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.

Getting the Most Out of a Writers Conference

Today I’ll be speaking at the Montgomery County Community College Writers Conference. Over the past few years, I’ve spoken at a handful of conferences in addition to this one, and I’ve found them all to be valuable in one way or another. For one thing, they give writers an excellent opportunity to escape the solitude of banging out words and to talk to other writers in person.

In this sense, conferences present an excellent opportunity to network; attendees can meet other writers, discuss ways to deal with various problems that come up over the course of the writing process, and get the good feeling that comes from realizing that one is not alone in one’s struggles. We writers tend to be a solitary bunch, and it’s just nice to talk to other people from time to time.

Of course, there’s that other sense of networking to consider as well: not just meeting other writers and possibly striking up friendships, but meeting professionals in “the industry.” For better or for worse, the focus of many writers conferences is publication, and most writers conferences offer attendees opportunities to pitch their ideas to agents and editors.

Yet while meeting with an agent or an editor can be an especially valuable experience for anyone whose manuscript is completed and as close to “perfect” as it’s going to get without further professional input, I worry that the emphasis that so many of these events place on such meetings takes away from the real value of writers conferences: learning about craft.

Perhaps one reason I’m especially sensitive to this issue today is that my talk on novel writing is scheduled in the same time slot as the “pitch sessions” at this particular conference, but I really think that the focus that many conferences place on finding an agent is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. Personally, I started learning a lot more about writing when I stopped going to conferences with the intention of wooing an agent with my half-completed manuscripts and, instead, started listening to what the speakers and panelists had to say about the actual day-to-day stuff of writing.

Here’s how it usually worked for me: I’d spend the whole day obsessing over what people in the industry would call my “elevator pitch.” That’s the one-sentence explanation of the novel that you give to the agent or editor you’re meeting with in the hopes that they’ll like your idea enough to ask for the first ten or twenty pages of your manuscript. The trouble was that I’d keep going over it my head and, as a result, I wouldn’t hear anything that anyone was saying during any of the workshops or lectures I’d paid good money to attend.

To boil it down to dollars and cents, I was basically spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $90 or more per conference to speak a single sentence to a complete stranger when I should have been getting my money’s worth by shutting up and listening to the collective wisdom of writers who actually write. Math has never been my forte, but once I figured out the crass economics of the situation, I started listening and, more to the point, I started learning.

Personally, I think that the best way for a writer to get the most out of a writers conference is to forget about the agents and the pitch and concerns about getting published. All of that will come with time — and only after you’ve honed your craft. Sure, it’s good to have a basic understanding of how the publishing business works. But for my money, the best writing doesn’t occur when writers have “the industry” at the forefront of their priorities, and it certainly has very little to do with being able to boil a 90,000 word novel down to a single sentence. Rather, it occurs when writers sit down and focus on their work, and conferences are a great place to learn how to do that.