I was astonished to realise that I had left that off my list of things not to say to writers, but Charley was quick to suggest it in the comments. And it’s such a common one that I felt it deserved an entire post.
By the way, if you’re wondering about the frequency of my posts this week, I intend to post every day until Sunday and then resume my intermittent but relatively frequent posts. I have no particular reason for this, it just seemed like a good idea at the beginning of the week.
Okay. So, you’re in the library, typing away, or you’ve got a word document open for when your boss isn’t looking, or you’re sneakily writing in a lecture… whichever one of these applies to you, you can bet someone nosy is going to ask you what you’re doing. Hoping it will get them off your back, you say, “I’m writing a novel.”
There is one reply to this. Well, unless they’re writers themselves, in which case they’ll start asking you random questions such as how many you’ve written or whatever. But for the general public, there’s only one answer –
“Oh, that’s nice. What’s it about?”
When I was younger, I hated being asked that question, because I didn’t have a decent answer for it. Sometimes I just said, “People,” which was of course true, and they’d leave me alone. Other times I’d go into great detail saying, “Well, there’s this girl, and she’s been hunted by aliens since she was twelve, but she’s being protected by this guy called Matt who is a good alien, the opposite of those she’s fighting, and then she finds out that actually she’s half fairy. So this ghost comes along and teaches her how to use magic and stuff but it’s too late to save her parents, who were kidnapped by the aliens and killed. Anyway, she and Matt are totally in love, and they’re being helped by these other aliens….”
By this point they’d generally zoned out, because they weren’t asking me for the entire synopsis. (By the way, that’s genuinely what my first novel was about. I wrote it when I was 13, for my first NaNoWriMo. Don’t judge me.)
But what were they asking for? If they didn’t want the synopsis they shouldn’t have asked me what it was about, should they?
Kristen Lamb is often going on about the importance of a logline. In other words, you need to be able to pitch your book in one sentence, and you need to include the protagonist, the active goal, and the antagonist. It can work to include the stakes too.
Imagine that everyone who asks you that question is a potential movie director. Who knows, they might be. They want to know what your book is about and if you can sum it up in one sentence, they’ll be more likely to look into it.
I recently submitted a novel to the YA publisher Strange Chemistry, who were having an ‘open door’ submission period. In their guidelines they asked for a 2 page synopsis and said that they would smile on you if you could sum up your novel in one sentence. Which I duly did, with much tweaking from my editor Cathryn :)
Because it shows them that you know very clearly what your book is about, that you know what’s the most important thing in the story, that you can tell them who the protagonist is. It shows them that your story is tight, organised, and structured – it isn’t 150,000 words of too many subplots that you can’t keep track of.
In effect, a synopsis does the same thing. Try writing a first draft (if you’re not a plotter) and then writing a 1 page synopsis. Then write the second draft. You might find it helpful.
So although it’s annoying when someone wants to know what your novel is about, think of them as practice for all the people you want to ask you that question. Pitch your novel to them and if they sound excited, it’s probably because it sounds good.
And if you know they won’t be interested, because they’re not your target audience or whatever, make something up that’s completely random.
Oh, it’s about a ninja blogger who always posts at the same time every morning but from different countries, and the CIA are trying to find out how she travels that fast, even though the technology could cause a war if it fell into their hands.
I’ve never written a novel about ninjas. I may have to.