by Lindsay Bandy
“So, what’s your book about?”
It’s a question that strikes panic in the heart of writers everywhere, whether they’re talking to a friend or writing the dreaded query letter. How do you boil your awesome, amazing idea down into a single page? Or two paragraphs? Or one glittering sentence?
Last summer, I had a long catch-up chat with a friend I’ve known for forever, and she asked me what my YA novel was about. I realized that I didn’t have a good answer for her yet because, you know what? I didn’t know what my book was truly about yet. I was in the initial stages of writing character and scene sketches to get a feel for my characters and voice. I was enamored with the kernel of an idea, I knew the setting and the main characters’ names and a few of their problems, but I didn’t know them well enough yet to talk about them. And that’s okay in the beginning. But sometime WAY before you’re ready to write a query letter, that all has to change!
It all comes down to focus. If you don’t have focus while you’re writing, it will be impossible to explain what the whole thing is about when you’re “finished!” Don’t wait until you write “the end” to think about the log line. Think about it early, be willing and eager to revise it, and keep it at the beginning of your draft for reference.
Being able to name the basic elements of your story is the key to being able to simmer it down to the basics for a pitch or a simple explanation to a friend. “Duh,” you say, but I would argue that this is much, much harder than it sounds!
- Staying focused on character and core conflict: What does your main character want? What does your main character need? Who or what is standing in his way? If you wander too far off of the core-conflict highway, you just might find yourself meandering dusty back roads to the Book Cemetery. Sure, you’ve got lots of scenic overlooks and a few sub-plot detours along the way, but the thing about detours is, they had better bring you back to the main road and get you where you set out to go!
- It’s important to sort out the difference between loglines, hooks, and summaries. Anne R. Allen’s blog has a great article on distinguishing between them:
So logline, pitch, hook, and synopsis: what are they? Aren’t they all sort of the same thing?
They are similar in that they are composed in the present tense and give the bare bones of your story. The difference is length and manner of presentation. And a synopsis always tells the ending.
You can read the whole article here: http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-secret-to-writing-dreaded.html
- Loglines are generally applied to films, plays, and TV shows, but they can easily and usefully apply to literature, as well. A logline is a one-line summary. You read log lines all the time while you surf Netflix or TV Guide. Think of it as a plot skeleton (but not the kind buried in the Book Cemetery!) Nope, you don’t get all the pretty (or hideous) facial features or stylish (or tacky) outfits, but you do get the backbone. And that’s all you need for a logline.
Even the deepest, most complex story lines can be boiled down to a one-sentence summary. Does it do the whole story justice, or show off the author’s full genius? Nope. But that’s not the purpose, so it’s okay. Check the copyright page of any novel and even many picture books, and you’ll find a one-sentence summary that sets readers on the right road for the story ahead.
Here are a few examples. Go looking for your own, too! I would suggest reading the summary before and after you read any book to get a feel for what it tells you, and then to get a feel for what was strategically left out!
- Code Name Verity by Elisabeth Wein: “In 1943 a British fighter plane crashes in Nazi occupied France, and the survivor tells a tale of friendship, war, espionage, and great courage as she relates what she must to survive while keeping secret all that she can.”
- The Giver by Lois Lowry: “ Given his lifetime assignment at the Ceremony of Twelve, Jonas becomes the receiver of memories shared by only one other in his community and discovers the terrible truth about the society in which he lives.”
- The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien: “A shy young hobbit named Frodo Baggins inherits a simple gold ring that holds the secret to the survival–or enslavement–of the entire world.”
- Santa Claus, the World’s Number One Toy Expert by Marla Frazee: (a picture book!) “Santa Claus has his own ways of knowing more about children and toys than anyone else in the world.
**Keep this concept in mind as we move into a new format for our First Fridays, coming soon!!**
Happy holiday weekend, everyone! And happy writing!
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The challenge as a writer is that the focus on your story often broadens to the point where it is all-encompassing. Log lines are a great way of forcing you to discover your story in a new and simpler way. Thank you for posting!
Yes! I know exactly what you mean. I often have to remind myself that every idea that I have about life, love, and the mysteries of the universe do NOT need to go in the same book!
Don’t forget the kitchen sink!
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