The Elevator Pitch, Second Floor

So, how did you do on your self-critiquing? Some of you offered astute rewrites. Way to go! Today I’m going to give you a few more hints about elevator pitches.

→ Always be prepared. You never know when you’re going to come across someone who will ask, “So what’s your book about?” At conferences, there are mealtimes, hallway chatting times, elevator times, and countless other times when someone might ask you The Question. Or, you might not even be at a conference. You could be like my new friend Tara who was sitting next to me at our kids’ volleyball game. Unbeknownst to both of us, at that very moment I had a query from her in my inbox. She didn’t even know I was an agent. We chatted and finally put it together (“OMG! You’re an agent? You’re Rachelle?”) and I asked her The Question. She did a pretty good job with her pitch. Always have yours ready, too!

→ Know your goal. I already mentioned that your elevator pitch should be 30 to 60 seconds, and it needs to end with a question, “call to action” or other appropriate closer. Know your desired outcome, and craft your closing line accordingly.

→ Show your passion. Act like a parent showing off pictures of their newborn or their star little league pitcher. If you’re not excited about your project, nobody else will be.

→ Use your time wisely. Agents and editors are just like you—they’re way too busy and constantly overloaded with information. They have to make quick decisions about what deserves their attention and what doesn’t. Your job is to immediately grab their attention and don’t let it go. Work hard at making your pitch as compelling or intriguing as possible.

→ Don’t get ahead of yourself. The purpose of an elevator pitch is not to close a deal. It’s to interest your audience in continuing to talk. I’ve been in situations where I received an elevator pitch and immediately responded, “Do you have time for a cup of coffee?” That’s what you want.

→ Act natural. I’m not buying anyone’s excuses about the difficulty of trying to “sound natural” when you’ve practiced your pitch to death. The point is to get your pitch down so that you understand the basics of what to convey in a brief amount of time. Learn the difference between telling too much and not enough. Avoid taglines that sound “canned.” Once you’ve gotten the feel for how a verbal pitch works, try writing a few variations of yours. Then when the time comes, you’ll be able to rattle it off naturally because you’re not only comfortable with the format, you’re comfortable with your project. Plus it will be easy to vary your pitch depending on your audience. You may argue that you’ll never be totally at ease with a verbal pitch, but you can become comfortable enough that your conversation flows naturally. I’ve heard enough successful pitches from shy introverted writers that I know it’s possible. (Take to heart one of my favorite quotes from the ‘80s: “Argue for your limitations, and they’re yours.”)

Let’s do some critiques:

Krista Phillips: Well, I write Contemporary Romance, and my novel is about an introverted, shy accountant who meets a single dad in an Internet chat room. After she falls into ‘like’ with him, she senses she’s being followed, and becomes convinced he’s an Internet stalker. Her best friend convinces her to take a road trip to find out his true identity. Of course, this is a romance, so he isn’t really an Internet preditor as she fears, and they end up falling in love, but not before she’s attacked by the REAL stalker.

Me: That’s pretty good, Krista. Nice and conversational. Just enough information, never becomes so detailed as to lose me. Plus, the plot sounds fun and a little suspenseful. If you pitched me this, I’d say, “Hmm, sounds interesting. Do we have a meeting scheduled? Or can I get some pages?”

***

Julie Weathers: It’s a historical based on true story about a devout preacher’s daughter who marries a hard-drinking, brawling Irish riverboat captain. They go on to build a sprawling cattle empire against a Civil War backdrop.

Me: This isn’t enough to get me interested. It’s not bad, but it’s not really a story either. It’s more of a premise. What is the unique, compelling aspect of this that would make me want to read it? What actually happens as they build the empire? And why should I care? These are the questions you’ll need to answer, succinctly, to create a pitch that accomplishes your goal—a continued conversation with the agent.

***

Jeannie: Well, my WIP is about a foster care social worker suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She’s trying to get her life back on her career path while coping with her mental disorder, but a severe flashback raises questions about her competency from a handsome attorney who has a client on her caseload. She’s also struggling with understanding why God would have allowed something so traumatic to happen to her in the first place. (Hopefully the agent would be somewhat interested here…and I would go on to explain my qualifications in writing such a book, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and how mental disorders affect 1 in 4 adults but are largely left untouched in Christian fiction.)

