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 As a previously unpublished writer, if I have no about, I have no book.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.

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17 Responses to about

  1. I don’t think it’s fair to say there’s no future for the project unless a pithy, hooky “about” has been declared. Some writers need to slap down a few messy drafts before they can figure out what the real core of the story is, or if there’s a better core they hadn’t noticed of before. Detailed notes can’t always pin that down, depending on the particular writer’s mental process.

    • Agreed! Sometimes the book just has to work itself out. There’s no sparing anybody any pain.

      I also think that non-debut novels (by writers who have established themselves already, and therefore have earned some leeway) often lack a concrete About almost entirely. But I think you have to deserve readers who will follow you anywhere by giving them a nice lovely About with your first book.

  2. Pingback: On the “A” Word

  3. JES says:

    As I’ve continued to think about this, I’ve grown increasingly annoyed with your persistent questioner (who is, of course, unknown to me, so I’m completely off-base here!). And increasingly impressed by the aplomb with which you handled all this back-and-forth, even allowing for the bathroom-stomping-off-to. His ultimate satisfaction with an answer seems almost like he was just strait-jacketing you into a specific syntax.

    The whole idea of an About seems to align with what I think I’ve seen Janet Reid (I think!) refer to as an elevator pitch: a description of the book so concise, so terse, that it can be rendered in the duration of a brief ride in an elevator with a (presumably trapped) agent. Is that about right? If so, congratulations — that summary of yours barely gives time for the elevator doors to whisper shut. AND it doesn’t simply say, for instance, “…about the relationship between two sisters.” It says something about your story — something mind-bending — which makes your story of such a relationship utterly unlike all the other possible stories about one. Really, really good job.

    I have no plans to buttonhole an agent or any other captive audience for just a few seconds. And no one I know had better ask me The A Question — not unless they want to hear me snarl, assuming they want a 25-words-or-less answer. So would an answer still be useful? or is worrying about it just one more thing to drive myself crazy about???

  4. Froog says:

    Well, I hesitate to comment on JES’s own much longer post on this topic for fear of offending him. We are much out of sympathy on this issue, I think.

    It seems to me here that your interlocutor, WDYM, was intelligent and well-intentioned, and that his observations were probably of considerable value to you. Your discomfort with the situation stemmed from your own anxieties, rather than any aggression or tactlessness on the part of your friend.

    And I’ve always liked the aphorism (Jean Cocteau, I think) that “Tact consists in knowing how far we may go too far.” The fact that many writers get anxiety attacks (at best; prima donna attacks, at worst) about discussing their work-in-progress should not discourage people from broaching the subject – certainly not trusted friends who have been at least tacitly encouraged to enter upon this territory.

    Writers are bad at answering this question because they get too close to their work, get obsessive about it, want to give due weight to every brilliant, beautiful element that they conceive as important in it – lose sight of the wood for all those fascinating trees. Writers are sometimes reluctant to answer this question because they are trying to “let the work grow organically”, and fear that this process might be constrained by premature categorisation; they feel they can’t tell you what it’s about because they don’t know yet. (Fair enough; but I’m inclined to think that that approach generally leads to bad novels. Most writers I admire seem to plan out plot in a fair amount of detail first – as it seems you have done, WDYM.) Many writers get anxious about answering this question because they realise that they probably ought to know by now what the book’s about, but they still don’t; or they’re uncertain about or dissatisfied with the answer they currently have (is it that the book is still formless or uncertain of final direction, or simply that the author has become so lost in the minutiae of it that he/she can no longer analyse it objectively – as an editor or critic or reader would?).

    But I really don’t think any of that justifies the kind of insane evasiveness I’ve seen from a lot of writers in this situation. If you have misgivings about your answer, state those after answering. If you really don’t want to answer, say so – politely. Give reasons, if you like; or don’t. But don’t rattle on about an interesting bit of business in the side-plot about the scullery maid.

    You know what this question means. It requires a simple, direct, soundbitey answer – not even an “elevator pitch”, JES (damn, elevator pitches are at least 30 seconds, can be 2 or 3 minutes; the dreaded ‘about’ question can be dealt with in one or two sentences – 10 or 15 seconds is more than enough; 5 seconds often is).

