As you may have guessed from the lack of posts on my blog lately, I’m gearing up for another semester of teaching. This semester, I’m trying to put together a few mini-lessons on writing for an online section of ENG 101 that I picked up at the last minute. Here’s a lesson on effective titles that I’ve been working on for the past couple of days. With any luck, I’ll get better with practice and start knocking these out a little more quickly!
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.