Creator's Defense 101. Got a case of the Fight, Flight or Freezes?
Updated: Feb 5
Author Shelley Cass talks elevator pitches, and overcoming the ol' gaping goldfish face when someone asks about your creative work.
Ever heard of the 'elevator pitch'?
It's where an author is meant to have a pre-prepared, awe inspiring one liner that perfectly pitches their novel.
The kind of hook where, if destiny happened to place you in a situation where you could pitch your work to a publisher or agent, you would have them gripped in the amount of time it would take to share an elevator ride together.
(Not so gripped that they think your work is too niche to sell, though).
The elevator image is a funny one. It would take me the first few floors to stop just side-eyeing a literary VIP if we were stuck in a small space together. That is, if I recognised they were a literary VIP in the
If this were the regular way for authors to be 'discovered', overworked agents and publishers would all suddenly take a keen interest in stairways, and would start their own defense 101 blogs about being cornered in steel boxes over great heights.
However, the theory is a helpful one, and the 'elevator pitch' is a proactive and protective tool for any writer or creator to have up their sleeve. Particularly if they often find themselves gaping at anyone curious enough and wonderful enough to ask about their art.
I honestly believe this is a tool that could suit any kind of creator who might possibly ever be asked about, or need a way in to talk about their creative work.
Whether you want to keep your outlet private, or to engage others in it, the elevator pitch is a tool that can help you to articulate your particular goals, conduct a conversation, and walk away with your head held high.
Here's where the problem is:
Now for a shocking disclaimer. Many (not all) authors are the introverted thinker types, setting up our characters and plot lines to do the communicating for us.
As an author, I do not always practise what I preach in terms of elevators and goldfish gaping. But I'm working on it.
I'm working on it because I take my craft very seriously. I pour every spare moment of my life into it - and I hate that when someone asks about my creative work, my automatic reaction is to:
a) Almost shrivel up on the spot. I deflect the spotlight and any recognition with superficial nothings in response.
The conversation will move right on, and my self-protection will have succeeded. Succeeded in hurting my own chance to open a healthy discourse about my passions, or to feel good about my hard work, that is. (Flight)
b) Humbly downplay this colossal second life I'm living, and the fact that my fingertips have carved entire worlds out of nothing. (Flight?)
I will definitely avoid looking like a big-headed attention seeker, in case that might accidentally happen. I will avoid red cheeks or bumbling through a rough summary of something peppered with a bunch of 'ums' and 'so, yeahs'.
However, my work's worth will have been undersold by ME, its own mother. The topic and that moment will become a forgettable one.
c) Mumble my way through a list of self deprecating doubts and apologetic excuses about my work.
'It's nothing, going nowhere, hardly up to scratch, not quite ready yet/ever.'
It's almost as if my craft, and my pride in it, is something to be shy or embarrassed about. But if I'm making it sound so sloppy myself, why would anyone else want to read it?
d) Get defensive (and blue) over suggestions that this is a hopeless 'hobby' that is 'impossible to get anywhere with.' (Weird type of fight? I'm fortunate not to hear that kind of suggestion from others, but I hear it from my brain A LOT. That bitch.)
e) Yet the worst case scenario of all is having nothing to say. Nothing at all.
Being at a loss for words and gaping like that goldfish instead of being able to just spit it out.
Gah! Come on brain! Just utter some insightful sentences that relate to this thing I care so much about! (Freeze). That's how you wind up back at a) and c) by the way.
I don't want to bumble about and splutter foolishly over something that should be my crowning glory.
Why we need to, and deserve to overcome the problem:
I've begun actively trying not to undersell myself or my work.
It's not about going to the opposite extreme and bragging all the time. It's about being willing to give an open, thoughtful response about my own material.
I take my writing so seriously and treat it with such care in every other regard, so the way I talk about it should be just as respectful.
It deserves my respect.
Otherwise, my verbal words will manifest a reality that tears apart any chance of success for my written words.
You are what you say (seriously, what comes out of your mouth is the image that surrounds who you are), and if I give any hint that my work isn't good enough, others and even I will perceive it as truth. Whether I intended that or not.
