Late last night I was watching a rather obscure Japanese movie (though filmed in Hong Kong in 2007) called Dororo. It’s based on a manga series by Ozamu Tezuko (he of Astro Boy fame). Here’s the pitch/teaser: “A female warrior who was raised as a man joins a young samurai’s quest to recover 48 of his body parts from 48 demons and to avenge her parents death.” There’s a longer version, but it’s still a variation on this basic premise, and as the movie played I realized that I had a problem with the way it was pitched. It’s not that the pitch was inaccurate—as a capsule summary it covers the basics of what they movie’s about fairly well. The premise is, of course, ridiculous. No one’s going to lose 48 body parts (some fairly important like, say, the heart) and still survive long enough to be discovered by just the right magic shaman who knows how to replace body parts. Even in a pure fantasy like this one it stretched credibility past the breaking point.
Regardless, I didn’t come here to review the movie, as such. I am here to make the point that, despite the nonsense premise, despite the rather gruesome imagery of the pitch, I liked the movie quite a bit. Which was when I realized that I had a problem with the movie’s pitch itself. It wasn’t that, as I said, it was inaccurate. No, I think it’s mostly that it managed to be both accurate and very misleading. Why? Because the movie was so much better than that. The hero’s plight manages to be both grotesque and sympathetic at the same time. The heroine in her own way is as much damaged as the hero, and yet is just as heroic, plus by turns poignant, amoral, and laugh out loud funny. The cgi is a bit lacking at times, but it captures the esthetic of the Japanese monster tradition beautifully—the group soul ghost baby is almost worth the price of admission itself. And yet the pitch, brief as it has to be, conveys absolutely none of this. Pitches tell you what a movie/story is about and simultaneously tell you almost nothing.
Seriously, how many times have you gone to see a movie or bought a book based on the premise and advance hype, only to be disappointed? After Dororo I also wonder how many times I’ve avoided a movie or book that I might have loved because the pitch was so lame. I mean, sure, we may go to see a movie or read a book based on the premise, but if we like that book or movie it’s never going to be solely because of the premise. Seriously. If I like an orange that doesn’t mean I’m going to like a lemon just because they’re both citrus. But what choice do we have? It’s impossible to know for sure if you’re going to enjoy a book or movie or play or concert or, well, pretty much anything until you’ve actually experienced it. There are a buttload of movies and books out there, plus other potential distractions. We need a way to winnow them down to something manageable and at least potentially interesting. I have no great desire to read every fantasy book ever written or see every fantasy film ever made, even if that was possible. I do have a great desire to track down ones I might like, and it’s the same for everyone else trying to match their own interests.So we’re stuck with the brief pitch, the totally inadequate yet indispensible metric, because no one has yet come up with something better.
So as a writer I have to create pitches too. It’s one of my least favorite things about the whole business. Maybe that’s just an excuse for not being better at doing them. They’re a necessary part of the process that I really should stop bitching about. Even so, the goal of hype, at heart, is to make out whatever you’re pitching to be better than it actually is. Which means you may see the movie/buy the book and be disappointed. I mean, sure, a fiction writer is a liar by definition. That doesn’t mean you should finish one of my books/stories with the feeling that you’d been lied to. Dishonesty aside, how often would that have to happen with any writer to make you avoid picking up something of theirs ever again? I’m guessing the answer is “once.” As I was with Dororo, I’d much rather the reader leave one of my works feeling pleasantly surprised, even if that means some will never come to it at all.
So in that spirit, here’s the pitch for The Ghost War:
“A witch’s home territory is a place of power, a fortress, and a sanctuary. It can also be a trap.
Calia is the child of a witch who lost her home and her life, destroyed by encroaching settlements soon after Calia was born, and a father who kept Calia’s identity as a witch secret in an effort to protect her. Raised as a hunter, Calia only learns her true heritage at a time when her people are in danger of passing from the world completely. There’s a sickness ravaging all the witch-homes, a sickness that spreads through the earth itself and leaves its victims either dead, catatonic, or insane.
Calia joins forces with Taleera, the most powerful witch of all. Taleera’s home was far enough from the blight to escape the worst of its immediate effects, but the sickness is growing and even Taleera is running out of time. Joined by a rogue mythsinger named Charre who sees the potential for a grand ballad in their struggle, Taleera must keep her sanity long enough to teach the ways of her people to Calia before it is too late, and Calia in turn must use her skills as a hunter to track down the source of the sickness, or watch her heritage and her hopes for the future die with the last of the witches.”
So there it is, and that is what the book’s about. But, confidentially? Just between you and me? It’s better than that.