The Short Version

Posted: December 29, 2011 in Writing
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’m sure all of you writers out there can relate to the following (hypothetical, albeit truthful) conversation:

                Friend/Family Member/Stranger:  What’s your ideal job? What do you want to do when you “grow up”?

                Me: I want to be a novelist!

                Them: Oh? That sounds interesting. Have you actually written anything?

                Me: Of course. I’ve finished writing a novel. I’m in the editing stages now.

                Them: What’s it about?

                Me: Uhh…

The truth is this question always catches me off guard. Obviously I know what my own novel is about; perhaps I know it too well. How am I supposed to whittle down the plotline into a few discernable sentences that don’t make me sound deranged?

I know my characters inside and out. I know what happens from beginning to end, and I know what parts are important. That is, I know what parts are important to me. I think that’s why it is so hard to break down my story and sum it up: I go on and on about things that I feel are important to know, but really I’m just talking in circles and the person is suddenly regretting asking me this question.

So, my usual answer is this:

Me: Short version? It’s about Native Americans who can turn into animals.

Lame. Even I think that sounds cheesy and overused and boring. There’s no detail, there’s nothing there to make them even the slightest bit interested in wanting to eventually read it. But that’s the easier answer for me. I’m still shy about my writing, and terribly afraid that if I do explain my story right, they’ll gently pat me on the shoulder and signal someone to call a mental institution.

(That’s me entirely overreacting, obviously. But I’m sure you can all relate – a lot of people don’t take us writers seriously.)

When I was in college, my professor told me to write a three sentence summary of my story for her to look at before she read it. Absolutely no more than three sentences. That was an incredibly difficult thing to write. But, when I got done with it, I imagined it being on the inside jacket of my book when it’s all shiny and published. Just enough information to get the reader interested, but not quite enough that they can figure out how it will end.

But, of course, I’ve lost it.

So, please tell me: what do you say when you get asked this question? Would it do well to have a little summary memorized for occasions such as these? Do you find that when you try to explain your novel or your idea for a story, people start to look at you out of the corner of their eyes? (Or is that just me hallucinating?)

  1. I’ve tried saying things like “Well, it’s not really ABOUT anything in particular. Things happen in it, but that’s not what it’s ABOUT.” Of course, following that up with a rapid fire list of the themes and emotions my stuff touches on tends to make people’s eyes glaze over. I haven’t really come up with a good response to a question like this. On the one hand, you don’t want to reduce your work down to something so simple that it gives the entirely wrong impression and throws people off. But on the other hand, if you don’t have a quick, engaging soundbite, it doesn’t bode well for actually getting people interested when it comes time to recruit readers.

    TL;DR: There’s no good answer. Either the person you’re talking to is going to be confused, or you’re going to be unhappy with how you presented your book.

    • Thanks for stopping in! Yes, I know exactly what you mean. When I try to talk about my book I tend to ramble, and that just doesn’t help convince them that it would be worth their time. I don’t think there is a perfect answer to this question, but I think it is important for us to be prepared anyway. We’re inevitably going to get this question, and it would be to our benefit to have an answer.

  2. What you’re after is a logline or hookline – a single sentence that sums up what the book is. It’s used to pitch the book, script or play to an agent or possible publisher. I posted about them here: and there are some other places that discuss the techniques of generating one. The logline forces the author to render their whole concept down – however complex it is. I think it’s a handy exercise in any event because it does focus things, and maybe new ideas can come from that. Hope that’s helpful.


    • Matthew – as always, a huge help. I’m definitely going to check out your blog post. That sounds exactly like what I need. And I think you’re right – it’s a good exercise to be able to break a 300 page novel down into a something a bit more manageable.

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