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What is your story about? Advice from a YA bootcamp

What do you say when someone asks what your story is about? What words would you use?

Last year, I participated in a bootcamp as part of a writer’s conference. I was in a group of four, and we worked for the day with an editor from one of the largest publishing houses in the world.

First things first: the editor who ran our session is a gun. Brilliant. Brilliantly terrifying. Some of the authors under her belt are people you read every day. And for someone going from not showing my work to anyone to giving some of it to an industry professional (within twelve months!) I was equal parts scared out of my pants and curious as hell.

During the session she turned to me and said: “What’s your story about? Write it down, bring it back to me.”

I sat afterwards balancing on the edge of a panic. Did she mean a pitch? I could give her a pitch, I suppose. A pitch should contain setting, character, conflict, stakes. Right? Right?! But what if that wasn’t what she was asking for? Better shove a rationale under that pitch, just in case.

Later, I gave her my pitch. Her eyes cut through me when she said, “For a moment there, I didn’t believe you knew what your story was about at all.” Then she took her pen, crossed over my pitch without mercy, and circled my hastily scrawled rationale at the bottom of the page.

“This,” she said, tapping her pen. “This is what your story is about. Write it down. Put it on your vision board. Bathe in this idea every moment you’re writing and editing your story, because THIS is the answer. Don’t get bogged down in details that don’t matter.”

Long story short: your story is your setting, your character, and your conflicts… and also none of these. What is your story about? The answer is—what are you trying to tell the world? What question are you trying to answer? What observations are you making?

The sentence I’d scribbled is now, true to her advice, sitting on my vision board. It is in my synopsis. I read it every day I edited. What’s my WIP about?

The motivations of fear, and the things people will do to preserve something they care for.”

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