Here's my question: can you pitch an outline of a novel to an agent?

I.e. you have two to three chapters complete to a high standard and at full outline of the rest.

Would any agents agree to represent a book based on its premise ahead of its existence, with the probable understanding that you would complete the rest by a certain date?

I've seen claims writers should work for the promise of money, but does this ever apply to novels rather than articles?

  • 6
    Peanut: If you are a new novelist, you should know that agents take about 4000 queries from competitive writers for each single one they sign as a client. The short answer is no, but Mark's answer is good.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 23:55
  • 3
    You might be able to use it to get people to sign onto your Patreon account, though. ;)
    – nick012000
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 11:18

4 Answers 4


If you are a bestselling novelist, you can pitch an outline. Otherwise, you have to have a finished manuscript.

Nonfiction is different. You pitch a book proposal, which usually includes sample chapters. But there is a lot more to a book proposal than just an outline.


As Mark says, not without a track record of one bestseller after another. But if you got that, you should be pretty rich, so why bother? Rowling and Stephen King probably don't worry about stuff like that, they'd rather NOT be on deadline, just in case a film deal comes along or they get a different idea. They'll just finish the book at their leisure and their same agent will get them a good deal and handle the details.

There is also the market, it just doesn't work like that for authors that haven't sold millions of copies. On fiction, agents only represent finished works, publishers only consider finished works, because they don't trust us -- And they shouldn't!

Just because you wrote three good chapters and an outline doesn't mean you can finish a novel that people will love. Middles are notoriously difficult, they drag, get boring, etc. Finding twists is difficult, Endings are difficult, tying up all the loose ends and making the reader feel like it all ended well. The first three chapters are all in the first Act and that is relatively easy, you are just introducing problems and complications. I find it to be the easiest part of any story, describing the normal world and then disrupting it.

Perseverance is a big issue in writing fiction. There are thousands of unfinished novels out there, in fanfic and real attempts. Aspirant authors begin a story, but get overwhelmed by story problems, character issues, plot issues, or just their own life and how much effort a novel is, and quit. Writing can get difficult, it can mean scrapping a month of work or starting over because the whole story hangs on the conundrum they gleefully detailed in Chapter 3, and in Chapter 12 they realize they don't know how to solve it. So they get discouraged, they can't scrap 10 of their 12 chapters, don't know what the story can be about anymore and put it aside to "think about it." They don't persevere.

The only thing that proves you can finish a whole novel is a whole novel finished.

Agents and publishers are not looking to support and nurture a diamond in the rough, they are there to acquire a finished work of art, one they can read cover to cover before they invest a dime so they know it should sell, and then buy it from you and sell the crap out of it.

In the market for fiction, agents and publishers are not interested at all in "This might be great someday," they both want to say "This IS great and I know how to sell it."

Agents charge you nothing to decide whether they want to represent you, they work on commission only (warning: many scammers try to charge you, never pay for it). Because anybody can submit to them, they have to reject more than 95% of what gets submitted. Some say 98%. They have no reason to take on an unfinished novel when they are rejecting 19 out of 20, or even 49 out of 50, completed novels. Even then, the agent is familiar with what individual publishers want to see, so the agent only brings each publisher the kinds of books they want more of. If publishers have their own readers taking over-the-transom books, they have to filter out 99% of books. Many publishers (and movie studios) work only with agents: Rather than pay employees to read and reject, they rely on agents to bring them only material they'd plausibly want. They "outsource" the reading but pay nothing for it (indirectly they may pay more because the agent negotiates a good deal for author, but up front they get the filtering for free and eliminate the hassle of dealing with amateurs).

An Agent is already taking a gamble, her speculation begins with the quality of your one-page query letter; if you get through that, she'll read your first 5 or 10 pages, if you get through that cut (1 in 20 or 1 in 50), she may want to read your synopsis, and after that your manuscript, and decide if it is market ready. She does all this for free, and you provide all the material for free. The way this business works, the only place for your unfinished work is wherever you do your writing.

