Why you should listen to Jordan Smith…

Now if you actually read the title of this blog post, you’re probably asking – who’s Jordan Smith? Well, if you don’t know him, fix that by reading his production blog at Phantom Moose Films. You’ll thank me later. (Hint: He produced my first short film, A House for Marge.)

However, going on the assumption that you don’t have time to read an entire blog right now, I’ll give you the short version – he’s awesome.

Specifically in the context of this blog post, he’s awesome because he makes people write loglines.

Jordan knows a lot about loglines. In fact, if you want to learn how to write a great logline, check out Jordan’s ongoing blog series about them. Even though I’ve been listening to Jordan ramble about loglines for months on christianfilmmakers.org, I’m still learning new things from his series.

Jordan can help you write a logline that sells. But more than that, he’ll make you write a logline in the first place.

Jordan’s one of those people that will always, always ask for a logline. Mention you’re working on something new and his first response will be something along the lines of “Sounds awesome! Got a logline?” If you tell him you’re sorting out revisions, he’s going to ask if you’ve written a logline. If you complain you’re struggling with plot problems, he’s going to suggest writing a logline.

It’s kind of like those children’s books… “If you give a pig a pancake, she’s going to ask for some syrup to go with it.” If you mention your writing to Jordan, he’s going to ask for a logline. It’s just inevitable.

Jordan is not the only advocate of loglines in the writing world. Many literary masters will insist on the necessity of writing a logline for your work, whether it be novel or screenplay.

And I’m here to tell you… For your own sanity, please, listen to them!

Yes, I’m telling you, begging you, to write a logline. The gurus know what they’re talking about. If you don’t have a logline, you won’t be able to sell your work.

I don’t care if you’ve got a killer back cover copy, a frame-worthy cover, and a book trailer voiced by John Ratzenburger. It doesn’t matter. If you don’t have a logline, tagline, or some kind of one-sentence summary, you won’t be able to sell your work in person.

How do I know this? I speak from experience.

I had all of that wonderful promotional material for my first novel, Red Rain. Except the voice of John Ratzenburger. (Maybe after I’ve cracked the bestseller list a few times.)

I’m very pleased with my back cover copy. I’ve had great response to the trailer, thanks to the efforts of the wonderful people who helped me with it. And I personally love my cover. Then again, I love all of Dieki Noordhoek’s celestial designs, but that’s beside the point.

The point is, I thought I had everything I needed to market my book. I had pull quotes and blog buttons and great reviews. There was only one thing I didn’t have.

A logline.

Now it’s time for the confessions. First confession – I never wrote a logline for Red Rain. Well, I never wrote a working logline, anyway. I have a few failed attempts hiding somewhere in my abyss of files, but they’re inaccurate.

Second confession – I didn’t think I needed a logline.

Sorry, Jordan. This is why I never told you that I didn’t have a logline for Red Rain. For several weeks prior to my book’s release I was fearful you were going to ask and I was going to have to tell you the honest answer… Now I wish you had asked.

I didn’t think I needed a logline because I was planning to promote my book exclusively online. Online you can use things like covers, paragraph summaries, and book trailers to sell a book. There’s nowhere online I’ve really needed a logline (yet).

Well, that’s all well and good, but I’m here to tell you the cold, hard truth – even if you don’t plan on marketing your book in-person, you’re still going to get asked about it.

It happens everywhere. Family, the dentist, ladies you volunteer with at the clothes closet. People of my age can’t talk to adults for more than three minutes before being asked – “So, are you going to college?”

I am forced to answer honestly with “No.” After which, the skeptical response is usually, “So what are you doing?”

And I, being a self-published author, have the honor of smiling proudly and declaring, “I published a book this summer.”

You think that’d be the end of the story, right? I mean, I published a book! That’s a huge accomplishment! I am an entrepreneur, an overachiever, a functional member of society. So you can go back to cleaning my teeth and stop trying to make me talk while you have your hands in my mouth.

But, no. If you mention you wrote a book the inevitable response is – “Oh, neat. What’s it about?”

And then… my rehearsed replies crash to a halt. I usually draw at least 10 seconds of silence before fudging something like “Um… Mars? It’s sci-fi, in the future, and the girl goes to Mars with her father…”

Fail. Epic fail. People ask me what my book is about and I can’t tell them.

Meanwhile I have the loglines and taglines I’ve written for my other books spiraling through the back of my head along with Jordan’s ghost, nagging me. Well, Jordan’s ghost isn’t nagging me, the other loglines are. Jordan’s ghost just shakes his head sadly. “You can do better than that, Aubrey. Write a logline.”

I know! I believe you! You were right all along! I need a logline. And here’s why.

You can’t pitch a work in person without a logline. You can be flexible about what a logline is – one-sentence plot summary, tagline, the hook of your premise. Whatever works. As long as it summarizes your story in about a sentence, you’re good.

Without it, you’re lost.

Paragraph summaries, book trailers, and all that jazz are wonderful things, and very important. But they won’t work when you’re trying to sell a story in person.

If someone asks you “What’s your book about?”, it will take too long to recite the back cover copy. Acting out the narration from the book trailer would just be weird. (Especially if you don’t have a delightful voice like my narrator or John Ratzenburger.) And unless you happen to carry around copies of your book to give away for free, you just can’t hand them the paperback with its shiny cover and say “Here, read it yourself.”

No. When someone asks you in person, you have to answer them quickly and concisely. And that is exactly what a logline does.

