Guest Post by Rebecca Crockett
A few months ago I had an incredible opportunity to discuss my work with a high-level editor at a well-known publishing house. I wasn’t pitching him, per se–rather, I’d signed up to attend a weekend writer’s retreat focused on revision and development. As part of the weekend, attending editors and agents agreed to read an excerpt and provide deep editorial feedback. I drew the lucky straw (you guys, that never happens) and ended up at a sit-down with a senior editor whose portfolio very much meshed with the darkly humorous middle grade story I was trying to tell.
The critique covered about twenty pages, and while he had lots of thoughts on them, the first thing he asked me was “What happens next?” To my amazement, as I began to describe my story he leaned in, seeming increasingly interested.
That’s when he asked that crucial question: “This is great, but… what is the story about?”
I raised my eyebrows at him, surprised–isn’t this what we’d been talking about this whole time? When he simply stared back, expectant, I started to stumble into an awkward and exhaustive explanation about the book’s plot. Thankfully, he stopped me quickly.
“No,” he said, “I don’t want to know what happens–I want to know what it’s about.”
What he wanted from me was a succinct explanation, a sentence or two, that described what my characters were working toward and what would happen if they didn’t achieve their ends. He didn’t want the whole plot. He wanted a reason to care about it.
And I didn’t have it. And the moment he realized I didn’t have it, the excitement building between us collapsed.
You guys, don’t be me!
When an industry professional asks for a reason to care about your story, make sure you can give it to them. Not only will it help you in talking up your book, but it will also be the basis of your elevator pitch and your query letter, when you reach that stage.
It’s a familiar formula: Character Motivation + Conflict + Stakes. It’s what screenwriters often refer to as a “logline.” It strips the novel down to its essential elements and, shoving the plot aside, tells a reader what your book is about.
If you’re unsure how to create a logline for your story, lots of resources are available to help. Check out Save the Cat!® by Blake Snyder or The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird. If you prefer podcasts, Matt Bird and James Kennedy offer the Secrets of Story pod series for free online. Googling the term “logline” will also bring up a bevy of helpful results, including examples of loglines from famous films and novels that can provide a helpful frame when it comes time to craft your own.
I walked away from that meeting with an invitation to submit and a direct line to that editor’s inbox, which was nothing short of a miracle (especially since I hadn’t actually pitched the book, but rather very candidly told the editor I was still deep in revisions). But I also walked away with a very important lesson:
When an editor asks you what your book is about, be prepared. Have that all-important one-liner at hand, and be ready to tell them exactly why they should care about your story.
Related Posts on this blog:
Book Review: SAVE THE CAT! by Blake Snyder by Marianne Knowles
10 Things Not to Say in your Query – Advice From a Children’s Publisher by Carol Gordon Ekster