Where Was the Battle of the Log Lines on This One?

I hope everyone’s Christmas (or whatever you choose to or decline to celebrate) was merry and bright. That goes without saying.

Last week, the Query Tracker blog featured a must-read post on log lines. For the new writer or others out of the loop, a log line is a one sentence explanation of your book (or movie) meant to hook the audience. Think bubble blurbs under a channel you have surfed to, or for those who remember TV Guide, a comprehensive yet pithy summary of this week’s episode. An example from one of my favorites, That ’70’s Show:

Bohemian Rhapsody
Donna takes some “creative” photos of herself to send to Eric, but unfortunately they end up in the wrong hands.
One sentence. We know who is experiencing the dilemma, and we can deduce what “creative” means in the sentence (racy? pin-ups? NUDE?). From there, the imagination takes us on a course of possible plot twists that might result from the shift in story line. There is enough information there to either tease a fan to flip the channel (or put in the DVD) at the appointed time. For those who despise the program, there is also enough for the hater to make a decision to pass.
A log line is the basis of the standard elevator pitch, where the author has three to five minutes to convey the essence of their work to an agent. Sometimes we pitch via email, but more frequently the pitching is done at crowded conferences where every wannabe author is nervous and perspiring. Been there. You could chop through the anxiety with a machete and build huts for the homeless with the resulting debris. Building a pitch is much like writing a news story. Start with a solid log line, then attach the next most important sentence, and the next. Make the first 25 words the best you can and read it out loud. And then of course, you’re going to edit that baby until it sounds professional, and you’re going to practice it so many times, you’ll be blurting it out in your sleep.
In my case, on my first effort, I found it nearly impossible to get the gist of my story down to 50 words. I had a hard time getting it under two pages. Thank goodness, with some coaching from my cheering squad, some great reference books, and years of practice, I’m doing much better now. 🙂

This isn’t the only reason why, but writers should practice crafting log lines, and pitches, even as you struggle to write to those magic words “The End”. Your novel might be the next New York Times best seller, but in order to sell it to an agent, your pitch, whether written or verbal, has to be totally outstanding. Even if you decide to self-publish, if your blurb doesn’t catch the eye of your potential reader, you might as well go home and start over. If the premise doesn’t sound massively appealing to you, how do you expect it to sound to a stranger? You might also want to practice log line writing in order to test your story. Is there something about your novel that sets it apart from the others in your genre? If the premise is the same old formula (for example, boy meets girl, they fall in love, there’s conflict, they get back together and live happily ever after) (or, for those action lovers, man goes to work just as the world is beginning to end, the government enlists him to help save the world, there’s conflict, but he saves the world and everyone lives happily ever after), how is your log line/pitch written so that it transcends stereotypes and sounds fresh?

I am musing today over log lines, because this weekend, after a marathon of cleaning, a massive consumption of food, and the requisite present opening, I had the opportunity to catch two movies. Both were released in 2011. Each starred a former actor from That ’70’s Show. Both were cute, light, romantic comedies. And both were basically the very same story. Blatantly the same.

One was No Strings Attached, the other was Friends with Benefits.

Or, boy and girl suffer from bad relationships, decide to hook up with unsuspecting friend for relationship-less sex-capades, but eventually – and despite many denials to the contrary – fall in love with the booty call, and live happily ever after.

Watching these movies made we wonder if the same writers were working on both projects. Or if Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis discussed their simultaneous projects in friendly phone conversations. (Maybe they don’t talk to each other anymore?) I then wondered if anything could be done to either one to make one movie stand out from the other. (No. The only thing that could have been done was to release one of the movies a year from now.) Maybe Kutcher and Kunis should have done one of the movies together, leaving Justin Timberlake and Natalie Portman to do the other.

As a writer, I think of my stories as completely unique. But is anything really unique? The challenge is to write the best story you possibly can, and use your log line as a tool.

A Random Thought: The Elevator Picture

I sign up for a variety of email blasts, most having to do with writing or writers, but some having to do with business or music. The nice thing about email blasts is that I can pick and choose which to read, and don’t have to write myself sticky notes on which web sites to visit on a regular basis.

One of my favorites is the weekly e-zine sent out by Jeffrey Gitomer. I signed up after purchasing a copy of his LITTLE GOLD BOOK OF YES! ATTITUDE, at the San Francisco Airport. What is funny is at the time, I hadn’t even started writing my first novel. Now that I think about it, I began writing the first novel on the plane ride home from that particular trip, probably minutes after finishing the book.

The most notable Jeffrey Gitomer trait is that he is enthusiastic. I’ve read many of his books since that day in 2007, and dare I say it, the man is never, ever down. A tiny book, like his green, red and black books, it’s packed with a lot of heart-thumping yet congenial energy. You can’t help but be swept into his positivity. Life might have pitfalls, but with a few tweaks and attitude adjustments, we can overcome!

The YES! attitude is a quality that translates across all lines in one’s life, be it business, relationships, children, and yes…even writing. I can be a cynic, a bitch, a naysayer, a purveyor of doom and gloom, yet once a week, Jeffrey Gitomer bumps me back into a positive rail.

