The Form Rejection

I have an unhealthy habit of checking my QueryTracker comments.

For those of you who don’t know what QueryTracker is, it’s an online query tracking system that allows users to find agents and publishers, list those they are querying, and track responses. Each agent is listed separately, and you can go in and look at comments users have posted about that agent. I like reading these comments because it helps me know what querying authors are thinking about me and my process.

Back in the early days, I was able to give some feedback on my queries. Not always, but you were far more likely to get some sort of personalized feedback then. I didn’t realize at the time that that luxury was afforded to me because I was new, lots of authors hadn’t found me yet (thus I wasn’t overwhelmed with new queries daily), and my client list and obligations were tiny. Basically, I had the time.

These days not so much. Ya’ll have all found me, lol (kidding, kidding). I get an inordinate number of queries weekly, the most in our firm; this is because I am currently our only agent who does kidlit, so all those come to me. You can go back and look at my DataExplorer tab in query tracker to see just how overwhelmed I was. My response rate became glacier at some point. (For reference, the DE shows every time a user submitted a query to me, and dives deeper into the data showing the genre of the book, its length, how it was submitted, when it was submitted, what their response was, and how long it took to get it). The “how long it took to get it” number is important here, because I was taking FOREVER. Something needed to change. That something was, in part, the form rejection. The second was the addition of a submissions manager to Spencerhill.

A form rejection is not an indication of your value as an author, but a reflection of an agent’s judicious use of their time.

So anyways, back to my unhealthy obsession with reading my comments. This one kinda got me in the heart, because you might know that I quite love querying authors, and wish I could do more for you all.

“I’m so sorry you got form-rejected.”

Youch. But also editing to say someone who read this article mentioned this is also querying author to querying author speak for, “I’m sorry it didn’t go further.” (So that makes me feel a little better).

Also, don’t go back and erase that whoever posted it. The rest of your comment was so nice and encouraging to the user you were chatting with.

But literally I hate how cold form rejections are/seem and that anyone would surmise I’m form rejecting for mean reasons, or that I don’t think you can write, or have potential, or any number of other nasty things!

I’m sure some of you have heard this before, but agents don’t form reject while wearing a witches cap! The reason boils down to this, if you have 150 new queries each week and you take say 3 minutes with each one, that’s 7.5 hours to respond to all those. Sometimes its 100, sometimes it’s 300 queries! Now, add in that I run across a few with potential and take much longer with those so that length of time grows! It’s a ton of work, and realistically 7+ hours of that work results in NO new saleable work for me. If I gave feedback to everyone, I’d never have time to pitch client work, edit client work, read fulls, sign new clients, meet new editors, etc.

Agents don’t form reject while wearing a witches cap!

Fortunately for you all, I’m not the only one who reads your queries anymore.

I know! I know! You don’t love this. You wanted me to read. Well, let me tell you, lots of agencies have readers. Often, these are interns! Sometimes they are assistants or junior agents. Spencerhill has a dedicated Submissions Manager who answers the majority of our queries, and maybe you’ll be pleased to know they are a former agent with significant quality sales. They know good writing. They know what sells. They know what I’m looking for, the boundaries of my word counts, and again, what ready-to-sell writing looks like. And they happen to have VERY similar taste to my own. Yay team!

Yes, they form reject. They are handling all our agents inflow. It’s A LOT.

However, the savvy QT user above also noticed I signed one of my form rejections “Ali Herring” and left a PS on that form rejection to “query me with new work sometime,” or something to that effect. They followed up with this:

Take heart, though–she saw something in your writing!

So yes, I do try to sign “Ali Herring” at least if I personally answered your query. It’s also likely, but not certain, that if I signed a response, you made it past our submissions manager. That being said, if it’s a form rejection with no name on it, I might have *also* answered that query and was just too busy or tired to type it that night. You know I have three kids, a house to run, and work an ungodlily amount of hours each week. It happens. I do *try* to sign though, but it again, it does happen that I sometimes don’t.

Now, if I left you a note on top of that signature, yes, that’s a super positive sign about you and your writing or your ability to conceive a hook. You didn’t get a note? That means nothing too. I might have been too busy answering too many queries to write one. But yes, a PS note is a certainly a good thing on a form rejection, and it means you should query me again with new work – AND YOU SHOULD NOTE IN FUTURE QUERIES THAT I ASKED TO SEE NEW WORK RIGHT UP FRONT, FIRST SENTENCE OF YOUR NEXT QUERY. If I follow you on Twitter, that’s also positive. I have secret list of “authors to watch” too my friends. So, yes, fill in your twitter username on the QueryManager form!

If I left you a note on top of that signature, yes, that’s a super positive sign about you and your writing or your ability to conceive a hook. You didn’t get a note? That means nothing too.

Last note, sometimes our submissions manager requests full manuscripts on my or other agent’s behalf. We learned something about how we should go about this better from a QT comment too, and have revised our policy based on that.

So yes, I love/hate my QT comments, but I also learn a lot too.

