What’s your novel about in two sentences?

Songwriters like Kris Kristopherson can tell stories with a handful of words.
Songwriters like Kris Kristopherson can tell stories with a handful of words.

THE SECRET OF SUCCESSFUL WRITING is being able to take a scene or an entire novel and boil it down to a simple sentence or two.

It sounds like an impossibility.

It’s not.

It is a necessity.

Once you have an idea for a novel cemented in the back of your mind, you need to sit down and write a log line. That is the theme of the novel all rolled up into a single sentence.

Write it.

And don’t every stray from it.

That log line is your beacon to keep you headed in the right direction.

As an example, my log line for Secrets of the Dead was this: Ambrose Lincoln is one of the government’s prized operatives, a trained assassin, a man whose past is continually erased by mind control tactic and shock treatments, but if he must uncover deadly secrets that his own government doesn’t want him to find or history will be forever changed.

That’s it.

That’s the whole novel.

My creative non-fiction work, Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk, had this log line: A band of men with little expertise and absolutely no business in the oil exploration defied hard ground that was littered with dry holes, shattered hopes, and empty pockets, to discover the second largest oilfield in the United States during the past half century.

And that pretty much sums it up.

You need a log line to serve as your own personal compass. That’s what an agent wants to read whether you send in a query letter or make the pitch in person at some writer’s conference. That’s the log line the agent will use to try and persuade a publisher that you might indeed have a book worth producing.

As Cherry Weiner, a New York agent, told me at last weekend’s NETWO Writer’s Conference, “If authors can’t tell me about their book in a couple of sentences, then they don’t know what their book is about. And if they don’t know what their book is about, I don’t care what it’s about.”

In today’s indie world of independent publishing, the log line becomes the heart and soul of your promotional efforts on Twitter, email, Facebook, and other ever-expanding avenues of promotion, branding, marketing, and sales.

This is the hard truth. If you don’t have a log line, then you don’t have a novel.

I would suggest that writers take a cue from those traditional country songwriters, whether you like the music or not.

Nobody tells a better story in fewer words than a songwriter.

Take Tom T. Hall’s Margie’s At the Lincoln Park Inn. He wrote:

My name’s in the paper

where I took the boy scouts to hike.

My hands are all dirty from working

on my little boy’s bike.

The preacher came by,

and I talked for a minute with him.

My wife’s in the kitchen,

and Margie’s at the Lincoln Park Inn.

That’s a complete story in eight short lines and only forty-nine words.

Love fading.

Love hurts.

Love cheats.

It is the grand and never-ending story of the human condition, especially in the landscape of literature.

Or how about Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby Mcgee? Kris wrote:

Just outside Salinas, Lord,

I let her slip away,

looking for the home

I hope she finds.

I’d trade all of my tomorrows

for a single yesterday,

holding Bobby’s body next to mine.

Seven lines. Thirty-three words. He said it all.

The image remains sharp in my mind.

I will always feel the heartbreak.

The pain of a man’s loneliness cuts deep.

The story endures forever.

And all it takes is a handful of words to tell it.

Caleb Pirtle III is author of Secrets of the Dead.


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