The Elevator Pitch

CC image by Gideon Tsang

CC image by designkitchen

CC image by designkitchen

Say you’re a writer. You’ve a finished book that you’re quite pleased with—you built a world, you created loveable characters, you plot twisted, and it’s awesome. But now you want to publish it. You’ve been querying literary agents for month, but your queries have been falling into the black hole of agent email, never to return. Your best friend invites you to a party with some old college buddies—you decide to go, get your mind off of your publishing woes. You show up at the party, make some preliminary rounds, and head to the bar. Then your old friend Michael from honors English walks up to you—he wants you to meet his wife, Janet. Janet’s an agent with Curtis Brown literary agency, he says. His overhead lightbulb goes off, “Hey, you used to write books, didn’t you?”
You nearly choke on your whiskey, but recover enough to smile and say, “Yes, actually, I just finished a novel.”
“Oh yeah?” says Janet. She looks nonthreatening enough, with her black pixie cut and cat’s eye glasses, until she says, “Tell me about it.”

What do you say?

Is it hot in here or is it just me? The stress is real! Ideally in my scenario, you’d give her your elevator pitch. Our most recent podcast was about this very topic, and I’d like to go into a bit more detail here.

What it is
According to businessdictionary.com, an elevator pitch is a: Very concise presentation of an idea covering all of its critical aspects, and delivered within a few seconds.

The term can be applied broadly, but basically you’re trying to sell someone something in the amount of time it takes an elevator to move between floors. Or, in the case of my example, in the time it takes to grab someone’s attention and keep it at a party.

Why you need one
You need it to sell your soul. I mean self. To sell yourself and your project to an agent, or an editor, or maybe just your best friend who is reluctant to read it because she doesn’t like fantasy. You need to make them want to hear more about your book and make them believe you know exactly what you’re doing (fake it till you make it, peeps).

Other than the need for it to sell your book/you, it’s also nice to have so that you don’t sound like a total noob when someone asks what your book is about. You don’t want to be that writer who, when asked about your book by Aunt Sally at the family reunion, says “Um, it’s complicated.” *Shoves forkful of potato salad into mouth to buy time until Sally gets distracted by adorable baby cousin nearby.* You should be able to say what your book is about. Period.

How to write it
They’re tricksy things, these elevator pitches, at only a few sentences long.

Imagine taking the ocean, full of its many textures and creatures, some of which live down so deep we’ve never seen them. You take all that water, all of its power and residents, its scents and textures, its potential for fun and danger, and you try to fit it into a thimble. I give you an elevator pitch.

Who knew so few words could cause a writer so much pain?

CC image by Gideon Tsang

CC image by Gideon Tsang

You have to condense the world you’ve built with its many diverse characters, settings, emotions, and spiderwebbing storylines into a catchy couple of phrases.

How does one do this?

1. Dumb it down
You know your book is complex. Of course it is. But for the purpose of an elevator pitch, it’s not. At least not on the surface. You can hint at the complexities, and I hope you do, but it’s best to just accept the limitations of the elevator pitch before you sit down to write one. The idea is to entice your listener, to make them salivate for the complexities and ask for more.

2. Read a bunch of teasers
Good writers read, yes? Read any and all forms of teasers—synopses on book backs, the teasers on Netflix for movies and TV shows (some of which are really bad…fair warning), etc. Get a feel for the anatomy of a pitch. You’ll soon find they have a particular rhythm and common structure.

3. Ask a reader to help you
Ask your beta readers to tell you what your book is about. They have a level of objectivity that you will simply never have. Readers are smart, not to mention that they’re used to telling their buddies about what they’re reading. It’s natural to them. Let them help you.

4. Try a formula
There are a bunch of formulas for elevator pitches out there. The truth is that for your book, some formulas will work and some won’t. Try them out, but know that every book is different. Also, keep in mind that while formulas are helpful, you don’t want your finished pitch to sound formulaic. Yeah, I know. It’s terrible. I might as well say put on a bunch of makeup but make it look like you aren’t wearing any. And that’s basically true.

Here’s my formula for your reference. Again, this is just one to try: status quo+challenge=stakes

Pretty simple. Your hero’s normal life is disrupted and now the fate of the world is in his hands. You want your pitch to be specific—what’s the story. Don’t be overly vague (e.g., It’s a fantasy…) and don’t be overly specific (e.g., It takes place in the world Gendor where the 14 gods [insert list of gods here]…). Be specific, to the point, and enticing.

Here’s my example for The Fellowship of the Ring: Frodo doesn’t think much of the world beyond the Shire until the wizard Gandalf sends him on an adventure to save it. He has to destroy the one ring and with it, lord Sauron’s evil that threatens everything good. With the help of a band of heroes, he faces orcs, goblins, and the darkness of the ring that tempts even the most righteous of men.

CC image by Tom Brown

CC image by Tom Brown

Status quo=Frodo’s quiet life in the Shire
Challenge=Gandalf sends him from his home
Stakes=Save the world from evil by destroying the one ring

I touched on a few main characters, alluded to a larger cast of characters, and gave a taste of the kinds of evil they’ll be facing (external conflict e.g., orcs and goblins, and internal conflict e.g., the ring’s power to corrupt). Is there more to this book? Absolutely. The different races of creatures and how they interact, the history of the ring, the Balrog, Aragorn and his true identity, Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday, need I go on? The goal is to make your listener want to hear more, to hint at the goods rather than give them away.
You’re flashing your stockinged ankle, not your corseted bosom—make them wonder.

A few practical tips:
– Try writing pitches for your favorite books first. It’s often easier to pitch someone else’s work rather than your own because you’re more objective about it. Practice first.
– Write several pitches for your book. As many as you can come up with. Try them on like shoes at a half-off special. Write write write.
– Say your pitches aloud. Record them if you can and listen to them back. How long are they? Remember, you only have a minute or so, the amount of time it takes to travel between floors of an elevator. How do they sound? Natural or forced? Language doesn’t have to be super formal in a verbal pitch—you’re not writing it to print on the back of your book, you’re writing it to speak it in conversation.

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner has an excellent blog series about elevator pitches. She includes several examples and gives pointers on how to make it sound conversational rather than canned. I suggest you check it out.

Elevator pitches are hard. The 100,000 word book? Psh. A cakewalk. The 100 word pitch? Lord save us.

If you’d like our help crafting your elevator pitch, feel free to leave it in a comment below or send it via FB, Twitter, or email. We’re happy to help!

By Madeleine Mozley