Stephen Covey, the renowned self-help guru, said that you should begin with the end in mind in his seminal book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Although he was talking about life in general, the same advice can apply to writing a novel because you have to know where you’re going with your story before you can begin the journey.
Writing a good novel is hard. No matter how much you love to write or how much you’ve written in your lifetime, creating a story that sustains a reader’s interest from the exciting beginning to the satisfying ending requires a lot of hard work. Most writers can bang out a thrilling opening and the climatic ending, but the dreaded middle has rung the death knell for many a novel. I see it all the time in books I’ve read. They start out great but lose their center as they meander toward the climax.
To keep a book centered, it helps to begin with the log line. One of the biggest takeaways that I’ve had from The Fifth Semester program is the importance of the log line. A log line is a succinct, one-to-two sentence summary of your novel. It’s meant to be something akin to an elevator pitch. Imagine you’re on an elevator with an agent or a publisher, and you only have a few seconds to pitch them the idea behind your novel. That’s your log line. It’s hard to boil down a 90-thousand word novel to two sentences, but it’s a must if you want to pitch your idea successfully. It’s also incredibly helpful to keep you focused as you write your novel, so developing it up front and keeping it in sight during the writing process can prevent that dreaded middle from becoming a disastrous muddle.
I usually develop something like a log line when an idea strikes. I’ll jot down a bunch of notes on an idea, which is usually just a few sentences. The difference between what I do and what I learned at The Fifth Semester is that the log line it much more carefully crafted. My notes were often just spilling ideas on a page. Now, I still dump the ideas out of my brain in a haphazard fashion, but I then take those ideas and spend a considerable amount of time to craft a log line.
Having a solid log line before I begin work keeps me centered on the essence of the idea. Of course, there are other tools I’ve learned about that help me craft the story and avoid a sagging middle, but the log line keeps me focused like a laser on the story, and if I start writing something that drifts off that line, I either stop or I revisit my log line. Most likely, if I’ve developed a solid log line, I re-direct my writing.
Here’s the log line to my current project, Into the Caldera:
A shy college student meets the girl of his dreams only to lose her to his charismatic, life-long best friend. When the three go on a camping trip near the mouth of a volcano, a terrible accident forces him to decide whether death is the price of betrayal.
As I’m re-writing that novel, I keep that log line in front of me. It helps keep me focused on what I’m trying to accomplish with the story.