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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32 responses to “You Ask, I answer. Publishing Q & A

  1. What do you consider as appropriate word count for MG? Would agents reject a manuscript based solely on word count?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your questions. Publisher expectations for middle grade fiction runs from around 30,000-55,000 words depending on the subject matter and age range (lower word count for lower-MG or higher word count for upper-MG-tween fiction). That being said, middle grade science fiction and fantasy can run much higher because of the world building required of that genre; it definitely takes more words to paint believable SFF scenes. The thing to remember for debut writers is not to stray too high or too low outside those expectations. If I get a 62K MG Sci-fi novel from a debut author I can’t put down, I’m not worried about that word count.

    To answer your 2nd question, yes, your manuscript can be rejected based solely on word count alone. If you send a 115K MG SF thriller, it’s more than likely going to be a no–right away. I personally try to give a quick glance to the “sample” at that point and check out the writing. If it’s decent, and I have time that day, I might email you back and ask if you haven’t combined two books into one and need to separate them, or suggest you run your book through the exercises in the book “The Word-Loss Diet.” For those with too low a word count, see if you need better showing (versus telling) which requires more words to do, and make sure you have a blend of the 3 needed elements of fiction: narration, action and dialogue. You might be missing something of those.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for doing this!

    The longer I’m in this writing & publishing world, the more I realize the hook/idea of a manuscript is almost more important than the writing itself. Almost. So I’m curious…the queries that really grab you, is it more for the hook or the writing in the sample chapters?

    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is a tough one. The hook and the writing are a little like an old married couple. You know if one dies, the other will follow. They just love each other that much. That, my friend, is the hook and the writing. They go together.

      But, I suppose if I nitpick, the hook is more foundational. Without a great idea, you have no marketable story. The hook demonstrates you have conflict to resolve, characters with motivations, stakes to be dealt with, reasons to care. So, if you can write from a great concept/hook, then you’ve got a chance at creating something worth an agent’s attention (ie, something they can sell). Then comes the writing, of course. There are a lot of great ideas and hooks out there, but writers still have to execute. So while a great hook might get you out of the gate and grab an agent’s attention in the query, without great writing, you won’t get that request. And can I just say, that first paragraph REALLY matters.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. So, I guess to be just a bit more specific to your question, the hook in your query is what matters to me most … at first. If I see a great concept, then I’ll want to read your sample right away. If you have a great sample, at that point, you’ll get a request. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Ali, I have a question – I have a new idea for a novel. Is there any way I can “test” the concept to see if it is strong enough to attract an agent first before I start the first draft? My concern is spending 6-12 months writing the book, and then have agents say “Oh, that hook isn’t strong enough.” Of course I can ask friends and other writers, but they’re not the agents making the decision. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Great question! I feel like we need to come up with a new hashtag #testpitch or something, and make a day of it. Have other agents like hooks that have promise and feel free to make comments that might help.
        That being said, it’s not exactly practical at this time! So, I’d encourage you to try to write a query letter based on your idea. Make the pitch sound like book jacket copy (go read a million of them in the genre you’re writing in, and that will give you an idea of how to do it). Make sure you end the plot summary with the hook! It should include: the Protagonist, central conflict, some atmosphere if possible and the !!!stakes!! The stakes can be public, private or ultimate and they are the reason readers care to see if your conflict can be resolved. I’ve got a diagram on plot arc and stakes somewhere on here, if you want to take a look. There’s a web site called where you can post query letters, first chapters, that kind of thing. I’m going to say, put up your “fake” query letter and see what people think!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Ali! That’s essentially what I’ve been doing – writing the Query letter first! I’ll check out that website.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Eva Polites

