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B&N Week 152: Engaging Two Types of Readers

| November 19, 2013

BoltsNutsFeatured-engaging

We have another Tuesday upon us! Was I missed? I certainly missed you. Let’s get into some Bolts & Nuts, shall we?

This week, I want to discuss engaging the reader. However, there are two types of readers that you have to do this for: the editor, and the audience.

So, really, this week I want to talk about pitch writing as well as script writing. Just because you can write a script does not mean you can write an effective pitch. These are two distinctly different muscles that have to be used.

Many writers find pitching difficult, and I don’t blame them at all. Face it: you’ve lovingly crafted this entire world, you’ve got all these relationships between characters and places to deal with, you’ve got snazzy things going on that you want to show off. Tons of backstory and explanations you want to stuff into the pitch, because it’s all important.

But then, you’ve heard a lot of misinformation as to what exactly a pitch is. You’ve been told to be brief, you’ve been told that it’s no more than two lines, you’ve been told that it has to be interesting.

I’ve already spoken about what a pitch is and isn’t, but sometimes a reminder is needed. But even with that, it’s still difficult and nerve wracking to actually write a pitch.

I can’t take that anxiety away from you. Pitching is a difficult thing. There are several reasons for this.

A lot of times, you don’t know whom you’re pitching to. Is it a submissions editor? For smaller companies, is it the publisher? What are they looking for? Will they be interested in your proposal at all? How can you make your pitch interesting to them?

That’s a lot of angst and uncertainty, isn’t it? You look around the publishing landscape, and you see some books getting published and you ask yourself, how the hell did that happen? Or, when you see certain books get published, you wonder what the pitch for that book looked like, right?

There are certain things you have to understand about pitching a book or a story to an editor. These things will never change, so I hope you’re taking notes.

Editors are your first audience. What you’re trying to do is get them interested enough to buy the story. You’re trying to sell something, and you’ve just knocked on their door, hoping to be able to come in and give a demonstration of your abilities.

The pitch is your document that has to sell the series. For all intents and purposes, the pitch is a commercial.

Do you know what commercials do? Good commercials [and there are fewer of those being made today] and bad commercials alike are trying to do one thing: they’re trying to tell the story of the product. Sometimes, it’s done by telling an emotional story [iPhone, iPad, iPod, any vehicle, any jewelry, most laundry detergents], and sometimes it’s done by saying what the product does [Oxyclean, WipeNew, other products that has a guy almost yelling at you in a quick manner to get the virtues of their product across]. What’s the story of the product?

The before and after.

Sometimes, that before and after gets muddled as a story/message [Microsoft Surface], and sometimes the before and after is intimated [jewelry, vehicles], and a lot of times, the before and after is obvious [laundry detergent]. But each and every commercial is trying to tell the story of the product.

And that is what the pitch has to do. It has to tell the story you’re trying to sell. It has to be a commercial.

Know what else commercials are? They’re brief. They cut to the heart of the matter in order to tell their story in fifteen to thirty seconds.

Commercials also play to one of two things: the intellect, or the emotions.

Pitches have to do all of this. They have to tell a story, and the story has to have a beginning, middle, and end [this is your “before and after”], they have to be brief, and they have to play to either the intellect or the emotions of the editor. If you miss any of that, then you don’t have a pitch that is going to work.

What does this mean to you and the pitches you’re writing? Simple. It means you’re not writing effective ones, because you’re trying to fit in all the backstory, all the worldbuilding, instead of telling the story of the character in a brief, engaging way.

How do you become brief and engaging? Well, you have to go to the dictionary and thesaurus to get and understand the meaning of words, and then use them. You have to broaden your vocabulary, and in doing so, you’ll discover words that will help act as shortcuts to the meanings you were trying to convey with tons of words.

You also have to cut out all the backstory. It isn’t necessary. What’s necessary is character movement and story arc. Are you telling the story about a world, or are you telling the story about a character? Remember, you’re trying to sell something, not put anyone to sleep.

The editor is your first audience. Write the pitch like a commercial, and you’ll be doing better than most other creators who are intent upon cramming in backstory and uninteresting facts. As an editor, I don’t care about a fact in the pitch. I care about the story being told to me. I’m your first audience. Sell me something.

