By Wendy Lawton
Wanna see a writer stand frozen with that deer-in-the-headlights look? Just ask them this question: “So. . . what’s your novel about?”
Here’s a list of the WRONG things to answer:
- An issue— “My book is about global warming.” WRONG. A nonfiction book may be about global warming but a novel is a story about people. Agents and editors cringe when an issue is the first thing that comes to a writer’s mind. It makes us expect a diatribe disguised as a novel.
- The theme— “My book is about forgiveness.” WRONG. I’d hate to guess the percentage of books that share the theme of forgiveness, but that is not what your book is about. That is not what makes your book distinctive.
- The setting alone— “My book is pure Hollywood.” WRONG. Even if the setting informs the whole tone of the book, it is not what your book is about.
- The genre alone— “My book is a romance.” WRONG. That is the genre and the questioner needs to know that, but it is still not what makes your book different and exciting.
- A carefully memorized pitch— “Picture a man and a mountain, the temp dropping to 40º below and all of the climber’s tools slip out of his hands and fall into a crevasse hundreds of feet below him. The only person who can save him is the climber who hates the very sight of him, blaming him for her husband’s death on their last trip to Kilamanjaro. Will her hatred trump her growing attraction for this bold climber?” WRONG. By the time the writer finishes this carefully prepared spiel, the listener’s eyes have glazed over. He got caught up somewhere between the mountain and the crevasse and didn’t get any further.
It’s a good idea to prepare for the inevitable question, but a memorized pitch has all the appeal of a speaker reading word-for-word from his notes. You want your pitch, your answer to the question, “What’s your book about?” to be personable and seemingly off-the-cuff. You are a storyteller. You need to also be able to tell the story as well as write it.
So what is your novel about?
- Your main character and what he or she is seeking
- Secondary character, if key to plot
- Conflict— What is keeping your character from reaching his/her goal?
- Setting, if important. If you are writing a southern novel I need to know because that is far more than a setting– it’s a whole attitude.
- Genre, of course. The questioner needs to know it is a mystery, for instance, but that is only part of the answer.
But let me be clear, this is just one person’s opinion, not a rule. The most important thing is that you do what comes naturally. When someone asks you, “what’s your novel about?”, they are interested. They may be a potential reader, an agent, an editor or someone in the media. Your job is to draw them into the story with very few words. You want them to ask further questions, not try to wriggle away from an author who is meandering through the whole story of his book.
If you feel you need tutelage in answering this question, start reading the back covers of novels. They catch the very essence of a book in a compact number of words.
So. . . what’s your novel about?