What a waste of my own time, to form and polish this grand treasure, only to bury it in the dirt before it has had a chance to shine.
And, just as importantly, if anyone shows even a glimmer of interest toward getting to know this aspect of me, they deserve my respect and effort in return. I can spare them a few sentences to help them see what my work is all about.
Even those more independent creatives, those who wish to keep this part of themselves as a private gem, can give a clear-headed explanation of exactly why their craft is something for themselves alone. They can create a moment of understanding rather than a brash or panicky brush off.
How to use the elevator pitch to help:
I'm trying to give myself the elevator pitch edge, and that just means to be ready. To be equipped with short statements of truth that can help me to override my automatic gapey goldfish state.
Whether someone is just politely asking that cursory question, or eagerly wanting to know more, I want to sound like a boss. Like an expert in my own darn novels. I don't even have to study the content - I WROTE THE BOOK ON IT BABY.
The ways a creator can develop elevator pitches are by:
Brainstorming buzz words that relate to your work.
You can count on a small bank of words to get your brain firing along on a specific track. These words will be useful in defining the core of your work, but will also be cues to help you to get a verbal response rather than a freeze happening.
Did you ever use flash cards when studying? Or get someone else to test you out loud? That was all about triggering an automatic reaction to cue words too.
Having these buzz words up your sleeve gives you an in. And when strung together, they generally lead to:
-Something that is short and punchy enough to satisfy someone who was just politely asking.
-Something interesting enough to get a person keen for substance to want to know more.
-Something purposeful enough to make you feel like you've actually communicated (instead of shying away, humbly mumbling or sounding like you actually aren't the world's greatest expert on your own creation).
This is the most important and only crucial step. The other steps can help you to find those buzz words, or can help you if the conversation deepens and you really get to flex your expertise.
I mean, really, an elevator ride does not last longer than the buzz word stage. The rest is happening off the lift.
Playing with those words.
See how they look when written down, then how they sound out loud.
Would you ask a follow up question if you heard a sentence containing buzz words like that? (Don't load one sentence with too many words of course - that's my job).
Would you be able to grasp the heart of the story if someone had just delivered that phrase to you?
To find the 'heart' of your piece - its true purpose and its most need to know details ... pretend you are summing it up over a catch up, like it's a great film you just saw and your friend is undecided. When you are trying to verbally sum up your new favourite film so that someone can decide if they'll bother to watch it, you don't waste breath on a blow by blow scene, theme and plot breakdown. You throw off a couple of sentences that sum up the film's most interesting, key elements. You get to the point, perhaps being a little salesy if you really loved it, but nothing too pushy or fancy.
I found that writing blurbs for my novels always took me the greatest amount of thought. Defining something so huge and so intricate in a way that might grab others is hard.
So doing some research on what keywords already spring up around my type of writing gave me a platform to work with and inspired some thought.
Then trying to write short, eye catching headlines for my books on their website landing page made me hone it in even more.
Decide on a few genres that would apply to your work, to help others to fit your work into something they understand, and to help anchor yourself too.
On a surface level, genres come with expected tropes, and can give your conversation a common ground to build off. You can pick apart how your art fits with or deviates from the tropes of a genre.
Considering comparisons in similar categories.
Think on some recognisable caegories your work could fit into, and why it might fit there. Are there other works in a similar category that people might know of?
Drawing comparisons can be helpful, and again gives you a platform to evaluate your own work against something your audience might already have a grasp of.
While giving someone else a clearer vision of your work, a comparison also draws your own attention to the similar strengths and valuable differences your work has to offer.
Deciding what it is that you love most about your creative work.
Decide why it is so worth giving your soul to, or why it feeds your soul so much. Remember, this can relate to small pass-times like pictures on napkins, or world shaking projects you are dying to share.
What themes do you find yourself exploring?
What messages do you think are buried in there?
What did you need to get off your chest that has surfaced in your work?
What makes you happiest about your creative work?
What did you learn from and take from it yourself? Would you evolve in any way the next time you create something?
Deciding on an audience.
Think on who might benefit from what your work has to offer.