Your second audience is, of course, the readership. [Retailers, really, but we’ll lump them in with the readership. Without the retailer, we’re all dead in the water.]

After you’ve sold the pitch, you have to make good on the promise that you made with it. You have to write the book in an engaging way. This is not always the easiest thing.

I’ve seen a lot of books where the creators don’t load up the first issue. They want to ration the story out in order to make sure they make their page count and make sure they make the number of issues the pitch said it would.

They’re wrong.

Load that first issue up to capacity with as much awesomeness as you can. Here’s the truth in comics: your first issue will sell better than the second. A lot of comics see a huge dropoff from issue one to issue two, and I believe a lot of that can be attributed to not loading up on the first issue. The reader left the issue and they were underwhelmed, so they didn’t return for the second.

You’re doing your readers and yourself a disservice by doing that. If you load up the first issue with whatever it is about the story you’re trying to tell, you shouldn’t see a huge dropoff for the second issue. Mystery, intrigue, action, emotional manipulation, whatever it is—if you did your job correctly as a creator and front-loaded that first issue, you should see a decent retention for the second issue.

We are no longer in the speculator boom, and haven’t been there for quite some time. However, a lot of newer creators remember this phase of being light on story and heavy with flash, and so they think that’s acceptable now. The opposite is true, however. The better stories being sold and told are heavy with story and light on flash. This is what today’s audience wants.

Another thing to keep in mind: buying comics today is a serious expense. Remember being able to buy a decent haul of comics for about ten dollars? Those days are long gone. Today’s reader wants a better return on their investment, and that return is having the book stuffed to the gills with story.

The audience is not dumb. Very often, they’ll be as smart—if not smarter—than yourself. If you treat them like they’re dumb by writing down to them, they won’t stay aboard your ride. They’ll hop off at the first exit given, and they won’t look back.

I’ve said it before, and I’m going to say it again: don’t think about starting a career in comics with your opus. Very few new creators have the acumen to write their opus effectively. Start with other, smaller stories in order to get a feel for writing in the medium. This will help you tell the story that got you into comics that much more effectively.

When you’re new, your ambitions often far exceed your level of craft. The adage of writing every day is there for a reason. It prepares you for when you’re really ready for an audience to read your stories. While your first efforts are valiant, more often than not, they are not ready for prime time. You have to write a lot in order to prepare to engage the reader.

There are many ways to engage the reader with your story. A big, splashy opening, or a mystery that needs to be solved, or a heartfelt conversation…there is no one “right” way to do it, just as there is no wrong way to do it.

However, just because there’s no wrong way does not mean there are no unsuccessful ways.

I, personally, am not a fan of the slow burn. I find that few writers can do it effectively. For newer creators, I wouldn’t suggest trying to engage the reader by doing a slow burn. You haven’t yet made a name for yourself, so readers aren’t going to know what they’re getting into. I believe that trying a slow burn will be unsuccessful for newer creators.

Here is something that I do not believe that new creators actually take into account when they try to make a book: the audience has a certain expectation when reading in the genre your story takes place in. It sounds simple, but I have the scripts to show that creators sometimes forget what genre they’re writing in, or whom they’re writing for.

The best way to engage the reader is to have an introductory character. This character is the audience, and has things explained to them along the way. I spoke about this in worldbuilding. It doesn’t have to be the main character, either. Secondary characters are perfectly acceptable. Use this character to tell the audience what’s going on. You’d be surprised at how many creators forget to do this, too. They want to put all the information into the pitch, but forget to put this same information where it’s really needed: in the script.

Engaging the reader is not difficult. You just have to make a conscious effort to do it, while acknowledging which reader you’re writing for. For editors, you’re selling the story, and for the audience, you’re telling the story.

Homework: I want you to write three pitches. The first pitch is a short story. Think of it as an anthology story. The second pitch is for a limited series. The third pitch is for an ongoing book. No scripting homework, unless you want to work on your opening sequences.

See you in seven.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at [email protected] for rate inquiries.

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