All righty, so you've decided to write a book. What's it about? What's it really about?
It's a question a beta reader asked on the first draft of my first book, Artificial Absolutes, and it's a tougher question than I thought it'd be. At first, I was like, "What do you mean? It's about a young woman in search of a killer. In space." Then, I thought about it some more and was like, "Well, actually it's about her saving the people she loves, so I guess it's about loyalty." But the beta pressed on, pointing out that a story about loyalty alone, while nice, wasn't very compelling.
And therein lay the problem with my first draft. It had a lot of plot, but it wasn't about anything.
Of course, there are plenty of books out there that could fit that description - some of which may even be pretty popular. But I can't think of any off the top of my head, because the books that stuck with me, the ones I remember despite years having passed since I last glanced at them, are the ones that went beyond the plot alone.
Brave New World is about conformity and complacency. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about misogyny - and combating it. Harry Potter is about the triumph of good over evil, and about being something greater than yourself. And Artificial Absolutes, well, turned out, it was about more than spaceships and loyalty after all. I just didn't realize it at the time.
It's these greater "abouts" that really bring a story to life, that make a reader really care about the characters and what happens to them. And I think pretty much every writer who finishes a novel has one imbued in their words, whether they know it or not. Sometimes, it's neglected and buried, which is why a book may not feel like it's truly about anything. But a book written with passion is unavoidably a reflection of the author's soul. And writers write because they have something to say.
So what's Artificial Absolutes about? Took me a while to realize it, but ultimately, it's about control - specifically, the parent/child variety. There's a domineering father with two children - both of whom go through periods of obedience and rebellion, but neither of whom can ever shake his influence, even when he's no longer around to command them. And then there's a parallel with artificial intelligence - the programmer, who hopes a sentient machine will nonetheless obey. More than one programmer, actually, but to delve in further would be to spoil the damn thing.
In a more broader sense, it's about independence - breaking the boundaries put in place by society or the law or by one's own sense of "should" or "should not". It's about free will.
Though it's been years since I wrote Artificial Absolutes, these thoughts are occurring now because I'm plotting a new project, and I kept hitting walls. I knew I wanted to do a contemporary fantasy, and I knew what I wanted to happen, but somehow, all my plotting and brainstorming felt flat. Then I realized: The book wasn't about anything. Just a sequence of events and a few colorful characters... but what was the point of it all? What about it would stay after the last page is read?
I'm still working it out, and I know the "about" is in there, probably embedded by my subconscious. I just need to dig a little deeper, bring it to the surface, make it work.
I didn't run into this issue with the last few books I plotted, so for a moment I wondered if they were were actually about anything. And then I realized that, yeah, they are, even if I didn't realize it. The Flynn Nightsider books (and companion Firedragon novellas) are, again, about independence. Freedom, defiance of authority, self-reliance. The Fated Stars stories are about the classic theme of good versus evil, and about transcending one's fate.
So what about you? What's your story really about?