Write a Catchy Elevator Pitch
Our next lesson in the fundamentals is Write A Catchy Elevator Pitch. So, this is another exercise that I like to ask people to do before they start writing, and again, it makes people very nervous because what I'm asking them to do is a mini-pitch for their book, before they even have a book. And so, you know, the response to this is sometimes like, "I can't possibly do that," or, "It's gonna be really dumb," and all those things are fine. You can do it, and it might be sort of fuzzy or not great, but it's just a fantastic place to start to encapsulate. Now we're gonna sort of get into, okay, what is this book? What's happening in it? What's the plot, what's going on? This is our very first foray into that and the reason that the Elevator Pitch is a good analogy is that when your ideal reader goes into a bookstore, and they're confronted with the shelf of books that are in the area your book is in, they make their decision in about 30 seconds, if that. And if you pay attention to your...
own reading habits and what you do when confronted with a new book, you can see how this works. So, the elevator pitch is this idea of, okay, you have about 30 seconds. How are you gonna capture their attention? That's really what it's about. So, you could also think of it as a 30-Second Browsing Test. They're in that bookstore. They're gonna look at some things. What are they going to, what's gonna capture them? And there's five things that I genuinely think you look for. So first is you look at the cover. We all know that. You can totally judge a book by its cover and we do every day. So there's the cover. There's the title. A title sets an intention, it gives a flavor. It speaks to us in a certain way. Then there's what happens in this book. What happens? Who does it happen to, and then, why does it matter? And those are the five things I think we're looking for when we're in that bookstore, we pick up that book, and you guys probably do exactly what I do. You read the back, you maybe read the front. Well, first you look at the cover and the title. If you pick it off the shelf, you read the back, you look at the front page, maybe you look at a page in the middle and then you're like either you're in or you're out, and I have tested this in my own self on several occasions and I actually make my decisions, usually, in about 10 seconds. It's really fast. So you've got to find a way to convey this and the person you're trying to convey this to is this theoretical ideal reader, but right now, it's also really you. You want to have yourself be able to visualize your story. So what we're gonna do is right now, we're gonna look at, we're not gonna look at cover and title because they're not in our control right now. We don't have a publisher yet, so we're not gonna look at those. We're gonna look at these three elements and see how that works. So when you write your elevator pitch, you wanna write about 250 words. So 250 words is a one-page of text, double-spaced, with one-inch margins in 12-point font. That's standard manuscript formatting. I'll say that again. It's one-inch margins, 12-point Times Roman font, double-spaced, and that's about 250 pages in a Word document. Or you can use your Word Count function. But you wanna write about 250 words and this is about the length that it looks like. I'm not gonna stop and read this right now because we're gonna read it on the next slide. I just wanna show you about the length of 250 words. This is crammed together for the slide, but if this were in standard manuscript formatting, it would be about a page of text. So what we want that copy to do... So in publishing, we actually call it Book Jacket Copy. The elevator pitch comes from Hollywood. From riding the elevator with a producer and having your 30 seconds to make your pitch and it's the common language that people use to talk about this. In publishing, we actually call it Book Jacket Copy. It's Copy being the words on the back of the book. Sometimes you'll hear people say Flap Copy. That comes from a hardback book that's got the flap, and you know, you open it up and you read the flap copy and this is generally what it looks like. So this is a YA dystopian novel that one of my clients is working on and this was the book jacket copy that she wrote to help herself envision the story and sort of going to what you mentioned later, this is work that will come in very handy later when you go to pitch, because this becomes the basis of your query letter. So the iterative process that we've talked about, you're circling around and around and refining this as you write and as you go, and at the end of the day, this becomes how you pitch your novel, so it's not an exercise for its own sake. It is a really important piece of your whole professional stance about your book. All right, so let's look at this. The who, the what, and the why it matters are the three things that we want in your book jacket copy. So in your workbook, when you're gonna do this exercise, really think in those terms. And we're gonna look in a little bit at some samples of student answers to this exercise that are a little bit rougher than this and you're gonna see that what tends to go missing, one of these three pieces tends to go missing. So when you're doing your own version, you want