I don’t like form rejecting. Please remember: A form rejection is not an indication of your value as an author, but a reflection of an agent’s judicious use of their time.



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The Art of the “Quick Pitch”

Also called the “high concept” pitch, or an elevator pitch when spoken aloud, the “quick pitch” is a way of encapsulating the heart, plot, and stakes of your novel as quickly as possible and as engagingly as possible. It is SUPER useful when you are pitching to agents, or when I–an agent–am pitching to editors too. After all, editors are just as busy as I am, and if I can boil it down quickly, succinctly and with heart, then maybe I’ll get them to dig into my longer “book blurb” which I always include below the high-concept pitch in my submission emails. Maybe they’ll read my submission sooner because of it?

Can I tell you a secret?

I don’t always read the whole query either. I’ve discussed this with other agents, and many others out there read the query and decide if they want to look at the written sample from that. Not so much for me. We’re not all the same, or have the same approach. I’m more/most interested in great writing, so I’ll often scan a query for the plot pitch and then read some of the sample before I make a decision. I’ve found there are some authors who can write THE HECK out of a book, but can’t pitch to save their life. It’s not usually the case, but I don’t plan on missing out on a Picasso because of this…

So, please don’t stress so much about your query with me. Your writing sample is what’s paramount, at first. The entirety of your query is going to matter only if your writing is so supremely amazing, your characters so immediately engaging, your voice so stand out, that I want to dig in more to see what’s up in your story and know about you too. So, my best advice when querying me is to give me a HIGH-CONCEPT pitch right at the top of your query letter where I can see it. Bold it, all-cap it, italicize it, designate it HIGH-CONCEPT PITCH: (followed by the pitch), whatever you want so I see it right away because that’s going to help your case most, the fastest during that initial pass.

Okay, so what prompted this blog post? Props to Emily Rodmell’s recent twitter post below. She’s an editor for Harlequin. I got excited when I saw Emily’s post because SHE GETS ME.


High-Concept Pitches from my own clients!

This is the high-concept pitch I sent editors for Lora’s Senf’s debut THE CLACKITY (summer 2022) from Atheneum/Simon & Schuster:

A 55K-word creepy middle grade horror portal fantasy in which an abandoned abattoir acts as a gateway to a world of ghosts, witches and monsters playing a game with deadly consequences for an orphaned 12-year-old girl whose only remaining family is the prize at the end of the game.

This one is for Carrie Talick’s BEWARE THE MERMAIDS (coming out next week August 10, 2021) from Alcove Press! Order link here.

A cheating husband’s real estate deal threatens housewife Nancy’s beloved yacht harbor. So she makes a bet and teaches her friends to sail to save it—and herself—by winning the thrilling Border Dash race.

Next up is SNOWSTORM SABOTAGE from Kerry Johnson. This one is a little longer, but it works! Order link here.

When single-mom Everly Raven discovers a body inside a chalet on her family’s ski resort, blame falls on her. Racing to evade the target on her back, she’s forced to work with her ex and father of her child, FBI agent Cristian Ruiz, to clear her name. But with a blizzard closing in and the killer’s henchman hot on their trail, can they stay alive long enough to find the real killer before he finds Everly first?

Check this one out from my very first sale, Kurt Kirchmeier’s THE ABSENCE OF SPARROWS! It’s a bit longer too, but it sold to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in a pre-empt so it worked out fine! Order link here.

The Age of Miracles meets The Thing About Jellyfish with the vibe of Stranger Things. When the Glass Plague sweeps through his town and a voice on the radio calls for the simultaneous shattering of all the victims, 11-year-old bird watcher Ben Cameron must stand against his own brother to keep his dad in one piece, this while holding out hope that some missing sparrows will return with his father’s soul before it’s too late.

The Art of the Tagline:

Taglines can be fun and useful too AND might also get my attention as well in a query. Imagine the above pitches boiled down from sugar water to a dab of syrup. They are concentrated pitches! Quick bites to eat. A juicy worm on a hook if you were a hungry fish.

The following tag lines can be found online, usually in bold, at the top of whatever sales outlet is selling the books. Look up your favorite books. You’ll find them there:

Carrie’s BEWARE THE MERMAIDS: Romance, betrayal, and an epic yacht race make Carrie Talick’s debut novel perfect for fans of Elin Hilderbrand and Susan Mallery.

Kerry’s SNOWSTORM SABOTAGE: (order link here.) Can she survive a blizzard…and being framed?

Kellie VanHorn’s BURIED EVIDENCE (order link here): Can unearthed bones solve a ten-year-old cold case?

Kellie VanHorn’s FATAL FLASHBACK (order link here): This one seems to have two! An undercover investigation means deadly danger. Will an agent’s missing memories save her?

Kurt Kirchmeier’s THE ABSENCE OF SPARROWS (order link here): Stranger Things meets The Stand in this haunting coming-of-age novel about a plague that brings the world to a halt — and the boy who believes that his town’s missing sparrows can save his family.

