As anyone who has ever written a novel will tell you, when someone else finds out that you have written one, he/she will inevitably ask, "What's it about?" While it seems like a simple and honest enough question, it is actually a bit complicated and answering it adequately is an area where I struggle. I mean, essentially, when someone asks you that question, that person is asking you to sum up, in my case, a nearly 57,000-word novel, in one or two sentences.
While it is not an impossible task, depending upon the level of complexity of the work, it is something that takes careful thought and consideration, so that you can give the person asking an accurate description and hopefully entice him/her to want to read it. It is difficult to promote a book, and it is important to take every opportunity that you get to win someone over. Hopefully, eventually, you can get people to buy your books based on your reputation, but first you have to build one, and to do that, you need to get people to read what you are writing. That is the hard part. In my opinion, it is way harder even than writing the thing.
Up until recently, I feel I like have been doing an inadequate job at this task. After having taken time to consider the problem, I have come to realize that it all comes down to getting the information out, in an efficient, effective manner, and that all starts with the question. I had grown accustomed to saying something along the lines that Out in the Garage is a coming of age story--but that is pretty vague. Next time I am asked--and I will, inevitably, be asked again--I will say something along these lines:
It is a coming of age story about growing up in a small town in the Midwest and playing in a band. It focuses on the importance of doing something because you love it instead of because you are trying to look cool, as society/life is going to fuck you around every corner and it ultimately shouldn’t really matter what other people think.
It is short and to the point, and, while still somewhat vague, it gives the person asking a much more specific response than just, "coming of age story." If that still isn't satisfactory, I can talk about how it also deals with love, sexuality, relationships, marriage, and divorce, and explain how it does so, or I could go more into the technical side of the novel. This might be necessary if I am talking to someone who is well-read or a writer, such as a colleague. I could tell add to my description, by saying:
It’s also an experiment in narrativity in that it is in the first person and the present tense (for the most part) which, the way I have written it, I think, gives it a stream-of-consciousness feel. It is very much set in a subjective, symbolic world where time is relative.
Finally, if that still isn't enough, or if I am inebriated, or something, and it seems like the person asking needs even more of an explanation, or if I want to make myself sound smart, I can say:
It is a meditation on religion/spirituality, focusing on how humans create meaning as a way to cope with aspects of life that they have a difficult time in grasping, which are really fundamentally ungraspable. Just because you grow up in a culture where the keepers of the status quo tell you the world is a certain way, it doesn’t mean that you have to accept that as Truth, because there is no Truth, but truths.
Generally the first, most-basic one will be enough of a description for most people, as I believe it pretty well gives the gist of it, for the most part. As different audiences require different levels of complexity, I can always pick up these threads and weave in more detail--if I am feeling generous or if the person asking seems genuinely interested and wants to hear more.
It is important to be detailed and specific, and flexible, when telling people about the novel, as it is an important part of promoting it. This is how low-budget, word-of-mouth promotional strategies go: every person who seems remotely interested is a potential customer.
As I will be the first to admit, I am still learning the ins and outs of self-publishing. I need to get better at self-promotion and finding subtle, effective ways at getting people's attentions. Unfortunately, I have to come at it from a sales mentality--that doesn't mean I have to be obnoxious, but I should use every opportunity (especially ones that come about naturally) to get the word out there.
It does get annoying, at times, when people ask the question--at least, anyways, when it seems like they are more or less just being polite and don't really care--but I still need to get better at popping out my description, because, well, you can never be completely sure about someone else's motivation. Maybe they do actually care and will actually go out and read it.