Posted in Publishing, Writing

Why You Need to Learn How to Write Compelling Loglines

In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,

A logline pitch is what most agents and editors compose to get attention for our projects. It’s a distillation of your book into a short, digestible, and, ideally, electrifying idea.

If you want to become a successful writer, it’s vital you learn how to write loglines.

This is most especially the case if you write screenplays or novels, although figuring out a logline for your latest short story can be helpful, too.

A logline can seem annoying to you at first. You might think, I just put six months into this script or novel. I just gave it everything I have, and now I have to find a way to pitch the thing in one to two sentences???

Yep, you do.

In fact the earlier you figure out your dynamic, electrifying pitch the better. The worst thing you can do is spend a year or longer on your latest novel, and then discover there’s no clear way to pitch the thing in a concise way to the people who matter — literary agents and editors.

I’m struggling with this a bit right now actually with my MFA thesis novel. It has two POV characters who only slightly intersect with each other until the very end of the narrative. Trying to figure out how to pitch this particular project has given me many a headache, especially since I’ve been working on it for two and a half years.

There’s a lot that you’re asked of as a writer, I know. Not only do you need to revise your novel or screenplay to the point where it’s ready to be queried, but you also have to often write a 1–2 page synopsis, which is a tedious process but necessary for most agents and editors.

And then, of course, there’s the logline. That brief sentence or two that can make a world of difference in your writing career.

So what exactly is a logline?

Mary Kole features a clear definition in her book:

The logline is a sentence that delivers all the necessary information about a project. The genre, the protagonist, the set-up, the problem or the hindrance to said goal.

You should in two sentences or less be able to quickly tell another person what your book or script is about in a way that makes that person want to read it. And you should be able to in as few words as possible get across your genre, who your main character is, the main set-up and conflict, and what the problem is for that character in reaching his or her goal.

Here are three samples of loglines from Kole’s book…

A kid with legendary bad luck must survive a juvenile detention camp’s secret agenda and unearth the truth about his family curse. (Holes by Louis Sachar)

A boy grieving for his crush receives a box of tapes sent just before her suicide that implicates thirteen people in her death — and he’s one of them. (Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher)

A popular girl has the opportunity to relive her last day over and over against to see if she can change her ways and alter her destiny. (Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver)

Notice had none of these three examples necessarily gives away the genre of the book, so if the genre sort of comes through in your pitch of the story, you likely don’t need to explicitly state it.

Just get to the story, the main character, the dilemma. Do what you need to do to ensure that your latest writing project is attractive to your potential readers!

No matter what part of the writing process you’re in, try to boil your project down to a logline.

You don’t have to be finished. You don’t even have to have started the novel or screenplay yet! I’ve heard famous authors say you should come up with the logline before you write a single word. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but some people stand by it.

Yes, at a certain point you’re going to need to come up with a way to pitch your project in a couple of sentences. Sure, in a query letter for a novel or screenplay you can write a little bit more than two sentences. You can usually get away with six to eight sentences or so when you’re discussing the story.

But figuring out your logline sooner than later will absolutely help you in the long run. It will help you understand what makes your project stand out, what makes it unique. Discovering the perfect logline early on will get you even more excited to keep working on your project and ultimately complete it!

And it will also help you find that all-important audience when that logline attracts the readers you want. Like beta readers, sure, but also agents and editors. The people who have the power to make a major difference.

So go for it! Come up with incredible loglines time and time again, and there’s no telling how much success you’ll have throughout your writing career.

Posted in Writing

Don’t Be Afraid to Cut Your Story to the Bone


So I did a thing yesterday.

A thing that kind of astonished me. I cut 1,000 words from my new middle grade horror novel, but not just any 1,000 words.

I cut 1,000 words from the very first chapter.

I took a seven-page chapter that had a lot of thinking, a lot of pondering, and just cut it it to the bone. I cut out 90% or more of all that interiority. I just got to what actually happens at the beginning of the story.

This wasn’t exactly easy to do. I’ve spent eight months and five drafts on this particular project. In July I spent four weeks working really hard to build the novel up from 38,000 words to 45,000 words.

Now I’m down to 44,000 words. And there are still 21 chapters to go.

Part of me feels like I should be adding another 5,000 words or more to this novel in the sixth draft. I shouldn’t be cutting the story down again.

