Be A Pitcher, Not A Catcher

Alternate title: “We Need A Pitcher, Not A Rectal Itcher.”

I digress.

David Hill — he who is staring balefully at you right there — broke into my house yesterday. He was dressed as some kind of… robot? Robot ninja? I’m really not sure. He had a circuit board strapped to his chest, but a black hood pulled taut over his head. He had a fake ray gun and some homespun smoke bombs. A ninjabot? A ro-ninja? Robo-ronin? Whatever. Anyway, he threatened me with violence if I didn’t address the question of, “What makes a good pitch” on this here bloggerverse. He wants me to tell you how to pitch? I can do that, I guess?

(Oh, for the record? This is not David Hill, despite what Google Images might tell you.)

Anyway, on with the pitch talk, lest David harm me and my non-existent children.

Stop Right There! Disclaimer Ahead

Caution: The Ground Will F**king Eat You I have no bloody idea what I’m talking about here.

I am not a pitchmachine. Yes, I’ve pitched things in both written form and verbally, and my pitches have struck gold more often than they haven’t (though we’re maybe talking 55%, so it’s not a high margin). Thing is, though, I never really paused to take a good look at the topic. So, this is me, blindfold on, feeling my way through a dark hallway, and you’re along for the ride. But seriously, if someone puts poop on the floor so I step on it, or tries to get me to touch a goat’s bait-and-tackle here in the dark, I promise you, there will be Hell to pay.

I’ll pull this dark hallway over and we can all just go home.

Are we clear?

Good. Moving on!

Oh, and this loose stool of a blog post will apply to both written pitches and verbal ones. This isn’t a “query letter” specific entry, for instance, it’s just some general thoughts on the subject of pitching your shiznit.

Keep It Short And Sweet, Like Strawberry Shortcake

In high school and college, a teacher might have said, “The paper is due next Friday, and it needs to be between 7 and 10 pages.” Everyone else would scramble and try to crank out 10+ pages, while I’d aim for a cool seven. And — on papers, at least — I nailed ‘em. Why? Because teachers and professors don’t want to read a ton of shit. If each student in a class of 30 writes three-too-many pages, that’s 90 extra pages the prof’s gotta read. Say what you want to say in as minimal a way as possible. I always went for the minimum, and one teacher even said he appreciated it. Not because I was aiming low, but because I was embracing brevity and getting to the point.

A pitch, I think, is the same way. Just like how, in a query, you’re gonna want to encapsulate the piece in a single sentence, and then expand on that concept with what is approximately one full paragraph. Keep it brief. Get to the point. Don’t dick around. Nobody wants to hang around while you meander through some long blah-blah-blah ZZZZzz.

Remember: these people are reading or hearing a metric butt-ton of pitches. From the moment you come in the door or your email hits their box, they’re ready to throw you on your ass. Don’t give them the reason.

Paint Them A Picture, Don’t Draw Them A Schematic

Man, that is the lamest way I could’ve just said, “Show, Don’t Tell,” but I’ve said that so many times. I wanted to try something new for you people. Hrm. Anyway. Language in all forms is best when expressive, when it paints a picture and sets a scene. It is least effective when you outright tell them what’s happening. Telling is how an 8-year-old shares a story. “And then Bobby punched his hamster, and then the hamster was all sad, and then the hamster was all dead, and then Bobby’s Dad made Bobby eat the hamster, and then Bobby cried, and then, and then, and then.” Seriously, listening to a child tell you a story is goddamn interminable. It’s like, “Jesus Christ, kid, can’t you set the stage for me a little bit?” And he’s all like, “I peed.”

What was I saying?

Oh, right. You’re selling a concept, yes, but you’re also selling yourself as the keeper and the speaker of that concept. Even the baddest-assed idea this side of Moon Badgers won’t be saved by clumsy, plodding execution during the pitch. Share a little of the story. Bring it alive. Use descriptive language. Assume that some of the same skills that you bring to the table when crafting a story should be put into play when trying to sell the story.

This has its limits, of course, and that limit speaks to the first issue: brevity.

You Have A Voice, So Use It

It’s pretty simple. You write in your voice, so pitch in your voice. You need to be engaging and show yourself off as much as you’re showing off the work. People connect with good ideas, but they also connect with people. I’ll make up a number here and say it’s 60/40 — they’re connecting 60% with the story, but 40% with you as storyteller.

If you don’t know what your voice is, you need to pay attention. It’s in there somewhere. Maybe you haven’t discovered it yet. If you haven’t, then I’d (perhaps harshly) argue that you’re not really ready to be pitching. Back to the bullpen with you.

Your Tumescent Erection Is Their Tumescent Erection

I’d originally written that as, “Your excitement is their excitement,” but I’m always saying crass things, so I figured I’d wing an erectile reference in there for good measure. Just to make sure you’re all still listening.

When you pitch, be excited about the concept. I mean, not so excited that you’re pissing wildly like a water wiggle and stammering through the pitch like a guttering engine, but if you can’t act like the concept is interesting, why should anyone else care? This comes across both in how you write it and pitch it verbally, I think. You loving it might — might — help them to love it. You sounding indifferent to it will almost certainly ensure their equal indifference.

Use The Real World (Er, Not The MTV Show)

When we pitched, we had real world examples ready to fly. News stories, facts, data — for whatever reason, they really seemed to appreciate that what we were talking about had resonance and related to Real World Things in some way. Now, this is less useful when it comes to wild sci-fi or fantasy concepts, but even those must be grounded in something — even if it’s just, “This character is sort of like this Green Beret uncle I had…” it might be enough of a hook.

