As I've mentioned before, I'm an avid photographer — the photos at the top of the MW home page are mine — and on occasion I have taken lessons from my experiences with photography and applied them to writing. I'd like to do that again today.
One of my favorite photographers, a guy named John Shaw, is famous in part for his wonderful books designed for beginning nature photographers, and he offers an observation that those of us who make our living with the written word should take to heart. Shaw suggests that the more effective a photograph, the easier it is describe. Here's the quote:
It takes several paragraphs to describe a bad photograph, a few sentences for a mediocre photo, one sentence for a good picture, and just a phrase for a great photograph. (John Shaw, Nature Photography Field Guide, Amphoto Books, 2000.)
Photographs, like novels, should be about something — the easier it is to convey that something verbally, the better your photograph probably is. And so it should be with your books. We often speak of the pitch here at MW — the need to be able to tell an editor or agent what our books are about in the most direct, most compelling terms possible. And obviously what I'm talking about here has great relevance for the pitch. But I'm trying to get at something more basic. I was speaking to someone the other day who mentioned that she was working on a book. When I asked her what her book was about, she launched into a description of her plot that carried me through all sorts of details. At the end of her answer, I knew what happened in her book, but I still had no idea what it was about.
A better answer to the question could have worked at any number of levels. At the risk of boring you by once again using Thieftaker as an example, I'll offer you a few possible answers to the "What's your book about?" question. I can tell you all about the mystery the drives the plot of my Thieftaker book. I can give you every twist and turn, every encounter with the historical figures I've placed in the book. But that doesn't tell you what the book is about, nor does it give you any sense of why you should want to read it. Instead, if I want to focus on plot, I might answer by telling you that the book is about a thieftaker — an investigator — who, against the backdrop of the American Revolution, tracks down a sorcerer who has committed a series of murders. I could also say that the book is a chess match between two sorcerers, one a thieftaker, one a murderer, set in Colonial Boston. Or I might take a more thematic approach and say that the book is about one man's attempt to solve a series of murders and reclaim his place in a society that has made him an outcast. I could be whimsical and say that it's kind of like The Rockford Files, but with magic and a pre-Revolutionary setting.
Really, it doesn't matter how you describe your book. The important thing is that you can do it simply, briefly, accurately. Why? In a way, it relates back to Edmund's wonderful post on Saturday — knowing what your characters want. Knowing what your story is about — not what happens, but what it is about — keeps you focused as you write and revise. Your characters should always be working toward their needs, desires, goals. Your story needs to be just as directed. When you get into the details of your plotting — all those twists and turns that make your story so much fun to write (and so hard to describe) you should keep sight of the larger, simpler themes. Anything you do with your characters and narrative should fit into the "What is your book about?" answer, however you phrase it. If your plot wanders, if your characters stray into territory that has little to do with the story you're trying to tell, your book is going to founder. This is not to say that you can't have subplots, and twists and turns, and all those other toys with which we authors like to play. Any reader of my books knows that I LOVE subplots. But they need to be as directed as your main plot line, and they need to tie together eventually.
I didn't find it easy to come up with those brief descriptions of Thieftaker. It's a full length novel — describing it in a sentence took some work. Describing it four times with different sentences took a lot of work. It also made me eager to go back to the book (which I still need to revise) so that I can make certain that my book is as directed as I'm telling you your book should be. This is not easy. But it ultimately will make your book tighter, more coherent. And it will make it easier to develop your pitch when it comes time to market your book.
So, what's your book about?David B. Coe http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net