WORDS FOR WRITERS: Pitch Packages – Updated

WORDS FOR WRITERS: Pitch Packages – Updated

It’s been half a decade since I last posted about pitch packages, and what you need to do to make your novel query-ready, so it’s time to update my advice!

What is a Pitch Package?

Also called a Query Package, or a Pitch Doc, this is a collection of very specific documents and write ups. You’ll need to have these documents along with you as you quest through the query trenches, and adventure along the publishing and marketing journey. But why?

Simply put: because agents, editors, publishers, and marketers are going to ask for it.

The documents that you create for this package will help a publisher or agent decide whether they’d like to take on you or your book. But after you land an agent and publisher, these documents will also have a second life in supporting the work done by your publicist, marketing team, and even yourself when it comes time to hype your book sales. It can even have a third life as the basis for a pitches used by your foreign rights agents and / or dramatic rights agents, and if you snag a dramatic adaptation option, as a part of the film / TV Bible or Pitch Doc.

In short, they’re dead useful, if… extremely involved to create. But trust me, it’s worth it. You’ll thank me later when someone asks for something specific, and you can just reach into your folder and offer it up with a smile.

Things You Will Absolutely Need

  • The manuscript

The totally complete (beta’d, edited, polished) manuscript. If you’re not done writing the book, don’t bother pitching or querying it. You never know when someone is going to ask for the full within hours of you submitting the query, and if you don’t have it ready, you’re not going to look very professional, and thus worth taking on.

You only get to make a first impression once, so make sure that first impression is impeccable.

Manuscripts should generally be formatted as:

-Title Page with the title of book, your name, your mailing address, phone number and email address, and the wordcount.
-Headers which include your Surname, the title of the book, and the page number. (I format it as SURNAME | BOOK TITLE | ##).
-In a very widely used font, like Arial, Calibri, or Times New Roman. Courier New is also okay, but unnecessary if you don’t prefer it.
-1″ margins all around the page.
-Double spaced.
-Bolds in Bold, Italtics in Italics, Underlines in Underlines. (no need to * word * or _ word _ like in the olden typewriter days).
-If you’re feeling fancy, you can set up an Outline or Bookmark chapter headings in Word/your writing program to make it easier to navigate between chapters, but it’s not necessary.
-No need to include dedications, acknowledgements, maps, or character lists in this version – the point is to let the book speak for itself. You can, however, add that stuff to the end of the book if you think it will make it easier to read.

  • Manuscript Samples

Some agents / publishers ask for writing samples instead of asking for the whole novel all at once. Make sure you have a few files separated out of:

– just the first chapter
– just the first three chapters
– just the first five chapters
– just the first five pages (double-spaced)
– just the first fifty pages (double-spaced)
– and just the first hundred pages (double-spaced)

Ensure they are super-polished. These are the chapters that will speak for the whole of your novel, so make sure they’re on their best behavior. Generally speaking, I find you can start straight at Chapter One, with no Title page so long as you ensure your Name / Title of the Book / Page # are in the header of the document.

  • Synopsis 

I’ve already covered how to write a synopsis pretty extensively in this post here, so go have a look-see at that article when you’re ready to write your Synopsis. Make sure you write one in all three lengths (single spaced 5 pages, 3 pages, 1 page) as you’ll want to have them prepared for whatever size is requested. It’s very important that you include how the book ends in the synopsis–surprise the readers, not your agent.

  • Back Cover Copy

This is the one-to-three paragraph description of the book that is simultaneously a sales pitch and a way to hook the person holding your book (or reading the description on a website), and entices them to buy it. It should be in the voice of the book, easy to understand without leaning too heavily on tired cliché, and leave the reader wanting more. For examples of cover copy for my books, check out my store. Sometimes I write this before I finish the novel, sometimes I write it after, but always make sure you really work the copy to make sure it’s polished, intriguing, and accurately describes the book as it is, not as you intended to write it.

I would also suggest writing a long version of the pitch (5-7 paragraphs), a medium version (3 paragraphs, the most common length), and a short version (1 paragraph). You’ll use the medium length version the most often, especially in the query letter, but I’ve found it really useful to have all three lengths. I use the one paragraph version on my website bookstore, and the long version when I’m providing media kits to press, awards, librarians, or students.

  • Elevator pitch

Now that you have your hooky pitch paragraph, condense it down into a single sentence. I know, brutal, but so dang useful.

This is called an elevator pitch because it’s what you would use if you had the length of exactly one elevator ride with a high-level executive to get their buy-in. An example of this would be (from a graphic novel I’m pitching): “Bridget Jones’ Diary meets The Avengers in a graphic novel about a blogger who goes on dates and imagines her beaus as various superheroes based on their quirks and failings. But when her dating blog becomes viral-popular, our heroine must face the consequences of fame at the expense of others.”

Even better, if you can get it down to a Tweet-able size, there are Twitter Pitch Contests that allow you to pitch agents via social media. I would recommend having four or five versions of the Twitter-length pitch, as the contests allow you to post more than once per contest, and it’s a good way to highlight different aspects of your novel.