But this morning I re-read the new and improved chapter one, and a big smile flashed across my face. Oh my God, it read so much better, so much smoother.

And the lack of words actually in a weird way makes the beginning even creepier than it was before.

At some point in your revising process, you’ll want to trim your story or novel down considerably.

I know it can be hard. Really, really hard.

You’ve spent three months or six months or nine months or a year revising your latest manuscript. You’ve spent lots of time writing amazing sentences and paragraphs you don’t want to ever part with.

One of the hardest parts of writing is finding the confidence and willingness inside yourself to cut the parts that need to be cut. No matter if the language is beautiful, no matter if you particularly love the writing of a particular sentence or paragraph.

I just had to do this yesterday. There was a paragraph in chapter one that had some dazzling description. I loved everything about it. Did it ultimately forward the story in a way I wanted it to? No. So what did I do?

I cut it down to a single sentence. Because it was time to get to the matter of the scene, not just on what a particular room looked like.

I don’t believe in cutting your story to the bone right away. Write your first draft as long as you need it to be. Tell your story the best you can.

In the second and third drafts, concentrate on the beats of your story, the development of your main characters, the pacing, the themes. Do your best to make the narrative sing.

But at some point in the revising process, I believe you should take two to three weeks, go chapter by chapter, and cut each chapter down as much as you can. Only keep what’s absolutely necessary.

If you’re unsure about a paragraph or sentence, keep it, maybe. Or cut it for now, it’s entirely up to you.

Whenever the process becomes painful, remember that the words are still saved in a previous draft!

This is the main thing that helps me when I cut a fantastic paragraph from the latest draft.

That paragraph isn’t gone forever. It’s still there saved in the previous draft. It’s still always going to be around if I ever want to stick it back in later.

I’ve done ten drafts on my MFA thesis novel. There have been entire scenes that have been cut in draft four or draft seven that I’ve re-instated later. There are paragraphs and sentences I cut at some point that I eventually put back in. And then of course there are elements that stay out of the manuscript for good.

After awhile, once you’ve done a lot of drafts and then put the manuscript in a drawer for a significant period of time, your instincts will tell you what should stay and what should go. That’s definitely been the case for me in the later revisions of my last few manuscripts.

So write the best story or novel you can. Give it everything you’ve got. Build it up for a revision or two if you need to add more words.

But at some point do at least one draft where you cut the manuscript down to the bone. Find what needs to be there. Find what can go.

Doing so will in the long run make you a better, smarter, and more successful writer!

Posted in Writing

How to Finish Your Novel by the End of the Year


So you want to write a new novel this year?

There’s a novel you’ve been dying to write since January but you just haven’t been able to find the time to get started on it yet?

I know the feeling. Life gets busy, and you can never find the right moment to begin that project you’ve been thinking about for months.

I’ve written before about how it’s possible to write a novel in a single month…

I just did it this summer, actually! My twentieth novel, a YA thriller called Fear of Water, I started on June 3, 2019, and finished on July 3, 2019. 31 days, a single month, to write 81,000 words.

I’ve always been attracted to writing novels really, really fast because novel writing takes up so much of my mind while I’m deep in the process that I actually find it helpful to reach THE END as soon as possible.

This isn’t always the case, however. Two summers ago I spent 10 long weeks writing a super intense thriller novel that nearly sent me into a depression by the end of the process because it was such a dark story, and spending week after week in that mindset was getting to me.

Finally reaching the end of that particular book was like emerging back into sunlight!

So, yes, when the time is available, I prefer to write first drafts of novels really, really fast. Last December/January I wrote a 60,000-word middle grade novel in 24 days. In 2014 I wrote a 63,000-word MG novel in just 21 days, just three weeks! Still my all-time record.

But writing an entire novel in a month might feel too intimidating. Four months? Now that’s do-able!

Tomorrow is September 1, 2019. There are now four months left in the year.

You might think your time to write a new novel this year has passed you by, but there couldn’t be anything further from the truth. You can still write your novel this year… and you can finish it, too!

Now you don’t need to try to write your whole book in September. You don’t have to do it in one month if you don’t want to.

