THE ART OF PITCHING WITHOUT PITCHING
I love writing comic books.
Writing pitches? Not so much.
For some reason, it's easier for me to write full scripts for 22 page comics than it is to write a one page summary of what those comics are going to be about.
Unfortunately, you generally don't get the job of writing the comics in the first place, until you've successfully completely the act of the pitch.
Nevertheless, I have so far managed to build a relatively successful career in comics for myself while rarely if ever writing true pitches. I tried to pitch "The Other Side" to editor Will Dennis at Vertigo, but got turned down by him two or three times. It was only once I got him to read my script for issue #1 that I won him over. I wrote lots of pitches and longer proposals for "Scalped," but it was a simple document called "19 Reasons Why We Need To Do Scalped" that finally got the series greenlit at Vertigo. I laid out my entire plan for "Punisher MAX" to editor Axel Alonso on a train ride to Coney Island. Most of the other jobs I've gotten have come from simple email exchanges, from just a few paragraphs tossed back and forth. The art of pitching without pitching, if you will.
My philosophy for pitching: just give them the kernel of the idea in the barest, simplest form possible. Just enough to hook them. But if you can, give them the whole story. The whole thing, soup to nuts. As tight and terse as possible. It doesn't need to be a tease. It shouldn't read like the back cover of a paperback. It should lay it all out on the table. Here, this is my story. This is meat of it. Not the themes or the symbolism or any sort of lofty literary allusions you hope to work in. No - just the story.
If they like it and wanna see more, great, we can go from there. If they instantly don't like it, good, then I haven't wasted a whole bunch of time. Mine or theirs.
It's always been hard for me to write a simple pitch without going overboard and writing out the entire story in minute detail. It's almost like once I get started, I just can't stop until the whole thing is on the page. In the past, that's led to me spending a great deal of time working on pitches that prove to be way too long. Most editors, in my experience, want to see a pitch that's no more than one page. If you can't hook them with your idea in one page, then your idea likely has problems (or you suck at writing pitches, like me).
For me, it's almost like I have some sort of psychological flaw that keeps me from crafting one page pitches. If I open a blank document on my laptop and sit down to write a pitch, I'm usually going to wind up writing out the whole, long story and then end up with a big, unwieldy pitch that no one's going to want to read. But if I can just send it in an email or tell it to an editor orally, it's easier for me to condense it down and just hit the high points. It's always a chore for me to translate that into a one page pitch. I'm still working on it, though. If you can do it, if you can master the art of the one page summary, then your pitching experiences will go much smoother, I assure you.
Don't take my word for it, though. I asked some various editors I know for their own little nuggets of advice. Here's what they told me:
I prefer pitches that are a page or so in length and give a concise overview of what the series is, followed by a short paragraph that gives a brief issue-by-issue breakdown or story beats and short character descriptions, too. If that intrigues me enough, I'll ask to see more. The worst thing to see in a cold pitch is a full script. Or a pitch that involves a covert organization that fights monsters and/or fallen angels. That's easily the most common idea sent my way.
Really, pitches out of the blue are tough, no matter what. Best to lead with an e-mail inquiry and if the editor shows interest, take it from there. Build slowly, give them enough to interest them but not too much to read quickly and, like Mark Gruenwald used to say, make them want to ask you what happens next. If you get to that point, you're well on your way.
Also, pitches accompanied by a Guinness or three get special dispensation from me (meaning I am inclined to actually make time to read them).
Chief Creative Officer / Editor-in-Chief, IDW
One page, tops.
You should be able to boil it down to a sentence really.
Don't leave editors guessing. Explain the beginning, middle and end.
And I always like when people include a quick, relatable high concept that makes it easy to grasp what they're going for. Speed was "Die Hard on a bus."
Senior Vice President, Creator & Content Development, Marvel Entertainment
I like story pitches to be about a page long. If a writer can't hook me with a single page pitch, then I'm going to move on. If I like what I see on that one page, I'll ask for more. From the start, I wanna know what the story is about, who the key players are and why the story is relevant. Big picture. If I'm not hooked by that first page, then chances are the comic isn't for me and the pitch needs work. I encourage writing short character bios too - it indicates that the writer has applied some effort exploring this proposed world, and it'll give me further insight into what the comic is ultimately about.