to be very deliberate about getting all three pieces in. So let's look at how this goes. So this is the who. "17-year-old Lyra Harmon is immortal and she hates it. "She's the only person on the planet known to have "phoenix cells which regenerate no matter "the injury or illness." So, before we even go on, just that little chunk, can't you see this person? You can see who she is, what her dilemma is, what her universe is. You get a sense of her problem. That's really important. A story's gotta have some sort of problem because as we will talk about later, story is about change. We're gonna talk about that a lot. Something has to change. So you've gotta start with somebody who needs to change. So the who tries to capture that and as you noticed, we know she's 17-year-old, 17 years old, we know she's a girl, and we know she's got these special cells. We don't know where she lives. We don't know what color her hair is. I talk about that a lot, I don't know why. I guess because there's those character Bibles where they talk about, I don't know, what's in their purse and all these physical details and I understand that for trying to envision your character or a collage, like a magazine collage where you're picturing them. It's fantastic to try to picture them and see them and place them in the universe. See what their home looks like, but what we really want from a story sense, is who are they on that deep level. What are they going to be up against? So that's the thing that we really want to get out. So, "Military researchers will want to clone her "to create an undefeatable army, "doctors want to experiment on her to cure a pandemic, "and her parents want to protect her "from being a pawn in anyone else's scheme. "As a result, she has no life. "For more than nine years, Lyra and her parents "have been on the run, living a lonely, isolated existence." So this is just kind of a little bit more depth on who she is and what's going on, but you can see there's a built in problem. Something is big and bad going on here that she's in a bad place and you can also get a sense of what she wants and we're gonna talk about that a lot later. What does your protagonist want? So you can see a glimmer of that here. She has no life. And what I love about this is, that's exactly the kind of language a 17-year-old would use. Get out of my life, or you're ruining my life, or I have no life. So we're starting to get a sense of the voice of this story and all we've written here is two or three sentences. So this can be a really powerful way of encapsulating your story. Now we get into the what happens. So that's why now? What's happening now in your story? Something has to be happening now. A lot of people make the mistake of, they get a really cool character who's got something they want, who's got a problem, who has to solve it and then they just start piling on a bunch of things that happen, a bunch of dramatic things that happen. And a bunch of dramatic things that happen do not make a story. So what we're trying to get at is what happens that is the result of who this person is. That's what the What really wants to be. So here, "When she secretly befriends a young girl "orphaned by the plague, Lyra takes a stand. "She won't run again." So, see how clear that is? We know what's gonna happen in this story. She's gonna stand up against her parents, against the doctors, against the government. She's one 17-year-old girl who's gonna take a stand. "But her impulsive decision," so we know she impulsively makes it. It wasn't planned. It wasn't years in the making. "Her impulsive decision has devastating consequences." "Her parents contract the deadly virus, "and they only have three days to live "unless Lyra undertakes a daring attempt to save them." So this is pretty darn dramatic, and a story does not have to be that dramatic. This one just happens to be, but what I really like about this is, immediately, we see this character has agency. She's making a decision. She won't run again. You're gonna want your character to have agency as well. Then there are consequences. There always have to be consequences to somebody's actions or decisions. So we see immediately that her decision puts her parents in jeopardy. Then, with time running out, this is how we get into the Why It Matters. So the Why It Matters question is why does it matter to your ideal reader? Why would anybody care? I ask that question all the time when I'm reviewing workbooks in these exercises. I say, "Why should we care?" Which sounds really horrible and harsh, but I mean that quite literally. Why should we care about this character? Why should your ideal reader pay any attention to this? They don't have a lot of time in their day. Why should they spend however many hours reading your book? So, why should we care is an actual question we wanna answer. Another thing I typically say is, one of my other favorite phrases is, and so? Like, and so? This thing happens, and so? What happens as a result of it? And you can see that those questions are all answered here. "Lyra must decide what it means "to make her own choices about her body and her life." Do you see how critical that would be to a YA reader, to make your own choices about your body and your life? "And how they'll affect the people she loves. "Can she learn how