The problem with writing books in just 30 or 31 days (or shorter) is that, yes, you need to have big chunks of the day available for you to write. That new novel I just wrote this summer I spent on average three hours every day working on it. Some days I went as long as five hours.

And for most of us, that time just isn’t available. You might have an hour totally free to work on your novel. Maybe even two hours. But three or more? Forget about it!

So unless you’re really, really fast and know exactly what you want to do in your novel, you’re probably going to need more than a month.

If you want to complete a novel by December 31st, take it from me: you can do it! You have no excuse to not complete your first draft by New Year’s Eve. You know why?

Because you can write the first draft of your novel in four months time.

Four months can often be the perfect amount of time to write a novel. It’s a short enough time to keep you constantly focused on your book while also long enough to let you only write a little bit with each passing day.

Let’s do the math again, shall we? Let’s say you decide you’re going to write your novel in four months. If you started the book tomorrow, that would make for 122 days total. 122 days to write the first draft of your novel.

If you’re writing a young adult novel or an adult novel, you should aim for at minimum 70,000 words in your first draft if you can. 70,000 words is a fantastic word count goal if you’re just starting out!

If you want to reach 70,000 words in 122 days, that’s 574 words a day. Just 574 words!

I’d bet if you could find just one hour a day to put all your focus on your drafting, you could probably reach that amount every single day.

What’s so cool about that small amount is that you could always aim for 574 words… and then go longer! Aim for 574 words and if you really get going, maybe you’ll reach 800, 900, even 1,000 words or more.

That happens to me all the time. I’ll aim for 2,000 words and end up writing 2,500 words. There’s nothing ever wrong with going long!

800 words a day for four months is 97,600 words. A fantastic length for a first draft.

900 words a day for three months is 109,800 words, the exact length of the first draft of my MFA thesis novel I completed in August of 2017.

If you want to instead aim for just 70,000 words in your first draft, that of course would be about 574 words a day. To finish your novel this year, you don’t have to find time to write 2,000 words a day, or even 1,000 words.

Just 574 words a day will do the trick!

You can write your novel this year! Don’t let anyone else tell you differently.

I very much believe in the practice of creating a writing schedule for your novel writing and then keeping to that schedule seven days a week. I don’t know about you but I find it much easier to write a little bit of a novel every day than write a lot of a novel just one or two days a week.

On the last five days drafting my latest novel I was averaging about 3,500 words a day in four or five hours time, and I soon got severely burned out. To the point where I needed to step away from the laptop for a considerable amount of time after I finally reached THE END.

Four hours or more staring at a screen trying to write your novel might sound like fun but eventually it does become super exhausting.

But 574 words a day? You can totally do that in an hour. Maybe even half an hour. When you get started, the end of the novel might feel like a million days away, but then a week will go by and then two weeks will go by, and you’ll suddenly find yourself making significant progress.

And once you hear that ringing cry heard all around the world — Happy New Year! — you’ll suddenly find yourself with a completed novel.

Start tomorrow, not next week, not next month, and definitely not next year. The earlier you begin, the earlier that novel will get done. Just believe in yourself, believe in your story, and get started.

You can do it!

Posted in Publishing, Writing

Why You Need to Take a Chance on Writing a Commercial Book


You should write the book that compels you first and foremost, no matter its sales potential.

If the book you want to write might not be commercial enough, might not be the easiest sell in the world, but you want to do it anyway? Then by all means, write it.

I’ve had a couple of books like this in the past. A novel about two boys who meet on the first day of first grade and proceed to fall in love over the course of twelve years, that was one. I’ve tried to sell it on and off for four years now, with no success.

For the most part I’ve been lucky in that what compels me for the most part in my novels is commercial stories. Stories of romance and horror and suspense. Stories that will hopefully grip any reader who comes in contact with it.

Because here’s the deal. If you want to be a novel writer, at the end of the day, you need to at least grasp the concept of commercial novels, of sales hooks. You need to write books that lots and lots of people will want to read!

In her 2012 book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole defines a commercial novel as the following…

A commercial book is one that has blockbuster potential, whether it’s because of a trendy genre, an engaging world, an unforgettable character, or a great “meets” comparison. For example, a commercial premise could be “Lord of the Flies meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and gets a lot of editor attention (if done well). Commercial books are larger than life and have higher stakes than most literary books.

