Pitching Your Novel

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Some of you will have the opportunity to pitch your novel in person to an editor or agent, or in writing via your query letter. So I want to make something clear about fiction pitches. One thing I’ve noticed is that some writers want to tell all about the theme or the emotional journey of the story, but they have a hard time conveying the actual story.

Every novel has a theme. There’s a character arc, in which a character grows and/or changes over the course of the story. There’s an emotional progression. But that is not the story. That is what is illustrated by the story.

So what’s a story?

It’s a plot. It’s scenes with action and dialogue. It’s people going places and doing things and talking to other people. It’s characters taking action to make something happen, to change their situation, to solve a problem, to avoid danger.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Often as I read queries or listen to pitches, I hear something like this:

A woman is distraught and angry about her teenage daughter’s drug use, but finally comes around to be able to forgive her and help her.

I might ask, “So what’s the story?”

Well, the mother has a hard time with this because of her own past drug use, and she vowed her own children would never use drugs, and she has to learn that we’re all human and that her daughter needs her help.

Me: “Okay, so how does all of this happen? What’s the story?”

Well, the mother finally forgives her daughter, and gets her into rehab.

Still no story.

Can you see that this is not a novel? I’ve been given a premise and a resolution, but I have no idea what actually happens.

Sometimes, the problem isn’t with the pitch — it’s a problem with the book. Some authors are writing entire 100,000 word novels with no actual real-world story, instead chronicling in devastating detail a character’s emotional journey.

Take note:

The emotional journey is illustrated and reflected in the real-life action of the story. Again: people going places, doing things, interacting with other people, solving problems, and always working towards a goal.

So your pitch should include theme and emotional journey, as well as the action of the story. A strong pitch will convey who the protagonist is, their goal or objective, the choice or conflict they face, the consequences of the choice (what’s at stake), and the action they take in pursuit of the goal.


Have you been pitching themes and emotional journeys instead of stories?


Image copyright: maridav / 123RF Stock Photo

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  1. “Tell me a story!”
    * That’s one of the first things we learn to request, isn’t it? It’s a child’s uncritical plea to help make sense of the world, absent all of the judgements of the writing community and concerned only with the who, what, where, why and how…Kipling’s Five Honest Serving Men.
    * So here’s a suggestion…experiment on children. Hmm…maybe I should rephrase that? Perhaps…use kids as test subjects?
    * Anyway…if you have access to kids who need story time…yours, your grandkids, or even the kids of friends (who will thank you for some relief), practice on them.
    * No, perhaps you shouldn’t use your 100k-word masterpiece of Christian martyrs during Robespierre’s Terror (though kids DO love guillotines), but consider writing a story just for this purpose. It’s not wasteful, any more than a painter keeping his hand in by sketching is wasting his time. The story you write for this will help you learn to talk through your own voice and story arc, and you may just find your audience enchanted.
    * Kids love pirate stories, too, so throw in some ‘drawn, quartered, and keelhauled’. And don’t forget to have the hero walk the plank!

  2. Carol Ashby says:

    To pitch the story, one needs a good plot summary. How many sentences do you like to see in a plot summary in a query? In a one-page at a conference?
    *I’m deeply indebted to the Genesis contest for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it taught me that I needed to rewrite my first three novels in limited third person deep POV from omniscient narrator. That shift in how the story is told really did deepen the emotional impact for a reader. That stylistic change is probably what made the two I’ve published so far successful in the market. I love interesting characters, but immersion in the story is what I want from a novel. It may be easier for plotters to describe and pitch the story than for pantsers.
    *The second is the requirement of a 1-page synopsis. Having to distill 100K words into 1 page focused on what was important, making shorter plot summaries easier to write or speak. It’s also handy to share with cover designers and editors to quickly give them the big picture for their own work.

    • Pamela Plumley says:

      As a graphic designer, as well as writer, your points are quite valid! A good synopsis is needed for a good book cover.
      Voice is everything!
      I’m now in pursuit of the best presentation for my book. I feel God has been after me for some time to write it. Time is always a nemesis!
      My whole concept is telling a section of my story from the POV of the age I was at the time, then addressing it from my current age and present the lessons learned. It’s not a novel, Fiction, but I toy with writing it as Fiction based on fact. Not sure I can prove all what happened, as some of it sounds so crazy. Though there were news stories…

  3. … and this is precisely why I cannot/do not write fiction. Telling stories (whether actually composing them, or relating them in summary fashion) is a gift, and it is one I do not possess. But I deeply admire those who have refined that craft.

