Let’s talk about family, friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, perfect strangers and their very favorite question once they find out you’re a writer:
“So, what’s your book about?”
It should be my very favorite question, too. It’s sociable, friendly, simple, and gives me the chance to talk about something I love. It gives me the repeated opportunity to practice that precious “elevator pitch,” the quick, smart hook designed to get a professional person interested before the rules of polite society release them from their obligation to listen. But it also comes with a thin needle of panic.
How do I boil my pet three-hundred-page project down to a handful of sentences? Even if I borrow the first word from each page, I’m probably over the limit. And also in over my head when I try to arrange them into something that makes sense. So far I’ve got: “Jaera good. Toar the he. They were another you. I…” That’s not going to work.
I could give the easy explanation: It’s about a woman who gets captured in the first battle of a war and taken into enemy territory. She tries to escape and get home while her captors try to convince her to fight on their side. At first it’s easy to reject them, and then she wonders if she’s just doing it out of memory of all the reasons she should.
But I’m bored, it leaves out a lot of important things, and the tone is pretty wrong for what I’m working on. Also, I think it would lead to a discussion of Stockholm Syndrome.
I could give the setting explanation: It’s about this ocean-based culture called the Sea Clans where eighty-percent of the population spends eighty-percent of their time aboard ship. Total swash-bucklers, but piracy is highly frowned upon. Some folks have magic, but they never call it that. Two of the Clans go to war and my main character gets caught in between, because she was raised by one and gets captured by the other.
That’s enough to make someone smile like they understand and move on with the conversation.
I could give the explanation I’d tell my best friend’s grandmother: It’s about family and justice and patriotism. It’s about where we’re born and who we’re born next to and whether that’s more or less important than where we choose to stay and who we choose to stay with. It’s about what we owe them, in good and bad times.
Yeah, not really, but I can guarantee Grandma is going to give me some food for thought and maybe break out the cookies.
I could give the explanation I would tell the coffee shop kids: It’s about self. It’s about how far we can deviate from the norm before we stop being human. It’s about the line between gods, men, and monsters. It’s about fault and glory. And it’s about carrying around an image of yourself that you’re afraid of and how you live with that.
That one might actually be for the kids at the bar, after I’ve had a few.
I could give the character explanation: It’s about a woman who was found in a back alley as a baby and believes that she was thrown away because she’s dangerous. She gets taken as a prisoner of war, and then forced to serve as a bodyguard for a prince who is simultaneously least likely and most likely to get his country’s Man of The Year award. It depends on whether or not stuffing the ballot box fits into his grand life plan to Annoy Dad at Every Possible Moment.
That one is sadly lacking the word “swash-buckle.” If I can talk you into imagining that I threw that into the middle of one of those sentences, that would be great.
Or I could give with the referential explanation: It’s all the boats and attitude from Pirates of the Caribbean mixed with all the family drama from Hamlet. Just imagine that the crew of the ships have known each other since birth and snarked at each other since birth, and that instead of Hamlet being mad at his uncle for killing his dad, he’s mad at his dad for killing… everybody. And there are people who can spontaneously set themselves on fire. And only three pirates.
Yep. I’m going with that one.
What do you tell family, friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, and strangers?