Sunday, November 3, 2013

I've Been Traveling Far and Wide

In both a literal and figurative sense, I've been all over the place lately. First there was PNWA, where I basked in bizarrely sunny Seattle. Then there was Hampton Roads Writers Conference in southern Virginia, where the weather was gray and the writing bright (and the authors occasionally feisty).

In between those events I was working with my wonderful editing clients (thanks, Internet!) and peddling the manuscripts of authors I represent. So in case you were wondering why I've been missing in action, now you have your answer. It seems like a pretty good answer to give, too, given that my blogging delinquency has paid off in a big way: about a month ago, I received an offer of publication for Gerry Dodge's Beneath the Weight of Sadness.

We're crossing the Ts and dotting the Is, making sure everyone's on board with everything, but thus far it looks like clear sailing. The world will finally see this phenomenal work that I got to edit in my pajamas. That feels like glory.

In the meantime, I thought I'd give everyone a general update. I am, until at least January 1, booked through with editing clients (if I've already spoken with you by e-mail about a start date in December then you're included in that calculation). After that I expect to open up again--with client testimonials!--so bring on the literary awesomeness.

I'm sure that before too long I'll come up with some kind of adorable contest or something, but until that time I'm considering posting an excerpt from Gerry's awesome book so you guys can see what I've actually been doing all this time.

Any takers?

By the way, if you've been trying to contact me through my Kimberley Cameron e-mail for editing work, please know that non-query messages often get screened out of there and it's better to reach me at

I'll be back before long, and I'll have a sample chapter with me...

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

What I Learned at BEA

Greetings, fellow literary sophisticates! Given how avidly you follow my every movement, hang on my every word, I imagine my absence these last few weeks has left you beside yourselves with worry. You needn't have feared. I was at the BEA.

What is that, you ask? It's the Book Expo America, a magical week that happens every summer, when publishers gather to showcase and distribute their newest titles; agents gather to learn about which trends are becoming hot; dental hygienists gather to, apparently, throw everyone else off; and vendors gather to start passing out free booze at 3 p.m. (this actually happened).

And you know, I learned a few things, other than that New York's Javits Center can hold literally tens of thousands of nerds.

For one, my co-workers are awesome, which is becoming a little inconvenient. I mean, it should be great that I work with amazing people. Unfortunately, they're sort of showing me up, and I may need to engage in some professional sabotage to make my own performance look better. Just keep that between us, though. You, me, and the Internet.

Case in point concerning the unflattering awesomeness: Amy Cloughley. Amy (stalk her here!) joined Kimberley Cameron & Associates earlier this year and sold her first manuscript, to Seventh Street no less, in something like three weeks. Now, I would personally have preferred that she show the professional courtesy of waiting for me to sell something first, but, office politics aside...not bad.

The manuscript is Allen Eskens's The Life We Bury, "about a Minnesota college student on a dangerous quest to discover the truth about a dying convicted murderer." If that sounds like something you're writing, you might wanna get yo' query on.

But I learned other things, too! One of them was that the illustrious Kimberley Cameron doesn't fully understand the Internet and that revealing its intricacies to her results in amazing photographs.

The other is that there are a truly mind-blowing number of editors in this industry and that their passion, discernment, and plain old nose for a good story have a boundless capacity to re-energize the sometimes jaded eyes scanning manuscripts every day. One of the highlights of our trip to New York was a jaunt over to the office of Mulholland Books, where we met the very talented (and disarmingly young) Wes Miller. One of the books Wes worked on was Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls, a thriller about a time-traveling serial killer.

This kind of project would usually be, if not beyond my purview, certainly on the periphery. But after flying through the book (in like three days, too, and I have a lot of stuff to read) I was ready for some thrillers. The lesson here is to read a lot and keep yourself open, whether to story ideas as a writer or manuscript submissions as an agent/editor. And by the way, go buy this book. Just do it. You'll love me for it and it'll give you something to talk about around the cooler for months.

I guess the only other big discovery to come out of BEA is that BEA parties are AWESOME.

You guys--they have them on skyscrapers. I think that's all that really needs to be said.

Until next time!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Author Showcase: Query Contest Winner Noelani Spercher

I'd like to thank everybody who participated in last month's query contest, both for their great entries and for their patience with me as I took five weeks to cap the thing off. I would have gotten to it sooner, but other deadlines--specifically the ones letting me pay my rent--sort of piled up and I got all wrapped up in the notion of not living in a cardboard box.

My mistake.

