Friday, March 06, 2009

Book comparisons

I'm not sure how log lines came to be a part of query letters but here they are so you might as well learn to do them right.

Authors love to say things like "its like Jaws, but in the woods!" or "it's like Speed, but on tricycles, and with preschoolers!"

In other words, it's like a movie, but different.

Well, of course, this is a book you're sending a query for, so the first thing to remember is:

1. compare your book to a book

2. make sure your comparison book matches the tone of your book.
I've seen things like "It's just like that movie Home Alone, but this time the kid is alone cause the dad commits suicide".

Whoa! Hold your horses bucko.
Home Alone is a comic movie about a kid who gets left inadvertently and his parents move heaven and earth to get BACK to him. There's NO comparison to the tragedy of a parent committing suicide.

In other words "Silence of the Lambs" except Hannibal Lecter is a really fun kindergarten teacher just doesn't work.

3. Know the book you're using as a comparison to yours
The most egregious comparison error is to compare your work to something (usually one of my client's books) that you haven't read. Not only haven't read, but haven't even looked at the description on Amazon

"my book is an homage to Jimi Hendrix like The Electric Church by Jeff Somers" doesn't work on any level.

I think log lines are a waste of time mostly. They're very hard to do well. They're probably the very last thing you should write as you work on your query letter. That's because the hardest things to write are the sentences that have to sum up a book in just a few words.

Write the paragraph that tells me what the book is about first. Everything else is secondary.


December/Stacia said...

I would totally read a book where Hannibal Lecter is a really fun kindergarten teacher.

jason crawford said...

Wow, that was really funny. Thanks for the advice. I'm just finishing up my tween novel and am realizing I know some things about the art of writing, but practically nothing about the business! :)

How's this? It's like Harry Potter, except the protag's a girl, and she uses technology instead of magic. Only kidding, I don't think I'll use any comparisons when I start querying.

Thanks again for the advice!

BJ said...

Question: I was told by an agent that I could say it was like a certained published author's work. I hadn't read that novel, so I bought it and started reading it. I didn't care much for it, and I don't think mine are similar to that at all. The tone is different, the situation is different, and the genre is different.

When I send the partial, should I mention this other novel at all, even to say it's not similar?

Amy Nathan said...

I never understood why a writer would compare a book to a movie - so thank you! I have compared my WIP to the tone and style and genre of other authors -- for me that is a way to figure out where it would "fit" on the bookshelves.

Stephanie Faris said...

Oops. Another faux pas I've committed! Although I'm really curious about a book that's "Jaws, but in the woods." "It's like Jaws but with no water, no sharks, and no boats. So really it's not like Jaws at all." I will say in my days attending romance-writing workshops, it was encouraged to say your book was "Pretty Woman meets While You Were Sleeping," but I can't say that anyone who knew what they were talking about was doing that encouraging.

lotusgirl said...

I would think that the log lines became popular because some sites and books recommend them. It blows me away that people would use log lines that don't fit or site books that they aren't familiar with. (Like you don't know what your own clients' books are about. Holy commas! That's insane!)

I sure appreciate your advice. I didn't want to use something like that in my queries anyway, so it's nice to know that someone who knows what they're talking about discourages them. Yahoo!

Anonymous said...

Great advice. Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear this. Many of the How-to's on queries suggest this should be done, and I feel it's probably part of the market awareness for my manuscript. If there's another book already in print like mine, it implies there's already a market. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to come up with one, and I've been sending out queries without it.

Liz Wolfe said...

I've never been a fan of log lines like that. But I write a tag line for my manuscripts. Just a sentence that sums up the heart of the book. It keeps me focused on the ultimate goal I have for the book. Haven't used one in a query though.

Prairie Chicks Write Romance said...

OK, too funny, Janet! Just posted my blog for today about purchasing taglines at Taglines R Us.

I've struggled with a logline to sum up my manuscript. Of course, I've also struggled with the query and the synopsis. What do you say about elevator pitches? Do they not start with a really great logline? Of course, you may have already posted on this topic - off to search the archives.

BTW - *Jaws* in the woods - a grizzly instead of a shark? Having a hard time picturing a grizzly ramming a trailer :)

Jo said...

Thanks for this! Informative and very very funny!

L.C. Gant said...

I can just picture Hannibal Lecter as a kindergarten teacher: "Hello boys and girls. You're all so cute, I could just EAT YOU UP." Admit it, that's a good line!

I'm not a fan of log lines, no matter how well they're done. I'm under enough pressure to sell the story as is; I don't want to add to it. By comparing myself to an author, I put my work in competition with theirs. No thanks. I'd rather compete with myself. That's hard enough.

Jean Reidy said...

This post was packed with laugh-out-loud examples as well as spot-on advice. Thanks for the fun and informative post. My kids and I actually play the "log line" game (although we never call it that because my kids would have no idea what a log line is)dreaming up the most outrageous combinations and comparisons. I might have to "borrow" a few of yours for our next match.

