Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What's it About?

A writer considering a new project and a reader considering whether to read a new book are both confronted with the same question: "Is it worth my time?"

For the reader, it's only a matter of eight to ten hours. For the writer, the number of hours is on the order of thousands. How can you get some reassurance that your project is worth all that writing time?

Think about the way you answer the analogous question as a reader. If someone recommends a book, your first question is likely, "What's it about?

While it doesn't guarantee success, if you can answer the reader's inevitable question, "What's it about?" (and if the answer is more interesting than, "a total and utter yawn-making bore of bores,"*) you probably have something worth undertaking.

The holy grail of what's-it-about-ness is a single line that captures the essence and the enticement of the book. You might have heard it called a one-line-pitch, a log-line (from film), or a hook. Beware, though, because the kind of hook we're talking about has more than one sharp edge. First, like poetry and other concise art forms, they're hard to do well. Second, if you do come up with a stunning hook it's hard to resist the temptation to think your job is done. (Snakes on a Plane, need I say more?) Third, you may come up with a line that's perfect--if you already know the story--but doesn't say a lot to new readers. (You could, for example, say Harry Potter is about a lightning-shaped scar: that line packs loads of meaning if you know the series, but won't rate as appetizing if you know nothing about the story.)

You're on firmer ground if you can work out a synopsis, outline, or even a story bible. But these exercises come with the attendant distraction of all the cool things you're going to include in the book, and you're liable to sound like a four-year-old when you talk about it ("... and it has this, and this, and this, and this ...). Once again, you'll miss the what's-it-about mark, this time with too much information.

Caveats about it's reliability aside, my favorite framework is Wikipedia, specifically the notion of writing a Wikipedia entry for your book. To be clear, this is a completely private exercise: it's only value is to help you think clearly enough about your book that you can zero in on the one or two paragraphs that explain what your story is about (i.e., the introductory paragraphs that appear above the contents box in a Wikipedia entry).

How do you do it?

Like artists who trace the masters, find a few entries that do a good job of capturing books with which you are familiar and emulate them.

Let me reiterate that while you may be able to use some or all of these exercises when it comes time to market the book, their primary value is in helping you to develop a clear and compelling mental model of the book. Your sense of what it's about will guide you as you work through the project, even it if changes over time.

The goal is to discover the glowing ember--the combustible combination of concept and passion--that is the essence of what it's about.

* Thank you, Vicar of Dibley

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

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