Poplife: Issue #13

Thu, May 2nd, 2002 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Matt Fraction, Columnist


I sat down the other day to work up a pitch for something I'm just calling SMILE right now, and realized that I am utterly horrible at working up pitches out of thin air. I've tried doing it on several occasions and can never get the goddamned things to work. So what I normally do is write the entire script of whatever story it is I'm trying to tell, and then work the pitch backwards out of that.

Stupid, I know.

So, in an attempt to get a little wind back in my pitch-writing sails, I asked my friend Antony Johnston(FRIGHTENING CURVES, EMILY SPOOK, ROSEMARY'S BACKPACK, co-NIGHT RADIO serial writer, and about 800 other things) about The Subtle Art of the Pitch…

Note: Antony's charmingly eccentric British spellings remain unedited so that the reader may get a better 'flavour' for his gleefully obtuse "King's English."

[Johnston and Fraction sit and talk.]
Johnston and Fraction sit and talk.
FRACTION: One thing I noticed, in the last press release for NIGHT RADIO-- the one that featured our respective contributions-- was that your bit was very slick, very polished and professional-sounding. Whereas mine sounded like someone had to go through and remove the stuttering and the swear words. Basically, the PR consisted of two different styles of Pitch. One very honed and practiced, the other... Not (which should come as no surprise to anyone, really).

So what's your pitching style? How does it influence what you're working on?

JOHNSTON: Style... I guess I must have one, but it comes naturally out of what I want to say with a pitch. The pitch has two purposes for me; on the back end, it's a blueprint document which I will use when I actually write the script.

Primarily, though, it's an advertisement for the story. I have to make people - editors, readers, whoever - think, "Yeah, that sounds worth spending some of my time and money on." Nothing leaves my desk without going through a second draft; you only get one chance to make a first impression, and all that.

So, what comes first? Do you craft the pitch document before anything else?

Not exactly. The first thing I do, the very first thing, is sit down with a note pad and scribble. Often on my commute home. I pity anyone reading over my shoulder on the train; "VITAL SCENE: Sarah discovers the coven attempting to summon seven demons; they spot her, a struggle, she's captured, bound and prepared for sacrifice," or some shit like that.

No-one sits next to me on the train any more.

I didn't know you wrote THAT kind of comic book, Antony.

Mark my words; satanic porn is the future of comics, baby.

Anyway. Yeah. I scribble, I work it out, I run it through my head till it's almost there. Then I sit down with my pitch template and plug in the gaps, plotting and re-plotting, reshaping characters and what have you, until it's done.

Part of me wants to say that my difficulty with pitching is that I'm, uh... Unique and Eccentric. The other part wants to say I am Dumb and Lazy. I'm a goddamn train wreck.

Plus, I've worked in print media for going on five years now. I write magazine coverlines, and house ad copy, every month (Even though, as a crayon, it isn't my job. I'm just good at it). I guess that probably has an influence.

This is what kills me: I do stuff like that too… I just can't get my head around the entirety of a story until it's all out there.

[Johnston and Fraction sit and talk.]
Johnston and Fraction sit and talk.
And, you know, my pitches are pretty big. Everything that an editor needs to know is in there - concept, teaser lines, plot, characters, even sample script... My pitches are never less than five or six pages, even without the script.

None of that affects the subject matter, though, if that's what you're asking with the second part...?

No, no-- that you use your Pitch as a roadmap was what I think I was getting at. I dunno, I've not had enough coffee yet.

I guess I'm not that psychically organized. I tend to have big beats in my head that I know I'm writing towards, and...

Story continues below

Let's try this:

Did you ever make Rock Candy when you were a kid? And you'd tie knots in the string, and those knots would become the... Err... Candy-Pods from where all the other Candy would grow? I tend to write like that, I think. I have five or six big bullet points I know I'm working towards in a vague three- or five-act structure, and the rest sorta happens organically over the course of the drafts.

Which doesn't make a very good first impression at all. So I've started just writing whole pieces and then reverse engineering the Pitches out of there, at which point it's easy; it's like a book report.

The candy analogy is lost on me, sorry. But I know what you mean, and yeah, I do do that; that comes in the scribble stage. Then I fill in the gaps during plotting.

But, you know, I envy your style in a way. I spend way too much time writing and polishing shit like that, whereas you just seem to throw it out of your brainpan and it still sounds great. Is that actually what you do, or have I fallen for a cunning PR facade?