But the query contest was actually judged and someone actually won (which took me a bit by surprise, as I didn't expect anyone to actually enter). That person's name is Noelani Spercher.

Noelani agreed to speak with me about her literary loves, her crazy life as an undercover writer masquerading as an ordinary college student, and her intriguing new YA series.

1. You recently completed Etheria, the first book in your The Timekeeper's Daughter series. If you had to give a teaser description of the novel, what would you say?

At the time when most teens are preparing to head off to college, eighteen-year-old Castella DeTyrius is heading off to another world--the first earth, to be precise. Taken away as newborn, Castella never expected to return, but when a series of strange circumstances force her back with the specific purpose of saving her brother, she finds herself in a land torn by magic and impending war that will test her resolve more than she ever thought possible.
The Adowyn and Kurin, two races with strongly conflicting beliefs, struggle to remain united under a king who is slowly losing his mind. And Castella’s brother Jamil, one of the most powerful Kurin Seers, is the only thing keeping a much greater threat at bay.
2. Etheria is a new adult rather than a young adult book. What led you to that choice?
I originally defined the novel as YA, but it never felt quite right, especially as I was writing the second book. Most of my test readers for Etheria were college aged and they kept saying that they saw my book more for their age group, with older protagonists. The protagonist, Castella, was originally supposed to be 16. I tweaked it for this newer genre and it feels more right. I deal with some pretty mature themes and situations later on in the series, which will definitely cater towards the slightly older audience.

3. Your protagonist, Castella, has a complicated relationship with her older brother, Jamil. How central is that to the story? If you peel away the magical setting, do you see elements to Castella and Jamil's dynamic that are especially relatable for those navigating the changes of their college-age years?

The conflict between Jamil and Castella is definitely one of the driving elements in the story. Castella’s original purpose in returning to that world was to save Jamil, but Jamil, as one of the most powerful Seers in the land, doesn’t seem to need saving. They are both good people, but they have fundamentally conflicting viewpoints: she wants to be useful and to be able to make a difference. He is much more aware of the potential danger in that world and wants to keep her safe.
There is also tension because Castella’s mother, Nadina, was considered a traitor--she switched sides before the end of her life, a fact Jamil has never reconciled with.

4. One of the key elements of the manuscript is the concept of the magical substance Etheria. How does that divide the population of this universe? Did you draw on any real-world inspiration when fleshing out the idea?

The Etheria, the magic-sustaining force that spottily covers most of the globe, is seen in two very different lights. Those who can control it, the Kurin Seers, are the most powerful people in the world. For them, the Etheria isn’t just a blessing: it is their means of existence. It allows mind communication, powers their weapons, and even enables transportation. But the Adowyn believe the Etheria is a dark force and they refuse to use it.
This comes to a head when a young Andowyn king ascends the throne.
As for real-world inspiration, I tend to think of instances in history when two conflicting religious or political groups have caused a lot of chaos and bloodshed. I could be more specific than that, but I’d have to give away plot spoilers.

5. You're a young writer but have already completed your first book. Tell us a little bit about where you are in life right now and what your literary inspirations have been. 

I’m finishing up my senior year at Bethel University in St. Paul. It’s been really interesting juggling my life as a student and my secret life as a fantasy writer. It definitely involves sacrifice and commitment (read: late nights and plenty of coffee). I’ve been able to do a lot of writing and editing during the summers, but I wrote almost the entire second book in the series during my junior year at college. I worked on it late at night, in between doing my homework and juggling my four part-time jobs.
 But the story hooked me, so I didn’t mind. More often than not, during classes my notes were not about what the professor was saying, but about my book.
Sometimes I feel like a spy or a super-hero with dual identities!
As for inspiration, I’ve always been a big reader. I read a lot of the classics while growing up. Gone with the Wind and The Count of Monte Cristo are some of my favorites. I also love the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games, and anything and everything written by Clare Cassandra (like The Mortal Instruments series).

6. You wrote a pretty big book pretty quickly. How'd you do it?

Etheria is about 138,000 words. My first draft was closer to 115,000 and I wrote it, from start to finish, in one month. The only reason that I was able to do this was because I had spent three years planning the series and, by that time, I had over 60,000 words of handwritten and typed notes. Everything was there: the characters, setting, and the basic storyline. I just had to put it on paper. It helped that I had some extra time in the summer. Sometimes I wrote eight hours in one day.
My writing style is also a little unusual. I tend to fly through the first draft with little or no editing, just focused on getting my ideas out. I build up momentum and, by the time I’m finished with it, it’s usually a mess. But at that point, I think, "Well, it’s done--I might as well edit." So I do. I edit, and edit, and edit. And then sometimes it is readable enough for me to share it with someone else.

