Is Your Focus Skewed?

cat-2151400_1920When we read, we tend to try to anticipate what will happen in a story, or project backwards (for example, in a murder mystery novel). We use details such as objects, time and setting to create a picture of where, when, and what is happening. When an author spends time describing something in a manuscript, it’s a clue to the reader to pay attention. These details also help to immerse us in the story. A problem in some manuscripts is when the focus is on the wrong things or details that don’t matter. The reader doesn’t know what’s important and can feel bored or cheated.

One reason for this skewed focus is the author writing their way into the story. I’ve read plenty of scenes describing a character waking up, making tea or coffee, or commuting to work. I tend to think of these scenes as mental stretches before tackling a heavy writing session and they probably reflect more on the daily life of an author than what’s important to a story. That’s not to say that you should cut all description of a character’s day-to-day doings from the manuscript. These can be a great way to provide characterisation and may be part of the plot. Just be aware of repetition, spending too much time on these scenes, or reverting to cliché in how you describe them.

If a writer is passionate about a topic, this can also skew the focus of description. This isn’t always a bad thing. I love learning something new when I read. One of the great joys of fiction is slipping into another person’s shoes and exploring their world. Now imagine that person is a keen lepidopterist and just when you get to a critical point in their story, they stop to show you their collection of pinned butterflies. The main story is shooting past but you have to stop and listen to them talk about their favourite moth. It’s frustrating and slows the pace unnecessarily. If the topic is crucial to the plot, that’s a different thing entirely; if it isn’t, think about cutting back.

A third reason that a story’s focus can be imbalanced is that the manuscript is in its early development. The first draft is often the writer telling themselves the story, getting the images and ideas in their head down on to the page. It’s in the subsequent revisions that the author can then go back over the manuscript and expand scenes and flesh things out. The first couple of chapters are usually the most heavily revised. Authors know that first chapters are crucial for hooking a reader or a publisher and will spend time polishing the start of a manuscript until it’s shiny and bright.

In the rest of the story, particularly heading into the climax where the pace is breakneck, things can tend to get summarised. While short, sharp sentences and chapters are great for reflecting the rising tension, what you don’t want to do is leave the reader feeling short changed. They’ve followed you for the past two hundred pages. Make sure the climax you’ve promised is satisfying by giving it enough attention and space on the page.

The final reason for a skewed focus is not trusting the reader to do their job. A common problem with many manuscripts is overwriting. The author can feel the urge to explain what is happening because they don’t trust that the reader will ‘get it’. This can lead to repetition, telling and too much description.

To make sure you’re getting the balance of focus right in your manuscript, read great fiction. Examine how the author has guided the reader’s attention. Look at the balance of description and action. Read bad fiction. Take note of when you drop out of a story or feel frustrated with the narrative. What made you stop reading? Were you bored? Did you feel cheated?

Enlist the aid of a couple of trusted beta readers and ask them to make note of if and when they drop out of your story. Check that focus is right and you’ll elevate your writing.

 “In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft  

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Mentorship Moment No. 3: Outcome vs Output

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One of the questions I often get asked as an editor is, “Do you think this will get published?” It’s a question that makes me wince because the only answer I can truthfully give is, “It depends.”. I’m torn between encouraging my client and not falsely raising their expectations.

So much of what ultimately results in publishing success for an author is outside of their control. Even if the stars do align and their manuscript makes it past the slush pile, the time-poor editor, the marketing and budgeting departments, and the author does manage to land a contract, there’s still no guarantee that their book will be a hit. There are reviews to face, an increasingly crowded market to wade through, and the relatively short shelf life of a book to overcome.

If a writer focusses solely on landing a contract, garnering rave reviews and making enough sales to buy a gold toilet, their chances of burnout are pretty high. A writer’s path to success is often paved with rejection. Even celebrated authors like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling famously faced numerous rejections before they hit pay dirt. Despite their success, they have scathing reviews as well as glowing reviews. So much of writing and reading is subjective and trying to pin success down in this environment is an endeavour fraught with disappointment.

Here’s the Mentorship Moment: What an author can control and what will keep them writing in the face of such tough odds is to focus not on the outcome, but on their output.

The key to protecting a writer’s confidence (see this post for the importance of confidence in writing) is to focus on what is within their control. Instead of viewing writing as an art, the writer can reframe it as a craft. Instead of waiting for the muse to turn up and provide divine inspiration, the author can turn up at their desk and clock in. They can develop their writing toolbox and seek out feedback. They can accept that apart from making their writing as polished as possible, there is little they can do to control how it will be received.

This shift in thought can be incredibly freeing. It will make it easier to shrug off that latest rejection or that one-star review and keep writing. It will make it easier for the writer to answer the question, “Do you think this will get published?” on their own terms.

How do you keep your confidence up? If you have any tips you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them.

Why You Need A Mentor

EL Doctorow

One thing I love about this whole writing gig is that if you’re willing, you need never stop learning. There’s no map and no single path to get where you want to go. There are any number of ways to learn and endless topics to explore. It’s both a thrilling and daunting thought, but if you see an opportunity to accelerate that learning, seize it with both hands. It will raise your writing to the next level and expand your writing toolbox exponentially.

In July, I was lucky enough to be awarded one of only six writing mentorships through the Australian Horror Writers Association’s mentorship program. Mentors include the following award-winning authors: Lee Murray, Alan Baxter, Kaaron Warren, Shane Jiraiya Cummings, Deborah Sheldon, Greg Chapman and Charles Lovecraft.

My mentor is the talented and generous Deborah Sheldon, whose writing is as seductive and sublime as it is horrifying. Pop over to her website and check out her work. You won’t be sorry, I promise.

Every week, Deb and I catch up for a one-hour phone call, where she breaks down my writing and my writing practice. We examine the pieces to see what works and what needs work. I then email her questions to give her time to prepare for the next session. We cover everything from writer’s block, pacing, plotting, setting, short fiction, long fiction, characterisation, and how cows kill more people than sharks every year. The mentorship will run for a total of twelve weeks.

As an editor, it seems counter-intuitive that I would need someone to pull apart my writing and show me where I’m falling down. But that’s one of the unavoidable truths about being a writer: it’s often difficult to see the flaws in your own work. As you revise your own writing, you’ll naturally replay the story in your head, filling in the gaps, skipping over missing words and incorrect spelling. Your imagination will leap over the gaping plot holes and paint in the blank scenery, because you know the story you meant to write.

The value of a skilled mentor or editor is that they come to your work fresh. They bring years of writing experience and craft, and can suggest new ways to tackle the obstacles in your path.

So, what can you expect from a mentorship?

1)      To work hard. As a mentee, it’s up to you to figure out what you want to gain from the mentorship and make the most of it.

2)      To be challenged. Be prepared to examine your own processes and have your writing pulled apart. Be open to suggestions and critique: it will strengthen you as a writer.

3)      To be surprised. At times tapping away on your keyboard all by your lonesome means that your writing process can turn insular. You might have found a groove that works or be stuck in a rut that doesn’t, but not have any idea how to jump tracks. A mentor who approaches writing from a different angle could help you to switch gears and venture down new paths.

4)      To be inspired. A mentorship will give your writing a boost unlike any other learning experience. You’ll come away from each session with your mind buzzing, eager to get back to that manuscript that’s been languishing in the bottom drawer for months.

What Deb brings and what I value most, are lessons on the craft of writing. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share what I’ve learnt from each session. I hope they enrich your writing as much as they have mine.

Do you have an experience as a mentee or a mentor? Please share in the comments below. I’d love to hear about it.