I know what my book’s about. Like a said, I’ve got a great paragraph summary. The book itself didn’t suffer for not having a logline. It’s a good story and I know several of the things that make it good, thanks to reader feedback.

But the problem is – that’s too much material to weed through when I’ve got a dental hygienist staring at me, holding a sharp implement and waiting for an answer. Usually my mind goes through something like this – “What part of the book should I summarize? Is she a Christian – should I go for that religious aspect? Or the more generic approach? Should I do the stuff about wanting to stay with her father, or searching for her brother’s Bible, or…”

And, after forcing a ridiculous smile that probably says “I’m just a cute twenty-something who should not be taken seriously,” I manage something like, “Um… Mars. The girl goes to Mars with her father.”

Granted, that’s an accurate summary of the book. That is what happens in its most basic, unoriginal, uninspiring, clichéd form.

Certainly ain’t doing wonders for getting people interested in the book though, is it?

If I had a logline, I wouldn’t have this problem. I’d have a standard, concise response for answering that dreaded question of “What’s your book about?” I could sell it in a sentence and then, if people seemed interested, go into more detail.

And as I would engage in this invigorating discussion about my book, my smile would say something inspiring like “I’m a confident twenty-something that’s breaking expectations, doing her own thing, and succeeding at it. I am a self-published author.”

Because I am. But a logline sure makes it easier to prove.

P.S. Feel free to ask me about any of my current projects… I’ve got killer loglines/taglines for all of those.


keep your gun clean


image by Pedliano

A well-written story, whatever the form, is always armed with a battalion of guns – Chekov’s guns, that is. The rule of “Chekov’s gun” says that if you’re going to fire a gun in a scene, you need to show it hanging on the wall or laying on the table a few scenes earlier. In other words, set-up your pay-off.

Set-up is the flesh of a fulfilling story. Set-up gives purpose to your plot twists and keeps your pay-offs from being contrived deus ex machinas. If your clumsy janitor has the keys to unlock the generator and keep the building from exploding, your climatic ending will be far more fulfilling if the audience learned earlier in the story that the janitor had a key ring. As opposed to having the janitor suddenly burst out, “Oh, I forgot, I’ve got this key I’ve been carrying around in my pocket – let’s try it and see if it works!”

While putting your gun on the table a few scenes beforehand will do worlds for making your story sound, I’d like to suggest that sometimes putting the gun on the table isn’t enough. You need to clean it, have someone’s mother complain that it’s not in the cabinet where it should be, or carry it to another room. Maybe it gets used to shoot a squirrel off the bird feeder. In any case, don’t just drop it on the table – work it into the story.

Some elements can be set-up and left to explode like a bomb without any further involvement. But many elements could stand to be cleaned, exercised, and used – to be ground into the story. Many a poorly-written movie will toss out a bit of information early on in the story (usually in the form of contrived dialog) so that they can pull on it later in the film. In the 2009 Astro Boy, we learn during a revealing conversation that Cora has parents in Metro City. This dramatic tidbit is not mentioned again until her parents waltz onto the scene at the end. The information doesn’t even appear to have a significant effect on Cora’s character or motivation.

Scenarios like these do set their gun on the table before they fire it, but the element is so drastically underdeveloped that the entire sequence feels contrived and lacks impact. The pathetic set-up is tacked on and then completely forgotten until the information suddenly becomes important in a pay-off that is only a heartbeat away from deus ex machina.

How much more fulfilling would it be if our gun played a roll in the story that was more significant than wall décor? Using the example of our clumsy janitor again, instead of just giving him a key ring to carry around, let him use the keys once or twice for other purposes. Maybe they even get him in trouble because he accidentally locks someone in their office. Develop the janitor’s asset so that when he saves the day by unlocking the generator, it’s fulfilling, not convenient.

image by Mar Estrama

Of course, you can take it too far. The audience is intelligent. They don’t need a character to explain “This is a gun”; they also don’t need to be beaten over the head with the object. The audience will remember what you set-up – but they’ll enjoy it a lot more if it’s creatively woven into the story rather than tacked on to soften a deus ex machina.

After all, a good rifleman keeps his weapons in good condition so they don’t malfunction or misfire.

Keep your gun clean!

The devil’s in too much detail.

     On several different occasions in my life, I’ve attempted something that, to this day, frightens me: I’ve attempted to read fantasy fiction.

     It’s…not working out. The only one I’ve ever made it through is “The Fellowship of the Ring,” and I only did that because I was in the Air Force and guarding a plane for twelve hours a night. Continue reading

If You Can’t Find the Starting Line…

…You probably won’t win the race.


     Whether we’re talking short stories or novels, it’s crucial that you start your story in the right place.  The first chapter or first hundred words really set a story up.  You have to give enough background information to let the reader know what’s going on, but you can’t give too much.

     There seems to be this balancing point between too much information and too little.

     Going too far one way or another can often prove disastrous.

     To be clear, there are about three different places you can start a story.

Continue reading

Why you need betas.

*Disclaimer* I’ll be honest: I’ve apparently been interchanging the terms “Alpha reader” and “Beta reader” for years now. I guess that, technically, Alphas give you quick feedback about the main elements of your story (plot, pacing, characterization, etc), and Betas go over your work with a fine-toothed comb. Here’s a good explanation.

Whatever. You just need readers who aren’t you. Don’t think otherwise. Now, back to your regularly-scheduled post… Continue reading