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Literary Agent Interview: Deidre Knight of the Knight Agency

This installment features Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency. Deidre established The Knight Agency (TKA) in 1996 after working in the entertainment industry. She is seeking: romance, nonfiction, literary fiction, young adult and middle grade lists with debut or established authors.

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Deidre Knight) 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, 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 agencies.

This installment features Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency. Deidre established The Knight Agency (TKA) in 1996 after working in the entertainment industry. As president of TKA, she has built a dynamic, bestselling client list, placing titles in a broad range of categories. Her most well-known clients include New York Times best-selling author Gena Showalter and co-authors Don Piper and Cecil Murphey, whose blockbuster title, 90 Minutes in Heaven, has remained on the NYT bestseller list for 186 weeks and counting. Visit TKA’s blog, Deidre��s professional website or writing blog, or follow her on Twitter.

(What to write in the BIO section of your query letter.)

She is seeking: romance, nonfiction, literary fiction, young adult and middle grade lists with debut or established authors.

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GLA: How and why did you become an agent?

DK: Something that’s always been very near and dear to my heart is entrepreneurism. My sister Pamela, who happens to be The Knight Agency’s VP of Sales, and I grew up working in our family business, which was a priceless education in commitment and sacrifice. Though I dreamed of starting my own company for years, it took me a while to find the perfect fit.

You might say lightning struck when my husband and I had dinner with an agent who had recently moved from NYC to Atlanta. That agent signed my husband on as a client, and as we met at her house that night, the gears in my head started to spin. I realized that all of my true passions—reading, film (that was my background), editing, sales and marketing—were wrapped up in this beautiful package called literary agent. It was like Christmas morning, and I’d received the best present I could hope for. After that, I began laying the groundwork for my new enterprise using my marketing and sales experience, as well as a stint in the entertainment field, to launch the agency. The doors to TKA finally opened in 1996, right around the time the Internet took off—timing was everything.

(Are you writing middle grade, edgy paranormal, women's fiction or sci-fi? Read about agents seeking your query NOW.)

GLA: What's something you've sold that comes out soon that you're excited about?

DK: Questions like these are always difficult because I am excited about so many things! Let’s see, Jessica Andersen’s sixth Nightkeepers book, Storm Kissed (Signet Eclipse, June 2011), just came out. It’s a fast-paced, steamy paranormal/urban fantasy – perfect for a summertime read.

Down the pike, I’m looking forward to Gena Showalter’s next Alien Huntress novel, Dark Taste of Rapture (Pocket, August 2011), and the third book in her young adult series, Twisted (Harlequin Teen, August 2011). I’m particularly excited about Twisted because young adult is an area where there is tremendous growth, and Gena has done such a phenomenal job of harnessing that zeitgeist. Her New York Times best-selling Intertwined series centers around sixteen-year old Aden Stone, who has four souls trapped inside his head and an affinity for attracting the dark side.

Louisa Edwards is working on an absolutely delectable contemporary romance trilogy that takes you behind the scenes of a Top Chef-like competition. Her series kicks off with Too Hot to Touch in August (St. Martin’s).

A little later in the year, Bryan Anderson, an Iraq vet, triple amputee and Purple Heart recipient, has a memoir coming out, No Turning Back (Berkley, November 2011), written with David Mack.

Farther out on the horizon, Diana Peterfreund’s post apocalyptic retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the YA novel, For Darkness Shows the Stars, will be released. That’s a book I’m particularly excited about. Diana is such a gifted storyteller, and this new book of hers is no exception (having been lucky enough to read it!).

GLA: You are an author as well as an agent—the last in your Gods of Midnight series, Red Mortal, came out April 5 (Signet)—congrats! How do you think this dual perspective affects the types of projects you take on as an agent?

DK: Being an author doesn’t affect the types of projects I take on, but it definitely manifests itself in other ways. My eye for true craftsmanship is sharper, and my editorial skills have grown more robust, since I became a published author. Facing the challenges of developing proposals from the ground-up, meeting deadlines, incorporating copyedits, and deploying promotional campaigns, to name a few things, equipped me with the ability to comprehensively counsel my clients on both the writing and business side of the publishing fence. I can definitely say that I have even more empathy, too, for just how hard this business—and meeting deadlines—can be. I’m grateful that I’ve gained a view from the so-called “other side of the desk.”

