Rachelle Gardner, with Books and Such Literary Agency, blogged last week about writing one-sentence summaries of your book. These ultra-short summaries, or “loglines,” are what you use to pitch a story to an editor or agent. These are not the same thing as queries which may run to two or even three paragraphs, teasing the editor/agent with details about character and plot. A logline is definitely not the same thing as the one- or two-page synopsis that accompanies your chapters in a proposal or full submission.
Gardner defines a pitch as one sentence of about 25 words that “takes your complex book with multiple characters and plotlines and boils it down into a simple statement that can be quickly conveyed and understood, and generates interest in the book. “ Think television episode descriptions/teasers.
Gardner goes on to give some tips for what to include in a pitch. She also advises writers to avoid pitching themes (e.g., forgiveness, the line between right and wrong, the meaning of independence). I’d like to expand a bit on that advice.
What to avoid in a pitch
A pitch answers the question, “What is your story about?” Here are some WRONG answers to that question.
- “My book is about a young girl who grows up and comes to realize her purpose in life.” What you’re saying here is that your book is about a character. Period.
- “My book is about a battle between humans and frog-like gremlins.” You’re saying the book is about a particular conflict. Nothing else.
- “My book takes place in a concentration camp during the last days of World War II.” All you have here is little more than setting.
- “My book is about two people who fall in love while attending a business conference.” Basically, all you’ve said is that your book is a romance.
I think you can see a pattern emerging. Many authors attempting to write their first pitch have problems confining a 350-400 word manuscript within a 25-word boundary. So they go for what they think is the heart of the book. The courageous hero, the exotic world of Faery, martial-arts battles to the death, the love story. But a book that’s going to get an agent or editor’s attention, a book that’s going to win a publishing contract, is about more than its heart.
How to fit in all the good stuff
Gardner advises that a good logline should reference Character, Conflict/Issue/Choice/Goal, Stakes, Action, and Setting (if important). Whew! That’s a lot of stuff to cram into “about 25 words.”
In Gardner’s blog, she gives the classic Randy Ingermanson example from Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone: A boy wizard begins training and must battle for his life with the Dark Lord who murdered his parents. In this example, Setting is suggested by “training” which implies a school of some sort.
Hey, this looks easy, doesn’t it? Until you try to fit your “mature” story into those “skinny” pants.
You can start by trying to give a two- or three-word description of your Main Character. Then add a mini-statement about the person, group, or habit/event/circumstance/etc. the MC must confront.
- Examples of main character: Boy wizard, bulimic girl, lonely geek
- Examples of what MC must confront: Dark Lord, poor self-esteem, lack of experience with girls
Now try to put the major conflict/issue/choice/goal into a few brief words.
- Examples of conflict: actual battle, perform in the school play, get a date for the prom
As I see it, Stakes are always extreme; the worst that could possibly happen to your MC; the jeopardy that endangers the goal or is attached to the conflict.
- Examples of Stakes/Motivation: For Harry it’s all about avoiding his parents’ fate, which is DEATH—talk about high stakes! For the bulimic girl, at issue could be a complete humiliation she can never recover from (a definite worst-case scenario). For the geeky boy, the prom could signal either the end of loneliness or total social isolation (achieving one, avoiding the other—which is more important to your MC?).
Action can be hard to condense, especially if it’s the major part of your story—as in a mystery, thriller, adventure, or complex relationship-building plot. Some very mundane words can be your friend here.
- Examples of Action: Battles for his life, confronts her fear, makes a list of strategies
Setting can often be described with adjectives or a short adverbial phrase. They are used to convey the time period, era, age group, geographical location, etc. WHEN NECESSARY.
- Examples of Setting: Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, 6th grade play, all-boys school. In the first case, naming the school isn’t really necessary; we know enough from other words in the pitch to know he’s getting wizard training. In the second example, we really need to know how old our MC is. And in the last example, the all-boys school explains his lack of girl-friendly experience.
Gardner’s blog prompted readers to submit loglines for comment. Watching how the pitches improved in response to comments is fun and very enlightening. I heartily recommend checking it out.
And… I invite you to post your own logline here for comment, or show how you took a lengthy pitch and trimmed it down to size.