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The soul of your book and its soul-soul

Oh blinking blimey. I’ve got lots of things to tell you and I’m not quite sure what order to do it in.

It’s like I’ve come home from a trip to Hyderabad by way of Phuket, Osaka and the Kingdom of Gog. I have eleventy-one interesting items in eleventy-one boxes (one of which roars and one of which sighs) and I can’t start to arrange my items until I’ve unboxed them all and stared at them a bit.

There’s going to be a mountain of packaging that I’ll have to cope with somehow.

Hey ho, and here we go.

Box 1

I did a webinar for Jericho members on Wednesday and there were almost 200 people there and it ran half the night. It was very interesting and I’m going to tell you more about this in a moment.

Box 2

Virtually all of our Summer Festival sessions are going out live and interactive, except that I did one with Adam Croft as a pre-record.

He’s an indie author and, if you don’t read psych thrillers and you’re not in touch with Planet Indie, then you don’t know who he is.

But when he brought out Her Last Tomorrow, that book sold so well he had paid off his mortgage in a matter of weeks.

His previous books had each earned maybe a few thousand dollars in total.

The shoutline for Adam’s breakout title was “Would you murder your wife to save your daughter?”

Box 3

I find nothing inside this box except a note from Sophie, our monarch of marketing, saying “Tell them about the 1-2-1s.”

I always obey Sophie, so I comply:

You lot gobbled up our first batch of 1-2-1 slots with literary agents so fast that we had to bake some more. You can find all the information right here:

https://jerichowriters.com/festival-of-writing/one-to-one-sessions/

Those cookies get eaten quickly though, so don’t wait too long.

Box 4

What is the elevator pitch for a book? I mean: what is it really?

It’s not the shoutline. It’s not the blurb. It’s not the synopsis. It’s not your query letter. It’s not even a sentence from your query letter. (I mean it might be, but certainly doesn’t have to be.)

So what is it really? And does it actually matter?

You are not, in fact, likely to find yourself in an elevator with a Top Literary Agent, so why stress about what you’d say if you were?

Box 5

By strange coincidence, I’m interviewing the #1 international bestseller Linwood Barclay as part of our Summer Festival. I’ll be talking (among much else) about his current thriller.

Whose title is Elevator Pitch.

The book opens with a guy trying to pitch his screenplay while in an elevator with a top entertainment exec. The elevator goes up to the fortieth floor then – geddit? – pitches downwards.

Closing lines of chapter 1:

The elevator was in freefall.

Until it hit bottom.

The story is about a chain of induced elevator crashes in New York and the effort to find the person responsible.

The screenwriter pitching his screenplay got as far as telling the movie exec his Big Idea before they were both splatted from existence. In his story, a character discovers a time machine, but the time machine can only move you five minutes forward into the future or five minutes back in the past.

What would you do with that tiny superpower?

Box 6

This is the box that was sighing and is now making a small mewing sound.

I poke some lettuce through the airholes and the mewing stops.

The box has leaked very slightly and smells of wee.

Box 7

OK, so the elevator pitch for my first Fiona Griffiths novel would be something like this:

Fiona Griffiths is a homicide detective in recovery from Cotards Syndrome. Cotards is a genuine psychiatric condition in which the sufferer believes themselves to be dead.

You notice (because you are alert to these things) that this formulation isn’t at all slogan-y – you couldn’t put it on the front of the book.

It tells you nothing at all about the plot. It doesn’t even say “this is a detective novel with murder at its heart” although you probably guess (correctly) that it is.

And it’s not vague. It doesn’t wave its hands in a mysterious way. It gives you two facts. Fiona is a murder detective. And she used to think she was dead.

I suppose it actually gives you one more fact – that her condition is a real thing from which real people suffer – but that’s really only to make it clear that this is at least a somewhat realist novel. It’s not fantasy. It’s not speculative.

Box 8

This box is very small and inlaid with a wondrous array of minutely carved woods.

