R.J. Anderson (rj_anderson) wrote,
R.J. Anderson

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Extract of Book, 1 tbsp.

Some recent discussions in superversive's journal, plus an essay by alg about how to successfully pitch a novel to an agent or editor, got me thinking about a problem I've been struggling with for some time. To wit, what is the proper answer to give when relatives, casual friends, and just-met acquaintances ask you, "So what is your book about?"

At present, I have two methods of responding to this question, and neither one is up to much.

The first is for people who don't actually read or care for fantasy:

THEM: So what is your book about?

ME: Uh, well, it's a YA fantasy novel.

[long, awkward pause]

ME: Look, there's a ruby-throated hummingbird!

THEM: Where?

ME: *runs away*

The second is for those who do:

THEM: So what is your book about?

ME: Well, uh...

THEM: Yes?

ME: it'saboutfairies.

THEM: What?

ME: fairies.

THEM: What?

ME: Look, there's a ruby-throated hummingbird! *runs away*

So as you can see, my explanatory technique could use some work.

Seriously, though, it is a problem. Because I know very well that when people ask "What is your book about?", they want a brief, pithy answer, not a long rambling explanation. This is especially true if they are not particularly knowledgable about or interested in the fantasy genre. However, when you're the writer and you're intimately acquainted with all the nuances of the plot, it's very difficult to boil it down to one or two sentences without feeling as though you're misrepresenting the book, or worse, lopping off your own limbs. And giving a vague, thematic answer such as "It's about truth and love and the search for freedom" not only fails to address the real question, it makes you sound like a pot-smoking hippie.

This is further complicated, in my case, by the Fairy Problem. Yes, the book is about fairies, of the small winged female variety, and I know full well that as soon as I say that, my listener is going to think of Tinkerbell -- which in this case would be a mistake. However, explaining that these fairies are in fact unimaginative, grimly pragmatic folk who have lost their magic and live in constant dread of the outside world, and that in a cage match with my crow-killing heroine a bit of fluff like Tink wouldn't last two minutes, is likely to tax my listener's patience, not to mention making me sound defensive. And even if I get through that part without boring them to death, they still won't have found out much of anything about the novel.

jamesbow had a recent entry in his blog about the difficulty of writing catalogue copy for his second book, Fathom Five, and how he ultimately had to turn to his wife to help him boil down his 40,000 word story to its essence. Of course, in some cases the inability to summarize a book in one or two sentences is a warning sign: it means that the plot lacks coherence, that the themes are too diffuse. But that really wasn't James's problem, I don't believe, and although earlier drafts of Knife may have suffered from that malady, I don't think it's really the issue with my book either.

Ultimately, I think I'm just too close to the story, especially right now, to step back and look at it as a first-time reader would. But somehow, I need to figure out how to get the necessary distance -- and soon, as I'd like to have a pitch prepared for any contacts I might make at the SCBWI conference I'm attending next month.

Thoughts, anyone?
Tags: editing, fantasy, knife, publishing, writing
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