to find her purpose "and make her life her own with the one "she's been given, and not the one "she wishes she has?" So, can she make this life a life of meaning rather than just wishing for somebody else's life? Why does that matter? Oh my goodness. I mean, this ideal reader of this book is probably a high school girl. Probably feels like she has no control over her body and her life or her decisions. Probably is feeling overwhelmed. How do you become an adult with agency over your own life? She's gonna get to watch somebody in a very intense, high-stake situation, make that same decision she's probably struggling with on a much lower level every day. So you can see the Why It Matters is baked right into this. So this a really excellent example of a book jacket copy, and this writer wrote this before she wrote the book. Now, this one is particularly beautifully wrought, and that's because this writer and I went around and around and around and around and around and around, just on this, before she even began to write, because look at how that gives you a roadmap for what this book is gonna be. And you can, if you spend the time doing those iterations now, before you've written 300 pages, many of the exercises in this course are designed to... I think of a book like, they're designed to give you freedom so I think of the beginning of a book. This process where we are right now, as you have a lump of clay. And we talked before about the painter and the canvas and now we're talking about a potter. You have a lump of clay, you're gonna make a thing. Are you gonna make a pitcher or a bowl? Are you gonna make a teapot or you know, a vase? So you've gotta kind of decide that's the the genre decision, the sort of what type of book you're gonna write. And then you have to make decisions. How big is it gonna be? What's it gonna be used for? Who's gonna use it? All of those type of questions. But what's great about clay is if you don't like it, you can just mush it down and start again, and make something else. And I want you to feel like you have the freedom to do that. One of the things that gets in writers' way is this perfectionist thing where they think, if I write a page or a chapter or a scene, it's gotta be perfect or it's not good enough. Or it's gotta match the vision in my head so perfectly or I don't know what I'm doing. And what I'm trying to teach is nobody knows what they're doing at this stage of the process. Why should you know what you're doing? It's a little baby idea and you're trying to grow it and make it awesome. So think of it like, now I'm mixing all the metaphors. A baby idea, whatever (laughing). But think of the clay as this wet clay. And if you don't like it, do something else. Make it into something else. Try it a different way. And that's that iterative process and that's how you get something so polished and smooth when it's only this big and you haven't written anything. And later, we're gonna look at a two-tier outline, which is a book outline that I've designed to be very nimble, because what I don't like about so many outlines is they're so rigid and you get fixed in this scary, rigid thing and then you're just like, (grunting) you're just stuck in it and you can't get out and you can't move forward and you're not sure that it's perfect so you can't move on, so you just keep working on your grid, your structure and that's no good, so if you get, again, think of this iterative process going around again, around and around and getting it right and getting it right and the nimbleness of these tools is what I think can be so incredibly useful. I say take 30 minutes to try to kick out your book jacket copy. You can spend days, weeks on this and I hope that you will, but for the first iteration, just kick it out. Just do it. And try to use the very overblown language that you often see in these. They tend to be a little heightened. A little bit, "What's gonna happen?" Try to not be afraid of that overblown language. This is not your work. This is not the book itself. This is sales copy. So, be salesy and kind of go to an extreme because I think that can help you envision the book as a whole, which is, of course our whole goal. And then, we're going to, we're gonna figure out how you can make that better. So, I would like to take a minute to share with you a couple of the book jacket copies that students in the studio have written and share those with you guys, so we can look at how you can make them better. Okay, so Karen! Who's Karen? There you are, good. So Karen, I picked your book jacket copy to share for a couple reasons. You're writing a memoir and a memoir is a little bit different in many ways from a novel, of course, because events must be real. They actually happen to you, but it's the same exact criteria that we're looking for. We're looking for all the exact same things. Who your ideal reader's going to be, why they're going to come to it, why you care about the story. All these things exactly the same. And when it comes to book jacket copy, we also want to know those same things. Who is this person? What is the story about, and why should we care? So, I'm gonna give, well, we'll look at what you wrote here. So, how do you say your last name? Pliskin. Okay, "When Karen Pliskon went to Iran in September 1978, "she knew that political