... even when a storyteller gets past conceptualizing their novels as strings of plot, trying for something more is still a dicey proposition. I think the "complex yet incoherent" problem would manifest itself in the form of filling in the blank with a complex string of ideas, e.g., "My story is about love and life and art and the natural world and how people can drift apart and then back together, ..." and so on.
Confession: I laughed when I read that last line, loud enough to scare off the cats. Not out of contempt, but recognition, because a) god knows I've run down just such a routine myself when trying to describe a work of mine to myself or someone else, and b) it's also a routine I've heard plenty of times myself from others. And almost always in a way that tells me they don't realize just how misty and imprecise those kinds of formulations are!
What's the best way to talk about what a story is about? From what I've seen, you have to stake out territory that includes both something specific and something general. Flight Of The Vajra was really at its core about a guy who loses one family and gains another. That's something immediate and close that most of us can relate to, and it's used as a thread to pull us through the labyrinth of the rest of the story.
A lot of other things get touched on during that walk through the maze: how the future is shaped by ideology and faith as much as it is by technological progress, and how moral squalor is totally compatible with advances in other realms, etc. But at the end of the day, it's about a guy who loses something close to him, sets out to find out why that happened — if he isn't responsible, who is? — and learns how to get beyond that and expand the circle of his life to welcome back in everything he'd lost. A little wordier than I'd like, but you get the idea.
Okay, let's try to apply a similar formulation to the book I just wrapped for production, Welcome To The Fold. It's about a woman who leaves behind her old self to create a new self, only to find the new self is pretty horrified by the whole endeavor (especially given what it costs). You see how I could also say, "It's about identity and personas," but the more specific pitch is always the better one. You can always get misty and grandiose later on once you have their attention.
Another one. The book I just finished a first draft of, Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned, is about a bunch of people who finally realize having the greatest power in the world isn't much if you can't think of anything to do with it except rip people off. The hard part, they find, isn't just coming up with something really new, either — it's coming up with something new that isn't just the same greed and narrowmindedness writ even larger. (Much, much larger. You'll see what I mean.)
And then there's the book I'm looking at starting in the coming year, title TBD. With that one, I don't even have a pitch. That project still exists entirely in the form of a series of images, iconic moments, and a general feeling. This is nothing I can take with me back to the keyboard — yet — but it's a starting point. It also lets me know what kind of sense I want to impart to the audience when they read the last page, something I'm learning is a lot more important than it might seem. I'm still at sea about how to get there, but that's fine; these things always start having no more shape than a freshly tufted cloud anyway.
A key thing I'm noticing about the way I'm running this exercise is that I'm not citing the specific details of the story. I didn't talk about Vajra's protagonist being a starship designer trying to pull together the mystery of how his family died on board one of his own ships (a career-ending mishap), or any other such specific pieces in that chess set. That was deliberate. I didn't want to rely on a plot synopsis, because that's the fastest way to get hung up on the wrong details.
So, it seems that "What's it about?" should be an exercise where you try to express both the essence of the story and the themes through the same few words.