Writing

Using the Elevator Pitch for Editing

Anyone who’s been in the writing business for a while knows about the elevator pitch. It’s the super-short version of the book you’ve written, the single sentence you’d use to convince an agent or editor to give the manuscript a read if you happened to be stuck on an elevator together — or, as is more frequently the case, when you’re allotted two minutes to chat with an agent or editor at a writers’ conference.

Needless to say, learning to craft a strong elevator pitch is essential in marketing a book-length manuscript. It not only gets your foot in the door but also forms the basis for what, if you’re lucky, eventually becomes your book’s marketing campaign. That blurb on the back of the book? The pithy description of what to expect? Often enough, it’s pretty close to the author’s original pitch. And the first line of that description is the elevator pitch.

But the elevator pitch can be more than a marketing tool. In fact, it can be the star that guides you through the countless rounds of revision you do before the manuscript goes in front of an agent or editor — and the countless more you’ll do after it’s been accepted for publication.

I was talking to my friend (the incredibly talented) Kelly Simmons recently, and she mentioned that the reason most manuscripts get rejected is that they don’t deliver on the promise of the query package. In other words, a writer can still stumble after making it past that first hurdle of tempting a potential agent with a great elevator pitch and even the second hurdle of starting to reel the agent in with a great query letter and one-page synopsis of the novel. The problem comes when the novel in question doesn’t bear a close enough resemblance to the pitch.

The good news, however, is that the problem isn’t insurmountable. Indeed, the fact that the author came up with the elevator pitch along with the aforementioned one-page synopsis suggests that what these documents contain is the ideal, distilled vision of what the author is trying to accomplish with the manuscript. It’s a little bit like an outline written after the book’s been drafted. And since — in the case Kelly described, anyway — the pitch and synopsis have already gotten an agent’s attention, that means the book, in its “ideal” form, will likely be a marketable commodity.*

So let’s look at the situation in practical terms. Let’s say you’ve drafted a novel. It’s in the neighborhood of 110,000 words long. You’ve heard that selling anything over 100,000 words long is next to  impossible, so you’ll need to do some cutting. On top of that, you also know that no first draft is ever publishable right out of the gate, but the prospect of editing this behemoth is a little daunting, to say the least. Where do you begin?

My best advice is to figure out your elevator pitch and also to craft a brief synopsis of the novel — a single page at the most — but to do it without looking at your manuscript. Basically, you’re explaining to yourself what you think you just finished writing. Once you’ve done so, let a little bit of time pass and start reading your manuscript with an eye toward whether or not it matches your elevator pitch in broad terms and your synopsis in relation to the details.

Let the elevator pitch serve as your compass and the synopsis as your road map. Whenever you sense the story is drifting away from what you envisioned, make a note in the margin. This is where you’ll have to do some work — cutting or reworking various passages until the manuscript matches up with what you thought you were trying to do.

This strategy worked especially well for me when I revised The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl for The Permanent Press. Martin Shepard said he liked the story, but he thought it could be tighter. His only real instructions were to cut about seventy pages from the manuscript. The rest he left up to me because, in his words, I was the writer, so I should know what to cut.

So I went back to my query materials and used them as a guide, particularly my elevator pitch: “The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl paints a riveting portrait of a woman whose quest to be everything to everyone exposes the dark secrets of America’s suburbs.”

Right off the bat, if it wasn’t riveting (to me, anyway) and wasn’t focused on the pressure the protagonist feels with respect to being all things to everyone, then it had to go. Then there were the dark secrets of America’s suburbs; if the secrets were just a little dim or poorly lit, then they had to go, too. Seventy pages worth of cuts later, I re-submitted my manuscript, and Marty offered me a contract.

So work on your elevator pitch and hone your one-page synopsis, but don’t forget that they’re not just marketing tools. They’re also editing tools, and you can use them to make sure that the manuscript you’ve produced matches the novel you’ve been envisioning all along.

*Profoundest apologies for using such crass language.

“That’s a Junkie”

Here’s another passage I cut because of the reference to Charley’s students and also because it had more to do with my own life than Charley’s. With subsequent revisions, I got increasingly better at inventing a life for Charley and separating my life from his. In terms of story, these cuts allow the narrative to move along more quickly without getting bogged down in largely irrelevant flashbacks.

“That’s a Junkie”

Instead of saying I was an Academy grad, I told my students I was from Northeast Philadelphia, which was true, to an extent. All my best beatings happened there, and it wasn’t until I started high school that my family moved out to the suburbs. I played ball for the Mayfair Shamrocks, I told my students, on rat-infested fields that were littered with broken liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia. I was an altar boy at Our Lady of Ransom, the church on Route One that was famous for looking like a flying saucer. The guy across the alley from my parents grew pot in his backyard, and my friends and I used to think his tiny arboretum was a wonderful glass clubhouse until we wandered in one day and he came storming out of his basement in sandals and a pink bathrobe, barking obscenities and wielding—we all agreed—a gun, a machete, a hatchet, a baseball bat and a golf club all at once.