Is anyone getting Twitter Pitch party vibes from these high-concept pitches? You totally should be because they are HIGH CONCEPT, which is why those parties rock. You probably have a few more words to work with in a query quick pitch, so get on it and get seen!


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I’m Doing a Giveaway: Query or 1st chapter critique. Here’s the details…

You guys! I have the loveliest funniest client ever. Her name is Sharon Mondragon, and she writes quirky stories and even quirkier characters. Characters I fall in love with. Characters you’ll fall in love with.

I want everyone to meet Sharon and for you to get to know her like I do, so she’s doing this really great, fun thing on her blog. She’s posting a chapter from one of her short stories every Wednesday as a sort of countdown to the holidays. It’s like an advent calendar, but instead of a piece of chocolate every day, you get a chapter every Wednesday! The story is called I’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS, and come Christmas, you’ll know how one her funny characters made it home in time for the holidays, and the bind he found himself in in the first place.

But, first things first. You need to know 1) who to follow, 2) where to sign up for reminders, and 3) where to read. So, what more fun way to encourage you than for me to do a …  QUERY OR FIRST CHAPTER CRITIQUE (winner’s choice!)

There are three ways to enter, and each way earns you an extra entry: 

1) Follow Sharon on Twitter @SJ_Mondragon.

2) Subscribe/Sign up on her website to receive blog notifications:

3) Or, write a Comment on her serialized story, I’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS.  Sharon will post new chapters every Wednesday leading up to its conclusion this December. Please note: You must include your Twitter user name in the comment in order to receive an entry!

The contest winner will be announced October 8 on Twitter: @HerringAli and @SJ_Mondragon.

Best of luck!!!!

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Berry Viking Connection: Publishing Job Opportunities

Image result for berry viking

Hi Berry Vikings! I am glad for the opportunity to meet with you all and other Atlanta employers to discuss job opportunities in the marketplace for graduating seniors and thinking-ahead juniors. The kinds of opportunities I can speak to exist within the publishing industry, particularly book publishing. Within that broad market, you’ll find a myriad of opportunities in many fields besides traditional literary agency and editorial roles. Below, you’ll find a listing of job titles and below that, current opportunities.Related image

However, the most critical thing to consider in breaking into publishing, especially in agency and editorial roles, is that the absolute BEST WAY to break in is through (often unpaid or low-paid) internships. For instance, take a look at this entry-level editorial position available with HarperCollins. Look at the qualifications. Note the “prior internship experience” line. So, want to be an editor or agent? Get ready to be an intern!

The Financial Reality of Agenting
Also, it can’t go without saying that it takes time to build a list of clients as a literary agent (who are selling work regularly enough you get a paycheck), which means this is not a job where you make money immediately. It can take years to build a list big enough to support yourself, so this is often a job you do with passion and other financial support (parents, spouse, etc.) or you work a second job to support yourself while you get started. Books also take 1 to 2 years to be published, so an author may earn an advance (which an agent gets a 15% portion) and then when the book pubs in 1-2 years, and only after the author earns back their advance, will they and you get paid again). It’s not for the faint of heart.

Diversity (and the Lack thereof) in Publishing
I’d be remiss not to note that there is a critical conversation going on regarding the lack and the need for more diversity in publishing, which was the inspiration for the We Need Diverse Books and #ownvoices movements. Fostering career development for professionals of non-majority backgrounds is paramount in the industry. WNDB provides Internship Grants with the mission to award supplemental grants to students from diverse backgrounds to help further their goals of pursuing a career in children’s publishing.

Here are some roles you might find in publishing:

  • Intern (Agency, Editorial, Marketing, etc.)Image result for publishing roles
  • Literary Agent
  • Literary Scout
  • Literary Foreign Rights
  • Editor (From Assistant to Acquiring)
  • Production Editor
  • Copy Editor
  • Publisher
  • Publicist
  • Marketing
  • Digital Marketing
  • Social Media
  • Sales
  • Copy Writer
  • Graphic Designer (Cover Design, etc.)
  • Printer / Binder
  • Bookseller
  • Book Blogger
  • Trade Reviewer
  • Administrative,
  • Information Technology.
  • And many more…

Job Opportunities:

Image result for internshipsThe job board of all job boards in publishing (& the industry’s leading web site where deal announcements are made):

The following are internship opportunities I am aware of. There are probably TONS more, so google them. Look up the big-5 publishers. Look up top literary agencies. Please note, interning for an agency could get you your first job with a publisher and vice versa, so be open to different opportunities!

Literary Agency
When applying to agencies, be sure to vet them. There are several, what we call “shmagency’s” in existence. You’ll want to work for an agency that has recorded multiple deals with well-known publishers. You can check agencies out online at or the Writer Beware site and Facebook page.






Editorial, Marketing, Publicity, Art & Design, Production, Children’s Books, and Business Development (designate interest in cover letter)

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“First-Pages” Problems

l_b706fe80-deaa-11e1-8e83-cf6193d00005If you’re consistently receiving feed back from literary agents saying something along the lines of, “Well, I really like the hook/idea but I’m not connecting to the writing, so I’m sorry but this is a pass,” then you have a “first-pages” problem. While the rejection could be a matter of taste from that agent, or a disconnect with the “voice” of your writing, it’s more than likely a common “first-pages” problem, and there are lots of those.

