I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a killer concept when it comes to a book. What makes an idea jump out from the lists of possibilities in my writer’s notebook and demand to be written? What makes editors snap it up? And what makes readers flock to the book and keep turning the pages? In other words, what’s that special sauce that makes nonfiction books sizzle?
Concept and (or) Story
Whether a project is “book worthy” comes down to the overall concept and story, often more than the subject matter itself. Over the next couple of months, we’ll examine a variety of tests to help us hone our nonfiction story ideas until they sing using techniques from story experts like Blake Snyder, Lisa Cron, and others. First up, is one of my go-to’s for every book project, Blake Snyder and SAVE THE CAT.
Save The Cat – The Logline (or one-line) test
In his seminal book, SAVE THE CAT: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, Blake Snyder describes the initial test for a movie concept — the logline. A logline is a “one- or two-sentence description of your movie that tells us what it is.” And he encourages budding screenwriters to study loglines so they can learn to craft their own and make their projects as compelling as possible.
A Case Study – THE FIRE OF STARS
Here’s the logline for THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illus. Katherine Roy, from Publisher’s Marketplace.
Kirsten Larson’s CECILIA PAYNE: MAKING OF A STAR (SCIENTIST), a biography of the groundbreaking female astronomer who discovered the composition of stars, and whose story mirrors the process of star formation, illustrated by Katherine Roy, to Melissa Manlove at Chronicle Children’s…
What Makes a Great Logline?
Snyder says a great logline needs four things:
- a compelling mental picture
- a sense of audience and cost
- a killer title
Let’s take a closer look.
First up, the irony test. It’s not contained within the logline, but the irony in THE FIRE OF STARS’s concept lies in a 25-year-old doctoral student (and a woman!) making a tremendous discovery at a time when women were practically barred from the field. A quick Google search about Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin brings that irony to light, and this underdog element is common source of irony for picture book biographies.
But irony is not just for narrative projects. It can be even more important for expository nonfiction. Let’s look at a wonderful book a fellow writer recently brought to my attention.
Amy Cherrix’s ANIMAL ARCHITECTS, a nonfiction book that showcases the many amazing ways and things that animals build, illustrated by Chris Sasaki, to Andrea Welch at Beach Lane Books, in a good deal, at auction, in a two-book deal…
In this example, the irony is right in the title. People are architects; animals can’t be architects, or can they? Oh, the irony! That unexpected juxtaposition of ideas pulls us in.
A Compelling Mental Picture
The second test is whether the logline creates a compelling mental picture. It’s clear from THE FIRE OF STARS logline that the book is two stories in one, a tightly woven tale of star formation and Cecilia’s formation as a scientist. It answers the question, “What does it take to make a great scientist?” And you can start to visualize what this dual story might look like on the page as Cecilia’s story and the star story interact and mirror each other.
With ANIMAL ARCHITECTS’s logline, we also get a compelling mental picture. We know we’ll see animals in the act of building, drawing on the same process and terminology architects use. We expect to see animal structures too. Our brains are already buzzing with what this might look like. Are we talking about honey combs? Spiderwebs? Beaver lodges? The idea is rich with STEM tie ins. And we can visualize how a savvy illustrator like Sasaki might bring this idea to life, drawing on the trappings of architecture.
A Sense of Audience and Cost
In query letters (and deal announcements), we establish the audience and cost when we choose the category/format/genre. Just by calling a book a “nonfiction picture book,” we know it will be 32 pages (or more), illustrated, and for the audience of elementary-age readers but read to them by the adults in their life. Chapter books, early readers, graphic novels, and middle grade nonfiction all have built in audiences and costs based upon page counts and whether the format is illustrated.
A Killer Title
I’ll admit, I’m terrible with titles. Normally, my initial title is not what ends up on the front of the book. Still, it’s important to capture the unique elements of your book in a strong title that will invite editors to snap it up and readers to pick it up.
My initial title for THE FIRE OF STARS was CECILIA PAYNE: MAKING OF A STAR (SCIENTIST). It tells you flat out who the protagonist is — Cecilia Payne. It also tells you this book is about astronomy, the making of stars, and perhaps will focus more on Cecilia Payne’s childhood and development as an astronomer versus her achievements. Plus, the mirror structure is revealed in the title itself.
Similarly, with ANIMAL ARCHITECTS the books’ unique hooks are in the title. I know this is an animal book, but it isn’t going to be boring old, traditional nonfiction that simply describes animal builders in an encyclopedic way. Cherrix has given us a metaphor — animals as architects. I’m expecting her to continue this metaphor inside the book with nods to architecture terminology and a focus on structures animals create. Perhaps the art will even incorporate architecture and architectural plans (which it does, especially with the title on the cover).
A killer title isn’t a requirement, as they often change during the editing process. But a killer title can certainly help sell your concept.
Honing your logline skills
The best way to learn to write loglines is to study them, either in Publisher’s Marketplace (subscription required) of the Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf (free, twice weekly newsletter). Sometimes the loglines in the deal announcements originate with the editor, other times the agent. But in all cases, if an author has crafted a compelling logline, you’ll find its DNA in the deal announcement and even later in the publisher’s marketing literature.
If you are outlining or revising a nonfiction project, what’s your logline? Read through some current deal announcements in PW Children’s Bookshelf, then write your own. Make sure there’s a sense of irony, a compelling mental picture, an idea of audience and cost, and that killer title that will make your book stand out from the pack.
If your logline isn’t compelling enough, it means your book concept likely isn’t compelling enough. You might need to revise and refocus the idea to find a more compelling angle.
Want to make your nonfiction stand out from the pack?
Join me for my six-week course at The Writing Barn, where we’ll cover techniques for revising and polishing your nonfiction picture books until they shine.
We’ll use a blend of instruction, mentor-text analysis, in-class writing exercises, and discussion to take your writing to the next level. Every student will receive a critique of a nonfiction picture book from me. Learn more here.