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.