Here are the common problems of first pages I spot consistently:

  1. You started in the wrong place. You have to get to the inciting incident or the turning point in your character’s life that puts him/her on the main path of your plot fast, in the first chapter. If that turning point happens in chapter 3, start in chapter 3 instead. Your first two chapters are probably backstory, which leads me to #2.
  2. cb138b2a5c501e5398583db28fd16bef--writing-humor-writing-quotesYour first chapter mostly consists of backstory. You as a writer consider the backstory important because you’ve used it to frame your story or construct your character’s world (that’s world building) and develop the qualities and peculiarities of your characters (that’s characterization), but backstory should be sprinkled throughout your entire book, never dumped on the reader. I’m sure you’ve heard this before: BEWARE the dreaded info dump of backstory. NEVER DO THAT. This is where you the writer find it necessary to reveal the minutia of your character’s lives to us that has NOTHING to do with advancing the plot. So, please never have your character in Chapter 1 just doing some mundane activity like riding a bike, washing dishes, etc., any activity where they are basically just sitting around thinking about stuff. Because the stuff they are usually thinking about is the backstory. GET TO THE ACTION.
  3. Nothing happens. No conflict. Plot has to be occurring. So whatever happens to your main character to motivate them to deal with the conflict around which your story is built, whatever this turning point in their life is that literally shifts them from their ho-hum existence to the tension-filled new “path of plot” the reader wants to spend their Saturday night devouring, it better happen in the first chapter. Do not leave characters idle. Do not write a scene, especially in the first chapter, that does not introduce or advance the story problem/plot. LISTEN THOUGH, I’m not saying you have to start with a gun battle. Start with a bang doesn’t literally mean that. Yes, action’s great, but I still like having a reason to care first. So some context is nice. There are ways to create some character depth without giving us their life story in an info dump.
  4. You used a prologue. (#’s 1-4 are almost alike. See a theme here!) This is akin to backstory. MOST AGENTS do not like them. Skip them. Start your plot MOVING from page one. No backstory. No boring situations. Prologues tend to be giant excuses to dump backstory on us.
  5. 7b63c3026e762392e6758e1dc8fcd60b--writer-quotes-writing-motivation-quotesBeware purple prose. Basically this is trying to make everything sound elaborate and ornate. That means adjectives and adverbs everywhere instead of proper showing. So if your sentence is: The ADJECTIVE ADJECTIVE girl ran ADVERB through the ADJECTIVE ADJECTIVE forest, her ADJECTIVE heart hammering ADVERB as the band of ADJECTIVE men dreamed ADJECTIVE … just no…
  6. You may lack a balance of dialog, narration and action.
    Every book consists:

    1. dialog: characters talking,
    2. action or beats: people doing things, and
    3. narration- commentary or what is told to us from a certain point of view. The POV is who is telling it, so 1st person vs 3rd person offer slightly different narrative perspectives.
    4. SO… If you say, have tons of dialog all in a row with no break to show us what your character is doing (action) or narration (to help us understand how they are feeling or their motivations), then it gets rather boring and feels unbalanced. You need to balance all three of these so there is a proper rhythm to the writing and you engender a proper feeling of engagement in the scene from the reader. We need all three to feel immersed. Try the “read aloud” test to see if you feel or hear this balance.
  7. You feature so much exposition to set the scene it’s too much. While you do have to create some atmosphere, don’t make that your focus. Balance again.become-a-writer
  8. You start with cliches,
    • Waking up,
    • Or worse you let us go through an entire chapter thinking something’s happening in reality and THEN they wake up. Proper fake out. YUCK.
    • A weird, purple-y prose or confusing (meant-to-be mysterious or uber-cool) opening sentence that comes off sounding you know just … nope. 
    • Talking about the weather.
    • Sexually explicit first sentences or worse add murder+sexually explicit.
    • A character checking themselves out in the mirror to describe themselves. (Yes, Divergent did this and it worked…. I know.)
    • Characters just hanging out thinking.
    • Character giving tours of their space/home/etc.
    • There are lots, please feel free to Google them. Yes, sometimes there are exceptions if done well, ahem, Divergent
  9. Your characters seem boring. Fictional characters are larger than life. That’s why we want to read about them. I don’t want to spend an entire novel reading about your aunt who is 60 and likes to watch House Hunters figuring out who killed the red hat lady. (I wouldn’t want to read about me trying to figure out who killed the red hat lady!) Now if your aunt is a 60-year-old southern lady in Texas that used to chain smoke, then quit and now pops tic tacs all day, and is mildly grumpy in the cutest of ways because of her lack of nicotine, while throwing out southern colloquialisms and constant one-liners and has the ability to make the local sheriff sound like an idiot at key moments and run circles around him to solve the murder of the local red hat lady, then I’m all ears.
  10. Your first chapter does not have it’s own arc. You need rising and falling action in the first chapter. Each chapter should be a mini arc.
  11. You have a weird opening. No first line of overtly sexual dialog, No My name is …, Once upon a time…, No purple prose first line, No nauseous or main characters vomiting (you won’t believe how many people think that watching your main character feel sick or get sick in the first paragraph is somehow relatable).
  12. Make your main character relatable and make me care about them— or if you feel you must have a sucky protagonist (not the best idea for a debut writer), make them immediately seem redeemable, at the very least. People don’t generally want to read about people they don’t like for 300 pages. But they do want to read about RELATABLE, LIKEABLE characters. BUT, Not only do I want to like them, they have to give me a reason to make me care what happens to them or those around them affected by the story problem.
  13. You have to give me stakes to care about. Stakes are the reason your story matters and the reason your protagonist is willing to deal with the conflict around which your story is built. Stakes are what’s at risk for your character. Stakes are something that can be gained or lost. And stakes, maybe most importantly, give your reader something to care about. SHOW ME THOSE IN CHAPTER 1.
  14. In romance, the hero and heroine don’t meet for a few chapters. They need to meet in Chapter 1.
  15. You opened with a rape scene in christian fiction.
  16. Too much telling vs. showinggeorge-mcfly
  17. You mixed tenses and POV. You must remain consistent in your tense and only switch POV’s in different chapters or after section breaks if multiple POV. Keep tense the same though. Ex of mixed tenses) We wanted (past tense) to make it work, but she feels (present tense) like it’s not going to happen. So, she is moving (progressive present tense) out and I stayed (past tense) here. Doing this makes you look amateurish, and it warns of future problems later in the text.
  18. Be careful about trying to be mysterious in chapter 1, it can come off as confusing.
  19. Don’t tie things up so neatly at the end of chapter 1. You need to leave breadcrumbs at the end of every chapter to keep the reader engaged and ready to jump to the next page.
  20. Voice needs work. 

