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!).

How To Tell When Your Novel Is Finished

Copyright

 

Art is never finished, only abandoned.

Leonardo da Vinci

Creativity is something that refuses to be measured by calendars; laughs at deadlines and always begs the question, ‘Could I make this better?’  Leonardo is right, at some point you just have to walk away, but how do you know when that is?

As many of you will know, because I keep harping on about it, my new novel The Story Collector will be published next year by Urbane Publications (woohoo!)  Yes, I’m still woohooing and plan to woohoo for some time to come.  Anyway, I’ve been working on this book, on and off, for about 18 months.  In my eyes, it was ready.  It’s been alpha read, beta read, edited and all that remained was a final proof read.  Or so I thought.

I joked with my publisher that, bar any new characters coming along and upsetting things, I should have the final draft in by our agreed deadline.  Well guess what?  A new character came along!  Well, not entirely new, but she was minor at best.  All of a sudden, she has loads to say and to my amazement, lifts the whole story an extra notch.  How did this happen?!  I often find myself writing about the creative process and how so much of what we do is fumbling in the dark, while equally holding on to the belief that we are being guided.  The original idea takes a perilous journey through countless drafts and rewrites, and much of the final touches are finding your way back to where you started.

I also paint and the process is exactly the same.  You have an idea in your head and from the moment you start putting that idea on the canvas/page, you are on a voyage to get back to that original idea.  You get led astray, fall down rabbit holes, become distracted by plots, deceived by characters.  The only way you can see the work clearly is to stand back from the canvas.  That is when you realise that you’re lacking depth, or that you need more highlighting, or perhaps the balance of the piece is leading the eye in the wrong direction.  So you get back in there; darken here, lighten there, until it’s time to step back again and repeat the process all over again.

When I first heard the phrase ‘Kill your darlings’, I thought I was going to have to bump off one of my favourite characters.  Then I realised that it was those lines, paragraphs, or entire chapters that you have an irrational attachment to and can’t bear to cut, no matter how much they are dragging the rest of the story down.  I’ve been revising the first three chapters (which are really crucial for capturing your reader’s attention) and paring back anything unnecessary.  With each sweep, I’m losing more and more of the writing I thought was important, but turned out to be superfluous.  My job at this point is to make it easy for the reader to slip into the story and want to continue reading.

So how do you know when you’re at the end?  When you’ve given your novel all that you can?  Is it when you can’t bear looking at it anymore?  Or is it when you’ve pushed past that point and begun to see your novel as your future readers will?

George Saunders, author of Lincoln In The Bardo, wrote about this process in a recent article for The Guardian

You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”

And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.

I wholeheartedly subscribe to Saunders’ idea of revising yourself up and never underestimating your audience or your ability.  As Leonardo points out, there is never really complete satisfaction, but when you can walk away knowing that you’ve given more than you thought you could, that’s a good day’s work.

The Story Collector – Coming June 2018