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Devourer of Words 003: The Wind-up Before the Pitch

Marc Bernardin

We continue our ramp up to WonderCon Anaheim with this column by Toucan contributor Marc Bernardin. The perfect counterpoint to last week’s Portfolio Review Tips by fellow columnist Steve Lieber (click here to read), Marc explores how to pitch a written concept for the writers out there who are looking to present an idea for a series during this year’s convention season. Here’s Marc . . .

Convention season is on the horizon—WonderCon Anaheim is next week, Comic-Con International in July, and at least a dozen smaller-but-legit shows throughout the rest of the year—and for the would-be comics writer, it’s a peculiarly perilous time. Most if not all of the comic industry’s gatekeepers can be found in a centralized location, primed to have to interact with the public at large and shackled to a booth for a certain amount of time—unable to run away.

So how does one go about scoring work at a convention?

The easy answer is: Be an artist.

Pretend you’re one of those gatekeepers and someone walks up to you, asking if you’ll take a look at their work. If it’s an artist doing the asking, any comic book editor can tell, after looking at three or four pages of sequentials and a few pinups, if you’re ready for the majors. Immediately. If they like what they see, you’re on to the next level. If not, they’ll point out a few areas where you might be able to improve to get there and send you on your way.

But it doesn’t work that way for writers. There’s no portfolio review for us. Determining if we can do what we claim to do takes time. The person has to read it. Which puts us at something of a disadvantage—but not an insurmountable one. Because if you have an idea, there are publishers out there who will listen. Here’s how to make the best possible first impression.

1. Don’t be a Putz

Be as nice as you possibly can. Yes, of course, you’ve got the story equivalent of buttered toast and whomever you’re pitching should feel honored to bask in your wordsmithery aura, let alone be given the particular pleasure of publishing your work. But they don’t know that. What they do know is that they’ve been on their feet for days on end, they’ve been eating crappy food during the day while drinking entirely too much at night, and they’ve been listening to a parade of people who think that their ideas are like buttered toast. Don’t be another problem in their day. If they have to reschedule, reschedule. If they have to cancel, suck it up—if you don’t give them a hassle about it, they’ll remember you as the guy who didn’t give them a hassle and be a bit more forgiving when you do actually get to pitch.

2. Know Your Story’s First, Best Destiny

You should, before rolling up on anyone and telling them what you’ve got, know exactly what you’ve got. What’s the shape of it? Is it a graphic novel, a miniseries, or an ongoing? Know the shape of the container you’ll be pouring your content into. Of course, some stories are malleable and can evolve in success (or be curtailed in failure), but be prepared to explain why the shape you’ve chosen is the best shape. The Dark Knight Returns worked best as a miniseries because it’s a contained story that’s about an aging hero’s last burst of relevance, while The Walking Dead needs to have the room to stretch, since it’s all about the characters and their relation to each other and the world around them and that’s what sets it apart from every other zombie story.

Along with this, you should know which publishers would make a good home for your story. Do the research, find out who publishes what, and target the ones that either have a history of doing the kind of book you’ve got or, conversely, the ones that might be looking for you and your comic. Know who publishes superhero books and who doesn’t; know who likes horror or who wants smaller, indie-style comic dramas. Survey the marketplace and pick your targets.

3. Craft the Scalable Pitch

Understand that all you might get is a few minutes of distracted time to make your pitch, so come hard with the shortest version of your story you can, but be able to expand it as required. Yes, this shortest version, this “elevator pitch” will have none of the nooks and crannies that make our most beloved stories so endlessly fascinating, but you have to boil it down to its most basic essence. And understand this: You are going to have to give away your big idea right here. You can’t be coy. You can’t be precious. You have to say that Gwyneth Paltrow’s head is in the box.

Let’s pretend you’re pitching The Matrix. You won’t have the time, on a crowded convention floor, to lay out the story of Thomas Anderson, a workaday corporate drone who’s always sensed that something wasn’t quite right about the world around him and he’s been trying to find these two legendary hackers who’ve discovered something called The Matrix and he finally gets in contact with them and so on and so forth. You won’t have the time to get into all the philosophical underpinnings and Alice in Wonderland motifs.

No, here’s the elevator pitch for The Matrix: In a postapocalyptic, artificial intelligence-controlled future, humans are wired from birth into a virtual-reality prison called The Matrix, which replicates the world of today and is policed by “agents” who can bend the rules of physics. But a small band of humans have escaped The Matrix and have formed a resistance to fight the machines. And they’ve just found their leader of prophecy . . . a slacker who doesn’t know who or what he is.

Now, if that hooks them, you can start filling in the details of character and theme and plot. You can woo them further with the tapestry of your story—which you absolutely need to know. Be able to answer any question they might have. If it doesn’t hook them, no harm, no foul. But it wasn’t because they didn’t believe that you were the right person to tell that story.

4. Know Your Ending

If you’ve sold them on your elevator pitch, you now need to sell them on the totality of your vision. You need to know the beginning, middle, and ending. Using The Matrix again as an example, you need to know where Neo will end up at the end. If it’s a story about faith in oneself, you need to explain that by the end of the story he will believe and that belief will unlock, for Neo, the power to bend the world around him to his whim; hat he will rescue his friends from certain doom, that he will do what no other human has and stand against Agent Smith, that he will cheat death.

You don’t have to have all the connective tissue yet, nor will anyone expect you to. Anyone who works with creative people for a living will also know that you’ll discover all sorts of things on the way. But you can’t plan a trip without a destination. And to steal liberally from The Hunt for Red October, editors, like Russians, don’t take a dump without a plan.

5. Know What’s Worth Protecting

It is entirely possible that the person you’ve just pitched really likes your story and will agree to kick it up the ladder (and, if the operation is small enough or the person is important enough, just give you the green light)—with a few small tweaks. Maybe there are some content issues and they want PG-13 instead of R. Maybe they want to start with a miniseries and not the ongoing you’d envisioned. Maybe they think there’s an element of your story that could be better a different way.

You need to decide for yourself what kind of changes you’re willing to make and what you won’t. Because before you sign a contract is the last time where saying no—always your greatest weapon as a creator—won’t come with any adverse effects. Be respectful, but know the line you aren’t willing to cross and hold firm. Otherwise, you just won’t respect yourself in the morning.

To sum up: Be bold (and be good), and mighty forces will come to your aid.

Mark Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the third Tuesday of every month on Toucan.