The review begins:
Once asked to write a full story in six words, legend has it that novelist Ernest Hemingway responded: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
In this spirit of simple yet profound brevity, the online magazine Smith asked readers to write the story of their own lives in a single sentence. The result is Not Quite What I Was Planning, a collection of six-word memoirs by famous and not-so-famous writers, artists and musicians.
Their stories are sometimes sad, often funny — and always concise.
The book is full of well-known names — from writer Dave Eggers (Fifteen years since last professional haircut), to singer Aimee Mann (Couldn’t cope so I wrote songs), to comedian Stephen Colbert (Well, I thought it was funny).
While this project has taken a life of its own and has become a cottage industry where you can publish your own six-word memoir (Mine is: Aware of life’s futility, remains optimistic) and even turn it into a T-shirt, it got me thinking how important it is, as a ghostwriter, to boil a book down to its essence before you even begin it, whether it’s a celebrity tell-all, business-success title, spiritual handbook, or whatever else you are helping your author create.
Screenplay writers do this all the time before they write movies: They create what’s known as a logline, which gives the essence of the cinematic experience in a single sentence.
My favorite book about screenwriting, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, offers lots of advice about how to write effective loglines, and includes some great examples:
A newly-married couple must spend Christmas Day at each of their four divorced parents’ homes — 4 Christmases
A just-hired employee goes on a company weekend and soon discovers someone’s trying to kill him — The Retreat
A risk-averse teacher plans on marrying his dream girl but must first accompany his overprotective future brother-in-law — a cop — on a ride along from hell! — Ride Along
According to Snyder, all of these loglines contain four components necessary for any movie sale: irony, a compelling mental picture, a built-in sense of budget and audience, and a killer title.
The same thing applies to songs. While considerably shorter than movies, songs still benefit from killer titles and the ability to get what the song is about in just a few words.
In my favorite book about songwriting, The Craft and Business of Songwriting: A Practical Guide to Creating and Marketing Artistically and Commercially Successful Songs, author John Braheney says that good lyricists are “able to describe in one word the emotion or mental state that a song expresses,” and can “describe in a short phrase what the song is about.”
In chapter two, pages 31–32, I listed several subject areas as they relate to love relationships. Phrases such as “I think I’ve just found her (or him),” Remembering how it used to be,” and “Cheating” succinctly describe the subject of a song.
As ghostwriters, we can learn from the best practices of songwriters, screenwriters, and the participants in Smith Magazine’s Six Word Memoir project by getting the essence of our books down on paper with a one-line description and killer title before we start writing. This will guide our words and help ensure that the end result is tight, focused, and compelling.
In a nutshell, it’ll make us—and our authors—look good.
[Photo by: cbertel]