SATURDAY SIT-DOWN with Literary Agent Tina Schwartz

This Saturday, I’m sitting down with literary agent (and author!) Tina Schwartz of the Purcell Agency, who’s here to tell us her query pet peeves, what makes her stop reading a manuscript, and what she’d love to see in her inbox. Welcome, Tina!

What are some of the most common mistakes you see in queries?

Besides the obvious spelling or grammatical errors, the most common mistakes I receive in queries are:

1.) Not knowing your (the writer’s) audience*

2.) Submitting stories to me for genres I do not represent (which I post on my submissions page of my website).

3.) Submitting query to “Dear Agent” with a huge list of undisclosed recipients. This shows me the writer just made a list of every agent they found an email address for and sent one email to the complete list of them. That shows very little effort to me.

* An example of a mistaken audience is: telling me your story is for Young Adults (which is for high school aged readers, in my opinion) but the main character is 24 years old. Sure there may be a crossover appeal from YA to New Adult (NA), but in essence a story about a 24 year old belongs in the NA or Adult category.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see in a writer’s sample pages?

The things that I see aren’t necessarily “mistakes” in sample pages, but more things that make me stop reading. If a manuscript has a huge amount of back story right up front, it bores me. Plus, a technique that is important for a writer to be able to do well is to be able to let a story unfold naturally without what some call “information dumps”. It’s the classic saying “show don’t tell” at play here.

Another problem with sample pages can be if a writer doesn’t get to the point quickly enough. For me personally, I request a query letter and three sample chapters. If by the end of the third chapter, I still don’t know what the story is going to be about — what the main conflict is going to be, then I rarely ask to see more.

For the last few years, many YA agents have shied away from worn-out subjects like vampires, werewolves and dystopians. Is there anything you’re seeing a little too much of in your inbox lately?

Personally I do not represent fantasy/sci-fi, and I get TONS of it! I believe that in nearly every interview I’ve done, people always ask me what I do NOT represent, and I say Fantasy/Sci-Fi, plus now, no picture books (since I have a full list of them right now). But every day, I seem to get at least one or two fantasy stories. It’s kind of weird. This shows me that many people don’t read about what a particular agent wants, they only see the agent’s name and email and send blindly to every agent they find.

[Side note: I’ve heard tons of people say “dystopians are over” but to me, dystopian seems like its own genre, not a trend. I think there will always be dystopian stories, almost like a category similar to say science fiction. That’s just my opinion, though.]

Is there anything you’d LOVE to see in your inbox?

After a recent trip to New York to meet with several editors, we all seemed to end up chatting about the fact that it is SO difficult to find a genuine Middle Grade voice. It’s hard to do well, and most writers make the voice too old (the characters are wise beyond their years) or too young sounding. I would LOVE to find the next great middle grade voice… a Joey Pigza, for example! (I absolutely love Jack Gantos’ work!!)

Another thing I am personally looking for at the moment are some YA romance novels, too. I do not have many romance manuscripts acquired right now.

That being said, I’m still always on the look out for realistic fiction/slice-of-life. That is my favorite kind of story!

If a writer doesn’t grab you in the query, first line or first paragraph, will you keep reading to see if it picks up, or toss in the towel then and there?

I always read past the query. Some people are not good at writing query letters, and I understand that. Writing a query well takes a lot of time, and patience! Most people don’t devote enough time to their query letters. In fact, I, like many agents, give a lot of seminars on query writing, and how to do it well.

I will admit, that sometimes, I don’t need to read all three chapters to see if I like a particular manuscript. The spelling, grammar, storyline, may all be out of whack where it’s just kind of “not ready” for submission. (Believe it or not, some people just whip off a quick first draft and send it out to see if they can get feedback, or so it seems.) I’ve gotten plenty of manuscripts that just aren’t right for me, and I know it by the end of the first chapter for sure. But for the most part, I read all three sample chapters out of respect for the time the author took to send it to me. By then, I know if I want to read more or not. Sometimes, I know the story is a bit raw and might need some revising, but if I like the writer’s voice or a character in the story, I may ask for revisions, and not simply reject it because it is not perfectly ready to go to editors yet.

Finally, here at Coffee Cups, every Thursday is #ThrowbackThursday – what is one of YOUR favorite books from childhood?

Two of my favorite middle grade novels were PINBALLS by Betsy Byers, and A SUMMER TO DIE by Lois Lowry. In fact, I wrote Lois Lowry a fan letter about her book A Summer to Die (just a few years ago, after I was already a published author) and she emailed me back!! I was thrilled. The funny part is, I’d never read her really famous, award winning books like Number the Stars or The Giver. She was so kind to have taken the time to write back, especially about one of her early works!

Thanks for including me in your Coffee Cups!

Schwartz Fountain CLOSEUP BxWTo submit Chapter Books, Middle Grade, or Young Adult fiction, please send a query letter and the first three chapters of your manuscript. For non-fiction for ages 5-18, please send a query letter, table of contents, sample chapter and credentials. [* NOTE: The Purcell Agency is no longer seeking Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Picture Books.]

You can send your submissions to:

Tina P. Schwartz, The Purcell Agency, LLC, Email: (No attachments please. Simply paste samples below signature line of email.)

Thanks, Tina!