    Hi Ali, thanks for taking and answering questions. I have two.
    1. When formatting a word document, is the industry standard 5 spaces or the tab button for a new paragraph? I have seen contradictory information on this point.
    2. Should I follow agents?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi! I’m glad to answer questions!
    1. I personally format paragraphs with a 0.5″ hanging indent, no tabs for new paragraphs. This is a handy formatting guide:
    2. You should most definitely follow agents. They won’t all follow you back, but that doesn’t matter! You can learn a lot from the kinds of things they post. For instance, Lauren Zats does #500queries. You’ll see new #MSWLs, which will give you an idea of what’s selling/what they’re looking for. You’ll get #writetips and #pubtips and see what kinds of books they’ve just sold. That will tell you a lot about craft and the market. I personally would create a “list” in twitter — one for agents and one for editors at imprints that would sell the genre you’re writing. You can learn from both. Remember, the editors are the final “control” so it’s good to know what they’re looking for too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eva Polites

      Hi Ali, thanks for the answers. I often check out the different hashtags and twitter accounts, but I was not sure about actually following agents. I will go ahead and feel free to do so from here on in. Thanks:

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ray

    Thanks for answering our questions!

    I published my debut under a pen name with a small press. An agent responded to my query with great interest, but she said if my past sales are poor, big 5 editors might not even consider my new project.

    Is it possible for me to re-launch with my legal name? I didn’t mention my pen name in the query, but I’m extremely concerned that this will ruin my chances of signing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi,
      Admittedly, I’m not an expert on this, but I can’t imagine that sending a polite reply to her email saying you published with them under a pen name would have an adverse affect. Letting them know you would be willing to use a different pen or your legal name for future projects might help.


  8. My current WIP (upper MG Sci Fi) is written in first person present tense. From your experience, are agents more likely to connect with that POV versus first person past tense? I’ve been considering doing a past-tense rewrite, but get differing opinions. Thanks


    • Thank you for the question. You’ve asked a tough one and one that gets debated (or at least pondered over and googled by writers all the time). The truth is there’s no definitive answer and both are acceptable. This being said, you’ll probably see more first person present tense in realistic fiction, and more past tense in fantastic (sff) fiction. From my personal experience only, overall, I would say past tense is most common. If you consider only the MG novels I ‘personally’ choose to read and those I am queried with (no scientific or definitive data here), I often see MG written third person past tense. And because of my personal likes, I often read/am queried with fantasy/sci-fi.

      All this being said, I think the genre and work itself often dictate the voice and tense that’s necessary. And I’m a big fan of testing things out. Consider taking your first chapter and rewriting it in a variation of tenses and point of views and see which one best expresses your intentions. You may find you love third person past, or in retrospect, you can’t believe you ever wrote it in present tense, or wow, present tense first person is awesome! Best of luck!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks, I haven’t been getting the amount of requests I’d hoped for from the first queries that I sent for this book. Most of the feedback I’ve received says the premise is intriguing, but just not connecting with them. I’m going to do the re-write, mainly because I don’t want to keep burning names on my query list if the tense that I’m using is standing in the way.

        Liked by 1 person

    • But one more thing, I’m currently on sub to editors with an MG first person past and it’s killer. So to reinterate, the work dictates the perspective and tense!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Joshua Kawuuzi

    How can word count affect the marketability of a novel? Western Vs African settings for example. I’m in Uganda and most of my novels are set there.
    Secondly, the term unusual setting is a common one. What specifically makes a setting unusual?
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the questions. First lets interchange the word saleability for marketability. An agent can only “sell” a novel to a willing publisher (or more specifically, an acquiring editor for that publisher) if it works for their line — and that is not only due to plot, content, characterization, etc., but word count. Many of the big publishers have a ton of different smaller imprints or houses that focus on specific kinds of literature, age groups or genres. Independent publishers may have niches as well. Each of these imprints or small houses will have word-count expectations of these genres based on age groups, and even the imprints themselves may have more even specific expectations of word count for their specific lines within those categories and age groups. For instance, Harlequin’s Love Inspired line has specific word counts of 55,000 to 60,000 words for each novel submitted. Harlequin Love Inspired readers know what to expect because of that, and Harlequin’s printing and shipping costs remain consistent. To take it further, I can’t sell a 100,000 word middle grade novel to Penguin Random House’s Razorbill (kids SFF line) when that expectation runs 50-65ish (off the top of my head), but I can probably sell a 100,000 word, awesome, adult scifi novel to Penguin Radom House’s Del Ray imprint (adult SFF, bigger word count) because that’s what they are looking for. So, knowing who you are writing for and writing to those expectations, is paramount — or nothing, na da will get rep or get sold.

