On not knowing what your novel’s about

full cover (2)

On the blog today, it is my great pleasure to introduce the English writer Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails, whose journey to publication I have been following with great interest since we first connected through blogging two years ago. In this guest post, Anne shows it’s not always easy to distill the essence of your own story.

So, you’re lying on your deathbed (hopefully, many years from now) and an angel comes in with a shorthand notebook and retractable pencil. He’s been commissioned to write your obituary, but first he wants you to tell him what your life was about. Could you tell him? Would the sentence even make sense?

A novel isn’t the same as a life. A novel has structure. A novel has plot. But it can be just as difficult to reduce the essence of a novel to a single headline as it can be to sum up a life.

So I identified strongly with Clare’s post couple of years ago, What’s the book about? Yet some might imagine I should’ve known better. Unlike Clare, I wasn’t in the process of getting acquainted with my first novel. I was a few months into the submission circus, with some encouraging feedback from agents alongside the stack of rejections. Shouldn’t I have known what my book was about?

Of course I had my pitch. I had my carefully-crafted one-page synopsis. But these were summaries of what happened; what my novel was about lurked somewhere underneath.

In my initial attempts at synopsis writing, I’d finished off with a list of the themes. But somewhere along the line I was advised to drop the intangibles and focus on the fictional “facts”.

I’ll never know if my failure to snare an agent is attributable to my woolly pitch. It certainly didn’t prevent several requests for the full manuscript, but some of those who liked my novel might have been daunted by a perceived difficulty in representing it to publishers. Thankfully, there are lots of independent presses around who can take more of a risk (and the early reviews of my novel suggests they were right to do so).

But no-one’s going to want to publish a rambling novel without focus. When submitting to small publishers, I still did my best to present a coherent story. But this had a surprising downside, of which others should beware.

Sugar and Snails is a midlife coming-of-age story about a woman who’s kept her past identity a secret for thirty years. (An “about” sentence I’ve found only recently, partly through attending a media training day run by the Society of Authors.) The catalyst for change is her meeting with a man who takes a fancy to her at a dinner party and their on-off relationship provides the skeleton of the contemporary strand. Now, we all understand the romance genre; it’s hardwired with the fairytales we heard at our mothers’ knees. Somewhere along the line, without a conscious decision, boy-meets girl provided my novel a ready-made structure to contain the more amorphous story of a woman’s journey to self-acceptance.

Now, I knew Sugar and Snails wasn’t a romance. My publisher knew it wasn’t. My therapist certainly knew it wasn’t. Even friends and family who hadn’t yet read it but had listened patiently to me babbling about it knew Sugar and Snails wasn’t a romance. But when it came to writing the blurb to go on the back cover, that’s exactly how we framed it. In the emails shuttling back and forth in an attempt to perfect the words and punctuation, neither I nor my editor recognised we were stuck in the romance mode. It was as if we were engaged in a folie à deux.

Okay, we might have come to our senses without external intervention. The wider Inspired Quill team might have refused to give it the go-ahead. But, for me, it was only through the happenstance of consulting a few friends on a disagreement on some minutiae of the wording, that I recognised how close we’d come to mis-selling the book. Although a lucky escape, it was a painful moment to have this exposed. I was supposed to be the wordsmith, not my friends.

The romance element still gets a mention in the rewritten version, but it’s background to the larger story of a woman learning to live with herself:

The past lingers on, etched beneath our skin …
At fifteen, Diana Dodsworth took the opportunity to radically alter the trajectory of her life, and escape the constraints of her small-town existence. Thirty years on, she can’t help scratching at her teenage decision like a scabbed wound.

To safeguard her secret, she’s kept other people at a distance … until Simon Jenkins sweeps in on a cloud of promise and possibility. But his work is taking him to Cairo, and he expects Di to fly out for a visit. She daren’t return to the city that changed her life; nor can she tell Simon the reason why.

Sugar and Snails takes the reader on a poignant journey from Diana’s misfit childhood, through tortured adolescence to a triumphant mid-life coming-of-age that challenges preconceptions about bridging the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be.

Two weeks now since publication, I’m having fun playing around with what my novel is about. Writing guest posts and completing Q&A’s for my mammoth blog tour lets me explore my novel from different angles and the reader reviews reflect it back to me in interesting ways. I can’t begin to describe how wonderful, moving and humbling it is to have my novel not only read, but thought about, even discussed.

Yet there are still points at which I reach for that single-sentence summary. Print journalists and radio broadcasters need their soundbites and, grateful for the coverage, I try to give them just that. But I relish the opportunity to give a more discursive version of my story.

Thanks to Clare and her blog readers for indulging that need in me here.

Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, and blogs about reading and writing, with a peppering of psychology. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last month by Inspired Quill. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.

Best of luck with the book Anne!
Best of luck with the book Anne!

6 thoughts on “On not knowing what your novel’s about

  1. It took me so long to get to that ‘about’ sentence but it’s awfully handy and now rolls off the tongue six months after the publication of my novel. Your book looks great Anne and I look forward to reading it on Kindle.

    1. Thanks, Annette, and reassuring that you got yours sussed. Even just two weeks after publication I’m finding it a lot easier to believe in my novel and to avoid saying something desperately stupid about it!

  2. I agree on the ‘about’ sentence and remember Clare’s post on that topic too – it really made me smile. Hope the book sales are going well, Anne and that you are coping with getting back to a routine after the excitement of the two launches.

  3. Anne, I just printed out your rewritten version to give me inspiration. It’s very well done. I’m in the middle of writing my second novel, and every so often I go back and contemplate the question: What is this novel about?

    1. Oh, so glad it’s inspired you. I think my next two novels are much clearer in terms of what they are about. I don’t know if that’s because they’re easier to summarise all because I’m learning to consider that ‘about’ question much earlier in the process.

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