The Elevator Pitch, Part 1
It has come to my attention that I’ve failed you. I asked you to send elevator pitches, without previously teaching you about elevator pitches. Mea culpa, mea culpa. I’ll try to make up for it over the next three days by giving you lots of tips about how to craft a successful pitch. (I won’t be able to critique everyone’s pitch, but you can still learn from the ones I do critique.)
I’ll start with some basics. I had a specific reason for setting up Friday’s blog post with “close your eyes and imagine…” I wanted you to grasp the fact that you are going to be talking to someone. I didn’t want your standard written pitch. Which is what many of you offered. There’s a huge difference between the way people speak and the way they write. And don’t give me this “we’re writers, not speakers” bit. Hellooooo, as writers, you need to be able to capture on the page the way people speak. It’s called dialogue.
The purpose of your elevator pitch is to get someone to want to hear more. That’s IT. There is no other purpose. The corollaries to that are: (1) You most likely won’t get someone to request more if your pitch is less than 40 words and it sounds like a canned tagline from your proposal; and (2) You most likely won’t get someone to request more if your pitch is too detailed, too long, and their eyes glaze over after 15 seconds.
Of course, if the content of a picth is uninspiring or uninteresting, it won’t matter if it’s well-delivered and the perfect length. Sometimes an uninspiring pitch is merely evidence that you haven’t figured out how to convey the unique and exciting essence of your book in a few words. This is a solvable problem. Unfortunately, if it’s due to an uninteresting book, there’s not much you can do to save it. Bummer, but true.
I’m going to offer some thoughts on a few of the elevator pitches here. The next two days, I’ll have more general tips and more critiques.
[As an aside, I’m currently reading Home by Marilynne Robinson (author of Gilead). A line from the book captured me and seems appropriate here: “Experience had taught them that truth had sharp edges and hard corners, and could be seriously at odds with kindness.” To whatever extent this applies here, I apologize.]
Here we go:
The Wannabe Scribe: Hunted across the galaxy by a powerful religious cult, an amnesiac searches for clues to his past and the forgotten knowledge of a prototype weapon that has the power to enslave billions.
My thoughts: Try as I might, I can’t imagine you letting loose with this in response to the question, “So what are you writing?” Why not start with something more conversational like, “I’m writing a sci-fi about an amnesiac who is being hunted across the galaxy by a powerful religious cult, because he…” Make this into a verbal pitch, a dialogue. First, put it in context by saying what it is. (A sci-fi or whatever.) Then fill it in with some of the story. Why do we care about this amnesiac? What will he do with the weapon? And why does the cult want him? Then put a finish on it. You could have a concluding statement like, “The novel is finished and I have sample chapters available” or you could ask a question such as, “Are you interested in sci-fi?”
Timothy Fish: The story is about a wealthy businessman facing retirement with no grandchildren, who is visited by a con-artist claiming she is raising a granddaughter he didn’t know he had and demanding that his son marry her; believing she only wants money, he seeks to discredit her, with the help of his son’s socialite girlfriend, but when they discover the con-artist is telling the truth, he must learn that social status isn’t important, before his son leaves the family business, to prevent the homeless con-artist from joining his family.
Me: That is one l-o-n-g sentence, dude. My eyes glazed over about 30 words in, and I began wondering what we were having for dinner and why the heck couldn’t we get a decent glass of wine around here. This is way too detailed and convoluted—I can hardly make heads or tails of what’s happening. The point is NOT to wow me with your intricate plot. Give me the genre; give me the exciting pieces that spark my imagination; give me an overview that makes me want to read the book. “A wealthy businessman becomes involved with a con-artist who may or may not be trying to con him…” What’s at stake? Why do we care?
Karen: I have a non-fiction to share: My working title is “Majesty” and it’s about finding God’s footprints around the world. I invite the reader to travel with me to such places as the magnificient glaciered mountains of Alaska to see His majesty; dive beneath the waters to wonder at His provision for the small detailed creatures of the Great Barrier Reef, and sing Amazing Grace in the middle of a small quiet river in China.
My thoughts: This is a terrific start, Karen. I like that you opened it with “I have a non-fiction.” Many conferences are both fiction and non, so this is helpful. Your summary gives me a good basic idea of what the book is about, but I’d encourage you to fill it in. Right now it’s hard for me to envision anything beyond the big idea… could it be a photography book? A gift book? Or are you going to try and capture all these places with words only? Give us something concrete. There are so many genres of non-fiction; we need to know if it’s self-help, Christian living, devotional, or whatever. But you’re on your way to a successful pitch.
Debra E. Marvin: “Well, I’m glad you asked, Rachelle, because I didn’t want to be an annoying person who traps editors and agents in elevators! My name is Debra Marvin and my story is set in Glasgow, Scotland in 1837. My heroine awakens, violent and bloody, in an asylum with no memory but linked to a murder she can’t recall. The hero, a
Me: Debra, the first three sentences are perfect! Conversational, relaxed, witty… and you segue naturally into your story. I like how you give it a setting right away so I can picture it. And by saying “My heroine…” you’ve established it’s fiction. The sentence about the heroine awakening bloody definitely captures my attention. After that you get a little too detailed, and I’ve shown you what I’d cut. Since you have quite a bit more information after this, the pitch is far too long. Keep it between 30 and 60 seconds, max. Time yourself saying all of your pitch aloud, and determine exactly how many words you need. In any case, you have a great beginning, you just need to wrap it up shortly after this first part.
Lisa Jordan: Queen of the Shrinking Violets, the first in the Garden of Grace series, is an 80,000 word women’s fiction about four generations of women who head south to fulfill a dying wish. Their road trip, filled with unexpected detours and misadventures, becomes a journey of self-discovery. When hearts are opened and secrets exposed, God uses His garden of grace to draw these women together and closer to Him.
Queen of the Shrinking Violets, told in third person past tense using multiple viewpoints explores the trials and triumphs of mother/daughter relationships and encourages today’s women to tear down emotional walls and find healing. They are extraordinary in God’s eyes and always blooming in His Garden of Grace, no matter their season in life.
Me: Lisa, I’ve heard you pitch your book and I remember liking the story and wanting to know more about it. Curiously, I remember feeling the same thing I feel now: that it’s all so vague. The only actual “story” I can envision is a group of women on a road trip. The rest is amorphous. How am I to envision detours, misadventures, journey of self-discovery, hearts opened… and God’s garden of grace? Those are all non-specific, non-visual words. Work on making this more concrete. Use words that help me wrap my mind around what this journey looks and feels like. As for your second paragraph, that’s definitely not something for the verbal pitch. Sounds like something from your proposal or suggested back-cover copy. It’s a “written” style of language and would sound awfully stilted if you spoke it aloud. You have a nice way with words. Keep working on the best ways to capture your book in spoken language, in a way that makes someone really want to read it.
Okay, I think that’s enough for today. Based on what I’ve said here, feel free to go back and look at your own elevator pitch from Friday and see if you can self-critique. More tomorrow!
Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent who tries to be nice while telling the truth.