Editor, Dark Horse Comics
Give me a short and sweet logline right up front. If the logline is more than two or three sentences, it sets a possibly unfair but unfortunately true tone for the rest of your pitch, which is that I'm not going to want to read it. Editors have a lot to read every day (cue the industry's tiniest violin), so the faster you can get me hooked, the more likely I am to want to read it. And that headspace is exactly where you want the person reading your work to be.
Editor, Marvel Comics
In pitches, I tend to look for a very easy to digest idea at the core, something that affects me instantly. Many times pitches are dressed up in a lot of window dressing (extraneous characters or descriptions of long fight scenes) and I'm left not quite understanding what the story is actually "about." I need to know why I'm spending Marvel's money to buy your story.
I don't necessarily need writers to tell me what their "theme" is or anything too college-y, but I tend to gravitate toward stories that make some statement about the human condition (to coin a cliche) or stories that say something new about a character, something fresh.
I also don't think you can underestimate how important it is to make your pitch entertaining to read. I want to get excited while I'm reading these couple pages. Too many pitches from new writers are like a list of story beats with nothing unifying the thoughts. I get bored with stuff like that, and for a new writer ,that's probably deadly.
Editor, Marvel Comics
A submission needs to grab me in the first few lines. A sentence that sums up the idea, or at least the mood and feel of the story, will certainly get my attention. It can be as simple as, "Where were you when magic came back?" (the first line from the "Magus" submission) or "A gritty slow cooked, southern crime romance..." (from the "Loose Ends" pitch). After that, just make it good!
President/Publisher, 12 Gauge Comics
So there you have it; keep it short and to the point and just try to hook the editor, not bludgeon them. If your idea is good, then just allow it to stand on its own two legs.
I leave you now with a parting gift. A couple of my own attempts at pitches, one successful, one not so much. First, there's my pitch for a "Joker's Asylum" one shot from 2007. This job I actually got, and if you've read the issue, you'll see I stuck pretty close to my original pitch. The second pitch is from 2004. It's an idea for a zombie miniseries titled "I, Zombie" that I submitted to Vertigo around the same time I first pitched "Scalped." There currently is a Vertigo series called "iZombie," but there's no connection between the two. My pitch didn't go anywhere, though looking back at the idea now, there's still something about it I like.
Joker's Asylum: The Penguin
Pitch for a One-Shot by Jason Aaron
In a flashback, we see how young Oswald Cobblepot was laughed at and ridiculed by a group of girls when he tried to ask one of them out.
In the present, we see Penguin out on the town, surrounded by beautiful women who are always fawning over him, telling him how handsome he is. But looking around at them, he knows it's all fake and that they're only interested in his money. He sends them all away in disgust. Later that night, he's at an underground bazaar, buying black market goods, when he finds a cage of young women who are being sold as slaves. The women are drugged out of their minds, but one of them leans against the cage and whispers to Penguin: "Help me." Penguin is captivated by the woman. He buys her and takes her home.
He quickly falls madly in love with this woman and treats her like a queen, giving her the finest gowns and taking her to the most expensive restaurants. He loses interest in his criminal empire and loses interest in Batman as he becomes consumed with this woman, and with wining and dining her, hoping that eventually she'll return his love. That she'll see beyond his strange appearance and love him for who he really is.
In another flashback, we see how young Oswald became obsessed with birds. The more he was rejected by human society, the more he came to love these birds. At one point, he gets the birds to attack and shit all over the group of girls who had laughed at him earlier. But afterwards, a group of jocks from school corner him and beat him senseless for attacking the girls.
In the present, Penguin pours his heart out to the woman, wanting desperately for her to return his love. But then he catches her trying to escape and realizes that she's terrified of him. She's seen him for who he really is and thinks him a monster. Penguin stares her down with murder in his eyes…
In flashback, we see young Oswald coming home after being beaten up by the jocks. He goes to see his birds, his only true friends in the world. But he's handling one of them when it tries to wriggle free, pecking at his hand and drawing blood. Oswald freaks out. He crushes the bird in his hands and trashes the cages. Then he realizes what he's done and kneels over the dead bird, sobbing.