turmoil was brewing in the country, "but she was determined to do her dissertation research "on craftsmen and handicraft industries "in the southern city of Shiraz "for her PhD in cultural anthropology." So, I identified that that whole chunk is the Who. So now we know who this is that's writing this story and writing this story of her own life, we get the Who. Now, we get into a little bit about what the stakes might be, which the stakes or the consequences have to do with why we should care. So this sentence, she says, "Little did she know "that her dissertation would be a casualty "of the Islamic Revolution." Now we get the What. "When strikes, demonstrations, xenophobia, "and closure of the bazaar prevented her "from carrying out her research, "she befriended Iranian Jews," is it Bahais? "Frightened religious minorities who navigated "the political uncertainties to keep the community safe. "Pliskin writes about Iran at a time "when Islam emerged as a political force "to replace the secular Shah, "and the country experienced social, political, "and religious transformations." So this whole chunk is What. What happened. What is going on there. So we've got some Who, we've got a little bit of the consequences and we've got this What, and then here, at the end, "Pliskin observes Iran, tells us about its history, "questions her own identity as an American and as a Jew "and can cause us to rethink our stereotypes "about this ancient civilization." So this is fantastic, but it also points out to me how you can make the next iteration better, and that's what I wanna look at. So, the two things that jumped out at me, is this word, "observes Iran and tells us about the history," is very passive. So you can, it begins to sound a little bit like an academic research paper. So you can see, we start out in a memoir mode. There's this young woman, she goes to this country. There's political turmoil, she's got something at stake, and then it sort of slips into this intellectual academic mode and I actually wondered, are you a professor?
Well, I used to be a research faculty member.
Right. And did you have a career as a--
As an anthropologist.
Yeah. So, Karen suffers from what a lot of academics suffer from, which is once an academic, always an academic. How could you not be? It's what you're trained to do. You're very good at what you do. It's how you see the world, of course. But you're not writing an academic paper. You're writing a memoir. You want us to be yanked into it. You want us to be pulled into it, and we don't want to see you observe and tell. We wanna be in it. We wanna be in it. What did it feel like to be this young woman, and your whole career is resting on this work that you now can't do because right now, the revolution is like, right now, the second you're there, it's pretty intense. And all that intensity is gone missing from your writeup. So the reason that we do this is because I don't want Karen to go write a 250-paged memoir where the whole middle of the book is that she slips into being an academic, unless that was what you wanted to do, but I'm assuming because you're in a class for a memoir, that's not what you wanna do, so we wanna make sure that we know more. What's in this for you? This young woman who is you. What was at stake? What would have happened if you didn't write your dissertation. What would have been lost? What are the risks? What would have happened if you didn't get out of that country? What was happening to Americans? And I noticed in some of the work that I saw of yours on the page that there's a very dispassionate, and I mean that in a straight-up technical way, a dispassionate tone like you're observing these events happening and narrating these events happening. But we wanna be in it. We wanna be in your head. We wanna know what was that like, so that even in your book jacket copy, we get a sense of what needs to be improved in the next iteration around, and then down here, this is the Why It Matters and I say that this isn't enough. You say that the reader is gonna be compelled to rethink stereotypes, which sounds fantastic, like yes, please. Let us all do that. But I said it not enough because the piece that is missing is that, and so? So, what if i have my stereotypes dispelled? How is that going to allow me to live in this world today in a different or better or more informed way? What is the consequence or the take-away or the benefit of having stereotypes dispelled? So you wanna get at that Why It Matters really hard. Why does it matter for a modern American reading public to learn about the roots of the Islamic, I mean of this revolution. Why should we care? And it sounds really harsh because, I mean, just open the newspaper and you sort of can say, well, duh. Why should we care? But I want you to really answer it. And I want you to be really specific and the way that you're gonna do that is go back to the ideal reader. So if you're working on your own book jacket copy, and that's why I asked you to pick it apart. You wanna know the Who, the What, and the Why It Matters. And I said before, one of them usually goes missing. It's, you can tell, if you're honest with yourself that one of them is missing. So, when I speak like this, does it make some glimmers in your head about what you might do in the next round?
