What Is It You’re Trying To Tell Me? by Christopher Byrd

Posted: September 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

Ask most beginning fiction writers what their stories are about and they can’t answer the question. They throw out things like love or courage, but usually they respond with open mouth silences. Those are my favorite. At least they seem to be thinking about it.

I once heard an author remark during a Q & A: “If I can describe my novel in a few short sentences, it mustn’t be a very good story.” This is a mistake, especially for a young writer to hear. It sends the wrong signal and allows the novice to be vague, which is often confused with being mysterious. Whether you’re willing to spend six months or six years writing one particular story, you better have some idea what it’s about. Or else, why do it?

In chapter eleven of Sol Stein’s How To Grow A Novel, Stein emphasizes the need for precision, comparing the experience of reading a novel to that of getting on an airplane. One is less likely to strap themselves in having noticed prior to takeoff the pilot nervously flipping switches with a confused look on his face. “Wouldn’t you rather be on a plane on which the pilot followed a checklist or knew it accurately by heart?” Here, Stein was talking more about voice and clarity of language, but the analogy works for structure as well as the writer’s intent.

If you, the writer, have no clue what your story is about how can you expect the reader to have any idea? There is enough chaos in life. Enough uncertainty and confusion. The writer’s job is to harness what he cannot understand and create meaning out of what is seemingly indecipherable. So MFAers, what is your story about?

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Comments
  1. Dr. Victor Von Doom says:

    Nice. Thanks for addressing a that dreaded question, and a common, faulty, escape-route response. I especially resonate with:

    “I once heard an author remark during a Q & A: “If I can describe my novel in a few short sentences, it mustn’t be a very good story.” This is a mistake, especially for a young writer to hear. It sends the wrong signal and allows the novice to be vague, which is often confused with being mysterious. ”

    That’s why “elevator pitches” exist. Another common answer: “If I could tell you right now, I wouldn’t have to write a novel Ha ha!” or something similar (I’m guilty of that in the past too …).

    So what’s your story about? I’m curious, not sarcastic. I’m bad at sarcasm, remember? So?

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