Who might relate? Need it? Enjoy it? What could they get from it?
What issues does your work deal with? What issues might it cause?
This is the kind of in depth conversation you might save for the political or social commentating person.
Setting a clear vision and avoiding being 'wishy-washy.'
Determine what your idea of success looks like, and what steps you are thinking of/have begun taking to get there. (It could be as simple as getting your desk set up just right, having a space to do your thing, or writing up applications and completing training).
Decide what TRUE failure looks like in your mind, so that you can candidly share your hopes and fears to work through these things.
It is too easy to just admit how hard things are and for a conversation to end with sympathetic sighs.
Commiseration can be a nice moment of comradery, but it's not productive. Instead, you can be real and be clinical and be dreamy while coming up with ideas or examining options.
By knowing what you ultimately do or don't want, with some ideas on how to achieve that, you can also avoid a heap of vague suggestions to add to your to-do list. Some suggestions can be good! But if you aren't after that, outlining your own definite game plan can curb it, and get you back onto talking about the craft and the work itself.
If you and I were to have a quick elevator pitch style conversation about the Raze Warfare series, it would be the title and caption of this article. The rest of the article is the conversation we would have if we didn't part ways at the closing of the elevator doors. If my spattering of cue words led to a full blown monologue and magical moment.
Again, I could come up with an elevator pitch, or defining statement for anything I have worked on that is slightly important to me. A novel, a poem, a painting, an essay, a song, my own professional self for an interview. Anything I deem worthy and that is up for discussion.
It can be scary. But try to embrace it if you do find yourself immersed in a conversation where you get to give more than the buzz word phases. Firstly, because - go you for being so expressive beyond your normal medium! Secondly, because you have found a kindred spirit, or have at the very least engaged someone in the very thing that has engaged you.
The elevator pitch is easier when you think of it like this:
a) The person you are talking to will give you the cues.
They'll show you whether you've just found yourself a quick check in (you'll know by the pleasant nod and less intent eyes, sometimes padded with an exclamation or praise - no follow up beyond pleasantries).
Or if you have found yourself with someone ready to engage in an interesting conversation (voice intonation might be higher and keener at the start, then more attentive as excitement becomes interest. Body language will be enthusiastic and here comes the follow up question!).
Either is good! It means someone has cared to ask, and it means you've given yourself a chance to do your project proud - be its champion as you have been in all other regards of its life. If something more evolves from what you say - nice. If not, you haven't lost anything.
b) You might hate the spotlight, but you can shift the spotlight onto the project itself.
It came from you, much of it is part of you, but it is not you. It has sparks of life of its own.
If you need to, you can think of this very personal thing that you have made as its own entity that can be examined, gossiped about, even affectionatly teased, and mused over more objectively.
c) You can consider whether your effort and the results, or what you learned from the results, are worth acknowledging in any capacity.
Does your project deserve you putting your own personal insecurities onto it? Does it deserve never to be complimented, even if it is in a flawed and ugly state (and needs to take a good long look at itself)?
You might not even be practising your craft with the intention of going public, but your experience and the effort behind your skill as a creator is valid and fascinating.
If for nothing else, you can still use the elevator pitch to come up with thoughtful and useful ways to explain that your particular brand of creativity is not open for sharing!
If this strategy does resonate with you, set aside some brainstorming time for those buzz words at the least. You might find that this process of defining your creative work gives you new inspiration and understanding too.
An elevator pitch takes some nutting out, but when you have it - it becomes your greatest defense to fall back on.
It helps you to think on your feet, to fake it til you make it if open conversation about your work is crippling to you, and then to be able to talk meaningfully about something that is important to you.
In 'Bits and Blogs', author Shelley Cass talks writing process, being the kid who couldn't read, writer life with a frazzled brain, and muses on her Muses.
Shelley Cass is an Australian author. She is the author of the LGBTQ+ romance action series, Raze Warfare. She is the mother of the epic fantasy trilogy, 'A Fairy's Tale', and has penned eroticas, dystopian futures ... and Sleep Sweet children's books. For information on her novels, visit BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS!