Quelle Horreur!

So, today’s post is about that dreadful question, the one which haunts my nightmares and causes me to break out in hives, the one question I fear more than anything else.

No, it’s not ‘how old are you, exactly?’, before you ask.

It’s ‘So! Wow, you wrote a book. Man. That’s cool. What’s it about?

Image: lostandtired.com

Image: lostandtired.com

What’s it about, indeed. Well.

Does anyone else experience a total loss of verbal and physical coordination when someone puts this question to them? When it happens to me, it’s like someone has just asked me to find the square root of the thirty-first prime number multiplied by the total number of moons in our solar system, and then divide it by the amount of miles that separate Earth from the Oort cloud. In other words, my only answer is ‘Um. Well, it’s sort of… yeah, I mean, it’s kind of like…’ before I trail off into silence beneath their withering gaze.

It’s a really hard question. But why is it so difficult?

You write a book. It doesn’t happen overnight, after all. You spend months working on it, getting the idea and nesting it, hatching it out and growing it, nurturing it until it’s strong enough to stand on its own short spindly legs, and then you write it and rewrite it and rewrite it until you can bear to read it without cringing. If anyone in the world knows what it’s about, you do. But time after time it happens to me that I get asked what my book is about and my tongue turns to sawdust and my throat to jelly. I can’t answer. My brain goes blank. People think I’m weird(er).

When I was doing my PhD, I was advised from an early stage to have a snappy answer to the question ‘what’s your thesis about, then?’ It didn’t have to be a truthful or accurate answer, but at least it was something you could trot out when someone cornered you at a party or in the staffroom, demanding to know what you were spending your funding money on (not, of course, that it was any of their business, but that’s a different story). I did develop a one-sentence answer to that question – as time went on the sentence grew longer and longer, of course, and eventually it had so many clauses and commas and semi-colons that I had to turn it into a paragraph, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is this: it’s hard to know how to answer a question like ‘what’s your book about?’ when you know it so intimately that it’s like asking someone to describe, in detail, their spouse’s face, or something like that. So much information floods into your brain that the whole thing just clanks to a halt.

Or, is it more than that?

Image: blogs.lawyers.com

Image: blogs.lawyers.com

Sometimes, I feel like I can’t answer a question like ‘what is your book about?’ because I’m terrified to even talk about it. I’m also petrified that if I gather up the guts to start talking about it a look of pure boredom will creep across the face of the person who asked me the question, and they’ll get that unmistakable look in their eye – the look which says ‘Oh, my God, get me away from this nutter.’

Now that I think about it, that happens to me a lot. Anyway.

I’m afraid, I guess, of the judgement of other people. I’m afraid to take my little story-gem out of its protective wrappings and hold it out in front of someone else’s face and go ‘here! Look! Isn’t it pretty? Don’t you just love it as much as I do?’ in case they say ‘No, actually. It’s a bit weird-looking, don’t you think? I’m bored just looking at it.’ I fear, every time I start to talk about my book, that my voice sounds silly and the idea sounds ridiculous and I stumble over plot points and get confused and explain the whole thing backwards so that it seems like I’ve written the biggest mess in the history of literature. What I should do, actually, is print out a one-sentence synopsis, and have it laminated, and carry it in my purse so that I can take it out and show it to people when they ask me what I’ve been working on lately. At least then I can watch their face as they read my answer, and I can just turn and run away if they look confused or derisory or unimpressed. I may be able to save myself some of the hassle of interacting verbally with people who might hate what I’ve done, and I’ll know not to engage them in literary conversations ever again…

But that’s silly, of course. Naturally enough, there are going to be people who won’t like what you write. Not everyone in the world is going to love, or even like, your book. Avoiding people, and thereby avoiding the question, is impossible; the best I can do is prepare an answer I can be proud of, and practice it until I can recite it by heart without stopping or skipping or messing up or saying something out of sequence, and then learn how to happily take it on the chin when someone raises a skeptical eyebrow at me and says ‘Really? But that sounds boring/trite/stupid/doomed,’ or whatever the case may be. Someone, somewhere, is bound to be interested, and to react with enthusiasm when I start off my answer with ‘Well. My book is about a boy named Jeff who receives three really strange presents for his thirteenth birthday…’

Do you have any tips on how you cope with people asking you what your book’s about, and how you deal with your nerves surrounding The Question?

Hope you’re having a fantabulous Friday, and that a sparkling weekend awaits you!

10 thoughts on “Quelle Horreur!

  1. anna3101

    I’m lucky (or rather unlucky) not to have any book in progress yet. However, I was faced with a question of “What are your stories about” a couple of times and felt just like you 🙂 “Well… errr… you know… they are, well, about all kinds of stuff really… ekhm”.

    You should listen to your own advice, invent one beautiful and long but precise sentence, and just kill your inquisitors with it 🙂 Maybe something along the lines of “Well, it’s a pornographic thriller where this werewolf vampire falls in love with a human demon, and then they go on a quest to save the world from the nuclear apocalypse and the robotic rebellion. I mean it as a story for children aged 8 to 12. Interested in pre-ordering your copy?” 😉

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author


      That is the best one-sentence synopsis I’ve ever heard. Sign me up for a copy of your debut novel! 🙂

      Thanks for your comment, as always. It’s good to know other people struggle with the same crazy little things I do!

    2. Kate Curtis

      I’m interested in pre-ordering a copy. 😀

      When my husband gets home from work it’s difficult enough for me to explain what I did with my day, let alone discuss my writing with a stranger.

      Ania’s right, be strong, find your sentence and say it loud and proud. xx

      1. SJ O'Hart Post author

        I’m lucky enough to have a husband who, despite being a scientist by training, also manages to understand how hard it is to write coherent sentences and to keep doing it all day long. So, he gets it, which is great.

        Okay, you guys. You’ve inspired me to write my One Sparkling Sentence! I’m off to do it. And then, I’m going to plug in the laminator… Plastic fumes ahoy (yuck!)

  2. MishaBurnett

    I’ve gone through several answers to that question. At first I tried to explain it in terms of my inspiration for the novel, so I’d say something like, “It’s a film noir romance set in the world of William Burrough’s ‘Nova Express’ novels.”

    That didn’t really help much, so I tried, “It’s about a man with a demonic killer living in his head and a half-plant hermaphrodite on the run from an alien occupation that no one else noticed.”

    Nowadays I just say, “It’s about two hundred and eighty pages.”

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author


      I love this. ‘It’s about two hundred and eighty pages’ is pretty much all people want to know, anyhow. 😀

  3. Siobhan Wyatt

    Feels good to know I’m not alone 🙂 writing the introduction to the thesis at the mo, and I keep asking myself “what has been the point of the last three years of my life?!!!” This is generally followed by terror, guilt, and chocolate. And cookies 🙂

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Oh, wow! I remember, all too terrifyingly well, what that feels like. All I can do is wish you well and tell you one thing which I know for sure:

      You Are Going To Be Fine.

      And your thesis, I have no doubt, is a thing of beauty and a joy to behold. 🙂 Well done on writing it!

  4. Tessa Sheppard

    Love this post! I’ve been asked by friends and family about my stories and I draw a blank too. It’s just as you said, you know your work so intimately that it’s hard to narrow it down into one coherent sentence. I think it is a great idea to get a sentence ready and laminate it. Someone asks you about your story and you just hand it over. It could also work with blank business cards too. 🙂

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Yeah! Maybe we should all combine our snappy synopses with our business cards, and then we’d be ready for anything. 😉

      Thanks for dropping in, Tessa, and for your lovely comment. 🙂


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