subtract until you get the sum

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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.

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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.

Comments

  1. says

    That’s a great logline — I’m intrigued by the book just from hearing that sentence! I can definitely see where it would stir up a lot of interest. It has that “you know, it’s POSSIBLE” aspect to it, as well as continuing a connection to loved ones who are gone — it really evokes a lot with just a few words.

    I’m jealous! LOL I am still working on mine. But now I know what I’m working towards. :) Thanks for sharing.
    .-= Donna Cummings´s last blog ..Cricket in the Bathtub =-.

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  2. says

    What I am getting from your post is: Remove the clutter and find the essence of the story. As writers, we love our stories – all our words and pages and ideas and descriptions. I think sometimes we struggle with not including it all and trusting that readers will still get it.

    Thanks for this post. Excellent!
    .-= Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist´s last blog ..Let’s talk about The Muse =-.

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  3. Donna Lean says

    Wow! Great advice!

    Mine is currently three sentences long. Looks like I have some work to do, but at least I know what I need to see. :)

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  4. says

    Great advice. I’d add to it something that seems elemental, but is sometimes forgotten: develop the logline first. You may change it during the writing, but it helps keep you on track and minimizes wandering away from the heart of the story throughout the manuscript.

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  5. says

    Great advice! And your logline is such a great example because now I feel COMPELLED to read the novel.

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  6. says

    Congrats on getting your book published. I will probably never write a book, but I am so on the “concise” bandwagon! I read so many writers who seem to meander all over the place. This is SUCH good advice. molly
    .-= molly campbell´s last blog ..CHALK AND CHEESE =-.

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  7. says

    Thanks for all the great responses! Your comments put a big smile on my face today!

    Rebecca, I really like the way you put it: “remove the clutter and find the essence of the story.” Other aspects of the story may be important to the book, but when you only have someone’s attention for a moment… they’re cluttering up what you want to say.

    Richard, that’s another great point, getting the logline first and revisiting it as you write the book. In one draft of the book there was a stretch of 75 or so pages with no ghosts in sight, and my logline helped me remember that I wasn’t delivering what readers had signed up for.

    Good luck to all in your logline editing efforts! The world is your test market. If anyone asks “What do you write?” or “What are you working on?”, see what you can say that gets an “ooh!” instead of that glazed-over look (oh how I hate the glazed-over look.)
    .-= Jael McHenry´s last blog ..logline tips at writer unboxed =-.

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  8. says

    LOL. A glazed-over look was bad news in my former line of work too. Is it ever a good thing?

    Seriously, this is very helpful. Perhaps I can extract to the core idea now, then add voice back in? Methinks I’ve been doing it in the reverse, which is probably why even I want to say, “Huh?”
    .-= Jan O’Hara´s last blog ..Temper Tartum =-.

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  9. says

    I had such a hard time coming up with a logline for The Last Will of Moira Leahy that it was practically the first thing I did for my current wip. It really makes a difference; you do not want to adopt the deer-in-headlights look when someone asks you the very reasonable question, “So, what’s your book about?”

    Yeah. That look.

    Thanks for a great post, Jael!

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  10. Meg Mitchell Moore says

    Fantastic advice, Jael! Thank you. And I like Therese’s comment about doing that for a WIP too. I’m going to go give that a try. Right now. Here I go.

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  11. says

    One more comment, taken from my own experience. When you’re doing a book signing at Barnes & Noble or a similar venue, you’ll have a number of people stop and ask, “What’s this book about?” That’s when a logline really helps.

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  12. says

    That’s a great logline!

    It can be quite hard, I think, to boil everything down to that one logline because so much is invested in the story as a whole that it’s far too tempting to mention as much as possible when in fact less is really more.

    Thanks for the post (and I shall practice my loglining on some short stories) :-)

    Merry
    .-= Merry´s last blog ..Women Writers Meme List =-.

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  13. says

    When I asked a writer at the Backspace conference to tell me about her book, she started on a meandering path filled with details I simply couldn’t keep up with (yes, my eyes were glazing over) and then I caught the words “…violin teacher discovers the girl he’s giving lessons to is being kept prisoner in her own home …” and I came to – and said, “That’s it! That’s what your book is about.”

    Hence a logline was born.
    .-= Sara J. Henry´s last blog .. =-.

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  14. Kate C Neal says

    After reading a recent slew of posts about loglines, I have to say this: I thought a logline needed to include something about the conflict or thing to be overcome. Your logline is super-intriguing, but it doesn’t seem to include or imply a conflict. Am I being too strict in how I’m thinking of loglines? Or is your logline really more of a premise (or something else)?

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  15. says

    Maybe it’s because I’m a guy or maybe it’s because I’m not interested in ghosts (not cynical … disinterested), but your logline falls flat with me.

    I’d be more interested in something along the line of “Suddenly orphaned, a shy young woman finds solace,strength and insight while exploring recipes amidst the ghosts of her ancestors.”

    The way “ghosts” is used here does not require it to be understood as anything more than the place of Great-aunt Elly in family lore.

    Food I understand. Heritage I understand. Young women, I don’t understand, but I’m always willing to try one more time. :-)

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  16. says

    Bill, I see what you’re saying — any particular word will strike different people with different meaning, and it sounds like “ghosts” opened up possibilities for some readers, while for you, that same word shut possibilities down. And your point about young women is well taken. :)

    Kate, I think looking for “conflict” or “the thing to be overcome” is definitely a good test for a logline. In my example the conflict is not stated, only implied — my sense is that most people discovering they have the power to summon ghosts are going to be challenged and surprised by it, so I think people get the idea that there’s a conflict without being explicitly told. But a logline does need tension of some kind.

    “It’s about a woman and her daughter.”
    “It’s about a woman whose lost daughter returns.”
    “A woman who loses and regains her daughter finds that the child returned to her may not be her daughter after all.”

    The more tension, the better.
    .-= Jael McHenry´s last blog ..wordless wednesday xli =-.

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  17. Steve Revare says

    This is great advice for loglines AND fiction writing in general. “Omit needless words.” :-)

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  18. says

    Excellent advice. A single sentence can open countless doors. In my novel, Eduardo’s Parakeets, a Holocaust chronicler’s editor discovers her client had an affair with an Auschwitz guard.

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