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Pitching in those Agent/Editor Appointments

by Rachelle Gardner
Books & Such Literary Agency

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.

Over the weekend as I listened to writers’ pitches, I often heard something like (this is hypothetical):

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?”

Um, 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.

Your pitch needs to show:

1. Who is the protagonist?
2. What choice does s/he face, or what is his/her goal?
3. What are the consequences of the choice, or the obstacles to the goal?
4. What are the actions s/he will take throughout the story to try and reach the goal or make 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 is a literary agent with Books & Such Literary. Visit her blog, her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter (@RachelleGardner).

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12 Responses to Pitching in those Agent/Editor Appointments

  1. Thanks, Rachelle. I’ve been thinking for awhile that my queries have too much plot/action and not enough heart, but you’ve helped me to feel more confident about the way I’ve been doing them.

    Hope you’re having a great day.

  2. Rachelle:

    This post is going straight to my Favorites bar!

    Thanks for the excellent, concise advice.

    Harriet Parke

  3. hm. Maybe I have been focusing more on emotional problems in my query. Thanks for the advice. I believe I now know how to make not only my query better but also the actual book summary. Thank you.

  4. Sue Harrison says:

    Thank you, Rachelle! I needed to read this so I would finally get it into my head!

  5. There are so many twists to the plot that it’s difficult to condense it. The last place I posted it asked for an outline, so I outlined the story as I outlined cases in law school, taking it chapter by chapter. I’m not sure if the publisher liked that better than a paragraph statement (they’ve had my manuscript for only 2 months), but some agents want it in a sentence or a paragraph with no guidance on how to condense it. Unless I use a long Joycian sentence, I’m stuck with presenting a theme. Any ideas for condensing? I’d love to see the query for A Song of Ice amd Fire or A Clash of Kings.

  6. Susan Husk says:

    From a new author point of view, it seems like everything must be just so or the manuscript is not considered. However, you, as evident in your posts, want to give us every chance to succeed. Thank you for sharing what a pitch or query looks like from your side. Please keep teaching us.

  7. Brandie Nickerson says:

    Hi Rachelle! Thanks for the post. I haven’t pitched yet, but I’ll definitely keep this handy.

    Brandie

  8. Rachelle, I love this post. My mother and I pitched a co-written book to an agent once. We talked all about the mother-daughter relationship and the tension with God after their husbands die. The agent said, “Tell me what happens at the start of the book.” We did. Then she asked for what happened after that. I think that sometimes authors get brainfreeze about our plots in appointments and thinking through our story linearly helps. :) That was years ago, and I tend to write more plot-driven novels now, but it’s definitely a good thing to keep in mind.

  9. Marji Laine says:

    I’m so glad you shared this, Rachelle! It just confirms what we’ve been learning with Randy Ingermanson in the ACFW course this month. Love it when different perspectives support one another!

  10. Julia Denton says:

    Thanks for the helpful discussion. I have plenty of action in my novel, but when I try to describe it, I find myself getting caught up in the character’s emotional journey rather than the literal one. Your four questions add much clarity.

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  12. Pat Lee says:

    Glad I found this.Thanks for writing.