Sadly, no, it's not a facade-- the MANTOOTH stories were... Well, that's hard to say, because Al Qaida fucked up funny for a while. LOTI was one fell swoop over the course of a few days-- I wrote a paragraph pitch of the idea and that got the nod. I wrote a one-sheet that was very, very vague (more of a fleshing out of the first act and character sketches of the three leads) and did... Four pages of script with it? I think four. And then that got the tap and I did the rest over the following week, aiming for knots on the line. BIG HAT was all setup, basically. Each project's been a little different than the last, but they've all shared that spontaneity.

There's a lot of cooking time where... You know, I'll just stare out of a window for ten hours and tell everyone I've spent the day writing.

Hey, you're not alone there.

I suppose that part of my problem is that I love to surprise myself while writing, and a too-detailed map wrecks that for me. And, too, in my experience I never ever STOP tinkering if it's hypothetical, you know? Always convinced that I can rewrite it before I've actually written it.

[Johnston and Fraction sit and talk.]
Johnston and Fraction sit and talk.
Thing is, though - I mean, I know no-one's ever happy with their work. God knows I'm not, and even when I'm writing it I'm thinking "Christ, that could flow better" or whatever. But don't you find it harder to actually finish, if you don't really know where you're going? I have written stuff like that before, and while it's OK, I always get towards the end and start panicking about how I'm going to wrap it all up. And then I'm never happy with it. Don't you get that?

Oh, sure, sure-- but if… Let's see if I can explain this. If I can REWRITE something, if I can FIX something, then I'm doing something real, something proactive, it's a box I can check off of my to-do list. But I need it in front of me first, I need a draft, even if it's horrible, to rebuild from. If it's all still hypothetical, I'll rewrite and rewrite forever and ever, because it's not real yet, it's not outside of my head.

And yeah, I can't write unless I know where I'm going. Even if it's vague, there's always a direction I'm heading towards. I notice too that I'm starting to write looser and looser rough drafts and then building it up on the rewrite.

You know, I read a really great line in CONVERSATIONS WITH WILDER, where Billy Wilder tells Cameron Crowe something to the effect of "If there's a problem in your third act, the problem is REALLY in the first." And, if anything, that's really applicable to me. Usually the first draft is the plot draft, and any sort of nuance comes in during a polish.

So, you can kind of see why I'm pitch-retarded.

Story continues below

Aside from the obvious points, anyway.

Well, that I completely agree with. That's *why* I plot everything as tight as I can before scripting.

So, how about this-- do you surprise yourself in the writing? Do you, let's say you're following your pitch blueprint when you realize, oh, no, something's wrong, he should zig and not zag, or whatever? How much do you stick to you blueprint?

Oh yeah. Not too much, but... For me, the roadmap is a guide, a general A-B-C plan. The surprises, for me, come in the actual details. The composition, the dialogue, the little character pieces.

Here's something; I NEVER, EVER write dialogue until I'm actually scripting. Not one jot. Dialogue is one of my strong points, and it comes pretty easy; so for me, that's the surprise. There's a scene in ROSEMARY , for instance, which has become known as "The CHEERS Monologue." That was one of those surprises, something I didn't even think of until I was scripting; and it's become one of my favourite parts of the book.



I do all kinds of dialoguing along the way. Little bits of conversation, or one-liners. The first line of ANODYNE was something someone said to me, and it went right into the notebook-- I knew that's what it was the minute I heard it. There are times, too, where I'll know only the vaguest of things about a scene, but one character or the other will have to say X Y Z... And flesh it out from there, let the characters sort of define the beat instead of me trying to shoehorn a plot point in.

Right, right. I have stuff like that in my notebook, and a word file called SCRIBBLES which I jot stuff like that into; but the weird thing is, it almost never actually ends up like what I scribbled. Does that make sense? I'll write, I dunno, "Nice night for a walk" as an opening line that inspires me. And then I'll plot it, start scripting, and by the time I'm finished the first line is actually, "Fuck me, it's hot today." Or something. Hell, I don't know. So OK, I guess I do occasionally write a few words, but I'm not actively thinking about dialogue, not at all, until I actually start scripting.

Dude, you actually call it SCRIBBLES?

You fop.

What, I should call it DOC AWESOME? Fuck you, Yanqui.

