May 28, 2013

Short and Snappy

pinterest: the white sail's shaking
There is something incredibly overwhelming about being asked, "So, what's your story about?" 

On the one hand, our egos just love to be tickled by the question (if the asker actually cares; when they're only being polite, it isn't any fun at all): I don't know about you, but for me there's always a giddy burst of adrenaline that makes me grin and look altogether idiotic.  Then I bumble around for a minute or so, trying to cram a 100,000+ word story into a respectable sentence, and in the end they put on their uncomprehending face and say, "Oh!  That sounds interesting!" Which is nice of them, but I'm pretty sure my performance wouldn't garner any enthusiasm from an agent in a similar circumstance.

That reaction is, I think, fairly universal - and understandable, since if you have a particularly intricate story, it's no easy matter to convey its plot succinctly.  But if you intend to sell your story, especially in a face-to-face setting, it becomes necessary to bring the bumbling up a notch or three.  You're no longer trying to explain to your aunt what you do with your time; you're addressing an agent or a publisher who you kinda-sorta-really would like to take on your book.  (Depending on your family, the latter might actually seem less daunting.)  You have to condense your story, preferably into a pithy one-sentence summary that in film-speak is called the logline and in novel-writing the elevator-pitch.

When I'm not called upon to use them, I find this sort of thing enjoyable, so I was most pleased to be asked to read a slim book on the subject called Finding the Core of Your Story.  It isn't a large treatise at all, and wonderfully to the point - and it has examples.  I love examples.  The author, Jordan Smith, is a filmmaker, but the subtitle of the book pretty well encapsulates its usefulness to all forms of story-telling: How to strengthen and sell your story in one essential sentence.

Smith coaches the reader through the ins and outs of logline-writing, starting with the basics of what a logline is and its importance, then moving on to the nuts and bolts.  A second skim-through of the chapters brings out the key points - things we already know, hopefully, but which are irritatingly difficult to squeeze into a single sentence.  Protagonist and goal; antagonist and goal; conflict; setting.  There is also the usefulness of irony in conflict.  His example here was a logline for Jurassic Park (which I've never watched), wherein a scientist who hates kids has to protect two children.  I think this tends to denote humor, though that is not the case across the board: sometimes it merely emphasizes the tension.

One of the book's most helpful points, I thought, was Smith's chapter on finding the main thread of a story.  Of all the hang-ups when it comes to explaining to a stranger what my story is about, this is the most common: trying to make sense out of the confounded thing.  I've got subplots, and I've got themes, and I've got a half-dozen characters "what need keeping track of" - and it can be deuced tricky deciding what to say and what to leave unsaid.  I haven't yet begun a synopsis or query for Tempus Regina, but I fought about six different versions of a logline for it after reading Finding the Core of Your Story and still don't like what I came up with. 

"Well, bother it!  There's a woman, and there's a watch, and there's Victorian England - and then there isn't Victorian England because there's time-traveling - and there's a dude and another dude and a third dude, but the third dude is less important than this other gal, and there's the White Demon (but you don't really need to know about him, so forget I said that), and there's alchemy and some STUFF and other STUFF and LEGENDS and the first woman's younger brother and then some DOOM and GLOOM and now you're going to represent me, right?"

All right, so that wasn't a serious attempt, but it's about how I feel.  Pulling out the main thread is a difficult business, but I did feel that the process of narrowing down the loglines helped to clarify my own vision of the story.  I don't know that I would try loglining a story before writing, as Smith suggests - my stories don't usually take on a proper scope until I've written three-fourths of the plot - but I have a feeling it will be helpful, not just in the querying process, but in the nearer work of editing.  You've got to know what your story is primarily about before you can bolster the weak bits.

Of course, after you do all that you still have to memorize the logline and practice delivering it.  I haven't worked up the courage for that last bit, though I did fiddle with a preliminary pitch for The White Sail's Shaking:

A bumbling young man's good intentions land him in the U.S. Navy, where his hopes of winning glory are turned inside out by the murder of a fellow officer - and the presence of the killer on board.

It is, at least, a start.  And once you have the basic structure in mind, and the tips to help you along, it's actually quite enjoyable.  You're inserting your monocle and peering at the story until you find its core (which helps with editing), then finding out how many ways you can succinctly express that core (which helps with pitching and marketing).  It is a little daunting, but also, in an egotistical way, rather fun.  And we are an egotistical bunch, aren't we?


  1. Love the review! Jordan's work is fantastic. After learning under his tutelage, I've found that loglining has become one of my favorite aspects of writing.

    1. I had fun poking around at the loglines, though they can be a little frustrating! I enjoyed his tips, though, and of course the examples were helpful. I'm afraid I didn't do any of the exercises...