I grew up loving commercial books, loving commercial movies, and I’ve always been drawn to larger-than-life stories that have high stakes.

And you know what? So do many readers, especially younger ones.

They want a story that keep them hooked from beginning to end. One that offers endless surprises. One that makes it impossible for each and every one of them to put the book down!

That’s the kind of book you want to write, whether it features non-stop action or features no action of any kind. It doesn’t really matter the genre ultimately. What kind of story can you tell that has big stakes, not small stakes. What kind of story can you tell that will transport the reader to a different place?

And what kind of story can you tell that has a great sales hook to a potential agent, editor, librarian, reader? What will make people want to read it?

Kole defines a sales hook as the following…

[It’s a] selling point. Is this book in a particularly hot genre? Does it feature romantic elements or a strong friendship story? Does it tackle a hot-button issue in a new way? Is it about an especially timely topic? Is there something to the storytelling that makes it stand out? A selling point isn’t a gimmick, but it’s a unique benefit that’s easy to get excited about and pitch.

Having a sales hook is important because it will actually get the important people who can make a difference in your professional life as a writer to get excited about your latest manuscript.

I write books for children. I want to get my books in front of children. But the only way I will ever get there is to write a book that will excite my agent, excite editors, excite librarians. And a really helpful way to do all of that is to write a book that has a commercial component, that has a hook of some kind.

Remember that you don’t ever want to write a book just to write something commercial.

All those gatekeepers I mentioned before will see right through that. You have to be passionate about your stories and characters, you have to care about the world you’ve created.

To write something just to sell it, just to make money, without any deep feeling or care for the story as a whole, will lead you down a lonely road that ends in disappointment.

At the end of the day you need to write the story you’re fascinated by, that you simply have to write no matter what. And even if it’s not the most commercial story in the universe, still at least keep in mind those elements that make up a commercial story in the months and years to come.

Because it’s super important, always, to consider your potential readers, as Kole talks about in her book…

[Your readers] want stories that surprise them, thrill them, and lift them out of the everyday with a once-in-a-lifetime plot that’s a big departure from their normal existence. What’s something they can’t experience in reality? What’s something realistic but unlikely to ever happen to them? What are some universal “What-if” questions all humans tend to indulge in and that you can drill into? This is the beginning of high-concept thinking.

Your readers want a story they’ve never experienced before. Something that will keep them mesmerized from the first page to the last.

Give them that story, no matter what story it may be, no matter what genre it might be in.

Take a chance on writing a commercial book one of these days… and then see what happens!

Posted in Writing

Be a More Successful Writer by Planning Ahead


There are many things you can do to find success as a writer.

A big one is finding time every day to write, of course. An hour. Thirty minutes. Even ten minutes of writing a day can work wonders.

Another thing you should do is learn from your mistakes and improve as a writer. Whether it’s writing fiction or poetry or non-fiction or whatever, it’s important to keep trying new things and keep learning your craft.

I started writing fiction seriously in 2010, and nearly ten years later I’ve improved considerably. I look back at my short stories and novels from 2010 and gasp at how terrible most of them were. Practice makes perfect as they say, and that’s definitely the case with writing.

One other thing that will help you find success? Something that I’ve been doing for years now?

Planning ahead.

It’s not enough, alas, to just sit down every morning or afternoon or night and write. What are you going to write? What project do you want to work on next?

I firmly believe if you just write when you feel like it, just work on whatever project you want, you’ll struggle finding success in your writing life.

Instead, what you should do is plan in advance what projects you want to work on and when, and what you want to accomplish on every given day.

I don’t really know how else to be a writer. I love to plan. Not only down to the week. But, yes, down to the day.

When it comes to my novels, I often plan my schedule months in advance. Like, what weeks I’m working on the draft of Novel A, and what weeks I’m working on the draft of Novel B. Often I’ll find two weeks in the schedule free, and so what I do with that time? I write a new short story!

For example, there’s a novel contest I’m sending one of my books to on August 30.

That gave me the whole month of August to complete one more revision of the manuscript. The book is 31 chapters long, and today I’m revising chapter 27, then I’m taking the weekend off to prep for my first week of college teaching.

