So, what’s your novel about then?
This is the question — the terrible, dreaded question — that causes most new writers to stammer and squirm, or gabble and gush.
Picture the scene: you are at a social gathering, like a networking event, a drinks party, or something your friends have dragged you to. You didn’t want to go. You’d rather be writing. Your work in progress is coming along much too slowly for your liking. It’s all you think about, perhaps all you care about. Some canapes are passed around. You take a second glass of white wine and then somehow a new acquaintance, someone you’ve only just met, manages to jemmy out of you that you’re writing a book.
‘What’s it about?’ she’ll say.
How on earth are you supposed to answer that? Plenty of pitfalls await the unwary.
The Rubbish Chute
You start to speak, but you boil your novel down to its bare basics. It’s about a man who moves to the country and invents a new type of cheese that has hallucinogenic side effects. It’s about a woman who sits in a caravan knitting bobble hats and thinking about the past. As you hear yourself speak, as you see your interrogator glazing over, you realise that even you now think your novel sounds bad. It sounds dreadful.
Talking about your work prematurely can make it seem trite or implausible, denting your confidence. Remember that it’s not finished yet, and even the most celebrated novels could seem ridiculous if summed up in a nutshell (Moby Dick is about a bloke with a beard who follows a whale about). The need to sum it up in a crisp, elevator-pitch-like soundbite usually comes to you only after you’ve finished it and you’ve put your marketing hat on.
The Bore Hole
You find yourself going on and on about your novel, all the ins and outs, every twist and turn, the then-then-thens, all the context and backstory, your main character’s medical records and tax returns and how their parents met, what flavour of Aero they like best. Each event you mention requires a series of qualifications that fork and split off into more and more explanations and detail until you notice that faces glazed over some time ago. You feel very alone.
Your novel might not make sense to you unless you have all its entrails out, but there’s a real risk here that no else is going to keep up. Very soon, they’ll want to be talking about anything else.
The Distorting Mirror
So, no one has yet asked you what your books is about, but these guys seem intelligent and interesting and are maybe the sort of people you would like to read your work, so you bring it up yourself, maybe bluntly, maybe by stealth. Somehow you get it into the conversation that you’re a writer, that you’re writing a book, but your newfound friends merely shrug. You start to feel deflated. You feel yourself shrink.
Writing may be central to you, but isn’t for everyone else. Sometimes we can find ourselves seeking validation from people in no position to validate us. They’re just not interested, or don’t know what to say.
Betsy Lerner, in The Forest from the Trees says that there are only two reasons to write: because you can’t help it, and because you want people to like you. It’s the first we should cling to and the second we should push to the back of our minds unless we’re among fellow writer friends.
The American novelist Sam Lypsyte writes that, ‘One of my big revelations was that nobody cares whether you write your novel or not. They want you to be happy. Your parents want you to have health insurance. Your friends want you to be a good friend. But everyone’s thinking about their own problems and nobody wakes up in the morning thinking, “Boy, I sure hope Sam finishes that chapter and gets one step closer to his dream of being a working writer.” Nobody does that. If you want to write, it has to come from you. If you don’t want to write, that’s great. Go do something else. That was a very liberating moment for me.’
Dying of Exposure
You realise that one of the reasons that you write is that you want people to like you, to enjoy what you do. Of course, you want to talk about your writing. Writers are, after all, the most fascinating and talented of people. All your heroes are writers. You want to be someone’s hero.
The thing is, not everyone has a high opinion of writers. People can be scared of writers. People can be worried that you will write them unflatteringly into a story; or that you’ll steal their anecdotes and observations; that you think you’re better than them because you wave a pen about sometimes; that writers are crackpots or emotionally needy; that the only other writer they met was a nasty piece of work.
It might not be as extremely negative as the above, but folk may have preconceptions. One of my Online Fiction Workshop students said recently, ‘There is also the problem of what people assume a writer is. Even what they look like and how they dress. I’ve had “You look like a writer.” I’ve had a person assume I write children’s books (it must be related to how I look). There was this whole story in her head about who I was and then also persuaded herself that I illustrated the books too.’
If you don’t actively have something to promote, or you don’t yet have anything to promote, it might be wise to keep it to yourself.
Dashed on the Rocks
We can also come up against a brick wall of incomprehension. Why on earth would you want to do this? Who do you think you are? Writing novel is for other people, and if you’re not JK Rowling or Dan Brown, you really are barking up the wrong tree, wasting your time, behaving like a sulky teenager who can’t socialise with grown-ups yet. You are not a writer. You are pretending to be a writer. You are a hapless wannabe who may as well buy a scratch card or rob a bank if you want success. You are not a writer until writing is your very good living.
You’re never going to attract fellow feeling here.
The Prison of Complication
Another of my Workshop students says: ‘I have also had the experience of certain people behaving as though writing a book was rather a pompous and poncey thing to do. I always want to ask, do you imagine the books you read wrote themselves?’
No book ever wrote itself. Every book was written by someone who was once a beginner, who either couldn’t help it or wanted people to like them, and all the while had many awkward moments trying to explain what they write and what’s it all about.
We can find plenty of more refined ways of describing our own work. What is its shape? Is it a waltz or a stampede? What question does your story answer? It strikes me that these questions about shape and effect are really useful for us as writers, or as writers within a group of writers, but may not be quite as useful for talking to strangers or acquaintances or even non-writing friends. Going in to that sort of detail could prove tricky. You will have needed to have gone through it yourself to relate to it.
You are a writer because you write, but in transmission that description is freighted with all sorts of other baggage about the perception of writers, one way or another, that you can’t control. How you talk about your writing is more about how you present yourself as a writer.
Answering any question about your work-in-progress with a simple description of the theme (like, ‘is it possible to recover from betrayal’) is advisable. That novel about the hallucinogenic cheese becomes a novel about how do you cope when you created a monster. The novel about the woman sitting in a caravan brooding on the past is about making sense of the past and learning to live again. Also, a simple description of the setting in time and place (it’s set in Rome in the 1920s is usually enough to give anyone something to conjure, unless you’re intent on making it all about you. And, after all, you don’t want to give away your secrets cheaply. Don’t explain. Entice.
In short, keep it brief, and…
Keep it in the Family
One Workshop student says, ‘I like talking with other writers, and it’s interesting to find out about their works-in-progress. Endless chats with other writers are the best, as we all know, because they understand. I wouldn’t volunteer that I write either, because the next questions is always: have you been published? Telling people you’ve had a couple of short stories published in anthologies is rather a conversation stopper for non-writers.’
Writing a novel, especially a first novel, can be a gruelling and perplexing process of trial and error. Only you know how hard or easy it is for you to write. The best place to discuss your work is by weekly contact with others who have some insight into the struggles you face day by day, page by page, be they stylistic or motivational.