I know too well that loglines can be pure torture. All the essential pieces of story have to be there. I absolutely love Karen Yin’s post about her process using the logline to guide her writing—pure gold! Read on to see how her debut picture book, WHOLE WHALE, came to be.
AND don’t miss the GIVEAWAY! Just leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of WHOLE WHALE! (drawing 9/3)
“Logline as Lifeline for Whole Whale” by Karen Yin
I have a confession: I’m a chronic overthinker, and it shows up in my writing. My short stories have been mistaken for first chapters because I get carried away with world-building. My 300-word columns begin life as 1,200 words because each point branches off into elucidation. Thanks to frequent deadlines, I trained myself to write faster by thinking in fewer layers. By the time I tried my hand at picture books, which are 500 words or so, I had become practiced at heading off the most egregious meandering by writing the logline, or a short description, before the story.
Loglines, which I learned about as a screenwriter, are one or two lines that encapsulate the story, including hook, obstacle, and stakes. Here’s my personal one, which I developed and refined after studying logline how-tos across the internet.
When INCITING INCIDENT, CHARACTER must ACTION, but OBSTACLES threaten STAKES.
Writing a logline first—before you allow yourself to write anything else, no matter how tempting—helps expose the gaps in your storytelling. If you write your manuscript first, it’ll be awkward to shoehorn your story into the logline formula if a crucial part is missing. In my experience with reading pitches and queries, what’s missing most often are the stakes—what’s the consequence if the character fails to get stuff done? A logline will call that to your attention.
Whole Whale, my debut picture book, began as a title. The words “whole whale” got me thinking about size and space and places a blue whale could not fit—like a book. As the refrain “but surely not a whole whale” resounded in my head, I tried to capture the precise heartache that compelled me to write a story about the largest animal on earth being left out. My initial logline captured my concept beautifully, though it didn’t hit all the marks.
A hundred animals fit in this book—but surely not a whole whale! A story about making space for all.
I typed it right below my logline formula, and both sat at the top of my manuscript till I prepped the Word doc for submission. This is the digital equivalent of taping a notice to your wall. Keeping the logline visible was a strategic reminder that this is what captivated me, this is the heart of the story. I had something to hew to when I went off course.
Therefore, I wrote every word in Whole Whale with the philosophy of “making space for all” front of mind. This meant that all themes—and in my stories there are many—must meet at the heart. “Making space for all” supports Whole Whale’s theme of embracing family diversity (look for the two-daddy lion family with cubs in the spread). “Making space for all” also supports Whole Whale’s theme of keeping families together, which was inspired by the inhumane practice of tearing families apart at the U.S.-Mexico border. In picture books, we can address big, complex topics and emotions through analogy, by running them alongside simpler concepts. Having a logline helped me isolate and focus on Whole Whale’s raison d’être.
This being my second picture manuscript, it didn’t go exactly as planned. In 12 days, I had a draft down, rhyme and all. I was inordinately pleased with my progress, but when my beta reader asked why the animals were gathering in the first place, I remembered that the inciting incident was missing from my almost-logline! It’s amusing that having a logline stare me in the face helped me write quickly and concisely, thereby avoiding my past horrors of overwriting, but I wrote so quickly that I didn’t think to revisit my working logline.
After I revised my opening to reveal the reason why everything was happening, I reworked my logline and eventually turned it into a proper pitch. The final pitch used in queries is:
One hundred creatures might fit in this book—but can we fit a whole whale? When animals congregate on the pages to play, the largest is in danger of being left out, requiring everyone to work together. Featuring both unusual and familiar animals in funny formations, this story celebrates having fun, inclusiveness, and keeping families together, with a twist that includes you.
Developing a logline early on helps you strengthen your story arc and cut out the blubber. Even when I don’t want a traditional arc, I use my logline formula for ideas on infusing my story with urgency and making it more engaging. As for how successful I was in driving the point of inclusion home—non-didactically, mind you—I’ll leave you with this quote from School Library Journal’s review of Whole Whale: “This simple rhyming book packs a powerful message: ‘When everybody makes some space, one more can always find a place.’”
Don’t forget to leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of WHOLE WHALE. (continental US address only, please)
Congratulations to Katie Williams, winner of FREAKY, FUNKY FISH by Debra Shumaker!
Karen Yin is an award-winning writer and editor in Southern California. Her debut picture book, Whole Whale (Barefoot Books, 2021), is a story about making space for all. Her second book, So Not Ghoul (Page Street Kids, 2022), tells the tale of a little Chinese American ghost caught in bicultural fashion limbo. Winner of the 2017 ACES Robinson Prize for furthering the craft of professional editing, Karen is the founder of several acclaimed digital tools for writers and editors, including Conscious Style Guide, The Conscious Language Newsletter, and the Editors of Color Database. Conscious Style Guide was named by Poynter as a top tool for journalists in 2018 and is recommended by SCBWI, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, Poets & Writers, Winning Writers, Jane Friedman, and many others, including NASA. Acclaim for Karen’s fiction includes a Lambda Literary Fellowship, a Table 4 Writers Foundation grant, an SCBWI Nonfiction Grant, and selection of her flash fiction by the L.A. Public Library for its permanent collection and Short Story Portal. Find Karen online at KarenYin.com and her book recommendations at DiversePictureBooks.com.