It does, and part of the problem, which you mentioned is being an academic because what I'm trying to do is, we spoke about the mashup of two completely different books. I'm trying to do a mashup of history and memoir. And so I'm trying to weave back and forth between the two, and for a lot of people, it doesn't work because memoir writers are always looking at their navels. I'm not always looking at my navel and sometimes I get really annoyed with that type of memoir because it's a story that is so self-centered. I'm not trying to do that. I'm trying to show how this particular time affected me and affected people I knew, and why it was happening. So it's not just how it's affecting me and my research, and, "Oh my God, I'm not able to go to the Bazaar, "what am I gonna do? Not that. But also, why is it happening? And in order to understand another country, you have to understand the Why's. For me to figure this out along the way is what is going on, and so, I actually don't know how to do this.
Right, no. That's such a great answer. So we don't have time to get deeply into this, but it's really important for memoir writers to understand this thing. And academics are a category of writer that has this struggle. I also sometimes see doctors and lawyers who have this same struggle if they're writing fiction about a topic. I'm working with a doctor right now who is an executive leadership coach for other doctors and it's so much medical knowledge and he's trying to write a thriller. And sometimes his thriller sounds like a medical textbook and it's like we don't want that. So a lot of people have that same kind of issue, but the thing with memoir is you have to make a decision. You and all the yous out there. Memoir, the whole reason for memoir, is letting us in somebody else's head and letting us in their skin and letting us feel what they feel. That's why we love memoir. That's why we come to it. We can absolutely learn everything there is to learn about a topic or an idea or a history or a people that can absolutely be a goal as well, but if you're gonna straddle both worlds, and you're gonna do it in the form of a memoir, you can't have it both ways. So you have to really decide. Do I want to write an academic book, which would be an academic book for the trades, so meaning for laypeople, or do I really want to write a memoir? And the answer may be no, because a memoir, really, the whole point is to let us... The way that narrative works, whether it's fiction or memoir or anything, is we get into somebody else's skin. It's really the only form of art that lets you in to somebody else's skin. That's the thing that's so powerful about a narrative. You can't do that in a painting. You can't do that in a photograph. You're looking at it as an observer. Some people would argue you can do it a little bit in music. Music makes you feel something. You're in, you're in... There's something about it that makes you feel connection, but a narrative, the whole gig is you get to be in somebody else's skin and feel what they feel and see what they see. And if we don't know what you're feeling or thinking or wanting or what the consequences of your not getting it, if that's not gonna be there, it's gonna be very hard to sustain our attention because now, it's gonna be, am I just reading a textbook? Which would be fine if that's what I chose. You know, there's these incredible books that, in this vein, that are coming out. I'm thinking of, my husband has stacks and stacks and stacks of them, and sometimes, sometimes I read the same book, but I'm thinking of a book like The History of the Longitudinal Line that I can't think of the title or the author or anything! Or a book about how the Grand Canyon was formed. Like a Geography, History. John McPhee wrote a book about the Geography of California. Or the water, The History of Water Rights in California. Fascinating topics that we want to know about, but they're not presented as memoir and so we're not thinking these questions. But if you're gonna write memoir, you need to let us into your skin. That's the contract that a memoir writer makes with the reader is, I'm gonna take you on a journey and you're gonna be in my vision as we go on this journey. So I don't wanna take too much time on this topic. We can talk about it personally, you and I, later, but for memoir writers, the same imperative is true for your narrative, as is for fiction, is we need to know the Who, the What, the Why It Matters, and what we're going to be experiencing as we are experiencing it. All right, so when you're writing your book jacket copy and you're doing your iteration of it, try to get the three elements in and understand that in the beginning, it's gonna be a little fuzzy and you're gonna make it more specific as you go. That's always what we wanna ask ourselves is how can we make this better? How can we make it more specific? How can we make it more capturing the image and the vision that I have in my head? That's really important foundational piece.