Pitching Your Novel

YawnLast week we discussed pitching your project to agents and editors at a writers’ conference. Today I wanted to address that a little more.

One thing I’ve noticed lately in fiction pitches – verbal pitches or queries – 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.

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.

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.

To this, I might ask, “Good, 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.

Grrr. Can you see that this is not a novel? At this point, I’ve been given a premise and a resolution, but I still have no idea what happens between page 1 and page 400.

Sometimes, this is not about the pitch – it’s a problem with the book. Some of you are writing entire 100,000 word novels with no actual real-world story, but instead you’ve chronicled 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.

In the words of my friend the Query Shark (agent Janet Reid), your pitch needs to show:

1. Who is the protagonist?
2. What choice does s/he face?
3. What are the consequences of the choice?

Just to be safe, take a step back from your query. Make sure your book has a protagonist with a choice to face (a conflict), obstacles to overcome, a desired outcome, and consequences (the stakes) if the goal is not reached.

And when it comes time to pitch your novel, talk about the actual real-world story, bringing in your protagonist’s emotional journey (or the theme of the book) at the end of your pitch.

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

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. […] Pitching Your Novel […]

  2. […] Hit the core elements. To paraphrase agent Janet Reid, your pitch should address these points: 1) Who is the protagonist? 2) What choice does he/she […]

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  4. shanjeniah on October 22, 2012 at 12:52 AM

    […] Pitching Your Novel […]

  5. […] Pitching Your Novel […]

  6. So, What is the Pitch and Story line? « on June 7, 2012 at 2:43 PM

    […]  They give great advice and pitch samples. Also, Rachelle Gardner   http://rachellegardner.flywheelsites.com/2011/07/pitching-your-novel/    She lists the three questions below to help find the pitch. “1. Who is the […]

  7. Patrica Awapara on June 6, 2012 at 10:26 PM

    By the way, is there anyway I could contact you directly?


  8. Patrica Awapara on June 6, 2012 at 10:03 PM

    This post is awesome!! I am new to this. Just finished my first book, and I thought after a month of thinking about my pitch, that I had it down packed, but I was wrong!

    I better go back to the drawing board.

  9. […] found the blog post Rachelle mentioned when I got home: Pitching Your Novel. The post features a photo of a woman yawning and this: “One thing I’ve noticed lately in […]

  10. […] Another common mistake is to try to include your character’s emotional journey or the theme of your novel in your pitch rather than describing the conflict. Your character should grow and change over the course of your novel, but your plot is the challenge she faces. And theme arises out of the story. It isn’t the story. (Check out Rachelle Gardner’s post on the necessity of conflict when pitching a novel.) […]

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  12. Audrey on September 15, 2011 at 7:23 PM

    I do accept as true with all of the ideas you’ve introduced for your post. They are really convincing and will definitely work. Nonetheless, the posts are very brief for novices. Could you please extend them a little from next time? Thank you for the post.

  13. Alice DiNizo on July 23, 2011 at 8:06 AM

    I have saved this blog to my favorites. Each one of you has written something that I need to read and think about as a writer. Thanks!!

  14. Stephanie Scott on July 21, 2011 at 1:22 PM

    This is difficult. That is all. 🙂

  15. Mary Allen on July 20, 2011 at 11:33 AM

    Thank you, good post.

  16. Sharon A Lavy on July 19, 2011 at 9:16 AM

    Thank you.

  17. Naomi Rawlings on July 19, 2011 at 8:16 AM

    Wow! This was a really informative post. As I’ve never verbally pitched anything before, I may well have fallen into this emotional journey trap. Thanks so much for the heads up!

  18. Colleen Jones on July 19, 2011 at 7:51 AM

    Thank you for your post, that really clarifies the difference quite well. I also am grateful for the link to Query Shark. I learned something after reading about three sentences of Janet’s latest blog entry. It’s been a fruitful day!

  19. Rachel Hauck on July 18, 2011 at 11:59 PM

    Really GREAT post, Rachelle! So true! Rachel

  20. Arlee Bird on July 18, 2011 at 11:32 PM

    I think when most readers gravitate toward a novel it is for the story about what happens to characters. Theme should be underlying the story and secondary in the aspect of marketing. Theme may be a primary concern to an agenda driven author, but most readers aren’t looking to be preached an agenda. Deep concern about theme and emotional journeys are the stuff of college literature classes and literary analyses.

