A few days ago I finished the second draft of my novel. I’m far enough through the writing process, and hence confident enough that I’ll finish it, that I’m happy to let slip to casual acquaintances that I am writing a novel. People almost invariably respond by asking one awkward question.
They ask, “What is your novel about?”
I can’t speak for all writers, but I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one who finds this question challenging. Of course I know what my novel is about, but when I try to boil that down into one or two sentences that can keep the conversation going, I draw a blank.
Normally I say, “It’s about space pirates.” Which it kind of sort of is, although there’s really only one space pirate and her piratical activities aren’t the focus of the book. It also brings to mind images of cybernetic eyes and robot parrots and all sorts of clichés that aren’t anywhere in my novel, but they’re fun mental images that make the asker smile and keep the conversation going, and that’s what the answer is really meant to achieve.
But when someone wants a more detailed and less glib answer than “It’s about space pirates”, I find myself at a loss. Part of that is because I haven’t prepared a good answer. I’ll have to, when I come to write a covering letter, but that’s not for a while yet and when I do it I’ll have plenty of time to agonise over every word. Mostly, though, it’s because I didn’t set out to write a book about any particular theme. There are lots of things that my novel could be said to be about, and once we’ve got past the glib “space pirates” answer, I don’t know which to pick.
- It’s about a society that has collectively given up and resigned itself to extinction, and what such a society would be like for a cross-section of social classes.
- It’s about the different ways in which people’s personalities can be shaped by tragic events in their past.
- It’s about obsession.
- It’s about the question of whether, when you’re faced with an overwhelmingly powerful enemy, it’s better to make a futile last stand or just roll over and die.
- It’s about cyborg zombie space pirates vs giant planet-devouring alien robots. In space!
Some of these were part of my original idea; others are things that have emerged from the novel as I wrote it, without my being fully conscious of them until I examined what I was writing. Any of these would be a truthful but incomplete answer to what the novel is about. (Pedantically, the only complete answer would be 80,000 words long and identical with the novel itself; anything else loses detail.) When someone asks the question, I have to come up with an answer that both accurately reflects the novel, and also fits the tone of conversation and what that person wants to know. Because “It’s about space pirates” and “It’s about obsession” are different types of answer for different types of conversation, and I don’t think it’s disingenuous to pick one or the other based on context.
So, advice to writers: when you’re ready to tell people you’re writing something, have several answers lined up for when they ask what it’s about.