The Story About The Story: Or, How Writers Talk About Their Books

Being an author of books requires you to be a many-headed beast.

Don’t get me wrong — it starts with one head, one neck, one breath weapon, and at that point you are a monster singularly-tasked with doing the one thing explicit in the title: you must author a motherfucking book. That’s your first job. Your first breath weapon is ink and prose. You are a beast with that one burden:

WRITE.

THE.

BOOK.

But as with all RPGs, you are eventually going to level up.

You are going to finish the first draft of that book and you are going to be forced out of your quiet and contemplative lair where you will now be out in the greater world, stomping across the fantasy map at large, and you will suddenly find that you cannot help but see that the tasks before you necessitate the sprouting of many more heads, each with tasks to complete, each with terrifying and strange breath weapons you’ve never before seen and certainly never practiced. You’ve leveled up, but so has your quest, so have your enemies, so have all the tasks at hand.

What I’m trying to say is:

Being a writer is about more than writing.

Writing a book is about more than sitting down and writing the book.

We know this. But I don’t think we’re always so good at knowing exactly what this means — as in, there’s a lot about being a writerperson of books that nobody tells you and so there’s a whole buncha shit you simply don’t plan for. And you maaaaybe should.

One of those things you’re going to have to do, and this is honestly a hard one for a lot of writers, is learning how exactly you’re going to talk about your book.

Your story is not the only story that matters. What also matters is — perhaps ironically! — the story about the story. And, even trickier is the fact you aren’t developing a single story about your story, ohhh no. You’ve got to learn to talk about your book in a myriad of ways! You’ve got to learn to speak about it in a variety of directions depending on your needs, on the interest of the audience, on requests from publisher and venue…

(Seriously, imagine you are tasked with getting up in front of an audience — five people, fifty, or five hundred — and talking about you and your book for fifteen minutes.)

So, let’s go through this and talk about the many ways you might be expected to talk about your story. This is largely in a marketing/publicity way, but I also find that honing your sensibilities around this can help you to understand your own story better — and, the earlier you start to form the narrative around your story, the better.

Sarah McLachlan’s Building A Mystery

Here’s what’s going to happen:

People are going to ask you about your book.

I know, right? What fiends.

But they’re gonna. They’re going to want you to talk about your book at a bookstore, on a podcast, on a video, to a reading club, to a library, in a blog post, in a newsletter, at a con on a panel, at some rando who wants you to describe your book, in a box, with a fox, and to the magical cat at the center of the universe (if you are a writer and have not yet been brought before Magic Star Cat, you’ll have your chance, and do not fail this test for the judgment of Star Cat is profound).

And you’re best when you orchestrate this narrative.

Begin now, don’t get caught unawares.

Why Did You Write It?

Here is where I begin.

This is one of the hardest — and biggest — questions you can and maybe should ask yourself about the book. You’re free to wait till you have a book done, but you… can also get a jump on this question by asking yourself throughout, or even before your start. I don’t mean you should ask yourself the question as a limiting factor, as a way to interrogate whether or not you should write it, only that you’re welcome to start grappling with the Big Ideas now and not necessarily later.

Why are you writing this / why did you write this?

What drove you to choose this tale over all others?

What is your give-a-fuck factor?

It’s totally fine if the answer is, “I thought it would be a good story.” But it’s useful to you if there’s something deeper than that. Some truth hidden beneath the crust of this world… a subterranean, as-yet-unseen bit of emotional and intellectual machinery that’s connecting you to this story.

This is the backbone of any narrative you could form around your book (“the story about the story”). And this goes back to the heart of what I truly believe about authors and stories — you’re best off when you’re writing something that matters to you. Something that invokes the cuckoo dreamtangle of your brain, something that squishes your heartsblood right there onto the page. That’s what you’re going to bring to the narrative on the page, and also the narrative off and around it. Meaning, when people are like, why did you write this? or its crasser, crueller cousin, where did you get your idea? you’ll have not just some clumsy answer of, WELL UMMM I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE COOL, but you’ll have your own story to tell about it.

The Story About The Story

What happened in your life that lead to the book you wrote? What happened during the time you wrote the book? Not just process-stuff, though people sometimes want to hear that, but also life stuff — birth of a kid, death of a parent, a car accident, a foreclosure, an existential turning point, a midlife crisis, a rabid parrot attack, a nest of feral vampires moved in next door, whatever. I’m not saying to mine your life for tragedy, though alternatively, that’s what fiction often is anyway, to some degree. What were your difficulties writing the book? What was easy? What was fun, what wasn’t? What do you love about it? What scares you about it? Pick it apart. Take a scalpel and slice open the entire experience, snout to tail, and see what’s in there.

