I did my first pitch a few years ago. An agent was at a meeting and there were several slots left to fill thanks to bad weather that prevented some from coming.

This wonderful woman talked me into pitching my book, which was not quite finished. I did. It was a great experience. I'm thankful I have it under my belt. The agent was very nice and talked about the market for my book (which, at that time, was good).

I've been told, however, that you are not to pitch until a work is completely finished - especially if you are a newbie. I was a journalist for 10 years, so I have the follow through. (Still got boxes of clips to prove it.) Does that count for anything?

At what point in manuscript completion is it appropriate to pitch?

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I've heard of newbie deals being made from proposals, but those are the rare exceptions. For the most part, the manuscript should be absolutely complete and polished to the best of your ability. Agents and editors know how hard it is to make that final push to the end, so they're hesitant to sign newbies with partials. Once your book is finished and you start querying, though, you should mention your journalism experience in your bio. Couldn't hurt.
I'm afraid you really must write the novel first. I have a lot of journo friends who think in the same terms, and start by writing novel proposals. But really, pitching only works for nonfiction, because while follow-through is crucial in nonfiction, in fiction it isn't enough. It's the characters, writing style, plot development, etc, that gets publishers excited.

It's probably the single most irritating thing for journalists moving into fiction--the fact that you have to do the work before you can get someone interested, and most of the time, after you've done all the work of writing the book, it won't sell. This kind of unpaid effort is a real shock to journalists--particularly my friends who keep seeing me write on two-book contracts, knowing my next book will have a home. What they don't see, or choose to forget, are those 12 years of unpaid writing beforehand, and the four novels that will never find a home.

That said, once you already have an agent, bouncing an idea off of him/her is completely acceptable. But it's not a "pitch" because, particularly if you're a fiction newbie, it won't lead to a contract (except, as said above, in very rare circumstances). Only after you have a fiction track record will a publisher buy a novel before it's been written.
As an old journalist, I'll just stick my beak in here. Just like snooping for a scooping, use your judgement. It should be sound by now. I wouldn't pitchan idea, but if you have a work in progress, and see a reasonable end to it, I would toss the old knuckler out there.

Nothing ventured, nothing...?
There's no harm in pitching a novel that's not finished. Just don't expect to sell it.

It's the rare agent of editor who will take the time to read an unfinished project. What gets them excited is the prospect of having a book done that they can shove into a slot, especially one vacated by an author who failed to finish his project on time. It takes on average 12-18 months to get a finished book to the market (and err on the long side.)

One other thing to keep in mind. The agent or editor who is so excited about your project and wants you to send it right away? Not a lot of them are going to drop everything to read it "right away." It could take months and months before you hear back. Their quote of "send it to me" really translates to: "Send it when you can and I'll get to it when I can." And more importantly, their "when I can" is way, way different than yours. So save the overnight Fed Ex costs and go standard mail. Then relax and start on your next project, because chances are you'll have a long wait.

For the average fiction author, it takes one or two or more books under one's belt before he or she gets to the point of selling a novel on a partial.
I agree there's no harm in pitching novel that's not finished. I organized a successful conference last weekend where writers pitched to agents. The best session was a roundtable pitch where the agent gave feedback to all the pitchers. Most folks at the table had a finished novel, but everybody went away with tips for revising their query and manuscript. Some might even take a few months to get the ms. ready, but when it gets to the agent, it will be in better shape than if they'd sent it right off. What's better, to get it to the agent while he/she's excited or to get it there in the best shape possible? Excitement wears off quickly. By the time they get it, they'll have forgotten what excited them, but a well-written ms can excite them again.
I've heard agents say how frustrating it is to have someone pitch them a story that isn't finished, especially when it truly gets their interest. They say not to do it until the story's polished and ready to go. Otherwise, they're not going to ask to see it.

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