Monday, 27 April 2009


Reply to someone who just asked you what you do, I’m writing a novel, and you’ll elicit one of two responses. The first, if they’re obscenely witty and a fan of the brilliant Peter Cook, will be: Neither am I. The second, more common, is: What’s it about? Aaahhhhh. I hate What’s it about? so much. I usually risk causing offence, blithely tossing in, It’s about 28,000 words at the moment. Cue tumbleweed. Once this fails, if I’m still feeling like a pretentious, tortured artist, I might say, It’s not about anything. There are some characters, things happen to them. (I’m not always like Bernard Black, honest.)

But there is an important reason I don’t now indulge What’s it about? Anyone who has ever tried to write a succinct synopsis (try saying or typing that after three pints) or blurb will know how difficult it is. A novel is something that takes over your life; it (ideally) seeps into every waking day. If it ever does leave you for an hour or two, you’re soon scanning frantically as if it were a lost toddler in a shopping centre. It becomes you. It is you. So, someone (implicitly) asking for a one-sentence sound-bite is asking the impossible.

And if they’re foolish enough to hang around for the unabridged version, you soon find yourself telling the entire story…and herein lies the danger. Once told, even verbally, you will lose a fraction of the passion for writing it. The thing that drags you kicking and screaming to your desk when the sun’s out, the cricket’s on, the pub is open, is the frisson, the magic, of telling the story for the first time.

So, apologies in advance to anyone of a future encounter if a What’s it about? is greeted with a facetious word count. It’s nothing personal.


Anne Brooke said...

Ah, who indeed knows what it's about!! I have every sympathy - I don't have a fecking clue, even when I've finished the damn things.



Tania Hershman said...

I feel you. Great post. People ask me what my short story collection is about. Huh?"£%$! What am I supposed to say? Never, ever tell anyone what anything is "about". (Love that Peter Cook quote).

TOM J VOWLER said...

I think, Anne, we should just leave it to others to decide.

So, Tania, what is your brilliant collection about? ;)

Tania Hershman said...

Everything, nothing, and what's in between.


Vienna Maurel said...

Agree! I hate The Question. Why, why, why? Any answer you give sounds insufficient, inexact, absurd. And yes, the magic goes away, your story becomes smaller, and you wonder what's the point of everything, your novel, your writing, the uncomfortable conversation. It seems like you can convince yourself your answer mimics your story. Finally you find some redemption. You place the blame on THAT question. Where it should be. And you decide not to talk about the novel anymore... till the next time somebody poses the question. Is there any way out?

Anne Brooke said...

You forgot the bits at the side, Tania - they're fabulous too!



TOM J VOWLER said...

The first rule of Write Club is you don't talk about Write Club. (Can I get away with that?!)

Nicola Morgan said...

Thing is, folks, it's the ability to say what it's about succinctly and compellingly that will sell your novel a) to the publisher and b) to the readers. It is the doorbell without which the editor/agent inside will not even know you're there. So, much as you hate it, you have to find a way to do it - and one way, frankly, is to LIE.

Thought-provoking post, Tom, and I'll blog on it myself soon(ish).

But tania - I do agree about the stupidity of asking what a short story collection is about! (Though actually, some collections have an answer ...)

TOM J VOWLER said...

Yes, Nicola, I agree, although I meant not talking about it during composition (unless, of course, a publisher/agent/editor invites you to). Heck, when it's written, I'll likely talk about it, erm, quite a lot. :)