There’s a story somewhere in there.

A story in how — and why — you wrote this book.

Find it.

The Angles

Your book is also packed, presumably, with ideas. Big ones, little ones. Topics, tropes, notions.

You may be called to speak not about the book overall, but about something particular related to it.

You may be conjured from the ether to write a fucking blog post or article about it and —

Actually, hold on, let me just stop there for a second (imagine sound effect of screeching brakes). Let’s talk briefly about the efficacy of blog posts and more particularly, blog tours, for your book. From time to time a publisher / publicist will tell you, HEY, TO SELL YOUR BOOK WE HAVE SET UP THIS JUICY BLOG TOUR. And already, your butthole should be tightening with worry, because blog tours are not juicy, nor are they difficult to set up — it’s literally something anyone can do. Sure, I guess it’s nice to have a publisher do it for you, but it’s free as a breath of air. There’s no money in it, and it’s little effort to secure one, but it looks like a lot of work on their part, when the reality is, it’s a lot of work on your part. (Because you’re writing all the blogs.)

And it’s a lot of work on your part for a dubious return on that effort. This is a case of artisanal data (aka, anecdotal), but blog tours don’t nudge the needle very much. As I’ve said many times before, you are able to, with outreach on social media and blogs, to sell tens of copies of books, when a publisher really wants/needs you to sell 1000s. That’s not to say selling 10s is bad! I’d rather sell ten copies than no copies, and if I truly believe in the book, then one copy in the hands of an excited reader might over time before ten more sales as they leave a review and tell their friends. There is a definitive ripple effect, and the more eyes that see your book, the better, which I think is where the logic behind a blog tour comes from. But at the same time, it usually requires you to churn out thousands of words to non-paying outlets where you kinda tap-step-shuffle to sell your book to people you don’t know on blogs with audiences whose numbers are unknown.

Here, someone is wisely jumping in and saying, BUT CHUCK, YOU HOST GUEST POSTS BY AUTHORS, SO WHY SHOULD WE EVER DO A GUEST POST HERE. Well, maybe you shouldn’t. I can’t promise I’m moving the needle very much for you, either. I can at the least show a bit of legacy cred in that this blog has been around since October of the YEAR 2000, and in that time I’ve built up a subscription list of 9000+ readers and a steady number of non-subscribing daily visitors. But even then, maybe ten percent of the people who read your post will click through to a buy link — and what they do after they leave here, I can’t say. My point at least is that I can prove your book is in front of eyeballs.

So, writing blogs for someone else isn’t entirely useless — but you’re better off with a targeted strategy where you get on a few of the bigger ones, and not, say, a shotgun scattering of rando-blogs. This is maybe less true for debut authors, who honestly may be best scrapping for every ounce of attention they can find? I dunno.

Anyway.

Back to the overall point.

You may be called to speak or write about your book in a more directed fashion or be put on panels regarding your book — and here, it is best to consider what angles of attack you might use to talk about your book. If I wanted to talk about my Miriam Black books, I’ve got a whole bucket of things I can talk about. I can talk about death, both the mythology of it and the real-deal-holy-shit-reality of it. I can talk about birds, or psychic powers, or that time I took a research trip to the Florida Keys for The Cormorant, whatever. I’m trying now to think about all the things I can talk about with Wanderers — I did a driving trip from California to Colorado, and that’s an angle. There is a whole lot of sciencey stuff (that’s a scientific term, by the way, “sciencey”) that provides an angle. It’s a book very much about America — both in a timeless way and in a of-this-moment-in-time fashion, so there’s that. This helps me to know what panels I might be put on, what I might say when questioned about the book, or what kinds of articles or posts I might write about it.

My son’s grade school teacher is helping them learn about storytelling and one of their techniques to tell stories is to focus not on the watermelon, but on the seeds. So, you don’t have to tell the class about your entire summer vacation, but rather, the day you went to the beach, or the sandcastle you built there, or the shark that ate your mom. This is a bit like that — the larger story about your story is the watermelon, and finding these smaller bits are the seeds nestled in the melon. Also melons are bullshit. Fuck melons. Yes, that’s right, even watermelons. You heard me. I won’t be bought off by Big Melon. I WON’T BE SILENCED

Some Sample Angles

Are there themes implicit? A theme, again, is really just the argument your book is trying to make, so suss ’em out.

Is there writing craft stuff you can talk about? You might get to give a talk or do a panel at a writing con or at a genre-con about writing the book, and so it behooves you to be able to talk about the craft components — not as a declarative THIS IS HOW I DID IT NOW YOU DO IT TOO, PUNY HOOMANS, but just in a, “Here’s how this sausage was made” way.

