Tuesday, 27 March 2012

So, What's Your Story About?

The other day I was chatting with a fellow writer online, and she told me she had recently entered a story contest. When I asked her which story she’d entered, she told me, but said she thought the idea was “silly”.  Now, I come across the same problem pretty much every time anyone asks me the much dreaded question. If you write fantasy, science fiction or anything that’s slightly fantastical, you know the drill.
            “So, what’s your story about?”
            This is followed by a lot of stammering explanations, which usually leaves the asker looking bored, confused or both. But this isn't how all the wonderful awkwardness starts, is it? No, it usually goes something like this-

Total Stranger: So, what do you do?
You: *Blushing slightly* Um, I’m a writer.
Then the conversation will go one of two ways. The person will look at you condescendingly and say snidely, “So, what have you got published?” Or, they will say...
“Neat, what do you write?”
You: Uh, fantasy (Also works with: science fiction/thrillers/erotica/picture books/erotic picture books…okay, maybe not.)
Total Stranger: Oh, wow

            At this point they are going to be interested, in which case they will ask the dreaded question, or they will give you a funny look and continue cutting your hair/shining your shoes/standing in line for the ATM….whatever. If they are interested, the conversation may resume like this:

Total Stranger: That’s so cool! I wrote a book once. What’s your book about?
You: *sweat starts to break out on your forehead* Oh, um…okay, it’s about this boy who finds a magic pony, who takes him to the magical land of…um, Dundelplop. They find his dad there, because he was kidnapped by the evil overlord of pantaloons….um, never mind. It’s really stupid. After this I’ll probably go home and drink a few glasses of wine and cry over the manuscript.
Total Stranger: *looking warily at you like you’re a mental patient who might try to bite him at any moment* Oh, right. Sounds…lovely. Anyway, I don’t actually want any money from this ATM.  I’m going to go now.

            I can’t even count how many conversations I’ve had like that, including the most awkward haircut of my life, where I was tempted to leap out of the chair and run down the street half trimmed, the hair cape flapping in the wind behind me.  But this fellow writer also made a good point when she said that even Harry Potter sounds silly when you describe it to someone who’s never heard of it before. Perhaps when Rowling was first writing it she tried to describe it to someone and felt rather silly. I imagine the conversation going something like this…

Friend: So Joanne, what’s this story about?
Rowling: Well, uh…it’s about this kid who finds out he’s secretly magical, because this giant shows up and says “Hey, you’re magic!” so he follows the giant to this big school called “Hogwarts” and learns magic, but there’s this evil guy everyone thinks is dead, but he really isn’t dead. He tries to kill the kid.
Friend: So, that’s it?
Rowling: Uh, yeah.
Friend: Hogwarts, really?

I remember reading the Harry Potter books out loud with a friend on a long road trip (all the way to Mexico actually) and there was another friend with us who had never read them before. I’m quite surprised the poor girl didn’t strangle us. She kept muttering, “Such stupid names.” It’s true though, isn’t it? Dumbledore, Hogwarts, Voldemort, really?  Can you imagine explaining the story to someone before the books became so well known? And for those that are wondering…Yes, the other friend has converted to Harry Potter fandom. Mwahaha.
            Let’s try some other explanations of popular, well-loved books and see just how ridiculous they sound.

            Lord of the Rings:
            Friend: So, Mr. Tolkien, what’s your book about?
            Tolkien: Well…um, it’s about these tiny men with hairy feet who have to go on an epic journey up a huge mountain to throw some jewelry into a fiery pit.
            Friend: Wow. Sounds…interesting.

            Alice in Wonderland:
            Barber: Oh, you’re a writer. My uncle is a writer. What’s your story about?
            Lewis Carroll: Er…it’s about this girl who falls down into a rabbit hole and meets a talking rabbit, a partially invisible cat, a bunch of murderous playing cards and an opium smoking caterpillar.
            Barber: Oh, um…a little off the top?

            Friend: So, what’s your story about?
            CS Lewis: Well, it’s not finished yet. It’s about a girl that goes into this wardrobe and finds a magical land and talks with this goat man…never mind, it’s stupid.

            See my point? What if CS Lewis had been discouraged at the strange looks people gave him when he tried to explain his ideas for a story? Narnia never would have been written, and that would be a literary tragedy. I know I’ll still stutter and stammer when someone asks me the dreaded question. I’ll still turn red and feel stupid, but I’m not going to let it interfere with my writing. The crazier the idea, the better the story is. And hey, if your hair dresser or shoe shiner looks at you like you’re crazy, you can always just call them a muggle. That will help for sure.


  1. So what your saying the harder it is to describe the better the story will be LOL. Love your descriptions here they are so classic. I will remember them the next time I feel like such a jerk trying to describe the stories I am writing and fail miserably.LOL. I might have the next best seller on my hands you never know.

  2. Exactly! It's something to keep in mind. Never be embarrassed of your work!

  3. This was so encouraging. I'll try to remember it the next time I'm faced with it. Actually, I try not to mention I'm a writer for the very reason you described. Thanks for bringing the dreaded question out in the open.

  4. Haha, I love this! Great encouragement. Non-fantasy lovers really don't get some things. I love the "awkward descriptions" bits.

    Actually, I'm not a huge HP fan--just not that interested in the setting, thought the world-building was spectacular--but I LOVE the names. They are so much fun, and so evocative!

  5. alorasilverleaf: Of course! I still dread it a little when people ask me "what I do", because of the possibility of a strange reaction. It's also because most people don't understand the publishing process at ALL. People seem to think an agent is the same thing as a publisher and other crazy things, lol. So this results in an awkward and sometimes frustrating conversation that may or may not end up with a lesson in publishing.

    Jainene: If someone doesn't read fantasy it's nearly impossible to explain your writing to them. My sister reads mostly biographies and John Grisham books, so you should see the look on her face when I try to describe what I'm reading or writing to her. It's like a mash-up of confusion and disgust.

  6. Funny post. I've had this conversation many times. I've found that I've had to put together something almost like an elevator pitch. If someone reacts negatively to a part, I change that part. It's funny what comes out in the end to maximize the coolness factor, though it may not exactly describe my work.

    Example: People ask about my profession. "What is an actuary?" My highly refined and almost comical answer: "I'm a mathematician who predicts the future by studying patterns of the past." The stranger says, "Wow," and I ctm.

    1. That DOES sound really badass, lol. Putting together a sort of pitch doesn't seem like a half bad idea, since I had another one of those awkward conversations a few days ago. I better start working on "maximizing the coolness factor", haha.