Be Careful With Comparisons

It’s possible that the easiest course of action is to compare your work to something else. Certainly that’s a Hollywood kind of joke — “My script is kind of like a combination of Chinatown meets Home Alone. With a dash of H.R. Pufnstuf for good measure.” The best work, I think, stands alone when you show how it’s a unique property, though. Certainly you might hope to capitalize on hot trends, but that’s also a risky move, as trends come and go — and if you try to hit the bullseye and miss, you’re suddenly jumping aboard a sinking ship. Like how I just totally mixed the shit out of those metaphors? This is prize material here, people. Savor it.

Now, once in a while, you might not have a choice. When I pitched Block By Bloody Block to Eddy, it was far easier to mention that I was trying to play with preexisting pop culture elements (Batman’s No Man’s Land, Grand Theft Auto, Damnation City) than to explain those concepts anew.

And, admittedly, one of the people we pitched to in LA (an assistant to an executive, I think) did ask, “Is it like this well-known property, or like this well-known property?” (Answer: It was like neither.)

Make Love To The Pitch

Okay, don’t really make love to it. What I’m saying is, you need to know that shit intimately. When we pitched in LA, we went over the pitch for hours — not just in a row, but between meetings, too. We called an associate to pitch to him, to see if it made sense and sounded compelling. Even with a written pitch, do the same. Read it aloud. Get others to read it. Practice it. Refine it. Keep refining it. It’s short, so it’s easy to juggle elements. Do it again and again and again. I know, you’re thinking, “But it’s only a pitch.” Yeah, and it’s the one shot you get. You won’t get to bring it through that particular door a second time. You either fuck the bull, or the bull fucks you.  … that’s how that saying goes, right? Get that on a goddamn bumper sticker. Damn yeah.

Have More Pitches Loaded In Your Pitch Gun

Someone might not like your pitch, and you might get the question: “What else you got?”

Or, even if they liked the first one, they might want to know what else you have in mind.

As such, have some backup pitches ready to go. Can’t hurt, can it? Who knows, maybe you’ll end up selling two or three ideas instead of one. (Be aware, though, I’ve heard funny stories how they’ll always ironically pick the pitch for which you’re least prepared. They keep asking, “What else you got?” and suddenly you’re stammering out some bullshit about, “It’s a show about… two llamas that live together, and… the one llama is gay. And the other one is an advertising executive in Manhattan. And they have an imaginary butt baby.” And boom, you have a development deal. You just made that crap up. You don’t want to write a show about two asshole llamas, but now what? Now you’re locked down, sucker.

Bonus points for anybody who comes up with a good title to that show in the comments.

So. Yeah.

That’s it. That’s all I got. You other people hanging around the water cooler, you probably have good suggestions, so toss ‘em here. Eddy, I know you have thoughts on what makes a good pitch. C’mon. Share with the class?

14 comments

  • How do you share excitement without sounding too much like a fanboy with your pitch? I’m always concerned if I show too much gusto for my project that the other editor will think “Oh, he really wants his cyborg-vampire romance novel fix and this is his chance for it.”

    • It’s possible I should phrase it differently: it’s not just about excitement, but it’s about confidence.

      There is a mode of excitement that comes from confidence, and hence is infectious. (Example: Ever meet Fred Hicks? Fred is a goddamn vibrating ball of excitement, and is a powerful cheerleader for the projects he loves and represents. But it never comes across as needy or desperate. It is, as noted, infectious.)

      Excitement that comes from a place of desperation turns the switch to the other direction: from on, to off.

      If pitching verbally, tone of voice matters. Confident tones spoken with a smile can’t hurt.

      In writing, it’s hard to convey excitement, but it is easier to convey confidence with strong language (not “fuck shit damn bastard,” obviously) and clear assertions.

      Excitement can be diminished in a written context by using lots of wishy-washy language: maybe, sort of, possibly, ehhh, pbbbt. All those wormy words should be stomped with big boots. (Though I assure you, I’m guilty of them.)

      — c.

  • That makes a lot of sense. I know I have the flaw of using excess words in a sentence, and that could change the tone of my pitches.

    Also, never write shows about gay llama couples living together. That picture just seems creepy!

    • Sounds to me like *someone* is prejudiced against gay llamas.

      I’m not naming names.

      But I am pointing fingers (*points finger at John*).

      – c.

  • @John: If the word “excitement” worries you, try “enthusiasm” instead.

    In re Comparisons: I and classmates at USC bollixed a lot of real and practice pitches of material by assuming that the stuff we liked was objectively valuable to the person hearing the pitch. If the person you’re pitching invites a particular comparison, that’s one thing. But otherwise, don’t, unless you know the tastes and commercial needs of the person you’re pitches to really, really well.

    • Jeff says good things.

      Enthusiasm is a better word, to be sure.

      And yes — that’s definitely a part of it, that the tastes of the audience may not be in line with your comparison. Further, you don’t want to box yourself in, either. “Wait, now I want it to be like The Matrix meets Green Acres. Make it more like that. And throw in a pair of gay llamas. Y’know. For the kids.”

      — c.

  • Definitely stuff to keep in mind next time I have a manuscript worth pitching.

    I for one have nothing against gay llamas, but for my money, I like hanging out with metrosexual alpacas.

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