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.