    Tossing It Out

  21. Jamie on July 18, 2011 at 10:01 PM

    YIKES! I’m kicking myself because I’ve totally just realized I queried you last week with my character’s emotional journey instead of the actual story (I promise I have one). I haven’t received a response yet so perhaps it’s not too late to query again? Thanks for your wonderful advice:)

  22. RaeLynn Fry on July 18, 2011 at 7:51 PM

    This is a great post. So often, in our nervousness, we try to pitch our book on an almost philosophical, it-has-this-great-powerful-and-meaningful-journey, level and forget that our novel, first and foremost, started out as a story. 🙂 Thanks, Rachelle

  23. Rachel Wilder on July 18, 2011 at 2:48 PM

    A very timely post for me. I’m preparing to pitch a completed novel for the first time at ACFW conference and these are some great pointers to remember as I craft that darned pitch.

    Thank you for sharing what you want to hear!

  24. Casey on July 18, 2011 at 2:15 PM

    If one were to have a greatest fear, mine would be giving a boring/bad pitch. I need to start working on mine for ACFW, but am petrified of not doing it right! Sounds like I need to get to work. Thanks for the great tips! 🙂

  25. Rebekah Schneiter on July 18, 2011 at 2:05 PM

    This was very helpful. I wonder if we, writers, tend to be so emotionally involved with our characters that we forget that our readers aren’t there yet…not until they’ve read our very action pact story that is. Getting ready to pitch my next book soon, so I will keep this tips in mind.

  26. Wanda Fittro on July 18, 2011 at 1:47 PM

    Thanks, Rachelle. Very timely advice for me. I’m pitching this weekend to Lia Brown with Avalon at our local writing conference. May need to tweek it a little.

  27. Kelley @ Between the Bookends on July 18, 2011 at 1:38 PM

    Wow, total light bulb moment. I queried a few agents, and have been editing the manuscript after receiving some great revision suggestions. I think its hard to focus on just the action of the story in the query letter because we become so attached to the person doing the action. We want the agent to love them just as much as we do. But that connection can’t be made in a one page query letter, it can only be made by living through the action with them.

    It makes perfect sense now. Thank you!

  28. Tianyu L. on July 18, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    Following my last comment, how about this crude attempt to solicit better pitches from others:

    A mother finds her daughter Lindsy passed out by the kitchen sink, an entire bottle of prescription pills scattered on their dingy tile. After emergency room resuscitation and stomach purges, Lindsy succumbs to the pulls of depression. Mom discover a dark secret in Lindsy’s past during their joint counseling session, and together they begin to unravel…

    • Giora on July 18, 2011 at 11:03 PM

      Tianyu, The opening of your pitch is strong and hopefully that is how you start your novel. However, it might be better to keep the deatils and literary writing to the novel itself and to make the pitch simpler and shorter from 55 words to 39 words, like this:

      A mother finds her daugther Lindsy passed out by the kitchen sink, after an attempt to commit suicide. After recovery in the emergency room, the Mom discovers a dark secret in Lindsy’s past, and together they begin to unravel …

      Just my suggestion and ask others for better advice. Good luck !

  29. Tianyu L. on July 18, 2011 at 12:16 PM

    I like how you used a story here (with actions and dialogues!) to illustrate your point. What I’d love even more is to hear how the example pitch should sound like, though I suspect that is up to us writers to figure out.

    I do love QueryShark, her facilitated forum is priceless.

  30. Jaime Wright on July 18, 2011 at 12:06 PM

    I THINK I’ve been pitching the theme – at least I do when I practice in the mirror. It’s SO different in a face to face… I get all tongue-tied. 🙂

  31. Jonathan on July 18, 2011 at 11:48 AM

    While I haven’t pitched my novel to an agent (as it isn’t finished), I have pitched my novella to agents (unsuccessfully) and did a halfway job of telling the theme and the story. What I often find is me telling the story to friends and family, and even then I tend to focus more on the theme than the story. Partly because it is a literary novel and not just a story. However, I will be taking your post to heart and begin to change my “family pitch” in an effort to increase the effectiveness of my pitch to others.

  32. Joyce Magnin on July 18, 2011 at 11:44 AM

    here’s the thing. story and plot are two entirely different things. most people can come up with a story premise or moral argument but putting it into action and allowing the characters prove the premise over 300 or 400 pages by their actions is the hard part. We write WITH characters not ABOUT Characters.

  33. Mary Kate Leahy on July 18, 2011 at 11:34 AM

    Great post! I don’t think I always fall victim to this, but I have caught myself doing it from time to time in elevator pitches.

  34. Ramona Richards on July 18, 2011 at 11:18 AM

    Just shared this on FB. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve asked, “What’s the story?” Repeatedly. While I like hearing the emotional arc, I don’t buy themes and arcs. I’m still in the business of buying great STORIES.

  35. Dara on July 18, 2011 at 11:16 AM

    I haven’t started pitching yet (still pretty far from that) but this helps me focus on the true essence of the story. Thanks!

