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My book is called The Kitchen Daughter, and it’s about a woman who discovers she can invoke ghosts by cooking from dead people’s recipes.

Does that say everything there is to say about my book? Heck no. But does it say enough? In my opinion, yes, just.

Writing is hard, and I’m not just talking about the book itself. Getting a book published and making it a success requires countless other writing tasks. The query (about which most of us have been known to bellyache.) The synopsis, or synopses. The logline. The outline, if you outline. Pitch letters. Catalog copy. Countless forms of sum-it-up pitching. Each of those is a challenge, and each is important. But my advice to you is to shrink your logline. Work and work and work on it. Test it and tweak it. Whittle it down shorter and shorter, until you nail it.

It may be the most important sentence you ever write.

I’d already been planning on writing about loglines this month, but this past weekend I saw the lesson driven home yet again. I attended the Backspace Writers’ Conference, where I watched a competition called “Midtown Idol.” Writers submitted their queries, first two pages, the genre, and a logline. The idea was for a panel of agents to listen to the queries read aloud, pass their favorites through to a second round, and then hear the pages read aloud so the audience could pick a winner. Time got short in the first round. Many of the queries were long and meandering. More and more often, the agents would say, “Okay, well, what’s the logline?” 

And here’s the problem: nearly all the loglines were between two and five sentences long, and in the rare event that one was a single sentence it would often be compound and complex — crammed with phrases and metaphors and character names and epic expressions of theme — until the reader couldn’t catch her breath and the agents got so turned around they weren’t sure what was going on or why they should care, and the writer’s goal, to have the sentence perfectly sum up the whole book, was completely undercut by the way they had gone about achieving the goal, which was to cram that one sentence full to bursting.

A logline needs to be brief. It needs to be memorable. You’ll leave out way more than you put in. But a short and powerful logline, one that indicates how your book is different from other books – that’s an amazing tool.

Here’s an example, also from the past week: I met someone in the publishing industry at an event last week and ran into her again three days later. She isn’t my editor or my agent or my publicist, or an author whose book is similar to mine. She has no reason to tout The Kitchen Daughter to anyone. Yet in the three days since we’d met, she estimated she’d told 30 people about my book — just because I’d told her “it’s about a woman who discovers she can invoke ghosts by cooking from dead people’s recipes”, and she thought it sounded cool. My excitement became her excitement, and she passed that excitement along to others.

If I’d tried to cram in everything about the book — the protagonist is 26 years old, she’s incredibly shy and sheltered, she lives in Philadelphia, when her parents die suddenly she seeks comfort in family recipes, and there’s other stuff about her diagnosis and her family’s cleaning lady and the guy who delivers her groceries and her overbearing sister who wants her to move out of their parents’ house — it wouldn’t be as memorable. It’d be information overload.

Less is more, and that’s why I say your logline sentence really needs to be a tidy, tight, speakable sentence: because your goal is for countless people to speak it. To each other. To their friends and neighbors. To the person at the bookstore who can help them get their hands on it.

Subtract, subtract, subtract. In the end, you’ll say more that way.

About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.