      As to setting, I think authenticity is important and the plot has to make sense within that setting. So, if you set your novels in Africa, make sure those plots work well there. If what’s happening would feel more authentic set in the West, then set it there. So long as you are writing authentically to that setting, you should be good.

      Unusual settings are settings a particular editor doesn’t normally see. So maybe a historical romance set in China? Don’t we normally see them in Scotland and England these days, so that would be unusual? That being said, the writing is going to have to be very compelling to put something in an unusual setting in that situation, because you also have to be thinking about where your project fits in the market or where it will be shelved. So, unusual settings for particular genres like historical romance would have to be stellar writers who know exactly what they are doing.

      But write me a middle grade novel about a black 12 year old from CA or NY who moves to Africa to be with their other parent (who lives there) following the death of the US parent, and that kid having to come to terms with loss and a new identity, then THAT’s a novel where setting matters, and an unusual setting makes total sense. Also, write it in a literary style with a correct word count and hopefully be a #POC writing it (because, authenticity matters) with knowledge of both cultures, and bam, potential best seller. (Oh, BTW, high-concept middle grade written in a literary style exploring a big theme like loss, that’s hot right now).


      • Joshua Kawuuzi

        What an elaborate answer! Thank you so much for the explanation and time. Looking forward to writing you that kind of MG, 12yr old black boy from NY, lost US father, goes to stay with the mother in Uganda, finding his late father’s businesses in the hands of his Mom’s new husband and the two boys will definitely never be friends.


  10. Joy Findlay

    Hi Eli,
    You talk about what stakes are involved with your protagonist, what does she lose or gain in any given action or reaction, and how this conflict drives the story. I’d like to know if, in a first person story, do these stakes need to be obvious to the character from the beginning, or can they be revealed along the way? Do these stakes also need to be blatantly obvious to the reader from the beginning also, or are incredible physiological changes happening to the character and the ongoing external conflict because she is so different, enough to drive the story along? A bit like Ender’s personal story in the training facility above Earth in orbit, but without all of the politics going on behind the scenes. Ultimately that politics did hide a massive twist, but I hate reading all that political mumbling. Thanks


    • Hi. Thanks for the question. Well, it’s been many years since I read Ender’s Game, so I’m not remembering a lot of the political mumbling, but do think we should know pretty quickly what’s at stake for our characters because that gives the reader a reason to care and keep reading. That doesn’t mean stakes can’t increase as the plot moves along. Take The Hunger Games (one of my favorite examples because it has all three stakes: public, personal and ultimate). We know from almost the very beginning that these Hunger Games exist and someone is going to get called and most likely die (PERSONAL). Bingo. Katniss ends up on the chopping block and we know that she has MAJOR PERSONAL STAKES in surviving the games. But oh, then poor Peeta is called too, and all the other kids who Katniss ends up wanting to protect (Rue and Thresh) and then it becomes obvious all the sectors are holding their breath over her actions too, so the stakes are upped to PUBLIC STAKES. At the end, Katniss has to decide whether her life is worth more than Peeta’s, and she faces ULTIMATE STAKES (her convictions and motivations are tested), is it just now about her own personal stakes or is it worth protecting others and challenging the system? So in answer, YES, at least part of your stakes need to be pretty obvious from the beginning, but other levels of stakes can be revealed along the way. The higher the stakes, the better the story, so if you can layer them in, that’s the best. These days the story problem needs to be unveiled pretty quickly, and with that problem, the stakes should be apparent because that problem must be solved. Now, all rules can be broken if done well, but you do have to give us a reason to care if you make us wait–make us feel for the protagonist, make us curious with hints of whats to come etc., but don’t wait too long!


