Yesterday, someone asked me what the novel I’m working on is about.
I read from the 150-word summary I had prepared for my writing group.
“I hear what happens in it, what the plot architecture is,” my friend said. “I don’t hear ‘about.'”
I ticked off the emotional arcs I want my characters to follow, described the world I wanted to build, enumerated events I plan to have recur and snowball.
“Now I hear the themes,” said my friend. “What’s the ‘about’?”
I explained my inspiration, how I’ve been carrying this story around since I was five years old, how it’s grown bigger and less manageable over the course of my life and how I need to get it down before it’s too late.
“That’s a great reason to write a novel,” said my friend. “You have a reason to write. That’s really good. But what is it about?”
At this point I got really angry and defensive and stomped off to the bathroom. The problem was, I knew my friend was right, and I had no answer for him. After all my working and thinking and agonizing, after 40,000 words of notes and hundreds of hours of painful drafting, I still couldn’t just say what the proposed project was About. I work in publishing; I know better than to be on this end of this conversation. As a previously unpublished writer, if I have no about, I have no book.
“I just don’t want to see you waste a lot of your time on storming through the project this way,” said my friend. “I wonder if maybe the writing would be much easier for you if you knew the about.”
I wanted to end the conversation more than I’d wanted anything in a long time. I wanted to curl up in Child’s Pose and abandon the machinations of the world. I wanted to write off the whole damn writing thing because it’s just competing with my other professional aspirations anyway and obviously I’m full of other misgivings about my fitness as a creative person and honestly why do we have to cause ourselves all this misery.
In the end, though, it wasn’t that hard. I just said the thing that seemed so obvious I hadn’t said it already.
“What if I said it’s about a girl who is terrorized by her sister for a hundred years?”
“Now THAT’s an about,” my friend said.
I’d cheated, and won.
Maybe that’s what this is About, sometimes. Finding the right way to cheat.