In keeping with last week’s theme of “questions writers hear a lot,” I have a new one I’d like to address. It’s one that I’ve been getting a lot lately, especially with yesterday’s Easter gathering, where various family members all wanted to know the same thing: What is your novel about?
To the average person, this might seem like the easiest question in the world. After all, they get asked that all the time, about every book they read and movie they see and song they hear, and they have no problem answering it. Fight Club? Oh yeah, it’s about this crazy dude who has Brad Pitt in his brain, and they blow shit up. Lord of the Rings? Everybody’s fighting over this evil ring, and then this little dude throws it into a volcano. The Wizard of Oz? It’s about tripping on LSD (seriously, have you watched that movie lately?).
But those aren’t what those stories are about; they’re just plot points. To the person creating the story, it exists on a million different levels, and it’s almost impossible to know what to tell everyone else. Any engaged reader or movie-goer knows this, inherently. Fight Club is about complacency, and losing your individual, primal self in larger society. Lord of the Rings is about the battle between good and evil, and having to overcome the evil inside yourself before you can fight it elsewhere. The Wizard of Oz is about recognizing what’s really important to you.
And this goes for all stories, no matter where you find them. Take the novel I’m currently working on. The average layperson would say “it’s about a kid who falls in love with a priestess, and then the island blows up but he escapes on a raft.” Easy, right? But when I try to give that answer, I always feel like I’m selling myself short. It’s not enough to say it’s about “a kid” because it’s not about just any kid. It’s about Pau, and his personality and his quirks and his worldview, and he cannot be separated from the story. And it’s not enough to say he loves “a priestess,” because he loves Yara, and she is everything that he loves and everything that he hates, and both his exact opposite and his perfect match. And yes, eventually, the island explodes and he escapes on a raft. But the story is so much more than that. It’s about science and religion and God(s) and individuality and balance and social deviance and expectations and love and family and primitiveness and the basic human need to be cared about and, yes, an exploding volcano. And whenever somebody sidles up to me and says, “so, what’s your novel about, anyway?” all of these things flash through my head in the same instant and I’m left there stumbling over my words in an impressively inarticulate manner, and eventually I’ll say something like:
“It’s about a tribe, and this kid who asks all the wrong questions, but then he falls in love and starts asking the right questions. And it’s kind of about religion, and science, and how, like, some people have to believe and some people can’t believe, and…and…”
And then I see people’s eyes glaze over, and I want to scream at them, “No! Wait! I’m not saying it right! It’s really good, I swear!” But they just shrug and give me that condescending half-smile that says “don’t quit your day job,” even as their mouths assure me that they want to read it, and I wonder for the millionth time what the hell I’m doing with my life.
Honestly, I don’t know what the point of this post is. People are never going to stop asking what my novel is about, and I don’t want them to. As difficult as the question is to answer, it’s still the best sort of attention a writer can get. I only wish there was an easier way to bridge the gap between my head and my mouth, because I cannot possibly condense 80+ pages of story into a few sentences appropriate for conversation, and I don’t think I will ever be able to. Even if my screenwriting teachers tell me I should be.
So, fellow writers, I ask you: How do you react to this dreaded question?
“My friend invented Cliff’s Notes. When I asked him how he got such a great idea, he said, ‘Well, first I…I just…well, to make a long story short….'” -Stephen Wright
P.S. Watch author John Green try to explain what his newest story is about (0:53). His inarticulateness gives me hope. Also, you should watch other vlogbrothers videos.
the Bottom of the Garden: 9,103 words
Prince Charming: nadda…I really ought to get on this…