Interview Part Two | Peter Knapp
I first became aware of Park Literary agent Peter Knapp during WriteonCon 2012. (What a great conference, by the way. Big shout out to all who organized it!) Anyway, I was on a few panels and signed into a forums and what name did I hear bandied about over and over? If you said Veronica Roth, you’d be right. But I also heard Peter Knapp’s name a hell of a lot and, me being me, I just HAAADDD to know more. Fast-forward a few weeks one email later and ta-da! One of the most in-depth, detailed, eloquent interviews I’ve ever conducted. Peter was an absolute joy to speak with – articulate and so passionate about books and the industry – and I can’t wait to watch his career blossom.
Peter and I talked everything from queries to stories to Park Literary to Nicholas Sparks to Marvin Hamlisch and editing. So please enjoy Part Two of our interview and don’t forget to read Part One if you haven’t!
Talk to me about editing. What are some tips and tricks of editing well?
If possible, I like to read a book twice before giving feedback. The first time I read, I am focused on my gut reaction. What did I like, what didn’t I like, where did my mind wander—those sort of broader notes. I’m not particularly worried about the why part of it at this stage. I approach that question in the second pass, when I try to refine my comments.
I think it’s important for writers to invest the time to read about writing. I have a small library of resource books on the subject that lives behind my desk. One I read recently that has been helpful was Second Sight by Cheryl Klein, an editor at Scholastic. In it, a technique she encourages is writing a chapter outline that distills each chapter to about a sentence. It becomes a map of the book, helping to identify where there are holes in the story. I used this technique for a book I recently read, and it helped me go beyond “something is missing from this relationship”; I was able to pinpoint what was missing, and advise where I thought the author needed to add a chapter.
I also once wrote out character names on a page, almost like a solar system with the first person narrator in the middle and the other narrators orbiting her; then I used colored pencils to draw lines between different characters to help figure out the relationships. It’s important not to forget about secondary characters, and I think it can be helpful to actually start by charting the arcs of supporting characters, and then going back and figuring out how these characters inform the main character’s story. Really, though, it depends on the project. Sometimes I don’t need these techniques—the changes I suggest are more immediately apparent.
Alright, personal story time. In addition to my arts and entertainment site, I’m a writer as well. I can honestly say that I hate reading my work once it’s published. I see about a dozen things I want to change in it! (And that’s only the first paragraph!) 🙂 I could edit forever. So my question: how do you know when a story is ready? How do you know when it’s time to quit the tinkering and start trying to find a home for the work?
I recently was on a panel for young writers at UConn, and this question came up for Benjamin Hale, who is the author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (aside: if you ever get a chance to see Benjamin Hale read, you must…his readings are like one-man shows; simply incredible, and I promise you I have no business reason for saying so!). So I will defer to his answer, which has no doubt been said countless times by countless people: A finished product is better than a perfect one. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should type “The End” and send it to every agent and editor that your Google search turns up. But if you’re getting sick of your own writing, it might be time to either put it away for a bit and work on something else, or decide that you are in fact done editing, that you now need to get it into the hands of a professional. I’m not sure there’s an easy litmus test though. There are countless narrative and character checklists out there you can use, but writing is luckily not a formula, and so it’s unlikely you’ll come to an “aha” point where it’s obvious you’re done.
You’re very selectively starting to build a client list. Obvious question first: what are you looking for?
In the most general terms, I’m looking for middle grade and young adult fiction. In middle grade, I have a soft spot for voice-driven stories that are grounded with realism, even if they have fantastic elements. Think Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, Shilohby Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker. All of these stories are grounded in our recognizable world, they’re voice-driven, and they have that wonderful bitter-sweet element that I think resonates with middle grade readers and certainly resonates with me. I like sad stories and preadolescent melancholy, but they have to have humor. Some of the best middle grade involves characters who feel as though they’re somehow different from their peers (a personality difference, a physical difference, a difference in family situation, etc), and then their uniqueness helps them overcome an obstacle or succeed in getting what they want, depending on the story. It’s about embracing differences without condemning the notion of family, friendship or community.
