In theory, a writing residency is a good place to work on one’s elevator speech, because everyone asks everyone else what they write. Usually I say, “I’m working on a nonfiction project.” But then they follow up, “Oh! What’s it about?” Then I flounder.
“It’s a book about trying to understand my father’s work after he died.” If you know me in person, then you know he died when I was in my twenties. You know that he was an astronomer. And you know that I copyedit science but know very little about it. “Cool!” you might say and go on with your day, understanding what my book is about.
But if you don’t know me, I have a lot more to communicate. “I’m writing a book about trying to understand my father’s work after he died. He was an astronomer and I’m your classic English major type.” That gives you more context. But then I’m tempted to talk about C. P. Snow.
“In the late 1950s, physicist and novelist C. P. Snow talked about the two cultures: the scientists and the literary intellectuals, as he called them. The scientists read books and went to plays, but the literary types did not know the second law of thermodynamics was, which is the scientific equivalent of not having read a Shakespeare play. I don’t know the second law of thermodynamics.” Oops, too much information and it doesn’t even begin to cover the part of the book that is about my mother.
“My mother was a pianist, and my father was an astronomer. My book is about being the living embodiment of the third culture” only works if I have already given you the two cultures spiel. And I’m likely to do something undignified following it, such as saying, “Woohoo! Third Culture!”
This is why marketing people should write the one-sentence version of manuscripts and I should just go back to writing the manuscript. I manage to keep my dignity intact—mostly—on the page. How’s your elevator speech?