Not too long after I finished the first draft of Peregrine, I sat down with the printed manuscript and a red pen, ready to get to work. But holy smokes, did it need more than just a few notes. The further I read, the more the story dissolved into a convoluted mess. There were too many subplots and characters, too few transitions, and it took far too long for Peregrine to get from the beginning of the book to the place where most of the action starts. Not cool.
I knew the plot was something I needed to address, and after reading Rena's advice here, I decided to dedicate an entire rewrite just to strengthening that core.
First step: pare down and refocus on what the story is really about, because let's be completely honest... For genre fiction, it's the plot that gets our foot in the door.* After that, we can wow the agent or reader with poetic prose, deeply developed characters, and endless hours worth of worldbuilding.
Here's where loglines/taglines/pitches/whatever-you-want-to-call-them come in handy. Whittling down an entire novel to one sentence forces us to focus on our story's backbone. Too weak, and we don't have a book worth reading. Too complicated, and readers will walk away scratching their heads. But once we find that backbone, we can hone and build upon it, strengthening our story.
To write my pitch, I had to ask myself three questions...
1.) When I strip away everything else, what is the story really about?
- (Optional) Opening Conflict or Set-up: If background is needed.
- A Protagonist: Names aren't necessary. Focus on the aspects of the character that are most critical or unique to the story, an unlicensed doctor, an elderly bounty hunter, etc. (See Question 2.) If the book has multiple POVs, try focusing on the most compelling character and his or her story.
- A Goal: What does the character want or need?
- An Obstacle: Something or someone standing in the MC's way.
- (Optional) Consequences: What's at stake if they don't succeed?
2.) What makes my story unique enough to warrant attention? Writing loglines is a lesson in compactness. With so few words to work with, you have to carefully choose the right ones to convey your story's originality. What makes your protagonist shine the brightest in a shimmering galaxy of protagonists? What makes your story stand out from the rest of the slush pile? Why does it beg for further exploration?
3.) Who is my intended audience? A sci-fi pitch should have sci-fi elements. For a historical romance or near future dystopia, include a nod to the setting. With YA, MG and children's books, you may want to state the age of the MC or at least mention whether they are a teen or a young boy or girl.
Some writers and agents say a pitch should be approximately 25 words. Some say 15. Others, less than 40. Regardless of the exact word count, it can be a challenge summarizing a 90k novel with a single line.
It took me days to write one for Peregrine. It may take minutes to write your own. But if you're eyeball deep in a messy draft or your main plot takes an hour to explain, this is a great exercise for focusing on the story you want to tell before moving forward... and a helpful tool when it comes time to spread the word about your book.
For more advice and examples:
- Nathan Bransford: The One Sentence, One Paragraph and Two Paragraph Pitch (Why it's important to be able to summarize your work.)
- Nathan Bransford: How to Write a One Sentence Pitch
- Nathan Bransford: What High Concept Means (And why it's relevant to pitching.)
- The Snowflake Method: Building a novel from the logline on up. (Or like me, editing a semi-pantsed novel using a similar method.)
- Query Tracker: Writing Killer Loglines (Read the comments regarding using proper grammar in pitches.)
- Query Tracker: Writing Loglines: The One Sentence Pitch
- Query Tracker: The Elevator Pitch (Not necessarily one sentence, but a lesson in briefness.)
- Tabitha Olson: Getting to the Core of Your Story
- Loglines: Care and Feeding: (PDF) For screenwriters, but provides some great advice and examples of how our favorite movies can be broken down into a single sentence.
Stay tuned for Part 2: The Query.