pair of rhymes (rhyming couplets). Writing in this form of rhyme may give a sense of pride in their writing - which is important - but some writers have learned from SCBWI conferences or other sources that it's difficult to sell such manuscripts. I get submissions with the writer insisting it's the only way their story can be told. Perhaps that's true, but here are some things to consider.

Writing in quatrains (stanzas of four lines) with the second and fourth line rhyming was a perfect structure for A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR SANTA (Zonderkidz) by my client, J. Theron Elkins. He made fabulous, appealing word choices to communicate a tender-hearted story of Santa fearing he'd been forgotten in Christmas gift giving. Here's an excerpt:

His helpers were huddled
On the couch where they dozed
In polka-dot jammies
And jingle-bell toes.

But no present was there ...
There was no paper bag 
Stuffed with color tissue
And ribbon zigzags. 

His reindeer were snuggled
At the base of the tree,
Snoring carols of Christmas
As content as can be.

But no present was there ...
There was no box and bow
With bright shiny paper
From the twinkle lights' glow

The refrain of "But no present was there ..." gives variety to the rhythm of the story and reinforces its central theme. 

Here's another example, from YOU KNOW HOW TO LOVE (Philomel) by Rachel Tawil Kenyon, another client of mine, which uses the same structure of second and fourth line rhyming. The rhymes are simple to fit the direct and ardent theme. It is so lovely, right from the opening stanza. I do not think it would have worked had it been done in rhyming couplets.

It starts at the start
When you can't even talk.
Before you stand up
and learn how to walk.

Deep in your heart
the knowing is there.
You know how to love
and you know how to care.

But do rhyming couplets never succeed in today's market? Sometimes they do!

TAKE YOUR PET TO SCHOOL DAY by Linda Ashman (Random House) opens with a stanza in four lines, followed by two stanzas of three lines each:

It's Friday here at Maple View.
The students file in two by two,
with books and bags and pets in tow -
above, ahead, beside, below.

They start the day off with a song. 
The pets attempt to sing along:
They howl with gusto, bleat with glee.

They shriek.
They squeak.
They're WAY off-key.

The first and second stanzas are comprised of lines with eight syllables, while the third stanza has a pattern of 2-2-4. Notice also that the main structure of rhyming couplets has been varied, with the final lines of the second and third stanzas rhyming. The reader is unconsciously waiting for a rhyme for "glee" because of the pattern established in the first stanza. Notice also in the first stanza that the dense imagery of the concluding lines suits of feeling of students bringing in loads of pets and gear. It's through having an engaging story, with spot-on word choices and a carefully composed structure suited to telling this story, that a delightful book emerged.

So, dear reader: ponder some options for your own use of rhyme and all the best to you! 




The Most Fun

A large box arrives on my doorstep. It's heavy. Right away I know what it is: my agent copies of a newly published book. Opening it is going to be fun. I've read the manuscript (many times), probably worked with the author on edits (a few, or maybe extensive) before it was sent to the publisher, and I've seen the ARC. But feeling the paper, hearing the soft swish plop of the pages as they turn, looking at the design, the art, the totality of the book is amazingly joyous and satisfying. 

I think about the excitement of the author who is also seeing the finished book and recall our process of connecting, and the work to refine the manuscript and bring it to editors. I think about the kids who will read the book. Hundreds, thousands of kids. Some will be indifferent to it, or forget it quickly, or not like it at all, or will adore it. It will make its mark on an unknowable number of kids, enlarging their world in some way. I won't see this happening and neither will the author or the editor, the designer, marketing and sales team or any number of others who played a role in its creation. But the book will do its work all the same. 

I also love it when I receive a copy of a translated book because it's tangible proof of the book's ability to reach across seas and cultures. It demonstrates a kind of universality. I look on my bookshelf at Loretta Ellsworth's IN A HEARTBEAT in Korean. In Japanese. I look at George Shannon's HANDS SAY LOVE in Chinese. At Ariel Bernstein's I HAVE A BALLOON in Norwegian. -- More kids in more places impacted by books I helped bring into being. Fun! 




Always seeking

For picture books, I always look for love themes. It's fundamental, right?! This could be love for a parent, for a friend, sibling, pet, etc. or love for the full world. (Be aware that I see too many love themes that are heavily mom focused, with the baby or child passive or oblique in the narrative. I'm seeking the back and forth dynamic, the "twosome"). 

For novels, especially middle-grade, I favor contemporary, which could be realistic or magical realism or fantasy with realism elements. I'd like to see a school story about an idealized relationship that develops more nuance (a crush, a best friend, a favorite teacher). In YA, I want to see a strong - but not romantic - relationship between two main characters. 

My tastes are pretty broad. I particularly like warmth. I tend to dislike cleverness and irony. I like humor, adventure, poignancy, and quirky charm. Kindness is important to me. I like adorable and cute. I like hopeful mixed with sad. I like gorgeous and lyrical. I like energetic and unconventional. I want a strong story arc and a vivid protagonist. I want something that kids will relate to, stirring or awakening new emotions and providing them with a look at possible ways to live in the world. 

My personal "golden time" with books growing up was when I was 9 - 11, and I have a special connection with middle grade work perhaps as a result of this. I began collecting picture books when I was in high school and truly love the form.

Please send me: Stories about times, people and places underrepresented in children's and teen lit.  Picture books with a main character (like Pete the Cat, Fancy Nancy, etc.) with enough energy, personality and situation possibilities for a series.  Friendship stories.  Great read-aloud picture books.  Stories about important, complex relationships.  Middle grade narrative nonfiction.  Lyrically written science, nature, mindfulness and social awareness topics.  Beautifully illustrated picture books (if you are an author/illustrator).  Stories about holidays, including those important to a minority community.  Middle grade or YA written in multiple formats (poetry and prose; diary and text; novel-in-verse, etc.).      

I look forward to hearing from you - but don't send attachments as they will be deleted without being read. (If you have a dummy or illustrations, send a link). Please also see CONTACT for submissions guidelines




Top wishes right now

Top of my list for picture books: a story about the Mississippi River. Of course! - Also eager for a story about a kid who collects (rocks, buttons or some such), and one about the beauty of the Western States landscape. 

In an interview once, I mentioned that I adore opera. So, sometimes I get Mabel the Singing Cow kinds of picture book projects. Uh, uh. No. But I'd really like to see a picture book biography of Lawrence Brownlee (so many facets to explore here. One of the world's top tenors, and someone making great impact on African-American inroads in the classical voice world) or Renee Fleming (incredibly accomplished. The novel BEL CANTO was done with her advisement. She has sung in dozens of languages, including Elvish, for "Lord of the Rings" movies).

For middle grade, I'd like to see a contemporary novel in which the protagonist experiences a growing awareness of global or other societal issues as they dovetail with his or her own life.