7. What has been most helpful to you in terms of refining this project? What do you think is critical for any writer as they perfect their manuscript?

I honestly don’t know what I would do without my informal writing group, composed of family members and writing friends. My sister, who has her BA in creative writing, has given me invaluable feedback throughout the entire process. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get feedback from people--honest feedback. It’s critical to any writer’s success. It’s hard as a writer to take advice sometimes--but DO IT. Your manuscript will be better as a result. Other readers will always see the things that you can’t see.

I’ve also read quite a few good books on writing and editing. And a basic understanding of grammar is imperative to any writer. Know your English. Part of what it really boils down to, though, is work. Perfecting a manuscript can be the hardest part of writing. It’s usually the part I enjoy the least, but I do it because I know the finished product will be better.

8. And, of course, your entry in the query contest was quite nice! Do you have practice in this area? Have any agents gotten to see Etheria yet?

The only practice that I’ve had with queries was the one I created for Etheria. I’ve gone through a few drafts of it at this point. My first query was absolutely terrible! But I’ve gotten better since then. So far I’ve sent queries to about twenty agents. I haven’t found anybody interested yet, but I’ve recently revamped my query letter and hopefully that will help.
Check out Noelani's fun blog to read her winning entry and keep up on her adventures in authordom!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

And the Winner Is...

Decided, but you homeboys are going to have to wait a fresh minute while he/she and I get our winner's interview ready.

But while we're talking about the contest..."I'll give it about a week and a half to let everyone get their queries in."

Aren't I just adorable? As if I had so much spare time that I bathed in it. Silly Ethan.

Fear not, dear readers; the suspense will end soon. I know it's been killing you.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Query Contest

Start your engines, people, 'cause here it comes: the much-anticipated Query Contest.

Contain yourselves, readers. You're making a spectacle.

It's pretty easy. I'll give you the bare bones of my new client Roger White's phenomenal horror manuscript, West of Sienna--without revealing any spoilers, of course--and you'll assemble those details into a query that will leave editors salivating. To the best query goes eternal glory and a Twitter mention.

Here it is:

  • The setting is West Sienna, Texas; in the summer of 1967
  • The protagonist is 13-year-old Gary Tolliver
  • Gary's friends are Scooter Travis and Andy Reyes. Andy is new to town, a one-armed Latino teen who constitutes Gary's only real rival for the top spot on the track team
  • Shortly after the book opens, a local tow truck driver is found murdered, his mouth sewn shut and his brain removed. The boys do some research and find that similar murders, in which each victim had his mouth sewn shut and a body part (eyes, brain, tongue, genitals, or heart) removed, have occurred in the region in spurts since at least the 1920s. 
  • A local teenager is murdered and castrated
  • Gary and his friends attempt to get to the bottom of what's happening as more victims surface

And...go! I'll give it about a week and a half to let everyone get their queries in. Use the helpful link here for some query-writing tips, then post your work on your own page. Comment here to let me know you've done it!

Godspeed, authors. Godspeed. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Shameless Plug of Your Contest Subject

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce the esteemed Mr. Roger White, author, editor, and dog-walker extraordinaire. Roger is my newest agenting client--and potentially your ticket to all the fame and glory that a blog with 38--wait, down to 35--followers has to offer. Did I mention that like 70 people are following me on Twitter?

"Ethan, you have seventeen Twitter followers?"

"No, not seventeen: seventy. It's a little unbelievable, I know."

Roger caught my attention with his chilling horror manuscript about a small 1960s Texas town where something is very wrong. He will, I hope, catch your attention with his eminently entertaining blog, where he writes on subjects as bone chilling as sadistic murderers, resurrection cults, and paying for college tuition.

So, here's the deal folks: I am hosting a query-writing contest based on the post I put up back in February. In my next entry I will provide you with basic, unembellished details of Roger's manuscript (which is titled West of Sienna, by the way), and whoever can come up with the most compelling query will be featured in a blog and Twitter post.

Is it worth the time and effort it will take? Absolutely not. Will it provide you with a fleeting sense of gratification? YES.

So do this. Let me know in the comments if you're interested and, regardless of the feedback you supply, we'll kick off next week.

Until then, and as I wish the wonderful Kimberley Cameron good travels, VIVE LA FRANCE.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

...And Now What?

