Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Pitches

For those two or three of you who’ve read all my posts thus far, I’d like to clear up a possible misconception. When I first got started on the whole “get paid to make up stories” deal, my work was what you’d call “off and on.” To be more precise, it was mostly “off,” with a little bit of “on” here and there.

I got paid for my Vampirella story, and then for several months I sold...nothing. “Cargo” sold, and I thought, “Hey, I’m in like Flynn with Dark Horse now! The jobs will start coming through one after the other!” That was not the case. There were lonnnnng periods of nothing between sales. In no way could I have even considered trying to support myself with writing money. In fact, I wasn’t even thinking of myself as a “real writer” at that point. I was just a kid in college who enjoyed writing, sort of idly eyeballing a career in journalism.

(There was to be no career in journalism because, as I quickly discovered after enrolling in J-school, I despise journalism.)

So that left a question of what to do in the lengthy spaces between actual assignments.

The answer I settled on was to come up with as many ideas as possible and write pitches for them. Idea after idea, pitch after pitch. I’d gotten a little taste of what being a professional writer could be like, and I wanted more of it, so I set my mind to generating as much material as I could, in hopes of securing more work.

But here’s something that a lot of aspiring writers I’ve known have painfully wrestled with: writing a story and writing a pitch for that story are two very different things.

You can spend two or three years writing an epic fantasy novel, and it might be freaking BRILLIANT, but if you want someone to pay you for it, you’re going to have to encapsulate the story in at least outline form, and most of the time an even shorter “cover letter” summary. No editor will take the time to read your massive novel just on the chance that he or she might like it enough to publish it.

In mainstream comics, you don’t go and write a script and then present it to an editor in hopes that he’ll buy it. When you’re starting out, the editor either comes to you and tells you what he’s looking for, or you write a pitch and hope the editor likes it. The editor is the gatekeeper: he’s the one who controls whether you get the job or not. And one of the best ways to get a job is to write a beautiful, perfect pitch.

Dan Thorsland explained it to me like this: “Your pitch should be one page long. You can do two pages, but that’s pushing it, because every editor is overworked, and you’re competing for his time. So a two-page pitch, yeah, he might take a look at that when and if he gets a spare moment - but a one-pager, hell, he could read that while he’s on hold on a phone call. If you go three pages or more, though, that’s a lot to read, and he’ll stick that somewhere in his pile of ‘things to read later,’ and might stumble across it again in six months.”

In a pitch, you’ve got to boil your story down to its leanest, meanest elements. You’ve got to make it so that every single word on the page jumps up and grabs the editor by the throat and shakes his head back and forth and screams, “BUY ME.” Because every second counts.

You may or may not have heard the term “elevator pitch” before. That’s a further refinement on the one-pager: a verbal pitch that can be given when you bump into someone on the elevator, during the ride between floors.

It basically comes down to this: any story can be summed up in 25 words or fewer. And if you can’t sum your story up in that super-condensed, fascinating little bundle, you either need to think about it some more, or there’s a problem with your story.

People at conventions have called shenanigans on me when I’ve said that about the 25-word pitch, but it’s true.

  1. A farm boy from a backwater planet joins an intergalactic rebellion and discovers his true destiny as a mystic, saber-wielding knight.
  2. A giant man-eating shark terrorizes the inhabitants of a small New England tourist town.
  3. A girl in a dystopian future competes in a televised, gladiatorial death match against other teens.
  4. A rookie FBI agent enlists the aid of an imprisoned, cannibalistic serial killer to track down another killer still on the loose.
  5. A small group of scientists and children get trapped in a park filled with genetically re-created dinosaurs.
  6. Earth’s mightiest superheroes band together to fight the combined threat of an evil demi-god and an invading alien army.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to be able to summarize your stories in a compelling fashion. In comics, you send in a pitch, but if you ever find yourself talking to a TV or movie executive, you won’t even get that chance. You’ll be in a room with them, or maybe on the phone, and they’ll say, “So, tell me what your story’s about.” And the seconds will start ticking down. If you haven’t grabbed their attention in about fifteen or twenty seconds, forget about it.

That’s why, when people ask me about OBERGEIST, the limited series comic book I did with Tony Harris and inker extraordinaire Ray Snyder, I say, “It’s the story of a schizophrenic, psychokinetic, undead ex-Nazi on a mission from God.”

(Also, feel free to suggest movies that you’d either like to see summed up in 25 words, or that you don’t think CAN be summed up in 25 words. See if you can stump me :) )

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