This happens more often than I’d like to admit: I’m sitting around with friends or acquaintances or random strangers, and the fact that I’m a writer comes up. (I never noticed before just how often people say, “What do you do for living?” until I started answering that question with “I’m a writer.”) From there the conversation usually moves to what genre I write, what I’ve published, when my next book is coming out, and then like a hand grenade tossed into my lap: “What’s your book about?”
I freeze. My brain sets off alarms that sound all over my body. Panic sets in. I try to buy time by saying, “Wellllll,” and “Uuuuummm,” and “Okay, sooooo.” My first book was published seven years ago, my fourth novel is coming in August, and this still happens every time someone asks me what my book is about. When I received a PR Q&A from my publisher with the question “what is your book about?” I may have yelled out loud, “Don’t you people have a whole sales department to tell me what my book is about?”
Part of this difficulty is related to many writers’ struggles with query letters and elevator pitches. After you’ve spent months or years crafting a complex and nuanced story, now you’re supposed to boil it down to a few sentences? I’m terrible at this in part for the same reason I write novels instead of flash fiction.
The other part of why this question is so hard for me is about the panic and how my brain responds to it. More than one person has suggested that I should just memorize my official pitch word for word. Sadly most of the time the panic wipes my brain clean, and all I can find in my Things I’ve Memorized file is a few random Bible verses and the Pledge of Allegiance. Even on the occasions when I successfully regurgitate what I’ve memorized, I just sound like a malfunctioning robot. If I’m supposed to be selling my book to potential readers, that is not the way to do it.
I wish I could tell you that I have found the solution to this problem, and that you can read about it after the jump, but the truth is I choked on my one and only attempt to pitch a novel to an agent in person twenty years ago, and I choked again this last week.
I was at a gathering of booksellers and inevitably I was asked the question about my forthcoming novel. Cue panic, followed by me opening my mouth and having a few hundred words fall out in no particular order. I’m here to tell you that this is not ideal, but it’s also not a complete catastrophe. After all The Princess Bride has been successfully selling itself with a pile of random words for many years: “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escape. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.”
All this to say that my wisdom is much more philosophical than practical. Over the years of being asked what my books are about, I have learned to accept two things: [Read more…]