Monday, October 3, 2016

Where to Begin?

I've written seven novels ranging in length from 60,000 words to 105,000, and I only know two things for certain:  Every book is different.  And I learn something new every time.  Today, I begin a new blog series all about what I’ve learned (and forgotten, and relearned).  So today, I begin at the beginning.

The logline.

Caught you there, didn’t I?  Personally, I always thought that I write the logline when the book is finished.  I’ve always thought the logline—the elevator pitch—is an odious business.  How do you distill a 105,000-word book into two sentences?  How do you even begin?

That last is the golden question.  I learned recently (after seven books and goodness knows how many thousands of pages) that beginning with the logline helps you distill your idea before you write it.  The logline should include the essence of each crucial element. By giving time and energy to this at the beginning, you know what you’re in for before you even write Chapter One at the top of the page.

It’s still not easy.  In some ways, I still find it odious.  And I certainly resist it, even though I know it’s good for me.  I’m about to start work on a new novel, so I need this reminder, too.  This is the exercise I plan to do:

1. A logline must have the following
-           the protagonist
-           their goal
-           the conflict that could prevent them from achieving that goal

2. Don’t use a character name (unless it’s immediately recognizable—say, Anne Boleyn or Kanye West).  Instead, tell us something about the character—who she is, what she does. 
-           a literary editor
-           a blues guitarist

3. Add an adjective.  This gives us a sense of character, but also gives you, the writer, a hook to hang your characterization on.  Be creative. 
-           a maverick literary editor
-           a train-jumping blues guitarist

4. Give us a goal.  What drives your story—and more importantly, what drives you character?  This is the promise the rest of your 100,000 words delivers.
-           a maverick literary editor wants to travel around the world faster than anyone ever has
-           a train-jumping blues guitarist rides the rails to escape his past

5. What is your conflict?
-           a maverick literary editor races the country’s most famous journalist to set the record for around the world travel
-           a train-jumping blues guitarist confronts the darkness of life beyond the margins in order to escape his past

6. If you have a ticking clock, use it.
-           a maverick literary editor races time, tide, and the country’s most famous journalist to set the record for around-the-world travel

7. A little world-building…
-           in 1889, when women didn’t have the vote or the ability to walk the streets of the city unchaperoned, a maverick literary editor ventures out alone to race time, tide, etc…

No need to reveal the ending—you might not even know exactly what it is yet, and the point is the logline is to entice--even if you're just enticing yourself at this point.  Some people might suggest you add a hint of theme, but I find I don’t always know my theme until I’ve revised at least once.  For this—your beginning—you just want the basics.

Look at what you’ve got here.  Can anything be improved?  Is that adjective really the best choice for that character?  Is that character actually the best and most unique person for that story?  Maybe the literary editor is actually super-heroic.  Maybe the blues guitarist is actually a barista.  Play.  This is your chance to make all the changes you want.  One to three sentences is a lot easier to alter than a hundred and five.

If you want some additional ideas for writing elevator pitches and loglines, check out an old formula I posted on the YA Muses blog, or try Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat logline.