How to Write a Logline

by Lisa Alber

I recently completed the first draft for THE SHADOW MAIDEN. As first drafts go, it’s cleaner than usual (for me) because I’d overhauled it as I was writing maybe a dozen times. I’m happy it’s done, to say the least!

I’ve got it out to a reader for developmental feedback. Meanwhile, I started to think about my agent after a few years of being incommunicado. I started to worry. It’s one thing to fret over the writing process — that’s creativity at work. It’s another thing to fret when it comes time to consider the world *out there.* The world out there begins with one person: the agent (unless you’re self-publishing).

So many questions: Is she still my agent after so long? Will she like the book? If not, what do I do then? Does she remember me? How come I didn’t receive an agency Christmas card last year? Specifically, what will she make of my storytelling choices? Do I already have a strike against me since I’m not writing the most popular thing — the first-person, domestic suspense-thriller?

First things, first: contact her. Seemed simple enough. Nothing formal, because that’s not the way I roll. More like, Hey, Agent, remember me? Remember that book I was telling you about a long time ago? Like that, with the addition of a decent summary of the story.

Sad face emoji here — 😦 — because when it comes to the *out there* stuff, I dread coming up with what a friend calls the “logline” more than anything else in this pesky business. I can write an entire novel, but developing a pithy summary description? HAH!

I give you my friend’s formula, which I shamelessly stole and now pass on to you. Actually, with a little research, I discovered that the formula comes from a writing book called SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. It’s a screenwriting book, but fiction writers use it, too.

On the verge of STASIS = DEATH,
a flawed hero BREAKS INTO 2;
but when MIDPOINT happens,
they must learn the THEME STATED
before ALL IS LOST.

Uh-huh — what? Since I haven’t read the book (yet?), I did a little research, and this is the way I think about it:

  • STATIS = DEATH: Protagonist’s beginning state. Basically, she must already have problems in her life.
  • BREAK IN 2: Protagonist makes a choice and enters into a new, unforeseen journey.
  • MIDPOINT: Significant plot event that changes things. An obstacle, a twist, etc.
  • THEME STATED: Related to protagonist’s internal arc. How they must change.
  • ALL IS LOST: The stakes.

Here’s a made-up example:

Bankrupt and homeless, an investigative journalist returns to her hometown to bury her mother, who committed suicide, and pick up the pieces of her shattered life; but when a freak flood unearths a skeleton in the basement, she realizes she must face long-buried secrets in her family’s past and learn to forgive herself before she becomes the next “suicide” in the family.

Hopefully you get what I’m illustrating. Having a formula helped me write my logline. I came up with:

Reeling from her headmistress mother’s murder, troubled trauma survivor Tessa Alexander returns to the one place she vowed never to see again—fog-enshrouded, cursed Greyvale Academy for Girls—to find answers; but when a childhood friend is found dead on campus, the lines between past and present blur, and ever-more-fragile Tessa realizes that she must face her own truth to discover why vengeance came calling to slay her mother and make Tessa its next victim.

That’s one long-ass sentence, but it works well enough. I could never write a logline before I begin writing, but I can see how attempting it while writing might help me figure out where my story needs work. For example, if I can’t figure out what the theme is, I probably need to beef up my character’s internal story arc. If I don’t have a good midpoint event, it probably means I have a saggy middle.

In the end, I sent this:

Gothic-inspired story reminiscent of Tana French’s THE SECRET PLACE and Carol Goodman’s THE LAKE OF DEAD LANGUAGES: Reeling from her headmistress mother’s murder, troubled trauma survivor Tessa Alexander returns to the one place she’d vowed never to see again—fog-enshrouded, cursed Greyvale Academy for Girls—to find answers; but when a childhood friend is found dead on campus, the lines between past and present blur, and ever-more-fragile Tessa realizes that she must face her own truth to discover why vengeance came calling to slay her mother and make Tessa its next victim. Retribution comes in many forms, and sometimes Greyvale girls have the most to hide.

The point was to provide Agent with as much information as possible, succinctly, and excite her interest. Including comparable books (or, comps) is always handy for agents. That last sentence isn’t needed. I just liked it.

The good news is that Agent responded the same day(!!). I’m apparently still on her roster, and she looks forward to reading the manuscript when I’m ready. Revision, here I come!

Writing Like My Garden Grows

By Lisa Alber

Mimulus, an annual that survived the winter.

It’s gardening season again. Every year I meet the garden all over again, saying hello to the new hosta and lily shoots, cheering the cosmos sprouts coming up from seeds. There’s always a few happy surprises, like the checkered lilies that bloomed after a late season transplant last year and annuals that somehow made it through the winter. There’s always new challenges. Mourning the hibiscus that didn’t make it, grunting at the forget-me-nots and bluebells that want to take over everything, railing against slugs that decimated two delphiniums. It’s an ever-changing palette of colors, textures, and layers from year to year, and month to month during the season.

The thing about gardening, for me, is that it’s all about process. It’s a long-winded process. I’ll never get to the end. I started with the basics: clearing the yard of overgrown everything, junkyard detritus, a giant diseased cedar (sadly), and weeds. Learning as I went — the craft of it, you might say. Every year I challenge myself a little more. And every year, my garden grows more beautiful. The process brings to mind a fantastic word:

I’m coddiwompling my way forward with the garden the way I coddiwomple each new novel and my writing career in general. With each story, I meet the writing process all over again. Saying hello to the fresh-faced characters; railing against plot points that won’t make themselves clear; challenging myself with story structure or point of view. Hopefully, my craft is improving the way my garden grows more beautiful.

If nothing else, gardening illustrates how the process can be an end in itself. The garden doesn’t need to achieve anything. I always hope for lots of colorful flowers through the season, and that’s about it. I can’t control what happens, just like I can’t control my characters sometimes. Gotta pivot. Re-think. Transplant.

