Hello, beautiful people. I am so happy to be interviewing Patrick Bohan today. Patrick is an actor and YA fantasy author represented by Stacy Kondla of The Rights Factory. Today, I wanted to talk to Patrick about his book, his querying journey, and the difference between storytelling through acting and the written word. Here’s what he had to say.
Tell Me About the Book that Got You Your Agent?
Teen occultist Paul tries to summon a prom date but gets a demon instead. He goes into the Underworld, which also happens to be the working title. Subtle, am I right? Paul matches wits with the demon. Angst ensues. Think… Doctor Strange meets Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
What Was Your Querying Journey Like?
For the piece I just mentioned, everything was pretty smooth. I sent out about thirty letters and got a yes in a pretty short amount of time. But I’d written three manuscripts before this one, and queried the third. It did not go well. We’re talking a hundred plus rejections. Yeah, at this point, I’m basically a form rejection Pokémon Master, I’ve caught ‘em all.
What Advice Do You Have for Querying Authors? What Makes a Good Query Letter?
Stand out by learning conventions. I think so many writers don’t make it out of the query trenches because they either don’t know the traditional format or think their work is special enough that it doesn’t have to conform to a traditional format, with stakes and a hook and a reasonable word count. Who knows, maybe their work is good enough to break all the rules. But the world will never know because agents are people and people are busy and busy people don’t have time to read a six-page dissertation on how you’re the guy she tells J.K. Rowling not to worry about. I know, I know. It’s tempting to comp your book to Harry Potter because it’s just like HP, and you just know it’s going to sell more copies–but that isn’t going to make you stand out in the way you want it to. So, be practical about your letter. Learn the conventions, and at the least, cleave to a normal word count, with recent comps, clear stakes, and sufficiently punchy prose. That way, the agent actually gets through your letter, and hopefully, your manuscript. The odds are already so low. Why not maximize them?
Now that the obvious is out of the way let’s talk specifics. First, you should have your letter beta read, like you would a manuscript. Swap letters with other querying authors. Also, consider professional edits. You can probably find an author pub’d by a big five house who will edit your letter for nothing. After all, it’s only a page if you followed the above paragraph’s advice. Professional edits are not required, but in my opinion, edits could really help. You’ll also come out of that with an author cheerleader, someone who knows your work and wants it to succeed.
Contests are your friend. Authors are your friend. Blogs are your friend. If you soak yourself in all the incredible online content on querying, stalking authors online, and entering your work in free contests, you’ll both learn about the industry, polish your work, and make amazing connections that will most certainly come in handy when you’ve snagged that book deal. You’ll also want to look at letters that got authors their agents. These are all over the internet. Last I checked, Reddit had over a hundred successful query letters from authors you probably know and love.
What makes a good query letter?
Honestly, I think it’s the stakes. Having a clear conflict, communicating your character's goals are and what happens if they can’t achieve them. I know that sounds basic, but a little basic isn’t always a bad thing with queries. In my opinion, the best thing you can do for your query is to think up a logline. That’s a one-sentence summary for your pitch, not to be confused with comp titles. This is something like When area 51 aliens raid Nevada, tween scientist Eliot must find a way to weaponize his tractor beam, or else his desert town will be overrun by alien Naruto runners. Like that, only clever.
Writing a logline will give you a great start to your query while forcing you to identify clear stakes and character objectives. Make sure you read this logline out loud, too. This will force you to come up with stakes and communicate them in compelling language. You may cringe reading your first attempt at a logline. And that’s okay. Let the cringe flow through you. Keep reworking it until you have something you can read proudly into the mirror.
What is Your Favorite Fantasy Trope?
Practical fantasy creatures. Vampires at the blood bank? Mermaid romance scams in the DM? Mmmm! Love that stuff. I also love witty fantasy choices. Solving problems with brainpower, strategies the reader could have thought up. Think the gotcha endings in fairy tales. Wishing for more wishes? Breeding your golden-egg-laying goose? Dragons putting up an ADT security sign to scare the Hobbits? I love all of the above.
