Editor’s note: this post was first published in 2010.
So, when I say I’m writing a novel, inevitably, the next question is always: “What are you writing about?”
I’m secretly annoyed by this question: although I know everyone who asks it really means well, there’s something sort of unfair about it.
So, you might be asking again: “Umm… okay. But seriously, Ollin. What are you writing about?
The Typical (Partially True) Answer: I’m writing a fiction novel. It’s a fantasy story using themes and characters from Chicano (Mexican-American) mythology, history and culture.
The Unconventional (Actually True) Answer: How the hell do I know? I’m writing it (present tense) I haven’t written it (past tense).
It’s kinda like asking an architect whose working on a blueprint:
“So, what are the dimensions of the rooms going to be? Which way will the windows face? And what color will be the inside walls?”
How does the architect know? That’s what he’s working on at the moment! When he’s finished with the blueprint, then he’ll let you know.
The question is also no different from asking a baby boy:
“So, what kind of man are you going to turn out to be?”
The baby would look back at you with a frown, as if you were crazy. You would be.
But I don’t blame you. I’d imagine I’d ask the same thing of someone else who said they were writing a novel.
Let me think about this. Maybe the better question would be:
“What do you hope your novel will accomplish?”
There’s several reasons why this is not only an appropriate question to ask but also one that is respectful of the author. The reason this question is a good one is because it acknowledges that writing is a process, and right now there is no real product. But it does demonstrate to the author that you know that the writer is not wasting her time. There are goals she is striving for–and that is really what the writing is “about.”
The question is general enough, too. Because if you were to ask a question like: “What’s going to happen in the novel?” Well, chances are a writer will not tell you “what’s going to happen.” They’d prefer you read the novel and find out for yourself when it’s done.
So, stick to questioning the writer about what they want the novel to “do.” Do they want it to just entertain? Do they want it to make people think? Do they want it to be new and original? Or a fresh spin on something old? There are so many different reasons why someone begins to undertake a writing project, and I bet you any writer wouldn’t mind answering this type of question, over the typical: “What are you writing about?” They’ll probably find this new line of questioning refreshing.
“So… ummm… Ollin. What do you hope your novel will accomplish?”
I want it to be a really great story. That’s my focus at the moment. Everything on top of that will be just butter on the bread. Sorry, I wish I had a more detailed or complex answer for you, and I’m sure other writers or artists might give you just that. But, for me, it’s that simple: I’m trying to write a great story.
As a reader I don’t care how culturally specific, original, socially conscious, or how superficially entertaining a book is. I read a book because it has a great story. The rest is just butter on the bread.
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