In young adult fiction, it’s all about voice, character and story for me—not genre. Because I’m looking for something that hasn’t necessarily been done before, it’s hard to name it. I am currently very interested in contemporary stories that use an interesting narrative device—such as Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up, which is written as a letter from the narrator to her ex-boyfriend, or Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, which is told largely through the tapes left behind by a girl who has killed herself. These types of narrative hooks are aesthetically interesting and I think teen readers tend to enjoy their cleverness. The epistolary novel can be great when done right because it feels incredibly intimate. I also want more YA books that are set in a world familiar to ours—but somehow different. Something is off. Recent examples that come to mind are Kat Zhang’s What’s Left of Me, in which people are born with two souls, and Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys, set in a campus town where magic lurks just beneath the surface. I love when mystery meets magic. And I’m interested in stories with LGBT characters, characters from different cultures, or characters whose life experiences are otherwise somehow different than the typical young adult protagonist, whether it’s because they’re blind, deaf, etc; this doesn’t necessarily mean the main conflict has to be driven by this identity—but it allows many readers to experience the world in a new way, through the protagonist’s perspective.
What kinds of books have you read that really inform who you are as an agent?
Perhaps one of the most influential books was Dear Genius, which is the collected letters of Ursula Nordstrom, the editor of E. B. White, Maurice Sendak, Margaret Wise Brown, Louise Fitzhugh and countless others. Nordstrom was a workaholic, but she approached her work with such care and passion and integrity. And she had a wonderful, dry sense of humor, which I think is important not just in this industry but in life in general!
What’s the best way for a writer to get in touch with you?
Writers can figure out how to contact me on our website, under the “contact us” page. And I’m on Twitter — @petejknapp – and always happy to answer questions there when I can!
Can you sum up your agenting style? Are you very editorial, do you like a lot of updates and communication from clients, etc?
My agenting style will surely evolve as I begin to build my list. How I work with anyone is partially dependent on the person and the situation—I wouldn’t insist on talking every day with someone who has a fear of phones (what’s the name of that phobia?). I probably don’t need to know what someone ate for dinner or that they finished another sentence, but an agent is an author’s career champion, so it’s important to have an open dialogue between each other—otherwise it’s hard to do a good job. In terms of editorial work—yes, part of what interests me about my career path is the editorial side of it, and so I imagine I will be pretty hands on in this regard, particularly before a book goes on submission.
What made you decide that being a literary agent was the career path you wanted to take? You graduated with a BA in art history. Did you have a defining, ah-ha! moment where you realized you wanted to work in the book industry?
When I was a sophomore in college, I was Googling something about the Lord of the Rings movies, and I just happened to stumble into a posting for an internship at New Line Cinema, the studio behind that franchise. The executive I ended up working under (way under, really—I was working for the executive’s assistant) was largely in charge of book-to-film adaptations, and I very quickly fell in love with the process of evaluating manuscripts for that purpose. I have been falling down the rabbit hole ever since.
You recently attended WriteonCon 2012. Your forum thread about queries and what grabs you was great. You were fair but honest and laid out reasons why something did or did not work for you. In fact, one of the reasons you passed on a query letter (though it did have elements you liked) was that the hook wasn’t high concept enough. Can you explain what a high concept hook is?
High concepts, for me, are fresh ideas that help define the story in very simple terms—ie, in Harry Potter it would be the concept of a school for wizards, in Inception it’s the idea of traveling into dreams, in If I Stay it’s the out of body experience. The real problem with that specific query is that the concept felt a little unwieldy to me—it felt like a lot of different ideas melded together. This doesn’t mean that the story has to be reduced to this one single high concept—but if your story isn’t going to be character driven, the concept will have to instead be the center of gravity. I should clarify that I am more likely to be interested in a query that conveys interesting characters without a high concept. In fact, I don’t mind a familiar concept if the characters are fresh enough and the story is told in a new way.