GLA: With your clients’ bodies of work, such as Gena Showalter’s Lord of the Underworld series and Alien Huntress series, would you say you have a soft spot for paranormal romance and sci-fi/fantasy in particular? If so, what would you say draws you to the speculative realm? And what are some subjects or elements within it that tend to sucker you in?

DK: Of course, I love a good paranormal or sci-fi/fantasy, but my tastes are wide and varied. Historicals, contemporaries, suspense, or even nonfiction or literary fiction, can just as easily draw me in.

As for the speculative realm, what “gets” me is character development. It doesn’t matter if the heroine can control machines with her mind or if the hero transforms into a mountain lion. If the author makes me care about their characters, I’m going to turn the page to find out what happens next—and so are readers.

GLA: On the flip side of that, is there anything within that realm that’s an instant turnoff for you (certain creatures, topics, etc.)?

DK: You know, I can’t think of any creature
that would turn me off. I have a not-so-secret addiction to all things Joss Whedon, as well as Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, Twilight Zone, Roswell, Star Trek, etc., etc. I wouldn’t want to come across some of these types of characters in a dark alley, but on the printed page—anything goes.

GLA: Settle an age-old debate:
a.) Zombies
b.) Unicorns
c.) None of the Above
d.) Who cares??

DK: Unicorns, of course. But only if they are the kick-butt, man-eating kind, as opposed to the sparkly, cartoonish ones leaping across a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper.

My client Diana Peterfreund has an amazing young adult series, including Rampant and Ascendant, about venomous, fanged unicorns that can only be killed by female descendants of Alexander the Great. So, the choice is clear, LOL.

GLA: Talk to us about your interest in romance. What are you looking for right now and not getting? What’s your advice on how new writers can stay fresh yet stick with the conventions of the romance genre?

DK: I’m open to all genres of romance, except futuristic—which I personally enjoy, but it’s just such a tough sell. Contemporary, military suspense, young adult and a rich historical are all at the top of my list, as well as women’s fiction and urban fantasy with a super strong voice because it is such a flooded genre.

One thing I’m definitely not seeing enough is lyrical-commercial fiction. If I got a hold of something like one of my all-time favorite books, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger or David Cristofano’s The Girl She Used to Be—I would be over the moon.

The most important thing new writers can do to stay fresh is be true to themselves. No one has your unique voice, and if you try to bend and shape your point of view into something that’s “on trend”—the story will come across as lacking sincerity and heart. Any seasoned literary agent will be able to spot you coming a mile away.

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GLA: You are actively acquiring young adult lit. How about middle grade?

DK: Definitely. I’m actively shopping a few middle grade and YAs right now. My most recent middle grade was The Last Martin(Zondervan) by Jonathan Friesen, which came out this March.

I have kidlets who are in the MG age group, so I interact with these types of books on a daily basis. You might say I have a vested interest in finding smart, entertaining MG titles, which I think are so important in helping kids develop an early love for reading. I also love test-driving proposals by reading them to the kids.

GLA: As well, with the general interests you list and looking at some of your clients who write for younger readers (Marley Gibson, Diana Peterfreund, Gena Showalter) you seem to be drawn more to sci-fi/fantasy/paranormal here too, although contemporary is listed in your bio as well. Is that so? And, if that’s not necessarily the case, what subjects grab you in contemporary?

DK: The same is true in this case, as with everything I do—I am always firing on all burners. Sci-fi/fantasy/paranormal is a big favorite of mine, clearly, but I also love contemporary works. I’m interested in relevant, issue-driven young adult with a compelling voice.

Recently, I took on a debut novelist, Timothy Woodward, and sold his coming-of-age story about coming out in a small rural town, Purple Cow. I’m currently shopping a very edgy, commercial literary YA about a professed “good girl” who falls for the worst sort of boy. I’ve tended to do a lot of paranormal and fantasy in the past, but I’m eager to change it up for sure.

GLA: If you were to Google a prospective client, what are three things you’d like to pop up in your search right away? (What should all new writers be doing?)

DK: First off, anyone who submits to me should know that I automatically Google them. And I’m not embarrassed to admit that because I think that everyone who queries me should have already typed my name into some sort of search engine. Researching who you want to work with is important for both the aspiring author and agent.