I was watching Breaking Dawn -- Part 2 this weekend when something occurred to me.

This is awesome, I thought. I mean, this is WAY awesome. This is the coolest thing ever. Nothing could be cooler than this! Wait...nothing could be cooler than this. Oh, my God. I've made some really bad life decisions. 

Aside from revealing the striking depth of my emotional immaturity, my infatuation with the Twilight saga sheds light on a difficult truth in publishing: the profitability spikes in our field are more often than not driven by literary lightning, projects that illuminate the publishing world for a ferocious moment before disappearing and leaving a bunch of clouds behind.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest bolt of the hour tends to spawn smaller sparks who light up their own corners of the sky (preferably in a manner that achieves recoupment), which explains why Stephenie Meyer's accomplishment was followed by Vampire Academy and the television show True Blood, both of which capitalized on the niche Meyer exposed.

The reason for Twilight's success is not hard to grasp: her books provide readers with comforting visions of true love, handsome heroes, and supernatural power presented in a conveniently sexy package. Beneath the vampire/werewolf rivalry, Twilight is the story of a directionless young woman rescued by a rich, hot guy. Doesn't everyone secretly wish for something like that, at least once? If they don't, it's hard to explain how Fifty Shades of Grey (which started as Twilight fanfiction, mind you) has sold 65 million copies worldwide.

But what's next? Conventional wisdom, not to mention human nature, dictates that every trend has a shelf life, and with Twilight's last film installment done, vampires should be headed the way of the Baha Men (on a completely unrelated note, I'd like to point out that I hated that song back when it first debuted--even at 12 I demonstrated the effortless good taste that has since become my trademark).

That's right: Bella and her ilk are destined for a swift death.

Except they're not.

In fact, the vampire genre is still enjoying robust success long after it should have died down; the final book in the Twilight series was released in 2008, which means that vampire lore is captivating the reading public a full five years after the the era's greatest success wound up. That, much like Kelly Clarkson's Breakaway, constitutes some serious staying power.


Vampires have lurched on like the literal undead in publishing largely due to the absence of anything to replace them. In some corners of the industry there is a consensus emerging that zombies will be the new thing but, at the risk of demonstrating a dangerous lack of foresight, I'm going to call their bluff. Zombies may be a natural successor to vampires in a mythological sense, but they're missing everything that made vampires all the rage to begin with: good looks, sophistication, wealth, grace. Vampire stories tap into an archetype we all want to emulate; zombies are just us with hangovers and bad skin.

So it's vampires, at least for now. As for what comes afterward, your guess is hopefully only marginally worse than mine. There are only two things I know for sure: 1. Whatever displaces the vampire juggernaut will allow us to indulge in the same kind of fantasies Twilight did (see the profusion of successful romance novels of late) and 2. We probably won't see it coming.

Any ideas, guys?

As always, you can learn about my manuscript editing services here. This month I've had the privilege to work with two new writers, both of whom learned of me through the blog. That would not have happened without you having this ongoing conversation with me, so thanks for all your awesomeness!

And for my next trick: a contest...

Monday, February 25, 2013

Shaking It Up

I was asked in a recent interview if there was a genre of literature I wasn't getting enough submissions of and, conversely, if there was a genre of which I had too much.

The first one was easy: send me literary fiction, historical non-fiction, and women's literature. I consider works from many categories and those three are particularly underrepresented. The second part of the question, however, presented me with a conundrum: what do I have too much of?

The first--and easiest--answer was fantasy, but it also wasn't entirely true. I have a reputation, earned or not, as the fantasy guy--out of context that statement could make me sound sexy--and so I do receive a ton of fantasy manuscripts, but because it's a genre I enjoy the submission volume is not a problem per se. Nor is the writing, which is often even better than I anticipate. So, no, I don't get too much fantasy; I get too much fantasy that is, pardon the expression, by the book.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a dancing elephant. It is not cleaning itself, or munching on leaves, or nudging its newborn along, but dancing. It is also, thankfully, relevant to the topic at hand, which is a good thing because the moment I saw it I knew I was going to post it here even if I couldn't find a way to work it in.

The elephant is dancing. Had it been doing anything other than the foxtrot, it would not have infatuated me and I would not have spent 45 minutes coming up with an excuse to make you look at it. It's dancing. It's still an elephant, but behaving in a most un-elephant-like manner, and therefore it caught my attention.

