A Blue Grasshopper: An Interview with Literary Agent Elizabeth Kracht from Kimberley Cameron and Associates

Liz Kracht Headshot

photo courtesy of Liz Kracht

Last semester in the Creative Writing Master’s program at AUM, I had an assignment to interview an agent. I chose Elizabeth Kracht because I saw her name on the Antioch Writers’ Workshop roster, and I like to meet people in person. Before I reached out to Liz, I did some research and found some fun facts. She began her writing/ editing career in Puerto Rico, her favorite color is sea-foam green, and she has dating stories that you could write books about. When ordering a drink, sometimes she has the bartender surprise her.
I wanted to take a shot at creating Liz a customized drink, but first I wanted to know what it was like to be an agent, and what she could tell me about creating a platform. (Work before play, right?). It turns out she’s the kind of person I’d like to sit down and have a cocktail with, (or an iced tea and maybe some cheese). Below she discusses freelance editing, writing conferences, and how to make the best of unsuccessful dates.

 

Whitney Bell: What’s a typical work day like for you? Is there such a thing?

Elizabeth Kracht: No workday is typical, really. Having just come back from vacation, most of yesterday was spent weeding through my inbox, checking in with clients. We also had lunch with an editor from New American Library. And part of my day was spent printing a few conference submissions for the Kauai Writers Conference, which is coming up in early May (critiques). This morning I spent time on the phone with my author Lily Gardner about edits for the second book in her Lennox Cooper series, BETTING BLIND. Since I also manage the office at Kimberley Cameron & Associates, I spent some of this morning processing royalty statements. I’ve also been posting on Facebook and Twitter since my author Tj Turner’s debut novel Lincoln’s Bodyguard was just released yesterday. I did send some rejections I received from editors to my authors as well. No day is typical for an agent, really, though there is some repetition in the kinds of things we deal with.

WB: What’s your favorite thing about being an agent?

EK: My favorite thing about being an agent is working with authors and being a part of the creative process. I also like being a part of fulfilling dreams. My authors are like an extension of my family, so I get a real sense of satisfaction working with them. I find them all really interesting people. I also like working on contracts and helping to guide and build writing careers.

WB: What’s your least favorite thing about being an agent?

EK: My least favorite thing is dealing with difficult clients, though I won’t usually sign people who I think may be difficult. Life is too short to work with difficult people. Agenting can also be overwhelming since most of our reading work is done on weekends, which means little down time. This is also a commission-based job, so the job is a little like (no, it is) gambling for a living.

WB: How many manuscripts do you read per year?

EK: I read manuscripts in different capacities. This last year I believe I read at least 16 full manuscripts of my clients, some of these more than once. In my work as a freelance editor, I’d say I’ve read about 24-30 full manuscripts (I often read one manuscript four times during a coaching period). I also request quite a number of full manuscripts from authors, but I don’t always get all the way to the end of these requests. Since I am only paid for manuscripts I sell, I will stop reading full manuscripts at the point at which I know for certain I won’t be taking on a project. Sometimes I’ll continue to skim a manuscript if I’m compelled by something in the story even though I know it needs more editorial time than I can devote to it. In total, I think I read 100+ manuscripts per year. I read many more partials than this, though.

I read that you might hesitate to represent a nonfiction author who doesn’t yet have an online platform. Would you encourage writers who aspire to publish in different genres to create pseudonyms and distinct social media platforms before publication? Why or why not? 

EK: It’s very important for nonfiction authors to have a presence online and to be able to show some outreach in the community. This is something nonfiction authors should work on before they even submit to agents, though if I run across a great nonfiction project and the author isn’t out there (but has potential), I will coach them on branding themselves and getting their name out there in the quickest way possible. In terms of pseudonyms, this is a discussion I would have with an author. I don’t think I could say in any definite way here how authors writing in more than one genre should brand or market themselves. Something like this would need to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

WB: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn with respect to your work?

To trust my instincts and stick close to what I’m passionate about.

I saw you are a team member of She Writes Press. Is that still true? Can you talk a little bit about your role there, and how it differs or is similar to what you do with Kimberley Cameron?