In the present, instead of killing the woman, Penguin does something even more cruel. He returns her to the bazaar where he found her and sells her back into slavery.
Pitch for a Five-Issue Mini-Series
THE CONCEPT: A zombie story from the zombie's point of view. A revisionist horror tale where the undead are the sympathetic characters and the living are the monsters. When the walking dead descend on a secluded mountain town, it's the few survivors who eventually demonstrate the greatest capacity for violence, perversion and evil. The zombies, on the other hand, are simple creatures, who like innocent newborn babies have very basic needs: they hunger, and they feed.
THE STORY: When his secluded mountain town is inexplicably besieged by the walking dead, Postal clerk Willie Scruggs frantically makes his way across town to the sanctuary of the local church, expecting to meet up with his loving wife, but instead finding her in the arms of another man. During the ensuing scuffle, Willie is bitten by one of the converging zombies. Locked out of the church, poor Willie is soon zombified himself.
When one family leaves the church, hoping to drive to the next town, and then returns a few days later as zombies, the other twenty survivors resign themselves to waiting out the siege. Despite their living quarters, the survivors spend little time worshipping or praying. Unable to deal with their outrageous situation, they instead degenerate into a haze of alcohol and sexual abandon. The only outsiders are the awkward, overweight Albert, Carol, a teenage girl who lost both her parents, and the priest, who's suffering a breakdown, since he assumes that the Rapture has come and he's been left behind.
Meanwhile, Willie mills around outside with the hundreds of other zombies. Led by the faint vestiges of instinct or memory, he goes to his old job every morning and sits in the same spot with his old buddies, all now zombies too. He wanders aimlessly through his house and the remains of his former life.
Driven to a lustful rage by the debauchery around him, Albert rapes Carol, and as punishment, the other survivors feed him to the zombies. Soon the humans are making armed assaults on the zombies, hunting them through the woods. Men and women alike take perverse joy in shooting their former bosses, old lovers and annoying neighborhood kids. They mutilate the dead and keep score on who downs the most.
Whenever one of the humans slips up (gets drunk and falls off a ledge, crashes their car on a grocery run), the zombies are there to devour them completely, leaving no shred of meat behind. The human survivors on the other hand leave half-eaten gobs of food all over town. While the humans argue over money pilfered from the dead, the zombies mill about in the bank, tramping blindly over piles of cash. As the sexual escapades of the survivors spawn jealousy and violence, the zombies lie together, oblivious to one another's nudity or sex.
Soon, a drunken mishap with a flamethrower leads to the destruction of the grocery store and with it, the only food supply. As food begins growing scarce, some of the survivors plan to make a try for the nearest town, but find that someone has trashed the engines on their vehicles. As the weeks go by, their starvation and paranoia lead them to begin hunting, murdering and eating one another.
Once the primal descent reaches its zenith, the traitor within the humans is revealed to be Carol, who's been morbidly disturbed ever since her rape. In conjunction with her suicide, she opens the doors of the church, letting in the zombie hordes. Willie's wife, who's been stricken with guilt for months, ends up half-eaten and zombified. Her former lover is skewered on an iron fence and served up like a shish kabob for the undead. In the end, once the survivors are completely wiped out, Willie passes his legless wife, clawing helplessly in the dirt. He doesn't pause, doesn't blink, doesn't remember her at all. He just wanders on, looking for his next meal.
THE HOOK: "I, Zombie" is a different take on the genre than current books like "Walking Dead "and DC's own "Toe Tags." It's a dark, pessimistic tale that should appeal to fans of straight-forward horror work as well as those who prefer their monsters more ambiguous. "I, Zombie" is the thinking man's flesh-eating, cannibalistic gore-fest.
That's all for this week. Good luck with the pitching.
See you on the other side.
Jason Aaron is an Eisner and Harvey Award nominated comic book writer whose current work includes the critically-acclaimed crime series "Scalped" for DC/Vertigo and "Wolverine," "Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine" and "PunisherMAX" for Marvel. He was born in Alabama but currently resides in Kansas City. His beard is bigger than yours.