We threw bottles to hear them crash and picked through piles of medical waste behind a nearby public health clinic, prizing the discarded dental tools and plaster castings of crooked teeth we found in open trash bins. We roofed each other’s toys and peed in each other’s inflatable swimming pools and ambushed each other with crab apples, and we all rode bikes our uncles had found in the trash, and one day when we were playing on Glenn Steiner’s patio, a junkie came staggering up the sidewalk, coughing up blood and tripping over his own feet. When he fell face-first in the ivy out front, Glenn ran into the house to get his mother, who came hobbling to the front door on crutches because she’d just had corns removed from her toes.

The junkie wore a yellow shirt and greasy blue sweatpants and was crying for someone named David. He had curly hair and tattered sneakers and shivered violently on Glenn Steiner’s ivy. He threw up and rolled over. He hugged himself and cried out for David again. I was six years old. Glenn was seven. We were playing on his patio, and a grown man stumbled up the block, crying like a baby.

“That’s a junkie,” Glenn’s mother said before hobbling inside to call the police. “That’s what happens when you mess with drugs.”

Getting Far

In an earlier draft of The Grievers, the narrator’s life was closer to my own than in the version that eventually found its way to publication. One major similarity was that Charley and I were both teachers — a detail I changed for both dramatic and comedic effect when I gave him a job as a human dollar sign. Of course, this change meant I had to make some major revisions and cut a number of passages in which Charley talks about his ambivalence toward teaching (among other things).

Getting Far

You could probably make the argument that I hadn’t gotten very far in life. I was teaching a section of Freshman Composition at Russell Conwell University that summer, and I could see the twin spires of Saint Leonard’s Cathedral from my office on the tenth floor of the liberal arts building.

Technically Saint Leonard’s wasn’t a cathedral insofar as no bishop had ever made his home at the Academy, but we called it a cathedral anyway because no other word would suffice. In fact, just as we called our school the Academy, we simply referred to the Church of Saint Leonard as the Cathedral. Towering over the rundown neighborhood a few blocks west of the concrete quadrangles and redbrick dormitories of Conwell U, it was the fourth-largest place of worship in the Delaware Valley and the only survivor of the fire that gutted the rest of the Academy back in 1968 when my father and Buddy Dever were juniors there and my uncle Frank was a freshman. Two years later, my uncle Joe would enroll, and two years after that, my uncle Rich.

All told, my grandparents sent four sons to the Academy, and my grandmother was still making regular payments to the place as if they were all still enrolled. That’s the kind of pull it has, the kind of loyalty it engenders. Even so, I hate telling my students where I went to high school because they always react with an odd mixture respect and disappointment. On one hand, all the smart kids from their grammar schools went to the Academy, and now they were attending big-name universities like Princeton, Georgetown and Duke. On the other hand, these were the same kids my students used to beat the shit out of on a daily basis, a fact I happen to know because I used to be one of the smart kids myself, and between the ages of nine and thirteen, I suffered three black eyes, a chipped tooth, a broken nose, a dislocated shoulder, a scrape running from the inside of my elbow down to my bellybutton, two near drownings (one in a swimming pool and one in a toilet), a mild concussion and countless noogies, wedgies, Indian burns and wet willies. All in fun, of course, but it made me one of them. How in the world could I expect my students to take me seriously when they’d only finished beating the shit out of their grammar school equivalent of me a scant four years earlier?

The worst, however, was when the odd Academy boy who hadn’t made it into the ivies ended up in my classroom. Suddenly I’d have a new best friend who always sat in the front row in a hooded SLA sweatshirt and baseball cap, kept all his papers in a crisp, clean SLA folder, smiled with perfectly straight SLA teeth and without fail started doodling SLA RULES! in the margins of his SLA notebook with an SLA pencil the minute class started, lest I forget our unshakable bond. And every day there was always the obligatory conversation about how the librarian was a closet sadomasochist and the gym teacher was always hung over and the religion department was full of communists and Shane Kirkland had a million half-baked conspiracy theories and the crew team was a bunch of assholes and the stage hands all jerked off in the light booth and the track team was on steroids, and on and on for what seemed like an eternity, each of us adding lie after lie to the million or so bits of hearsay we both knew were ninety-percent fabricated in the first place, and all I could think was Jesus, this is the same damn conversation I’ve been having with my buddies for the past ten years. Something’s gotta change.