It contains nothing except this observation:

“Harry’s elevator pitch doesn’t look like a marketing thing at all. It doesn’t have that gaudy, aspartamine-flavoured brightness. Maybe Harry is completely crap at marketing.”

I do as it happens agree with the first two parts of that observation and maybe even the third – except I wish to dispute the word “completely”.

Box 9

This box is rather large and lists slightly. We need a stepladder to open it up properly, but there is nothing inside but a waft of scent.

While breathing and enjoying that scent, we find ourselves thinking:

“What would it like to think you were dead? How can an alive person possibly think they are dead? And wouldn’t it be strange to be caught between life and death like that – and be a murder detective. I’d like to know more about that book.”

And aha!

And snap!

And all that Harry-is-rubbish-at-marketing tosh!

My elevator pitch has snapped itself shut over your leg and now you can’t get yourself free.

Box 10

In the webinar, I said that the elevator pitch was two things, two vital things:

  1. It was a very short way to get someone to say, “Ooh, that sounds interesting, tell me more.”
  2. It was the soul of your book and every page of your book had to vibrate with that inner soul.

Which were clearly interesting and powerful things to say, but no one actually knew what the second one meant.

Including possibly me.

Box 11

Inside this box is a tall and elegantly dressed woman. 

She fixes me with a glittering eye and stalks away, out of the room and out of my life.

When I look at the box more closely, I discover that the name and address on the packing label are not my own. I feel somewhat embarrassed. On a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 is “very embarrassed indeed”, I’d be about a 6.

In the bottom of the box, discarded or forgotten, is a veil. It is very soft and has the pale grey of a pigeon’s underbelly.

Box 12

Twice, oh reader, have I been in an elevator TRAPPED right next to the Chief Executive of a really big publishing company.

I didn’t pitch my book.

I talked about the weather, or something dreary.

Maybe I really am crap at marketing.

Oh God. I mean: maybe I actually am.

Box 13

This is the one that roars.

I have telephoned London Zoo. I hope they will come and take it away.

There is a terrible scratching sound from within and the box does not look the strongest.

I regret everything about this box. I should not have brought it home.

Box 14

OK, so one of the people on the webinar – a wise and noble human named Jon – said this in a subsequent comment on Townhouse:

I’ve been thinking a lot about your description of the elevator pitch as encapsulating the ‘soul’ of the story.

The ‘soul’ of my book, I think, is Membra’s growing understanding that what she sees as her flaws and imperfections, and her adaptations to them, have contributed to the strong, resilient and ‘worthy’ person that she is and always has been, and that removing them - i.e. achieving ‘perfection’ - risks her becoming a different, and perhaps less self-actualised person. She understands that imperfection has value and that perfection is a chimera. It is this that enables her to make the final decision she makes at the climax of the book NOT to use the Perfection Engine to revert the universe to its perfect state - both from a selfish perspective (she doesn’t want to lose the person she is) and from a wider moral perspective. So she (to use my ‘slogan’) ‘saves the world from paradise’.

That internal journey is what I think the soul of the story is, and the primary candidate for the single focus of the pitch. It’s the ‘real’ story.

Now if you are actually still reading this email, you should sit bolt upright and mark the moment somehow – perhaps you want to bark or hurl a teacup.

Jon, mate, you are saying something important.

I think you are saying something true.

Box 15

Contains nothing but a forlorn tune.

There are no words to the tune, but the following words fit the melody in a hand-meet-handmade-kidskin-glove sort of way:

Maybe the soul of the book (in my Box 10 / Ooh-tell-me-more sense) is intimately connected with Jon’s more profound take on the subject.

Like maybe they’re the same thing, only in one case you’re just looking at the trunk and leaves and in the other case you get to see the roots as well.

Aha!

The tune lingers and is strangely pleasing.

