If I were the sort of person who believes in bad omens, yesterday’s flat tire might’ve seemed like a foreboding start to my very first writers’ conference.
Fortunately, I didn’t take it that way. Much.
Admittedly I was a bit frazzled by the time I walked into the event touted as “librarian speed dating” – a chance for romance authors to meet with librarians from around the Seattle area and let them know why they should consider buying our books. Though no no one said this outright, I suspected headlocks were not the appropriate method of persuasion.
The preferred method was a simple question from the librarian that goes like this:
What’s your book about?
It’s amazing how hard it can be to answer succinctly in one or two sentences. The temptation is to want to throw in as much detail as possible – the character names, the subplots, the inciting incidents, the name of the main character’s dog. Even in a roomful of published authors who presumably know their way around the English language, I heard a lot of “ums” and “kind ofs.” Not all of them were coming from me.
I was fortunate that earlier in the week, I had a telephone brainstorm session with one of my critique partners. She’s going through some gnarly revisions on a challenging book with several plotlines and four points of view, and was having trouble seeing the forest for the trees. When I asked her to break down the “what’s your book about?” question in two sentences, you would have thought I asked her to touch her eyelid with her tongue.
But it was a good exercise to nail down the core of the story. What’s the central idea that everything else revolves around? The temptation is to give a longer, rambling answer – something like this big block of text we’ve been using online and on a few random print pieces for MAKING WAVES:
Juli lost count of the number of jobs she’s held, but she definitely never applied to be a pirate. Or a stowaway on a pirate ship, for that matter. But when fate lands her on boat captained by Alex – a man whose unscrupulous boss kicked him to the curb after 20 faithful years – Juli finds herself in the middle of a revenge-fueled diamond heist in the Caribbean with a crew more suited to the boardroom than the poop deck. For his part, Alex didn’t plan to be a pirate, either. He just wants his dignity, pension, and normal life back. But normal flies out the window once Juli enters the picture – a twist Alex wishes he didn’t find so exhilarating. Soon, the two discover that while normal is nice, weird can be wonderful.
While that certainly answers the “what’s the book about?” question, it’s not the breezy one or two sentence summation I’m talking about here. It’s not succinct or conversational, and it doesn’t truly break it down to the bare bones.
What I ended up telling the librarians was something more like this:
Alex’s sleazy boss kicks him to the curb and steals his pension, so he and three colleagues head to the Caribbean to intercept the boss’s illegal diamond shipment in the most dysfunctional pirate mission in history. Things get complicated when Juli – who’s supposed to be dumping her dead uncle’s ashes at sea – has an allergic reaction to seasickness pills and accidentally stows away on their boat.
It’s shorter, it’s conversational, and hopefully prompts someone to ask the question “so then what?”
I’m not claiming I rattled that off without stammering or rambling, but just having it clarified in my head not only helped me feel like I know my own book, but that someone else might want to know it, too.
Are you able to sum up your own story in one or two sentences? Is it tempting to want to throw in too much detail, or do you have trouble zeroing in on the central idea?
I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
I’d also love it if someone could come out here and fix my @#$% tire. Anyone? Anyone?