A lot of things happen when you start telling people, "I'm a writer." This simple declaration of profession and purpose took me a while to get behind. I write. Therefore, I'm a writer. Why the hell shouldn't I introduce myself as one? It's a great habit to get into. It's another one of those esoteric steps in the journey. It doesn't feel right until you just start doing it, no matter how many blogs or tweets you read in favor.
You'll get a range of reactions from people when you adopt this introduction and title. Some are expected. There's the pleasant but distant smile, like you're speaking in a language they haven't studied since high school. There's also the wistful and condolent look as they silently pray for your personal finances, career, and parents. You'll become immune to these. Most people don't understand what it's like to be saddled with a creative mind and outlook. And that's fine. Society needs accountants and lawyers and sales reps. They make the world go 'round in their own ways.
The frequent reaction I wasn't expecting, partly due to my own cynicism, was genuine interest. This interest usually comes in the form of the following question: "Oh, what's it about?" Being put on the spot like that can knock anyone off balance. Pulling a quick summary and/or logline for my current project out of thin air is a hard thing to do. Well, like most difficult things, it's only hard until you do it a hundred times. I was continually surprised by all the people who asked, "oh, what's it about?" when I told them I was a writer and I was working on a novel. Most regular people will be polite and ask questions about things they can tell interest you. And this is where you can learn a valuable skill.
Every one of these instances--you introduce yourself as an artist, you mention your current work in progress, they ask you "oh, what's it about?" and then you explain--is a chance to hone your logline, your elevator pitch, your through line. Each time you do it as a writer, you learn a little bit more about your story. Based on their reaction, you can figure out what's working and what isn't.
Does any part of your explanation get their attention? Any part elicit an emotion? Even dislike or disgust are valuable to writers when testing the waters with their prized story ideas. I'm living proof. After doing this a million times, I've honed my logline down to a tight compound sentence. It captures the setting, describes the protagonist, and teases the conflict and tone. A perfect logline delivers all of these aspects in a crisp package. Mine isn't perfect, but it's a hell of a lot better than the meandering description I stumbled through when I was asked months ago.
And there's my tip: USE THIS AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO IMPROVE YOUR LOGLINES. Essentially, every time someone asks you, "oh, what's it about?" it's a FREE miniature pitch workshop. Use their reactions to sharpen your logline until it cuts like steel. After embarrassing yourself a couple times, you'll start to see what resonates with regular Joes and Joannes. That's as helpful as the feedback you'll get from your beta readers.
Being able to boil down a story into an effective logline is a skill every writer needs. It takes time and practice. There's something impressive about a writer at a family dinner or a work party or networking event who can whip out a killer elevator pitch on command. You can even act like you're being put on the spot and making it up as you go. I won't tell.