No Logline Equals no Clue

by Leo Dufresne

Outlines, synopsis, Hero’s Journey, three-act plot structure… Everyone has a method to help you write your novel, more efficiently, more elegantly, more successfully. It would be interesting to see what the ratio is between works of fiction and how-to books on the subject.

I confess I have at least two shelves in my personal library dedicated to this topic. There were many nuggets I discovered in my research that helped me on my journey. However, unless there is some hidden way to make a living out of reading self-help books, at some point you have to put the instruction books down and just write. For me that transition took about three months. And once I began writing, I was consumed.

My writer friends would continue to share books or articles that had intrigued them. I’d smile and dutifully write the information down, knowing that I wouldn’t bother pursuing the material. I was writing and writers write. I had a solid outline, complete with index cards for each scene. One year later my first draft was complete. Along the way I had many of the chapters critiqued. The work was solid and I decided to hand it off to a professional editor.

For the next four weeks my thoughts of the editor’s reaction vacillated between a tearful phone call from him thanking me for the honor of reading my masterpiece to opening a mystery package containing my shredded manuscript. I think those weeks were the worst part of the whole ordeal that is a writer’s life.

My writer friends suggested that I use that time to distance myself from my work. The time away would help me when I needed to attack the manuscript again. I reluctantly sought out some of the material they had previously suggested. I began to think about query letters, loglines, synopsis and other items associated with pitching my work.

Although I tried to dig into them, it seemed premature to focus on queries or synopsis when I knew massive edits may be awaiting me. I looked at the logline I had kluged together at the beginning of my draft. It was off and I knew it. It represented where I thought the novel was going nine months earlier. A friend offered ideas on a new logline. I listened but wasn’t keen on it. I’d worry about this too when the work was complete.

And then the editor replied. It wasn’t a tearful phone call praising me. Much of my writing was good and he did enjoy reading my manuscript. But… The book was inconsistent and disparate. It began as a mystery with characters developed at that level and at some point switched to something more literary. Unfortunately the flat, non-layered characters couldn’t support the story in which they were weaved.

I went through the grieving process, anger, denial, and ultimately acceptance. I read a novel the editor suggested. I spoke with various friends. My goal was to develop a plan of attack to repair my manuscript. I had a list of scenes I needed to modify. It was a big list. But there was no plan.

Until I stumbled again on my pathetic logline. The more I contemplated this the more I realized this was the key. My novel was a journey where I had started off happily enough, but didn’t really know where I was going. My compass was broken and I was just riding the wind. It was a nice ride, but why would a reader want to go along. I was asking them to spend several hours reading my novel and I couldn’t even spend a few hours figuring out where I was taking them. What an arrogant ass.

For the next few days I put my energy into the logline. In the car, the shower, at work (don’t tell my boss) until finally I had something. It’s wasn’t perfect, but the effect was amazing. I wrote the new logline out and kept it with my manuscript. The re-writes began to buzz. I was in the groove and I knew it. It’s still work to edit a whole piece, but it doesn’t need to hurt. Best of all, I got the excitement back to tackle the book again.


About Tim Kane

Tim Kane is a writer of fiction.
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5 Responses to No Logline Equals no Clue

  1. claireflaire says:

    I enjoyed your post and can relate to every stage you outlined in your process. It’s easy to start with a roadmap, but then not follow it. I’d love to see your original logline and the revised one. Best of luck on you rewrite.

    • dleo61 says:

      Hi clairefaire,
      Thank you for your comments. I was almost too embarrassed to write this post because it seems so obvious now looking back on things. Then I began to witness other writers falling into the same trap. I couldn’t just sit there and watch a car wreck about to happen right in front of me, especially one that could take over a year to develop.

      I don\’t have a copy of my original logline with me, but the new, non-perfect version goes like this:
      “An uber-focused executive’s life is turned upside down by a strange blackmail attempt. Mitch Pederson is forced to re-evaluate his career, family and something even more important.”

      I’ll polish this when it’s time to pitch my work, but for now it serves the purpose of keeping me on track.

      Does your work exist somewhere out there in the ether where I can read it? Please let me know.

  2. Oh, I feel your pain. I have sooo been there. As a writing coach, I often run across talented work that lacks clear overall structure–I believe your logline may be what Robert McKee calls “the contolling idea” in his excellent book Story. And I’m reading a novel now that in many ways isn’t well written (stereotyped characters, minor plot holes, no break from intensity chapter to chapter, overwordy) but I can’t put the damn thing down–the story is so addicting! (The whole topic-Story ability and writing talent being 2 different things– has been a real eye opener to MFA-trained, literary fiction writer!)

  3. dleo61 says:

    Hi Helen,
    I don’t think I could do what you do, coach other pathetic individuals (writers). You deserve a medal, straight jacket, or both.
    You’re right about the logline being the equivalent of McKee’s controlling idea. What really bothered me is that I’m an organized, logical sort and this was so stupid for me. I should have seen the bigger picture. I guess I needed a dose of humility and the fruit (compassion) to be able to help others when they start to venture down the same path.
    Let me know where I can find your postings.

  4. Leo, you made me day by asking to see my work. I actually love being a writing coach–there’s nothing better than when people sit up in a momentary glow of writing nirvana–It’s worth the uncertain schedule, the editing slog, etc. etc.

    I have to agree about the “bothered” part. I am a writing teacher, after all! But now I’m a better one, right? Right. Humility…ahh…the writer’s secret weapon. You can access my blog at and my short stories at Or click on my name here? Do you have a blog? I will Google you when I’m not restricted to a hotel lobby computer in San Francisco once we return to Philthydelphia. Oh, it’s a hard life.

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