I’m a freelance editor for She Writes Press. I tend to work with quite a number of memoirists through She Writes, which I love. She Writes has an editorial package where you can sign on to work with an editor like me and pay for a package of four phone calls and are also billed editorial hours. So, I may work with someone over the period of a year or less where I will read their full manuscript as many as four times, making notes on the manuscript itself as well as talking with the author on the phone about edits, problem-solving or the creative process. The goal is for the project to be ready for publication by the end of the 4-call package (though this doesn’t always happen). Rita Gardner’s Coconut Latitudes is one book I’ve worked on through She Writes that I’m proud of (currently up for an award). I’m looking forward to seeing Margaret Bendet’s LEARNING TO EAT ALONG THE WAY in print as well as Barbara Donsky’s VERONICA’S GRAVE.

My job as an agent is different from freelance editorial work in that as an I agree to represent an author’s work under contract to try and sell to a publisher (freelance editing is just an agreement to edit the work alongside the author). Implicit in my representation is the hope that this will be a long career of working together to build the author’s brand and sell future works. As an agent I cannot be compensated for any editorial work I do with authors I have chosen to represent; there is a code of ethics in the industry that does not allow for this. The reason I do freelance work is that being an agent is a commission-based job. So, unless an agent has another source of income, or gets lucky very quickly, it isn’t easy to make it as an agent. Usually advances and any first royalty payments are spread out over the course of a year or more.

I love my work as an agent first and foremost. The hope is that I can move away from freelance editing at some point and self-sustain through agenting alone, though I really do like developmental work with authors. I get a lot of personal satisfaction from knowing I’ve helped someone get published, even if it’s not through my representation of their work. I started my career by wanting to get published myself, so I have a natural inclination to want to help others who have the same dream. I know how hard it is to get feedback in the industry. Because of the volume of submissions we receive, time doesn’t always allow for me to give feedback, but I try my best, and we also train our assistants to give feedback when they can. Sometimes a little feedback goes a long way, such as when an author sends in a project way over word count; a little feedback on appropriate word counts for genre is eye-opening for an author and can make all the difference on whether an agent requests to see a project or not.

If anyone is interested in working with me as a freelance editor, they can contact me at liz@kimberleycameron.com and put “freelance editor” in the subject line, or work with me through She Writes Press.

WB: What’s the best writers’ conference you’ve ever been to and why? 

EK: I like so many of the conferences I’ve been to for different reasons. I hate to exclude any conference. Some conferences are great for professional connections for me, while others are more intimate and I make more of a connection with the writers. PNWA (Pacific Northwest Writers Association) is the heavy hitter of conferences. This is probably my favorite in terms of professional associations (agents and editors) and great workshops. I have signed three or more clients from this conference. They work me hard, but this is a great conference. The most fun I’ve had at a conference was at the Texas Writers Retreat organized by Chuck Sambuchino and Paul Cuclis. This was a small, intimate gathering on a ranch outside of Houston. Another intimate, personal favorite is the Kauai Writers Conference. I helped co-found this conference with two of my good friends who live on Kauai (May 1-3). The Aloha Spirit of this conference is strong, and you can’t beat the setting. I’m also regularly on faculty at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference (July 23-26) and the Chuckanut Writers Conference (June 26-27). The Boise conference is also a great one (May 14-16).

Authors should decide what conferences to attend based on their needs. If you are ready to find an agent, PNWA can’t be beat. If you want to work on craft and don’t like crowds, something more intimate might suit you better. There are also genre specific conferences, like the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference and ThrillerFest.

WB: Can you tell us something personal related to work?

EK: Most people who are friends with me on Facebook know I’m single and demand dating stories from me because my stories tend to border on the absurd, from the online scammers and twenty-somethings looking for cougars to the guys who can’t spell, turn out to be addicts or text naked body shots the minute you give out your number (I feel sorry for the lady who has my old cellphone number; I’ve actually had three people tell me they’ve talked to her by phone, and she’s not happy).

Dating has been entertaining, to say the least, especially for my Facebook friends; my boss is hoping I’ll meet a nice guy at a conference. I recently had to read two client manuscripts (BETTING BLIND by Lily Gardner and SENTENCING SAPPHIRE by Mia Thompson), both of which featured murderous online dating activity. After a recent romantic misadventure (fiasco), Mia offered to kill off the guy in her next book if I provided the name, which I did.

