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Writer in Residence: Before You Start Your Masterpiece

Let’s wind back to the beginning, shall we? Books start with ideas.

Like: What if you woke one morning with a dragon in your room and it needs your help? Or, what if a girl decides to build a space ship that then really works?

How do we know if an idea’s a good one? Plan on each book taking six to twelve months of your life (much longer if you publish it). That’s a big deal! It would be sad if you worked for a few months before you figured out what your book was REALLY about. Worse still, if you wrote your book and then couldn’t find readers because you couldn’t communicate the essence of the story.

How do you know if an idea deserves a whole book?

There’s a solution. The logline.

The logline answers the question: “So hey, Mike, what’s the next book about?” If I can’t communicate it in a sentence, it’s never going to be a book. Not to be confused with a book’s back cover copy, which is a marketing tool used to convince prospective readers to turn to page 1.

There’s this boy who can view the memories of any bug he eats, and he swallows a fly and sees dogs abused in a puppy mill. That’s the logline from The Boy Who Swallows Flies, a book I recently finished.
I’ll note here that one author’s process is another author’s nightmare. I once read a book on craft by Elizabeth George, a famous mystery writer. She outlines her books down to the paragraph level before starting. That’s right, before she starts a book, she has an outline of dozens of pages. This would suck the very marrow from my soul, but it sure seems to work for her.

I think loglines are an essential building block in discovering what your story is about. I like to build my stories from the bottom up using it as the foundation. Also, if you can tell someone about a book in a sentence, it’s usually marketable. Something that is marketable is saleable and will be read. I write commercial fiction so my goal is to be read.

The logline for my current book is a bit more complicated than I want: Three outcast hackers must save an online teacher they’ve never met who is trapped in the bowels of a smart city by a man bent on immortality through technical enhancement. I can tell by this logline that I’ll really need to be careful to draw the reader in slowly. There’s a lot going on.

Here are some example loglines you might recognize of famous movies and books. See how many you can guess.

A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea.

A young girl from Kansas is swept away by a tornado to a magical land and embarks on a quest to see the Wizard who can help her return home.

In a dystopic future, where the rulers maintain control though an annual televised competition in which only one teenager can survive, a girl voluntarily takes her younger sister’s place.

The logline usually answers the questions of who, where, and what problem.

If you struggle with it, ask yourself why. Are there too many plot threads, no central conflict, no clear protagonist? These issues can make it difficult to distill your story into a sentence.
So give it a try. It’s harder than it looks.

Categories:   Writing Tips

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