Crafting a Novel’s Pitch: 7 Tips + GIVEAWAY – Guest Post by Chuck Sambuchino

_ Chuck[September 2015 saw the release of three of Chuck’s new books, the 2016 Guide to Literary Agents, the 2016 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, and his anti-clown humor book When Clowns Attack: A Survival Guide. Chuck will pick a commenter of this post at random as winners after 2 weeks, and those winners can receive their choice of any of his books. Must live within US/Canada to receive a print book. Otherwise, he can send a PDF ebook. Beware clowns.]

Crafting a Novel’s Pitch: 7 Tips by Chuck Sambuchino 

If you’re writing a novel or memoir, the most important part of the query letter is the pitch—a brief basic description of your story designed to pique the agent’s interest. This will be the longest and most difficult section to compose. It’s tough to boil down an entire book into a few condensed paragraphs, but here are 7 tips for how to lay out a compelling pitch that draws an agent or editor in.

1. Control your length. Pitches are 3-10 sentences, and most run 6-9. Concise is a very good thing. If you write more than ten sentences, your letter runs the risk of going over one page and also simply rambling.

2. Do not reveal the ending. If, when describing my latest novel, I told you that the good guy wins in the end, but his wife dies when failing to disarm a bomb at the end … would you still want to read the book? Probably not. A query pitch reads like back cover copy from a novel or DVD in that you don’t explain how the story ends, but rather retain intrigue and suspense.

3. On that note, look at DVDs and novels to see sample pitch text all around you. If you’re having trouble putting together a pitch, visit your nearest Barnes & Nobles or Target or any other place that sells both books and movies. Pick up both films and books in your genre (e.g., children’s stories, Christian fiction, thrillers, etc.) and start reading the boxes, back covers, and jackets. Those are all pitch examples for you to study and emulate. See what grabs your attention.

4. Be specific and avoid generalities. Specific elements bring a pitch to life and generalities drag it down. Don’t say, “The couple goes through many highs and lows.” Explain what that means, specifically, even if you’re just touching upon a bigger picture. “Avoid vagueness,” says literary agent Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary. “I get so many queries every day that don’t tell me enough about the novel. If there’s no reason for me to say yes, then it’s going to be no.” Being specific paints pictures in the mind of the reader. If I tell you that my main character “just quit his job,” does that create an image in your mind? Probably not. But how about if I told you, “After making his hundredth Big Mac this weekend, 17-year-old Rodney Morrison makes a spontaneous decision to quit his job in style—by launching a cupful of special sauce out the drive-through window at a rude customer before walking out the front door with his middle fingers high in the air.” Now, does that paint a picture in your mind? Yes.

5. Aim to elicit emotion. The style and voice of the pitch itself should reflect the content of the book. Don’t say, “My novel is a humorous romp with quirky characters.” The agent is giving you 3-10 sentences to make her laugh. Can you do that? Don’t say, “My novel is full of suspenseful twists and turns.” Rather than talk about your novel from a distance, the agent is giving you 3-10 sentences to put a chill down her spine. If you’re writing light, humorous women’s fiction, then there should be some laughs in the query letter. If you’re writing a dark horror novel, then there should be some spooky elements. Imagine you read a line like “But as Candace continues to explore the world of erotic asphyxiation, she becomes addicted to the feeling and even begins to choke herself in bathroom stalls on lunch breaks just to experience the sensation.” Such a line hits you, and can make you feel repulsed, or intrigued, or engaged. It triggers your emotions. If you can appeal to an agent’s emotions, she’s much more inclined to request more material—because you’ve shown her that your writing connects to readers, rather than just told her (anyone can do that).

6. Beware subplots and unnecessary details. Pitches often go too long, because they’re bogged down with superfluous elements. A simple way to avoid this is to cut out the small stuff: leave plot elements, setting description, and proper nouns on the cutting room floor. For example, look at these two potential beginnings of a pitch:

Version 1: Zalisa is a teenage elven princess who lives on a jungle planet. Despite her desire to live a common life welding swords, she is repeatedly told by her parents about her destiny to become queen and bring peace between warring tribes as their supreme leader. (Word count: 46; two sentences.)