In non-fiction they will believe you can finish a book, because you have the credentials and standing to produce the non-fiction book, AND those do not require as much imagination, twists, descriptive prose or emotional engagement, as fiction does. The chances of screwing up non-fiction are massively reduced by that.

In contrast, fiction doesn't take any credentials, and there are no classes or degrees that will give them confidence you can finish a great story other than doing it. A novel (or movie) really is art, a work devised to evoke an emotional reaction. It isn't writing chapters of a textbook.

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    +1. Might be worth mentioning the sheer number of submissions an agent or publisher receives. Three chapters and a promise is going to be thrown to the wayside simply in the process of cutting down those submissions to a manageable level! Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 0:02
  • 1
    @ArkensteinXII Edited to add.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 10:35
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    For a great example of beginnings being easy, you can always look at the massive number of fanfics that are abandoned somewhere during the middle or end bits.
    – Gloweye
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 8:00
  • @Gloweye Exactly. I added a paragraph on Perseverence above in response. I think aspiring authors feel like they have a great idea (and might) but in Act II they get overwhelmed by story problems or character traits or their own lives. Maybe they thought it would be easy, and it seems easy at the start. A big problem for beginners is "pushing resolution to the future": They introduce problems, puzzles and char issues to keep up the tension or action but they have no idea how to resolve them, they leave that for later. These issues accumulate until they get overwhelming, and they quit.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 10:18
  • Very accurate bit about perseverance. I got one of them unfinished ones myself, and practicing with fanfics right now.
    – Gloweye
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 10:24

To add a slight frame challenge to the mix:

You appear to have headed off in an awkward direction by wondering if you can take an outline and some reasonably polished directly to an agent. And while technically you can try, that route is highly unlikely to yield you anything more than polite smiles and nods at best. [And being black listed as an annoying time waster at worst...]

Instead you should be stepping back and asking where can you take a partial work and an outline and have something useful come of it.

Useful options include:

Directly to friends/test readers.

Care needs to be taken with who you select for initial test readers. You need people who can offer you useful feedback on how your work is progressing and where it is headed. It is far too easy to get caught getting 'trusted advice' from 'helpful friends' who do nothing but shower you with praise while not being able to give you grounded sensible feedback or discuss hard topics about your work.

A Writing Circle.

My personal favourite, but it can be difficult to find a group to join that fits well with your style and personality. Assuming you can find a group that is mature and serious about their craft then you can surround yourself with a group that is all in the same boat as you, which may make the critical discussions far more productive and useful. But remember: When you join a writing circle, the goal is to help improve the group as a whole rather than just your own work. Put the effort into the group if you expect the group to put any effort into you.


Look at your local college or university for any writing courses that may be a fit your own project. [Double check the course policy on existing works, and have a chat with the instructors before bringing a piece you're seeking to extend.]

Your local Writing or Arts Guild.

Ultimately you may find yourself set up with some manner of the above suggestions, but if you have a strong local writing community then it can often be a great source of leads on where to get help and how to develop yourself and your work further.


I'm sure it's possible in principle to get an agent without even an outline, just by sending a letter written in crayon. Anyone can call themselves an agent. There is no licensing, no requirement of work experience or a diploma in a certain subject. There are people who will take your money in return for acting as your literary agent. (Hint: don't use them.)

The real question is what is needed in order to get a good agent. A good agent knows the markets, has personal relationships with acquisition editors, has a reputation for being wise about what clients they accept, and understands the complicated ins and outs of negotiating the details of a contract (e.g., which terms in a publisher's standard contract tend to be negotiable and which tend to be non-negotiable).

A good agent is not likely to be interested in an outline for an unfinished manuscript from someone with no sales to date. Of course there could be exceptions. If Nancy Pelosi writes an outline for a mystery novel, I imagine she could get an agent. Ditto perhaps for someone who has never written a novel but has had their short fiction published in the New Yorker 8 times in the last 5 years.

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