  36. Naomi Musch on July 18, 2011 at 10:33 AM

    Wow! What timing. Just the other day I figured out this had been a problem of mine. I wasn’t thinking about pitching, per se, but of discussing my novel generally when people ask about it. I told myself, “Don’t start talking about theme!” We don’t do that when someone asks about a great movie we’ve seen. We say, “This happened, then this, then that…” We tell them about the action. Great post. Confirmed my thoughts.

  37. Carol Benedict on July 18, 2011 at 10:15 AM

    Thanks for specifying what’s needed for an effective pitch. Could you clarify whether this information is needed for just one of the main characters, or when there are more than one–as in a romance or a family saga–should each of the primary characters be included?

  38. Richard on July 18, 2011 at 9:56 AM

    Being a reader and not a writer, I’ve always gravitated towards real and personal first hand books myself. Richard from Amish Stories.

  39. V.V. Denman on July 18, 2011 at 9:32 AM

    I’ve been stumbling over the last few chapter of my rough draft. I think you just hit on the reason. I’ve been concentrating too much on wrapping up the MC’s emotional journey. And I left the story behind!

  40. Wendy on July 18, 2011 at 9:13 AM

    Saving this page. Such an essential reminder, not just to use during a pitch session, but for the sake of creating a compelling story.

    ~ Wendy

  41. Sarah Thomas on July 18, 2011 at 8:51 AM

    I’m so grateful for this post! Based on things I heard from other writers, I was beginning to think I was supposed to talk about the emotional journey. Sounds like I should be talking about the story (plot) as the framework that supports the journey–emotional, spirtual or otherwise. Thanks!

  42. Katy McKenna on July 18, 2011 at 8:40 AM

    Of course, what you want is for the editor/agent with whom you’re meeting to ask, at the end of your verbal “story” pitch, to talk to you more about theme/character arc/emotional journey. The best way to get to that question, in my experience, is to interject even a few words about emotional journey into the story pitch, enough to make your protagonist seem not made of cardboard. Don’t fill your pitch with backstory, but do mention perhaps one compelling reason why the protagonist is motivated the way she is. Just enough to help the editor/agent see why this story (simple though the plot may be….) might actually be something special. HARD to do in a couple of minutes! But Rachelle is spot-on. Instead of making the editor/agent beg you for ANYthing related to plot, show her up front you’ve got a story and set her up to ask for the emotional goodies.

  43. Heather Sunseri on July 18, 2011 at 8:17 AM

    Great advice, Rachelle! I think verbalizing the perfect pitch is so tricky. Everyone should definitely practice this with a friend before they go for it with an agent/publisher.

  44. William on July 18, 2011 at 7:30 AM

    I think this is very interesting and intimidating at the same time. In the serious quest I have taken on by writing a novel there have been many obstacles in my way but all things said and done the writing came easy. The idea of writing a query has always scared the heck out of me, to wrap up a novel in a paragraph is very daunting. But when it is time, looking at this blog especially gives me more confidence because there is a guide line to follow in a world where it is hard to find proper help in (what happens after your novel is written.) Thank you so much Rachelle you have been a godsend.

  45. otin on July 18, 2011 at 7:16 AM

    I summarized my plot okay but it still doesn’t sit well with me. I’m sure that someone who directs a movie is never satisfied with the movie trailer for the film. I have read some fantastic books on other people’s recommendation that I never would have read if I had relied on the back of the book description. Sometimes when you remove all of the sub-plots and strip everything down, then the basic plot might sound too basic.

  46. LupLun on July 18, 2011 at 3:30 AM

    This seems to me like another instance of writers and agents speaking a different language. See, we’re taught that if we concern ourselves with the sequence of events in the story, we’ll produce a story that is superficial and uninteresting. A good story have to have ideas. So when we pitch, we want to convey the ideas, because ultimately the events are unimportant — they’re just a means of communicating the ideas.

    So, let’s get an interpreter in here and figure this out: Why, exactly, are the events important to you?

    • Rachelle Gardner on July 18, 2011 at 9:32 AM

      LupLun: The answer is right in my post: “The emotional journey is illustrated and reflected in the real-life action of the story.”

      Using your word “ideas” — You need to understand that the way to convey ideas in a novel is through action and dialogue. Otherwise you’d have 400 pages of narrative a.k.a. a boring idealogical treatise.

      You also used the word “events.” A good novel is a series of events strung together with narrative, so that the result tells a story that illustrates a theme or idea.