Such is the case with fantasy. Fantasy, like elephants, is inherently awesome, but if it sticks too close to what everyone expects it to be, people are likely to ignore or throw peanuts at it. So it needs to dance.

Like this bearded man.

I can't tell you how many manuscripts I've gotten about awkward adolescent males who are transported to another--usually medieval--world where they learn they are the chosen ones of an ancient prophecy and foretold to save all creation. The manuscripts are good, sure, and even publishing's favored child, Harry Potter, is a variant on their formula. But the same story can only be told so many times. If you're going to do fantasy, shake it up. Be a dancing elephant. Be a bearded man in a dress.

In case you're wondering where you might find an example of such shaken-up fantasy, I give you someone who is both a dancing elephant and a bearded man in a dress: George R.R. Martin.

For those of you who don't know, George R. R. Martin (often referred to as GRRM) is the author of the phenomenally successful A Song of Ice and Fire series, which features a wide array of characters battling for the throne of the fictional continent of Westeros. At first glance this seems like typical fantasy--medieval setting, queens riding dragons, magical swords being wielded by knights. It's not, though. The brilliance of the series is that it focuses on multifaceted characters interacting in a complex political environment. These characters and the world they inhabit are portrayed in so relatable a manner that the flourishes of magic they encounter seem believable.

For its fantastic setting and incredible premise, A Song of Ice and Fire is a human drama. It's fantasy with a twisted edge, fantasy that does not ignore sexuality or financial reality or the nature of man. It is, in essence, a dancing elephant--still an elephant, but way cooler than any other elephant you're going to come across.

That is the kind of fantasy I'd like to see; not a knock-off of Martin's achievement (or of A Game of Thrones, the rocking TV show inspired by his books) but fantasy that challenges fantasy conventions.

I, meanwhile, have decided to shake up my client catalogue--by adding a horror writer! I don't want to name names because we haven't crossed the Ts and dotted the Is, but it's happening and I can't wait to brag to you about it. I've also received my first blog-referred editing client. Remember that you can find my rates and editing contact information here.

I'm off to be a literary agent and will return around this time next week. Keep those elephants dancing while I'm gone.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Literary Agent on a Rampage

Folks, the Internet just isn't enough for me anymore.

Not that interacting with you in an online forum isn't great. I mean, really, it's been smashing. But it's occurred to me recently that the enviable obligations imposed upon me by my job would be even more enjoyable if not performed for ten hours a day in the anemic glow of a computer screen.

So, like rock 'n' roll legends and my Viking ancestors before me, I'm going on tour.

Except it's more of an expedition. Complete with anachronistic hat.*

In my last post I mentioned that my father is a crazy Welshman. What I failed to mention is that my mother is a crazy Swede (who's from Philadelphia--best not to look too deeply into that), and it is from her that I inherited my predilection for daring nighttime raids on English monasteries, adeptness with 9th-century combat techniques, and fondness for smoked fish.

Unlike those other Vikings, though, I am civilized, so instead of spreading chaos and terror I'm, tips for how to write commercially viable literature. Oh, and wine. I'm fond of wine. I guess that doesn't sound as terrifying as I intended, but trust me, wine and writing can make for a pretty fearsome combination.


For those of you who might be interested, my upcoming schedule is as follows:

  • May 28 - 31: I might be attending the Book Expo America in New York. This one is still up in the air, but if I can make it work with my schedule it is so happening.
  • June 29: I will definitely be addressing the Northern Virginia Writers' Group in Fairfax, Virginia on this date. If you're in the area, come out and enjoy an incredibly awkward interaction with me. Politely ignore my hunchback.
  • July 25 - 28: I will be attending the Pacific Northwest Writers Association 2013 Conference at the Seattle Airport Hilton. Registration is ongoing.
  • September 19 - 21: I will be attending the Hampton Roads Writers 2013 Conference in Virginia Beach, Virginia 

And in case basking in my literary luminescence (just...just humor me on this one) on only four occasions this year is not enough to satisfy your no doubt insatiable demand, I have decided to make myself available for private editing. You can find details, such as rates, at the Ethan Vaughan Editing page. 

Some of you may recall that in a previous post I said clients would use my services at their peril. This is not because I will add you on Facebook, chat you up, and make embarrassing details of your dating life public. It is not because I suffer from a rare autoimmune disease that is transmissible through e-mailed manuscripts. It is not even because I will do a horrible job on your manuscript (fingers crossed on that last one). It's because of a pesky thing called ethics. 

