Sunday, April 19, 2009

Log Lines #4

Here's a single log line from Wes. Some of you may remember Wes's powerful and evocative opening paragraph from previous exercises. He's definitely got a way with words.

A young man from Missouri must survive the alien ways of New Mexico in 1821 to become a Santa Fe trader and marry his love, a provocative Mexican woman.

This is clean and tight and I don't get lost in any confusing phrases or unclear terms. So right away, I'm inclined to like this sentence. Remember, when you pitch, I have to process the information with my ears. If I have to pause to untangle a strange phrasing, I might lose the next few words from your pitch. Neither of us wants that.

So insofar as this is lucid and linear, it's a good opening sentence. And it's got a few other things going for it, too -- clearly delineated time and place, a hint of a story arc, a suggestion of world-building.

That said, it could be improved with a few tweaks here and there. I'd like something more evocative than "a young man," which is a bit generic. Well, maybe it hints that this is a coming of age story, but even so, we could do with a more vivid character tag. Untried idealist? Scrappy runaway? Either could be true at this point because we don't really know anything about this character other than that he is young, male, moves from one place to another, and eventually creates an adult life.

Also, I'd like a stronger sense of obstacles or conflict. Must survive the alien ways isn't all bad, especially with strongly dramatic words like survive and alien. But it's not concrete, is it? Maybe this is just me, but one of my first thoughts was that in 1821, Missouri and New Mexico were both more or less frontier areas. New Mexico had a bit more Spanish and native influence, right? So is that what makes it alien? That it's got different cultural influences?

I don't know. What does everyone think? Should he replace must survive the alien ways with something like must learn a new language and a new culture? It's more concrete, but these things feel more like tasks than obstacles.

Wes, what are the obstacles? What is it in the beginning that keeps the young man from becoming a trader and marrying the Mexican woman?

One other point. I assume this is a coming-of-age tale because this log line sets up that notion. In fact, this is one of the purposes of using a broad summary statement like this to open your pitch -- it gives us a frame through which we can view the details presented in the rest of the pitch. Between this line and what I remember of the opening paragraph we saw, er, last summer or so, I'm already thinking in terms of a more genfic version of a Cormac McCarthy story. Fewer literary fillips, more straightforward storytelling, with strong and clean language. Is that accurate?

The reason I ask -- and this may be obvious, but sometimes the most obvious points could use an airing, too -- is that everything you say to me during a pitch softens the soil for your later submission. If you pitch a "Cormac lite" coming-of-age tale, and submit a High Noon-style sheriffs-and-posses story, it's going to shade the way I view your viability as a career writer. I may love the book you submit. I may even buy it. But I'm going to wonder if you understand your own writing well enough to deliver a second publishable manuscript. (Not you specifically, Wes. Though I do specifically want you to tell me if this is a bildungsroman, and what form the obstacles take.)

A special note to commenters and lurkers

I had a private conversation tonight with someone I respect who confessed to being a bit shy about posting in the comments here. I hope this is an isolated case! Honestly, I think the comments are a key part of this blog. Please don't be shy about speaking up. We like a workshop environment around here, and this means everyone is welcome to participate. Our commenters are respectful, smart, insightful, witty, gracious people -- believe me, this is a group you can be proud to join.



Julie Harrington said...

And I save Murphy from having to go first. ;)

The sentence itself is really tight. There definitely is no misunderstanding here at all. You know who and where and when and you get a little hint at the what, but nothing really jumped out at me.

I'm pitifully horrid with history. I have no idea if something was happening in New Mexico in 1821 that would apply to the backdrop and I don't know if a man with a Mexican woman was considered socially unacceptable? If so, I can see where romantic and social conflicts could come from there.

But I would definitely like to know more about the man. It says he's coming to be a trader and that New Mexico is alien to him. So where is he coming from? Is he Boston bred? Somewhere more up north like Montana? Or maybe he's really up north like Canada.

So I'm with Theresa. I'd like to see a bit of the overall conflict get a mention in there.

One other thing that Wes might consider is the description of the woman. Mexican is obviously important. I assume she is provocative as romance is brewing. Is she controversial? Is she infamous? What does she add to the conflict?

I think I have more questions about where the story can expand than anything. But clarity so isn't the issue. :) It was very, very clear.


Nixy Valentine said...

On one hand I like it... it's tight and clean.

But... surviving is passive. It means "exist and don't die".. more or less. =)

Without knowing more about the work, it's difficult to make suggestions, but I'm wondering about what the young man must DO, GIVE UP, or FIGHT to survive? Does he battle prejudice or compromise his morals or even change his way of thinking?

In my opinion, the more *doing* the better.

That said, it really is quite good. =)

Skeptic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Riley Murphy said...

Ha, Wes! And you thought it wouldn't be posted! Time to I mean, fill in my two cents. And hey JT, thanks for breaking the ice with this one and posting first - I'm glad someone's paying attention to my whining (you must have kids...or ah, a husband that causes you to be this perceptive);0.

Like Theresa, I think alien ways needs to be clarified. The term, when I read it, never sat well with me. If Kincaid is adopting a new land, he needs to do more than survive their ways. He needs to overcome the obstacles that they present and accept them, so that he can build a new life in this land, right?