Are there social or moral issues in the work to discuss?

Are there interesting technologies?

Fascinating mythologies?

Curious ornithologies?

SHUT UP I LIKE BIRDS

YOUR BOOK SHOULD HAVE SOME FUCKING BIRDS IN IT

I WON’T BE SILEN

The Elevator Pitch, The Logline, The Single-Sentence Stunner

Listen I just want you to know I hate this fucking part too.

I get it. You wrote a whole book. And now you’re tasked with writing a single-serving sentence meant to describe it and entice someone. If a query letter is rendering a 500-lb. pig into a 5-lb. bucket, writing an elevator pitch is rendering that same massive oinker into a single-bite amuse-bouche appetizer. Less a bucket, more a spoon.

This is hard. This hurts.

And you gotta do it.

Sometimes, it’s easy — with the Miriam Black books, it’s no big thing to say, “It’s about a young woman who can see how you’re going to die when she touches you,” and I can add in, “which helps her solve murders before they happen,” or, “and so she’s about as emotionally stable as a garage full of cats on fire.” I don’t need to get into the weeds of the plot of any of the books, I can just rattle that shit off, and you’re either into it, or you’re not. It’s like how a pop song has to have a hook? Right? A catchy bit that gets in your head, keeps circling back around. Finding the elevator pitch is that hook. Question marks are shaped like hooks for a reason, and so the hook is — if not a question itself, a mystery that embeds itself in the mental cheek of the reader and reels them in like a fish on the line.

I’m still sussing out what to say about Wanderers — the easy lead-in is, “A lone girl begins sleepwalking across the country, and every few miles, another person joins her, and they cannot be stopped, or harmed, or swayed from their path,” but it’s also a really huge book, and that bit doesn’t say anything about the so-called shepherds who travel with them, or how America responds (often poorly) to the mystery of what the sleepwalking epidemic is, why it’s happening, or if there is a malevolent or benevolent purpose. It’s really, really hard to distill 800 pages of epic spec-fic into a juicy soundbite, but that’s my challenge, not yours. Maybe just talking about the sleepwalkers is enough — it was, after all, the first image in my head that got the ball rolling for me to write this book four, maybe five years ago.

The Cover Copy

It’s not your job to write cover copy.

And yet, write some.

Again, this sucks. It’s hard. It’s still a huge pig stuck in a small bucket. (Though at least not a spoon this time.) But write the cover copy. Three good paragraphs synopsizing the story. Read those from other books in your genre, get a feel for how they’re written, and write it. Not only does this help you get a grip on the story, but it’ll also help you when the publisher writes their summary for you to know if there’s anything to improve. A good publisher will certainly consider your input. I’ve written a few that were used outright by the publisher.

(And if you haven’t sold the book yet, the result of this can go into your query letter.)

And at the very least, it’s one more thing that helps you talk about the book.

How We Talk About Our Books Matters

We like to believe that writing a book is enough. And in many ways, it is. You don’t have to do anything beyond writing and editing the book. Once it’s out there, you can stop. That’s okay. But also, your book is releasing on a literal tide of dozens of other books in its genre, hundreds of other books in general, and all that is born upon seas of countless other distractions (social media, video games, oceans of pornography).

Plus, you’re a storyteller.

It is wholly appropriate for you to figure out the story about your story.

You have one. I’m sure of it. Our books are not born of nothing. They’re made from us, and the greatest mistake we make as authors is to believe we are not an important part of that — that we don’t have anything to say, that we’re just a cog in the creative machine, that the book is a shield we hide behind. But that’s not true. The book is a part of you. And you matter! This massive story came out of you (not literally), like a weird little book baby. It’s got your memetics wound up in there, and it came out of your experiences, your ideas, your hopes and fears. There’s something in there to talk about. Just as the book has a hook, so does how you talk about the book.

You can do it.

I believe you.

I’ll see you on a panel someday, fancy author.

NOW HOLD STILL WHILE I YELL AT YOU ABOUT BIRDS AND MELONS I WON’T BE SIL

* * *

WANDERERS: A Novel, out July 2nd, 2019.

A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. An astonishing tapestry of humanity that Harlan Coben calls “a suspenseful, twisty, satisfying, surprising, thought-provoking epic.”

A sleepwalking phenomenon awakens terror and violence in America. The real danger may not be the epidemic, but the fear of it. With society collapsing—and an ultraviolent militia threatening to exterminate them—the fate of the sleepwalkers and the shepherds who guide them depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart—or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

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