Kimberley Cameron & Associates is a member of the Association of Authors' Representatives, whose code of conduct states that, among other things, associated agencies will not charge clients for representation or related services. This is a helpful little regulation that stops "agents" from frisking authors and makes it incumbent upon real agents to actually get things published. Convenient, I know. 

Unfortunately, it also means that if you pay me to edit your manuscript and then I like your project enough to represent it, it looks like we are both doing something naughty. 

Which we would obviously never do. 

So, the solution: there are agenting clients and there are editing clients and ne'er the two shall meet. You can send me your manuscript and I will happily whip it into commercial-ready shape for a fee that I probably think is reasonable only because I really like Ramen Noodles. If you have given me a Ramen-destined check, however, I cannot consider you for literary representation. Given my stature within the publishing industry I can understand what a blow this must be, but somehow we'll all have to live with it.

And in the meantime you will, all joking aside, get the editing perspective of someone who evaluates and improves manuscripts for a living. But don't take my word for it! Take...Yvonne Osborne's! She's supposed to do a post. It's probably not there, but it will be. In the meantime, here is her testimonial:

"If you are looking for a manuscript editor, I would highly recommend Ethan Vaughan. His uncanny ability to sift through the superfluous passages to expose your literary gem is nothing short of amazing. From a line of uncharacteristic dialogue, to an unlikely turn of events, Ethan will unearth the mistakes you cannot see for yourself and a less obtuse editor would miss. He points out the strengths of the story at the same time he identifies the encumbrances. He did a 'reader's report' for me that in itself is a pleasure to read. His command of language combined with a nose for fraudulent, redundant details makes for colorful reporting and is a skill not always found in the league of editors. Ethan is professional and perceptive and a pleasure to work with."

Not too shabby, Ms. Osborne. Not too shabby.

 Please see my page for rates, my editing e-mail contact (, and testimonials from clients. Well, that's enough self-promotion on Blogger for one night. Now I'm off to self-promote on Twitter. Peace out, Girl Scouts. 

*I really wish I had an anachronistic hat

Monday, February 4, 2013

How to Write a Good Query...Hopefully

After my last post, I was feeling pretty damn smug.

That thing about the high iron gates was mad deep, I thought. Now they'll totally be at ease because they'll know I'm that cool literary agent who's been there.

To which you might respond, "Right."

Because it's easy to be all tranquil and Zen and whatnot when you're the guy judging the queries. It's a whole different situation when you're the one waiting for judgement to be passed.

But oh, how the tables have turned. Now I'm the one behind the query. And boy am I scared.

Most uninitiated people (and I'm sure that includes none of us) tend to conflate agents and editors, which is why I have to routinely explain to my family and friends that I don't actually publish books. Someone else does that. If I can convince them to. Oh, and if I fail then I won't get paid and I'll wind up living up in a cardboard box.

There's a beautiful sort of poetic justice there; literary agents critique others for a living but have to pass muster themselves if they want to eat something other than Ramen noodles for the next six months. Even the most prestigious of us--and I definitely don't fall into that category--is reduced at routine intervals to repeatedly refreshing his inbox and agonizing over whether his query letter was rendered too cheeky by the use of the word "smorgasbord."

Sound familiar?

Seeing as that's where I am right now I figured now would be as good a time as any to review effective query letter writing. For, as my crazy Welshman father would say, "Presentation is half the battle."

He, of course, was referring to veal parmesan, scallops, and brussel sprouts--which need a hell of a lot of presentation to be palatable to anyone--but the principle still holds. You can have the best manuscript in the world, but if you can't market it effectively it's more than likely to go unread.

So how does one write an effective query? I really hope I know this, because I'm sending two of them out and will soon be the laughingstock of the entire publishing industry if I get it wrong.

The general formula is the Hook, Bait, and Switch. The Hook draws a reader's attention, the Bait provides them the meat of the story to sink their teeth into, and the Switch wraps things up with some very basic information about the author. This arrangement works well across genres but should, obviously, be tailored to fit manuscripts' individual style.

Let's discuss the clients whose work I'm submitting. Gerry Dodge and S.E. Smith are both phenomenal writers and I'm enthusiastic about both of their projects. S.E.'s book, however, is a zany YA tome that had me laughing out loud while Gerry's is a piece of serious literary fiction that, I kid you not, was still making me cry the fifth time I read it.

We'll start with Gerry's novel, Beneath the Weight of Sadness. It's the kind of story you will never forget reading. I believe, at the risk of sounding unbearably corny, that it has the makings of an American classic. The query for it was more difficult to write, though, because its complex message is not as easily encapsulated as a more lighthearted manuscript's might be.

