The Backbone of a Book: Pt.1 - The One Sentence Pitch

(AKA: Why the ability to create a submission package matters as much at the beginning stages of novel creation as it does at the end.)

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:

Stay tuned for Part 2: The Query.

* There are exceptions to this generalization. I have read about a few agents who skip the query letter and start with the first 250 words to get a sense of whether the submitter can write well enough to bother reading through the query letter.

4 comments:

  1. Log lines are not easy. I always find that when I par everything down, my novel sounds pretty simplistic.

    But, when I write a novel, I like to start with a query letter for it so I understand what the story is really about first.

    And good luck with rewriting, that is its own form of crazy.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've also found that having the query, though far from perfected, at the beginning of the writing process could be rather helpful in keeping the story in line so you actually write about what you INTEND to write about :-)

    Loglines are just painful. To Me. Not everyone lol! I really should work on that myself. Thanks for the tips here.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks, both of you. And yeah, log lines can be a hassle. Queries, too. I'm also using them to help with the plot of my books for the same reason you said, Angela, to make sure I tell the story I meant to write.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hey there! New campaigner here finally making the rounds.

    Thanks so much for sharing this information! It was very informative and helpful. I will definitely be using this in the future.

    ReplyDelete

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Wife. Mom of 6. Nerd. Wanna-be Writer. I’m the weird chick skulking about the YA aisles of my small town library, raising a few eyebrows when I get overly excited about a new John Green novel or a dystopian future where people have to kill each other for funsies. When I'm not reading YA, I'm writing it.

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