Mailbag 3 – The Pitch

Few people know this, but I came up honest in the roleplaying world. Trained as a graphic artist, admittedly with a minor focus on writing, I never expected to be writing and editing for the Dungeons & Dragons game. I got hooked back into the game when 3e, a marvelous update, appeared. I started talking on forums, writing my own stuff, reviewing products, and entering contests.

Long story short, my reviews got me some editing work for third-party companies. That landed me some writing work. Eventually I landed the big break–Wizards had an open call for freelance editors. I had honed my skills, so I got in on that call. After determined applying to various jobs, I ended up working at Wizards.

I did my share of pitching to Dragon and Dungeon magazines, to Jesse Decker and Chris Youngs (although his name was Thomasson in those days). I remember how nervous I was. You wonder if you did it right or if some blunder will get you blacklisted. The pitch can be nerve racking, but it shouldn’t be. If you follow the guidelines and contributors’ etiquette, you might not receive a contract on the first pitch, but you are headed in a good direction.

One thing that almost got Chris Youngs to forget about me was confusion about adventure work I was doing. I had entered a contest with some adventure ideas, and won. After presenting the ideas to Dungeon, and getting the thumbs up, I decided that I wanted to do full-length treatments. I declined the Dungeon offer and pursued the projects with Monkeygod Enterprises. Chris suspected I had submitted my ideas to Monkeygod simultaneously with my submission to Dungeon, which is a breach of author’s warranty. Turns out that this wasn’t true, and Chris cut me some slack. But few breaches of contributors’ etiquette will land you in the “this writer can’t work for us again, ever” category. I’ve seen it happen.

Enough about me, though.

A lot of people want to see a sample pitch, and like you, I’ve had to do plenty. The online writer’s guidelines for D&D Insider spell out how to do one. I can understand the desire to see one, though. Here are a few detailed examples.

Dungeon–Ecology of the Rakshasa

This feature-length article will contain:

History
• Appearance of rakshasas in the world
• Involvement of rakshasas in destructive historic evens, such as the fall of Nerath
• Recent rakshasa schemes

Physiology
• Bestial appearance as a primal mark (related to deva ecology)
• Illusion as a spiritual manifestation
• The cycle of reincarnation

Psychology
• A long view
• Goodness is a path to oblivion
• Self image as messengers of suffering
• Evil is necessary
• Gods are worthless, coupled with a god complex

Culture
• The natural world and its spirits should be dominated through magic.
• Wealth, luxury, and decadence as status
• Scheming as art

Enemies and Allies
• The insidious patron
• The thorough destroyer
• The returned avenger
• The careful manipulator
• Devas and good angels
• Devils and demons

Encounters
• Three new rakshasas

Word Count: 3,500 words

Dungeon–Temple of the Yellow Skulls

After the events of the “Storm Tower” (Dungeon 166), the characters discover the location of a haunted temple in the Ogrefist Hills. The temple, once the home of demon-worshiping gnolls, now shelters the remaining Yellow Skull bandits and their fearsome leader, the half-orc death mage Kaglosi. She plans on expanding her powers by using the demons trapped in the temple’s gold-plated skulls. This delve-style adventure will contain:

Encounter 1: Camp Among the Ruins
Bloodthirsty bandits block the way with violence. Characters might discover none of the bandits is willing to enter the temple.

Encounter 2: To Eat Only Dust
Descending into the temple, the characters run afoul of the first line of defense. What seems like a simple battle with undead guardians turns into something more. The characters and monsters have to deal with a trap that cascades dust into the room, forcing everyone away from the exit doorway.

Encounter 3: Seat of Power
Characters confront Kaglosi, along with her demons and undead. The mage is in an altered state of mind, allowing for roleplaying to alter the course of the encounter. In battle, Kaglosi calls forth unnatural creatures to aid her. The characters might find their own perceptions altered. If the characters slay Kaglosi, they gain control of three more golden skulls.

Word Count: 5,000 words

Dragon–Channel Divinity: The Traveler

Eberron’s deity of change offers characters numerous options. This short feature will contain:

• A background for those truly devoted to the Traveler.
• A few feats for the Traveler’s worshipers.
• A paragon path allowing a Traveler disciple to become as changeable as his or her deity.
• Hints for using these character elements with changeable deities from other settings.

Word Count: 1,500 words

Now my hope is that you come up with some pitches of your own. My examples aren’t the only way you might go about doing so. But when you do pitch, I hope my samples help. I look forward to seeing your articles in publication.