WB: Wow. That’s crazy. Naked body shots, really? That could drive you to drink. Have you decided on a signature Kracht cocktail yet?

EK: Lol. Now that I think about it, I can’t remember whatever happened with that. I don’t think we ever did have a Kracht cocktail winner. I’m still open to suggestions.

So here’s my submission for the Liz Kracht cocktail contest, custom made:

A Blue Grasshopper: equal parts crème de menthe, liquor 43, and coconut milk; one splash of blue curacao. Shake over ice, and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a slice of dark chocolate and enjoy with a good book.

For more information on Liz Kracht, visit her current agent page. To learn more fun facts about her, check out this interview with Lisa Alber at The Debutante Ball.

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Getting to Know Literary Agent Emma Patterson

For one of my grad school assignments this semester, I was supposed to interview an agent or an editor. Not only do I get really nervous about interviews in general, but an AGENT? I’m not even a REAL WRITER yet, right? I’m still working on my FIRST book. Agents are REALLY BUSY. How am I ever going to get an AGENT to talk to ME? These are some of the things I thought of before I emailed Emma.

It turns out, she was way more approachable than I expected, and just as helpful. My biggest takeaway is that agents are people, too, and not just all-powerful, elusive and intimidating but necessary keys to the publishing industry. I was very impressed with Emma’s empathy for her writers, and grateful for her suggestions on social media platforms. As you’ll see, Emma reads a lot; she cares about the writers she represents, and she loves books. And well, you can read the rest.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Before I contacted Emma, I Googled her, and read other interviews she had done with other folks. (This is where I learned that she has sometimes thought about opening a restaurant on the beach, which is, my favorite kind of restaurant). Also, there’s a lot out there for writers about rules and etiquette when contacting an agent, and how to be professional and courteous. For those of you looking for that information, I’ve included some links at the end of the interview to get you started.

And now, here we go: getting to know Emma Patterson:

Whitney Bell: What are your top five favorite books and why?

Emma Patterson: My early reading years were spent surrounded by Nancy Drew mysteries and the Baby Sitters Club series, but most formative for me was Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, which was the first time I remember understanding the impact of imagination, beautiful writing, and being transported to a completely new place.

Another all-time favorite has to be Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, which I think I’ve read almost every year since I was twelve. I’m connected to that book on a deep, emotional level – there are very few other books where each and every word carries so much power and heft.

Even though Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is one of the most unforgettable and gorgeous books I’ve ever read, I think I might love Truth & Beauty even more. There is no other book that so perfectly and honestly describes the importance, intensity, complexity, and pure beauty of female friendship. I also think I have to add Lonesome Dove to this list, which I love for its memorable characters and cowboys, the wild frontier setting (I felt like I could taste the gritty desert sand in my teeth as I read), and, of course, the romance.

More recently, I read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which is, hands down, of the most beautifully written, amazingly plotted, and creatively ambitious novels I’ve ever read. It’s going to stay with me for a long time. Lastly is a novel I think I can comfortably say is my most favorite book: Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love. Very few writers can intertwine seemingly disparate characters quite like Nicole Krauss can – moving effortlessly and lyrically between time, place, and character, The History of Love is haunting and brilliant. Even just thinking about that book makes my heart hurt.

Whitney Bell: What’s a typical work day like for you? Is there such a thing?

Emma Patterson: One of the great things about this job is that every day is different, but I’m always dealing with books – and people who love books – in one way or another. Most days, I’m putting out a lot of fires that come up for any number of reasons. And then I’d add in some combination of answering emails and calls from authors and editors, submitting projects, working on contracts, discussing issues with colleagues, meeting authors and editors, and attending book events. Every once and a while, I’m stealing away some quiet moments over lunch to read a submission I’m excited to get back to.

Whitney Bell: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned with respect to your work?