Other than this? The term young man? Yeah, it could use some dressing up - but I think that is more a female perspective than a male one. Where are all the guys on this? Ian? Is he around? What is his take on the term? Does Wes need more than this, if this is a coming-of-age story, to hook you or get his point across at first meet? (as a guy, I mean) I'd really be interested to know what kind of additional description a guy would use to switch up the: 'young man' term. Not that the ladies around here aren't capable, but I'm curious. (insert me narrowing my eyes in

This was good Wes. I think it’s clear and to the point - well done!

Robin Lemke said...

Hi there - I'm a lurker coming out of hiding. :)

I thought the log line was very tight, clear, and readable - the sort of writing that makes reading pleasurable. The only sticking point for me was the use of the word alien, and I can see I'm in the minority. Possibly, it's because I've been critiquing some sci fi/fantasy, but I initially thought of, well, aliens.

So I personally would choose a different word there.

I actually liked the use of "young man". It made me think of a George Bailey type headed out into the world. I liked "provacative Mexican woman" less. I'm just guessing there's more too her than that and I'd love to see one more word in there that hints at her complexity.

Hope that's helpful!

Wes said...

Thank you, Theresa and others for your thoughtful comments. I have found this whole topic of log lines to be very helpful. Thanks again.

Yes, it is probably too lean, but I was concerned about cramming too much into it. The year 1821 is important because that was when Mexico gained independence from Spain. Prior to that Spain protected its merchantile system of forcing all trade with its colonies thru Spain. Americans and other norte americanos were arrested for entering NM, and many were never of heard of again. Kincaid's journey there was filled with risk. The Santa Fe Trail developed after 1821. It was for commerce to bring trade to isolated New Mexicans, whereas the Oregon Trail was for immigration and not commerce.

Yes, it is a coming of age story, and one that ends in disillusionment and deceit.

The obstacles and alien ways are many. Maria, the love interest, is one of my favorite characters. Kincaid is blind to her devious ways. One thing she does is seduce Kincaid into going on a slave raid to steal Navajo children to sell so her father will not need to sell himself into peonage, another type of slavery practiced there. Other strange ways are how Spanish missions enslaved pueblo Indians, and ricos, wealthy landowners, abused their power. Kincaid is viewed as a heretic by the clergy, but I'm even-handed. When Kincaid takes New Mexican's to St. Louis, his compannions are viewed as papists and face the same type of prejudice he has endured.

Yes, I am influenced by Cormac McCarthy, but more so by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. who won a Pulitzer for THE WAY WEST (even though his debut novel, THE BIG SKY is better). He also wrote the screenplay for SHANE.

This is way too much info, but I couldn't help myself.

I look forward to additional feedback.


em said...

If I had anything to change about this it has been already mentioned. I would like to see more information or more description in the line about the Mexican woman.

Riley Murphy said...

Hey Mystery Robin! Glad you finally made it out of the took Alicia's post December 8th, 2008 on 'Synecdoche' to inspire me to bribe one of my kids (notice I didn’t say blackmail? And yes, I believe there was money involved, heck - with them? There’s ALWAYS money involved!) into setting up a blog account so that I could put my two cents in around here.

I agree with you about the 'alien' and sci-fi thing. Wes, actually copied me in on his logline when he sent it to Theresa a few days ago and I mentioned this point to him. So, you are not alone on that one. In fact I'm glad you mentioned it because now he knows that I’m not the only one who had this reaction.;)

Wes, I have one more thing I would add here. You have a line that you use, I believe that it is: ‘things were softer and less sudden.’? That kind of sums up where Kincaid came from as opposed to where he is. I really liked the phrase because it gave me a glimpse into, not only the character who thought such a thing - but told me about his ‘reality’ big time. Is there any way you can work that into, if not the logline, maybe your pitch? Just a thought...

Jordan McCollum said...

Definitely a great start, as everyone has noted!

Maybe we should describe MarĂ­a as a "devious Mexican woman," and hope that doesn't sound like a stereotype.

Wes, when you said "Americans and other norte americanos were arrested for entering NM, and many were never of heard of again," I wanted to get a hint of that kind of danger in the log line. That's the kind of concrete obstacle that could help here (provided, of course, that your book actually focuses on that).

Babs said...

I agree about the word alien - I read it and then had to go back and reread the line. I would also like to hear more about the woman - if there is some romance here, or is that secondary to the coming of age?

Wes said...

There is most definitely romance! Sometimes I thought I was writing an erotic romance novel (well, almost). Maria is one of the primary motivators of Kincaid's actions. And like every romance in real life, there are positives and negatives.

As Murphy posted, she warned me about using "alien". Guess I need to rethink that. But includes in the definition "unlike one's own; strange; not belonging to one". But I'm not a purist. I'd rather have the log line communicate well than be technically correct. "Foreign" would work. Again from "Synonyms:
1. immigrant. 2. See stranger. 3. outcast. 7. exotic, foreign".

Jeanne Ryan said...

what I like most is the ending.

My only quibble is the word alien. Immediately I though sci-fi. I'd like a little elaboration on this point, so I can visualize the conflict better.

Babs said...

Wes: You're off to a good start. Erotic romance? I didn't get that from you line but you said 'almost'. If you change or define the word alien better I think you may have a winner with this one.:)

Murphy, I have to say that the new 'do' is you (I read Em's comment in the other post;)!