Thursday, June 26, 2014

Beyond Creativity: The Importance of Research

Good day, bloggers! Shocked to see me? Believe me, you're not the only one who's surprised; I fully intended on leaving you in agonized suspense for another half-year or so, but seeing as I'm here for the second time in one month I thought I'd talk about a topic that is often left out of the writing discussion: research.

This is not what most people want to think about when they ponder being an author. Everyone tends to focus on the romantic elements, the magical spark of imagination lighting up the page, but the research is important in making sure that spark can shine. In short, it behooves you to know what you're talking about. Unless you're someone like Madeleine L'Engle, whose written universe is pulled purely from your own head, your story will not exist in a vacuum. It's part of the world around it, and ensuring that that world is depicted accurately will lend your manuscript a layer of authenticity that makes everything else in it seem more believable.

Take me.

I am, as you know, a writer in my own right, and have recently embarked upon a project of my own after editing projects for so many others. I won't go into too much detail lest I indulge in shameless self-promotion, but suffice to say that this story involves an old mansion, a dwarf orgy, more slavery than I am comfortable with, and the great state of Pennsylvania.

(I know I joke quite a bit, but the above is all sadly very true.)

And I am researching all of those things. I will hopefully not be participating in all of them--the slave trade and the dwarf sexcapades in particular aren't my cup of tea--but I will read about them thoroughly. I will interview knowledgeable sources. Where applicable, I will visit historical sites. And the information therein accumulated will form the narrative backdrop of a book that, I can assure you, will be nothing short of brilliant. I've allowed JK the top spot for several years now out of courtesy, but I'm 26. It's my time to shine.

When your time to shine comes, do it right: if you're writing about a 32-year-old dental hygienist who finds Mr. Right, take the time to actually speak to a dental hygienist. Ask if you can shadow her at work. Maybe sign up for an OKCupid account so you can experience first hand the impotent frustration of online dating.

Historical novel? Head to Gettysburg, or London, or Normandy, or wherever it is the thing takes place. And if you absolutely can't, then speak to a curator, historian, or some other figure who can give you the facts and perspective you need.

Hell, last weekend I found myself swigging brandy while singing a song about drag-dressing gods to the tune of Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville," all in the name of literature. (This actually happened)

In the end, it's worth it, and your projects and mine will have the dimension they need. So tell me: what do you do for research? What goes in to making your novel great?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

It Was Bound to Happen--How I Broke My Cardinal Rule

Good day, literati, and welcome to powerhouse literary agent Ethan Vaughan's bi-annual blog post. Please hold your applause.

(On a side note, isn't it just deliciously shameless how I pretend as if I actually maintain a blog?)

It's been a solid four months since I last posted anything at all, so it made sense that the first thing I'd do is fatally undermine my credibility to the few of you who might still be hanging on. What is it I've done? Involvement in a drug cartel? The advancement of a Ponzi scheme? Piracy off the Somalian coast?

Yes to all of those things, but that's not why I've suddenly lost all legitimacy. You see, in between running my drug-money-funded Ponzi operation from a ship in the Indian Ocean (see how I brought all that together?) I managed to do the one thing I promised you I would never do.

I mixed work and pleasure. Or rather, work and work. Pleasure and pleasure...? Look, I signed one of my editing clients to a contract for representation.

I know, I like, swore.

Remember what I said? There are agenting clients and there are editing client, and ne'er the two shall meet.

But then there was this one story that was super good and, like a hipster in a health foods store, I couldn't help myself. But there's an inherent conflict here: editing clients pay me money, yet agenting clients, by the rigorous ethical standards of our industry, cannot be charged money. How to bridge that gap?

You guessed it.

Long story short, this manuscript had better do well, because once it sells I am out the chunk of change that I'm refunding to the author so as to make our transaction squeaky clean. You read that right, I'm actually paying someone for the privilege of representing their manuscript. Oh, publishing.

But you guys, this book is awesome.

