Every once in a while, I’ll get into a conversation about being a science fiction writer and during these conversations, it is inevitable that someone will ask, “What books have you written?” I think it is natural for someone to assume that a writer produces books, so I gently explain that I don’t write book. I am a short fiction writer. I write stories. I may list some of the stories I’ve sold and usually one of the titles will result in the question, “Oh, that sounds interesting. What is that story about?”
And I always find myself fumbling to describing what the story is about.
I was thinking about this on my short commute home yesterday and I decided there are two reasons for this:
First, unlike a novel, which can be made to sound interesting in a paragraph or two, it is much more difficult to compress the description of a short story. A short story is already compressed; all of the fat has been cut out of it. Each and every word more the story along to its ultimate conclusion. The story itself is its own description, and trying to spend a few sentences describing it in specific terms is difficult (for me at least) because the story is designed to be self-describing. Read it and you know what it is about. For my technology friends, I liken this to file compression. Compress a large text file and you often get a much smaller, more compact file. This is the “description” of a novel. But compress an already compressed file, and you don’t get a much smaller file. Indeed, on occasion, you will get a larger file. The file is already as compressed as can be and the description doesn’t help.
Second–and for me this is a more recent phenomenon–once I’ve written the story, I’ve moved on. Indeed, by the time a story I’ve written sees print, it’s likely that I’ve written two or three other stories. Everything I had to say about the story, I said in the story. About the only interesting detail to add may be the genesis of the story, which is not really about the story itself at all. I find it difficult to talk about a story that I’ve written months or years ago because my mind is always on the story that I’m working on now. It reminds me of Harlan Ellison’s response to the question, “Of all your stories, which is your favorite?”–to which he would respond: “The one I’m working on now.”
The best I can do, therefore, is to try to come up with snappy one-liners that are much more about generating interest than describing the story. So, for instance, when people ask me what my Analog story “Take One for the Road” was about, I’d tell them, “It’s a murder mystery set on Mercury.” It doesn’t really describe the story. The story is both more and less than that. To describe the story you need to read the story. But it’s the best that I can do. One positive result of this is that I’ve never even considered trying to describe a story in a cover letter, as I understand some novices do. The best way to find out what one of my stories is about is to read it.
So I’m curious, do my writer-friends have this problem with their stories? Do you have difficulty describing them? Do you even care to describe them, or do you–as I do–prefer the stories to speak for themselves?
I tend to follow the “premise” concept of James N. Frey (http://www.jamesnfrey.com/) when it comes to describing my stories. I’ll explain the theme I’m exploring rather than details of plot.
Or rather, I’ll try to explain the theme. Often I’ll fumble and end up talking about characters and plot.
Well as I think both you, Jamie, and commenter Michael allude to, people who ask “What’s it about?” don’t really want to know specifics. Unless you’re talking to another writer, the answer they want is “A murder mystery set on Mercury.” If that intrigues them, they’ll follow up; if not, you guys can quickly segue to a different topic. The same goes for giving the theme rather than plot details, because the theme is what would get a reader to pick the book/story up in the first place. Plot keeps them around but they don’t need it when they’re window shopping.