Please share in the comments any additional first-pages problems you’ve identified! Thanks!


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You Ask, I answer. Publishing Q & A


If you have a question on the publishing process–everything from what my inbox looks like, to querying, to writing a synopsis, to submissions, etc.–please ask in the comments section. I’ll try to answer your questions as far as my experience allows. If I don’t answer that day, tweet at me that you asked a question because I don’t always notice I’ve got a comment!

So, ask away!


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Doc is In: Symptoms of Quality Writing

So, sickness has been running rampant through my house lately, which means I’ve been employing the benefits of Dr. Google. All I had to do was plug in the symptoms: coughing, chills, runny nose, sore throat, low-grade fever and I quickly learned that my family was either dying of tuberculosis or had some variation of the common cold. It was a toss-up really, which wasn’t the best of odds when tuberculosis is on the table, so off to the real doctor we went. One sinus infection and a bottle of amoxicillin later, life is returning to normal. Except for the horse pills, that is. Some unnamed person in my house must somehow manage to swallow them on a twice daily basis. Nothing normal about that. Honestly, it’s worse than giving my dogs a pill. At least then I can slather them in peanut butter.

But I digress.

This is all to say I’ve noticed everything in life — both good and bad — has symptoms. Life is symptomatic of whatever is going on. We cry when we’re hurt. It’s a symptom of pain. We laugh when we’re happy. It’s a symptom of joy. Our heart flutters when we’re in love. It’s a symptom of pleasure. Writing is no different. Quality writing has some basic markers of success.

The Symptoms of Quality Writing: 