Two words, olde chap-YORK and TOWN.

But, no-- I catch your drift. I'm a total sound-bite thief anyway-- I'm always jotting down shit I overhear or mishear and then giving it to a character to say.

[Johnston and Fraction sit and talk.]
Johnston and Fraction sit and talk.
Oh, yeah. My favourite is with song lyrics I've misheard. There's a chapter in FC which is titled after a misheard A-HA lyric. Seriously. No-one but me gets the joke, but you know - *I* laughed.

I guess what I'm getting at is dialogue and plot are almost the same thing to me. Dialogue is the only thing the audience reads anyway, you know? I used to really, REALLY overwrite panel descriptions... And then I realized that all that work and time was so that the artist would know how smart I thought I was.

I understand that, yeah. My panel descriptions aren't of Moore-ish proportions either, though; they're often very terse, like Ennis' for example. But I still need to be able to picture it in my head.

Rightright. I can tell when I'm treading water when I write really long, descriptive panels for no other reason than it keeps me moving. Moving in place, sure, but moving nevertheless...

I read this theory somewhere, that you can watch a *great* movie with the sound off and still know what's going on because of the subtext, the situations, the acting... I have this weird dichotomy thing going. I know that dialogue is my strong point; and then I'm as sparse and economical with it as I can be. I just keep cutting.

See, I don't know if I cotton to that kind of thinking. I heard it all the time at film school, and just don't buy it as a universal rule, really. CITIZEN KANE, for example, wouldn't be entirely follow-able without hearing 'Rosebud', for example. But I digress.

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No, I agree. But it's a useful thing to consider, I reckon. It forces me to think visually (there's some crazy allegation that comics have pictures in them as well as words, but I don't buy it), and that's a help.

But I'm in the same boat. Cutting dialogue.

See what happens when you ask me to make sense?

I wish there were emoticons for "Wild Gesticulating With Hands."

Alright-- so let's say someone reading this wants Tips From Someone Who Knows How To Write Pitches (which we somehow stopped talking about…). As I am most assuredly NOT that kind of guy, what would you say?

Jesus... I could kill thousands of promising careers here, couldn't I?

With great power comes great responsibility, my friend.


[Johnston and Fraction sit and talk.]
Johnston and Fraction make out in a tree.
OK, let's see; Start with a tease. Something short, minimal and interesting that pulls the reader in and makes them ask a question at the end; make them want to turn over the page and find out the answer to that question. In fact, do that on every page. Burn it onto your forehead, if it helps.

Be concise. Put in as much info as a total stranger needs to understand the story, but don't ramble (unlike me right now - if I could rewrite this conversation it'd be half the length...).

Sound excited. But don't gush. Don't bother trying to tell the editor how clever you are, or how brilliant you think this passage is, or even how you think this'd make a great toy line. Walk, don't talk. (Editors have been doing this longer than you, and they will see through you.) But do have a sense of excitement in your pitch - a sense of urgency.

Erm... I think that's about it. Really. It doesn't matter whether or not you put PLOT before CHARACTERS in the document, or whatever. What matters is that you make everything really easy to follow, and as intriguing as possible. Editors never have enough hours in the day; make their lives easier - and give them something to get excited about - and you're halfway there.

Jesus, do I talk too much or what?

I would add only two things. One, put your name and contact info ON EVERY PAGE YOU SEND. Two, DON'T FUCK IT UP.

See, now you've ruined my plans to ruin the hopes of a thousand aspiring writers.

I almost always fuck it up.

A wealth of comic pitches are available online (if, like me, at the end of this article you still have no idea how to make a friggin' pitch work). Dwayne McDuffie has a wealth of comics material on his excellent site. Warren Ellis has quite a few posted as well, including his original proposal for PLANETARY. Larry Young-y'all remember him from these parts, yeah?-- presented two pitches during his tenure as a CBR columnist, following the style he presents in his THE MAKING OF ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE, which is just about as nuts-and-bolts as you'll ever get. All that's left after reading all of the above is really just doing the work.

Antony Johnston and Aman Chaudhary's award winning drawn-novel FRIGHTENING CURVES is available thru the folks atCYBEROSIA PRESS. Antony is also one of the smart fellers behind the comics-commentary website Ninth Art. We here at Poplife World HQ would like to thank him for his kind participation in this piece.

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