Saturday, October 24, 2015

What the story is about

Every writer gets the question, “What is your book about?” If that writer has been to a seminar on writing, she probably tries to pull up that elevator pitch she’s been working on. That’s probably what they want to hear.

So, for my book Ghost Writer they would hear something like this: 

“Sam expected a new phone for her 14th birthday. Instead, her dad gave her a leather-bound diary he had found in the home his great grandparents had lived in. She hates the diary, but at his insistence scribbles something in it, then tosses it aside. Later, she retrieves the pen she’d closed inside the diary and sees that someone else has been writing in it. Sam and her friend, Hailey, learn that the person making the entries is a 14-year-old girl from 100 years ago. At least, she says she is. They think it’s a hoax and go about proving it. They get the “ghost girl” to send things into the future--stamps, lipstick, a lock of hair--by sealing them in a Ball jar and hiding it in an ice cave near the old house.”

Funny thing, though, that isn’t what the book is about. That’s the story, but the book is about the consequences of the anti-vaccination movement. You wouldn’t get that from the story synopsis. Although there is a big hint there, which I slyly removed from the paragraph above to help make my point. The missing sentence is the last one: “But there is something invisible riding along on that tube of lipstick.” 

Every book is about something. It can be so subtle that the reader may not even notice it, simply enjoying the story without picking up on the lesson. Not all writing is overtly didactic, but all writing comes from a teaching tradition. Writers are story tellers. Story tellers who plied their trade around an open fire always had a point to their story. They were passing along knowledge. 

You do not have to agree with the lesson of a book to enjoy that book. I’ve enjoyed countless novels about the dangers of scientific overreach. I don’t lose a lot of sleep over it. 

In Ghost Writer the lesson is about trusting science, even in a story that relies heavily on readers who enjoy the improbable. Will they agree with the lesson? Maybe. I only hope they enjoy the story and that they give a little thought to what the story is about.

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