  • Every quality house is built first on a strong foundation, and writing is no different. A quality book is founded on a great hook (wow, that rhymed, go me). A hook defined: the unique element of your story that makes it marketable; a strong premise. Querying authors take note: One thing I’m looking for in your queries is this hook. (And I always want to see the stakes of the novel included in the hook, because otherwise why would I care to read it?) Sadly, if you can’t lay out the hook for me in your query, then how can I hook an editor, and finally, how can your publishing house hook a bunch of readers for you? It’s just not gonna happen. So, please make sure you include a sentence or two somewhere in your query that is obviously the hook. You can’t imagine how many people leave this out or bury it. I personally don’t care if you give me this “sizzle” at the end of your synopsis or throw out an old-school “what if” sentence somewhere (though I hear some agents don’t care for them). As long as I can find it, I’m happy.
  • There’s a central conflict that the reader cares about seeing resolved. It is the story problem that the protagonist must solve. This means there’s rising tension to the climax, and a satisfying resolution (unless maybe it’s a tragedy) at the end. Basically you as an author have a problem if your narrative doesn’t have a problem.
  • There are stakes involved for your protagonist. Stakes are the reason your story matters and the reason your protagonist is willing to deal with the conflict around which your story is built. Stakes are what’s at risk for your character. Stakes are something that can be gained or lost. And stakes, maybe most importantly, give your reader something to care about. That’s why stakes are always part of the HOOK. There are three types: personal (directly affect the character), public (affect the world as a whole) and ultimate (when your protagonist’s convictions and motivations are tested). If you can manage to incorporate all three, then you’re awesome and I need to meet you. The higher the stakes, the better.
  • With conflict comes tension. Tension impels people to keep reading. It is the rising action that tracks upward to the climax. Tension is created through a series of crises that get more and more intense as you build to said climax. Visually, rising action is not linear but a series of bumps as each crises should have its own rising and falling action.
  • There’s character development. We fall in love with the hero and hate the antagonist, and they change over the course of the book, deepening our feelings for them, good or bad, as they react to or cause the conflict. Also, secondary characters aren’t just there to be pretty, but give meaning and add depth to the story and main characters.
  • There’s a well-developed setting (which can almost be a character in itself) and world-building (especially for fantasy & science fiction pieces).
  • There’s a healthy balance of action, narration and dialog in the writing.
  • There’s structure to the work, which can take on various forms. The Hero’s Journey, Three-Act Structure, In Medias Res, Seven point story structure, etc. People like structure. They expect it.
  • There’s rhythm to the writing, or sentence fluency, that makes us not want to rip our eyes out for having read 15 eight-word sentences in a row. (Kill me now.)
  • Maybe basic, but it’s edited well. Grammar, punctuation spelling. (ha, did anyone notice I left out a comma?)
  • The writer shows more than tells. (Telling: The blood moon was red and big in the night sky, and I felt scared when I went Trick or Treating with my friends. Showing: I imagined the blood moon dripping from the night sky, cascading down a red shower on all of the little ghosts and ghouls and even princesses running, scattered down the street. We hunted for candy in shadows, but something about that night made me feel like I was the one being hunted.) Feel the difference? I said basically the same thing, but one made you feel something. Also please note, it takes more words to show than tell.
  • Quality writers (especially debut authors) follow publisher expectations for genre. In thrillers, someone dies. In romance, there’s a happily ever after. The protagonist is a sympathetic or likable character we’re willing to root for.
  • There are publisher expectations for word count too — that incorporate age categories (children’s, middle grade, young adult, new adult, adult) with genre (romance, women’s fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, etc.). If you pitch me a 250,000 word sci-fi novel, it’s an automatic no. Yes, some writers write crazy big, but they’re established authors with built-in fan bases. See
  • And then there’s voice. VOICE IS PARAMOUNT. You often hear agents say, “It’s all about the voice,” and really, it is. Voice is my main symptom of quality writing. What is it? Voice is the quality of an author’s writing that makes it unique. It is style expressed through words. It’s the difference between a Valentino evening dress (I’d image it written as lyrical, stylized, beautiful, elegant), Alexander McQueen (dark, brooding, edgy, loud, somewhat dangerous, sometimes clipped, sometimes flowing) and Betsey Johnson (colorful, snappy, humorous, fun). Voice is the attitude and personality of a work expressed through (according to Wikipedia) a “combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text.” That sounds rather clinical, but hear me, it’s more than that: Voice is a character in and of itself. Read what you write out loud. Does your writing have its own personality? Is it a character in and of itself? If yes, if you can feel it and it moves you, that’s quality voice. Quality voice grabs hold of you and won’t let go. I imagine that’s why agents and editors get all riled up over voice. It keeps us reading — and that’s the goal.

Image result for betsey johnson fashion design Image result for alexander mcqueen fashion

Well folks, the doctor was in today, and I hope you enjoyed the check up. I’m also quite sure I’ve missed something because a) I never really went to medical school and b) admittedly, I stayed up late bing-watching CW shows last night. (Ahem, don’t judge me. I rep YA. I must be a kid inside to some degree to do this and this requires me watching shows chock full of “chosen ones” and teenage angst.)

So, please my friends, comment away on your favorite symptoms of quality writing. Every reader has the right to determine their own markers of success! 





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Top-10 Things You Should Know About Me

What’s up buttercups? Nothing munch, Captain Crunch? Then stay a while and get to know me! I can tell you plenty about the kinds of projects I like to represent, but sometimes don’t you just want to understand who someone is and what makes them tick? Maybe I can help. Whether you are pitching to me or considering me as your agent, these are the TOP-10 things you should know about me.

