The Basic Pitch Formula for Novelists

Midwest Writers Workshop

At the Midwest Writers Workshop, an agent panel gave some wonderful, straightforward advice about how to construct your pitch. You could use this formula as part of a query letter or in a live pitch. Brilliant!

Option 1

I have a completed [word count][genre] titled [title] about [protagonist name + small description] who [conflict].

Option 2

(1) What does your character want?
(2) Why does he want it?
(3) What keeps him from getting it?

Option 3

(1) Character name/description
(2) The conflict they’re going through
(3) The choices they have to make

4 best resources on query letter writing + identifying agents to query

  1. QueryShark (opportunity to get your query critiqued + read others critiqued)
  2. AgentQuery
  3. PublishersMarketplace (for in-depth info on agents + publishing deals, costs $20/year)
  4. Agency websites (as you begin to select and customize your queries and submissions for each agent appropriate for your work)

Other tips

  • Think of your query letter to the agent/editor as the first step in the SEDUCTION process.
  • Never say: “Let me start by telling you the backstory.” Your story doesn’t start in the right place if that’s necessary.
  • If you must mention 4+ characters in your pitch for it to make sense, you probably have some problems with the story.
  • The voice in the pitch should match the mood of the story.
  • Only start querying when you’d be comfortable with your manuscript appearing as-is (and being sold) between covers on major chain bookstore shelf.
  • It’s better to pitch a standalone novel “with series potential” (rather than pitching it as a series).
  • Looking for more? Check out Ortiz’s synopsis advice.


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Posted in Getting Published.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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Cynthia Morris

Thanks for this, Jane. It reminds me to focus on the conflict, which I forget to do. I think in life we’re generally conflict averse, so it’s hard to remember to lead with the drama when talking about our novels. 

Very helpful, thank you!

[…] 101 at the Midwest Writers Workshop. And now Jane as put them all in one place — hurrah! Excellent, succinct advice here for those, like me, in the pitching/querying stages of […]

Carina Burns

Thank you Jane:-) May I share this on FB, Twitter and my website? On another note, I read many years back that good plotting dictates that you begin your story at the point closest to the incident that will forever change the life of the protagonist.  I’m re-editing Chapter 4 of my memoir. This chapter will include the call to adventure/my refusal to the call…i.e., the incident that forever changes my life in my memoir. If I have 20 pages per chapter and roughly 10-12 chapters total, I’m wondering if this is appropriate as I am writing chronologically! Kindest regards,… Read more »


THanks Jane this is great. I love it when advice is simple and good at the same time. I followed you here from Writer Unboxed. Looking forward to more good stuff. Good luck.

A C. Ellis

Great stuff, Jane!

With your permission I, too, will share this in a few places.

[…] And this is why writers struggle with queries, because they can’t bridge the gap between writing to entertain (or inform or inspire) and writing to persuade. It’s a different mindset, and it requires an ability to look at one’s work as a product that has a selling point. (If you need more information on how to formulate a hook, click here.) […]

[…] The Basic Pitch Formula for Novelists. Short, sweet, and powerful. […]

[…] Identify the protagonist and what they want and why.  Describe what keeps him/her from getting it.  Think along these lines: SOMEBODY wants SOMETHING and has a HARD TIME GETTING IT. (via Jane Friedman) […]


Thanks for the info! Very helpful information.


[…] Identify the protagonist and what they want and why.  Describe what keeps him/her from getting it.  Think along these lines: SOMEBODY wants SOMETHING and has a HARD TIME GETTING IT. (via Jane Friedman) […]