Friday, April 22, 2011

What's Your Book About?

"What's it about?"

That's the first question when I tell someone I'm writing my first novel. To me, it's harder to answer than "What's Beethoven's Fifth Symphony about?" and almost as crass as "What do you do for a living?"

In the first novel writing class I took, the teacher asked each of the students to say a few words about the novel they wanted to write. Some students didn't answer. I suppose they were afraid someone might copy their idea, or they weren't sure, or they were embarrassed. The only thing I knew about my novel then was that a priest came out, left the church and started an art gallery in Los Angeles. I didn't know his name or what denomination he was.

Worrying that someone would steal my idea never occurred to me, and it seems less and less important as I continue to write. The way I consider plot problems and character inconsistencies and word choices is completely idiosyncratic. For example, sometimes when I'm waking up in the morning, in that doze between sleep and coffee, a word snaps into my brain that makes an entire chapter work. If someone took my idea for Delux and wrote novel, the result would be as different as giving the same melody to Haydn and Brahms and asking them to write a piece of music.

At some point, a writer needs a short answer to "What's it about?" For one thing, it saves time when someone inevitably asks. For another, as completion nears and marketing starts, a writer (or publisher) has to put a description on the cover (or on the web page) that engages readers enough to at least open the book and read a few sentences if not buy it. The short answer that ends up on the book cover has more to do with selling the book than its contents.

At first I'd answer that Delux was about belief and beauty, how religion and art relate to each other. Now I'm not sure. I realized as I was preparing for the fifth draft, that the book is about how the main character looks for insights and how he misses them, especially how he misses the second coming at the turn of the millennium. That answer probably won't sell too many copies, though. What short description will tease people to open the book? I'll let you know when I figure out what it's about.

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