Publishing: Adapt or Die – On The Media

In case anyone missed it, On the Media did a great episode on the publishing industry this week. Among the topics covered are the tension between and the publishing industry, how publishing and reading are changing, the lack of a Pulitzer for fiction this year, and the trouble with “knockoff” books. Here’s a link: Publishing: Adapt or Die – On The Media.

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.

He Walked the Halls

As the release date for The Grievers draws near, I thought I’d start sharing some of the passages that didn’t make it into the final draft. In some cases, these passages were false starts that didn’t quite go anywhere. In other cases, I eventually decided that they interrupted the flow of the narrative or simply didn’t fit with the bigger story I was trying to tell. In most cases, I’m still pretty happy with the writing itself, and since books (unlike CDs and DVDs) don’t come with outtakes and other bonus materials (yet!), I thought my blog would be the perfect forum in which to share them.

He Walked the Halls

He walked the halls with a bag slung over his shoulder—every day, pacing, shuffling his feet on the scuffed marble floors. The walls at the Academy were a creamy shade of yellow and lined with black and white photos of all the classes that had gone before us—teenage boys who had long since turned to men or even died, grinning as if they had the world by the balls as they watched Billy make his lonely way up and down the halls, skinny and frail and leaning forward to counterbalance the weight of his books.

He was the kind of kid who never went to his locker, never spoke out of turn, never picked a fight, never glanced sideways during a test or a quiz, and never argued with anyone. I wish I could tell you about the first time I met him or what his life was like or what he did when he wasn’t pacing the halls, but all I can say is that he was always just there, a fixture, like the cubist statue of Saint Leonard that stood guard over the school parking lot.

The statue was a gift from the grandfather of an alum named Buddy Dever who was admitted to the Academy the same year as my father. Technically, Buddy should have flunked out by the end of his first semester, but the constant stream of cash flowing from his family was enough to make everyone look the other way whenever he set fire to the chemistry lab or ran naked through the gymnasium because the other guys stole his gym shorts.

To be fair, my dad said, Buddy was a really nice guy, and chances were good that he had nothing to do with the particular fire that gutted the school a year before they graduated. Even so, Buddy’s grandfather felt compelled to commission the statue by way of compensation, and some rumors had it costing in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand dollars. Which was a shame not only because of all the gum the statue tended to accumulate over the course of a week, but also because you would never in a million years guess what it could possibly be.

From the street, the statue was hard to distinguish from an erect penis, and the neighborhood kids used to taunt us by calling the school Saint Penis Prep. Up close, it looked like a skinny pile of rocks balanced precariously atop a fat pile. The skinny pile was Saint Leonard, and the fat pile was his donkey, Maurice.