Last week, I received a fiction pitch I knew I would reject a few lines in. It contained the phrase, “after he discovers a family secret long since buried.” (Or something like that.) I wrote back to the author and admitted that I was passing because, while other people might like books about that, I’m not a guy who was ever eager to read a book with that at the center. It’s a very, very common conceit, but I guess I figure that if the secret itself was really interesting, you’d be telling us what it is. If the family secret was that your main character’s grandmother was Einstein’s lover, dollars to donuts the novel would be called Einstein’s Lover.
This writer had an interesting approach to telling a story, but all the rest of the details beyond the secret were mundane. This was the story of a young guy, from a town, with a family, with a handful of familiar issues, going back to that town. He seemed like a good, clever writer, but he’d sabotaged his book from the start by writing something with a generic elevator pitch. To get an editor to read it, I would have to promise this author was the best stylist I’d ever come across.
That’s why the most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks was this article in Salon by novelist Ted Thompson, where he reveals what he found most surprising from having his debut novel published. All of the ideas he discussed are dead-on and useful, but the most important one is that, no matter how good your book is, people still judge it by how you answer the question, “So what’s your book about?”
What he doesn’t say is that there’s one way to answer that question that could take your book from the rejection pile to the bestseller list, and it isn’t about the plot.