A few weeks back (apparently, while I was off on my honeymoon,) Mr. Warren Ellis was kind enough to link to the Archive on his blog. This made me very happy, since I’ve long been a fan of Warren’s stuff.
I thought I’d take a moment to reciprocate the gesture and pass along some older (but still quite valid) advice from Mr.Ellis on the art of pitching. This piece was from his old “Come in Alone” series on Comic Book Resources— a treasure trove of wisdom that I highly recommend bookmarking it for later reading.
There’s also a collected print version that you can pick up here—
Warren’s blog can be found here— and if you’ve never read his work, you can’t go wrong starting with FreakAngels– a free serialized webcomic that you can read RIGHT NOW.
Ok, enough with the intro, let’s turn it over to Warren:
All right. You’ve got your story. Now you want to try and sell it to someone.
You poor doomed bastard.
Okay, first off, do your research. You’ve got Net access. Hit the companies’ websites, see what they say about dealing with submissions. Don’t give them an excuse to turn your pitch down. Companies like Dark Horse have very specific submissions policies.
Most of them will say something like, boil your idea down into a paragraph, or a page, give us as little as possible to make a decision over, fuck you. Because, frankly, they’re not that interested. Your job is to make them interested.
They want you to boil your idea down into something that, in Spielberg’s term, “you can hold in your hand.” I’ve heard a lot of editors tell me that they look for the “high-concept” pitch. This basically means writing the advertising-copy version of your idea, as opposed to the full-blown treatment these people should be making the time to read. Doing this will also teach you a valuable skill; writing your own damn ad copy. I mean, don’t get me wrong, some of the ad people at the various companies are good. But there was one guy who would send out press releases about new artists that included details of how he had to run to the toilet and violently shit himself when their new pages came in. I had the recipients of these press releases at various magazines phone me up to read this stuff aloud to me. Know how much coverage these guys got? Well, they’re not working in the business any more. Learn to write your own ads. I wrote all the PLANETARY, THE AUTHORITY and TRANSMETROPOLITAN advertising text, taglines etc., and while they may not win me any major advertising awards, I’d rather have them than 48-point type proclaiming the comics’ effect on some suit’s lower bowel.
So that’s what you’re doing; boiling it down, distilling the idea into a reduced form. No, it won’t have the completeness of what you really want to show them, and it won’t indicate the richness and complexity of what you’re doing. Frankly, you have to live with it. Hook them with this and show them the good stuff later. Because if you don’t do it in a way that at least looks like their way, they won’t even look at it to begin with.
“…if you don’t do [your submission] in a way that at least looks like their way, they won’t even look at it to begin with.”
Are all publishers and editors like this? No. Editor Andrew Helfer at DC once told me that he likes synopses and pitches to be big, showing him everything. He wants to get a sense of what’s there. However, the blunt truth is that Andrew Helfer produced about as many comics last year as Joe Madureira. He’s an exception to the rule and generally marginalised and the rest of the editors’ club is probably working out ways to have him sterilised at this very moment.
Obviously, specific areas of the pitch will depend on what you’re pitching. If you’re talking about a miniseries, then the bare bones of the plot are required, the beats of the story from beginning to end. And I do mean just the bones; you’re flensing off all the meat and just explaining the structure, the path of the plot of inception to resolution without dressing it up. Practise it on things you haven’t written yourself, first — take a film and try to boil its plot structure down to, say, half a sheet of typed A4. If, for some godforsaken reason, you’re pitching something longer, then remember — you’ve still got to do the work in one single page to meet the demands of many companies.
For years, to beat the one-page constraint, I created what I call a Shout Sheet. An extra page that had the project’s title, my name, address and copyright mark on it, that went on top of the pitch page. It was just barely within the rules — and, crucially, it freed up space on the pitch page. If I had a tagline for the series, or maybe a high-concept logline, those would go on the Shout Sheet too.
The worst thing about trying to break in as a writer is that you can’t just shove a portfolio under an editor’s nose at a convention or meeting. You have to somehow convince the editor to sit down in their office and read you. Sometimes, yes, it’s easier to collaborate with an artist and get something drawn and lettered first. And I’ve been saying for a while that the best way to break into comics right now is to get published in the independent sector and use your indie-published work as a calling card.
“The worst thing about trying to break in as a writer is that you can’t just shove a portfolio under an editor’s nose at a convention or meeting.”
But here’s a secret.
95% of all writer’s submissions are absolute shit.
You want to impress an editor? Learn to spell. Lay out your pitch cleanly and elegantly. Be coherent. I knew of a writer who wrote the clearest, most lucid and beautifully structured synopses anyone had ever seen. The actual scripts, when they came in, was utter gibberish, made no sense at all, had plainly been written on acid. But the damn things were commissioned and paid for on the strength of clear pitches.
Be good. That’s what’ll capture an editor’s attention. Because 95% of that pile of submissions next to them is inexcusably awful, and they know it. You will stand out from the crowd because there are no semen stains on your submission, because a cursory examination shows that you have a basic grasp of English, because it reaches for concision and appears professional in its approach, because the covering letter isn’t headed “Dear Bastard.” Etcetera.
“Be good. That’s what’ll capture an editor’s attention.”
Half of this job is about being bloody-minded and not stopping until you get what you want. It’s not about education — I didn’t go to university, neither did Garth Ennis, nor Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, and none of us took any special courses in How To Write Comics because there bloody weren’t any. All the professional writers I know just saw something they wanted to do and hammered away until they were damn well doing it.
ADDENDUM: A Few Tips
There’s a rule-of-thumb for dialogue writing you might want to try. Stan Lee used it, Alan Moore uses it. An average-sized panel can stand about twenty-eight words of dialogue. Try it for a while, before you go your own way; no more than twenty-eight words in each panel.
Larry Hama’s got a trick to keep the page turning and the eye flowing across the page. He makes sure he has a caption or a piece of dialogue in the top left corner of the page and the bottom right corner. Try it for yourself, look at the effect it can create for action stories.
Make sure you’re describing something that can be illustrated. The example of this that I always use is a story David Lloyd told on Alan Moore from the production of V FOR VENDETTA: where Alan asked for a character to be standing with their back to us, smiling ironically. Try drawing that. Also be aware of human limitations. I’ve seen scripts where writers have choreographed the actions of every player in a twenty-person fight scene — for a single-pic shot couched within a nine-pic page. The poor bloody artist went mental trying to fit a twenty-person shot into that page. There’s a whole bunch of us who often sketch out our stories on scratch paper to ensure we’re not asking the artist to draw anything impossible.
And remember; they are always wrong. You are always right. Because you are the writer.