When Agent Tina P. Schwartz read my manuscript and offered to represent me, I hate to admit that I was hesitant at first—but only because her agency was so new. I had poured years of my life into writing and revising A WORK OF ART, and I wanted to be sure it was in the right hands.
So I contacted some of her other clients, and here’s what I learned: Tina is a hard-working professional who’s passionate about representing her clients. Though she didn’t officially start the Purcell Agency until 2012, she has been selling manuscripts to traditional publishers since 2004, helping nine other writers achieve publication before officially opening her agency. Moreover, she is the author of ten nonfiction books and spent more than twelve years selling and marketing her own work. In other words, she knows what she’s doing.
Plus, I had a good feeling about her.
So I signed on the dotted line, and, wow, I’m glad I did. Two weeks later, she sold A WORK OF ART to Merit Press (the YA imprint of F+W). Needless to say, I was ecstatic. Two weeks?! I was prepared for the long haul.
I caught up with Tina shortly after she sold her sixth manuscript in seven months.
MM: You started off as a writer, so what led you to become an agent?
TPS: I had the idea to become an agent ten years ago when I read my writing mentor’s middle-grade novel and made her autograph it to me as her agent. After my own writing successes, and after helping other writers achieve publication, I decided to pursue agenting as a career. I couldn’t find agenting work in Chicago, where I live, so after serving on a panel at a writer’s convention with some agents, their advice to me was: “Just go for it and open your own agency!” That’s exactly what I did!
MM: It must have been daunting to start an agency from scratch. How hard was it to find writers whose work you wanted to represent?
It was a little scary putting my name out there as an agent, but after featuring my agency on a few professional sites, such as PublishersMarketplace.com and QueryTracker.com, the submissions started pouring in. It was more difficult to keep up with reading submissions than finding good authors that I wanted to work with! What’s difficult for me is writing rejection letters that provide feedback and not crushing someone’s hopes of publication just because I decided to take a pass at representing them.
MM: What kinds of manuscripts are you currently looking for?
TPS: While I accept chapter books, middle grade, and young adult, plus nonfiction for ages 6–18, my heart gravitates toward realistic young adult. That’s what most editors request from me.
MM: I saw on your Website that you were drawn toward realistic YA, which is one of the reasons I submitted to you. So when reading a manuscript from a prospective client, what are some of the writing qualities you look for?
TPS: I want it to feel like I’m not reading at all, that I’m in the story with the characters. As a self-proclaimed “reluctant reader,” I want to be so engrossed that I don’t notice the style and craft of writing (although both need to be there). I just want to be completely engaged.
MM: No pressure, right? Let’s look at the other side of the equation. What do you look for in a query letter? What about the synopsis? Do you prefer short synopses (one or two paragraphs) or longer, play-by-play ones?
TPS: I prefer short synopses, one to two pages maximum. Give me the main story points. I don’t need to know every secondary plot line and character. Give me an overall view of where the story will take me, an overall arc. For query letters, I prefer to hear a little about the author, then one to two paragraphs about the story. Really hook me in, like the movie trailers do at the theater. Make me say, “I want to read that manuscript NOW!”
MM: What most impresses you in a submission?
TPS: I like to see when an author already has credentials, but I don’t want the query to be too overwhelming—just a highlight of publications and awards. I like it when the submission shows the voice of a character or of the author. I want to feel like I’m getting to know someone. That can be hard to do in a letter, I realize, but the best queries I’ve received gave me a picture or feeling of a person, and I really like that.
MM: Is there a specific type of book you wish would fall in your lap? And is there something you’re sick of seeing?
TPS: I used to accept paranormal, but I’m having a particularly hard time placing it now, so I’m no longer requesting paranormal storylines. For my “wish list,” I’d like to see something that’s different or surprising. Your story, A WORK OF ART, is a good example. I had never read a story like that, and it was literally a page turner. I just had to see how it all turned out! Because I’m a huge movie buff, I can usually predict where a story is going. So when I’m surprised or cannot “figure it out” in a manuscript, it’s a real treat!
MM: What advice would you give writers who want to pitch you? What are some of the common mistakes writers make in their queries and/or submissions?
TPS: Let me see the real you! If possible, let your personality show through in your query letter. Agenting a writer is largely based on a relationship. Show me that you are a go-getter, willing to revise when necessary, confident in your story, happy to be in the career path (writing) that you’ve chosen. A query should endear me to your story and make me respect you as an author.
MM: Let’s talk about your own writing. What kinds of books have you authored, and what are some of your most recent releases?
TPS: My latest book (due out in October 2014) is a nonfiction reference book called DEPRESSION: THE ULTIMATE TEEN GUIDE. It’s the third book I’ve written for Scarecrow Press, and it’s full of information on depression. Written in a teen-friendly voice, it includes interviews with teens; healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms; and what to do if a friend confesses suicidal thoughts. It also shares what it’s like when a sibling or parent suffers from depression. Overall, it gives a well-rounded picture of the disorder.
Also, I’m working on my second revision of a young-adult novel, about a high-school girl who goes blind after receiving a lacrosse scholarship to Northwestern U. After the accident, she has to give up her school, her license, and her scholarship. And, of course, there’s a love triangle between her old life and her new one, which spices things up so the story doesn’t get too dark. I look to have the manuscript polished and ready to submit by the end of the year.
MM: Good luck with both of those. And now for some fun questions: What are your three favorite YA books and your three favorite MG books?
TPS: I have so many favorites, and I’m constantly reading to see what’s current. My all-time favorite YA book (and author) is THE OUTSIDERS, by S. E. Hinton. She is the first author that made me go to the library and check out every book that she’d written. As I said, I wasn’t a huge fan of reading as a kid, so that was a big deal to me. Right now, my second favorite book is EVERY DAY, by David Levithan. It is completely unique! My third book would have to be THE BURN JOURNALS, by Brent Runyon. It sounds ghastly, but it’s an amazingly hopeful book that I hope everyone reading this interview will go out and read!
As far as MG books go, I love the JOEY PIGZA books by Jack Gantos. He is so talented! Also, any books by Matt Christopher or Andrew Clements. Lastly, I love THERE’S A BOY IN THE GIRLS’ BATHROOM and DOGS DON’T TELL JOKES, both by Louis Sachar. So, I’d say for MG, I’m most in favor of “boy books.” (I just finished reading WONDER and it is SO great!)
MM: Here’s another fun question. What author (alive or dead) would you most like to meet in person? What would you say to him or her?
TPS: I would love to meet S. E. Hinton, first to tell her that she turned a reluctant reader into a full-time, adult reader who has turned reading into a career. Also, because S. E. Hinton is known as a “recluse,” very little is written about her. I’d love to get to know her personality. Having such huge success at an early age (she wrote THE OUTSIDERS as a teen) must have been very difficult to navigate, and I’m interested in what that was like.
MM: Good choice. THE OUTSIDERS and another of her books, THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW were some of my favorite books as a teen. One last question: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
TPS: Writing is like a sport; you must train every day to become great at it. It can start with just fifteen minutes a day. Everyone has at least fifteen minutes they waste surfing the net or checking e-mails. I suggest going on Facebook one less time, waking up fifteen minutes early, or going to bed fifteen minutes later. Pretty soon, you’ll find extra time here and there. So fifteen minutes will turn into thirty, then sixty, then who knows how long? Also, it is very important to read every day. Read what you like, but also try genres you might not want to write so you can perhaps adopt different traits into your writing style.
All good advice. To learn more about the Purcell Agency and Tina P. Schwartz, visit www.thepurcellagency.com