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  

Advertisements

Mentorship Moment No. 3: Outcome vs Output

sprout-1147803_1920

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.

The promise of a killer opening line.

book-2869_1920

A killer opening line almost always sells it for me. A striking cover, a favourite author’s name, a tight, sharp blurb are all vital enticements, but the one thing that seals a book sale is a great opening line or paragraph. It’s a hard-working little collection of words but because its job is so important, it can be tricky to pin down.

So let’s examine some of the things that make up a killer opening line:

  • Voice: a compelling authorial voice creates an intimate connection with the reader. The reader knows what the style, tone and theme of the story is going to be and they willingly go along because the voice has authority.
    • For example:

‘No living organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.’ – Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House.

9780143122357

Why this works: Jackson’s voice is instantly recognisable. The Gothic tone and themes are delivered in a style that has a rhythm and precision that is hers alone.

  • Invitation: a great opening line invites the reader in. As Stephen King says, a killer opening line should say, ‘Listen. Come in here. You want to hear this.’
    • For example:

You’ve been here before. Sure you have. Sure. I never forget a face.’ – Stephen King, Needful Things.

NT10

Why this works: the conversational tone creates an intimacy with the reader and the language hints that this story is about small town life. The sentence, ‘You’ve been here before.’ tells the reader that the narrative is both familiar and cyclical. For many of King’s ‘constant readers’, it’s a shout out that they’re once again entering the story-rich town of Castle Rock. Not bad for thirteen short words.

  • Hints at the central story engine: a good opening line should hint at what the main theme of the story is going to be.
    • For example:

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.’ – Richard Matheson, I Am Legend.

61aUlQj4PSL

Why this works: the novella is essentially about Robert Neville’s struggle to survive as the last man standing after a vampire plague. The opening line reveals that he doesn’t yet fully understand his dangerous situation, and that the threat is something that only comes out at night. The use of the word ‘they’ hints at his loneliness. All in all, the opening line creates a sense of foreboding and isolation.

  • Poses a question: an unanswered question or mystery is a terrific hook that can make a reader want to keep turning the pages.
    • For example:

‘What should have happened was this:

We got a taxi home.’ – Kaaron Warren, Slights.

200px-KaaronWarren_Slights

Why this works: the reader immediately wonders what did happen instead. The question is posed in the main character’s matter-of-fact, off-kilter point of view, letting the reader know that the answer may not be something that will sit comfortably.

  • Starts where the story begins: the first few chapters in a draft are usually the writer finding their way into the story. Think about cutting to the moment where the trouble really starts for a strong opening scene.
    • For example:

‘Will Graham sat Crawford down at a picnic table between the house and the ocean and gave him a glass of iced tea.

Jack Crawford looked at the pleasant old house, saltsilvered wood in the clear light. “I should have caught you in Marathon when you got off work,” he said. “You don’t want to talk about it here.”

“I don’t want to talk about it anywhere, Jack. You’ve got to talk about it, so let’s have it. Just don’t get out any pictures. If you brought pictures, leave them in the briefcase – Molly and Willy will be back soon.”‘ – Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs.

615WItilpgL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

Why this works: Thomas Harris juxtaposes the idyllic family setting with the jarring horrors of a serial killer on the loose. This is the point in Will Graham’s life where he can no longer pretend he isn’t good at what he does – criminal profiling- and has to descend once again into the profession that almost killed him. This is essentially where all the trouble starts for him.

 

These are just some of the elements you can use to strengthen your opening line. Don’t worry if you don’t nail it straight away, there’s a good reason why writers spend time working and reworking the first few chapters of a novel. An opening line is a way in to the story for both the reader and the writer. The opening line captures the spirit of the story, its voice and intent and can help remind the writer just what they’re trying to say.

Above all, the most important thing an opening line can do, is make a promise to the reader. It’s a promise made by the author that they know where they’re going and what their story – their real story – is about.

Have a look at the opening line of your current WIP. Does it have any of the elements listed above? Post it up as a comment if you’re feeling brave. I’d love to read it.