  • Comparable titles

Everyone will ask for this. This is your “[TITLE] meets [TITLE] in an amazing adventures / sweeping love story / unputdownable thriller” comparison. You’ll want to pick books that are well known enough in the category / genre / age range you’re writing in, but not so overblown-famous that it comes across as a bit silly and ignorant of where your book sits to cite it. For example, if you’re writing a fantasy court politics epic, don’t use Game of Thrones. See what else out there fits the tone and mood of your book more narrowly and specifically, and cite that instead.

This is a hard thing to pin down, and will shift every few months, based on what you’ve read recently, what’s just come out, and how people react to your query letter. I’ve had agents tell me that the comparables I used in my query gave them a false impression of the genre by mistake, which is why they rejected it. Be aware what the books you choose are insinuating about your own.

Feel free to cite books outside of your age range or genre if they replicate the tone, mood, or themes, but make it clear why you’re citing them.

If you want to be very nerdy about it, you can make a list of books like yours, who wrote them, when they were published, and if that title is good to use in marketing because it was a hit, or if it’s too obscure, dated, or flopped. Separate the list out into age range, genre, and non-book comparisons. (For example, “Middle grade” is the age range, “episodic adventure” is the genre, and non-book comparisons for a Middle grade adventure (such as Adrienne Kress’ The Explorers series) would be The GooniesKim Possible, and Spy Kids. 

Keep this to one page or less and pick out the most apt two or three for use in your query letter.

  • Query Paragraph

This is the paragraph you put in your query letter to introduce the book to an agent/publisher/editor. This paragraph should include: the word count, the genre, the age-range, the comparable titles, whether it’s a stand-alone or has series potential, and why you think the agent/publisher in particular should consider it.

For example, this is the QP for my current novel is:

NINE-TENTHS is a 128k grounded romantic fantasy that combines the subtle magic of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (V. E. Schwab) with the queer-romance-with-world-stage-stakes of A Strange and Stubborn Endurance (Foz Meadows), and the quirky tone and direct-address of She-Hulk (Disney+). It’s a stand-alone novel with potential for other novels set in the same world, which don’t necessarily need to be direct sequels. It’s also timely, as it deals with the death of monarchs and the dissolution of an empire that no longer serves the people it commands. I’m particularly excited to send this book to you, [DEAREST AGENT], as you mention in your wish-list that you have a soft spot for mouthy bi disasters; both my main character and I are just that.

  • Target Market

Write an overview of who your target demographic of readers is. Imagine where in the book store your book will be shelved, or what kind of end-table display it may be on, and describe the other books and authors that may be on that display with you. Be clear about the age range, the genre(s), as well as the tone and the mood. Think about the tropes you’ve used that might lure readers to your work (like fanfiction tags). Think about the kinds of TV shows or films your ideal readership would be into, and what kind of hobbies they might have.

For example, if you were writing a novel about a contemporary teenaged boy who wins a contest to marry a prince, but doesn’t actually want to upend his life, and ends up in love with the prince anyway, it might be: “YA market, fans of contemporary queer romance, fans of enemies-to-lovers and sunshine/grumpy tropes, fans of TV shows like Heartstopper and Young Royals, fans of Casey McQuiston and TJ Klune, instagram ‘royalcore-vibe-influencers'”

You can be as detailed as you like, but most agents want it 500 characters or less.

  • Biography

Write a 100 word, a 150 word, a 300 word, and a 500 word version of this. Cite any previous awards or achievements that relate to writing (Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year, or Watty Award for Best Romance, or High Honors at the Pop Culture Conference, or even Over Five Thousand Reads on AO3, or Best Angst Story in the Good Omens Fanfiction Awards), and any other completed writing works (“has self-published three novels, and completed a PhD thesis in astroradiology”, or “writer of a weekly advice column in the local newspaper”, etc.).  Include a reference to why you are the only person who can tell this story this way – for example, if this is a story about a doctor, and you are a doctor, say so. I wrote my MA Thesis on Mary Sue Fan-Fiction and amateur portal fantasy, so when I talk about my meta portal-fantasy series The Accidental Turn, I always talk about that thesis – I’m uniquely qualified to write this book I did because I wrote that thesis.

You’ll use the 300-500 word versions the most, but it’s great to have the shorter versions on hand if you’re asked by press or media for a snappier version.

  • Other Questions

If you’re using QueryManager/Tracker to submit your query to agents, consider starting a document of “Other Commonly Asked Questions”. Agents generally request the above info on that site, but they also sometimes ask for:

-If you’ve self-published a novel, how many copies did it sell in the first year?
-Why are you the right person to tell this story?
-If you are not a member of the marginalized community you’re writing from/about, why are you the one to tell this story?
-Do you have playlist or favorite song for this novel?
-Do you have a mood board or aesthetic image for this novel?
-If you had a literary agent previously, why did you leave them?
-What do you love the most about this novel?
-What was the inspiration for writing this novel?
-If you could pick the perfect publisher for this novel, which one would it be and why?
-What is your book about?
-What is the hook for your book?
-List the Trigger Warnings/Content Warnings for this book

I’ve had to provide answers to the above questions at least three times each, which is why I added a “random other questions” document to my package.