(Do agents Google writers after reading a query?)

As an agent, the top three things I want to see are a polished website, an articulate (hopefully well-trafficked) blog, active Twitter presence, ditto FB account. So, that’s really four, but I think Twitter and Facebook go hand in hand.

These are not prerequisites for finding representation, but they do give me sense that a potential client has some sort of web savvy. That’s super important because we’ll be utilizing a wide range of social media tools for branding and promotion. Not only that, but prospective editors are looking for the exact same thing.

GLA: What is the worst thing a writer can do in chapter 1?

DK: Do a lot of describing of weather (I see this one a lot!) and not focus on immediacy. That opening shouldn’t just be active, either, but be emotionally immediate. Make me invest in the characters from moment one.

I recently signed on a debut author, Leigh Evans, and sold her in a pre-empt to St. Martin’s. She hooked me from page one. I literally had tears in my eyes on the first page. That’s a rare ability to invest the reader emotionally, right from the get go. I think too many first chapters focus on action or sounding elegant, but don’t make me care about the characters or make them real to me.

(Chapter 1 cliches and overused beginnings -- see them all here.)

GLA: I read an impassioned piece you wrote for ESPAN about digital publishing a few summers back (supporting it). How have perspectives changed within the industry since you wrote the article? (Have they changed?) And what do you wish everyone knew about digital publishing?

DK: I am so glad I wrote that piece, and that it still lives on. You can bet I’m as passionate today about the issues surrounding digital publishing as I was then—maybe more so.

Our industry is undergoing so many changes right now, some days it feels as if the very ground is shifting under our feet. I think the vast majority of the people who were holding on to the “old guard” a few years ago have done a complete about-face, or are in the planning stages of making one. They have to in order to survive. Publishers, agents, writers organizations and writers themselves are stepping up to the plate to create language in contracts, contests, promotion, etc., that accounts for the digital revolution we’re experiencing.

What I wish everyone would understand about digital publishing is that it doesn’t eclipse the need for traditional publishing. Eventually, we will reach a saturation point, and quality will determine what material rises to the top. Not every author will be able to produce, promote and manage their e-books releases, while allowing time to actually write more books. It’s a big job, and publishers, agents and writers must come together in a fair and equitable manner to write the new rulebook for digital publishing. I firmly believe there is a place for everyone at the table. Not only that, I believe that print books will keep a horse in the ole race, too. They aren’t going to die completely—and if I need be, I’ll write just as impassioned a piece on the long-term viability of print as I did about the legitimacy of digital publishing. LOL.

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

DK: I think aspiring authors sometimes think that agents believe their opinion is the ultimate one. I’m the first to admit that I’ve passed on some books that went on to be big, that I don’t think I’m going to love each and every publishable book, not by a long shot. How can I possibly work with that many writers? Sometimes I find that authors want to lord it over me if I passed on them and they became successful or sold, which I think is pure silliness because I never claimed to have perfect taste or that my passing means a book or author isn’t perfectly talented.

Something else? That I can still, 10 years later, discuss "Roswell" based on episode titles and numbers. I’m that much of a geek.

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers conferences where writers can meet and pitch you?

DK: I’ll be in NYC at the Romance Writers of America convention in July, and am taking pitches there. In early August, I’m the keynote speaker for the Pocono LeHigh Romance Writers’ Retreat at Sea, which I am so excited about. I’ll be leading critiques, workshops and doing pitches as we sail up the coast of New England and Canada. In September, I’m speaking at CaRWA’s retreat in Calgary, Canada, and that same month I’ll be taking pitches and speaking at the Georgia Romance Writers’ Moonlight & Magnolias conference in Decatur, Georgia.

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

DK: The best advice I can give to an aspiring author is to get serious about your career. It’s more than a hobby. You have to be focused and educated. Join writers’ organizations or a critique group, read, read, read and read some more in the genre you want to write in and search the web on the proper way to format a manuscript and query an agent way before you start submitting.

Our agency gets 300 submissions a week. In order to stand out, your query letter has to be beyond reproach and when we ask for sample pages—they need to be A+ shape. If you’ve done your homework, you will be successful.

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This guest column by Ricki Schultz,
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