  4. Oooh, I had an idea how your author could pitch the story of this emotional journey.

    Twenty years ago, Amy vowed that her children would never have to climb out of the pit of drug use that sent her to the ER five times and left her with 27 incredibly creative tattoos and a fear of unmarked white vans. But when her teenage daughter, five of her most dubious friends, and the family basset hound steal the RV during vacation at Yellowstone National Park in order to meet the stern demands of the local drug dealer, Amy has a choice. Turn the foolish teens (and her dog) over to a handsome local police officer , or launch herself (using an antique motorcycle with a plethora of mechanical deficiencies) after the young miscreants in an unlikely road trip that is almost certain to end in disaster.

    • Katie Powner says:

      Sounds interesting to me, Kristen! I would read it!

    • Very fun, Kristen!

    • Carol Ashby says:

      I LOVE that plot concept, Kristen! It has real potential as a screenplay, too.

    • Jackie Layton says:

      Kristen, you made me smile. Great job!

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      GREAT job, Kristen!

    • ej bohan says:

      Oh Kristen, You crack me up. This not only sounds like a book but a movie of the same comedy level and, Moms’ Night Out. It would get the point across in a manner that would be truly unforgettable!

      Just a side note, I did upgrade my reader glasses today from a 1.50 to a 2.00 so I could see what I was writing on my phone. I didn’t realize until it was too late that I had hit some wrong letters on my comment to Wendy’s blog post.
      When I finally could see, it was like, okay imagine this in Dorie the fish’s voice, “Did I do that? I didn’t did I? Oh my goodness, I did do that? Okay, just keep swimming, swimming and humming.”

      I was so mortified. I always check for typos, etc. But I couldn’t see well enough. I had Lasik eye surgery in December of 2012 because I felt like I was going blind with loss of night vision, double vision and other visual disturbances. It worked great, but this was a disguised blessing in finding out that I needed to upgrade my readers. I have them on now, and it makes such a wonderful difference.

      I’m not used to not being able to scroll back and recheck my writing. I will have to get used to it. Kind of like pushing the submit, and saying, “Wait! I need that back!”

      • Ha ha, I’m glad you guys enjoyed it. I was just trying to think of a plot to go with all that emotion and character growth and of course I lean toward the silly end of the story spectrum.

  5. Andrew, stories are my sweetest memory of my grandmother. In her big poster bed, my sister and I (little things) sandwiched my grandmother … her home on the hill, window open, breeze flapping the curtains, all snug under homemade quilts, wolves howling … It was always about the little girl who didn’t obey her parents. Lol. She’d get stuck in a snake pit and miraculously rescued. She’d obey her parents from now on. Ha ha. Okay, and The Three Bears, Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood. But you made me also think about Peter Pan … my favorite kid’s movie, too … I love when the crocodile spits Hook out of his mouth, and Hook goes bobbing across the water. I’d have the girls rewind it and play that scene over and over. 🙂 I totally got off topic.

  6. I’ve been trained to pitch the story, so hopefully, I do that. But, I understand how it’s easy to shift to the emotional journey. It’s the emotional journey that keeps a reader reading, but the story is what keeps the journey progressing.
    *I think. 😉

  7. Jaxon M King says:

    Thank you for the concrete advice, Rachelle. The novel I hope to pitch soon has a major focus on character arc, and as I was reading your article, I found myself thinking “Yes…yes” as I realized I have been too little focused on the plot while planning my potential pitch. I’m glad I read today. That was a close one!

  8. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    Oh. my. gosh. This brings home my particular weakness–Pacing. At first, I really needed to maintain an awareness to a ton of backstory. Now, it’s the emotional journey!? (which I thought made a story sound more better <–this is supposed to be funny) So, I slathered on the emotional descriptives, and made sure they were "in the moment."
    Now I gotta go back and check to see if these folks are actually moving?!

    Seriuosly, Rachelle thanks for the great pointers– this helps me understand my pacing problem so much better, and found it even goes to clarifying my style.

  9. I’m fairly new to pitching, but I have to work to keep out of the other extreme – all plot, no emotional journey. Not to say my writing doesn’t include both, but plot takes priority when I’m trying to answer the question, “What’s it about?”

  10. What a great post to read with ACFW Conference two weeks away. I think it’s time to practice telling my story.

    Thanks, Rachelle!

  11. Mary Kay Moody says:

    Thank you, Rachelle. It sounds like such a simple distinction. So much of querying and pitching mystifies us “newbies” and your post is very helpful. I’ve read that, regarding summaries, focus on the heroines emotional journey to ensure one avoids the “and then this happened, and then…” style so typical of a child recounting an experience. Especially important because (so the advisers say) the agent doesn’t yet know the MC so doesn’t yet care or easily follow. I appreciate this post and will revisit my proposals as I prep for ACFW.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      A question strikes me. If an agent doesn’t yet know the MC, why would that agent care more about the emotional journey of the heroine than the events that drive that journey. And why the heroine? What about the emotional journey of the hero if he’s the one who undergoes the greater change??

