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The Dreaded Question – What’s Your Book About?

Evie Irish TimesIn a recent article I wrote for The Irish Times, I set out to examine why writers find the question ‘What’s your book about?’ so tricky to answer.  Apart from filling your cheeks with air and slowly forcing it out through your mouth, what can you say about the behemoth that has taken over your life for the last few months/years?

And that is the conundrum that is the creative process. We’re not entirely sure how we do it. It’s such a fragile thing that, even having achieved it once, there is never any certainty of being able to repeat the performance. There is an element of alchemy involved in creating something out of nothing, willing an idea into existence by conjuring words onto paper. So perhaps, like magicians, we don’t like to reveal our secrets… because the truth is, we have no idea how any of this works. The trick is making people believe we do.   IT Books

I found some excellent quotes from the greats in our industry like Orwell, Atwood, Saunders and others that will hopefully make you feel less of a deer in headlights the next time you stumble over your answer.  You can read the article in full here.

You could be forgiven for thinking that all successful authors are able to transform into sleek, marketing machines the moment their book hits the shelves, but most of us are just fumbling our way through as best we can.  Self-promotion takes practice and is a skill that has to be learned and more often than not, learned the hard way.

Interestingly, Author Lan Samantha Chang has written a wonderful essay on the subject of protecting your inner life as a writer, especially when it comes to promotion.  It can be difficult to navigate your way from lone writer behind a screen to a public author and she questions if perhaps the reason it is so difficult to discuss our art is because the art should speak for itself?

This struggle takes place, I think, because the sincere reaction to making meaningful art is often speechlessness. We make art about what we cannot understand through any other method. The finished product is like a pearl, complete and beautiful, but mute about itself.

Yet, her greatest advice is not to worry.  In traditional publishing, the publisher would have dealt with the day-to-day concerns of getting your book out there.  But nowadays, we are all working as authorpreneurs – we are responsible for creating a platform, generating interest and reaching new readerships.  However, Chang advises that we should keep our writing life separate from our writing career.

The single essential survival skill for anybody interested in creating art is to learn to defend this inner life from the world.

But is there anything we can do to avoid the selective mutism that takes hold when trying to compress several years’ worth of work into a catchy sound-byte?

Many people just want to know what genre your book is, but for a lot of authors, their book doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre.  An author recently told me how she attended a PR course for author interviews and one of the best tips she received was to outline three key points about your novel.  And then learn them by heart, so no matter the pressure cooker situation you may find yourself in, your three key points are burned into your grey matter.  It might not convey everything you want to say about your book, but I think that’s the very reason we find the question so difficult to answer in the first place.  We want people to know why our book is so unique, so different to anything else out there.  But no-one has time for that and it’s a sure-fire way to talk yourself into a word-shaped corner.  Talking about your book should be fun, so I think if you can get past the initial hurdle by using these key points, the rest should be a piece of cake (lol!).

4 thoughts on “The Dreaded Question – What’s Your Book About?

  1. My brain can just about handle 3 short bullet points. Once I was asked at a party what my book was about and rambled on for a bit. The asker then said bluntly, ‘Well you’ll have to learn how to summarize better than that’.

    1. That’s exactly it – happened to me when a friend introduced me as an author to her group of friends. Of course they asked in unison ‘what are your books about?’ I just panicked, head was empty, then started babbling about plot structure and other randomness that made me sound incoherent! Thankfully I’ve got my key points ready for my new book 🙂 #bringiton

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