The Elevator Pitch—My take.

September 22, 2017 in Publishing, Synopses Etc., Writing

I’m posting about elevator pitches as part of a project set up by Joshua Palmatier to help newer writers deal with some of the scarier parts of trying to sell a novel. There are three parts, each with a master page linking out to all the participating writers.

The elevator pitch project.

The query project.

The synopsis project.

Being the somewhat lazy soul that I am, I’m going to borrow from my own previous writing on the topic and only update the bits that I feel I got wrong. So, stealing from myself:

The elevator or, personal, pitch, question one: Why do it at all? It’s really the book that makes the sale, so what’s the point? So, here are a number of reasons why you might want to at least be ready to make an elevator pitch.

1. Many writers have never actually had any interactions with an editor beyond the profoundly impersonal form-rejection. A pitch session allows you the writer to actually verify the existence of a real live human being at the other end of the process as well as exerting your own personhood to the editor. This may not do any good, but it can help you feel you’re not up against a giant inhuman system and let you feel empowered.

2. Mad personal skillz. Despite what stereotypes might say, many writers are social creatures and some are even very good at personal interactions. Writers who fall into this category may believe (with some reason) that they can do a better job of convincing an editor to give a novel a look using tone of voice, gesture, eye-contact and other interpersonal tools than they could through a query and synopsis or pitch letter. Depending on your skills on that front—a related but not identical skill set to novel writing—you could well be right.

3. Multiple projects. Some writers are idea fountains. They have ten or twenty novel ideas at any given time. And, as part of deciding which one to work on next, they’re interested in editorial opinion, believing (not unreasonably) that an editor is going to be more likely to buy a novel on a subject they liked from the inception.

4. Nothing else has worked. After the tenth rejection on the fifth book, a writer can get to the point where anything that has any chance of moving their career along looks like a good idea.

5. Choose your own adventure. I’m sure there are many other reasons, and I’m sure some of you could name them.

So, next question: I’ve decided I want to try an elevator pitch, how do I go about it? I think the most important part of an elevator pitch understanding that when someone asks you what your book is about, the answer they’re looking for isn’t all the fiddly details, though those are important too. What they’re really asking is:

Why should I read this book? What’s exciting about the story?

Now, you can never really pick out what will excite someone else about your work, because everyone outside your head interacts with your story in strange and mysterious ways. What you can pick out is what turns you on about the story. For example, I’m a world-driven writer. I do all the other things too, plot, character, theme, prose, etc, and as a part of a full length pitch or synopses I need to talk about those things. But at core, what gets me going is coming up with a cool world and exploring it through story.

It has been my experience that when I start with setting, and let my enthusiasm about the world drive the conversation, editors and other writers become involved in the conversation and interested in what I’m telling them. Contra, when I start with what I think they want to hear, I bomb.

So, with my novel The Black School, I might start out with “It’s an alternate World War II novel set in a world where industrial scale black magic— sacrifice magic—has become the most important means of combat.” Then I’ll go on to give my audience a description of the scene that popped into my head fully formed, the one that got me excited about the book, and move on to some of the backstory of the world because that’s where a lot of the cool is-like, there is no white magic, at least not at the beginning of the book.

After that if I haven’t lost my audience, I’ll address the specific setting and the characters involved: The Black School, a young mage student, his mage girlfriend, the teachers, the enemy—shape changers from another dimension—etc. As I go along, I’ll also explain my themes: industrial impact on environment, the ethics of war, the implications of fighting a genuinely, verifiably, evil enemy, when does the end justify the means?

That’s all rough and it was off the top of my head when I wrote this post, but it’s also the product of a lot of practice. I’ve been answering the What’s it about? question for years on more than 20 completed novels, something like a hundred proposals, and dozens of short stories. Mostly those questions come from friends, family, and fellow writers, but that’s all to the good. If you practice with a friendly and genuinely interested audience, you’re going to have better results at crunch time with an editor or agent.

The things you’re excited to tell your sci-fi buddies about your work should be the exact same things you’re excited to tell an editor or agent. Always remember that agents and editors aren’t the job, they’re people who are really interested in the same kinds of stories you are. Neither job is one that someone gets into without loving the genre (Note: the same is true no matter the genre). Run with that, talk about what excites you in the field and what you love about your story and others. You may not make the sale, in fact, considering the odds against any particular sale, you probably won’t. But you might make a friend and you’ll have a hell of lot more fun.

Now, I know how much you all hate the idea of pitching your novel, because it’s something I have trouble with too, so I will digress a bit and tell you why I hate it, and point out that as much as I don’t like pitching, I do it anyway, because it’s part of the job. So…

Why I don’t like to pitch my novels. First off, I’m a writer. If I wanted to work with a live audience I’d have stayed in theater. I really really don’t miss stage fright, and pitching triggers it for me. When an editor asks me about my current book I’m not fool enough to decline to talk about it, and I do practice thinking through what to say in those situations. That’s because if I have to improvise on the subject of novels I turn into a babbling cretin. The question “What’s your novel about?” induces instant split personality disorder.

The half that is still a theater person usually goes into “wit” mode and tries to say things like “it’s about a hundred thousand words, why do you ask?” This is not a smart idea, and the frontal lobes are pretty good at stepping on the impulse. But having half of your brain trying to turn a serious conversation about your work into a stand up routine leaves only half a brain for the actual conversation. Worse than wit mode though is the actor’s nightmare, when the actor side of my brain suddenly realizes it’s in a terribly important performance and that it doesn’t know its lines!

Then there’s the writer half of my brain, which immediately starts whining to itself. “If I could tell the story of my book in two minutes I wouldn’t have had to write a novel.” This is true on some level, but also pointless. Then my writer brain starts trying to condense and synopsize, both of which are important skills, but are much easier to deploy at the keyboard with plenty of advance notice—or at least that’s what my internal writer voice says.

Basically, without proper preparation, it’s all bad. The separate parts of my brain make horrible individual decisions and then start yelling blame at each other when it all goes to shit.

So, my final advice: Plan ahead. Rehearse.

Direct links to the other posts:
Harry Connolly: http://harryjconnolly.com/for-gods-sake-dont-talk-in-the-elevator-the-social-media-pitch/ (Added 9/19/2017)
Elaine Isaak/E.C. Ambrose: https://ecambrose.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/crafting-your-pitch-elevator-style/ (Added 9/19/2017)
Kay Kenyon: http://www.kaykenyon.com/2017/09/19/pitching-a-novel/ (Added 9/19/2017)
L.E. Modesitt, Jr.: http://www.lemodesittjr.com/2017/09/18/literary-pitches-and-timing/ (Added 9/19/2017)
Joshua Palmatier: http://jpskewedthrone.dreamwidth.org/492441.html (Added 9/19/2017)
Phyllis Irene Radford: http://www.radfordeditorial.com/?p=94 (Added 9/19/2017)