Today’s Gitomer newsletter included an intriguing article on elevator pictures. As writers, we all know about the dreaded elevator pitch. The elevator pitch is also a standard with salesmen, which might explain why I never went into sales. Being naked in front of a bunch of people is not one of the things I like to do, and there is nothing that more closely resembles naked vulnerability than an elevator pitch.

The first time I tried speed dating with a bunch of highly regarded and therefore intimidating literary agents, I landed ker-plop on my face, with egg and everything else on it. Elevator pitching is all about confidence, a succinct delivery, and something about you that makes you memorable.

The actual pitch and the working it down to twenty-five of the most powerful, compelling words you’d ever want to regal an agent with is the easy part, in my opinion. You can critique your pitch with your writing friends, or pick up Katharine Sands’ book (or hear her speak, she’s phenomenal!) and work your pitch over until it’s sleek and, in her words, “POPS!”

Confidence can only be generated by the author (meaning YOU!) so if you’re not feeling it, perhaps you’d better look your work over and revise and edit until you DO feel it.

As for personal memorability: I recall discussing my first pitch-fears with a noted online author. “What do I do?” His reply was to wear a low-cut red dress. I opted for red, but decided to leave out the low-cut. I’m selling a book, not my services. But it did lead me to wonder…these agents see hundreds of hopefuls at dozens of conferences every year. What is it that makes me stand out among the rest?

The answer most “writers” would want me to say is The Story, stupid. But, wait…no! Like those copier, pharmaceutical, or siding salesmen, it’s not just the product. Think about it; I know I have chosen plumbers and car dealers not only because of the service or product, but also because of the personality of the salesman. It’s the “je ne sais quois” that gets the business every time.

After following agents on Twitter for a year, I gather that they’re not only looking for the next great book, they’re looking for an author who would make their job easy by having the personality to sell, to become a wag, to be memorable as well as prolific. While I don’t know the percentage of published authors who were picked up at a conference during an elevator pitch, I do know that a sparkling pitch followed by a stellar manuscript equals an author whose personality naturally bubbles.

Back to Andy Horner’s article on elevator pictures: Taking this concept to the realm of the agent-writer elevator might not be such a bad idea. And it’s not just the red, low-cut dress or the Steampunk jewelry. People these days have a limited capacity for words, especially in a world full of computers and smartphones, YouTube and Twitter. According to him, words are just too “2D” for most people.

I’m not going to share any of my ideas for the elevator pitch of the 21st Century, but I can tell you that my future pitch just might include pictures.

Clubbing Agents Over the Head with a Kick Ass Elevator Pitch

Before a writer can get her foot in the door, she has to find an agent. Finding an agent is not all that easy. There are thousands of them (check out QueryTracker) specializing in every genre known to mankind, and a few that I’d never heard of.

Don’t ask me how to land one, because I’m still in the Realm of the Lost and Looking for Representation.

Most writers send out query letters. I haven’t done this yet, because I’m not finished with Book Number Two and Book Number One has to be eviscerated and the first thirteen chapters rewritten. However, I have done the elevator pitch during a foray in speed dating at the recent San Francisco Writer’s Conference.

It was scary. It was enlightening. I realized my pitch was sorely lacking and my synopsis too wordy. Agents, it seems, are looking for a shred of creativity. They are looking to be amazed, dazed and literally clubbed over the head. The book I pitched that got the most response (well, okay, the only response) was for my Siouxy story, and I wasn’t even trying to sell that. I think it elicited response because 1. Siouxy is a teenager and there were lots of YA agents in the room and 2. Siouxy gets into a lot of trouble. Wacky, off the wall, incredibly stupid  trouble. The negative comments came when I mentioned that the tale was a coming of age from the late 1970s. “Can you re-write it to make it more current?” the agent asked.

Well, no. I think outside of the context of the times, the story would fall flat on its face. But at least I received positive feedback, something to go home on a cloud over.

For those of you who don’t know me, the Siouxy stories started out as a joke. Written in serial form, it was a tale that kept getting more and more out of control the more I wrote, and now I have 50K words worth of her story.

The entire speed dating episode made me look at my other novels with a discerning eye. Why weren’t those agents wowwed by Cadence? Could it be that the story is the “same old same old” and the agents were bored? Could it be that I was totally exhausted from typing those magic words “The End” just four days before and my enthusiasm for my work had waned? Or could it be my pitch was somehow lacking?

I have faith in my work, but sometimes that faith has to be motivated.

Then too, I wonder if my pitch was good enough to gain attention, what would happen if they got the manuscript and the book wasn’t as snappy or interesting? I can recall many times when movie trailers are the best thing about the movie. Of course, they put the good parts in the trailer to get you to buy a ticket, and it’s disheartening to leave the theater thinking you’ve been robbed.

Some of the attention getting pitches I read are fabulous! Writing a pitch is different from writing a book. It’s a skill that takes a high level of salesmanship as well as a decent grasp of the language.