  1. If you didn’t catch the Big Bang “Penny” quote above, say because you haven’t watched thousands of episodes of the most incredible show on TV (ahem, Big Bang Theory) over and over like me, then we can still be friends. But you really ought to consider setting your DVR. Truth be told, if I could be those boys’ neighbor, I totally would be. Not just because they crack me up, but because I’d want to pick their brain about the nature of the universe. Maybe I should have been a physicist, but alas I snagged a B.A. in journalism instead. But still, I’m happy. And Google can answer some of my questions even if Sheldon can’t.  And my friend who worked at the Large Hadron Collider can answer the rest. And yes, I rep sci-fi…
  2. I was raised on Star Trek and Jane Austen and anything in their related genres in equal doses. I used to stay up reading said novels until 4 am with a flashlight, hiding under my sheets. I’m pretty sure my parents knew what I was up to, but figured if that’s all I was doing wrong, they didn’t have much to complain about. Then my uncle introduced me to Dune and I got wrapped up in the infuriatingly heart-rending Little Women. And the rest is history.
  3. I’m sort of a nerd. Don’t judge me. I like my A’s all neatly lined up. I graduated college with a nifty little 4.0, and got to give the commencement speech because of it. But don’t think I just sat around studying the whole time. I’m not boring. In college, I loved playing laser tag at Frost Chapel, got caught swimming in the reservoir (naughty, naughty) along with everyone else on campus (right of passage, anyone?), and I did this thing called “running” that college girls tend to do to stay slim enough to catch a boyfriend. Though unfortunately for me, it worked. I caught one. But I had to throw him back one month before graduation when he started to stink, which makes me so happy because I caught the right one not too many years afterward. I also loved mountain biking on my beautiful campus with the wind racing against me, and I pretty much joined every committee they would let me on. Yes, overachiever. Also, Waffle House lover. That’s where I did most of my studying — over hash browns scattered, smothered and covered. And coffee, lots of coffee.
  4.  If I were a plant: I was potted in California (If you can’t infer what I mean here, I can’t help you), this while my Navy pilot dad flew anti-submarine warfare missions a la Tom Cruise, (he had the glasses and everything) but we moved to Georgia when I was quite young, so most of my roots are in the South. I met my husband on vacation in Florida (I spied him reading a book poolside and he happened to know the friend I was vacationing with). He took me jet skiing in the ocean the next day and called me “darlin'”and you could have stuck a fork in me and called me done. I’m not usually one for “automatic” attraction in a romance novel, but it worked out well enough for me! One husband, a set of twins and a bonus baby later, my branches found the sun in the Northeast where we had moved. While there, I free-lanced and eventually interned at Talcott Notch Literary Agency. But not to be outdone, Georgia called and we’re home again, living on a farm, with more animals than are necessary for modern-day living — though I’m thoroughly happy I won’t have to shovel 2 tons of snow from my driveway ever again.
  5. I’m jealous of the person behind the idea for a time travel mailbox in the romantic movie, The Lake House. Then I googled it to see if I could read the book, and found out it was taken from a South Korean movie called Il Mare. 1) Not so jealous anymore since it wasn’t from a book, and 2) If I find out the directors of Il Mare did get it from a Korean novel, my best friend will have to read it to me in English. Also, I love kimchi. Her mom made me eat a kimchi pancake when I was 9, and the rest is history, which is surprising because you wouldn’t think kimchi and pancakes a good match. Moment of contemplation here: Maybe that’s why I’m interested in books that don’t always fit the mold, because sometimes the ones that are best are the ones that break all the rules. Those are the kinds of books I want to fight for.
  6. In first grade, I won a blue ribbon for a writing contest. It’s one of the most precious memories of my life, that and what it felt like to read Charlotte’s Web or The Box Car Children for the first time. There’s nothing like those first books that captivate you and transport you, or those first teachers who motivate you. I hold those memories quite dear. Books have been in my blood ever since. And that’s why I love to rep Middle Grade.
  7. When I got my first job editing, my boss told me the college professor she called for a reference told her one of the reasons she should hire me was because of my humor. “It’s different. You’ll like it.”  I wasn’t sure what I thought about that statement at first, but different can be good, right? I sure hope so! Because I still have a weird sense of humor. Red Dwarf and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are right up my alley.
  8.  I’m a very editorial agent. Because I have worked professionally as an editor and dabbled in writing myself in the past, I believe I have the capacity and the compassion to help make people’s work sing while helping them stay true to their convictions as a writer. And as a new agent with a smaller list, I also have the time and enthusiasm to move these writers with such great promise to publication, and hopefully establish wonderful relationships with them as we advance their careers. I believe in professional but personable relationships with my clients. I always have an open ear, and believe kindness goes incredibly far. Oh, and completely blatant personal promotion here, if you’ve ever wondered why you should choose a new agent over an established one, check out this blog:
  9. Back to the banal: Did I mention I like Kimchi? I’m convinced that hot hOT HOT, spicy foods are the best kind on the planet. Sweet gets second place. (And they go well together.) I kind of  want to cry when I have to eat pizza without Tabasco or copious amounts of hot pepper (powder). It just takes the fun out of it. Of course, I still cry when I eat the pizza covered in the hot peppers too, but then the tears are the happy kind. Give it to me hot. (And no, I don’t rep that genre.)
  10. I play the piano. By ear mostly, though my old Southern Baptist pastor’s wife of a piano teacher did try her darnedest to get me to memorize the notes, God rest her soul. Try as she might, nothing stuck but the rhythm and the emotion (the woman had some passion). And somehow I figured out that you could tap into that and then the keys would write their own music. I like to create beautiful things. The piano helps me do that.

I’d love to get to know you too! So comment away and tell me something that makes you you.



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I’m pleased to announce, I’ve joined Spencerhill Associates as Assistant Literary Agent.