    It’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask. And pausing to reflect on it and formulate an answer is likely to be valuable to the author quite a lot of the time – recovering that vista of the wood (an outline hint of which is going to be what attracts your reader into reading/buying in the first place; and a more detailed picture of which is going to be what they take away with them after reading). The wood is so much more – yet also less – than its component trees; and I think an author always ought to be keeping in mind what that wood is (even if it is slightly uncertain, still evolving during the process of writing). And the wood can be described in a few words. Framing an answer in a form appropriate to the expectations of the questioner ought not to be a very difficult task for a would-be professional writer (“straightjacketing” be damned!). And giving an answer that enlightens the questioner and generates interest in the story – even if it does not do full justice to the complexities of your conception – is not “cheating”, WDYM. It might seem dangerously close to “marketing”, but it’s not “cheating.” It’s just giving a straight answer to a straight question. If you’re not able to answer that question for some reason, don’t blame the questioner.

    Don’t blame yourself either. Just think about it some more, and the answer will come to you.

    • My friend, who read this post, will be very gratified for your comment, Froog. You have indeed hit HIS particular nail on the head.

      I also particularly appreciate the Cocteau quote (it is, indeed, him, Google has informed me). I hadn’t heard it before, and think it’s very appropriate.

      I like the idea, per your point, that “cheating” oneself is not necessarily “cheating” in a categorical way at all.

    • JES says:

      Oh no, gosh no. I don’t think we’re as out of sympathy as all that. I just think we’re disagreeing, ad hoc, on the question of the moment. I don’t want to hijack our mutual friend’s thread here; just a couple more points to make it clear, I hope, that we’re on generally the same page.

      Writing (especially a book) is maybe one part common sense, one part logic, and maybe four or five parts irrationality of one sort or another. (I suspect other arts are like that, too, but can’t speak from the inside on them.)

      The question “What is your book about?” trips everybody up, because it contains not a single unambiguous word. (The fact that they’re all “simple” words can be very misleading.) And until both parties start picking it apart word by word, neither really knows what the other is saying. And who wants to take time for a semantic argument in a casual conversation?

      From inside a writer’s head — at least, this writer’s — it feels like a challenge… just short of, “Why are you writing this, anyhow?” As you say in your thoughtful comment here, at any moment the answers to such questions will change; the writer’s thinking, “Well, in this next paragraph I need to accomplish X, and in the section as a whole, Y, and by the denouement X and Y will let me put Z to rest too.”

      When the book’s done, at least at the end of a draft, and once it’s been set aside for some arbitrary period of time while the subconscious works away at it, then the writer might be able to answer the question satisfactorily. Even then, though, most writers don’t have easy conversational access to their subconscious minds. Once they’ve actually formulated an answer and presented it (as whaddayamean did, and as I eventually did), the answer seems obvious.

      All of which doesn’t say “don’t sweat the questions.” It doesn’t say “don’t torture yourself with doubts and anxieties.” It just says the sweating of questions, the self-torture, is all folded in with all the other irrationalities. What seems like a common-sense solution to everyone else ALWAYS seems like an insurmountable obstacle to someone in a fever dream. πŸ™‚

      • on the subject of irrationality–and this is probably a whole other post–i’ve been so effing MOODY lately. people have jokingly asked me if i’m pregnant (NO) because it’s so bad. i finally realized the only lifestyle change i’ve made is that i’m writing a lot more lately.


    • JES says:

      P.S. I also meant to say: whaddayamean says she has been bottling up this story for years, and she is, as we know, also in the book biz. My own book’s been in one active or passive state for 20 years, and it’s likely that this will be my last (some would say only) best shot at redeeming myself as a novelist. Under the circumstances, that both of us feel like we’ve got an awful lot at stake probably makes sense. Will we end up with egg on our faces? I can’t speak for her, but this is one reason why I myself hate questions like this. I’m asking MYSELF enough questions; I don’t want any more. Heh.

  5. Froog says:

    A possible excuse for writers… I think the reason they’re often so obtuse or perverse in responding to this question from others is that it’s a question they’re asking themselves every day (albeit perhaps not framed exactly in that way; perhaps not directly framed in words at all, but a subconscious process of self-examination), and in a way that requires a much greater level of detail. “What’s this chapter about? It’s about developing the relationship between A and B, and introducing conflict, and introducing the theme of…”

    It’s easy to forget that for the non-writing layman, it means “… in 25 words or less.”