Things You May or May Not Need

  • Character breakdown (with pronunciation guide if they’re not contemporary names)

This is a list of the major characters in the book, and a small paragraph about each of them including their name, age-range, and possibly their gender and/or sexual orientation if it’s important to the story. I would avoid including images, unless this is a graphic novel you’re pitching; let the reader imagine what the characters look like based on your descriptions in the prose. Talk about the character’s role in the story, their driving desires, and why this story has to happen to them, specifically, and not another character. This would be something like the way I describe the main character from my novel Triptych:

“Kalp: An alien from a broken world, he as elected to identify as male on Earth. A refugee grateful what meagre aide the people of this world can offer, Kalp takes on a job as a translator for The Institute, working with humans Gwen and Basil to reverse engineer technologies from his homeworld to help solve climate and social crises on this new one. Close proximity breeds affection, though, and Kalp can’t help his growing attraction and tender feelings toward his colleagues. He worries that that his feelings are only born of pathetic gratitude, and struggles with whether he should declare himself and risk his position at the Institute, and the belonging he so desperately craves.”

  • Marketing ideas

Do not send this with your initial pitch / query.

Firstly, only ever send what the agent / publisher / editor asks for, and send all of what they ask for.

Secondly, this isn’t something that you should really send to anyone until someone on the marketing team says “Do you have any marketing ideas?”.

Why? Because you job is to write the book. It’s everyone else’s job to sell it, and swerving into their lane may come off as arrogant or unprofessional.

Having said that, when they do ask if you have ideas, it looks great if you really do!

Consider keeping a “Swipe File” – that is, a folder of cool ideas you’ve seen other authors or artists use – and a list of “Things it may be neat to do”, so that when it does come time to discuss marketing, you a have some awesome ideas to bring to the table. Also, put things on this list of varying price points, and be aware that pretty much everything costs money or time, though always varying amounts of both. (Book displayed face-out in a major bookstore chain = $$$; setting up an ebook review blog tour = ⏰; creating and printing bookmarks = $ & ⏰)

  • Personal reach

It sounds crass, but this section is basically a list of who you know and which relationships you can exploit to market your book. Know some chat show TV producers, or someone who does a podcast that would let you come on to talk about your work, or still in touch with your MFA prof and have the ability to go in and do a guest lecture? Say so.

Also list your social media follower count and explain how you engage with them, and what the main topics of conversation are. Talk about your newsletter reach (if you have one). If you’ve self-published anything, share how many units you’ve sold and what kind of reader engagement it’s produced. Include reads and votes for previous novels and stories on fiction sharing sites such as Wattpad, Tapas, Tappy Toon, Radish, etc., as this counts as an audience you could market your novel to.

  • Additional materials

Again, don’t send this unless you are explicitly asked for it, or you’ve developed enough of a relationship with your editor / agent that you know it will be welcome, but do absolutely keep a folder of “stuff” that doesn’t fall into any of the categories above, such as:

-maps you may have hand-drawn or computer-generated
-some cover art ideas, or a collection of covers for other books that you think are a good example of what you were thinking
-character sketches or commissioned art
-stock images, moodboards, or aesthetics posts
-deleted scenes or alternate endings/moments (these are a marketing goldmine)

Things You May Want To Do But Don’t Have To

  • Screenplay Treatment

I’m gonna put a big fat caveat on this one, and say that as a novelist this isn’t actually your job. If your novel gets picked up for a dramatic adaptation, you may be asked to write a treatment then, but honestly it’s the screenwriter who should be writing the treatment, as it’s the map to the screenplay itself.

Having said that, I did once have an agent ask me to write a screenplay treatment for my novel to make it easier for his entertainment agent to pitch. As I have experience as a screenwriter, I did it, but it didn’t quite feel like something that ought to have been on my plate. So if you want to take a crack at writing the treatment, you can find out all about the process here. (I mean, basically, a Treatment is pretty much the exact same thing as a book Synopsis, with specific formatting requirements and more focus on the fact that film is a visual medium.)

What To Send While Querying

Remember, while you’ve put together all these materials, only send agents / editors / publishers what they ask for. To do otherwise looks like you couldn’t be bothered to read or follow their directions, which does not make them want to take you on. Nobody wants to work with people who can’t follow very simple, clear directions.

As a result, you may create a document that you never, ever use, and that’s okay. It’s a good reference for you, and a good artistic exercise; no work you do on your novel is ever wasted. I’ve found that there are times that I dive into my Pitch Package folder years after the book is out to fetch one of my assets for some reason or another, and I end up being very glad it’s there!

So have fun putting together your Pitch Package, and best of luck out there querying!


Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS posts here or ASK ME HERE.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: Pitch Packages – Updated
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WORDS FOR WRITERS – In Conversation with Kisa Whipkey Part I

WORDS FOR WRITERS – In Conversation with Kisa Whipkey Part I

J.M. Frey, author of THE ACCIDENTAL TURN SERIES, in conversation with series editor Kisa Whipkey. Join them as they follow the series from idea, to how it was pitched and sold, through the editing stages and concept challenges, to final product.

Warning – contains spoilers! Watch out for Jazz Hands!

