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What’s It About?

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I once had a writing professor tell me that the worst thing you can ever ask a writer is actually the most obvious question: What’s your book about?

When she told me this I hadn’t started my novel yet. Now that I have, I totally understand what she was talking about. Whenever I tell someone, or someone hears, that I wrote a book, the first thing they want to know is “What is it about?” Every time they ask me I give them a prepared answer that I mastered two years ago when I first started working on the project, but this little speech doesn’t describe what I feel the book is really about, and what’s more, I don’t think people really want to know.

I could talk for hours about what my book is about – and I have, over the course of writing workshops and discussing with first readers.  I’m sure that all of you could talk about your books for just as long. Why, then, do I (and maybe you, as well) fear this question so much?

I think the source of the issue is the fact that I don’t feel like anyone other than a writer (or my dad. Hi dad!) would actually want me to launch into the discussion about the themes and the nuances I’m hoping are present in my book (or that should be there when I’m done with the revision process). Most people are asking what the book is about as a courtesy. While they ask “Oh! What is it about?” they’re really rolling their eyes internally and thinking “Yeah, right, she wrote a book.” For some reason people think that writing a book is an easy thing that bored people do to pass the time because they have no job or life or interests or something. I invite these people to spend a day in my life and then reassess.

I used to think that only people who are young like me get this eye rolling type of response, but through the conversations I’ve had with many of you I’ve realized that this is a universal issue. I don’t know why writing a book is associated by so many people with frivolity – I’ve never seen it that way, but I’m biased. I wish these people would look at series like Harry Potter or A Song of Ice and Fire (the Game of Thrones series). Do they think George R.R. Martin was just twiddling his thumbs sipping a hot chocolate, wondering to himself, Hmmm, what can I do with all of this time? I know! I’ll create an entire fictional universe with such a rich and detailed culture that it has its own complicated religious, political, and cultural issues, as well as complicated family rivalries dating back hundreds of years! Oh yeah, also zombies. Just, you know. Because.

Come on you guys. That stuff doesn’t happen on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

I would love to rewind like twenty years to the younger George who is just starting to draft out the first book in the series. Maybe he encounters someone at a party. While he’s sipping his cider (in my head it is Fall and there is hot mulled cider), someone comes up to him and says “Hey! My girlfriend mentioned you’re writing a book. What’s it about?” I think we could all learn something from George’s response in that situation.

So my question to you all this week is this: How do you handle this question when it’s asked of you? Do you find yourself just regurgitating a pre-made response that sort of skims the surface of your plot? Or do you take a chance and try to really get into the meat of your story? Let me know in the comments below!



One response »

  1. Well, now I want to write a book so I can get someone to ask me that very question. When that happens, I promise to come back here and answer.

    In general, if guess the most important thing to convey in a “what’s it about” question is information that would help the questioner decide if it’s a book they want to read or not.

    So if I ever wrote a book and someone asked me the question, I’d probably go with this angle:

    Them: What’s it about?
    Me: Well, do you like [ NARRATIVE ELEMENT ]?

    The two most common responses.

    Them: Yes.
    Me: It’s in there.


    Them: No
    Me: Me neither, so that’s why my book avoids [ NARRATIVE ELEMENT ] entirely.


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