Version 2: Zalisa, part of the chosen Y’Ri noble elves, lives with the Sha’NaRee tribe on the jungle planet of Usulurah. Adorned with long hair down to her waist and many tattoos she’s designed herself, all Zalisa wants is a life among the commoners doing what she loves best: sword making. She has quietly developed an amazing knack for intricate blade making, and trained with the highest levels of metalworkers and smiths in her province of Va’Quenay. The only problem is that her parents, E’Leepha and Can-Yur, expect their daughter to refrain from frolicking among the commoners, but instead fulfill the destiny of Tritonalt, a great prophecy widely known to all citizens of Usulurah. According to Tritonalt, Zalisa is the chosen royal descendent who will ascend to the throne as part of a divine prediction foretold by the ancient elven wise men at the 7 Cycles of Wisdom gathering eons ago when all the system’s planets were in line with the sun. Once she has ascended to the throne, it is foretold that Zalisa will quell the constant warfare that has hampered the planet, and finally bring peace to the land. (Word count: 186; six sentences.)

The second intro is chock-full of stuff we don’t need to know right now: the proper names of things (such as the planet name), her exact appearance outside of being an elf (i.e., the tattoos), and the backstory about how the prophecy came to be (the gathering). The second version has already used up most of the query page—six pitch sentences, out of a maximum ten—and there’s no discussion of what happens throughout the meat of the plot, what challenges Zalisa faces, or what she sets off to do to stop said challenges.

7. Practice, and have different versions if need be. Tell your pitch to others or get your query formally critiqued by a professional or peers. If you can’t decide between two versions of a pitch, you can always try out both and keep tabs on which agents get which versions. If one is garnering a better response rate than the other, you have your answer concerning how best to move forward.


September 2015 saw the release of three of Chuck’s new books, the 2016 Guide to Literary Agents, the 2016 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, and his anti-clown humor book When Clowns Attack: A Survival Guide. Chuck will pick a commenter of this post at random as winners after 2 weeks, and those winners can receive their choice of any of his books. Must live within US/Canada to receive a print book. Otherwise, he can send a PDF ebook. Beware clowns.

three covers


Chuck Sambuchino (@chucksambuchino) of Writer’s Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing. His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. His latest humor book, WHEN CLOWNS ATTACK: A SURVIVAL GUIDE (Sept. 29 2015), will protect people everywhere from malicious bozos and jokers who haunt our lives. His books have been mentioned in Reader’s Digest, USA Today, the New York Times, The Huffington Post, Variety, New York Magazine, and more.

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

69 thoughts on “Crafting a Novel’s Pitch: 7 Tips + GIVEAWAY – Guest Post by Chuck Sambuchino

  1. Thank you for this article. I’ve been told by several people that I need to simplify and make my writing and programs more clear. When I wrote my book “The Unfair Affair” my editor said my first manuscript was like drinking from a fire hose! I appreciated her honesty and ended up with a great book. I’m bookmarking this page right now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve always read that you should make the 1st few sentences personal to the lit agent–why you chose them specifically. Should I count that part in the 10 sentences or does that specifically apply to the pitch itself?


    1. I could be wrong, but I think the 10 sentences guideline is just for the pitch itself. However, many agents like to know you’ve done your research, and a little personalization is usually a good thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post! I like the idea of trying to elicit emotion from the agent by using specific details from the plot instead of using generalities. The ten-sentence limit is a great tool to keep the query streamlined and concise. I’ll definitely try this out in my next query.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. In the first line of a query letter, is it best to have this:

    “Dear Agent,

    Boxer the Clown had to paint a smile on his face every night, or face the punishing blows of his boss, Thor.”

    Or this:

    “Dear Agent,

    I would like to introduce you to my debut novel, Why Clowns Cry.”


