Monday, December 27, 2010

Mentor Monday - What's It All About, Alphie?



As writers, we spend a lot of time with our stories. Between the research, the plotting and planning, the first few drafts and the countless revisions, it might take a year of more to get that baby where it needs to be. You’d think after spending so much time on it, explaining what it is about would be easy. But for some of us, it’s not. At least, not in a limited amount of space or time.

When submitting to editors and agents, we have the synopsis and query letter, which give us at least one page, and sometimes a few more, to explain our stories. But what happens when we actually meet an agent or editor face to face?

Imagine yourself at a writers' conference. You've spent the morning attending some great workshops, now you're sitting down to lunch with your fellow writers. An agent or editor joins you at the table. The conversation turns to - So, what are you working on?

The question goes around the table, and then it's your turn. Well, you say, I’ve just finished a novel about this pig and this spider, and the pig’s the runt of the litter and the farm people want to kill it, but their daughter wants to keep it, and her parents give in, blah, blah, blah.

You might go on and on, monopolizing the conversation, which probably won’t endear you to anyone, especially not the person after you waiting to share their story. And because you’re touching on more than the major plot points, you may be boring everyone as well. You’ve wasted your moment - a moment that doesn’t come all that often for writers.

That’s where the log line comes in. It’s a few sentences, generally two or three, that give a quick summation of your story while creating tension, suspense, mood and/or tone. It may even reflect a bit of your personality - a lot of work for a few sentences. But how do we do all that? How do we condense an entire novel into two or three sentences? It's hard enough writing a synopsis and query.

Pull six main elements from your story.

Character
Setting
Dilemma
Goal
Motivation
Hook

Going back to our Charlotte’s Web example, our six elements would be --

Character = Wilbur
Setting = Zuckerman Farm
Dilemma = He’s going to be killed at Christmas
Goal = To prevent his death with Charlotte’s help
Motivation = He doesn’t want to die
Hook = His and Charlotte’s possible deaths

Wilbur, a pig (Character) on the Zuckerman farm (Setting) learns he is to be killed at Christmas. (Dilemma) Not wanting to become ham and bacon, (Motivation) he teams up with Charlotte, a friendly spider, who spins words into her webs declaring Wilbur ‘terrific,’ ‘humble,’ and ‘some pig,’ which turns him into a bit of a celebrity. (Goal) But can her silky words save him from slaughter? And when he discovers she is dying, will he be able to save her? (Hook)

I used four sentences, but I could condense it to two.

When Wilbur, a pig (Character) on the Zuckerman farm (Setting) learns he is to be killed at Christmas, (Dilemma) he teams up with Charlotte, a friendly spider, who spins words into her webs declaring him ‘terrific,’ ‘humble,’ and ‘some pig,’ hoping to save him from becoming ham and bacon. (Motivation) As her silky words turn Wilbur into a celebrity, (Goal) he discovers she is dying, and now he must do what he can to save her. (Hook)

While I personally like the first example better, it would only work on paper, perhaps as part of a query. The reason? I’ve asked questions, and they’d sound silly in conversation. The second example would be a better choice to present orally. It provides the same information and makes sense when spoken.

Try it with your own work and see what you can come up with. Play around with it until you have something short, clear and interesting, something you can recite in about thirty seconds, (although you don’t want to sound like you’re reciting it.) If you have it ready before your next conference, all you’ll have to do is brush up. And while there’s no guarantee you’ll ever to get to use it, (only offer it if you’re asked) it’s good to be prepared. You never know who you’ll be standing next to in the elevator.

5 comments:

I'm Jet . . . said...

Log lines! I hadn't thought of preparing something like this before -- excellent lesson on the pitch . . .

Mur said...

Wow! Thanks for this one, Barb! Log lines force you to really think about your overall plot. Fabulous!

Andy said...

Great stuff, Barb!

Short poems said...

Thanks for sharing this... great post, Barb!

Barbara said...

Thanks everyone, and thanks for stopping by, Short Poems!