PS: See my comments below for a little more. I should have said some of that here, but I didn’t.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the examples- for some reason it never occurred to me to make the pitches more scannable (always opting for more detail as word count allowed), but that makes perfect sense when sending to overworked editors.

    If we don’t necessarily have a recognizable name to the magazine we’re pitching to, do you recommend putting in anything to establish our credit in the pitch itself? Or does it actually, wholly rely on the strength of the idea pitched?

  2. Excellent article, Chris. I got to work with you on a project before you left and it was great. Thanks for these tips.
    .-= Matt James´s last blog ..Winning Races- Goliaths: Giants of War =-.

  3. This may seem like a stupid question, but when you list the projected word count, is that what you think you can actually write or is that just included based on the submission guidelines. That is to say, are you actually estimating how many words it will take you, or are you parroting back the expected word count of an article of that type?

  4. @Chris: following up from the previous mailbag, thank you so much for doing this. This helps those of us without as much experience in the publishing world immensely.

  5. The economy of words displayed here is staggeringly insightful.

    Going back to drawing board. Thanks Chris!

  6. Chris Sims says:

    I’m glad this helps a little. Remember, these are just examples–your idea might require differences. Your format could even be better than mine. For example, you might add a narrative summary for your adventure that’s more like the blurb on a book jacket. (Chatty and I have done that in the past.) That’s cool, as long as the blurb does what a book-jacket blurb does–sells the product.

    I do recommend an economy of words and a pitch that’s easily scannable. Also, I recommend you include at least enough detail to show you actually have an idea. A pitch telling the editor nothing but that you want to write ten feats for a fighter is bound to be ignored because it leaves too many questions unanswered.

    I also recommend you spend as much or more time on your story angle as your mechanical angle. How your mechanics fit into the game’s narrative is very important. Skill at prose writing is as important as mechanical chops.

    The Game: A short intro doesn’t hurt, but the idea is more important.

    Kato: No stupid questions! Since you didn’t ask one, I’ll tell you that my word counts are actual estimates. But I have an unfair advantage of having a good idea what the length of an article might be, having worked on so many as writer or editor. Just do your best estimating. And if you think the idea takes more than DDI allows, figure out how to trim it before the pitch. You can always try to turn one article into two.

  7. Thanks very much this is very helpful.

    I’ve recently begun looking into submitting to Dungeon and Dragon magazines and building my skills for that style of writing (such as monster stats which will be accompanying my articles from now on). This is extremely helpful and insightful. The layout and economy of words within the pitch makes such sense, yet was far beyond more previous conception.

    Thanks again and i’m looking forward to your next insightful mail bag.

  8. I’m sorry I just don’t see how this is true, “The online writer’s guidelines for D&D Insider spell out how to do one. ” in the context of the three examples given.

    Nothing about the guidelines suggests coming up with those examples to me. Am I just missing something painfully obvious?

    (Yes I get the elegance of the examples, I just don’t see how the guidelines “spell out” those examples.)
    .-= John – ObsidanCrane´s last blog ..Investigating the Fire =-.

  9. Definitely some great ideas on how to write pitches , and coming at an opportune time, as I was just working on a batch. lol
    .-= Neuroglyph´s last blog ..Review of Kobold Quarterly #13 Spring 2010 =-.

  10. Chris Sims says:

    John: Maybe my statement is really an overstatement of the facts, a semantic mistake on my part. I do feel like the writer’s guidelines give some useful hints, but I definitely see the gaps. So I don’t think you’re missing anything–it is a leap from the guidelines to my samples. I can see how they’re vague enough to leave room for interpretation and trepidation. Perhaps that’s part of the test the query process poses.

    Part of my point, though, is that your queries don’t have to look exactly like mine because of the room the guidelines leave. I do recommend getting your ideas across clearly and in a word count somewhere between 200 and 500, leaning toward a lower count.

  11. Andrew Schneider says:

    Nice article, Chris. I often feel that the pitch is often a more difficult process than actually writing the article itself! It’s always helpful to see a multitude of examples for the different types of articles out there.

  12. “Perhaps that’s part of the test the query process poses.”

    Chris if that is true, it is the exact sort of stuff that makes me not want to submit my ideas because it makes me feel that the submission guidelines are decietful. (And perhaps that feeling is a professional hazard for me now.)

