I’ve recently discovered a number of fun contests designed to give authors a different way to get their pitch — and hopefully their manuscript itself — seen by agents. (One good source for learning about upcoming contests is the Sub It Club.) The gals who run these contests certainly deserve kudos for all the hard work they put in, and it’s nice to see that it looks like they usually have a lot of fun doing it, too.
It’s something I’d like to consider doing myself down the road — though I’ll probably want to enlist the help of someone more computer and web savvy to help with the logistics. And speaking of logistics, I’ve learned a lot about loglines in the past few weeks, thanks to all the great information at Miss Snark’s First Victim, a delightful site with lots of resources for writers, as well as great contests, including the monthly ‘Secret Agent’ contest. (And there’s quite a few success stories posted on the site, showing that the process really does work to connect writers and agents.)
One of the challenging things about writing loglines — which are required for entry in many of these contests — is that there are so many different definitions floating around as to just what a logline is and how long it should be. My conclusion is that the answer depends on who’s asking for the logline, and what they’re looking for. Some people want a logline that’s no more than 25 words, while the logline critiques at Miss Snarks’s First Victim permit up to 100 words (although they stress that shorter is better). And the Halloween-themed Trick or Treat with an Agent Contest going on this week asks writers for a three-sentence pitch, with no word count restriction.
So my recommendation is to prepare several loglines of different lengths. This is an excellent exercise anyway, and can help with writing queries as well. Then you just have to carefully read the instructions for any contest or critique session you want to participate in, and make sure you submit the pitch that fulfills their requirements.
Now, in case this is helpful to anyone else, I’m going to use the novel I’m querying as a guinea pig, and show some examples of different loglines for the same book. In some ways this is like the Snowflake Method of novel outlining. Or perhaps it’s like peeling an onion — you start on the surface and go down through the layers, adding more and more detail as you add more words. But no matter what the length, the logline or pitch should be enticing — and never confusing. (Alas, most of us find that accomplishing this is much easier said than done!)
10 words: A young man who’s an outcast struggles to find acceptance. (This is the extreme end of ‘concise’, and more of an exercise than a logline — there’s definitely not enough detail here for any kind of pitch contest! Notice that it could describe a million different stories.)
22 words: A young man who’s the only one of his race in an isolated village on a planetary colony struggles to find acceptance. (This is more like a TV guide blurb. Like the first, it could apply to a lot of stories, but it narrows it down a touch by adding some details — for instance, now we know it’s science fiction.)
46 words: A young man who’s the only one of his race in an isolated village struggles to find acceptance. After demonstrating his skill with a bow gives the villagers an excuse to perceive him as a threat, the arrival of a stranger puts his life in danger. (This is one I toyed with briefly — notice that it leaves out the fact that this takes place on a planetary colony, which might be problematic since it’s not obvious this is SF. The ending — the part about the stranger’s arrival putting him in danger — is also a bit vague.)
61 words: On a small planetary colony, a young man comes of age while struggling to find acceptance in an isolated arctic village where he’s the only one of his race. When he’s blamed for the murder of two elders, staying alive may mean fleeing the village to seek his own people–people he knows only from tales of their arrogance and cruelty. (This one is better because it gives the specific reason his life is in danger — he’s been accused of murder — and adds more detail that shows how the villagers view the people of his race, which (hopefully!) explains why they would have trouble accepting him.)
65 words: On a small planetary colony, a young man struggles to find acceptance in an isolated arctic village where he’s the only one of his race, but demonstrating his prowess with a bow only gives the villagers another excuse to perceive him as a threat, and when he’s blamed for the murder of two elders, he may have to leave everything he knows to stay alive. (Another variation that shifts the focus a little, showing one of the ways he tries to win approval, and how it backfires. I was concerned that this was important to avoid making the character seem like a passive victim — he’s actually very strong-willed and stubborn, and the way he spends several years teaching himself to become the best archer in the village is one of the important ‘coming of age’ elements in the novel. But you can see how it’s hard to squeeze something like that into a logline.)
67 words: Growing up in an isolated arctic village where he’s the only one of his race, Jem is shunned by nearly everyone. His skill with a bow brings him confidence and pride–and more distrust from the villagers. When he’s blamed for the murder of two elders, survival may mean leaving to seek the people he knows only from tales of their arrogance and cruelty. (Another variation, using the MC’s name this time — which is often preferable, because it makes it more intimate. However, this also leaves out the planetary colony reference.)
76 words: Born in an isolated arctic village on a small planetary colony, Jem has never met anyone of his own race — the arrogant people from an advanced starfaring civilization who banished the original colonists to the harsh settlement. Jem struggles to be accepted, but demonstrating his skill with a bow gives the villagers another excuse to distrust him. When he’s blamed for the murder of two elders, survival may mean seeking a new life among the feared invaders. (This is my three-sentence pitch, which uses a different angle to provide more detail on Jem’s own people and the socio-political situation.)
I have other versions that go up to 89 words, but I think that’s a bit long for a logline — at least for any of the contests I’ve seen — so I’ll stop there. Please understand that I’m not claiming that any of these are brilliant — I’m still working on crafting better ones — but I hope that showing the ‘anatomy of a logline’ will be helpful to others who are struggling through the same process.