To have the book ready to submit on August 30, I will be revising Chapter 28 on Monday, Chapter 29 on Tuesday, Chapter 30 on Wednesday, and Chapter 31 on Thursday. On Friday morning I’ll be submitting my latest, hopefully greatest draft of the novel!

If I had spent the month of August working on the book when I felt like it, revising a chapter here and a chapter there, or revising a few pages a day without any real idea of when I’d reach the novel’s end, there’s no way I would have made the August 30 contest deadline!

This is the case where the deadline is real, of course. Often as a writer there is no deadline, and so it’s vital that you make it up, believe it’s real, so you eventually reach the end of your latest project.

Again, no matter what kind of writing you do, you’ll be more successful when you plan ahead.

Write your Medium stories a day in advance if you can. On Friday or the weekend, figure out the fiction writing you want to do for the following week. If you want to write a new short story, figure out how many words you need to put down every day, and then stick to it.

And if you’re a novel writer like me, sometimes it’s best to plan months in advance. In May, for example, I knew what my next few months were going to look like. I knew that I was going to write a new novel in June, work on the fifth draft of my previous novel in July, work on the tenth draft of another novel in August, and then start the second draft of my newest novel in September.

I find it easy to break up novel projects in terms of months, to dedicate about four weeks to whatever draft I’m working on. Four weeks usually works best, and only rarely do I need longer to devote to a draft.

You don’t have to plan four months in advance if you don’t want to. You don’t even have to plan one month in advance if that feels too far out.

But at minimum try to plan a week in advance what you plan to write, and then, as always, stick to that plan. Your writing will improve in the long run.

And you’ll be a bigger success!

Posted in Writing

Write Your Best Novel by Letting it Rest for Months


It sounds counterproductive, I know, but it’s true. The best writing often comes from not writing.

Now this is not to say that in the long period of time in which you let your novel rest you shouldn’t be working on something.

I always have a writing project to work on every single week. The first draft of a new novel, the third draft of a different novel, the tenth draft of an older novel, a new short story, a new screenplay.

There’s always something I’m working on. That’s just the way I like it.

But something I’ve learned in the past few years is a worthwhile method to help write the best projects I can.

Yes, you need to revise. Yes, you need to do a third draft, and a fourth draft, maybe even five or more.

I’ve done ten drafts on two of my recent novels. And my middle grade book out on submission to editors? It went through sixteen drafts over the course of three years!

So revision is necessary if you want to be successful as a fiction writer. You have to come to love it, honestly.

But the biggest mistake you can make, especially as a novel writer, is just going from one draft to the next without taking any breaks.

Stephen King says to let your novel rest for six weeks. But you know what really does the trick?

Letting it rest a lot longer!

This is the beauty of having multiple writing projects at any given time. It doesn’t fill you with panic or anxiety to finish a new project and then let it sit for three months, six months, maybe even longer.

You’re so busy and you’re having so much fun with other projects that you’re able to let that latest novel sit in the drawer for awhile and escape your mind.

And let me tell you, the best revisions come when you haven’t looked at or thought about the project for awhile, because you know what you do?

You approach the novel not as a writer but as a reader.

Enough time has passed that you’re able to see in more clarity what doesn’t work and what needs to be fixed.

Just this month I took an older novel out of the drawer I haven’t looked at in nine months, and I’m near the completion of the latest draft.

There were problems with this novel I just could not figure out last fall, and so I decided to let it rest for awhile. It was going to be three months at first, but then it turned to six, and then, finally, nine.

I’ve been working on this new draft for two weeks, and I have already been able to see, with ease I’m telling you, not just the major problems with the book’s narrative but also how to fix them!

So if you have the time, do yourself a favor and let your writing project rest for months at a time.

You don’t necessarily have to let it rest for months between every draft if you don’t want to. I mean, we all want to finish our projects eventually.

For a novel, I usually let the first draft rest between six weeks and two months before I begin the second draft, and then I might only let it rest for a week or two before I begin the third draft.

You want to let your novel rest for months and months when it gets to the point where all you’re doing is light copyediting and yet people are telling you the manuscript needs major work… and for whatever reason, you can’t spot the problematic areas, and if you do, you don’t know how to fix them.

