Whether you are published or not, from the moment you intend to start writing you will need to talk about your work: from friends and family asking about it, to pitching it to agents, to interviews and events for marketing, discussing it with readers, and more.
For anyone who hasn’t read it, which will be most people, you are the gateway to your writing. Being able to talk about it effectively can be the difference between an open door that invites your listener in, and a dead end or black hole that they avoid.
This third post in the series focuses on the message itself: How to talk about your writing in a way that conveys it effectively and appealingly.
“Tell me about your book” can be both the most wonderful and terrible question to many authors. How can you describe in a brief explanation 80,000 words or so of painstakingly crafted story?
Authors often either offer a vague or dismissive description that offers listeners no hook—“Oh, it’s just about a woman in a bad marriage….”—or, in an attempt to convey its soul and spirit, go on at length…at endless length…about details that can leave listeners feeling confused or overwhelmed.
Here are some straightforward tips for crafting your message about your writing in a way that will make listeners want to read it:
Crystallize your story
The first step in talking about your story is to be able to pithily, smoothly convey what it’s about. There are several ways you can dig down to the heart of it and create a cohesive and intriguing central message.
- The premise of your story is the general description of its action and protag(s)—basically the story setup and main conflict: “Three skilled and talented NASA employees fight discrimination and dismissiveness in 1960s Space Race-era NASA, where their skill and experience are marginalized as both women and people of color” (Hidden Figures); “a reckless billionaire playboy heir is held captive by insurgents and invents an iron suit that gives him superpowers to effect his escape and find the ultimate culprit behind his kidnapping (Iron Man).
Read more: If you’re having trouble crystallizing the story’s spine, try filling out the Story Sketch Template on my website’s Editing Toolbox page under “free downloadables.”
- The story question is the bigger-picture concept or theme behind the premise. Basically it’s the main question that hangs in the balance—the overarching uncertainty that propels the protagonist(s)’ actions and reader engagement: How do three Black female engineer/mathematicians overcome the sexism and racism of society and their departments to get the opportunities and recognition they deserve? Will Tony Stark defeat his father’s partner and save the company they run from becoming a militaristic instrument of war?
These two elements form the essential central spine of your story that I often advocate defining before you even begin writing it. In the writing process it helps keep you focused on the story’s heart and throughline. Later you can use it as an indispensable tool in every aspect of proselytizing it, whether that’s pitching an agent or editor, writing back cover copy, doing an interview, or even just chatting with a potential reader.
Read more: “Do You Know Your Central Story Question?”
There are a few other elements you may also find helpful in talking about your story—these should be in addition to the essential spine of premise and story question, not instead of it.
- Theme: Did you have certain concepts in mind when writing? For instance, in my last novel (The Way We Weren’t, under my pen name, Phoebe Fox) I wanted to explore the theme of forgiveness—of ourselves and of the people we love.
- Message: Was there a subtextual message you wanted to convey or explore? In The Way We Weren’t, I wanted to explore what happens when two people in a close relationship want mutually exclusive things—and no one will budge from their position.
Read more: “What Story Are You Telling and Why?”
- High concept: This always sounds to me like the opposite of what it is. Basically it’s a simplification of your story: “A woman’s reality splits and she gets to live two different futures” (Sliding Doors); “snakes on a plane” (Snakes on a Plane, obviously). It can also be offered in terms of other easily recognizable stories. For instance, if a woman’s reality splits while on a snake-infested flight, you might have a “Sliding Doors meets Snakes on a Plane” high concept (that idea is up for grabs to any of who would like to write that story). Don’t force this if your story doesn’t easily lend itself to high-concept—it’s not a requirement.
- Comps: Again, don’t force this, but you’re going to likely have to come up with some if you’re seeking an agent or traditional publisher anyway; if you can liken your story in substance or style to other recognizable stories/authors, that can be a great way to engage potential readers: “My story is in the vein of Jonathan Tropper or David Nicholls.” Make sure you read up on comp etiquette—choosing stories that are megabestsellers, or classics, or Booker prize winners, etc., can be a bit of a red flag to agents of an author who may not have a realistic view of her story; offering comps that don’t seem related to each other can just confuse readers.
- Topicality: A story drawn from or reflecting headlines or social trends may offer good fodder for talking about the book through the lens of current events. The revamp of Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, could be easily tied into the #MeToo movement and the Women’s March.
Don’t be a presenter; be a storyteller
Knowing how to express what your story is about is a major part of being prepared to talk about it. But of equal importance is how you share that information. As in your writing, an “info dump” will often stop an audience cold. You want to lure them into your conversation as surely as you hook them in your story. Talk about your writing in stories, not just dry facts.
If your story’s research was especially interesting or extensive, for example, that can offer wonderful material for discussing it. Sarah Bird often frames her speaking about her most recent book, Last Dance on the Starlight Pier, through the lens of fascinating research she turned up on dance marathons of the 1930s, and the heyday of Galveston, Texas, in the Prohibition era, when it was an economic (and alcoholic) bubble insulated from the privations of the Depression, and run by two brothers with Mafia ties who went on to help create Las Vegas.
Or do you have special experience or background that adds a personal slant or authenticity to the story? Author Kelly Harrell, for instance, wrote a mystery where the initial murder was discovered in the cadaver demonstration at a funeral director’s conference. She’d worked for years in the EMT field and as the event coordinator for a major EMT conference, and talked about those experiences in discussing her book, including the real-life story she drew upon of a leaking cadaver. The anecdote never fails to be a huge hit.
Maybe there is an interesting story behind the writing or publication of the book. My last novel was also the first novel I ever started 15 years and six books ago, and it underwent many iterations and lived in a drawer for a long time before finally finding its way to publication—a tale I maximized during the publicity and marketing process that engendered a lot of response.
Perhaps you have some memorable, funny, or engaging anecdotes regarding some aspect of the writing of the story, or where the idea was born, or a similar real-life story. Storytelling is your calling card—interest your listeners and they want to hear more.
Pilot the conversation
Lead the discussion where you want it to go. If you have a hilarious story about how you took a disastrous sailing lesson in researching some element of your book, for instance, don’t wait for a specific question about research; look for ways you might subtly guide the conversation there in response to more general questions like, “What’s your writing process like?” or “What inspired this story?” or “What challenges did you face in writing this story?”
Remember, too, to leave space for your interviewer or audience to react or to ask questions. Good conversations are two-way—even in a presentation situation where you are the only speaker.
Don’t “sell” it
In general, leave your accolades to the host or moderator to bring up—most such appearances will ask you in advance for your bio, which they will use in introducing you. Mentioning these yourself can make you sound like a braggart or as if you’re trying too hard. Win readers with the way you present your story and yourself.
Be ready for the usual questions
Practice answering general questions you’re almost sure to get, like “Tell us a little about yourself/this book”; “What made you want to write this book?”; “What is your writing process like?” “What authors inspire you?”; etc.
Let your passion shine
If you are not enthusiastic, listeners won’t be enthusiastic. Excitement and enjoyment are infectious, and yours will spark theirs.
No one knows your story better than you. Take time to organize your message about it so that you can speak knowledgeably and fluidly in sharing it.
Believe in your story and yourself, and trust that you’re offering something valuable to readers, something they will enjoy. Creating your story likely took months or years, and enormous effort and heart. Let yourself celebrate all that work, and have faith that it’s paid off in the final product.
Okay, authors, what aspects of talking about your stories have flummoxed or intimidated you? How have you overcome those challenges? What have you seen other authors do in interviews and presentations about their work that has drawn you in—or turned you off?
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