About the books:

This book follows Pip, who is pulled against her will into the epic fantasy novel series she’s loved since she was a teenager. However, the world is darker, and far more dangerous than she could have ever predicted, especially when it turns out the hero is a much bigger misogynistic ass than she knew. Pip knows how to circumnavigate the Hero’s Journey and the pitfalls and loopholes of this particular world – but what will happen to her beloved characters outside of the comfort of the fantasy they were written for? And what happens when it’s not the male-power-fantasy hero, but the hero’s overlooked and bullied little brother who proves to be her biggest champion?

About Kisa Whipkey:

Kisa Whipkey is a dark fantasy author, a martial arts demo team expert, and a complete sucker for Cadbury Mini-eggs. She’s also the Acquisitions & Editorial Director for YA/NA publisher, REUTS Publications. She developed a passion for storytelling at a young age and has pursued that love through animation, writing, video game design, and demo teams until finally finding her home in editing. She believes in good storytelling, regardless of medium, and applauds anything featuring a snarky lead character, a complicated narrative structure, and brilliant/uncommon analogies. Currently, she lives in the soggy Pacific Northwest with her husband and plethora of electronics.

About J.M.Frey:

J.M. is an author, screenwriter, and professional smartypants. With an MA in Communications and Culture, she’s appeared in podcasts, documentaries, and on radio and television to discuss all things geeky through the lens of academia. She also has an addiction to scarves, Doctor Who, and tea, which may or may not all be related. Her life’s ambition is to have stepped foot on every continent (only 3 left!)

Music: “Creative Minds” by Bensound (Royalty Free)


Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.

Read other Words for Writers blog posts here.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS – In Conversation with Kisa Whipkey Part I
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WORDS FOR WRITERS: Prose vs. Screenwriting

WORDS FOR WRITERS: Prose vs. Screenwriting

Today’s question comes from a writer who wants to know the difference between how I go about braining stories for prose writing, as opposed to how I brain for screenwriting:

Question from Oliver: If you haven’t covered it already, I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about how to switch headspace from Prose Brain to Screenwriting Brain and vice versa.

It’s a great question because there is a difference, at least for me. But before I dig into that, a quick explanation of what each kind of writing is, what it’s used for, and how it’s laid out.


What is it?

In prose, it is the writer’s responsibility to report all of the scenery, setting, action, dialogue, and depending on the POV and tense of the prose, the inner-monologue and life of the characters on the page. Prose leads the reader from scene to scene, chapter to chapter, and tells the story in it’s entirety.

What is it used for?

Prose is meant to be seen by the final audience, the readership.

As a prose writer, you are doing the large majority of all of the work that goes into ultimately creating the entire piece of art / artifact that is a book. You are the driving force of telling the story.

Editors (both substantive and copy), proofreaders, interior designers, cover designers, and illustrators will all contribute to the completed novel, of course; but 95% of the work that goes into a novel is your own, and the ‘visual’ elements and ‘performance’ elements of the novel are up to you, the writer, to record for the audience to consume and understand.

You make the character’s motivation choices; you decide what they like to wear and what they look like; you decide their likes and dislikes; you decide their acting choices – that is, when they blink, when the gesture, when the hold hands, etc.; you decide what the action looks like when there’s a fight sequence.

You decide what the buildings look like and how rooms are decorated. You decide the tone and mood of the novel based on your word choices. You decide what time of day it is, what the light quality is like, and what the weather is doing. You decide how long to linger on a moment, or how quickly to zip through a scene, and how each chapter of the story is portioned out.

What does it look like?

Benjamin stood on the other side of the sofa, hands on his hips, frustration writ large in every tense line of his jaw. “He should be listening to you,” he ground out.

From my seat at the kitchen table – completely taken over by my legal files and the detritus of a week’s worth of unhealthy take-out meals – I ran a hand through his hair and then rested my chin on my palm. I was so exhausted my eyes felt gritty and every bone in my body was warm and heavy. All the same, I aimed for a teasing wink that probably came out more like a slow, stupid blink.

“Now I know for a fact that you’re an only child,” I teased.

“What does that have to do with–”

I wagged a finger at Benjamin. “If you had siblings, you’d know how hard it is to make one do anything. If I had a dollar for every time I heard ‘you’re not the boss of me’ I could…” I trailed off, looking around the disaster that was my twin brother’s condo, misery swimming up my spine. “I could hire a damn cleaner.”

I stood, unsteady on my feet, and shuffled around the table to at least tidy up my files. I wasn’t embarrassed that his brother’s hot doctor had seen me at his unorganized, weary, disheveled worst, but it sure wasn’t giving Benjamin the impression I wanted him to have. Of course, in my foggy state I’d totally forgotten about the goddamned cat.

For reasons that I would never understand, Hightower like to nap under the table. I stumbled against his furry side, and Hightower let out a high-pitched yowl as I stepped on his tail. A furious marmalade blur wound around my legs, swiped a scratch at his knee, and then shot off down the hall to James’ bedroom to hide.

I flailed for the edge of the sofa but it was too far away.

Well, at least there’s a doctor here already when I fall and break my wrist, I thought morosely as I started to go down.

But I never crashed. Said doctor had seen the fall coming and dashed forward, to seize me around the waist and keep him upright. I grabbed Benjamin’s forearms, steadying myself, getting my fumbling feet back under me, and trying very, very hard not to notice how big and warm Benjamin’s hands were, splayed along the crest of his waist like that. How firm his chest was against my own. How we were practically nose-to-nose, closer in height they were than Benjamin’s officious nature made him seem. How I could feel the soft puff of Benjamin’s breath against my own cheek.