    The Odyssey? It’s about a guy who gets lost on his way home.

  6. Sometimes I think writers protect their books from this very discussion while in the writing process because if we say “My book is about a girl terrorized by her sister for a hundred years” and the person listening just gives a disappointing brush-off ‘oh, that’s nice’ or asks, “Wouldn’t it be better if she were terrorized by her mother?” then the writer can lose momentum. With the exception of my writer’s group, whose trust I have already confirmed, I don’t share ‘in process projects’. Once I have a rough draft written, then I’ll tell someone about the book.

  7. Froog says:

    I worry that the obsessive secrecy approach can be letting your insecurities win, letting them grow wild with no external checks to fence them in. The alternative approach is to tell as many people as possible as much as possible (which is, kind of, what WDYM is doing with the blog here). That way, you impose social pressure on yourself not to lose momentum, and to get finished in a reasonable amount of time. (And it needn’t limit your ability to experiment with the plot and take it off in new directions. It’s quite OK to tell all those people who’ve been looking forward to you finishing your novel, “Well, I know I said it was going to have just two main protagonists, but then I found that this third character made for a much more satisfying dynamic.” But it’s not OK to say, “Well, you know, I was finding that story just too damned hard to write, so I gave up on it, and came up with this thing about space monkeys instead.”)

    Also, more importantly, it forces you to confront and defeat your insecurities on a daily basis… and to get over worrying that anything that makes you pause for thought is a “loss of momentum”. Thinking-and-then-writing is always good; it’s the thinking-instead-of-writing that is not good.

    Most people (except possibly Jean Cocteau) are going to recognise that it is tactless/inappropriate to offer a writer suggestions about their story which a) are prompted by such a bare outline of the story, b) imply a criticism of the story, and c) are probably going to be completely fatuous. If, by some odd chance, someone makes a suggestion which is not completely fatuous – hooray! Thinking about it for a moment might give you some valuable new ideas, even if you don’t want to adopt the suggestion itself. In the other 99% of cases, it should reinforce your confidence in the strength of your story conception, and you should be immediately hitting back with “No, don’t be silly”, “Oh, that’s so trite!”, “Yeah, I thought about that – for all of about thirty seconds”, “Do you know anything about siblings?” and so on.

    I prefer to pose ‘suggestions’ in the form of questions: “Is it the older or younger sister who’s the monster? What does the mother have to say about this? Why does the victim keep putting up with it?” The writer might still be uncomfortable with this (I hope you’re not, WDYM!), if they’re not yet too certain or confident about the shape of their story – but it is leaving them in control of the decision-making, not foisting your own ideas on them.

    And I think it’s a bit sad that Jeanette can regard a straight-up compliment as “disappointing” or “a brush-off”. It is not conversationally appropriate – or practically possible, when all you’ve been told about a book is the headline summary (25 words or less!) – to praise fulsomely, or to respond with a detailed commentary. Saying something positive – anything at all, even a single word, even the admittedly sometimes insipid ‘nice’ – should be encouraging to the writer, reinforcing of their vision.

    WDYM, I think you have a great ‘about’ – even if it’s not comprehensive or final. It’s a really solid backbone for you to build your story around, and a powerful ‘hook’ to engage a reader’s initial interest.

    • Thanks, Froog!

      But yeah, I relate to Jeannette. I’m feeling SO insecure about the quality of my work right now (weird moment; I’m not always like this, I promise) that I find very, very tiny things have the ability to derail me for days at a time. My new policy is not to share anything with anyone until I feel really, really secure in it. Or at least finished with its draft.

  8. Froog says:

    I am concerned about your moodiness, WDYM.

    Bear in mind that you can’t suddenly devote a big chunk of your week to writing without it impacting on all sorts of other things as well. Yes, writing can be physically, mentally, emotionally very tiring; but it also oddly meditative, and very satisfying (at least, when it’s going well). I think it’s more likely to be the time it’s taking away from other activities that is causing you the problem. Are you trying to make do with a little less sleep to get in more writing time in the evening, or sleeping less well because your mind is a-whirl with story ideas? Are you putting pressure on yourself to deal with work commitments in less time? Are you remembering to eat properly?

    Make sure you’re still allowing yourself some time to just relax, hang out with friends. Nothing “loses momentum” like making yourself ill.

    Be well, and keep on writing!

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