by Gina Panettieri
Now more than ever, it’s essential to grab an agent’s or editor’s attention with the opening lines of your queries. If you’ve been watching social media, you’ve no doubt seen editors worrying over their impossible TBR lists and their never-ending stream of queries, and agents are no different. The pandemic created an absolute boom in queries and submissions and we’re all struggling mightily to keep up. To have a chance, a writer needs to wow in their query!
LOGLINES: A SUMMARY IN A SENTENCE
That first paragraph of your query needs to make your book immediately recognizable and accessible. We need to feel we understand where you’re going with the story and be drawn in right from the start. Writing a logline that will grab the reader is a craft you must to develop.
A logline is a sentence or two that condenses your book down to its essence
A logline is a sentence or two that condenses your book down to its essence. Optimally (and I tell this to all of my students), I want to comprehend conflict, stakes, and motivation immediately. That doesn’t mean giving away the whole story, but engage me emotionally. Why am I going to care about this character, this story? What is your protagonist’s conflict? They may have several (and they typically do in most novels), but which one propels them into the action of the story? What are their stakes? Again, stakes may change over the course of the story (hopefully they become greater, and I advise writers that they should begin with the protagonist’s personal stakes and then the stakes should grow and evolve beyond the hero’s sphere of concern – conflict should grow from micro to macro). But in the logline, focus on the immediate stakes to the protagonist. We know their conflict, so what is at stake if they take action or don’t take action? What is their motivation?
Loglines can often successfully be structured in a ‘when/then’ format – When MC is called back to their home town to cover the mysterious disappearances of young girls, they are then forced to confront troubling memories from their own childhood and risk their sanity, and perhaps their very life, to stop a killer who has risen from the ashes to strike again. So when X inciting event occurs, then MC must face their conflict and their motives to propel the story forward.
COMPS: WHAT ARE THEY AND HOW TO PICK THEM
Is there a shorthand to communicate a great deal about your story and grab a reader’s interest? Yes, and that shorthand is called a mash-up. You may have noticed in the Publishers Marketplace deal notices that many successful stories are positioned as X meets Y (sometimes with an additional Z). This premise formulation is intended to quickly make the story feel familiar, recognizable and intriguing. With mash-ups, unlike your actual comp titles (which we’ll come to later), you CAN use big blockbusters and bestsellers. So your madcap rom-com set in a lab filled with brainy inventors might be Big Bang Theory meets Honey I Shrunk the Kids. And yes, you can use movies and TV series in creating your logline! Using really iconic examples helps create an instant understanding. Just choose examples that really make sense for your project. It’s okay to use somewhat older examples provided they’re nearly universally-recognizable.
As an alternative to a mash-up, you can pick a familiar comp but present it in an entirely different setting or backdrop that gives it a unique spin. For example, Marley & Me set in an African wildlife preserve. Legally Blonde set in an uptight Wall Street firm. Pride and Prejudice with Zombies (this one really happened).
Using really iconic examples helps create an instant understanding.
And while it’s important to get that mash-up or unique spin down pat, you also need to provide the agent or editor with actual comp titles for marketing and positioning purposes. But what exactly are comp titles and what are they used for?
Comp titles should be books from the past few years that have performed well and would resonate with the readership of your book, but I don’t suggest going beyond two or three years. Comp titles should be from the same genre (or blended genre if that applies) and the same format. Don’t use a graphic novel as a comp for a traditional novel, or a YA novel as a comp for an adult novel. We’re looking at books for the same readership as yours, and how they performed. You want to give the agent or editor you’re pitching the idea that your book has the same potential. However, I don’t recommend using titles from huge, established stars – these are never a good gauge for the potential from a new writer and the books are selling based on that writers’ long history and name recognizability, and new authors don’t have that advantage yet.
Look for books from writers still developing their career. You may find a super-successful debut or second book, books that were well-reviewed, sold well and would resonate with your reader because of voice, characterization, plot and conflict and perhaps setting. Be ready to explain why it’s a good comp to yours. For example, ‘My book would appeal to readers who enjoyed the nonstop action, authenticity and high-level stakes of Title X’, or ‘Fans drawn to heartwarming sibling stories of Author Y would fall in love with my characters’. Great, well-chosen comps help demonstrate your knowledge of your market and give the reader confidence in your understanding of genre demands, so invest time in your research and choose wisely.
Editors use comp titles’ sales to project how well your book might perform, but keep in mind that there are other considerations. The comp needs to be selling in the same price range as the titles they market. Often that means that self-published books and e-only books are not a viable comps if you’re pitching to a large, traditional publisher. Even if the comp title sold well, if the price point was $5 less a copy than what your target publisher would be charging, the publisher can’t realistically project sales for your book at their preferred price point. So, be sure to pick comp titles that performed well in the same format and price range as those sold by the publishing house you’re targeting.
It’s hard to hunt for comps. Publishers Weekly is a good place to start, especially in their “round-up” editions. Bookstore employees can also give great recommendations. And, don’t forget about Booklist—the publication of the American Library Association is a goldmine.
So, armed with a powerful, persuasive logline and comp titles that present your story in its best light, you’re ready to write a convincing query or pitch at an instant’s notice in the upcoming conference season! Good luck!
Gina Panettieri is the founder of Milford, Connecticut-based literary agency, Talcott Notch Literary.