Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Novel IV: Pitch

When you write a novel for publication, you're creating a product (not you, the novel.) To successfully sell that product, you need a major book publisher to manufacture and distribute your book. To interest a publisher in buying the rights to do so, you must submit a novel proposal, aka the pitch.

Very little practical information is written about how to pitch a novel by those who actually do it for a living. I know, I've looked. Those authors who are good at it evidently hoard their techniques, kind of like that stressed-out leprechaun in the Lucky Charms commercials: Can't let the kids get me magical marshmallows.

Those who aren't adept at pitching like to whine endlessly about it. "I'm an artist," a SF writer told to me once, "not a salesman." Makes sense, of course. Why should you learn how to effectively do something as common and grubby as selling the novel you, uh, want to sell?

Anyway. Until the heavens simply open up and bathe novelists in Divine Publication Light, or editors and publishers develop much better psychic powers, writers must pitch their novels.

It's not all that much different from baseball. Well, you don't have to chew tobacco or wear that black stuff under your eyes. But the theory is the same: Pitching is only as effective as your throw and who's at bat. You can blindly toss whatever you have out there and hope for the best. Or you can assess the market, choose very carefully to whom you pitch, and get it in shape to make it across the plate.

Here are my magical marshmallows (sorry, no curve balls):

1. Know Thy Novel: Before I pitch anything, I make sure I know it inside and out. I nail down all the vital details about genre, characters, plot, theme, setting and the story structure. I write a timeline chronicles the novel's events. I create keyword lists to organize my knowledge and make a foundation for the pitch. I trim away the unnecessary schlock and concentrate on concept words that relay story specifics. Compare these keyword lists:

rich, blond, smart, scarred, scared, lonely woman

Doesn't tell you much about how or why she's scarred, scared, lonely, etc., right? Now try:

former Creole socialite, recovering burn victim, agoraphobic

Same woman, only now you know a lot more about her.

2. Rough it Out: Using my keyword lists, I write a rough draft synopsis (ten to twenty pages, depending on genre), a one-page treatment (like a synopsis, only much shorter and more condensed) and my phone notes. Phone notes are shorthand for the key elements of a novel that I want to relay to my editor or agent, so they can get the gist of the novel in under a minute.

This is not all non-stop keywords or a place for voice, either; I write plainly and keep out as much of my personal writing style as is possible. The three big to-do's of writing a synopsis to me are: a) Do write it in present tense; b) Do give away all of the secrets and plot twists; and c) Do keep it as simple as possible -- just the facts, no frills.

3. Chapters: I write three chapters of the novel. If you can't spontaneously write three chapters of any novel you want to pitch, go back to step #1 and do it over until you're able to sit down and write the chapters. You have to know your book before you can write your book, and they're going to want to see a sample.

4. Break: I put it all aside for at least 24 hours if I can, or 4 hours if I can't, to get a break. I don't obsess, worry, hate, or otherwise think about the pitch.

5. Buff & Polish:I go back fresh and analyze the pitch. Have I covered all the bases? Does the idea sound exciting, interesting, attention-catching? Is the presentation professional, no errors, no logic problems, no clumsiness or stumbling in the synopsis? Are the first three chapters tight? Anything I missed?

6. Bounce it: This is an optional step. If I have any doubts, I call my agent and pitch her using my phone notes. If she throws up a red light, we discuss and I either discard the idea or fix it. You can do this with a writer friend or critique partner.

7. Mail it: If the agent gives me a green light, I print out the proposal and send it off (if you're subbing to a publisher, follow their guidelines to the letter.) I don't use anything special, just plain white paper, Courier New 12 pt. font, half-page cover letter, plain colored file folder.

As in baseball, you only get better at pitching if you practice. Sometimes I've written practice pitches on books I had no intention of writing just to refine my pitching ability. I do know that the more you write, the easier it gets. Keep at it.

Some tools and articles on pitching by authors who are good and don't hoard:

Timeline Maker -- I haven't tried downloading the demo, but this might help organize your novel timeline

Synopsis examples by Deborah M. Hale

Finding Your Themes by Holly Lisle

Make the Perfect Pitch: The Novel Query by Kelly James-Enger

Proper Manuscript Format

Making Your Proposal Persuasive by Cindy Bunch

How to Pitch Tipsheets from


  1. Anonymous11:56 AM

    You have a reference on your site to a product called Timeline Maker.

    I just wanted to let you know that the url of Timeline Maker has changed. It's now:

    There is still a free demo of the product at:

  2. Anonymous4:37 PM

    I just wanted to thank you for this site. As a young first time novelist, the "business side" of the literary field is overwhelming, but I feel empowered by the tools and knowledge at my disposal on this site.

  3. Thanks for the information, its all a little overwhelming and the point by point process helped to understand where to start.

  4. Anonymous5:42 AM

    Any tips for a verbal pitch to publishers at festivals? - i've spent a lot of time googling to find out about this and there's much less than the pitch for editors and agents.


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