Category Archives: Advice

How to Pitch Your Novel

Answer this question in one sentence: What’s your novel about? The answer is called an elevator pitch, a must-have pithy description short enough to deliver during a three-minute elevator ride.

It’s not easy to come up with a concise sentence that delivers the gist of your novel compellingly, but crafting book descriptions of twenty-five or fewer words is an essential skill in a world where agents can rarely lend an ear for more than a couple of minutes to an unknown author.


Your initial pitch serves as the bait to hook agents and make them want to hear more. It should be character-driven. If, in the words of John D. MacDonald, a story is “stuff [that] happens to people you care about,” then a pitch should explain who is trying to do what and why (what the stakes are).


Twilight by Stephanie Meyer—

NOT: A pack of vampires infiltrates a suburban Washington community.


A young girl risks her soul to love a vampire boyfriend.

Breaking Bad, AMC TV drama

 NOT: A man is forced to sell drugs to provide for his family after his death.

INSTEAD: A high school chemistry teacher dying of cancer teams with a former student to manufacture crystal meth to secure his family’s future (from a Netflix blurb)

Here’s a pitch by Jon Land, the author of Blood Strong: “Female Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong takes on homegrown terrorists as she races to solve the one mystery that eluded her legendary Ranger father and grandfather.” (ZING!)

And here are pitches I came up with for my novel and for two stories:

  • A grief-stricken mother defies her husband by developing an intimacy with a charismatic male medium who promises to make contact with her dead toddler. (Ninth-Month Midnight)
  • When a self-conflicted schoolteacher discovers her younger sister is a drug addict, she takes steps to protect herself against her sister’s accelerating destructiveness. (“Golden Girl”)
  • A middle-aged daughter grapples with past demons and her mother’s brutal unkindness to secure a future for herself. (“Mother’s Day”)


Kathleen Antrim, a successful author, sums up her major plotlines in no more than twenty-five words. She uses a “What if . . . So what” strategy to:

  • convey the major conflict (plotline) of the story.
  • reveal the protagonist.
  • suggest why we should care enough to read the story.

If an idea can’t be contained in this simple framework, it’s probably not focused enough.

Following are a few examples of the “What if . . . So what” pitch. (I’ve underlined the stakes.)

  • What if a cyborg is sent back through time to kill the mother of the future savior of mankind?  (Terminator, 19 words)
  • What if the first lady is plotting to overthrow the president? (Capital Offense, Kathleen Antrim, 11 words)
  • What if a young girl risks her soul to love a vampire boyfriend?  (Twilight, Stephanie Meyer, 13 words).

In each case, you’ve not only told the agent what your book is about, but you’ve also engaged him or her emotionally in the action of the protagonist. Both Land and Antrim emphasize the importance of stressing this emotional component.

The point I want to drive home is simple: a good pitch is an invaluable tool that you’ll use again and again: when you’re sitting at a book signing and someone asks you what your book is about; when you want to hook an agent; and when you’re trying to sell your book to an editor. The editor, in turn, will use it when explaining your book to the sales-and-marketing team, who will use it to sell your novel to the bookstores.

Voila! You’re on you way.










On Revision

If you’re caught up in resolution-making this January (and who isn’t?), here’s a suggestion: resolve to cultivate an alternative attitude toward revision. Instead of feeling anxious about it, look forward it. If you’re like many writers, you dread revising your work. Anxiety plagues you: Where do you start? Will you end up wiping out the… Continue Reading

How to Build Suspense

Suspense is the essential ingredient in all successful novels; it’s what makes the reader unable to put down your book. But what, exactly, is suspense? And how can you exploit it to captivate readers? The essence of suspense is anticipation, says Brian Klems, a Writer’s Digest blogger (May 9, 2013). The writer creates a sense… Continue Reading

How to Open a Work of Fiction—Part Two

Last month we covered different ways to open a novel or short story, focusing on first chapters and preliminary paragraphs. Now let’s move on to the beginning of the beginning, your story’s first sentence, your first opportunity to hook readers. Writer’s Digest guest blogger, Jacob M. Appel (January 9, 2014), offers seven different approaches to crafting… Continue Reading

How to Open a Work of Fiction—Part One

Every writer’s toolkit should include best practices for quickly drawing readers into the fictive universe. To this end, a large body of craft literature exists on the subject of novel and short story openings. Some tell us, Go for the visceral punch. Others say, Grab the reader’s attention in the first sentence, Arouse her curiosity,… Continue Reading

What’s the Score on Flash Fiction?

How many words constitute flash fiction? What’s the cutoff? The number seems to vary according to publication. Up to 1000 words according to and submissions criteria. For the cutoff is 500 words. Flash fiction is significantly shorter than short stories, but how short can fiction go and still be recognized as a… Continue Reading

Self-Publishing To-Do List

I had no idea what I was doing when I decided to self-publish my novella, Ninth-Month Midnight, about a woman who loses a child and almost loses herself before a charismatic psychic offers her hope. I came to the do-it-myself decision after wasting too much time waiting for traditional publishers to bite. It took trial… Continue Reading