Writing complicated books: The Curse

Last week I was playing a game with some folks at my local store, and when it was over I did the awkward thing that I always have to do when I meet someone new who seems to have similar interests and hobbies as me. I dug in my bag, pulled out a business card, and handed it over.

“Hey, thanks for the game. Just so you know, I’m a novelist, and think maybe you’d like my book. It’s the first in a new epic fantasy trilogy, so it’s a great place to get started with my work. You can get it at Barnes and Noble, or Amazon, or really wherever you like to buy books.”

The guy took the card, glanced at the cover, and said “Cool. What’s it about?”

What the fuck, guy. What. The. Fuck.

I do actually have a plan for this situation, a spiel I unravel and deploy as part of my standard operating procedure. Several of them, in fact, depending on the situation. Do they actually seem interested, or are they being polite? What’s the environment here? Will they be able to understand me clearly, or do I need to simplify? How drunk am I? How drunk are they?

In the business, this is called the elevator pitch. It’s your interview face, the tight-five stand up comedians create for limited performances. The first time I saw it in action was at a convention. I was standing with my editors in a party. The book (my debut) wasn’t out yet, and I knew nothing of publicity. Someone asked the three of us what it was about.

I launched into a clumsy and entirely accurate description of the book. That it was my take on the New Weird, but with a healthy dab of crime noir mixed with a meditation on the nature of religious belief and the intersection of faith and divinity. The guy stood there, a little dumbfounded, a little drunk, trying to figure out what I’d just said.

One of my editors shook his head, tapped the guy on the chest to get his attention, then leaned in and yelled just loudly enough to be heard over the crowd but not so loudly that it was rude:

“Steampunk! Thriller!”

And the guy nodded, took my name, and probably bought the book a couple months later.

I balked at this because I didn’t write a steampunk novel. I didn’t really write a thriller, either. But that was the pitch. That was my tight-five.

The pitch for The Pagan Night is a little longer, but whenever I throw it out there, I feel like I have to apologize and clarify and expand. Which is exactly what an elevator pitch is not supposed to be.

So when this guy asked “What’s it about?” I had something to say.

“It’s epically weird fantasy. Think Game of Thrones meets Princess Mononoke.”

If you’re familiar with the three tentpoles here, you know what a strange statement that is. Game of Thrones is a sweeping political drama with fantastic elements. It has great characters, and a *lot* of them, but it’s mostly a grand story on a big stage. Mononoke is more personal, more spiritual. It’s almost claustrophobic in its narrative.

The Pagan Night is both of these things, and really neither. On twitter, Sarah Avery said that the book was clearly a conversation between those two works, and I’m pretty happy with that.

For all that it’s a book about feral gods and culture wars and sword fights, it’s also a very personal book for me. The story between Ian and Malcolm, son and father, is my story. Their conversations have their roots in things my father and I have discussed, and their conflicts belong just as much in my home as they do in Tenumbra.

So when someone asks what the book is about, I have answers. I have marketing strategies I deploy. But the real answer is that it’s about me and my complicated faith. And how are you supposed to sell that?

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