  12. Betsy Dyson says:

    I have developed a website for my book, not yet published. Doesn’t it make sense to send the website link instead of a synopsis to an agent or publisher? I feel the website, in the two short pages, tells the story much better than I can do in 1 – 2 typed pages. On the website I have 6 small sections where I can address what the book is about in different ways. I am guessing this is out of the norm so it would be trashed, but why? (smile)

    • Carol Ashby says:

      Don’t know if Rachelle is going to answer you, but here’s two reasons why it’s not likely to work.
      *The first is based on my career job where we submitted proposals all the time. If you don’t follow the format the proposal requester wants, they will not pick you. You look like a high-maintenance prospect if you can’t follow their directions from the beginning.
      The second: how do they know you’re not an evil person sending them a malicious link that will trash their system? I’ve already had my websites hacked twice.
      *Once because it was http instead of https. (Yes, you really do want to spend the money (about $50-80 a year) to secure your site even if you aren’t selling anything there.)
      *Again because I didn’t have the noopener noreferrer rel command in one of my links that opened a new window when the visitor clicked on it. Only a couple of links hadn’t automatically updated to the more secure level, and some nasty person found that one weak link in 39 pages and exploited it. If I were an agent, I would NEVER click on a link from an unknown person.
      *Hope that helps explain why.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Everyone has a website. Sending an email saying “Click on my link” is looked upon as lazy and trying to take a shortcut. We need the information for which we ask you. We can’t spend our time clicking all over the web trying to find it. It’s hard to understand if you’re not on this side of the desk, but we are trying to make yes/no decisions about literally dozens of projects every week (in addition to the workload of taking care of current clients). In order to make these decisions, I need to be able to access the necessary information as expediently as possible.
      *In addition, I need to be able to send your proposal and/or manuscript to my Kindle or iPad, as virtually all agents and editors do. Either that, or print it out to read. Obviously we can’t do that with your website.
      *Are you thinking long-term to when a publishing committee is trying to make a decision about whether to publish your book? In that situation, proposals and manuscripts are distributed to all the appropriate people (the editors, marketing director, sales director, publisher, etc.) so they can read them in advance of the publishing committee meeting, in which they’ll discuss proposals and make decisions. In any given meeting, they could be discussing a dozen different books. Are they expected to be clicking all over the web to learn about each author and each book? No, they need it all in a need, easy-to-read package right in front of them.
      *Also, Carol Ashby’s thoughts are all correct.

      • Betsy Dyson says:

        Hi Rachelle and Carol,

        Thank you for your thoughts. Rachelle your comments have helped me understand your side, and what the websites need to make them a viable solution for agents or publishers. With some tweaking the website idea may be the best solution for everyone involved. It will make your life easier, and highlight the creativity of the author. It is down the road a ways, but I think that is where we are headed.

        You said Carol Ashby’s thoughts are correct. She pointed to “evil people” and it sounds like she was worried about virus issues you might pick up from a website. You are sent thousands of email a day, even if it is through your server, any of those transmissions can contain a virus. I am sure your security system will fight off viruses, hackers and anyone else trying to get in your system. Financial institutions are fighting off hundreds of thousands of hacks a day, and yes I said a day! I don’t think the security argument is reasonable, but as a personal computer user myself, as opposed to a business with top end security, I can relate to Carol’s fear!!!

  13. Thanks for this well-timed and valuable post, Rachelle! This was incredibly helpful as I prepare to picth for the first time at the ACFW conference in a few weeks!

  14. Great advice! Thanks so much, Rachelle.

  15. Tisha Martin says:

    Crafting a pitch is one of the hardest things to begin (at least it was for me). Then it becomes much like riding a bicycle. Rachelle, thank you for simplifying!

  16. Pamela Plumley says:

    Question. If I have a storyline, lessons learned, emotional journey, etc, can I write it as Fiction based on fact or should it should stay autobiography?
    I tend to write prose style is why I ask. I have a concept but need guidance. I want to help women through my story.
    It definitely has the elements of fiction, adversity, overcoming, triumph, climax and anti-climax (just when you think it can’t get worse…). Presentation is my question at this point. I came up with an idea for presentation, to be unique, but need true evaluation from other writers. I can’t afford a literary agent. I think I need to find a local Writer’s Club!