When you’ve done your very best, and you feel like you have nothing left to give to your latest manuscript, please, do yourself a favor. Put it in the drawer. Not just for a few weeks. But for a few months, minimum. Aim for six months or longer.

I once let a novel rest for fourteen months before I pulled it out of the drawer, and I was then able to turn that manuscript into pure gold, I’m telling you.

Because I could finally read it as a reader, not a writer. I could find every single way to make it better.

So if you have the time, and if you have the patience, let your novel rest a few months before you take it out again. You’ll be glad you did!

Posted in Writing

3 Quotes by Guillermo Del Toro to Make You a Better Writer


Guillermo Del Toro (born in 1964) is the Oscar-winning director of The Shape of Water, as well as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.

Here are three of his awesome quotes to inspire your writing today!

1. To me, art and storytelling serve primal, spiritual functions in my daily life. Whether I’m telling a bedtime story to my kids or trying to mount a movie or write a short story or a novel, I take it very seriously.

I don’t remember a lot of Oscar speeches, but one I always call back to is Steven Soderbergh’s after he won for his direction of Traffic. He talked about how the world would be unlivable without art, and I believe the same thing, too. Art is not a way to pass the time. Art, as Del Toro says, serve primal, spiritual functions in our lives. It certainly does for me.

For example, I can’t really start my day without reading for thirty to forty minutes. Reading feeds my mind, feeds my soul. And then I can never have a fully successful day if I don’t do a little bit of writing, whatever it may be. Whether it’s for Medium or for my latest novel project or for a new short story or a for a new poem, or all four, this part of my day is super important to me.

Whatever process you have when it comes to your writing, always make sure to take it seriously. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. You should have loads of fun. But also be serious about it. Make sure you realize how important the work is that you’re doing each and every day.

2. Every project that you write, it goes through years of hard work. We write a screenplay; we design. Then you submit those and the budget, and it’s out of your hands.

I don’t think there are too many writers who create a fantastic first draft of a novel that then goes through only a little bit of editing before it reaches your local bookstore. If your name is Stephen King or James Patterson, maybe. But even for the most acclaimed and prolific of authors who release books every year, I’d guess even they spend lots and lots of time on their projects. Go through many months, even years, of hard work before the project is finished.

This month I’m currently working on the tenth draft of a novel I began in February of 2017. Last March I finished the sixteenth draft — yep, the sixteenth — of a novel I first wrote in December 2015. Sometimes writing projects take years of hard work, that’s just the way it is. As Tom Hanks says in A League of Their Own, the hard is what makes it great. If it were easy, everyone would write a book, write a screenplay. And most people probably could write a first draft if they put their mind to it.

The hard work really comes in revision. When you need to sit down at your desk every day and slowly mold your writing project into something amazing. Some writers are able to do this fast, in just another draft or two. I usually need six drafts, eight drafts, ten drafts, sometimes more, to find the best possible version of my story. And you know what, that’s okay!

3. I’d be happy living underneath a freeway if it meant I got to make this movie.

This is a quote not pulled anywhere online but actually from my own memory of hearing Guillermo Del Toro speak! I was super lucky to attend an early screening of Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006, where Del Toro delivered a Q&A after the film. I enjoyed the work he’d done before, but to this day Pan’s Labyrinth is still his masterpiece, such an audacious and spectacular fantasy horror film. He probably spoke for thirty minutes or longer, but this is the one thing he said that still resonates in my mind thirteen years later.

He talked about how hard it was to make Pan’s Labyrinth, the years of blood and sweat and tears it took for a studio to green-light it. And at one point he discussed how by the time the movie got made he didn’t have a lot of money, but that he didn’t care one bit. Because the most important thing in his world at that time was making that movie, and so it didn’t matter if he had little money in the bank, didn’t care if he had to live under a freeway for awhile. He got to direct his film. And what an incredible film it is.

Now this is not to say that you should abandon your job and suck your bank account dry in order to write your newest masterpiece. But lean into the essence of Del Toro’s quote. Lean into the belief you have for your latest project the same way he believed in his. Stay inside to work on a gorgeous Saturday in order to dedicate time to your writing. Find little ways to save money so you can spend some more time on your art.

At the end of the day, if you believe in something strongly, which you should, do what you need to do to make sure it happens and that it becomes everything you know in your heart it can be. Give it everything you’ve got!