Full disclosure: My skill at creating the essential elevator pitch ranks just below my ability to hurl a fast ball over home plate–in other words, non-existent. But an elevator pitch is one of the most important arrows in a writer’s quiver. I’ve never completely mastered the skill, even as we’re only four and half months from the release of my debut novel The Apothecary’s Curse (Prometheus Books/Pyr) in October!
When last we met, I had retrieved from my hard drive a potentially serviceable concept for my novel. The next assignment from my MediaBistro novel writing class was to massage it into an actual pitch. So, here it is (reminder: this is far, far from eventual plot of the novel):
Elevator Pitch Take #1:
Fleeing London after being coldly rejected by her fiance, an American woman gets a flat tire on a lonely road near an ancient house where she meets the owner, a mysterious, reclusive man, seemingly out of place and out of time in the 21st Century.
One Paragraph synopsis Take #1:
Anne has left everything behind in the U.S. to meet her finance at his flat in London. Arriving early, she observes Andrew in bed with another woman. She flees in his car blindly, not caring where she is headed. The car gets stuck in the mud on a secluded road in front of an ancient mansion, owned by a reclusive scientist. Intensely drawn to the enigmatic Simon, Anne desires to uncloak the mysteries that seem to surround this almost-unearthly man, so out of place and out of time in the 21st Century. Simon, too, is pulled towards Anne, but there is a yearning inside him that transcends all rational thought. And ultimately Anne must decide whether to help him regardless of the personal cost to both of them.
As my teacher (the wonderful Erika Mailman) noted, however, the pitch isn’t a summation of the plot. “The elevator pitch sets up the ‘hook’ but isn’t a summation of the plot. After all, the book isn’t about meeting a mysterious man, it’s about what happens after they meet.” Acknowledging that I probably didn’t as yet know anything about what happens after they meet, I needed to sit down and brainstorm my way through the plot to come.
I needed to make some decisions and answer some basic questions: Will the novel to be a supernatural story? Is it a romance, with this meeting setting up a Charlotte Bronte-esque scenario ala Jane Eyre? Or will the plot unfold something darker? The elevator pitch needs to tell potential readers (and agents and editors) what’s happening between these two characters.
I was told that although this was a great place to start, unless the scenario is ultimately important to the plot, I need to go back to the drawing board. Which I did.
Understand, dear readers, that all of this brainstorming with myself and imagining the plot took place within the span of a few days. But the pressure cooker of time really helped me to crystallize what I wanted to do. And how to do it. This is why NaNoWriMo is so powerful. It sets a clock on it, and whether the end product after 30 days is a masterpiece (it won’t be) or a diamond in the rough (okay, really, really rough–let’s call it your “sloppy copy”), it is an actual product–an actual novel. I did not write The Apothecary’s Curse during NaNoWriMo, but I have done it three times (finishing twice). And one of these days, I will go about finishing my two “sloppy copy” NaNoWriMo novels.
Elevator Pitch Take #2:
Reclusive scientist Simon Bell lives under a curse of immortality, yearning for 125 years only to die and be with his beloved Sophie, but when a young woman enters his life, his entire universe is turned upside down as her family history and his past converge.
Brief Synopsis Take #2:
In Victorian England, Simon Bell gets a compound from an apothecary to cure his wife of terminal cancer; instead it kills her. He takes the potion, believing it to be poison, hoping to follow her to the grave, but instead of killing him, it makes him unable to die–unable to age. Now living as a recluse 125 years later, he continues to try to find a way to break the magic of the apothecary’s curse. Into his life walks Anne Ralston after she finds herself on a lonely road, stuck in the mud. Not accustomed to visitors, having denied himself for so many years, Simon is drawn to her company, deciding to take her into his confidence. At first Anne is charmed by his Victorian manners and appearance, but as she learns more of his nature, she begins to doubt his sanity–until the convergence of his past and her family history converge into closure for both of them, revealing she may be the one to hold the key to breaking the apothecary’s curse.
The exercise really helped to solidify the plot and emotion of the story. And so The Apothecary’s Curse became a viable embryo of a debut novel.
The elevator pitch is not a trigger for the plot or the opening of novel. It gets to the heart of the story, hitting on the emotion, and hinting at where it’s all headed.
Going back through my notes from that process, I realize that I’d already decided to create a novel told in two time periods: one in which Simon first became immortal, and the other: present day Chicago (my hometown).
I had also decided that Simon was a brilliant scientist, and relation to Dr. Joseph Bell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mentor (and his model for the character of Sherlock Holmes). Beyond that I had no other Sherlockian designs–at least not at that point of early plot development. I knew then I needed to get into the heads of my two main characters–or rather, the two main characters I’d envisioned (which changed dramatically later in the novel’s development).
Next Up: From Synopsis to Outline.