You also mentioned that you think there’s a real appetite among MG readers for good mysteries. Are there any other stories you feel certain genres are wanting?
There’s a real hunger for high stakes contemporary YA, like Thirteen Reasons Why or Before I Fall. But while genre labels are helpful when querying and selling books, they’re really just a semantic construct. Before I Fall could be called contemporary realistic fiction, it could be called magic realism, it could be called a mystery. The best books ultimately transcend their genres, helping them to break out and find a wider audience.
I think editors are also looking for good historical fiction, within multiple subgenres. I’d be happy with more ghost stories, too, so long as it’s not just a straight up paranormal romance. And I feel like there could be more time travel stories, reincarnation stories and alien stories. (Not all of these will be right for me, but just speaking generally.) Again, many books fall into multiple categories. Take Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which (spoiler alert) begins as a contemporary story in Florida, brings us to a remote island in the Atlantic, and ends in the midst of World War II after considerable time travel. (This is a case where a really strong protagonist and writing help ground what might’ve otherwise been an unwieldy concept.)
You work with some amazing, very successful people such as Theresa Park, the above-mentioned authors (see question 1), Janice Y.K. Lee, and others. What are some things you’ve learned from them?
I’m lucky to work under Theresa, and to get to work with her authors. One important thing I’ve learned is that authors must remain genuine. With so much focus on social media, blogs, websites, and so on, there is much talk about “branding.” Brands are important, but they only work if there is real authenticity behind them. Fans know when something is false. I think the word “brand” can have a negative connotation, because it sounds so manufactured, but in fact what I’ve seen with our bestselling authors is that their brands have grown organically out of their own views and attitudes and work. They inform the brand and not the other way around.
Another thing I’ve learned is that no two authors are alike, and no two editors are alike, and no two publicists are alike. It’s the snowflake theory, with everyone having his or her own individual needs and habits. That’s why an agent is so important: agents know how all of these people work best and what their tastes are, and they can plan accordingly.
Alright, I swear these questions are just about wrapped up. I have a few more though!
To go back to building your list, what else are you looking for in a story besides a high concept? Can you boil it down, or do you just know it when you see it?
When I think back to the stories I’ve read and loved over the last few years, I always think about the characters first and the stories second. Part of the reason I like “bittersweet” stories is because what I’m remembering is the story’s emotional impact, and this requires the reader to be invested in the character. So, the short answer is that I look for the emotional journey. This requires the perfect storm of character, plot, and writing. And oftentimes, this emotional story comes out of the story of relationships—think about Stand by Me. It’s about four kids looking for a body, but the focus is on the dynamic between the kids who are at a crossroads in their lives. The body drives the adventure, but it’s the characters that drive the emotional story.
There are other things that I don’t necessarily look for, but that I often like, such as narrative hooks as I mentioned above (epistolary novels, etc), though it can be hard to pull these off because the hook might end up overwhelming the actual story, so that it can’t be done in a way that is believable.
Are the things you look for the same things as what Park Lit looks for?
I will be focusing on kids’ lit, whereas Park Literary has traditionally focused on adult books—but I think in terms of fiction, we all share a taste in stories with high emotional impact.
Finally, as my readers know, I can’t ever end an interview without asking for advice. So please Peter, give me some advice for all the writers out there who are finished with their book and want to get published. Give those people who are just starting out on their road to publication.
Well, I will start with the generic advice of: persistence! Keep going! Don’t forget that you love to write, that you have to write, and that while yes, a rejection sucks, it doesn’t stick—you can keep moving on and you’ll forget about it pretty quickly.
But, more practically speaking, one piece of helpful advice is that when you’re querying agents, don’t feel like you have to send it to everyone at once. Send it to a smaller group first, and if they all reject it, you may want to use that as an opportunity to revisit your book and see if there are areas that you can improve. And don’t forget: you have to be professional—both in your query letter, but also in your life online. Agents oftentimes will look up authors, in part to see that they have an online presence (which will be important for their careers down the road) but also in part to make sure that the writer is someone who won’t be impossible to work with!