      • LupLun on July 18, 2011 at 2:16 PM

        Yes, I noted that on a second read. Which probably goes to show that I shouldn’t be blogging at 3 A.M. -_-;;;

        I understand what you’re saying: anyone can make a story, whether or not it’s sellable is in the execution. I’ve heard that before, and it’s very true. What I haven’t heard is how you’re supposed to demonstrate your execution in a brief synopsis. Writing a novel involves developing characters, building the conflict, constructing the setting, etc., and respecting that you have to show all this rather than just tell the agent about it, and with only two minutes or so to do so… it’s sewing a shirt without needlework. We have to simplify, and since it was pounded into us in English class that theme is what’s important, we cut down to the themes.

  47. Brooke on July 18, 2011 at 2:32 AM

    And this is why the screenwriting advice to start with your premise is great for novelists. Great post, Rachelle!

  48. Giora on July 18, 2011 at 1:23 AM

    After sending queries too early when my commerical novel was at 50K+ words, I am learning as much as I can to follow all the rules before sending again around September.
    My pitch for my current 76K words novel is mainly about the story with short references to emotional journey. Follwoing Janet Reid’s list, my novel’s protoganist is obvious. She faces choices or conflicts. She has obstacles to overcome to achieve her desired outcome. The weak part in my pitch and the plot is point 3 – the consequnces (stakes) for not reaching her goal are not clearly defined in the pitch or the storyline, but it is assumed that not reaching her goal is a personal failure for her.
    So, I need to work on point 3 of the pitch. But it has to take into account that in my novel, it is not the choice of the protagonist that makes her achieve her goal, but the choice of another woman, which might also be viewed as a miracle.
    But thanks, Rachelle and Janet, for telling me to find a way to better rewrite point 3 into my query and maybe the novel.

  49. Andrea Wenger on July 18, 2011 at 1:08 AM

    There’s a danger in trying to construct the pitch too early in the writing process. You may not have a clear understanding of the main focus of the plot, so you may just be wasting your time. I wasn’t able to write a decent pitch for my novel-in-progress until the final draft. But the pitch isn’t needed until then, anyway. For some people, writing a pitch when they begin the novel can help them keep the plot on target. But my process doesn’t work that way. I like to discover the plot through the writing and through the characters. It’s possible that your unconscious mind knows what you’re doing, but your conscious mind doesn’t. Until your conscious mind understands the plot, you can’t write a pitch.

    • Sarah Thomas on July 18, 2011 at 8:48 AM

      Absolutely! Not only would I have had trouble coming up with the pitch before the book was finished and polished a bit, the pitch helped me clarify the book and do some more polishing!

  50. Loree Huebner on July 18, 2011 at 12:44 AM

    Thank you for this post. That light bulb over my head just went from 40 watts to 150 watts. Great advice.

  51. Melissa Alexander on July 18, 2011 at 12:27 AM

    Interestingly, when I first started working on a pitch for my novel, I focused *too much* on the plot. I worked on the pitch for a solid year (while I worked on the novel), but couldn’t get the WOW response I knew it deserved. Then I added the emotional story to the pitch. The combination has resulted in a WOW response from nearly everyone.

  52. Angie Dicken on July 18, 2011 at 12:26 AM

    My pitch at ACFW last year was an emotional-journey-kind-of pitch. At your pitch workshop, I learned that I needed to be more specific. A few of my writer friends have critiqued my pitch for my newest book, and helped me target those three questions by the Query Shark. Great advice!

  53. Natalie on July 18, 2011 at 12:24 AM

    My novel-writing group did an exercise where we had to come up with a one-line elevator pitch. My first version was about the protagonist’s emotional journey, which was weird because usually I am all about plot. I think it was what I thought publishers would want to hear – I was trying to make the hearer care about the character and be interested in them, rather than convey what the story was actually about. After a lot of work, my one line now conveys the plot. I’m glad to hear that is what you need, thanks!

  54. Olivia Newport on July 18, 2011 at 12:20 AM

    I have a strip taped to the top of my computer that says simply, “Action.” As I write each scene, I ask what is the action in that scene? How does the choice a character makes potentially change the story? It’s a constant reminder, scene by scene, that the theme is not the story.

  55. I Thompson on July 18, 2011 at 12:19 AM

    Just had an aha moment. I have something to revise for on my query. Putting up twitter and blog. Thanks for the inspiration!

  56. Crafty Mama on July 18, 2011 at 12:19 AM

    Hmm, interesting. 🙂 It’s often quite difficult for writers to separate the emotional journey from the actual story. Some might not even see the difference. Thanks for the great post!

  57. Barbara Kloss on July 18, 2011 at 12:13 AM

    Unfortunately, my first few query attempts WERE emotional pitches (Um, no pun intended?). After some asked-for verbal abuse, I ended up with something that conveyed the story. At least, I hope it does. 😀

    Great post!…as always.