I recently volunteered to mentor an aspiring writer—part of my effort to pay back for all the help I’ve received—and began our conversation by asking what her novel was about.
Her answer went something like this: “Well, there’s this man who’s always … and then he immigrates to … and then later his wife dies … and so he decides to enlist in the Army … and then he finally realizes that … “
It reminded me oh-so-painfully of the first time I pitched to an agent at one of those “get published” conferences where hopeful writers pay XX dollars for XX minutes of an agent’s time. I could see the agent sneaking a look at her watch and knew I was failing miserably to win her interest, so I blurted, “And wait, I forgot—there’s a dog in it too. But then he dies.” (Hey, it was heart-wrenching.)
Like my mentee, I didn’t understand aboutness.
When my mentee was finished with her report, I said, “So your book is about redemption.”
If I’m permitted one cliché per essay: her face lit up. That word had never occurred to her, but it was exactly what her story was about. Then I asked her what kind of redemption it was. Redemption that no one, including the protagonist, had ever thought would be possible? Earned redemption, through a personal sacrifice? Unearned redemption, through someone else’s act of courage, mercy, or generosity? Redemption by chance, the accidental side-effect of another event? Different kinds of redemption indicate different kinds of stories.
I began this way—with a word—because it’s how I think about my own books. In my experience, it’s easier to expand that one essential word into a phrase, a sentence, and a pitch than it is to try to locate it within a lengthy, often discursive summary.
I don’t want to give away a story that doesn’t belong to me, especially since my mentee’s book hasn’t been published yet, so I’ll use my own book to illustrate the series of aboutness distillations that I call word, phrase, sentence, and equation. And then I’ll expand it even further into a two-sentence summary of essential elements.
To be clear: Aboutness is not plot. Plot is the way you deliver a story’s aboutness.
Word: Queen of the Owls is about wholeness. If I had to pick one word, that would be it. In my mentee’s book, it was redemption. Yours might be agency, forgiveness, revenge, reunion, courage, or any large-scale idea.
Phrase: Queen of the Owls is about the search to be a whole woman. In other words, what kind of “wholeness?” Another book might be about making a family or community whole again.
Sentence: Queen of the Owls is about the search for one’s whole self, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. [Read more…]