Me: Jeannie, this is a nice, conversational style, is a good length, and I like the way you plan to explain your credentials. The problem is the lack of story. It’s very vague, and I can’t easily imagine an exciting tale about a woman “trying to get her life back on her career path…” What does that even mean? And how much drama or action could that possibly entail? You reference a handsome attorney, but only in passing, which is a bummer because he was the most interesting thing in the pitch. I’m wondering why you’ve left out the most potentially dramatic and attention-grabbing details: What traumatic event is she suffering over? What was the nature of the “flashback” she had? I’d recommend you go back to the drawing board and work to convey the story, not just the themes, not the internal struggles of your protagonist, but what would make me want to read the book.

***

Jen and Kev: My current book is actually “my secret life as a reluctant preacher’s wife” but I couldn’t name it that or the people we pastor might get offended, so I titled it “Custom Made Grace for Hope Starved Hearts.” It’s a humorous devotional with stories from my ditzy life, and encouragement for struggling Christians. I write a column in a newspaper with a readership of 5,000 and I speak at church and civic groups. I also… DING! What did you say your name was?

Me: Jen, your pitch interests me for a number of reasons. It’s conversational and flows nicely. And you also tell me a bit about your platform, which is great. However, your title kind of makes my teeth hurt and I’m wondering if it’s giving me a cavity with its CBA-Christianese-formula sound (although I wouldn’t be surprised if a publisher liked it). However, your non-title, “my secret life as a reluctant preacher’s wife” is killer and would actually sell books. The problem of offending the congregation could be handled… just dedicate the book to them or something. There’s not a big market for devotionals, but if you gave me this pitch, I’d want to talk more about it, possibly discuss refashioning it from a devo to a Christian living book. And I love that you don’t know my name.

***

Tomorrow’s the last day for elevator pitches. Any further questions, ask them today!

Rachelle is a Christian literary agent, but when you call her Mrs. Gardner, she feels like her mother-in-law. You can use “Ms.” or just Rachelle.

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  • Daniel Mount

    >You know, if you were to use “my secret life as a reluctant preacher’s wife,” that leaves a pretty significant ambiguity: Is she the wife of a reluctant preacher, or the reluctant wife of a preacher?

  • lynnrush

    >These are great posts, Rachelle. I’m learning a lot about pitches. Just in time for a conference this weekend too!

    Thanks!

  • Rachel

    >Whoa. Let me try that again:

    Do I need to show how I will resolve the tension in my plot during the pitch, or can I just introduce the premise and leave the listener hanging?

    That is, do I simply introduce the conflict, or do I give a 40 word synopsis of the whole plot?

  • Rachelle

    >Rachel: Whatever works. You can figure this one out on your own.

    (But I’d certainly be fascinated if you were able to give a synopsis of the whole entire plot of a 100k-word book in 40 words.)

    Hint: That’s not the point. As I’ve said many times: Say enough to get someone interested in your story. Interested in hearing more. I’ve never said anything about telling your whole story in the pitch.

  • Janna Qualman

    >A friend asked me that very question at my kitchen table Saturday: “What are you writing now?” And I failed miserably. “Er… uh… well…” Add that to my bomb of an elevator pitch, and I realize how much I need to work on it all. Thanks so much for making this a post topic! I’m ready to put it to use. :)

  • Yvonne

    >”Good morning, are you going up? It’s amazing how far things have come in the last 200 years! Back then we’d be still be riding in a horse and buggy. Of course, you and I, as women, would be at home baking bread and spinning wool.”

    (wait for remark)

    “I’ve been researching that era for my novel. It’s quite interesting! There were so many things invented during the 1800′s”

    (hopefully a question about my novel)

    “Yes, I’ve written a story about a half-breed Indian, who’s found herself the guardian of a young girl. They survive by harvesting herbs and berries.”

    “I enjoyed developing the characters. I have a Jewish peddlar, a bind granny who teaches Phoebe to read, and neighbor boy who’s always getting her in trouble.”

    (hopefully she stays on past the fifteenth floor to hear more)

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    My cue to mention my book is usually prompted by what I’m doing now, instead teaching. But… picking up on someone’s name or activity that ties in with my book is also just as good.

    I’m glad you brought up the thought that we don’t have to explain everything…just what will want them to hear more.

    Thanks,Rachelle

  • Jessica

    >When my dad asked me about my book, I had to think so hard that I missed the turn for the airport and he missed his flight. LOL Totally true.
    I’m so glad you’re doing this because I have a feeling my pitch is nowhere near competent.
    Thank you!