Emma Patterson: I’ve learned that book publishing is a tough and competitive business. Somewhat arbitrary factors – which can include anything from timing to house enthusiasm to a correctly targeted audience – can make or break a book at the point it’s being sold to a publisher (or not being sold) and eventually catching on (or not catching on). It’s been a tough lesson to watch really talented writers not be able to find a publishing home, and often times even when they do, they’re not guaranteed a commercial success. In conjunction with that frustrating lesson, I’ve also learned that book publishing is an incredibly rewarding, wonderful, and dynamic industry, and when all the pieces fall in the right way for the right book, it’s thrilling!

Whitney Bell: How many manuscripts do you read per year?

Emma Patterson: I probably read (at least a portion of) around 350-400 manuscripts a year.

Whitney Bell: How high of an emphasis do you place on a writer already having a social media platform, and how do you coach your clients to build one?

Emma Patterson: It completely depends on the client and on the book. As far as coaching clients on building a social media platform specifically, I’ve found that even though readers increasingly like to have access to writers via social media, it’s fruitless to force a writer in that direction unless it comes naturally to them. But, it’s important for an author to have some sort of platform, social media or otherwise, before they come to me – only because the more credentials I can present to a potential publisher, the better (in fiction, that’s anything from MFA programs to pieces published in magazines; in non-fiction, that’s anything from teaching in prestigious academic settings to somehow displaying their expertise in a particular field).

Every book is different, but I try to encourage my writers to continue to build their platform in the months leading up to their publication and after, which can mean networking with other writers, reaching out to local bookstores, getting new essays or stories published, or intensifying their social media presence.

Whitney Bell: Do you have a favorite book you could recommend on craft or revision?

Emma Patterson: Depending on the writer and their work, both Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay are classics. Though generally, when I’m talking to a writer who is feeling stumped on a revision, I find it most helpful think of a book with some kinship to their work (whether it’s writing style, structure, character, or story) and suggest that it might be useful to see how someone else solves that particular problem.

Whitney Bell: If you owned that restaurant on the beach, what kind of food would you serve?

Emma Patterson: Logically, I’d have to say typical beach food – grilled fish, tacos, burgers, sandwiches, etc. But my husband and I always joke about opening a baked ziti (my favorite thing to make) and ice cream (his favorite thing to make) shop, so maybe this would be my chance!

Whitney Bell: I would definitely sit at your beach restaurant and enjoy ziti and ice cream. That sounds like a logical combination. A very special thanks to Emma for taking the time to talk with us!

For more information on Emma Patterson and the type of work she represents, you can find her online at: Brandt and Hochman Literary Agents.

For information on the dos and don’ts of contacting an agent, here’s a site recommended by one of my professors: http://www.agentquery.com/writer_hq.aspx, and here’s a link that I’ve been using in my travels:http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-10-dos-and-donts-of-writing-a-query-letter. Like I said, I’m not quite there yet. But if you are, congratulations and keep up the good work!

What My Volleyball Coach Taught Me About Life: An Open Letter to Coach Lonnie Cain

Dear Lonnie,

            I saw an article today that you’re going back to coach volleyball at Covington. I’ve wanted to send you a thank you note for a while, and well, this seems like the best time. I’m going to do it publicly, if that’s okay with you—I’m afraid if I do get this all out in a card, I might not get around to finding a stamp. I bet you get that about me.

            So, I wanted to say thank you because what you taught me about volleyball, you really taught me about life. For those three years I worked with you on the court, you were more than just a coach teaching me how to handle a ball with a team, but you were a mentor teaching me how to handle myself in the world. Here’s what you taught me about volleyball and about life, in no particular order.

  • Show Up for Practice. Make it Fun.

            The first thing I learned from you is about practice. I don’t know if you knew that I always wanted to be a writer, but every morning now, I get up and practice. Some days I’m not in the mood, some days I have other things that seem way more important to do, but I get up and go to my desk anyway, and write. I practice. After a while, it stops feeling like work and it starts feeling like fun.

            I think of all of those days after school I ran around the gym chasing volleyballs with my friends and laughing, playing games, and I didn’t know then that you were teaching us a million things at once, but one of them that working hard at something you love should, can, and will be fun. You might even get good at it if you practice enough. If not, well, at least you enjoyed yourself. But the important part is, you have to show up.

