What’s Your Book About???

I ask my MA in Creative Writing students to come up with an ‘elevator pitch’ for their novels. ‘Tell us, in a few words,’ I say, ‘what your book is about.’ The problem is, of course, that a lot of them don’t know.

They might know they don’t know or they might think they know. But they really don’t. You don’t know what a book is about until you’ve written the first draft. And sometimes you don’t know even after it’s been published.

Take the amazing story my PhD student, Louise Johncox, is writing about her family’s teashop. Her family come from Poschiavo, in Switzerland (click here for a live web cam of the village), and have been patisserie chefs for literally hundreds of years. For the last one hundred years, they’ve run teashops in Britain, where they’ve made cakes, pies and their own chocolates. Louise’s generation did not continue the family tradition. It  all ended with Louise and her siblings. When she started to write her book, she thought that was the story. But the real story was about conserving the family recipes, many of which were only in her ailing father’s mind, and about coming to terms with the inevitable loss of her handsome, talented, dynamic, larger-than-life father in the only way journalist Louise could…by writing him into immortality.

So this week, I’ve discovered what Hospital High is really about. It was obvious, actually. I’m surprised I didn’t see it in the first place. I think I was just too close to the story to notice that it needed to be explained.

I wanted to be a singer when I was younger. It was everything to me. And I was good. When I died in the car accident, one aspect of me, the singer, never came back. But I learned to sing with paper and pen, instead. Obvious, really, especially when you consider that for the majority of the years covered in the memoir I couldn’t speak at all, but could only write in order to communicate. But I managed to overlook that element. I left it out altogether.

Now, I’m charging ahead on the manuscript, making all this clear. I have that heady, heedless feeling that only comes at the end, when you know where the manuscript is going and you don’t really care if the house burns down, as long as you can sit somewhere warm and comfortable and keep writing, perhaps a cozy place by a burning rafter… For the first time, I think I might actually be done with this book, if not this Thursday, than surely by the next. And I mean it this time, because this time I know what I’m doing.

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8 thoughts on “What’s Your Book About???

  1. Hey Mimi, something I’ve always wondered about this question in writing. When people ask ‘What’s your book about?’ do they really mean ‘What happens in the book?’
    After all what happens in District 9 (An office worker finds himself transforming into the aliens he is trying to evict) is very different from what District 9 is about (how humans treat the underclass).

    Better yet, when a publisher or agent asks the question do they really mean ‘what about the book is going to sell?’

  2. Dear Liam. I think my answer is ‘it all depends who’s asking’.

    If it’s the general reader then yes, I think ‘what happens’ is a bit part of your answer. If it’s the press or an academic or your editor then you also want to add the ‘what it’s really about’ part.

    For publishers and agents, the key is in weaving both of these answers together, in a compelling few sentences that also give an idea of the way it’s written.

    So, for Hospital High, I have something like, ‘When I was fourteen, all I cared about was singing. One October day, I died in a car accident – and although I survived, my voice was gone forever. I spent high school largely in hospital, where I learned to live again and to sing in a new way… with paper and pen. Hospital High is a story about survival, recovery and change; an uplifting tale of the human ability to adapt and to thrive in the most unpromising situations.’

  3. Mimi, You are so amazing and I am so proud of your success! I cant wait to read this book. you have overcome so many obstacles and are an inspiration to many. Goos luch with your book and let us know when it comes out and where we we ca get it!

  4. I read it too!!!!!! So there, Dee Dee, you are not the only on her toes!!! I grew up near you, Mimi, and yet there is so much about you that I did not know. So glad you didn’t die for long. All the beauty and joy you bring to the world means so much, and would’ve been such a loss had you not survived. I enjoy seeing pictures of your daughter and marvel at the wonderful parents you and Andy are to her. What a magical life for a little girl 🙂

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