I’m writing a novel called ‘The Decadents’ and need to figure out the answer to the question people ask when they discover you’re writing a novel (usually after, ‘Are you published?’ and ‘Have I heard of you?’ and sometimes ‘Who is your publisher?’, which is another way of asking, ‘Is it a real publisher?’)
They ask, “What is it about?”
It’s a powerful question.
And if you can’t answer it – without going into some rambling description that makes your listener’s eyes glaze over — you have a problem. You have a manuscript that might have all the elements in play (strong writing, great characters, good pacing, etc.) but which an agent or editor will reject because it’s muddled at the center.
Often you don’t know the real, deep answer to what the book is ‘about’ until you’ve completed at least a draft of the thing. And that’s as it should be: the first draft (and the second, and the third) is all about exploration.
Exploration of the story, exploration of the characters.
Exploration of yourself.
But when people ask, “What is it about?”, they aren’t looking for the deep answer. They want the ‘hook’. They want the thirty-second elevator pitch, so they can nod and smile and sip their cocktails and change the subject.
It’s what agents want when you approach them with your manuscript.
It’s what editors want when the agent approaches them with the manuscript.
Because a manuscript doesn’t get sold once. It gets sold over and over again. The agent sells to editors; the editors sell in-house, to other editors, then to sales and marketing; the jacket copy sells to readers; you yourself are selling the book, unwittingly or not, whenever you talk about it.
The point of the hook is to intrigue, through suggestion and implication.
You aren’t laying out a detailed synopsis of the story. There’s no time. You are, in just one or two sentences, suggesting the shape and reach and style of the story.
You are promising that the story has a center, and it is sharp and clear.
So answering the question, “What is your novel about?” is good practice. You have the chance to refine your answer according to your developing sense of the story and how people respond. At the same time, you can fake it a bit, because all you’re doing is suggesting and implying.
My rambling answer goes something like this:
I’m interested in the idea of repetition compulsion — how we unconsciously repeat relationships from the past in order to master or resolve them — and also about how survivors of incest and emotional incest tend to find each other, and also how people with dysfunctional family backgrounds will form their own little families of friends to make up for what they never had. So ‘The Decadents’ is about this group of wealthy hedonistic thirtysomethings who live in LA and are close friends and this young dancer wanders into their midst and sets off this drama of erotic obsession that echoes events from twenty years ago when a Hollywood ‘It’ girl went missing, because the dancer might be the reincarnation of this girl, and she’s traumatized by these memories of her past life and gets involved in a love triangle that might culminate in the same tragic end if they can’t figure out what really happened to the missing girl…
How do I find the ‘hook’ in this?
I can ask myself: who are the characters and what do they want?
Well, the dancer wants to feel whole. She wants to overcome not just her past, but her past life. She also wants love, acceptance, and safety.
And there are two men who want her. Who happen to be best friends. And one of them is married and not quite what he seems. And both these men were deeply involved in the life of the disappeared girl, which is why the dancer compels them, and vice versa. All three are driven by an attraction that they don’t understand but sets them against each other in various ways.
So my hook is somewhere in there.
My book is about a young dancer who gets involved in a love triangle with two older men, an artist and a CEO, who have been best friends since high school.
This suggests some of the shape of the story, and the conflict, but it’s not enough. ‘The Decadents’ is a supernatural psychological thriller, and the ‘hook’ should convey that.
The book is about a young dancer who gets involved in a love triangle with two older men that ignites traumatic memories of her past life and starts repeating an erotic obsession that ended in tragedy twenty years ago.
Hmmm. Kind of long. Kind of awkward.
I’ll let you know how it goes.