  • Real Leaders are Kind

            I can remember and count on one hand the times you got mad at us, and showed it. For a group of giggly, immature, hyper, boy-crazy teenage girls, this is unbelievable. Thank you.

            However you did that, it taught me that it is possible–when you feel the steam coming out of your ears and your face bright red–to take a deep breath, and count to ten. Because even when you’re having a day where you’ll feel like you’re losing the game but trying your best and you’re about to explode from the inside out, you can still hold yourself together, call a time out, talk about a new strategy, have a drink of water, look to your friends for a little encouragement, give someone else a ‘you can do it’ and then get back in the game.

            The best way to teach someone else that is to model it.

            Thank you for doing that.

  • How to be Part of a Team

            When I was going to be a sophomore, you pulled me aside and asked me if I would move to varsity. You wanted me to set a five-one offense, which meant (to the civilians) I’d be playing with some girls older and more experienced, but I needed to lead them. You said this included (but was not limited to), taking responsibility for the team’s mess-ups, even if they weren’t my fault, and transferring the glory for the great plays, even if I’d set a perfect ball.

            A humble leader, you said, admits fault in a bad play and lifts up her teammate at every opportunity.

            I can’t tell you how valuable this has been in my life. This one skill set has allowed me to carry myself with integrity and earn respect of those around me; I continue to use it in my relationships and my career. Celebrating other people’s successes is one of my favorite things to do in my family and with my friends, and being at the bottom with someone, ready to lift them up when it’s time for them to get in stance again, is one of my most purposeful missions.

  • Aim for One Specific Thing

            So, I was your player who could serve 150 balls over the net (with a great spin-float) in practice. But when it came to a game, sometimes I’d get nervous about who was in the stands or everybody was looking at me (and then we got to those big college gyms where the ceilings were like 3000 feet tall), then I’d fumble and serve the ball right into the net.

            I don’t know how you discovered this, but eventually, you’d tell me to aim for a specific position on the other side of the net, by flashing me a number. And I could hit it every time. When I get out into the world on my own, I almost blew over with possibilities and how to act and what to do with so many choices. And I’ve found myself in some places with really tall ceilings.

            I’ve come to learn that if I aim at something specific I at least get the ball in play. I may have to set left instead of right, or a three ball instead of a two, depending on how the ball comes back over, but the focus on one important thing helps me steer the sails a little better on my journey. I picture you flashing a six for me, to serve a ball into the back court and then get ready for defense. I’m aiming for one thing at a time, and finding some success in that, even when I’m overwhelmed with interests, commitments, and to-do lists.

  • Believing in Someone Else is a Gift you Give

            I couldn’t begin in one letter (even a long one), one blog post, or one book to describe all of the things you taught me about volleyball and therefore about life. How a team member shows up when another one is feeling weak or in need. How if the ball’s on your court, it is indeed your responsibility—don’t let it drop in your space–but if you do, keep your head up and focus on the next one.

            But I think the most important thing you taught me about volleyball and about life is that sometimes all a person needs is someone to believe in them. That’s really what a team is, a group of people doing this thing together who trust each other’s skills and instincts, and who believe in each other.

            When I got out into the world on my own, I made some mistakes, and then I had some tribulations, and then I made some more mistakes, and then I made some more. But I remembered this article that my mom cut out for me one time called “The Balcony People.” I’m sorry I don’t know who wrote it. But it talked about how valuable it is to have people in the balcony cheering for you, or people in the bleachers, or even one person in the gym.

            Today I was thinking about that day on the court when you said, “Do you think you can do this?” Run a team full of upperclassman and be involved in every play? I likely shrugged my shoulders and thought, “I don’t know coach. I’ll try.” But here’s what you said: “I believe you can.”

Thanks for always believing in me.

            Really I just wanted to take a minute to thank you for sharing your time with me, your mentorship, for what you taught me about life, about volleyball, and for believing in me. When I think about you coaching, I think, what a gift you are to each and every one of the girls that you lead, not just for your knowledge of the game, but the way you teach it to them by example: show up, practice, have fun, be kind, manage ups and downs together, aim for something, and believe. It was a great life experience to be a part of your team.

