Telling the story about the story

A friend approaches an author at a party. “So, what’s your new book about?”

The author swirls the wine in her glass, takes a deep breath, and begins. “Well, there’s this woman, see, and she’s being held hostage in her kitchen by her son, and he tries to get her to listen to him but she doesn’t. He’s got emotional issues. He never really felt like his mother listened to him. So he’s going to make her listen but instead she ends up telling him all about her life. She grew up isolated in upstate New York and spent a lot of time alone and never learned how to read people or relate to them. Meanwhile her son is getting more and more agitated. But she keeps telling him the story of her life and the stories other people like her childhood sweetheart and her best friend and her son’s ex-wife…”

The friend looks over the writer’s shoulder. “Oh! I see Julie. I have to go talk to her about the carpool.”

The author stares into her wineglass and wishes she’d mastered her elevator pitch before she came to the party.

Wish I’d gotten my elevator pitch down better. [Woman with a Wineglass By Pieter de Hooch in “Pieter de Hooch: Complete Edition,” by Peter C. Sutton, Phaidon Press, Oxford, 1980, ISBN 0714818283 – Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.]

What readers want to know

When potential readers ask “what’s your book about?” they don’t want a plot synopsis. They want to know the book’s deeper significance. Authors need to learn to tell not the story that’s in their books but the story behind their books. It’s a story meant to be told in a minute (the famed and dreaded elevator pitch) or framed as a conversation. It’s meant to encapsulate, in a few words or sentences, the emotion contained in the story.

I’ve learned, gradually and painfully, to tell a story about the story: what inspired me to write it and what it means to me. In talking about What Remains Unsaid, I weave a new story about the central questions the book explores: the relationship between parents and children and how we never really have control over these beings we bring into the world, and how scary that is; how alone we all are and how that isolation fires our craving for connection; how impossible it can be to know what goes on inside even the people we think we know the best.

If you’re an author who dreads the thought of creating a blurb for your book, remember that the blurb is just another story—albeit a much shorter one than the book itself tells. Maybe that will help you relax. After all, you’re a storyteller.

Your turn

One of the most exciting (and terrifying) things about putting a book out into the world is hearing the stories readers tell about it in the form of reviews.

Now I turn the floor over to you, readers. If you’ve read What Remains Unsaid and enjoyed it (or even if you haven’t enjoyed it, because that’s a different kind of story), please leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads or other place you let other readers know what you think about the books you’ve read.

Continuing the conversation

I’ve had the opportunity to tell the story of my story recently and will be doing more appearances as well as some readings in the coming months.

PODCAST INTERVIEW

On September 5, I had the pleasure of being interviewed for the Author2Author podcast by William Kenower. Bill made me instantly relaxed and the conversation was a lot of fun. Bill is the editor of Author magazine and author of the new book Fearless Writing, which I highly recommend. It’s one of the best books on writing I’ve come across in recent years.

SEPTEMBER APPEARANCE

OCTOBER WORKSHOP

  • Path to Publishing Workshop: Birthing Your Truest Stories
    Saturday, October 21, 9 a.m. to noon
    Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA – Memoirist and writing teacher Jennifer Browdy joins me to explore the resonances between birthing and writing in this interactive class. This class will inspire writers to become their own doulas, developing a powerful internal ally to walk with them on their writing journeys.

MONTHLY

Third Saturdays, 11 a.m. – noon (except October when I’m teaching the workshop)

You can usually find me at the CWC/SF-Peninsula Branch monthly meeting, introducing the speakers I’ve lined up. We have several more great ones scheduled this year and more in the pipeline for 2018!

A story for you

Are you on my email list? I know what you’re thinking: you don’t need more email. Fair enough. But I send only about one a month, with updates on my appearances, links to new writing, and occasional behind-the-scenes glimpses into the life of a writer. And I send an as-yet-unpublished short story to all new subscribers. Here’s the latest newsletter and a link to sign up.

The Boy in the Window - A Short Story

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11 thoughts on “Telling the story about the story

  1. I have been thinking about this for weeks since I’ve read it. Blurbs are the bane of my existence, and incorporating this into how I describe my books is an interesting prospect. I will say tho, that I was sold by your plot synopsis ;-). Since I believe you can’t have too many tools in your toolbox, I appreciate your adding another tool to mine :-).

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  2. This also makes me think about the fact that my author friends often dread being asked what they are working on now as I imagine it is difficult when a work is in progress. I have bookmarked your interview to listen to next time I am in the car or cooking (whichever comes first, ha!) as that is when I do all my real listening. Can’t wait!

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    • I’m not a fan of the “what are you working on?” question either. I know many writers who dislike it because they fear that answering it will rob their work-in-progress of its lifeblood.

      Hope you enjoy the interview!

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  3. Oh the dreaded blurb. It’s gotten to where I just write it after my first draft and then periodically tweak it. Then it doesn’t seem like such a burden all at once. And before I even start the book I come up with a short tagline. Something easy to remember so I can whip it off at a party if somebody asks. If I ever went to parties, that is.

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