Remember how I went on and on about loving Percy Jackson so much? Well imagine Percy Jackson with a badass female lead, a whole lot of dark humor (the phrase "try not to dwell on it" crops up a lot), and, oh yeah, NORSE GODS. Such is the awesomeness that is Wish Maiden by Katy Kerrey, who will have a website up as soon as I lay myself prostrate at her feet and beg her to do it.

Check out the query below!

"When 17-year-old Rafe winds up on the wrong end of a pistol during a bank robbery, he’s convinced he’s a goner. That’s until she shows up; the mysterious, beautiful girl named Kara who saves his life and gets stuck in his head. There’s just one catch: that beautiful girl is no girl at all, but a 1,000-year-old Valkyrie, a powerful being from Norse mythology who does the bidding of the gods. Who, by the way, are all real. Who knew?

"Now Rafe and Kara are caught in a forbidden infatuation between mortal and immortal, not to mention a race against time as an unseen power tries to use their love to bring about Ragnarok—otherwise known as the Apocalypse. Puppy love has never been so dangerous.

"Wish Maiden is a 79,000-word YA fiction from Katy Kerrey, a technical writer who earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is represented by Ethan Vaughan of Kimberley Cameron & Associates."    

You're jealous of my job right now. That's okay; it's an amazing job. But Katy Kerrey pretty much made my life when she asked me to edit this book, and after I realized what a gem it was I just couldn't let it go. What's even better is that it's a part of a series that, I promise you, gets pretty damn heavy. Do you know what's supposed to happen during Ragnarok? A wolf eats the sun. And that's not even the worst of it, so our buddies Rafe and Kara had better come through in a big way. 

I suppose that's enough bragging for one night. Katy will have her site up soon, and when she does I will be sure to link you all to it. Until then, keep writing and watch out for the frost giants! 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Does Pain Make Your Writing Better? (Get Ready for the Emo Post)

When I was a teenager, I joined my local choir and discovered a talent for singing. My range was good, my tone passable, my pitch on point. The teacher suggested I audition for solo parts. The one criticism that she and others consistently raised, however, was that of feeling.

"You hit all the notes," someone once said to me. "But you don't understand the words. You need life to teach you what they mean."

At 15 I scoffed, but with time I came to see the truth in that observation. Living and, more to the point, losing, made me a better singer. I'm willing to wager the same thing holds true with writing.

I've written a lot here about literature, but very little about my pursuits or personal life--not because I feel it would be improper but because I have literally nothing, save perhaps affinity with the ukulele, to ham up. That's all that's stopped me: boringness. Well, that and the fact that I am allegedly here to impart words of publishing wisdom. But when my pursuits and personal life conspire so well to be instructive, why not exploit them?

In that vein, I'll tell you something you may not know about me: I, like many of you, am a writer. I won't bore you with the details of individual projects (though they are all, rest assured, superb, and have been withheld from public view only so as not to shame other authors), but they do exist and I pursue them for the same reasons you do--love of the craft, love of the characters, and a sense that I might be able to capture something of my own emotion and convey it in a way others can be affected by. Or something.

Something else you may not know about me: I had a near-death experience last year. Told you the Emo was coming.

I am not, by the way, referring to my flight home from PNWA with an entire troop of Boy Scouts fresh from a showerless nature retreat, though that in any event proved nearly as fatal.

No, what actually nearly killed me involved a shower stall, a persistent cough, sauteed vegetables, and, for some reason, Kelly Clarkson music. It was my own stupidity, really. I knew I was sick. I knew I was missing more and more work. I knew I was unaccountably weak. I knew I'd started to enjoy Doomsday Castle, which alone probably implied some level of impairment. And then one day, BAM.

The experience of waking from a coma in a hospital bed, of not knowing where I was or how I'd gotten there, is one I'll never forget. The experience of tripping absolute balls also stands out quite prominently. I don't know what they had me on, but it would have been so much fun if it wasn't being administered because I'd nearly been murdered by my own lungs.

