The moment you tell folks you’re writing a book, what’s their immediate response? Invariably, it’s something along the lines of, “Ooh, what’s it about?”
It’s a surprisingly difficult question, isn’t it? Especially given that you’re the one writing the thing, agonizing over every scene, every line of dialogue, and every choice your characters make.
But it’s also a really important question—one you need to be able to answer in order to sell your book. As Ted Thompson (The Land of Steady Habits) explained in a Salon article about the experience of writing and publishing his first novel, even the most literary books are sold based on their subject matter.
Once a manuscript leaves your desk, subject matter is the primary (and often only) way it is discussed. So if you haven’t figured out a quick way to answer that cringe-inducing question “What’s your book about?” in a way that interests other people, somebody else will. And that will be how the book is sold, how it’s marketed and publicized, and largely how it finds its way to readers.
But here’s my theory: your ability to explain what your book is about is critical not just for selling the book, but for writing it.
Imagine this. Your novel’s been moving along at a decent pace, but you’ve been feeling a little unfocused and uncertain about where it’s going. You mention it to the barista at your local coffee shop (because, let’s be real, you mention it to everybody these days), and he asks you what it’s about.
“It’s about this boy who lives with his aunt and uncle and his spoiled cousin, and they’re not very nice to him, but then he gets a letter inviting him to attend this school called Hogwarts, and he finds out that he’s a wizard and when he was a baby he accidentally defeated the Dark Lord. So he goes to Hogwarts and he makes some good friends, but the Potions teacher doesn’t like him, and he has to fight a troll and then it turns out his Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is the Dark Lord, sort of, and he hast to steal this stone in order to stop the Dark Lord from coming back to life."
No wonder you’re struggling. When you’re juggling that many elements, it’s difficult to keep track of which ones are really important. And when you hit a fork in the road or lose track of the plot, you don’t really have anything to anchor you or help you get back on track.
The way I see it, when you tell people what your book is about, you should be reaching right to its core.
“It’s about a young boy who, at eleven years old, learns not only that he’s a wizard but that it’s his destiny to save the wizarding world from the Dark Lord.”
Not to get too academic about it, but I like to think of the answer to that infernal question as the thesis statement. That’s the essence of what the book is about, and everything else (Hogwarts, Professor Quirrel, the troll incident, and all of Harry’s shenanigans with Ron and Hermione) supports that thesis.
Of course, you may not know initially what your book is really about, and that’s okay.
You probably have a sense when you start out, but you may not know for certain until the end of your first draft. It may take three or four overhauls before “what your book is about” really clicks into place. (For Carrie Fountain, writing I’m Not Missing, it took twenty-three drafts.)
But don’t let that uncertainty stop you. Here’s my suggestion: come up with a hypothesis—what you think your book is probably about—and let that guide you. Be open, and let it evolve as it needs to, but use it as the home base that guides your writing.
So, what’s your book about?
Tell me in the comments, or shoot me an e-mail. I’d love to know!