Amanda said...

(Jaws is a book too.)

CNU said...


I don't know whether to laugh or cry at this...

Perhaps tag lines shouldn't be used at all, rather simply explain the book in the most direct way.

Doesn't originality count for anything?

I see another vampire flick coming out!


"Crosses fingers"

(*somehow deadpan sarcasm doesn't work in type...)


RobinR said...

I see Hannibal Lecter teaching culinary arts.
On a serious note, it seems counter productive to me for an author to use a log line.
It will either set up an expectation that can't be met or just sound odd.
Anyone ever compare their book to the Old Testament? Or to books in the New?
On the lines of "My novel is just like the Book of Job, but without the Divine intervention."

Tara Maya said...

I told an agent once, "My book is like Hopi Kachina dancers meet Dirty Dancing."

He couldn't stop laughing.

Needless to say, I decided not to use that log line in my query....

Steve Stubbs said...

Very interesting indeed. Unless I am mistaken, Donald Maas recommended something like this, only two movies synthesized, such as THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE meets MR. ROGERS NEIGHBORHOOD or something like that. So this may be a question of taste.

A log line is a 25 word summary of a story used to sell a movie script to unwilling and irritated producers. Properly done it could be a good headline to a paragraph length synopsis. If the examples you gave are real, methinks reading past the log line would be a waste of time.

Sarah Jensen said...

I'm not a fan of log lines, so I'm glad I don't have to use them!
And i have learned not to have anything in my mouth when reading your blog. I nearly chocked on spit today.

Crimogenic said...

More fantastic, need to know advice, thanks Janet! :)

Vancouver Dame said...

Janet, I follow your blog but don't comment often. When I saw your reply on the Queryfail discussion on Nathan Bransford's blog Friday, Mar 6th, I was impressed to read what you had to say. I think your ethics are more professional and they don't tread on the inadequacies of the uninformed query writer. Yes, there are a lot of writers who don't do their homework, but does the lesson have to be public? I also liked what you said about listening to your readers' comments. It's encouraging to hear. Thanks for taking the time to blog - it's appreciated.

Maria said...

Seen several sites (publishers and agents) that specifically request a comparison. And as others said, it's in more than one query book.

Personally I hate the idea, but if it is listed in the requirements, ya gotta do what ya gotta do!

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Dear Janet:

Some pixie or other says I'm mad for writing it, but I have this novel idea, a bit biographical maybe, then again maybe not, about Hannibal Goat, a Carthaginian conqueror who leads a double life as a cereal killer. Oatmeal Beware!

Tell me what you think of the concept. And do you like cook-it-yourself or instant?? Your answer may affect the plot. I see him as a cook-it-yourself kinda guy. He is a conqueror after all, and they’re always on the move.

I see him crossing the Blue Mountains in search of the perfect morel to pluck and fry with butter. When he comes within the precincts of Wallowa Lake, he finds a wandering Goatherd who seems innocent enough. She is really a mass murderer of syntax, using ellipsis marks incorrectly to the great irritation of her editor who prefers em marks. Hannibal considers doing lunch with them, but decides that a comma-user would serve him better than either an ellipsis or an em-mark insistent person. Even Lima Beans wouldn’t make them better. (Fava beans are so snooty, aren’t they?)

So he trades in his elephant (did I mention the elephant?) and absconds with the herd’s goats. (Did you know that abscond doesn’t mean what most people think it means?) He draws his trusty but somewhat rusty sword and rushes down into the Town of Wallowa only to find it totally deserted. The cowards! Afraid of a goat conqueror and cowed by mere rumor! (All cows are a bit rude and dull witted. Just my opinion, but it’s a good one.) His reputation preceded him.

He and his goat-moll Fifi decide to lead the herd into Salem. They hop a plain in Boise. Unfortunately they use their last Oreo to pay the fare, and they arrive in the capital sans food and goat currency. They have to plan a stick-up. Watch out Safeway!

My book is exactly like the Wizzard of Oz, except it’s not.


Willi Goat, ummm W. E. Goat, ummm W. Goat? Or maybe just w. e. goat ala that Cummings fella. (Which do you like best?)

PS: That rude pixie says to tell you (in case you haven't opened your email) that someone you know's book is Fantasy Fiction book of the month on The Plot Thickens

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Dang Pixie! Making me fix it and it hasn't even been posted! plain shmane! it sounds just the same as "plane" and there can't be that much difference in meaning. It rains on the both, doesn't it? Not that much difference between rain on the plain and rain on the plane, except for the wings. right?

Pen Pen said...

I've read that ALL comparisons are bad cuz you never know how an agent feels about the material you're comparing your work to.....hmmmm...

Wendy said...

I was going to post and tell you I'd be all over a book with Hannibal Lector as a fun kindergarten teacher and darn if the first commenter said the same thing.

So you have at least two readers for a book like that if you can find an author to do it! :D