    2. Neither did I as far as I can recall -- 'tis no cause for shame. As I am sure Jordan would tell you, take what helps; leave what doesn't.

  2. I was quite in a fit of the giggles after reading this post, just because... well, it was so funnily true! That is just what happens to me too upon the rare occasion when someone asks me what my story is about (It doesn't happen a great deal of the time... I can only recall one time that I got to describe in detail what my story was about to my non-writing friends or acquaintance - but I recall that it was more of my parents mentioning to a friend that I had my short story in an anthology and they started to describe what it was all about in Arabic!... which left me really blushing, and a bit amused because it was a struggle to cypher the meaning of what they were saying and made me really want to fix some minor mistakes on their parts (they said it extremely well and flatteringly too!), but I have such a bad grasp of that original language of my birth that I think I made some big blunders... but the dear old pastor was highly interested and really, really loved the idea 'that love' never fails and how I stood up to those secular authors and that I actually write stories :). It actually left me floating on the clouds for a day, till something went with a pin and popped away my blue balloon of egotism and delight!

    Ohh, but I think you have a deft hand at elevator-pitches, just sayin' that because, that trial of it on White Sail's Shaking is brilliant. Short and sharp! And I get sort of double excited, because I am wondering and praying that one nice agent will see what a real gem you are and what good good stuff you've written and take you and your books on! It will put a big smile on my face for a week, it will :)).

    Hmm, I shall have to check this book out - looks like something that will turn my story upside down!!

    1. When someone is interested from the get-go, it's much less demanding when you have to explain your story for them. But unfortunately, most people aren't interested from the get-go! They're usually just being polite. On the occasions when you find a sympathetic soul, like that pastor, it makes the effort of summarizing worthwhile.

      I don't know if you do e-readers, but Finding the Core of Your Story will be $0.99 on Kindle at the same time as The Soldier's Cross - June 5-12. It does have some very helpful pointers for unraveling a novel (and weaving it together again). I've a feeling it would help you more with Crown of Life than A Love, but you might find that it gives you a new perspective on both!

  3. Thanks for the review! I must say that you've done a fantastic job with the logline for The White Sail's Shaking.

    By the way, the idea to write a logline pre-drafting is something with plenty of wiggle-room for the author. I know people who simply can't write until they have an outline, so putting the story into a logline early is a great help to them. But then I know others (myself included) who discover the story as they go. I still do loglines before writing, but usually by the time I finish a draft, I need to revisit the logline. You just want to know what that story is before somebody asks you. ;-)

    1. Thank you! I'm still a little "meh" about it, but that may simply be that I've been pushing and pulling and poking and prodding that plot into coherent summaries for too long.

      I can definitely see how pre-writing loglines would be helpful; looking back, I can still piece one together from my hazy first thoughts on Tempus Regina and then see how the plot has evolved. I do outline, but I'm never quite sure of the story until I've gone too far to turn back (like the blonde in the English Channel), so I generally keep a novel pretty tightly under my hat until I've reached that point. I'm sure people find me irritatingly cagey in the early days, but that's only because they don't realize how I've spared them from idiotic authorial ramblings.

  4. Wonderful, Abigail, and your pitch for White Sail's is awesome! Short, but suspenseful, and very professional. Your writing is VERY good!

    I've tried my hand at pitches, and have discovered that it is terribly hard to squeeze your entire novel of 100K into a sentence or two. :-(

    Wonderful post, Abigail. Especially since I want to get my books out there. :-)


    1. Aw, thank you! You're very sweet.

      Pitches are very difficult, especially when a story is extremely intricate. You have to sort through the plot threads and leave so much out that it gets a bit galling! Something that Jordan suggested in the book was allowing yourself first to write several sentences - three or four - expressing the different threads of the story, and then moving on to pare those down into a single sentence. It helped with Tempus Regina; it made me feel as though I had more leeway, and I was able to see what was extraneous to a brief pitch.

      Oh, and what I told Joy applies here as well: Finding the Core of Your Story is going to be available for 99 cents as an e-book June 5-12. (Along with The Soldier's Cross!) If you've got a Kindle, you might just want to pick it up. Download it. I guess you can't really pick up an e-book, can you?

  5. Glad to know I'm not the only one :P I have a horrible time answering the question, "So, what's your story about?" and usually end up just giving the genre and saying I'm shy about my work. I was on the phone with an admissions counsellor a few weeks ago, and since I'm looking into Creative Writing we were talking about what I was doing currently, and he asked what my book was about. I've never been more ashamed as I stumbled over my words and had about 3 long pauses before giving up and saying it was hard to explain! I'm since more determined to take a closer look at my stories and get to the bottom of it so I can say *something* plausible and make the "dreaded" question into an "exciting and confident" question. I might just look into this book :)


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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