Box 16

When you think about it, Adam Croft’s million-dollar shoutline (“Would you murder your wife to save your daughter?”) is everything in one:

  • It is perfect copy for a Facebook ad. Like perfect copy. It was Facebook ads that propelled that book, and its author, to superstardom.
  • It has the quality of intriguing specificity. You instantly want to know more about the story. It rings that Ooh-tell-me-more bell, ring a ding ding.
  • It completely honours the book and vice versa. That shoutline echoes in every single page of the text.
  • The shoutline itself is all wood and leaves, but you already have a sense of the roots. What happens when family ties are strained like that? What happens when that terrible moral choice is forced on what is already an uneasy marriage?

Boom! Maybe the marketing soul of your book is just the soul-soul of your book wearing gaudy clothing. Maybe the “Ooh tell me more” bit is just a pathway (for you and the reader) to the deeper stuff.

Box 17

Contains a skitter of anticipation.

I really want to know whether Linwood Barclay’s latest bestseller takes that 5 minute time travel superpower idea beyond the first chapter.

I need to finish the book. I’m going to have a lot to ask him.

Box 18

Contains the soul-soul of my detective book, the one with roots as well as leaves:

Fiona struggles to assemble her complicated and unwieldy parts into a functional human being. Because that process often fails for her, and because she has to work hard at it, we notice how much effort she has to make. And then we realise: we all face the same challenge and we face it every day. Fiona is us.

Somewhere outside in the garden, a silver bell rings.

 

That is the end of my boxes.

I am still worried about Box 13.

How about you? And what did you bring home of Phuket?

Are any of you missing a tall and elegantly dressed woman?

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Comments (18)
  • True Andy, kinda depressing, albeit inspiring, when you're trying to make your own small mark.

    Howsomever, I'm not missing a tall elegantly dressed woman but a small fantasy creature called Migwort. And I was hoping to introduce him to you all soon.  Ah well.

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    • Thanks Harry and Jon, I finally understand elevator pitches. After fruitless hours trying to write one, I whipped one out in less than a minute after reading your explanations.

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      • Hi Nicola, I've got one for my first book, but the second one is so difficult. I'll have to watch this tomorrow to fire up my imagination I think. Less than a minute is impressive.  

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        • Nicola, Jon has been my constant companion on this soul destroying journey towards my elevator pitch. I still haven't got one and am now staring into my own bix; the one with the doe-eyed child-adult who innocently said one day, 'I should write a book. It sounds fun!' I've now sealed that box up with heavy duty packing tape. 

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        • Gosh! Hahaha! 'Wise and noble'!!? I think you may have been tempted into using the Perfection Engine on me there, Harry. Probably several times!

          Thank you for the unexpected shout out and the kind words. But most of all thank you for the insight and help you provided in the webinar, to me and to everyone else.

          Despite the fact that I was familiar with elevator pitches from a business perspective (from regularly getting clients to do them in my professional life) I'd been struggling for literally years to condense the daunting wholeness of my novel into just a single descriptive sentence or two, and veering wildly between the external plot events and the internal journey of the protagonist as the basis for that compression, never quite getting it right.

          Your advice to focus in on the soul of the book helped me cut through the complexity to that little, shining kernel at the heart of all those notes and pages and post-its and ring-binders - the precious thing that's 'what the book's about'.

          And then the idea of the pitch being the glammed up, sales-ready, simplified entry-point to the real soul, the bigger, wider, more complex 'soul-soul', took away the lingering fear that I was somehow failing the book in omitting so much of the 'dressing' - the setting, the characters, the relationships, the plot! It took a bit of tweaking and several miss-steps, and it probably isn't quite there still, but after Wednesday I'm closer than I ever have been before to that 'soul'. I have an elevator pitch I'm very happy with, and can expand as needed! Finally, when someone asks me 'so, what's the book about' I won't have to watch their eyes politely glaze over ten minutes later when I say 'and then in chapter three...'!

          So thank you again. And let us know how it goes with Box 13! :D  

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          • Perhaps this: An accounting error in the cosmos. A metaphysical auditor hellbent on correcting it. Can Adam, a depressed artist and the error's embodiment, defy the auditor and paint the masterpiece that proves he is worthy enough to survive? 