What Makes a Compelling Character?
Strong voice. That’s number one for me. Clever prose and personality that shines through a page is going to give the reader someone they can really identify with because there’s someone there. Voice makes everything more intimate. Beyond that, I think making specific character choices and pinning your character down for the reader will help. This one’s more controversial, so I’ll try to spell it out. Bear with me.
Can you sum up your character in a few words? Or are they a mess of contradictory traits?
Complex characters can be great, but the reader really needs to be able to say, “Hey! I know who that is!” Is your MC a fun-loving gambler? Strong and silent type? Soccer mom? It’s fine, great even, to paint a complex picture, but it’s important never to lose sight of the core of your character. Being able to describe your character in just one adjective can be a great start.
Buuuuut Patrick, you say like Steve Urkel, compelling characters throughout history are rich full of nuanceeeee! Okay, fine. But are yours? Or are they just a mishmash of nebulous traits that make Edward’s shovel face look like Citizen Kane? I bet you know your character real well because you wrote them. They’re always going to be interesting to you; they’re yours. But would it be easy for a reader to get to know them? Pin them down? And if the reader did, would they care? The reader has no special love for your character. They want someone memorable, someone, they can understand or at least want to understand. In my opinion, don’t try to make a character everything to everyone. Making specific and limited choices, like ticks and personalities describable in a few adjectives, will put you on the road to compelling characters.
A good benchmark is the idea of a foil or characters that have opposing traits. If characters can be opposites like in a foil, that means they have concrete character traits. Because there's a positive and a negative, two very different people. But if you can’t think up who might be a foil for your character, they’re probably not very specific or compelling.
Every increasing conflict. That’s most important, to always make things tougher on your character. I like the (albeit mean) analogy of throwing stones at a cat, forcing it up a tree. The cat must learn to climb in order to save itself. Same deal with your characters. Throw conflict at them until you force them to change. That’s a good fast-food recipe for character. Just never let up on your characters.
Beyond that, I subscribe to Campbell’s “Hero's Journey” framework, I think that’s a tried and true template that really does hold up. But also a highly google-able template so, I won’t bore you with details.
Oh, did I mention strong prose? Yeah, that bit’s essential. It will also win you leeway to make mistakes and go on adorable tangents like this one.
You also act. How Does Telling a Story Through This Medium Differ From The Written Word?
They're more similar than people think. Both writing and acting are all about making “strong choices” or presenting the world in a more interesting way. They both make things more real than reality. When you’re on stage, everything you do has to both entertain and tell the story. Otherwise, the audience loses interest. It’s the same for writing, only the audience isn’t in front of you. It can be easy for writers to forget that.
I also think the techniques for both are similar. Actors spend huge amounts of time with vocal warm-ups, energy exercises, all to get into the right head space. They don’t just think about experiencing the emotions of their characters-they feel them, and this makes the performance real. Not necessarily real in the way that it is believable or even convincing, but it feels authentic and captures attention. I really do think writers can learn a lot from that. Especially in YA, the name of the game is emotion. If you can actually feel what your character feels, rather than just thinking the words, that newfound connection going to make the writing so much stronger.
I’ll leave you with a concrete crossover exercise. Michael Chekhov, son of Anton Chekhov (yeah, that Anton Chekhov) invented a kind of visualization technique to go with his method of acting. He’d create beautiful, physical imagery of the body, then feel it. For example, if portraying a nervous character, he’d visualize “a family of cats stuffed in his lungs” or if a very mushy character, a “marshmallow wedged into his belly.” This is the exact sort of strong emotional imagery that lets us connect with a piece of writing. But beyond that, creating these images, visualizing imagery in your own body as you write, will let you connect with your character and deliver a more authentic story. So, you get both better prose and better character. It’s a two-for-one.
You played Basil from The Picture of Dorian Gray. What Was it Like Portraying a Classic Book Character?