Checkered lily.

I have a new motto: gardening is transplanting. I plant new flowers every year, and sometimes I don’t place them correctly. They don’t thrive. They need more sun, or less. So, every year, I transplant, and every year there’s more to move around because I’m always buying new plants. And there’s a domino effect too. Last week I transplanted two languishing hydrangea to a sunnier spot where a clerodendrum (a.k.a. peanut butter tree) had died. In one of the empty hydrangea spots I transplanted a bleeding heart that wasn’t happy because it was getting too much sun.

The process takes patience and stamina. Just like revision. I have a motto about that too: writing is revision. Anyone can write a first draft, but revision is where the real work happens to make a story its best (publishable!) self. I change one aspect of a story and the domino effect rolls through every chapter. Recently, I realized my character Tessa’s internal arc wasn’t strong enough. I amped it up. Had to revise nearly every chapter to accommodate the pivot I made.


Transplanting is a revision, and revision — re-seeing — makes the garden more glorious. Sometimes it takes a few attempts to get it right, but eventually I figure out the best plant placement just like I figure out my vague plots. It’s not that I don’t get grumpy sometimes. Sometimes I don’t want to dig a hole in hard earth. BUT: The work itself, the slog, turns into flow. And flow is good. Once I get going (procrastination is forever an issue, whether transplanting or writing), with my hands in the soil or my mind inside a character’s head, I can go for awhile, and I’m content at the end of the session. In the garden, it’s easy to see my progress and so satisfying. In the work-in-progress, I can see that I made it through some page count. This is something even if I don’t know whether the revisions are any good.

But then, when I transplant, I don’t know whether the plant is going to thrive either. And if it doesn’t, I try another spot. And so it goes.

Bleeding heart and forget-me-nots

I almost wrote a blog post about languishing. A languishing plant, a languishing manuscript or career, many of us languishing during the pandemic. I found this article helpful. (The NYT piece is better, but it’s blocked, at least for me.)

But the garden isn’t languishing. The garden is buoyant and fully alive. And I’m hopeful for my writing too.

Pandemic Slow Writing

By Lisa Alber

Last year around this time, Italy locked itself down during a Covid surge. I remember being startled by the news; the gravity of the situation hit home, but even then I didn’t get it. I was still in the this-is-quite-the-serious-flu stage. Hah, har-dee-har-har. Flu — that’s a good one. The U.S. wasn’t doing much (not that it ever did until now); the previous administration refused to quarantine Americans evacuated from an infected cruise ship. Meanwhile, I’d gotten laid off a few weeks previously, so I was mired in my own thing, barely paying attention. Covid was background static.

A year later, I read this article from The Guardian: Writers blockdown: after a year inside, writers are struggling to write.

“Stultified is the word,” says Orange prize-winning novelist Linda Grant. “The problem with writing is it’s just another screen, and that’s all there is … I can’t connect with my imagination. I can’t connect with any creativity. My whole brain is tied up with processing, processing, processing what’s going on in the world.”

Later in the article Grant says, “It’s just a sort of sea of greyness, of timelessness.”

So true. Introvert that I am, I still need to get out of the house — sit around in coffeehouses and pubs, not to mention actually feel some skin-on-skin hugs from friends and let loose a little now and then. I’d never realized how crucial outside life was to my creativity. Zoom get-togethers are a BandAid, and they help, but they’re not the same.

I’ve been writing, but I’m all over the place. Here’s what I’ve done in the past year:

  • Struggle with revising a novel called “Shadow Maiden.” Completely re-wrote the secondary storyline, then changed it back but with a different voice. Also, switched from first to third person. This went on for months last spring. All I wanted to do was get to the end of the first draft.
  • Decide to write something completely different — a contemporary romance. Why? I needed something lighter and easier. I wanted to have some fun with my writing. Developed an idea, which promptly expanded itself into a trilogy in a genre a friend called “romantic suspense-adventure.” (Oh boy …)
  • Sigh. Huge sighs. Sighs all over the place. Because WTeverlastingF am I doing complicating what was supposed to be a fun, light, and easy-ish experiment of a side project?
  • Summer brought me the first draft of the first romance — almost. My excuse? I needed to complete the first drafts of the second and third romances to know how the first should truly end. But I struggled for a month with this decision, trying to end the draft, getting nowhere.
  • Fallow, then in November into December, draft of second romance completed — almost. Same struggle to end the darned thing and failing.
  • In the new year, I returned to Shadow Maiden to figure out where I was. Brainstorming. Finally had a revelation — which I’ve forgotten now — but I assume I wrote it down in my novel journal … Been switching back and forth between this and the second romance. A whole lotta nowhere.

In the past year I’ve written close to 200,000 words when you include the revision writing. Nothing to sneeze at, yet it all feels half-assed and way too slow. I’m stuck in the dreaded middle of three projects. If I were writing an essay about what I did during my pandemic lockdown, I’d called it “Failure in the Middle,” which is the name of an essay I read just last night, which brings me to the reason for writing this post: I’ve decided to lean into my slowness, since this is where I’m at right now. I recommend a book called The Art of Slow Writing; Reflection on Time, Craft, and Creativity by Louise DeSalvo. What a comfort!

DeSalvo says, “I’ve learned that often the toughest stage comes just before the biggest breakthroughs.” In fact, she calls the feel-like-a-failure middle moment, the “insight stage.” Talk about putting a positive spin on it! But I’ll take it. I’m owed some major breakthroughs when I get my brain back, post-pandemic. Fingers crossed. Meanwhile, I’ll keep touching the fiction most days and accept that I’m slow right now.

Oh, and continue meditating with the Calm app.