I am thrilled to announce, I have joined Spencerhill Associates as Assistant Literary Agent where I will primarily represent commercial YA and MG (esp. sci-fi, fantasy and adventure), romance, southern women’s fiction, and Christian/inspirational fiction. I’m looking for a marketable hook, captivating voice, fantastical world building and inventive plots.

For MG, I’m looking for a humorous/witty voice, likable protags and awesome sidekicks; meaningful, realistic situations built around great plots (think Wonder); and uplifting, relatable, empowering stories for girls. I am a voracious reader of sci-fi, but not a huge fan of superheroes, vampires (except for Edward), witches, erotica or anything overtly dark.

As a former magazine associate editor and literary intern, I have a diverse background in communications and editing, but I have also dabbled in writing myself (completing my own YA sci-fi novel), and understand the passion and path writers take as they craft their stories. I hope this makes me a compassionate partner for those writers who will partner with me. I am also a 2001 graduate of Berry College in Rome, Ga, where I obtained my bachelor’s degree in Journalism and graduated valedictorian of my class.

I am pleased to bring my experience as a reader, writer and editor to the table as I build my list and, hopefully, develop great relationships within the writing community.

Happily, I am open to queries. Please submit your query (addressed to me), first three chapters and synopsis, via our form at If I can be uber picky for one moment, it would make me oh so happy to see your TITLE, genre, age group, word count and why you queried me at the top of your query. I also would like to see comparables somewhere in there too!

I’m also on Twitter: @HerringAli.

And yes, if you’re wondering, I am a “Mrs. Herring.” If you happen to address it to “Mr. Herring,” then I will make my husband read it, and I can’t promise you anything then …

(Eh, don’t worry. I’m only kidding.)



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Querying 101: Plot Arc & Stakes

My recent #QueryTip on Plot Arc & Stakes in a query letter got a lot of attention, so I thought I’d expound on it in a blog post. The tweet: “There’s a fine line between hooking me with a “tease” & leaving out the plot arc. Plot arc and stakes (high stakes please) are key #querytip.” (NOTE: If you are in a rush, please scroll down to view the PLOT ARC & STAKES diagram I created, which will hopefully offer some direction on just what those things are. Sometimes when you know the parts of something, it’s easier to break it down.)

Here’s the thing about query letters: Writers wait weeks for a response that takes an agent just a few minutes to formulate. After said agent trudges through the endless queue of queries, yours rises like cream on fresh milk to the top. You know you’ve got a few minutes of their time, so you try to do something flashy. You tease them about your story. Your tease is sooo Twitter pitch perfect, so you figure it’s all you need to get that next look.


The agent there is effectively making a business decision when they read your unsolicited query. That takes time, and time is money. No one likes to waste money, right? And no one likes to lose an AMAZING author because they queried incorrectly.

But an agent cannot evaluate your novel without a clear sense of the plot arc (it proves you know what you’re doing as a writer) and its stakes (the “why” does this story even matter moment) reflected in the query. THIS DOES NOT MEAN GIVE AWAY THE ENDING. That’s for the synopsis. It does mean: show the agent enough plot to prove there’s a valid story there, and then give them a reason to care. The: “If this happens, then this (horrible / wonderful) thing happens” and that’s why we should care moment.

So, when querying: Keep it short but thorough. Don’t make their eyes glaze over. Mmm. Okay? With a doctoral thesis….

Agents needs to know (and yes, all the following are actually important):

  1. TITLE
  2. Genre (Scifi, Paranormal, Romance, etc.)
  3. Age Group (Children’s, Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult, Adult)
  4. Word Count (use your WORD program to count the actual words. Not page numbers; it’s not the same thing)
  5. Plot Arc (2 paragraphs max)
  6. Stakes (bottom of 2nd paragraph, perhaps a stand alone sentence to make it stand out. Feel free to take a liberty here!)
  7. Comparables (novels similar to yours or … would appeal to fans of INSERT NOVEL(s). This helps agents know where to “shelve” it in the market.
  8. Short bio, if relevant.
  9. SAMPLE PAGES (this is different for every agency, so check web sites. Talcott Notch asks for the first 10 pages PASTED in the body of the email).

If querying nonfiction, I cannot tell you how important it is for you to speak to your author platform, aside from the pitch. Nonfiction is often sold on platform: do you have an education in the field you are speaking to? Do you have a well-followed blog? Do you pod cast? Do you do speaking tours? Hey, do you happen to be famous? Cool. Let’s meet for lunch and discuss…

BUT BACK TO THE FOCUS OF THIS POST. Because I’m nerdy like this, I made you a fancy smancy diagram about PLOT ARC & STAKES. Get an idea of the mechanics of them, then put that on paper!

I hope the best for you querying authors! I’ve written queries myself, and they are RIDICULOUSLY hard to write. When your work is so important to you, boiling it down to a few paragraphs isn’t easy. But it can be done – and done well. So go do it!

PLEASE NOTE: Click on the diagram to view larger!




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