For she has learned it doesn’t matter how literary critics describe her novel:
“Strong writing keeps the reader sucked in to LeCraw’s painful family drama debut. It is a story of deep and searing love, between siblings and lovers, but most powerfully between parents and their children.”
– Publishers Weekly
Friends, acquaintances, and inquiring minds ask her THE question.
Prepare yourselves, writer friends: someday you really are going to finish that book, and a publisher will buy it, and will then actually publish it, and then the question will be asked, over and over: “What’s your book about?”
Looking confused and scraping your toe in the dirt and answering, “uh, life?” is, I have discovered, not the right answer.
Reader friends, here’s the shocker: we writers write books and we know who they’re about, and what happens; but we are so immersed in our imaginary worlds that it’s hard to step away and get the big picture, the view that someone who hasn’t read the book would, hopefully, get right away. What is it about? Don’t ask us.
The process of reducing your book to a few lines starts early, when you have to begin querying agents—and I’m convinced this is at least part of the reason that the whole agent-search thing has been turned into a Web industry of massive proportions. Writers are convinced there’s some alchemy involved in landing an agent, and are desperate for the formula. But what is really freaking them out is having to say what their books are about—coming up with the vaunted “elevator pitch.” It’s a true art in itself. It’s narrative and enticement and psychology, crammed into the length of a haiku.
But here’s the rub: novelists write things that are, well, long. We are sometimes rather strange people. We sit in little rooms, alone, for the much of the day. We are not marketing geniuses. Reducing our magni opi to a few lines that will make an agent/publisher/book buyer want to grab that book and never let it go is not necessarily our strong suit.
In my case, I somehow managed to write a query letter that worked; and among the many varieties of relief I felt was the comfort in knowing that, now, the vast roomfuls of marketing geniuses at my venerable publisher were going to take over the job of telling everyone what my book was about. (Imagine my surprise when entire paragraphs from my query letter reappeared, verbatim, in the first drafts of the flap copy.)
Recently, I stumbled upon a crucial clue to this whole conundrum. I was at a reading being given by the wonderful writer Katharine Weber, and she happened to mention that when she had been in school and had had to write a paper, she had always written the paper first, and then the outline. I sat there in dawning comprehension. I had been absolutely sure I was the only freak of nature who had ever done that. Who outlines something that’s already written? Besides, well, me? But when I questioned her further, she said that every novelist she had ever known claimed to have done the same thing.
See? We have to write it, and only then do we know what it’s about. And the more distance, the better. In five or ten years, I’ll have my debut novel, The Swimming Pool, down to one crisp sentence. To a word.
For the record, though, I do have an elevator pitch now. The Swimming Pool is the story of a young man, Jed McClatchey, who is mired in grief for his parents, dead seven years ago. He falls in love with an older woman, Marcella Atkinson—who, he then discovers, was his late father’s mistress; and then he, and we, begin to wonder if she knows anything about the unsolved murder of his mother.
So there it is.
But wait. Please wait. (This is me, holding the elevator door open and calling to you as you exit.)
The Swimming Pool is also about relationships–if anything, more about the relationships holding up the big juicy taboo one than that affair itself. (Now you’re turning around.) It’s about the bonds between lovers–but also between spouses and siblings and, especially, parents and children, and the way those bonds intersect and conflict. It’s about secrets, and the ripple effects of secrets long kept. It’s about all the things parents will do, misguided and otherwise, to protect their children.
In my fantasy, you’re stopped in your tracks now, and you’re nodding.
I say, What’s my book about? Really? Well, it’s like all novels. It’s about life.