Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On Pitching, Part Three...

Alright. So I've rambled a bit about how I broke in and how hard it is to write a pitch, so let's take a look at an actual pitch and talk about how it came together.

First, some backstory... one of my oldest friends in the business is a guy named Michael Gaydos. We were both working at Caliber in the early 90s doing our own thing -- me writing and drawing stories for NEGATIVE BURN, and Michael drawing rings around the rest of us. The guy was good, so good that I got a little lump in my gut every time I saw a new drawing he'd done. Luckily, he's also a nice guy who seemed to like my own work, so I got him to draw one of my short stories. Still think it's one of the best stories with my name on it.

We talked about doing more work together, but our schedules never quite worked out. I was deeply distracted by my own art assignments -- I was working for Disney Interactive at that point and doing my first jobs at DC -- and Michael was busy building his own career, which eventually led to him drawing Marvel's ALIAS series, still the best book I think they've ever published.

Years passed, but Michael and I touched base from time to time, compared schedules, and inevitably discovered that we were too busy with other projects to work on anything new. And then there was a break in the clouds. Michael and I were both open for a brief period and I had a standing invitation with one of my editors to pitch anything that Michael and I did together (gotta love an editor who liked my writing AND loved Michael's art. That's an editor with impeccable taste.). Needless to say, I pulled every idea I had out of my writer's hat and ran them past my editor.

At this stage, I only sent him a brief description of the ideas. No more than a couple sentences to see if any of them caught his fancy. If memory serves, I sent him three or four basic ideas, including the one that became my pitch for a mini-series called DRAGONS.

And for those of you who ask questions like "where do you get your ideas?", Michael had mentioned the idea that he'd like to draw something with samurai, which connected with some reading I'd done when I was working on THE PATH with Ron Marz. At the time, I was fascinated with the tattoos worn by members of the Japanese mafia -- the Yakuza -- and played around with the idea of pitching a Katana (from DC's old Outsiders book) mini-series where the tattoos were actually demons attached to a Yakuza member's skin. That pitch never went anywhere, so I took the basic idea, removed Katana, and reworked the story into something else.

It wasn't quite 'something with samurai', but there WAS a samurai sword and all sorts of cool things for Michael to draw, so he went along with the idea.

My editor liked the basic concept (can't remember my two-line pitch on it, but it was probably something along the lines of a "John Woo/Supernatural Yakuza kind of thing"), so he had me work up a one-sheet pitch for it.

Here's what I sent:
Re-reading it now, several years later, I can't say it's the best idea I've ever had. As a writer, I'm not particularly drawn to Action material (I prefer quiet, creepy dark fantasy stories), and I think I was trying a little too hard to come up with some that would fit in with the publisher's other books, which tended to be very Action-oriented.

Having said that, let's talk about how I put the pitch together on the page.

As I said in an earlier post, I have to know the whole story before I can pitch it. I may not know ALL the details, but I've got a pretty good idea of the overall shape of the story, where it's going, what the themes are, and the major events along the way. All of these things come into play when I'm breaking the concept down into a single page.

I always break my pitches into three sections. Roughly, these are: The Basic Concept, The Basic Story, and Another Thing.

The first section (The Basic Concept) is fairly straight forward. I write a few paragraphs that establish the idea and explain what kind of world it's set in. I'll often use this section to introduce the main characters. Think of this first part as the setup, everything you learn in the first part of your story.

Next, we have a few paragraphs to describe how the story kicks off (The Basic Story). There's no room for a full plot breakdown, so I stick with a few key elements that are going to carry the story forward. You have to choose the plot points you're going to outline very carefully, and I prefer to focus on major ones from the beginning of the story.

These is where an intimate knowledge of plot structure is really necessary. The plot points I mention throughout the pitch are the basic building blocks of the story, the things that have to happen in order for there to be a story. Lots of other things will happen, but there's no room for that kind of detail.

I think of a pitch (and the first two sections in particular) like the back of a paperback novel. You pick up enough to know roughly what to expect if you bought the book, but not enough to ruin the whole story. It's a teaser to catch the interest of your reader (in this case your editor).

Finally, we have the last section of my pitches (Another Thing). This is a little more complicated than the other two.

In all my stories, I try to have an element the characters don't know about; whether it's some sort of secret being kept from them, or, as in this case, there's a supernatural force at work that they don't know about. It's basic storytelling. If there aren't any surprises along the way for the characters, then there aren't going to be any surprises for the reader. And that makes for an incredibly boring story.

More often than not, my stories have some supernatural element at work. Those are just the kinds of stories I like to tell. It's how I'm wired. So in this third section of a pitch, I'll tell the editor what that element is and write a few paragraphs that describe how this element is going to effect the story. This often leads to a short rundown of the next stage of the plot and where it's all going. In this case, the final conflict between our hero and the Black Dragons, not to mention the demon tattooed to his body.

And that leads me to the really tricky part... you'll notice that each section ends with a phrase that leads you into the next section, or as in the final section, leaves an open story question (can our hero defeat an enemy that is tattooed to his own body?) that can only be answered by reading the actual story. This is one thing I'm not sure how to teach someone to do. It comes naturally in my pitch writing, and is something I developed a feel for doing an awful lot of pitches. I'll hit the end of a section and know somehow that I need to leave something dangling to carry the reader through the pitch.

Keep in mind that you're trying to grab an editors interest. You want him or her to read your proposal and have questions they want to see answered, or they want to know how the story ends. The editor is the first reader your story will ever have, and you want them to be engaged in the storytelling. Sometimes I think a pitch is like telling the story around a campfire, but without the marshmallows, and with a lot fewer words.

Everyone has a different format for pitches. I've read a lot of them over the years, and I can't say any two of them have been exactly the same. And while this pitch didn't get picked up (and Michael and I were once again pulled away to our own separate careers, at least for the time being), this structure has worked well for me on countless other proposals.

And that's the key thing to remember. You put these pitches out there, they might be perfectly good stories, but they're still a chance they won't hit the mark for a particular editor. Either it doesn't quite fit into the creative slot they need to fill, or it doesn't fit in with the other projects they've already picked up for that year, or it just isn't to their taste. There's no way to know or control those sorts of things (though you should have at least a ballpark idea of your target editor's taste from the other books he edits), and it's good to keep a healthy perspective on that.

If you don't sell the idea, no sweat... put it away in the drawer and move on to the next idea with the same enthusiasm. You never know, you might pull the pitch out again a few years later, find something in the story that interests you, completely revise it, and pitch it all over again.

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