How Benjamin’s soft, pink mouth was right there.

“Goddamnit,” I whispered.


What is it?

In screenwriting, it is the writer’s responsibility to create a roadmap of how the final film or television production will look, sound, and be structured. It is their responsibility to set the tone of the production through their word choices and descriptions. The script lays out how the story is told. A screenwriter’s script leads the rest of the production team – crew, designers, actors, director, and editors – and is the basis for all of their work.

In film production, the Director and/or Producer is driving force of telling the story.

What is it used for?

Screenplays are not meant to be seen by the final audience, the viewers.

Screen plays are not whole stories in and of themselves, but are blueprints upon which a completely different product – a film or a television series – is constructed. As a screenwriter you are doing only a very small portion of the work that goes into ultimately creating the entire collaborative piece of art / artifact that is a film.

The screenplay is the foundation on which all that work is based, but is often rewritten, sometimes right on the set during filming itself, and is not often considered the enshrined and protected singular vision of a writer the way a novel is. Films are always a collaborative medium, and a screenplay – while the basis of a production – is only a small part of that.

And depending on how the film is edited, cut together, and tweaked in post-production, the final product can sometimes very little resemble what was put on that first page. (This can be a good thing – other people bringing ideas to the table can make a film much stronger).

As a film is just a blueprint of a film, a lot of the choices that you see on the screen were not the screenwriters. The screenwriter is responsible for: the dialogue, ‘setting the scene’ in terms of location and character but not filling in the details, pacing, tone and mood, and any specific or key action moments.

However, actors are the ones who make the character’s motivation choices and acting choices; costume designers decide what they like to wear and casting directors decide what they look like; stunt coordinators decide what the action looks like when there’s a fight sequence.

Locations scouts decide what the buildings look like, and set decorators decide how rooms are decorated. cinematographers decide what time of day it is, lighting designers light quality is like, and what the weather is doing. Directors decide how long to linger on a moment, or how quickly to zip through a scene, and editors decide how each section of the story is portioned out.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What does it look like?

He should be listening to you.

Now I know for a fact that you’re an only child.

What does that have to do with—

If you had siblings, you’d know how hard it is to make one do anything. If I had a dollar for every time I heard “you’re not the boss of me” I could… (miserable)I could hire a damn cleaner.

Mark starts to tidy up, tired and unsteady. He trips over Hightower. Benjamin seizes Mark around the waist and keeps him from crashing. Hightower bolts into James’ room.


Mark and Benjamin realize that they are in awkward romantic clinch.

The Difference

As you can see, what ends up on the page between prose and screenwriting is very different. So the three question I ask myself when I’m coming up with a story are:

a) how visuals dependent is it?
b) how dialogue heavy is it?
c) how internal-life dependent is it?

If I’m creating a story that will require the audience have a lot of access to the inner-thoughts and motivations of the characters, then I’m going to assume that I’m going to want to tell it as a novel so I can really dig into the character’s heads. If the story requires a lot of “a picture is worth a thousand words” moments, then maybe it’s best told as a screenplay. And depending on the kind of dialogue and the speed and pace of it, I might prefer one or the other.

The kind of story I want to tell dictates the medium I tell it in. And the medium dictates which writer-brain I tell it from. The one who knows that I will have nearly complete control of the story, or the one that knows that the story will be served by collaborative and interactive creation process, of which my screenplay is just the first step.

There’s also something a bit ‘faster’ about writing a screenplay, in terms of getting it on the page. The thought process and revisions stages are way, way longer than novels, I find, but when it comes to sitting down and just banging out line after line of dialogue, with no need to go in and add all the stuff around it telling the reader what’s happening physically and in the space, I find I can get a draft of a feature film together in about two weeks if I’m motivated. Whereas the first draft of a novel takes me about six months.

But of course, there’s many, many more months of revising, table-reading, and taking notes with scripts, and the collaborative process of filmmaking can go on for years and years. While for writing prose, I can have a completed novel in my hand in twelve months if I am diligent and my design team is super on it.

Two Big Pitfalls to Avoid

If you are a screenwriter moving to prose:

Head Hopping

Screenplays can be told from multiple POVs with multiple lead characters that the story follows. Generally speaking, prose should only have one POV per scene – and if you’re going to switch who the POV is, you need to indicate this by putting in a scene separator or text to indicate that the POV has changed.


Benjamin stood on the other side of the sofa, hands on his hips, frustration writ large in every tense line of his jaw. “He should be listening to you,” he ground out. Benjamin’s biggest pet peeve was when people didn’t follow doctor’s orders, especially when it endangered or invalidated all the hard work he’d done in the surgery theatre.

From my seat at the kitchen table – completely taken over by my files and the detritus of a week’s worth of unhealthy take-out meals – I ran a hand through my hair and then rested my chin on my palm. I was so exhausted my eyes felt gritty and every bone in my body was warm and heavy. All the same, I aimed for a teasing wink that probably came out more like a slow, stupid blink. Benjamin was struck between the ribs by how charming that dopey smile looked.

