What’s the book about?

That random feeling
That random feeling (© Clare O’Dea)

Now there’s a question to get an aspiring writer sweating. Since I started writing in earnest and gradually educating myself about the world of writing, I’ve discovered there are lots of extremely important rules out there. I’m not talking about mere guidelines; I’m talking about make-or-break, tarnish-your-name-forever-should-you-break-them rules.

Naturally it is understood that anybody exceptionally talented can disregard all the rules because the brilliance of their writing will override any other considerations but it is also understood that the newbies listening to the oracle dispensing the rules do not fall into that category of genius.

Last November in the draughty bar of a Co Wicklow hotel with a British soap character giving birth at top volume on the television in the background, a friend of mine leaned across his third cup of tea and told me one of the most basic and sacred of rules of all. Figure out what your book is about and learn to articulate that idea in one line.

When you get hit with the big question, you do not, as I had done earlier that evening, ramble or search for words. You do not use the phrase ‘well it’s about this woman who …’ .Neither do you start to list the early plot points like a random chain of events. What you do is delivery your pre-prepared killer synopsis: It’s a coming-of-age story set in a 19th century Boston brewery during the great beer strike with an unlikely heroine, the head cooper’s teenage mistress who was born in a coffin ship. For example.

After that you will be confident enough to field any follow-up questions. The danger, my friend explained, is that if you cannot effectively describe what your book is about, then you might be in a naked emperor situation. You might just have written thousands of words about nothing in particular, producing a meandering story which is all flesh and no skeleton, all paths and no map, all filling and no crust. Well you get the idea.

I’m fresh from a book club gathering last night where we discussed the remarkable first novel by Téa Obreht – The Tiger’s Wife. (Yes, she is one of those who can disregard the rules). Here is a book that knits together vibrant strands of stories over many decades and explores numerous big themes – war, death, guilt, Balkan history and folklore, a grandparent-grandchild relationship, the outcast in society, enduring love. I could go on. I’d say the author had trouble summing the book up in one line when she was writing it but that’s neither here nor there. I’m looking forward to finding out more about Obreht when I attend her talk at the Mountains to Sea festival in Dun Laoghaire next month.

Meanwhile I will keep mulling over my one line.

19 thoughts on “What’s the book about?

  1. As his alter ego in his novel Zoo Time, Howard Jacobsen scorns the idea of a novel being about anything. But I agree that for pondlife like me, the pitch is everything … and really difficult. For my next novel I’m going to start with a twenty-second pitch and take it from there.

    1. Thanks very much Seumas, I look forward to checking out your blog. It’s strange to be on the advice-giving side of the table but great to discover we all have so much in common.

  2. Great post! I like this idea of the one-sentence pitch a lot. I am one of those who rambles and stumbles when I’m asked what my latest WIP is, which makes me feel like a lowly amateur. I can see their eyes glaze over halfway through my awkward response. Good advice here 🙂

    1. I’m delighted to the have the post reblogged, thank you Marie Ann. I’m really surprised at the response and heartened to see that I’m not the only one going through this. At this stage I should be locked in a room and not let out until I have my pitch ready!

  3. It’s so true. I had an instructor who had us write what our book was about in one line. Very challenging, but rewarding.

  4. Great post!!! Thanks Marie for sharing! I was watching the eyes glaze over too. They are always going to ask. I used to stumble like crazy over The Good Doctor, the rape, and the interracial relationship. Now I just say, “It is a fictional account of a true story, a human relations story, set in the Deep South in the 50s & 60s concerning interracial relations, the Civil Rights Movement, and women’s reproductive rights and responsibilities.” I don’t even go into the definition of historical fiction anymore.

    1. Well it sounds like you’ve nailed it there. A very impressive pitch. I bet that gets eyebrows raised in approval rather than eyes glazing over. Will follow your blog now to find out more.

      1. Thanks, I am following yours too. As a newbie, I came into this marketing thing deaf, blind and dumb. I have learned volumes from my WP friends/family. Keep learning every day. My one liner actually came from reviews feedback, which was crucial in getting a handle on exactly what I needed to say, or not say.

  5. Brilliant post and really got me thinking about how I would sum up my novel in one line. I think that is a crucial marketing tool and one that I definitely need to give some thought to! Great post, will be following your progress from now on. 🙂

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