A neighbor friend of mine is part of one of those amazing big black gospel choirs of the sort that gets asked to sing for the President. For reals. (She’s the beauty in the middle that looks like Serena Williams.) We got to talking about what it takes to lift people up out of their seats. For me, a well-executed concert will get my applause, of course, but to get a standing ovation, the music has to pull me up. Like, I can’t resist standing because it’s just so electrifying! A clean, antiseptic performance won’t do that. It’s got to be busting with energy. They’ve got to sing or play like they mean it. They have to fill the room with more than just sound. They have to fill it with soul.
My friend nodded. “That comes from studying the music–but really studying it–so that its meaning gets into you. You’ve gotta be living it, too. You can’t just show up and expect the Spirit to flow out of you. You fill your life with the Spirit, and then you sing. That’s the overflow!”
The same thing has to happen when we write. It isn’t enough for us to write a clean essay or story that’s free of mechanical errors. True, we writers don’t typically get standing ovations, per se, but when someone forwards our link, or reads the paragraph or article aloud to a friend, or recommends buying our book—or leaves a glowing review!—that’s the equivalent of standing up and saying, “Amen!” or “Encore! Gimme more of that!”
To get that kind of response, we have to do more than fill the page with well-ordered words correctly positioned amidst commas and periods. We’ve got to write like we mean it.
And to do that, the meaning has to be in us. We have to be living it, growing it, developing it. Challenging it, tasting it, risking it. Examining it, nurturing it, believing it.
Then, by the time we reach the keyboard, or the pen and paper, the message overflows.
You’d think, having published fourteen titles I’d have developed a glib, polished answer to give every time someone asks, “So what’s your book about?”
I hate that question.
Because there’s what the book is about, and then there’s what the book is about. The problem is that most people asking want the first one. The one that makes even the best books ever sound totally lame when you try to sum it up on one line.
“It’s about a boy floating down the river on a raft.”
“It’s about two teenagers who fall in love and then kill themselves.”
“It’s about a kid who plays video games only to find out he’s blown up a whole world.”
“It’s about an orphan.”
But the story–the plot, the actions that take place, the “what’s it about”–are just the scaffolding that hold up the real deal: The THEME. The moral of the story. The “So what?” that explains why it should be on your reading list in the first place.
I’ll tell you straight up that I have yet to meet an author who enjoys writing the blurb that goes on the back cover of their book. Y’know, the two paragraphs that you scan to decide if you’re actually going to take the book home? Way harder than writing the novel.
So here’s where I’ll give some advice that I hope I’ll learn to follow some day. When they ask, “What’s your book about?” give them two thoughts blended into one:
the big plot point + the main theme = your hook
Let’s try it…
“It’s about a boy floating down the river on a raft who discovers courage and compassion are the true measure of a man.”
“It’s about two teenagers who fall in love, and then fall to both fate and their own bad choices.”
Or for two of my titles…
“It’s about a loner space girl who comes down to a planet and learns that what makes her different is what makes her a leader.”
“It’s about a mage who fights for a new world and finds that love is more powerful than magic.”