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.