Hello, readers –
Welcome back to my ongoing series on the constituent parts of an effective pitch. Since I’ve been at it for a while now, if you’re just tuning in, you may have to dip back into the archives to catch the earliest installments. And for those of you faithful weekday readers who took the holiday weekend off, and are wondering what is going on: yes, I don’t usually post on weekends and holidays, but with the conference so close, I wanted to plough ahead at top speed.
A quick personal aside before I return my hand to the plow, however: as some of you may have already noticed, Amazon is saying that my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, will be shipping on July 17th, less than two weeks from today. Since my publisher has not yet informed me of a firm release date — the author is always the last to know, alas — I can neither confirm nor deny this rumor. Not that it is a state secret or anything; for legal reasons, I’m not supposed to be talking about it with any specificity here. (For as much detail as I am allowed to give about what’s been going on with the book, please see my post for March 30th. Contrary to the claims on the Dick estate-owned fan forum, I have given a grand total of one published interview on the subject: http://www.toobeautiful.org/waywo_annemini.html ) All I can tell you at the moment is that while the book is still in presale mode, Amazon is offering it at a substantial discount.
I promise that I’ll tell you the release date proper the instant I know it myself.
All right, we’re cooking with gas now. So far in this series, I’ve discussed building blocks of a great pitch: your book’s category (blogs of June 29 and 30), identifying your target market (July 1), coming up with several selling points (July 2), inventing a snappy keynote statement (July 3), and pulling all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words (yesterday). Today, I am going to talk about what was considered the height of pitching elegance five or ten years ago, the 3-sentence elevator speech.
Simply put, an elevator speech is a 3 – 4 sentence description (a longish paragraph) of the protagonist and central conflict of your book. If the book is a novel, the elevator speech should be IN THE PRESENT TENSE. It is not a plot summary, but an introduction to the main character(s) BY NAME and an invitation to the listener to ask for more details.
How is the elevator speech different from the keynote, you ask? Well, it’s longer, for one thing, and although the purpose of both is to whet the literary appetite of the hearer, to get her to ask for more information about the book, the keynote can hit only one major theme. In the elevator speech, however, your job is to show that your book is about an interesting protagonist in a fascinating situation. You don’t have room here to tell how the plot’s major conflicts are resolved, just enough to identify them and raise interest in your hearer’s mind about how you will resolve them in the book.
I know it’s hard in such a short space, but try to steer clear of generalities — and definitely avoid clichés. Neither show off your creativity as a plot-deviser or your talent for unique phraseology, do they? Show your protagonist being as active as possible (you wouldn’t believe how many pitches portray characters who only have things happen TO them, rather than characters who DO things to deal with challenging situations), and enliven your account with concrete, juicy details that only you could invent. Include at least one MEMORABLE unique image.
What kind of images you ask? Since elevator speeches vary as much as books do, it’s a trifle hard to show what makes a good one without showing a few examples, so here is a pitch for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (note to those of you who took my pitching class: I am not going to post the pitch for my own novel, for exactly the reason that I advised you not to send your chapters out electronically, if you can help it: there is absolutely no way of knowing where anything posted on the web is going to end up.):
”19th-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano in front of company, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?”
Tell me — would you read this book?
At the risk of tooting my own horn, why is this a good elevator speech? It establishes right away a few important things about the protagonist: she is facing internal conflicts (should she embrace her family’s prejudices, or reject them?); she is pursuing a definite goal (making a good marriage without latching herself for life to the first man who finds her attractive), and she faces an array of substantial barriers to achieving that goal (her family members and their many issues). It also hints that instead of riding the billows of the plot, letting things happen to her, Elizabeth is actively struggling to determine her own destiny.
Don’t underestimate the importance of establishing your protagonist as active: believe me, every agent and editor in the biz has heard thousands of pitches about protagonists who are buffeted about by fate, who are pushed almost unconsciously from event to event not by some interior drive or conflict, but because the plot demands it. (Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: “Because the plot requires it” is NEVER a sufficient answer to “Why did that character do that?”) The books being pitched may not actually have passive protagonists — but honestly, it’s very easy to get so involved in setting up the premise of the book in an elevator speech that the protagonist can come across as passive, merely caught in the jaws of the plot.
There are a few code words that will let an industry-savvy listener know that your protagonist is fully engaged and passionately pursing the goals assigned to her in the book. They are, in no particular order: love, passion, desire, dream, fate (kismet will do, in a pinch), struggle, loss, and happiness. Any form of these words will do; a gerund or two is fine.
The other reason that this is a good elevator speech is that it alerts the reader to the fact that, despite some pretty serious subject matter, this is a book with strong comic elements (the big give-aways: the absurdity of Mr. Collins’ proposing after only a week, her family members’ odd predilections). Do make sure that the tone of your elevator speech matches the tone of your book; it’s more compelling as a sales tool that way.
You’d be surprised at how often this basic, common-sense advice is overlooked by your garden-variety pitcher. Most elevator speeches and pitches come across as deadly serious — usually more a reflection of the tension of the pitching situation than the voice of the book. This undersells the book, frankly. If the book is a steamy romance, let the telling details you include be delightfully sensual; if it is a comic fantasy, show your elves doing something funny. Just make sure that what you give is an accurate taste of what a reader can expect the book as a whole to provide.
If you really find yourself stumped, there is a standard (if old-fashioned) formula that tends to work well. Borrowing a trick from the Hollywood Hook, you can compare your book to a VERY well-known book or movie:
“For readers who loved SCHINDLER’S LIST, here is a story about gutsy individuals triumphing against the Nazis. + (sentence about who the protagonist is, and what is oppressing her) + But how can she pursue her passion to (secondary goal), when every aspect of the world she has known is being swept away before her eyes?”
This works for an elevator speech (better than in a pitch proper), because citing another well-known story automatically conjures a backdrop for yours; you don’t need to fill in as many details. What you do need to do in this sort of elevator speech is establish your protagonist firmly as an individual in FRONT of that backdrop, in order to be memorable. To do that, you will need to pepper the elevator speech with specific ways in which YOUR protagonist is different from the one in the old warhorse. As in:
”In the tradition of GONE WITH THE WIND, DEVOURED BY THE BREEZE is a stirring epic of one woman’s struggle to keep her family together in a time of war. Woman-Who-Is-Not-Scarlett loves Man X, and he loves her, but when half of her family is killed in the battle of Nearby Field, she can no longer be the air-headed girl he’s known since childhood. But will starting her own business to save her family home alienate the only man she has ever loved?”
Tomorrow, I shall delve into how to construct an elevator speech for a NF book, as well as explaining when to give your elevator speech and when your pitch — because yes, Virginia, they are not the same thing, at least in my lexicon.
In the meantime, keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini