by Deren Hansen
For the reader, it's only a matter of eight to ten hours. For the
writer, the number of hours is on the order of thousands. How can you
get some reassurance that your project is worth all that writing time?
Think about the way you answer the analogous question as a reader. If
someone recommends a book, your first question is likely, "What's it
While it doesn't guarantee success, if you can answer the reader's
inevitable question, "What's it about?" (and if the answer is more
interesting than, "a total and utter yawn-making bore of bores,"*) you might have something worth undertaking.
The holy grail of what's-it-about-ness is a single line that captures
the essence and the enticement of the book. You might have heard it
called a one-line-pitch, a log-line (from film), or a hook. Beware,
though, because the kind of hook we're talking about has more than one
sharp edge. First, like poetry and other concise art forms, they're hard
to do well. Second, if you do come up with a stunning hook it's hard to
resist the temptation to think your job is done. (Snakes on a Plane,
need I say more?) Third, you may come up with a line that's perfect--if
you already know the story--but doesn't say a lot to new readers. (You
could, for example, say Harry Potter is about a lightning-shaped
scar: that line packs loads of meaning if you know the series, but won't
rate as appetizing if you know nothing about the story.)
You're on firmer ground if you can work out a synopsis, outline, or even
a story bible. But these exercises come with the attendant distraction
of all the cool things you're going to include in the book, and you're
liable to sound like a four-year-old when you talk about it ("... and it
has this, and this, and this, and this ...). Once again, you'll miss
the what's-it-about mark, this time with too much information.
Caveats about it's reliability aside, my favorite framework is
Wikipedia, specifically the notion of writing a Wikipedia entry for your
book. To be clear, this is a completely private exercise: it's only
value is to help you think clearly enough about your book that you can
zero in on the one or two paragraphs that explain what your story is
about (i.e., the introductory paragraphs that appear above the contents
box in a Wikipedia entry).
How do you do it?
Like artists who trace the masters, find a few entries that do a good
job of capturing books with which you are familiar and emulate them.
Let me reiterate that while you may be able to use some or all of these
exercises when it comes time to market the book, their primary value is
in helping you to develop a clear and compelling mental model of the
book. Your sense of what it's about will guide you as you work through
the project, even it if changes over time.
The goal is to discover the glowing ember--the combustible combination
of concept and passion--that is the essence of what it's about.
* Thank you, Vicar of Dibley
Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.