“Now I know for a fact that you’re an only child,” I teased.

What’s wrong with this:

If this is from Mark’s POV, in the first person, how on earth can Mark know that Benjamin’s biggest pet peeve is, or his physical reaction to Mark’s smile? This is what we call “head hopping”, when the reader is suddenly yanked out of the head (or off the shoulder, if it’s 3rd person) of one character to be shoved into / onto that of another without warning.

The Fix:

Ask yourself constantly whose head you are in, and what they can reasonably know as a fact and what they can assume. Mark may not be able to know that Benjamin’s heart has kicked in his chest at Mark’s dopey smile, but he can assume Benjamin’s frustration and upset from outside observation of his body language. So the ‘I’ narrator can speak to those assumptions (“frustration writ large in every tense line of his jaw”), but not to the internal reactions and life of another character (“Benjamin was struck between the ribs by how charming that dopey smile looked”).

If you are a prose writer moving to screenplays:


Basically, when you use the dialogue tags (the stuff in brackets above in the screenplay example above) and the action descriptions (the stuff in italics in the screenplay example above) to tell people what to do. The only stuff that should be there is the stuff that is absolutely vital for the creation team to know.



I have won!

(triumphant and cocky)
Not yet, you haven’t!

GOOD GUY leaps up onto the platform beside the BAD GUY’S ‘Freeze Ray’ – a futuristic, silver torpedo-shaped gun with four glowing blue barrels topped with smoking ports. There are three levers and six buttons. Three are green. Three are blue. Three are yellow. The BAD GUY’S hand hovers over the knob of one of the levers, fingers twitching in delight and anticipation. The GOOD GUY swings a fist at his face, but he ducks out of the way and does a really cool spinning back flip and kicks the lever into the ‘on’ position. The Freeze Ray makes a rumbling sound and starts to smoke harder. Lines of white LED lights up the side of the barrel light up. The GOOD GUY lunges for it, but before he can get to the lever, the BAD GUY does another cool spinning kick and brings his heel down on the GOOD GUY’s wrist so hard that he breaks it.

(in pain)

So why is this example bad? Because the writer is telling the actors how to feel, is telling the art department how to design the Freeze Ray, and is telling the stunt coordinator how to do their job.


I have won!

Not yet, you haven’t!

GOOD GUY leaps up onto the platform beside the sleek and futuristic ‘Freeze Ray’. They fight. The lever is knocked into the ‘on’ position and the Freeze Ray starts to power up. In course of the fight, the BAD GUY breaks the GOOD GUY’s wrist.


This is a better version of that sequence because the writer isn’t doing anyone else’s job. Because, who knows, maybe the stunt coordinator has a much, much cooler fight sequence idea than spinning kicks. Or maybe the props designer has a a totally different but way better design for the Freeze Ray in mind. Or maybe the actor wants to play the lines differently (see: Tom Hiddleston’s delivery as Loki on “Don’t tell me it was that woman?… Oh, it was. Well maybe, when we’re done here, I’ll pay her a visit myself!” It was written as smug, delighted and predatory in the original script, and delivered as heartbroken and lashing-out. Which was, of course, the stronger story-telling choice.)

Now, only the information that is going to affect the future scenes of the screenplay is provided – that they fight, that there’s a Freeze Ray, and that the Good Guy’s wrist is now broken.

The Fix:

Write your screenplay however you want the first time around. But then when you go back to edit, ask yourself whose job you’re accidentally doing, and whose toes you’re stepping on, when you read your screenplay. Look at the action parts and dialogue tags, and make sure you’re not including anything that isn’t completely necessary for the actors, directors, stunt coordinators, set designers, etc. to know.

Braining it Out

So, to answer the original question – how do I go about switching headspace from Prose to Screenplays? Well, generally I only write one story at a time, so I’m not having to switch back and forth between mediums constantly. That’s a big help. Secondly, sitting down and really thinking about why this particular story has to be in this particular medium helps me remember that I chose this medium for a reason, and that I should be adhering to that medium’s rules and tropes because I’ve already made the choice. Thirdly, knowing what and how this text I’m writing is going to be handled, interpreted and used also helps me stay in the right headspace.

And lastly, the character through whom I’m telling the story helps me stay on track. I tend to like telling single POV stories, and I tend to develop very particular voices with very particular speech patterns and word choices. The way that character speaks – to others, inside their own head, and to me as the writer – helps me stay on track, because I develop that voice to match the medium.

I hope this has been helpful!

To hear me speak more about the difference between prose and screenplays, listen to my interview with Three Patch Podcast here.


If you have any questions about this article, please feel free to leave a comment! I’m happy to address specific topics, so feel free to shoot me an email or leave a comment here with your query. You can find the rest of my Words for Writers articles here.


JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: Prose vs. Screenwriting
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Yet Another COVID-19 Blog Post

Yet Another COVID-19 Blog Post

I promise you, I’m not here to talk about “living in interesting times” or “steps we’re taking to ensure the health of our customers and employees” or even to remind you to stay home and wash your hands.

(But no, really – stay home and wash your hands.)

I just wanted to remind you that if you’re looking for stories to fill your Social Isolating Time (and up your GoodReads Goal count), you can find my free stuff by clicking the links below.