Exciting! Oscar Wilde’s characters are all very specific, sure, but they can’t be as specific as a character on stage. Actors have to make every choice for their character, rather than just a few ticks and physical characteristics. Some of those choices are determined beforehand by genetics and voice, sure. But the point is, a character on stage is constructed by the actor, rather than the reader’s mind. So, I found myself acting as a kind of super-reader, going through the text, and creating an impossibly specific picture of Basil. Everything from gait to hand gestures. It really got me thinking about ambiguity, how authors don’t give the reader every detail – only the most important details. We think up the rest ourselves as we read. The mind is really an amazing thing! Okay, sure, maybe not my mind. But on the whole, it’s an amazing organ.
Are You Still in School? How Do You Balance Art and Education?
I’m finishing up a BA at Cornell. Frankly, balance is giving me waaaay too much credit. But what’s worked for me is compartmentalizing. I wake up at 4:30 a.m. and do all my writing in the morning. Keeping it separate allows me to focus entirely on the craft, stay present, and kills any excuses about not having enough time. Really, what're a few hours in the morning? Not too much. Maybe eye bags and an hour of sleep, but really it costs nothing.
I made some dopey decisions, though. I’m pre-law, so the classes I take or took are really irrelevant. But I chose to major in Economics for two years before switching to English. Switching was a very good choice, probably too late. For grad school, grades, and test scores trump major, and you really ought to study something you're passionate about. So my advice for future lawyers or professors or frankly anyone is not just to pick the major that sounds safe and most likely to land an internship. Pick something you’ll do for life. Not what sounds cool in a bio.
What Advice Do You Have for Anyone Interested in Breaking into Acting/Writing?
First, objective feedback. Get people to critique your art and then practice based on what they suggest you improve on. Second, practicality. Because if you’re reading this, odds are you’re super ambitious and have big dreams. Which is great! But also dangerous. People get real touchy about their dreams. I get it. I’m the touchiest guy you’ll ever meet. Nobody wants to be told that their dreams are stupid and highly improbable and that they should go be an accountant. That sucks. But it’s so easy to get caught up in all this #motivation talk on social media, quitting your job and school and knitting club because you think you’re going to be the next Meryl Streep just by existing. Leverage is so important. What makes you stand out? What unfair advantages do you have? How can you market those unfair advantages?
Everybody and their uncle is running LA around saying #motivation, it’s muh dream, muh destiny, imma be famous yo, yada yada yada. How do I know? Because I am that guy. I say that stuff. Maybe not out loud, sure, but I think it. And you probably do too, deep down. We all have big goals. And that’s totally fine. Healthy, even. But just talking about these dreams holds little weight and really breaks everyone’s hearts. Because it’s tragic. We want everyone to succeed, that’s human nature. And if they want to succeed really bad, then we want it even more for them. The problem is, looking at the numbers, that’s never going to happen. Not for most. Definitely not at the scale envisioned. It’ll really come down to working smart, and most importantly, loving the work. Loving art for the sake of art. Because really that’s the ultimate reward.
So, I’d say first, get really good at your craft. Practice at least two hours a day, that means 1K a day for writers. Take classes. Get feedback from industry professionals, look for authors who might be able to offer mentorship. Then be smart about pursuing gatekeepers. Don’t just throw your hat into the rink, depending on some Willy Wonka style contest. Get an acting agent. Consider writing conferences to meet literary agents and save time. Get professional edits, many literary agents even expect this. Get blurbs from big name authors. Build a platform. Actually enjoy the art you do. TLDR: working smart is as if not more important than working hard, both of which are dwarfed by loving your craft. All are infinitely more important than just saying you want it.
Thank You So Much for Your Time. Before I Go, Where Can We Find You?
You can find me on Twitter: @PKBohan and on my website. You’ll find lots of free stuff, writing tips, and plenty of angsty hot takes. Thanks so much for having me!