  11. Joshua Kawuuzi

    Hello Ali,
    I received a rejection letter to one of my novels from an agent which said, ‘…I can see you have an interesting idea here, but after reading your first chapter, I’m sorry it’s not the right fit for me’, and it got me thinking what the deal breaker might have been. Would it be advisable for me to stop querying and consider rewriting the novel since the idea is being dubbed interesting? Is it the African setting? But it makes sense there though it could fit in a western setting too. Can it be the writing?

    Thank you.


    • Hi Joshua,

      I think the rejection has less to do with setting and more to do how you executed your first pages. This could be a matter of taste from that agent or it could be you have an issue with some common first-page problem, and there are lots of those. The fact that you were told your good idea was good is a good thing, and so I wouldn’t go about rewriting everything. You may just need to work on the first pages, which is a common problem for many writers, especially debut writers just figuring things out.

      So here’s are the common problem of first pages:

      1) You started in the wrong place. You have to get to the inciting incident or the turning point (that turning point in your character’s life that puts him/her on the main path of your plot) fast, usually in the first chapter. If that happens in chapter 3, start in chapter 3 instead. 2) Your first chapter mostly consists of backstory. You as a writer consider the backstory important because you’ve used it to frame your story, but backstory should be sprinkled in. BEWARE the dreaded info dump of backstory. NEVER DO THAT. Read my blog on the golden thread, I think it may be the Bore the Literary Agent post. Akin to this, never start with your character waking up, or doing some 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 QUICKLY. 3) Beware purple prose. Basically this is trying to make everything sound elaborate and ornate. That means adjectives and adverbs everywhere instead of proper showing. 4) You may lack a balance of dialog, narration and action. Every book consists of a) dialog: characters talking, b) action or beats: people doing things c) narration- commentary or what is told to us (point of view is who is telling it, so 1st person vs 3rd person offer slightly different narrative perspectives). 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. You need to balance all three of these to there is a proper rhythm to the writing and a proper feeling of engagement in the scene to the reader. We need all three to feel immersed. 5) You used a prologue. 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. 6) You haven’t set the scene or you feature so much exposition to set the scene it’s too much. Balance again. 7) Nothing happens. Plot has to be occurring. So whatever that happens to your main character to motivate them to deal with/bear the circumstances that will be thrown at them, the tension that must be dealt with, whatever happens to do them to put them on the “path of plot” better happen in the first chapter. Do not leave characters idle. Do not write a scene, especially in the first chapter, that does not to advance the story problem/plot. 8) start with cliches 9) In romance, hero and heroine need to meet in first chapter. 10) Too much telling vs. showing 11) For me, I’ll characterize this as the weird opening. Definitely no weird openings… No first line of overtly sexual dialog, My name is …, purple prose first line. 12) voice needs work.


  12. Devon V

    Hello there! I am new to your blog. I have a completed manuscript, but just don’t know WHERE or HOW to start this process. Do I write a query, 1 Sheet, Synopsis, etc. and start emailing random agents that I find through Google? Do I self publish? Where does one begin the journey of becoming a published author? After reading this post, I have some glaring issues in my first chapter that need addressing. For starters, it is a YA Christian Romance novel and my love interests don’t meet until chapter 2. I now believe that the first chapter is too much “set up.” But, once I’ve got things reworked in following your advice above (much appreciated), where does one start this journey? I’m told the road is long and you must be persistent and sometimes long-suffering. I’m game…once I find the starting line.


    • Hi, welcome to the blog and thanks for your questions. I think your first step is finding a few critique partners (CP’s for short). You may be able to do this by joining a local writing group (RWA is romance; ACFW is christian or inspirational) who can give you honest feedback on your work. They’ll be the first to tell you if your project is query ready. The great thing about writing groups is you often have writers in different stages of their journey who can show you the path and tell you pitfalls to avoid. You can also find CPs through Twitter contests like #PitchWars. Then there’s conferences with classes, agent pitch sessions, panel and lots of fun swag. Try attending a local one first: maybe hosted by said RWA or ACFW chapters, or Writers Digest (also has online classes, resources and the famous book “Guide to Literary Agents” ( which will tell you a lot about writing queries, etc. and provide a list of agents.

