Does the Pitch Tail Wag The Novel Dog?

By Michael Neff

Recently, in a post by Algonkian veteran Liz Brody on her blog, the subject of query letters and pitches came up yet again. What she seems to grasp is that you can't have a good pitch or query without a good novel to back it up. Does that go without saying?  It should.  But if so, why do thousands of writers send out dull or bad queries, and pitch agents or editors with novels that don't stand a chance?

If you follow a model for a good pitch, i.e., a 150-200 word punchy synopsis-like summary that produces the first major plot point but doesn't give away the climax, and you're sufficiently self-critical, you should finally come to an understanding of the worth of your project. Keep in mind that by forcing your story into that specific model, by forcing yourself to "fill in the blanks" so to speak, you're inevitably led to understand the major strengths and weaknesses in the novel itself.

For example, if the body of the pitch, once heard or read, evidences zero plot tension or dramatic complication, it might well be the result of no real antagonist (among other things) available to create one (this is a common failing with new novel writers), and if this condition proves true upon further discussion with the author then we have a case of the pitch tail successfully wagging the novel dog. In other words, the weak or vague pitch led the author to understand why the novel wasn't working, thus strongly encouraging a rewrite from the very first page.


  1. Great perspective Michael. I think it stems from the maturity of the writer. When you first start out and hear all the dreadful stories of rejection by the greats like King and Gaiman, you never really feel it. You just don't 'get' it. Only after you've matured do you really start to understand, you learn through experience. You learn about the industry, the agents, the process and eventually you come to a point when you look at that first attempt you see clear as day how bad it really was back then.
    There's no getting around immaturity as a writer, you mature through experience.

  2. Thanks, PW. I also experienced that OMG moment.

  3. Excellent points, Michael. One of the hardest lessons to learn is how to get your nose off the page to see the "whole". Not surprisingly, only if you can, in fact, see the "whole", can you then reduce the novel into the pithiest two or three liner, which expresses the whole narrative thrust...or more simply said, the point of the book.

  4. Good surprising insight. Somewhere in the writers conferences and workshops I attended before (and even highly recommended craft books) I got the idea that the pitch was for pitching and nothing else. Now I see I have to pitch it to myself first. Sure hope I catch on.