Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Invitation to Eavesdrop

The Evolution of a Logline

Way back in 1998, when the Internet was kinda new, I learned a lot from a book and a web site, both named Web Pages That Suck*. The subtitle? Learn Good Web Design by Looking at Bad Web Design. 

Fast forward to 2013. I’m writing a middle grade mystery, and I need a logline to pitch it. 

I submitted my logline to YA Sci-Fi author Leah Petersen for critique (a prize that I won as a result of a blog contest!) By revealing the ensuing tutorial involving my bad logline--a process that brings sausage-making to mind, I hope you'll gain a better understanding of loglines--and will write a fantastic one for your next book! 


When 11-year-old Ellie McCoy’s dog wolfs down the only evidence of a crime, she will have to solve The Chicken Fingers Mystery to prove she’s not just playing Nancy Drew.


This looks like a great idea and I love the voice. "Wolfs down the only evidence of a crime" and "The Chicken Fingers Mystery" totally rock.

As far as the actual logline goes, I have a few issues. 

You have a "when/thus" set up (as you should!) but it leaves me slightly confused. Was she already trying to solve the mystery? If so, the fact that the dog ate the evidence doesn't cause your "thus" which is "she will have to solve...." Considering the Nancy Drew reference at the end, I assume she was already trying to solve the mystery, thus your when/thus is actually not true at all. 

The other problem is that the stakes aren't there. As you've set it up, the only consequence of failure is not being taken seriously, and possibly being embarrassed. EVERY middle grade book has that as a consequence, no matter what the story is. 

We need to see the stakes specific to your plot. What you need is: She has to [do this] or [this bad thing happens]. What's the consequence of failure in YOUR story? 


When eleven-year-old Ellie McCoy’s dog wolfs down the only evidence of a crime, her investigation leads to a human trafficker who intends to hide his scheme by tossing Ellie overboard in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.


Ohhh, sounds exciting!

I still think you're missing the link between 'dog eating evidence' and the 'therefore' bit. And, while the new ending is more exciting, it still lacks the 'if she doesn't [do this] then [this consequence] will happen.

I think one of the difficulties here is the way you present the initial 'When..." as the dog eating the evidence. Is that the actual inciting event? At this point it's sounding more like backstory to me. And it feels less of a fit with this darker angle. I wonder if that's really where you need to start. 

Start by breaking it down into the basic facts. 
Who: Ellie 
What happens: This should be your inciting event, the one thing that happens that kicks off the plot. Is it really the fact that the dog ate the evidence? "Evidence" implies the investigation is already underway, which would make this something that happens after your inciting event, not the event itself.
How: What does your main character need to do to win? What is the central goal driving her and the plot?
Consequence of failure: Getting bumped off by a human trafficker. 

We need to understand a "why" for everything that follows and then the logical "so this is what our hero has to do", and the "this is the sucky thing that will happen if the hero fails." The way you have it now, I'm left wondering why she's in danger at all. How is she connected to this mystery? Why is she investigating it at all, to the point of putting herself in harm's way? What makes her the person who would have evidence in the first place that her dog could end up eating? 

"Investigation" could also easily be looking things up on the internet, tracing clues that never bring you within arm's reach of the bad guy. And is the bad guy's plan to get away with all this really "to hide his scheme by tossing Ellie overboard in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico" or is that just what he decides to do with her when he finds her on his boat with evidence that incriminates him? If so, I need to understand why she's on the boat in the first place. It's one thing to play Nancy Drew, and it's quite another to be eleven years old and on the human trafficker's boat by choice, which is the only way I can see those things coming together as you've presented them.

I hate using my own stuff as an example because I'm by no means the best example of anything, but I don't have anyone else's logline and it's the one I know best. ;)

The Physics of Falling Book 1


This is the back cover copy of my book:
When Jacob Dawes is Selected for the Imperial Intellectual Complex as a child, he’s catapulted from the poverty-stricken slums of his birth into a world where his status as an unclass is something no one can forget, or forgive. His growing scientific renown draws the attention of the emperor, a young man Jacob’s own age, and they find themselves drawn to each other in an unlikely, and ill-advised relationship. Jacob may have won the emperor’s heart, but it’s no protection when he’s accused of treason. And fighting his own execution would mean betraying the man he loves.

