Elevators and Earthworms

Madison Woods posted about her struggle with elevator speeches on her blog and asked for links to other people’s summations of works-in-progress. I mean to oblige, but first I want to say a thing or two that have been chasing their own tails and making a ruckus in my head for some time on the subject of queries, synopses, and elevator speeches.

Most writers seem to hate writing them, and I think I have a handle on why. It’s not because we’re bumbling introverts. Not necessarily. Nor that we get confused or are ignorant about our own writing. Nor that we lack self-confidence. Any or all of those things might be true of an individual writer, I’ll grant you. Case in point, yours truly. But if I had the hyperbolic magnetism of an infomercial screamer, the mental clarity of a master yogini and the self-confidence of a–well, of a person who was really, like, sure of herself and everything and had the tiger by the, um, or the world was her oyster, you might say and, like, I’d still wander off the beaten path distracted by the marbles in my mouth the minute the subject of my current work comes up.


(That’s a rhetorical device, btw, that question why; I already said I have an answer that I want to try out on you. See if it fits–would you?–and I hope you’ll get back to me. ) Here’s how I see it:

Soon as we start to hone in on the principle ideas in our own stories, we inevitably run up against Hemingway’s iceberg. We’re sunk not because we’re stupid, but because we know too damn much. And the majority of what we know is under water.

Somebody finds out you’re writing a novel. Naturally they think you’re dying to talk about it, so they have to ask. “What’s it about?”

If we answer simply and truthfully, we’ll say, “It’s about everything. Everything that’s important, anyway. To me. Right now.” Which means, “It’s about fiction.” Wisely, we do not answer simply and truthfully. Foolishly, we try to be more specific.

“Well?” they want to know, “what happens?”

And the frigid waters rise around our ears. Because a work-in-progress is a phenomenologist’s dream. We know each and every incident, each verbal exchange, each plot twist. For most of us, most of the time, making up stories is a conscious activity. We don’t often engage in automatic writing, and even if we do, unless we’re idiots, we go back over it a few hundred times. We replay each scene obsessively, looking for flaws, looking for conflict, looking for resolution, looking for complication, looking at gesture and nuance and stance and point of view and assonance and alliteration and punctuation. We study every syllable.

“Why, everything in it happens!” seems the only reasonable response worth making. “Or did you mean, what happens that I haven’t written yet?”

Fact is, it’s easier to describe a story that you haven’t written yet than one you have. Because until you fill it up with specific vowels and consonants, all you have is the germ of a story. And that’s what your friend in the elevator actually wants, is a germ. Something contagious. Which leads me to idea number one for generating a convenient elevator speech: Write it first. Before you start a new story, write a love letter to your muse. Tell him all the sweet, dirty things you’ll do for him in that elevator to get him as excited about your story as you are. Make him pant for it.

Then, and only then, start writing the story.

Because you can see the forest better from a distance than you can by the time you get there, better than you can just as you emerge from the other side of it, too. And definitely better than when you’re in the deep, sunless thick of it. You have a better perspective for summing up your story briefly before you start writing it than you will for a good year or so after you’ve finished. By writing your elevator speech up front, you’ll have it to refer to later, when you’re so deep into it that all you can see is underbrush. It’ll help keep you on track. Or at least aware that there once was a track.

Obviously, that idea’s no good to you if you’ve already started writing. But stay with me, because idea number 2 is on its way.

I notice that I can summarize another person’s story more decisively and concisely than I can my own. The reason is simple; I get to be more of an aviator than a sailor or a forester. I see only the part of the iceberg that’s above the surface. I am not lost in the branches of the multitudinously intertangled decision trees that have created the forest. I can get clear of it all.

So here’s what else you can do:

Find somebody to ghost-write your elevator speech. Offer to do the same for them (or to babysit their infant child for three days–something of roughly equivalent value). Or pay a Canary 5 bucks per pitch. Trust what you get back to be better than anything you could have done for yourself. Polish it if you need to. Memorize it. Then step into the elevator and press “13”.

I followed my own advice for once and used idea #1.

Hello, Stranger. Going down? Would you like a cup of  Earthworm Soup?

Jeannie Iverson’s imaginary nemesis comes to life and takes the name Eugene, but she still calls him Sewer Boy. Eugene is everything she’ll never be. Literally. He takes possession of anything she denies–friends, family, intelligence, reputation, self-esteem. Linked by mutual repulsion, they feed on one another; her negativity maintains his charismatic energy, while against her will and better judgment, she fuels her darkness on his light. When she rebels, he threatens the last good thing remaining to her–a childlike admiration for Jarrod Frye. Unless she interferes, Eugene will sacrifice Jarrod and free them both from their symbiotic need of one another’s vitality. Jeannie must embrace her own utter depravity and helplessness, or else betray the only innocent love she’s ever imagined.


About vanessacavendish

I keep a ten gauge close to hand. I shoot from the hip and I write the way a certain blind friend of mine plays piano: partly by ear and the rest by heart. So don’t even think about correcting my grammar. Did I say that with enough sugar on it? View all posts by vanessacavendish

3 responses to “Elevators and Earthworms

  • Madison Woods

    I like that a lot. It definitely gives a clear impression of what the story is about. Have you practiced saying it? How long does it take? And how long should the ideal elevator pitch be? Hmmm. I guess I could google that one to find out. Being the country girl that I am, I haven’t ridden elevators all that often to know how long it takes to get from one floor to another…

    Mine was much shorter. I was aiming for 15 seconds and trying to distill all that I wanted to say into only a few sentences was pretty difficult but I think I did it. Now the problem is that it might be too encrypted, hahaha. I’ll let you and the other viewers judge once I get it posted. Maybe I can make it longer.

  • vanessacavendish

    Thanks, Mad. It takes about me about a minute to read. I guess if I’m only going up or down one floor, I could cut the middle of it, from “They are as linked…” up to the last sentence. (Or I could just take the stairs and keep talking.)

    I want something about the length of a query, even though I don’t intend to submit to an agent or publisher. I really do look at this process as one of clarification, to keep myself focused. Outlines feel too inorganic and rigid to be of much use to me. I suspect I’ll find it useful, too, when the time comes to build a website (or just a page) around the novel. And as a way to think about making a trailer.

    Speaking of which, have you seen J.S. Chancellor’s latest post about trailers? I’m enthralled by the Icarus one (the second one in her post). Not counting her name, the name of the book and the publisher, she gets it done in 14 words and doesn’t bother trying to tell you what the story is. The trailer’s effective, though. I, for one, am sure gonna buy the book. And I hope she does teach a workshop on trailers. I am so there. Let me put a link here before I forget:


    And oh, yeah! Forgive my shamelessness, but I recently guest-posted at The Asylum about elevator speeches. In case you’re interested:


  • Madison Woods

    Shamelessness always works best. Thanks – I’ll head over there. I love her blog, too and am interested in what both of you have said about pitches and trailers.

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