Getting Your Story Straight

The scariest question in the English language is, “What’s your book about?”

And you think, “I wrote it, so I should know. Right?”

Alas, it does not work that way.

I’ve spent an awful lot of time over the past two years considering different answers to that question for my novel, The Disappeared. It’s a story about loss. (Cheerful much?) It’s a coming-of-age story. (Aren’t they all?) It’s about the nature of memory. (Well, yes, but that’s not the point). It’s about the nature of identity. (Ditto.) It’s like a Shakespearean comedy, where they leave the city and return to nature before they can come back to the city. (It’s a children’s book, not a comp lit paper!)

These are horrible, but at least they’re short. My real problem was that all my synopses were too long and too complicated. Other people are not interested in all the nuances, at least not inias part of a pitch. Other people—think agents and editors—are looking for a box, a classification, a label on a bookstore shelf or a Netflix grouping (“Independent comedies.” Cerebral documentaries.” Strong female leads.”)

I’d been writing this book for three years, but I still couldn’t summarize it in a sensible way. I resorted to asking my teen-age son (granted, he has a knack for editorial conundrums). He read my synopses and was baffled. “That’s not what your book’s about,” he told me. But what it was, I couldn’t explain.

During year four, I fixed the book’s subplots and evened out their distribution. I got rid of excess characters and made sure that the ones that were left had purpose and personality. As the book got better, I found that I could finally hold the entire thing in my head. I could step back and see it not as a series of individual events and truths, but as a single thing, all the way through.

It took me four years, but I finally know how to tell people what my book is about. It’s about a boy who’s looking for his father. Although I do like SCBWI’s use of the word “journey” in their description; I may have to borrow that.

If you’re have trouble summarizing your book, look for the single most general statement that you can make. Or, start with the denoument. Still not working? Try starting with the event that kicks off the action. Leave out the subplots and the secondary characters. Just think about this: what does the main character want?

Once you know that, how few words can you use to describe it? Having a short, neat, memorable statement is a big help (it’s hard to make this stuff up at all, much less on the fly), especially if you’ll be going to a seminar or a convention.

Still having trouble? Try to simplify, either your view or possibly the book. Maybe you’re not yet done enough with the book. Maybe you need to think about it some more. Or maybe you need to get someone like SCBWI or my son to write it for you.

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