Stay safe out there, friends and fellow bookworms.

– J.M. Frey

Download FOUR different novels in either .epub, .mobi, or .pdf format.

Click here.

Password is: BookWormY (case sensitive)

Offer expired May 1st. Sorry! But you can still find all of my novels here.





Click here.




Read THE MADDENING SCIENCE in it’s entirety on my website. This is a tale about identity, trust, and the strange alchemy that is attraction.

Click here.





This 2019 WATTY AWARD Winning novel is completely free on Wattpad for the moment. Grab your chance to read it, and comment on your favourite parts, while it’s still available.

Click here.





Using the social-isolation time to work on your own writing? Here’s a collection of advice blogs and Q&As that may help you make the best book you can.

Click here.

JM FreyYet Another COVID-19 Blog Post
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WORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Plan a Series

WORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Plan a Series

I know I’ve discussed this little a bit in other articles before, but I wanted to talk specifically about the process of plotting a multi-book narrative. And how to make the ending satisfying because, from an emotional standpoint, this is the moment both you and your audience has been waiting for – the time when all the hints, all the adventures, all the hard work and suffering your characters (and you!) have gone through pays off.

First, let’s talk about the logistics of a series from a career point of view.

When do I start planning the series?

This is a complicated question because, depending on where you are in your career and in the book-writing process, the answer will be different.

If you’re an already-published or already-represented author, then you’re likely already quite familiar with the process of pitching a book to your publisher/agent. Pitching a series is not much different, except that you’d need to write a synopsis for all the books you plan to write in the series, and create a pitch document for the series as a whole, as well as for each individual book.

If you are querying agents or publishers for the first time though, it’s a different process. The first thing I would recommend you do is not write the series.

This seems counter-intuitive, if you plan to pitch the book you’re querying as the first in a series. But trust me. There are reasons:

  • What if the agent/editor/publisher comes up with something better? In discussing a novel with you, inevitably – if you are talking about doing a series – someone is going to say “So what’s happening in book two? What if you do XYZ?” and it’s very possible that this new idea might be a stronger choice or provide a more interesting outcome. In that case, you’ve wasted what is probably years on writing something that you may end up scraping.
  • You’re writing into a void, and without guidance. Your writing will improve as you work with your editor/agent on your first novel. Everyone would rather you wrote book two after having done all that work with your editor/agent, because it will inevitably be a stronger, better-written manuscript. It’s much better, and so much easier, to write a strong first draft than have to go back and rewrite a weak one. Or a whole series of already-written books.
  • Things can change in edits – a small change in book one can have a ripple effect in all the rest of the books, which can open you up to the risk of terrible continuity errors in later books, or even whole swathes of plot points or character moments that will need rewriting.
  • What if they don’t want the series, and only want the first book? It happens. (It also happens the other way around, too – the Accidental Turn Series was never meant to be a series, and I had never planned to write more than The Untold Tale.) They may ask you to put a less open ending on the book and just wrap it up, so there’s no further story to tell.  In that case, you’ll have wasted your time on the other books in the series, which can’t be published because your publisher likely has right of first refusal on works set in that IP, and has refused them. 
  • Your publisher may want to wait to see how book one does before investing more time and money in further books with you. And they may only want one or two more – even if you planned, say, five. You may need to restructure your story ideas to fit a smaller, or larger, number of books. It’s much easier to do that if the books don’t exist, because you don’t have the pressure of trying to make what already exists either squash or stretch.

So how do you get across to a publisher/agent that you’re querying that this is meant to be the first book of a series? These are the nine most important words for pitching a series: “This is a stand-alone novel with series potential.”

So what does that mean? It means that 1) you have to write a book that is fully contained, with a satisfying ending in and of itself, 2) that has enough plot seeds sown and open points where future plots could anchor that it could be the first of a series, 3) but not so many that if those seeds never get to grow or those open points remain gaping, it feels like a cheap and unsatisfactory ending. Think of it as a made-for-tv-movie that is also a back-door-pilot. If the MFTVM does very well, the producers may spin it out into a TV series. If it doesn’t, it remains just a movie. So it has to be both satisfying and stand-alone, but also useful as a kicking-off point to a longer and more involved narrative.

What’s different about writing a series?

The first, and most obvious difference between writing the books in a series and any other stand-alone  book, is that you have to draw the story out, and then finish what you start. Everything you set up, hint at, or have happen in previous books has to work toward the final climax scene in the final story, while also still providing satisfying novels individually.

It’s a lot to remember, and a lot to make pay off. (This is why I have a whiteboard wall and a pin-board in my office, so I can keep notes to myself about things I seeded when I started book one). 

And on top of that, you need to avoid Mushy Middle Syndrome – that is, writing books that happen between the first and last novels in the series that are clearly just made up of filler.  Each individual book in the series needs to be a whole story itself as well as part of the structure holding up the bridge of the overall narrative, and just as strong (ideally stronger) than the first book in the series.

 But how can you not only do this, but do it well?

As a Pantser at heart it pains me to say it, but the best way to make sure your foundation is solidly laid (and that you won’t have to go back and rewrite huge swaths of earlier books), you’ll need to Plan. At least a little.

