Agent Advice: Cameron McClure of Donald Maass Literary Agency

This installment features Cameron McClure of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. She joined the Maass Agency in 2004 and, in addition to her own growing client list, Cameron handles the agency's foreign and film rights. She is seeking: Cameron represents mostly fiction and is especially interested in seeing literary fiction, mystery and suspense, urban fantasy (fantasy and SF set on Earth), and projects with multi-cultural, international, environmental, and GBLT themes.
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“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Cameron McClure of Donald Maass Literary Agency) is a series of quick interviews with literary agents and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, writing conferences & retreats, and just about anything else. This series has more than 170 interviews so far with reps from great literary agencies. This collection of interviews is a great place to start if you are just starting your research on literary agents.

This installment features Cameron McClure of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. She joined the Maass Agency in 2004 and, in addition to her own growing client list, Cameron handles the agency's foreign and film rights.

She is seeking: Cameron represents mostly fiction and is especially interested in seeing literary fiction, mystery and suspense, urban fantasy (fantasy and SF set on Earth), and projects with multi-cultural, international, environmental, and GBLT themes.

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: How did you become an agent?

CM: My first job in publishing was working for Curtis Brown, for an agent who handles primarily romance. I’ve never been an avid romance reader, and coming off of four years studying “literature” in college, it was the perfect introduction to commercial and genre fiction: what most people actually buy and read. I was very attracted to the freedom you have as an agent, to work with whatever material you connect with and think you can sell, regardless of category. I was hooked.

GLA: Are there any books coming out now that have you excited?

CM: I have a lot of exciting books coming out this season. [Robert Jackson Bennett’s] Mr. Shivers(Orbit), a horror novel set during the Great Depression has been described as a mix of Stephen King and John Steinbeck.

I have three new urban fantasy series debuting this spring: [Carolyn Crane’s] Mind Games (Bantam), about a hypochondriac who learns how to weaponize her neurosis; [Sonya Bateman’s] Master of None (Pocket), about an unlucky thief who must partner with a surly male genie; and [J.A. Pitts’s] Black Blade Blues (Tor), featuring a lesbian blacksmith, Norse mythology, and dragons.

And in May 2010, I have a literary crime novel [by Emily Winslow] coming out called The Whole World (Delacorte).

GLA: What are you looking for right now when tackling the slush pile?

CM: “Good writing” and “voice” are high on the list, as is a strong plot, original premise, both internal and external character conflicts, and a sense of suspense or narrative momentum. When I’m reading, I need to feel that the story is really going somewhere, and I look for writers who are making their scenes work double duty for them in terms of moving the story forward.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen a lot of superb writing with unique narrative voices, but weak overall storylines. What I’m looking for are projects that incorporate all of these elements.

I also get a lot of urban fantasy pitches that seem really derivative. If you’re writing in a saturated field like urban fantasy, or, say, thrillers, it’s important to know the genre well enough to come up with an out-of-the-box concept.

(Find more urban fantasy agents.)

GLA: One category you seek is GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender), which we have not discussed very much on the blog. What are you looking for here? Perhaps describe some past books you’ve represented in this area and what made you decide to take them on?

CM: I’m really looking for the same story elements as I described above. It drives me crazy that I get so many queer memoirs and coming of age novels where the author assumes that it’s enough to just be gay, and nothing much else is going on in their stories other than this identity crisis. I don’t mean to trivialize that experience, but at the same time, many coming out stories don’t make for a riveting read or can sustain the scope of a novel all on their own. This only works if you’re writing at the level of someone like David Sedaris or Alison Smith.

In fiction, most of the authors I work with who have published in this field are looking to bridge the gap and write something that is true to the queer experience but will have mainstream appeal. In nonfiction, I work with Keith Stern whose reference book, Queers in History (BenBella) was published last summer.

GLA: I read you are particularly drawn to mysteries and thrillers. In your mind, what separates these three categories?

CM: The way I see it, a pure mystery is where the crime has already happened, and the protagonist must solve it. In a thriller, the protagonist is often waiting for the crime to occur or working to prevent it. Mysteries can be more introspective, with a focus on the protagonist’s mental powers of deduction, where thrillers are known for more action and physicality. In mysteries, a key element of the plot is hidden from the reader, such as (most traditionally) who the villain is. In a thriller, you often know who the villain is fairly early on, and the plot is centered around a game of cat and mouse.

(Discover more thriller agents.)

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GLA: What do women’s fiction writers need to do in 2010 in order to thrive—and what are you tired of seeing here?

CM: In women’s fiction, I see a lot of female characters who spend a good portion of the book as victims, or not taking charge of their own lives. It’s hard for me to get behind characters like this. I know that throughout the course of the story they will step up and create better situations for themselves, but in the meantime, we are stuck with a weak character.

In a lot of women’s fiction submissions, I see really strong and well-developed internal conflicts, but sometimes there is no external conflict at all, which is a problem for me. Also, don’t call it chick lit.

GLA: Do you find a lot of writers mislabeling women's fiction as chick lit and vice versa? What do you think is the number one difference between these two areas?

CM: I see chick lit as being women’s fiction’s peppy and more commercial younger sister, and even though these books are still being published, no one is calling them “chick lit” anymore.

GLA: In a query letter, what will elicit an automatic rejection from you?

CM: Writers who send their query to tons of agents at once, or who simply paste a link to their blog or website and tell me to read their material. I have no interest is working with lazy people.

(Learn how to write a query letter to an agent.)

GLA: How important is an author's platform to you, and does it differ between writers of fiction and nonfiction?

CM: I mostly work with fiction writers, so platform isn’t as important to me. It certainly matters, but not nearly as much as the actual novel, and I don’t weigh it very heavily when deciding whether or not to take on a new author. Most fiction writers I sign have a website or blog or some kind of web presence, and if they don’t, I encourage them to develop something, as long as it doesn’t take too much away from working on their book (or their next book).

GLA: What is something personal about you writers may be surprised to hear?

CM: This isn’t very surprising for those who know me, but I spent last fall building the ultimate child carrying bicycle from a $20 bike off Craigslist and lots and lots of spare parts. It's not very pretty, but it rides!

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t talked about yet?

CM: Read more books. It’s one of the best and most enjoyable ways to improve your writing craft.

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This guest column by Ricki Schultz,
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