Hook: Nothing prepares you for the loss of a child. Nothing.

Any parent would agree with that. The first sentence is immediate and visceral.

Bait: And when Ethan Engroff’s gay seventeen-year-old son Truman is savagely beaten to death by an unknown assailant, the murder is just the beginning of a long and painful odyssey. As Ethan’s wife Amy drifts further from reality, Ethan must face difficult truths about his marriage, his shortcomings as a father, and who his son really was—and could have been.

Beneath the Weight of Sadness is a heartrending story about a marriage shattered by grief, a town haunted by hate, and how one unlived life can touch countless others. 

This provides a glimpse into what the story is about but, notably, is not a synopsis. Synopses have their place, but it's not in the inbox of an agent who received fifty submissions that day (unless you attach it as a document). You want to keep the Bait part of your query brief; touch on the major conflict and then let the agent's curiosity do the rest. If you've set your Bait up the right way and the agent is searching for work in your genre, this will usually work.

Switch: This is where you reel 'em in with your dazzling life story. Your dazzling life story, by the way, is about three sentences long. Since I got my authors' permission to brag about them but not to reveal the locations of their secret lairs, we'll use my life as the Switch example.

Five Different Ways to Win an Albanian Moose Race is a 100,000-word non-fiction memoir and the debut work from Ethan Vaughan. Ethan is a journalist and literary agent whose work has appeared in The Most Awesome Newspaper Ever. He's been told he has very nice hair.   

Include the word count of your manuscript, its genre, and the two or three most salient facts about yourself. That's really all you need.

And now, let's switch gears. Ladies and gentlemen, we are entering the realm of YA.

YA is a party! Hopefully not a stripper party--I'm not sure what those two people are doing on stage--since we're talking about teenagers, but definitely a party! There's pretty lights, and disco balls, and fruit punch and CUPCAKES. This post has involved more food than it should. But, anyway.

YA is fun to write, fun to read, and fun to talk about, which is why the queries written for it tend to work with the Hook, Bait, and Switch method so nicely.

S.E.'s novel, The Transformation(s) of Tabitha Grey, is about a sixteen-year-old transgender witch who has to figure out why dark wizards are running amok in her town. I know you got to "transgender witch" and did a double take, but trust me, this works. The first chapter opens with the protagonist randomly getting turned into a deer. Does life get much better?

And so, the query.

Hook: Tabitha Grey thought her life was weird enough. And not regular sixteen-year-old girl weird. More like, my-house-can-think-and-it-might-eat-you weird. Oh, and did she mention that her father is a warlock masquerading as an herbalist? Or that her pets are three centuries-old ravens? Or that she’s transgender? Yeah, life as Tabitha can be pretty awkward.

This is longer than the literary fiction hook, but S.E.'s book has more novel--if you'll pardon the pun--elements to latch on to. I just threw a whole plateful of weird at some editor's head, but because a lot of YA is based on teenagers wryly commenting on the craziness around them, it works (I think). 

Bait: But when someone unleashes powerful dark magic on her town and begins abducting residents, life goes from awkward to scary fast. Now Tabitha Grey has to help her father find the culprit and try to figure out what kind of power she and her twin brother will inherit when they turn seventeen, all while navigating her transgender transformation.

And she’d better be sharp. This dark plot is more than what it seems, and it just might take the person closest to her.

Duh duh duh. Not all ABBA remixes and ice cream floats now, is it? The Bait in this case shows that the unusual premise has some substance behind it. 

Switch: The Transformation(s) of Tabitha Grey is a 49,000-word young-adult fantasy with a sardonic twist. It is the first in a trilogy from S.E. Smith that follows the magical Grey family on their odyssey to stop an evil cohort of warlocks hell bent on taking over the world—with a zombie army at their backs.

S.E. Smith is a professional ass-kicker and can make cheesecake that has mystical powers. 

BAM. And I don't mean that like an editor's door being slammed in my face, I mean BAM like we just high-fived because we're so awesome. And stuff. 

And one last thing: even if you are not a grammar Nazi or a spelling fascist in your day-to-day life, make sure that your query letter is English-teacher worthy before you send it in. If an agent gets into a manuscript whose premise he likes and finds a few errors here and there, he's probably going to ignore them with the knowledge that he can do some editing later on if he decides to represent you. If your query letter has gaping errors in spelling, punctuation, or grammar, though, it can cast serious aspersions on your ability to execute a full-length book. That kind of submission will find its way quickly to the No box. 