As a trained playwright and screenwriter, I personally choose to write my books according to the three-act structure. 

Writing a book with the three-act structure generally looks like this:

When writing a series, each book will be structured to have three Acts.

BUT, when you are writing a series, (let’s say a trilogy for simplicity’s sake), each book itself becomes an Act in the narrative of the whole story.

So when you’re planning each book, not only do you have to write a whole, complete, compelling novel in and of itself (with no saggy middle book!), you also have to ensure that the tale you’re telling in each individual novel serves the overall narrative as well. Which means the final book in the series will be especially fussy to plan, because it must function both as a stand-alone novel, but also behave like the third act of the series and wrap everything up satisfactorily, and in a way that is not rushed.

To complicate things, you need to figure out what kind of story you’re telling, and what the structure tropes are for that particular narrative style. Going with my above example, The Accidental Turn Series is about a quintessential Tolkien-esque fantasy hero who never knew he was the main character all along, so had been acting like a sidekick. As such, each book follows the Hero’s Journey narrative map, while the characters deliberately attempt to escape from the Hero’s Journey cycle:

So each individual book looks like this:

But when you blow it out into the full series, the Hero’s Journey for each book looks more or less like this:

As you can see, some of the narrative beats overlap, because if there was a clear division between books, it would mean the first book has no real ending, the second book is filled with adventures that don’t culminate in any kind of climax, and the third book would be mostly denouement and return. So you do need to balance where the Revelations happen, how often, and how they drive the plot of not only that particular novel forward, but that of the whole series.

Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, or the only way you can divide up a series.  For The Skylark’s Saga, as a two-book series, I organized it like this:

Which meant a lot of conversations with my editor, a lot of scribbling on that white board, and what turned out to be a whole heck of a lot of rewrites, as the original ending wasn’t strong enough to finish off a duology and we had to reformat the final act of book two a few times.

No matter how you plan to plot your series, knowing which story structure you plan to use is vital, so you can mirror that structure into the layout of the series as a whole. Beyond the Three Act structure, This article offers a few more options for how to layout the narrative foundations of your novel.

For my next novel, The Maddening Science, (which is going to be a stand alone), I’m venturing away from both the Hero’s Journey and the Three Act Structure. I’m not sure exactly which model I’ll be using, but Steve Seager lists some other fascinating possible story structures that I want to explore in more depth before I swing into this novel for NaNoWriMo

I’m also really into the way Alan Moore structured the overall graphic novel Watchmen. I’m enamored with the idea of seemingly disparate stories coming together to create a solid understanding of the world and a shocking realization as the climax is playing out. All the different tales come together in the end to form one picture – like different coloured threads knotting together to form a friendship bracelet – and that is what I’d like to explore in terms of storytelling next.

Shall we call this the Woven Structure? Maybe let’s see if I can make it work before we name it.

The point is, no matter which structure you use, having a solid understanding of how it works, and which beats you’re going to put in which books, is an extremely important part of planning a book series. Mapping the structure of the novel onto the series as a whole is a simple (if brain-knotting) way to ensure that the series conclusion is not only satisfying, but gripping.

Okay – so we’ve talked the plotting.

But what about the emotional payoff?

So here’s the meat of series. You have to satisfy all the promises you made in the prose of the previous novels.

I’m not saying this means you must create Happily Ever Afters for all the heroes and Come Uppances for all the baddies. Nothing so trite. I am saying that you have set up expectations in the prose that things that are brought up, actions that occur and events that happen, will be resolved.

For example, Lucas couldn’t just tell the viewers that Darth Vader is Luke’s father and then not address it in the later movies, and not resolve Luke and Vader’s relationship in the final climactic battle. It’s a revelation that promised satisfaction to that emotional arc, even if viewers had to wait for the next movie for that satisfaction.

There’s also this article on how to use the Chekhov’s Gun approach to plant promises in your text, and explains the concept in further detail. But it boils down to this – make sure you’re closing all the doors, tying up all the loose threads, and addressing all the questions. 

Again, this doesn’t mean you need a seven-chapter denouement or an explanation of what happened to each character as the adventure ends. It just means that the ending you choose to give the novel has to end the series well, and leave readers content with the information that you chose to impart, and a feeling of being happy with knowing all they know.

As a big fan of fanfiction, I’m also okay with writers not closing every plot off. It is nice to have space to think about what might happen next, especially with side characters whose endings might not have been explained in greater detail or happened off screen.

To make sure I don’t miss anything like this, every time I make a Big Promise in my novels, I write it down on my whiteboard. Example: “Kin and Bevel have to talk about Bev’s desire to be a father / possibly agree to have a kid?” This was brought up in book two of The Accidental Turn series, as well as in the novellas Arrivals and Ghosts, in the short story Health, and the final novel. This promise was satisfied in the novella Magic, and finally tied up in the short story Pride (all of which can be found in The Accidental Collection).

These don’t have to be detailed notes – just a scrawl on the wall is usually enough to remind me when the time comes. And who doesn’t like checking things off a list when you’ve accomplished it?

There are lots of ways to make sure your final book packs an emotional punch. I asked fellow writers on Twitter to chime in, and these are the tips they offered:


Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS here or ASK ME HERE

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Plan a Series
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