    1. I think this is a matter of agent preference. Ms. Watters seems to like the stats at the top, while others want the query to jump right to the pitch. If agents have a strong opinion about this, they will say so repeatedly in blogs, tweets, and interviews. If they don’t, I think you should go with your gut on this.


  5. #3 is a must if you have no idea where to begin. Read many until your own begins to surface. If you still feel lost, create a final outline and work from it. I don’t like to write from an outline initially, but I’ll create one at the end for this reason. Great tips.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you, Chuck, for the specific examples. I read every “How to Write a Query” article I see. With your examples, you have answered my lingering questions (how much detail to put in, how much needs explained, whether or not to use the protagonist’s name). Thanks so much! Best of luck with your books. I loved When Gnomes Attack, so I’m looking forward to the clown book (especially since I’m a grump who does’t like clowns).

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I got to hear some of this in person at a conference and no matter the format this info is so helpful. Definitely using this article to adjust my pitch!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. These tips are all germane ~ will be passing along. When I read my pitch letters of a few years back, I cringe. Gotta cut to the chase. Agents read pitches on an iPad on the “D” train, not in front of a roaring fire (or seashore). Good stuff~

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I like the examples. What can also be said about it is that it is clear what the main character wants (a common life welding swords) and what’s getting in the way (parental desire for a different destiny).

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks for combining so much helpful query advice in one handy place! The suggestion to avoid vagueness struck a chord. I’m going back to my final draft right now to check for intriguing specificity.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Tip #5 really clicks with me. I know I connect with my readers through emotion. Somehow, mirroring the emotion of my book in my query never occurred to me and I know why–query equals business equals leave the emotion out of it. Not any more. Thanks, Chuck and Carly!


  12. Thank you for sharing real life experience. I’ll pay more attention to book jackets. BTW, what is scarier than running from a clown at midnight? Running from a clown with a boner.


  13. Be specific but not wordy, hook ’em but don’t give away the ending, but convey the feeling of your story — like balancing a baby on your head while walking on a tight rope over a lake of fire! :)

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I would add a tip # 8 if I may: Simply send your query letter to Chuck Sambuchino for a critique, just like I will do with mine (he does offer editorial services) and you will get professional feedback, a polished query, and peace of mind that you’ll be sending out something that works! :)

    P.S. He does not pay me to direct people his way ;)

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Good article–thanks! One comment though. I’ve read agent blogs and heard agents at conferences say they do want to know the ending in a query letter, so, as someone else said, research your targeted agent to discover their particular wants/needs.


  16. Extremely useful thoughts-thanks. I guess the end justifies the means and agents are not from Mars! Agent research is probably the best bet. All the same, a trifle of the thought we put in to create minds of our characters could be devoted in to read the minds of agents. Now that’s a lot of fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Chuck, Thanks for the great tips. I’ve applied these – plus the wealth of information in the GLA 2016 – to my query and pitch. I’m excited to be sharing my story with agents for the very first time at this weekend’s Indiana Writing Conference.


  18. I like the tip about reading the back cover of DVD’s. A variation of looking at back cover copy at Barnes and Noble is to do it on Amazon. Most of their books allow you to see the back cover copy and they have more books than the local bookstore.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Thanks for the tips. I’ll try them on the query I’ve written and rewritten a billion times, never satisfied with the outcome. Did I write too much? Not enough? Does it sound stupid? Unprofessional? And heaven for bid, boring? 😕

    Liked by 1 person

  20. I’ve written a comment. 《——— Did you see it? This counts … right? I win, yes? Maybe?

    Check the correct box:
    Yes □
    No □

    Serious note:
    Great article. I love the examples of ‘how to’ and ‘how not to’. Not enough guides provide good ‘how not to(s)’ Thanks for writing it.


  21. This information–particularly tips 4, 5, and 6–couldn’t have arrived before my eyes at a better time. I just finished final revisions on my first novel, young adult realistic fiction. I’ve written my pitch, but realize it needs some improvement. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Thank you for this. Query letters are my white whale (and possibly the Nemo I can’t find). Hopefully the 25th time is the charm :)


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