But for real, guys, this was not good. My brother drove down from his home out of state. My mother cried. My father was so moved as to attempt a joke, which of course made a previously tolerable situation just unbearable. That being said, this turned out very well--and not just because I got to be high as a kite for several days without breaking any laws. For one thing, I made a full recovery. So yay. And for another, I noticed something when next I sat down at my keyboard to pen one of my own stories instead of editing someone else's: I had more to say.

Something about so nearly losing my life opened, at least initially, a great vent of fear and pain within me, and I found that the memory of that experience in turn yielded writing that was more poignant, more cognizant of mortality, better able to express loss and fear and pain.

Anyone in my generation who can claim not to have been affected by the Harry Potter franchise missed some crucial part of childhood. That story was a common thread in all our lives. And it, too, was enhanced by suffering. Its author, JK Rowling, lost her mother as she was composing the draft of the first novel, and she has stated on several occasions the death made Harry's own ache for his parents that much more palpable.

So what's my advice here?

Lose a parent!

Be chronically ill for nearly a year and then almost die!

No. But we've all experienced hardship of some kind. So I suppose what I'm trying to say, with difficulty because we've spent so much time here discussing the technical aspects of writing, is to dig deep and remember your most visceral pain--whatever it is--when writing. Not to the point that you're blubbering at the keyboard, but to the point that you can credibly relate pain--and credibly relate the relief that happiness always is. It's never just there. It's always liberation from something else.

So what do you think? Does pain make your writing better?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Showing Instead of Telling

One of the most maddening things I heard when I was a younger writer was to "show instead of tell."

"Don't tell me what your characters are thinking, Ethan," my creative writing teacher would prompt with infuriating tranquility. "Let your characters' actions show what's going on."

The Ethan of 2008 scoffed.

Please, writing instructor who clearly knows less than me, I mused. My readers are not psychics. They simply must be told that Sharon's eyes "shimmered with the ghosts of pain long scarred, glistened with the white-hot anguish of love lost."

The thing is, my professor--a 28-year-old christened "Old Hook Leg" for reasons that have nothing to do with what you might imagine--was right. Actions speak louder than words. Less is more. Whatever the cliche, the core value rings true: details conveyed through action pack a bigger punch than those conveyed through exposition, and they are furthermore more enjoyable to read.

You have to get that weight off the ground somehow, but telling is like doing it with an ugly forklife--while showing is the equivalent of having your barbell hoisted by an adorable little baby! (See what I did there?)

And who doesn't like babies? Maybe like, Satan or something, but then again, if Satan wrote a manuscript I'm sure it would be filled with dreadful run-on sentences. So there.

But how does one actually do this?

Let's revisit Sharon. Let's say that Sharon is a 43-year-old woman whose husband of 20 years has just informed her he wants a divorce. Now let's tell.

"Sharon reeled with David's words: 'I don't love you anymore'--literally reeled, like she'd been shot through the chest with a harpoon. It couldn't be real. The pain, the pain was just too great. She had never imagined that something could hurt as bad as what David had just said to her, couldn't fathom that a two-decade marriage that had produced two children was now at an end.

"Her eyes leaked tears leaden with the fury and sadness of a woman scorned. She couldn't believe he was doing this to her."

Tell me that wasn't some bullshit. Overwrought, overly sentimental, and, what's more, you have no image of what's actually going on. Let's try showing.

"Sharon stared at David with an ashen face.

"'You don't...'

"'I don't love you anymore,' he answered. His eyes glistened. 'I'm sorry, Sharon.'

"Sharon whispered something to herself that David couldn't hear.


"She shook her head and turned to leave, but stumbled as she approached the door.


"She'd curled in on herself, clutching her ribs as her frame shook with sobs.

"'Twenty years, David,' she said. 'Get out. Just get out.'"

Less is more, folks. The second passage demonstrates, quite clearly, that Sharon is devastated by her husband's decision, but it never has to be directly stated. If you can show emotion and motivation through plot movement, you'll both save time and keep your readers' attention. Both of which are, evidently, things writers should be doing.

Being a literary agent teaches you a lot of things.