So what’s it about?

by Ian Clements

Oh, and it was all going so well. Yes, ok, they brought up J.K Rowling; as though it’s somehow a useful comparison, but they were making all the right, appreciative noises about your writing.

“So what’s it about?”

“Well, there’s this pirate….” I’m always tempted to say, aping Shakespeare In Love, because this isn’t going to end well. Still, you start to outline your latest short story or, god help you, try to give a breakdown of your novel but it’s all going wrong. The plot sounds like some vague outline scrawled on a fag packet, characters become your own wish fulfilment fantasies. Your listener’s eyes glaze over as you frantically expand the synopsis, trying to find the right words to show the good that you know is in there. The more you detail the worse it gets, until you’re on the verge of actually quoting passages.

“That’s great” they smile.

It’s the same feeling I get when I double-space a story. The neat ranks of words, all helping and supporting one another, are broken apart like a routed army. Suddenly it’s weak and you hate the editor the way you hate the innocent enquirer: they wanted the nuts and bolts. It’s oft quoted advice that the only fresh idea is your take on things, and the outline robs us of even that. No wonder it’s so exasperating!

The solution? As the deeply wise Dorothea Brande advised: just don’t discuss your outlines. Don’t get into it. Give some polite but vague one-liner to any idly interested parties. Now I know writing is lonely, you might want recognition and understanding where you can get it, but neither of those come from telling the nuts and bolts. What’s more, your story starts to sound bad to you. You believe this hurried, anaemic synopsis and it drains away passion you so sorely need. It turns your work in progress from fluid, exciting, and alive with potential to that one fatal thing: already told.

Even better, don’t let on that you’re a writer. No sense in startling your material.