    However perhaps making it explicit what is expected in a submission would reduce the amount of noise submissions, while also making it easier for those making selections to get a clear picture of what is being offered.

    Now I appreciate your efforts and examples, but in honesty I’m more discouraged than encouraged by them.
    .-= John – ObsidanCrane´s last blog ..Investigating the Fire =-.

  13. Chris Sims says:

    @John: Your view seems extreme to me. No submission or pitch guidelines I’ve seen tell you exactly what to do and what format to use. That hardly makes those guidelines deceitful. Every submission process is a sort of test. whether it’s intended to be or not. I’m not saying the process is meant as a test, but it ends up being that way because those who don’t follow the guidelines usually disappear. Those who follow the guidelines and also choose to present their ideas clearly and succinctly receive more notice. That seems perfectly normal and totally acceptable to me.

    The DDI online writer’s guidelines do make it clear what’s expected in a query. Very clear, in fact. The gaps I see are that they don’t handhold you insofar as formatting and presentation. I’ve not seen a set of guidelines that does, though. (Hence my perception of normalcy in the guidelines and the “test” they pose.) How you decide to take on those two tasks can be indicative of your skill as a writer and freelancer. Presenting the idea in a way that’s easy and quick to consume is just plain better. But It’s still the idea that matters most.

    I don’t understand why you’re discouraged by my guidance. If your experience with other processes like this is different, I’d enjoy you sharing it with the group here.

  14. Steven Siddall says:

    Chris – thank you very much for this. I’ve sent in two pitches to Dragon, and while I felt my ideas were good enough to pass muster, I always was nervous my pitches were never quite hitting the mark (and since both pitches never got offers, maybe they didn’t :D). Actual examples of pitches from a published author is immensely useful. Thank you.

  15. @Chris: a pair of other questions just occurred to me relating to the general topic of freelancing. As always, I’d much appreciate it to hear your thoughts.

    1) So, WotC is pretty clear and totally reasonable in its policy to categorically reject submissions simultaneously submitted to another publisher. If we submit something to WotC and 60 days rolls around without any sort of response, should we feel clear to submit it (or something very similar) to another publisher? At what point does that simultaneous submission limitation wear off?

    The situation I’d worry about is when an author’s pitch to WotC gets a “maybe” rather than a “no”. Of course, the author assumes because he hasn’t heard anything back after 60 days that his pitch was rejected. So, he submits it to another publisher, say Awesome Games. While Awesome Games is still reviewing the submission, WotC contacts the author and says “hey we think we have some room for this article now.” Apart from possibly burning some bridges with Awesome, if the author decides he’d rather publish in DDI, do you think WotC would then reject the submission on the basis of the author simultaneously pitching to another publisher? Has the above situation ever happened, in your experience?

    2) What has been your experience with resubmissions? For example, say if we submitted something to DDI, got no response, then went back and retooled the pitch to do a better job. Do you think this is a worthwhile exercise for would-be freelancers? Is it an annoyance for the editors?

    Thanks again for being so open with all of us.
    Aoi

  16. Thanks a lot for this article. It’s extremely helpful to see how other people pitch their (successful) ideas, and seeing how you do it, I’ll probably streamline my pitches a bit in the future.

    I’d also like to echo what you said about it being intimidating to send a pitch in. You really have no way of knowing if you’re doing it right, or if you’re so off base that they’re passing your pitch around the office to laugh at (they aren’t). I think the bottom line is… there is no magic format that will get you accepted, but there is a good way to ensure you won’t: not trying.

  17. Chris, this is an awesome article and I put it to direct use! Now, however, I find myself in an odd situation and I’m hoping you or someone reading this might have some advice.

    I submitted a pitch to WotC, and I kicked it off with a “prose teaser” I’ll call it. Unfortunately, it seems that either (a) my prose teaser is what stuck or (b) my prose teaser was too specific or (c) a combination of both. In short, WotC thinks I was proposing an article about, let’s say the letter “X”, but I was proposing an article about the alphabet. In the response I received, I was encouraged to submit a proposal on just X, but from a more inclusive angle.

    So I suppose it was a quasi rejection, but here’s where I don’t know the right move. Do I quietly move on to my next pitch (which could be what WotC tossed out to me, though I’m unsure I want to do that), or do I try to reply and say something about how my pitch was poorly designed and actually I was pitching the alphabet and not the letter X? Basically, is the latter bad form? Would doing something like that harm my chances for future submissions being accepted?

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