Once upon a time, I had the opportunity to tell a Somewhat Famous Fantasy Author about My Big Idea, and I kind of botched the pitch. “Kind of” because at the time I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. It was only in retrospect, years later, that I saw how I had blown an opportunity.
Here’s what I said:
“It’s a story about this person who’s a bespoke arms dealer. She makes guns for the underworld. One day she’s granted the ability to sense, within a sphere of a certain radius around her, the exact placement of every object, every person—even through walls.”
He thought it was a cool idea. The problem is, I didn’t also say this:
“This changes her life and career in more ways than one. Up until that point, she was Switzerland, a neutral player by choice. She kept herself in the dark. Now, she’s put in situations where she no longer has the luxury of being ignorant. She’s stuck having to make moral choices no regular human being ever should, let alone someone like her. And the story unfolds from that.”
The first half of my pitch was an idea anyone could have come up with, and for all I know they probably have. The second half, though, was the real story, the part of it that actually makes the story interesting instead of just another shoot-‘em-up.
Which story would you rather read?
My fault was in assuming people would be interested enough in the core concept that based on that alone they would be willing to set aside however many minutes or hours of their time to read it. But it doesn’t work that way. They need to hear what it is about the idea that only you can bring to the table, that only you can see in it, that they will gladly give up some TV time or WoW time for.
How we talk about a story says a great deal about how we think about it ourselves. We may have a great idea, but if we don’t pitch it in a way that makes it clear to someone else why it’s great—why it is the way it is—we’re just tossing ideas around.
I’m discovering a big part of the pitch process involves giving people as much information as possible about why you put the story together the way you did, what larger choices you made about it. Those aren’t going to be obvious from the Level One synopsis above. The readers need the Level Two pitch, in which you talk motive and impetus and what doors the story will (in theory) open for the reader.
Much of this was inspired by a comment in an article about George R.R. Martin turning down Neil Gaiman’s proto-Sandman pitch for the Wild Cards anthology: “ … if you described the Sandman concept in a vacuum, most sane people would blow you off. It’s hard to tell the great ideas from the crazy ones, and even harder to tell who will be able to properly execute on anything. The entertainment world is overflowing with stories of people having to pitch and pitch and pitch for something that turns out to be uber successful.”
Apart from the sheer volume of pitches out there, I thought, which makes the odds terrible enough, why does this happen? In big part, perhaps, because the pitches in question are only done on one level. There isn’t enough emphasis on why this story is the way it is, rather than what it is.
Maybe people are afraid to supply more information than that because they don’t want to spoil the idea, or have it stolen. But look again at the pitch above: is it possible to guess how that story will unfold, in specific, ruinable detail? Not really, and that’s part of why it works. If you gave that pitch to five different people, you’d get five completely different finished products, in which the Level Two details of the second half of the pitch were implemented entirely differently. (And maybe one of them would shrug and decide he couldn’t do anything with the story, because it was beyond him. Fair enough.)
When I first started writing, I did not have any ideas about a story, or narrative, or anything of that kind at all. I wrote because I thought the mere fact I was writing would be interesting enough by itself. I later realized this point of view is at least partly the product of thinking about the whole process backwards: we see someone rich famous who does X, and we infer that if we, too, do X, then we will be famous (or at least rich). Later, I found out how that same point of view had made it difficult for me to pitch my own work to people. If it wasn’t interesting enough on the face of it for them, tough on them. But that was my own fault as a pitchman, and my unwillingness to learn the art of describing my own work in a way that sparked real interest worked against me.
The more you can say why your story is the way it is, the easier it’ll be to write, and pitch, and draw an audience for.