I hope I've imparted something meaningful in between my tripe about Welshmen and disco balls. And if I haven't, well, then prepare to hear me openly mocked at the next conference you attend. Not worried too much, though. I'm like a solid sixty-five percent sure I did this right. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Searching for Way More Stories 'Cause Now I'm an Agent

Remember how back in May I promised I'd never abandon you? And then remember how I immediately abandoned you?

Yeah, that happened. And since I can't really pretend I haven't been gone for eight months, or maybe blame my departure on a particularly bad case of food poisoning, I'll just 'fess up. I got busy. Stuff happened. I slept a bit.

To be fair, this absence was a lot more justifiable than the first time I callously left to you to the literary wilds back in November 2011. Back then I really had no out. It was the Thanksgiving of my last year in college and I basically just decided to watch YouTube and eat turkey for a few months straight.

This time around, though, a lot happened. I got a personal trainer. I went vegan.* I had a haircut or two. And, oh yeah: I became a literary agent.

No big deal. Except it was. Like, the hugest deal ever.

Shortly before I was hired in August 2012 I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine about pursuing dreams and how badly I wanted to pursue mine.

"I just love literature so much," I said. "I want it to be my career. And I'm, you know--I'm so nervous about whether that's tenable."

"Well, hey," he said, tapping my adorable shoulder. "Don't give up. I'm sure the writing thing will work out for you. And you can fall back on the literary agent stuff until it does."

"What? The literary agent thing is the dream."

"Oh, I thought you wanted to be an artist. I mean...that would be a lot more romantic."

"What could be more romantic than commercially viable fiction?"

"Pretty much anythin--"

"And occasional non-fiction proposals, too."

For many of you, of course, the news of my dramatic ascent--do not contradict me on this--is not new, a fact that I find quite flattering. But for the few people who haven't been avidly following my career, I'll get you up to speed: in December 2011 I began interning with San Francisco-based Kimberley Cameron & Associates, and in August 2012 they hired me as an agent. Above you can see me with my colleague and fellow agent, Elizabeth Kracht.

The hiring was, well, magical. It mostly consisted of my jumping up and down and screaming in a girlish manner while Elizabeth attempted to say something sensible.

My grandmother, who unfortunately for the world is very, very dead, would have been appalled to see the spectacle I made.

"Ethan, collect yourself," I can hear her saying. "You're behaving like some Northumbrian parvenu."

To which I would have replied, "I don't know what one of those words means and you are the weirdest racist ever."

But I digress.

The fact of the matter is that it has been an enormous privilege for me to work with Kimberley Cameron. Under her stewardship I have learned a great deal about publishing and have been given the opportunity to search for many, many stories. Except this time you guys are in on the plot. Before I had to seek out prospective manuscripts through this site and now you send them, by the boat load, to me. It's an arrangement I rather like.

My hope is that the blog, which so many of the hopefuls who submit to Kimberley Cameron have identified with my name, can become a forum wherein I interact with authors, readers, those who have submitted or want to submit, and even those who are just interested in literature. My other hope is that, if authors who have sent us their stories can read regular updates for me, they'll know I haven't forgotten they exist.

Someone set up a page on Query Tracker to keep tabs on me, and one of the commentators--yes, I totally am that person who reads his own comments, so don't talk smack on me because I will so know about it--recently said, "It seems like we're a mob of people waiting outside these high iron gates. And waiting to see which select few get allowed inside."

Maybe I'm just sappy, but something about that really struck me. It's so incredibly difficult to lay your hopes out for someone else's scrutiny, to know that a word from them could make your dreams come true or put everything on hold. I get that. I've been there. And having that authority is a responsibility that I, and everyone at Kimberley Cameron, take seriously.

We read every query. We evaluate every project. And while it may take more time than we'd like--my inbox looks like the Amazon rain forest--we eventually get to everyone. But you know, feel free to prod us. Feel free to ask me questions, here or by e-mail. And feel free to query! Send your goodies to

Over the, ever, I guess, I'll be keeping you in the loop about my professional escapades and responding to any questions you have. I am also considering offering editing services--which you will make use of at your peril, though that is for another post--and, provided I can make the time, will post details about that soon.

So, good writing and good reading and thanks for hanging on! If you're there. Which you're probably not. I mean, it's been eight months. Oh, well. At least now I'm returning to blogging as a mature and seasoned publishing professional.

*I'm not actually a vegan.