This is the pitch my editor and a marketing professional who gives seminars on logline writing helped me develop for my logline:

When a brilliant young physicist is accused of treason, he discovers there's only one way out of an execution. If he wants to live, he'll have to betray his lover, the emperor. 


I never would have come up with that on my own. I thought the important inciting incident was that first sentence of the back cover copy--the fact that he was taken completely out of his element and to a place where people hated him just because. It isn't until halfway into the book that the danger peaks with the false accusations of treason which should get him executed. I thought the “taken out of his element” bit was the cool thing. Like a dog eating the evidence, for me it was the eight-year-old taken by the totalitarian government for their own purposes! Yeah, not so much. That just gives me too much to explain in a sentence or two. 

So they showed me that I needed to use the inciting incident of the most dangerous problem, the conflict that was easiest to understand in a phrase or two. It wasn't the requisition of the boy, it was the enemies the man had accumulated who were threatening his life. 

Then I needed a clear either/or, an if/then that was an obvious and interesting conflict.  That was: betray the emperor (lover) and live OR don't betray him and die. Clear stakes, clear decision/action and a clear consequence for failure. It's not what I thought was the most important part of the plot, but it was the one I could present in a concise and interesting way. 

Who: young physicist
What happens (this is your inciting incident or your "Why"): accused of treason
How: betray the emperor, his lover
Consequence of failure: execution

Once the logline hooked them, THEN I could bring in all the cool details.

Use voice, words and phrases that will set your story apart and to convey the interesting bits you think are so important, but boil your logline down into: Here's the person, here's the danger, here's what happens if they fail. 


When eleven-year-old Ellie McCoy tries to help a teenaged immigrant flee from a human trafficker, the villain kidnaps both girls. Ellie must escape--or disappear forever.  


This is EXACTLY what you need.  

Now that you've got the logline, you may find you can change a word or two to give an even stronger impression of what's unique to your book and your voice. It leaves me with the right kind of questions (what happens next??) rather than scratching my head going 'but...' 

I'll tell you what, logline writing, and back cover copy, etc. sound like they should be right up our alley. We're writers, aren't we? It's just writing! But, in reality, that's not writing fiction, that's writing marketing copy. Those are very different skill sets. 


My logline has yet to be tested in publishing’s pitch and query world, but a spoken version of this particular logline passed the cocktail picnic test! I was able to spout an answer to the question, “What are you writing?” BEFORE the person who asked saw someone else over my shoulder that she was suddenly desperate to hail.

And Leah’s logline? A definite success. The first two books in The Physics of Falling series are available now: Fighting Gravity and Cascade Effect. Click on the titles for the full details from Amazon. 

The Physics of Falling Book 1

The Physics of Falling Book 2

Leah Petersen lives in North Carolina. She does the day-job, wife, and mother thing, much like everyone else. She prides herself on being able to hold a book with her feet so she can knit while reading. She's still working on knitting while writing.

*The most important thing I learned about web page design is to hire a designer. I did not learn to design an attractive web page of my own using tools available on Blogger. 


Callie James said...

Great post, Chris! Thanks for sharing your experience. Great stuff!

Leah Petersen said...

I'm so glad I was able to be a part of this. Best of luck everyone!

Jo S. Kittinger said...

This was incredibly helpful. Thanks for sharing the process and tips!

Meda White said...

I love the way she broke it down into manageable pieces. Thanks for sharing.

Chris Bailey said...

Leah clarified my understanding of log lines. Hope it works for all of you, too!

Michael G-G said...

Leah is a genius! Every writer should have this post in front of them while writing a logline... It certainly helped me figure things out. Thanks for posting this for all of our benefits.