  • Rachel

    >I get it, now. I tend to imagine that every one can think up good premises, but often fail in execution, so I thought you’d have to give an editor or agent some kind of sign that you have a plan for carrying the idea to its end. But I see the difference between a proposal and a pitch, now. I’m detecting that you don’t like to repeat yourself over and over and over. Why ever not? I am a mom, and I *love* being nagged to death about the same topic… :)

  • Mark H.

    >Rachelle, I don’t know how you find the time to do all of this teaching AND your day job, but I’m grateful that you do.

  • Angie Farnworth

    >Hi Rachelle,

    I didn’t get a chance to get in all of the excitement earlier in the week, but now with kiddos home from school for a snow day, here’s a quick answer I’d give you in an elevator. Or at a volleyball game. Or wherever. The problem? I know, it’s not very conversational.

    Seasoned Narcotics Agent Jordyn Elliott can’t understand how her life got so messed up. Okay, so maybe she did make a rookie mistake during a bust. And maybe she didn’t exactly tell her boss the whole truth about the man stalking her. But how could she with cocky DEA Agent Hank Draper breathing his hot breath down her neck?

    When the stalker raises the stakes, overextended Jordyn turns to an unlikely source for retribution. Enter ex-cons Lucky Lester and The Bry Guy. Sometimes it takes a criminal to catch a criminal.

    Then again, maybe all it takes is Truth.

  • Jen and Kev

    >To answer Daniel Mount’s question about the ambiguity of my book title “The Secret Life of a Reluctant Preacher’s Wife”:
    If it makes you want to read the book to find out which it is, then I have succeeded in my goal of drawing you in!!!
    Jen
    P.S. Rachelle: Thank you for your helpful comments. Why do you love it that I asked your name? Jen

  • Amber Lynn Argyle

    >At one writer’s conference I attended, the MC asked if anyone had a verbal pitch they could share to show everyone else “how to do it.”
    I stood up in front of 4 editors and 4 agents. What a terrifying opportunity!
    Two of the editors asked for the MS. One sent me a contract (I turned it down), one pushed the MS through their whole process before the President turned it down.
    Like a boyscout, be prepared!
    ;)

  • Pam Halter

    >It’s hard to write what you would SAY. But it’s a good exercise and helps you have an idea of how it should go.

    I’m wondering if a writer should mention something about how the idea came about … I know there’s not much time, but I’m thinking something like this:

    I saw a book about pressed fairies and I wondered why someone would catch fairies and press them. Then I wondered what would happen to a fairy after they were pressed. I guess they’d become like fruit leather. And what if a reeeeally bad person did this? They’d eat them! And for what reason? To diminish their power, of course. With all these thoughts, Fairyeater was born.

    Fairies sow goodness into the ground, which keeps the ashes of the dark lord, Riss’aird, buried and, they believe, harmless. But the fairies are wrong. Riss’aird’s daughter, Tzmet, has discovered a way to weaken the power of the fairies. She captures them, dries them and eats them.

    But there is a way to stop Tzmet. With the Fairystone, a prophecy and a fifteen-year-old girl who is destined to save the world and the fairies.

    Fairyeater is broken down into three books. It is a YA fantasy. The first book is complete and the second is outlined. Would you be interested in seeing a proposal?

    And at this point, I’m hoping the editor will have some questions to help me along because I’m probably feeling faint. :)

  • Hillary

    >Well, after I moved out of my parent’s house at 19, I struggled with a lot of guilt and shame issues. I was the oldest of 11 kids and there were a lot of things I had to work through, you know? For years I looked for books or articles or even people who could help me, who had really been there. And I didn’t find anything specific, but everywhere I turned women were saying, me too! So now that I have been set free and come to grips with my past, I am writing to them what I wish someone had written to me when I was younger!

  • Jeannie

    >Rachelle -

    Thanks so much for the input. I’ll rework my pitch on my own blog time and maybe I’ll even get to use it on you at ACFW this year. I’ll keep an eye out in the elevators and hallways for you. :)

    Jeannie

  • T-Anne

    >This actually happened to me over the holiday’s I was asked the premise of my novels…I was so flustered I could hardly remember the titles let alone what they were about. Sure it was Christmas night but an opportunity came from nowhere and I felt blindsided. Thanks for this exercise Rachelle! I’ll be ready next time.

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