A few days ago, I was having coffee with an old friend from college who eagerly told me she was working on a novel in her spare time. I proceeded to say the same four words that friends, relatives, acquaintances, and polite strangers have been saying to writers and would-be writers since time immemorial: “Oh, what’s it about?”
I always feel a little silly asking this question when someone tell me they’re writing a book, even though it’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask. But it’s just so predictable and polite. I feel like if I was truly literary, I’d say something like “What are your themes?” and if I was truly shrewd I’d say “Who’s your target audience?” and if I was truly mischievous I would throw her for a tailspin and say “How does it end?”
But no. I’m human, so just like everybody else I say “Oh, what’s it about?”
It’s a simple question, but it’s a question that trips up a surprising number of authors, whether they’re writing fiction, non-fiction, memoir, or even self-help. In my friend’s case, this question sparked a rambling monologue involving a stolen aquarium, a team of lawyers, and a girl who adopts stray cats. There was no discernable story goal. The motivations of the key players were unclear. If we were playing a game of telephone, the message I would have passed on to the next person in line would have been very garbled indeed.
Later that same day, I ran into another friend who is currently preparing an academic paper for publication in a journal. Out slipped those four dangerous words, and out came another flustered, bashful, and ultimately vague response.
What’s going on here? Why do so many intelligent and thoughtful writers get tongue-tied the moment you ask what they’re writing about? I don’t think it’s because we’re all writing vague, plotless, goalless books, articles, and papers, and I certainly hope it’s not because secretly we don’t actually know what we’re writing about (although that is an embarrassing situation that most writers face at some point or another in their careers).
Whether it’s due to bashfulness, inexperience, fear of being misunderstood, or a hundred other reasons, too many writers have trouble communicating the essence of their Work In Progress without mystifying, boring, or alienating their listeners. This is not just bad news for cocktail party conversation, but can lead to missed opportunities for things like acquiring an agent, making sales, getting invited to speak, and connecting with other writers. If you can’t describe your book effectively, you’ll have a very hard time getting anybody to read it.
In my next few posts, I’ve made it my mission to change this sad state of affairs. “What’s it about?” is a dangerous question. For the unprepared, it can be a conversational time bomb. Next week, we’ll start learning how to detonate it.