      You can also access agent profiles and search by genre (because it’s best to query people who would actually want to see your work, ie, agents who rep inspy, etc.) on This site is free but you can also access additional useful tools for what I think is pretty reasonable cost, including the ability to track queries you sent, agent response times, etc. You might also like the resources and community on where you can post query letters, first chapters, etc. to be critiqued by the writing community at large. You’ll get lots of advice on these sites, so take that with a grain of salt. Not everyone on them knows what they are talking about.

      Twitter is also great. I encourage you to follow agents and editors and see what kind of #writetips, #pubtips, etc. they are posting. Laura Zats does #500queries and basically, she tells you why she asked for or passed on the queries she received. Random agents also do #10queries, so search that hashtag. You can also look up the #MSWL (hashtag for manuscript wishlist where agents/editors post project they want to see, and you can reference that in a query letter to show you have something they may want to see). You can then write the query subject line: QUERY: #MSWL TITLE for added oomph). There are also two manuscript wishlist web sites: and and I’m also a huge fan of Pub Rants: as a resource.

      After you’ve put your MS through the ringer and are SURE you’re ready to query, write a query letter, a synopsis (1-3 pages is good) (my favorite “how to write a synopsis” tutorial: so you have that ready. If you want to be a traditionally published writer, I would NOT recommend self-publishing or signing with the first small/indie press who wants you. If you end up having poor sales in a particular genre with them, then the likelihood of a big publisher picking you up goes down A LOT (even if you didn’t have much of a marketing budget). You’ll basically have to write the end-all be-all book in a DIFFERENT genre at that point, to reinvent yourself. At the very least, if you do this, publish under a PEN name and not your legal name. Save that for if you end up traditionally published.

      And if I may, swing over to my new clients blog. It’s an eye opener:

      Keep writing too! Most people don’t sell until they are on their 3 -6 book or something crazy. Rarely is a first book the penultimate of your ability as a writer. Its often the stepping stone (one of many) to get across the rapids that block the way to publishing your first book.


  13. Devon V

    I am humbled and so grateful for your thoughtful and thorough response. I guess it is time to quit dragging my feet and get a Twitter account so that I can follow and glean and grow.

    Again, thank you. Your kindness is appreciated!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad to help, and yes definitely jump in the deep end on Twitter. The writing community is ACTIVE and ALIVE on Twitter, and I can’t tell you how much you are missing out on not jumping in feet first. Come follow me and be sure to tweet at me a hi! 🙂 @HerringAli


  14. Abigail

    Could you please advise me where to find a few good beta readers for my novel? My friends and friends of friends have read it and loved it, and gave me their in depth reviews. However, shouldn’t I find some less connected readers to get a better/realistic review?
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the question! You’re right that beta readers or critique partners (CP’s as they are often called on Twitter) can be critical–especially outside of your family and friends circle. Great ways to find them are to 1) join and participate in local writing groups (like an RWA chapter if you write romance, ACFW for inspy, SWCA, etc. or area groups like my client KC Karrs Flint Area Writers.) 2) You can also go to conferences to meet like-minded folks and meet there. Sometimes conferences or writer’s workshops have group critiques where you read and comment on each other’s work. You may get lucky in that setting to connect with a CP. 3) Participate in #PitchWars on Twitter. There are often opportunities to find CPs through #pitchwars hashtags that pop up. These are just a few places to go, but a quick google search will tell you more. For instance …

      The thing to remember in looking for a good CP is to find a great match. All writers are not created equal, and you both want someone who can meet you where you are at and push you to be better. So, find a skills match but find someone who is better at something that you are weak at and vice versa. Good luck!


  15. Hi Ali,
    I recently finished revworking my manuscript based on your feedback (which is very similar to your most recent blog post!). I thought I’d see if you’d like me to resubmit. I also followed you on Twitter today.


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