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            • Hello, A.B. And thanks for the kind words. What a twist! That the metaphysical aspects of your story - the auditor and the book - are manifestations of your protagonist's inner turmoil. Wonderful!

              I'm loath to give a definitive answer to your question; my own lack of experience would make that presumptuous. I'll leave that to the far more expert voices on this forum, especially Harry's.

              But one revelatory thing I took away from Harry's webinar was that the 'elevator pitch' has an entirely different function from the 'tagline' or the 'blurb' and can therefore contain aspects of the plot that you, as a writer, might want to keep hidden from your readers. It's aimed at an audience that needs to know 'what the book's about' - even when that underlying message might be concealed in the book until you want it revealed. Harry, if you read this, please do jump in to correct me if I've misunderstood this point!

              For example, the true nature of the Perfection Engine in my own work-in-progress is a mystery at the start of the book; it's just a nameless McGuffin. Indeed only part of it is even present in the plot until the final scenes. Its existence, let alone its true nature, its function, and its implications for Membra (and others) are slowly revealed to her - and the reader - over the course of the book. So. if I was writing a tagline for the book I'd definitely want to avoid any mention of a specific 'world-rebooting machine' or even explicit creation of a perfect world, in favour of something more elliptical. But the elevator pitch (and this was a new thought to me) compresses the whole point of the book, so can if necessary contain those hidden plot contrivances which you'd not want on the book's jacket! 

              So, in your case, you have a very similar predicament to the one I had! The true natures of your 'Book of the Human' and 'Cosmic Auditor' are hidden from the reader just as my 'Perfection Engine' is. You certainly wouldn't that 'spoiled' for the reader. If you wanted to, though, I don't think you should be afraid of that revelation appearing in the elevator pitch; it's vital to the plot, and to a potential agent, publisher or 'buyer' who may not even read the whole book it may be necessary to show them the true scope and resonance of your story.

              That said, I really like the updated pitch above! It's clear, concise, and sets out the stakes and the protagonist's predicament perfectly. As well as the surface plot, I think it conveys the 'soul' of your story beautifully - the 'trunk and leaves' that Harry mentions in Box 15 of his original blog post. As for the 'soul-soul' - the deeper revelation that the auditor and the book are manifestations and symbols of the protagonist's depression - maybe that's the 'roots', in Harry's metaphor, and maybe that is for the book itself!

              I've rambled. Sorry. I hope it's helped. Hopefully Harry or one of the other more experienced writers will be able to give you more coherent advice! Anyhow - I think it's a terrific idea, and the latest elevator pitch is really good.


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              • As always, thanks again Jon. All this is really helping me understand how to 'sell' my novel because I've had to really understand it myself. 

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              • Yeah, the Box 13 situation is not good. Can't chat long. Need to get my damn leg freed first.

                Ow!

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                • I discovered the answer to Box 13 enigma Harry.

                  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlPAVm8Gl6M


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                  • That made me laugh! :D

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                  • So, what you are saying there, Harry, is the same thing I read in some book (honestly can't remember which)… that when you reduce the plot of all stories far enough, you find that there is only one. And that when you boil that down even further, there is only one core to all worthwhile story, one fundamental thing they are actually about.

                    All story, if it is to work, to resonate with an audience, is about the human condition. What does it mean to be human? What is the human identity? (This is true even for a story with nary a biological in sight.)

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                    • I agree Rick, its our drive to understand what makes us human that also drives us to write. 

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                      • You might consider it a semantic difference, A.B., but I would say that they are two different things.

                        There are many reasons people write. While it may be to make sense of the human condition, it may instead be that it's a source of pleasure, or of release. It may be because they think it'll be an easy path the an easy, successfilled life (ha!)

                        But that is not the same as the inciting idea underlying the specific story they choose to write. When that is triggered by a question probing behaviour - why, what-if, how could, what would it take… -  then that has the potential (subject to quality of execution) to be a great, compellingly resonant story. Likewise, even if the reason they write is to understand the human condition, if the story's seed is other, it will sag somewhat.

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