Thanks, Coach.

Best of luck to you this and every season,

Whitney Bell  #11

A Covington Buccaneer

CHS Volleyball 1993-1997,

Cross County Conference & District Champs

An Interview with Crystal Wilkinson

Crystal Wilkinson is an author, teacher, brick and mortar bookstore owner, and the editor of Mythium: A Journal of Contemporary Literature.  She grew up in Indian Creek, Kentucky, on a farm in Appalachia and is noted as a founding member of the “Affrilachian Poets.”  Her resume touts two short story collections published by Toby Press, and numerous other short stories and poems.  I recently had a chance to ask Ms. Wilkinson about her writing process and her work.

WB:  I read your short story collections: Blackberries Blackberries and Water Street.  I’m enchanted by your grasp on setting and characterization.  In Water Street, you write from several points of view from young to old, male to female.  What is the process like for you to find and stay true to each character’s voice?

CW:  I would like to be able to say it’s a matter of craft and of course it is to some extent but to an even greater extent it has to do with the process of actually developing my characters and actually hearing them aurally and letting them tell their story to me as I’m writing. This initial voice is always a first person narrator and then from there I add craft. So on some level it has to do with working around a germ of an idea until my imagination realizes an actual person and I hear their voice from that point craft then takes over.

WB:  How do you begin a short story?  Do you start with a character in mind, an image, or a situation you want to explore?

CW:  Each story has its own way of presenting itself. Sometimes it comes from a line in a journal. Sometimes a character emerges right away. Sometimes I am sparked by some other impulse. I often speak of the stories I write in terms of haunts. My mind is always in overdrive with ideas for stories and poems. In some benign way I live in creative mania. Hundreds of story ideas come to me constantly but it is only those ideas that I’m “haunted” by that rise to the surface more than once that I actively pursue. Sometimes a story comes knocking on the door of my brain for years. I tend to ignore the hardest ones and they are often persistent.

WB:  You write, teach, own a brick and mortar bookstore, co-edit a journal, and have family…how do you keep it all balanced?  Do you have a solid routine?  What’s a typical day like for you?

CW:  I wish there was some magical trick to it all. I don’t have a solid routine, I feel that if I did I would be much more prolific and have a stack of books under my belt. I find that I go for long periods without writing while I juggle and juggle but just because I don’t put things down on paper every day that doesn’t mean that I’m not writing. I’ve learned to save things, to make notes, to let ideas churn and then when I can squeeze in a writing date then I often pull all-nighters or make writing dates with myself and write for long stretches. I will say that there is also another technique that I habit that I try to keep going in that I feel that 3 a.m. is my purest writing time. I try to wake up at 3:30 a.m. to write. Some mornings grading papers takes up my writing time, but that is something that I am constantly fighting with. As far as Wild Fig Books is concerned, my fiancé is the in-store presence though I try to give him a break when I can.

WB:  From what I understand you’ve taught at the high school level and the college level.  What’s your favorite age to teach, and your favorite course, and why?

CW:  I actually haven’t taught high school except for about a five-year summer stint at The Governor School for the Arts. I loved working with high school juniors and seniors. As an Appalachian, I was especially thrilled to work with young people from the mountains in their formative years as blossoming writers. But I guess my favorite age to teach is on the college level. There is a certain satisfaction in teaching undergraduates and watching them grow and expand their understanding of craft and the technical aspects of writing along with nurturing their habits and processes as writers. I also enjoy teaching graduate students because these are usually students who have already ascertained a high level of writing experience.

WB:  Are you working on anything new (a teaching project or a writing project) that you are excited about and you would like to discuss?

CW:  What’s on my mind as a teacher of literature is that I will be teaching a course in the Spring on the literature of African Americans in the Appalachian region. Being from Appalachia is a source of pride for me as an African American woman and I feel really grateful for the opportunity to teach this class. As far as writing projects go I am always working on several projects at once—two novel ideas, a book of poetry about my grandfather and a nonfiction book with my mother at its core.

Many thanks to Ms. Wilkinson, for taking time to talk with me.  For more information on Crystal and her work, visit http://crystal-wilkinson.blogspot.com/.