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What Is Your Novel About?

A friendly question by the pool forces novel writer Jennifer Gaites to ask herself, "What is my book about?" Now that she's finished the first draft, she has a better understanding and is ready to share her novel-in-progress with her fellow writers.

By Jennifer Gaites

October 19, 2023

This summer, with an 11-year-old to entertain all day, I realized that I couldn’t be so precious about my writing. There would be no quiet house, no days where I could sit in front of my computer for a solid block of time, no uninterrupted thinking. I had to learn to write on the go. And I did. I found a quiet corner at our local pool, and as my son swam the afternoons away, I wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

I should pause here to mention that it has taken me a long time to call myself a writer. I still hesitate before I say it, adding qualifiers that suggest it’s a hobby, or I dabble. 

So, I’m not exactly sure what came over me when, one afternoon by the pool, an acquaintance noticed the computer and notebooks spread on the table and asked what I was working on. I blurted out, “Oh, I’m writing a novel.” 

Reader, it was hot in that sun. I must have been delirious. 

Her eyes lit up (because, let’s face it, to the uninitiated, writing a novel sounds very cool–not the exercise in endurance writers know it to be). Her next question was inevitable, obvious within the give-and-take of conversation, as predictable as a child’s response to the chime of the ice cream truck: What is your novel about?  

Her face was open with genuine interest. I started sweating. She was making small talk. I was having an existential crisis. 

You know the panic Ralphie, the main character in the movie A Christmas Story, feels when he’s asked what he wants for Christmas? He knows that if he answers truthfully, his heart’s desire will be scoffed at by the adults in his life. That is how I felt. 

I stumbled through an answer, rambling about my protagonist, grief, and an intergenerational friendship. By the time I finished talking, I think my poolside acquaintance felt bad for asking—she probably felt bad for me—and I said something that non-writers might find completely ridiculous like, “Um, I’m still figuring it out.” She nodded. I nodded. Then, I pretended to search for my son and mumbled something about reapplying sunscreen. 

When I signed up to write a novel, I thought that it would somehow be less vulnerable than working on memoir, which I’ve been doing for a few years. But now I feel exposed in a different way. What if people think, “This is the best you can come up with?” What if they find my ideas boring? My themes trite?

In book inc, there’s a reason that we encourage our writers to keep their ideas quiet for the duration of their writing–we aim to nurture the seeds of creativity, without letting the reaction of others influence our process. All writing is vulnerable. And if you share your ideas too soon, it’s easy to search for validation that may not come (an unenthusiastic response to a book idea is the figurative, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”). 

Now that my first draft is done(ish), and it’s time to share the manuscript with my fellow writers, I can better describe what I’m writing about. I may not have my elevator pitch yet, but I can at least say that I’m exploring the theme of friendship–and the way deep connections change people. And I can also tell you that even though the weather has turned cooler, I’m still sweating a little as I say it.

Jennifer Gaites

Jennifer Gaites is a writing instructor at Project Write Now and a book inc Peer Artist Leader. Her work has appeared in River Teeth's "Beautiful Things," Hippocampus, and Literary Mama. Her flash essay "{ }nesting" won first place in WOW Women on Writing's Quarter 4 2023 contest.

Jennifer Gaites is a writing instructor at Project Write Now and a book inc Peer Artist Leader. Her work has appeared in River Teeth's "Beautiful Things," Hippocampus, and Literary Mama. Her flash essay "{ }nesting" won first place in WOW Women on Writing's Quarter 4 2023 contest.