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Monday, May 3, 2010

Squared Away and Finding Focus

What's the difference in these two pictures?

A highlighted focus.

In both photos the butterfly is what you wind up looking at. But in the picture on the left, you have to sort through the rest of the jumble of colors to find the butterfly. The picture on the laft grabs your attention because it's bright. The one on the left grabs your attention because of the focus.

It took me several "training" novels to learn how to focus on the story I wanted while leaving the background intact. My first novels were like the picture on the left, they showed everything. A few were simple pictures of butterflies on white, pretty, but no substantial background.

What I've come to prefer is a verbal picture akin to the picture on the right. The focus is clear and bright, but the background is full and visible, giving texture and meaning to the focus.

Editing for Focus:
1. Know what the focus is.
One of the hardest parts of a new story idea, for me at least, is trying to stuff all these shiny new ideas into some form of coherent story line. Every new idea is shiny, glittery, and tempting. I want to chase after all the possible story lines presented by a new world.

It doesn't work.

On the first draft, feel free to ramble. Once you buckle down to editing you need to pick one thread of logic to follow. One primary storyline, shove the rest to the back.

2. Find the balance.
Once you know what the focus is, trim back the background. Read through your manuscript and circle huge lumps of background detail that have clustered together in your writing.

I've found entire chapters where I rambled about some side plot. The chapter was deleted. It's painful, but necessary.

Slip in background details as support to the main story. Make sure every chapter builds on the main plot. Cut large chunks of background detail.

3. Build the focus.
When I read through rough drafts of my own work I often find that, while the chapter builds the plot, it doesn't highlight anything. It just plods along. Clomp.... clomp.... clomp.... clomp....

Nothing exciting happens. Nothing stands out. Nothing focuses my attention on the chapter.

What a plodding chapter needs is a sharp focus. Pick one key point (two, if you're daring) and mold the chapter around that key move. Maybe it's finding the fingerprint, maybe it's a key conversation, maybe it's a decision. Write the chapter to highlight that focus.

Note It's tempting to use repetition of a key focus to highlight something. Don't. Lead th reader, don't beat them over the head.

4. Check the big picture.
In the end, you can't focus a story in vacuum. You need at least one beta-reader to tell you whether the average reader will notice the focus. Think of the pictures again. If you zoomed in to the butterfly, rather than highlighting or coloring the butterfly, you could think the picture was focused. When you get back to the big picture though, nothing has changed.

Keep a beta-reader, agent, or crit partner around to help you make sure the big picture is as focused as you want.

Happy Editing!


  1. Thanks for this! I'm working on a fiction piece right now and have found myself floundering with this very issue.

  2. I'm working on this same issue - making sure the main theme of the story stays in focus throughout the plot & sub-plots. It seems like it should be so easy, but... ;-)

  3. Love the butterfly example! So clear.

  4. I'm so glad I'm not the only one! It's so easy for me to get lost in the subplots, sometimes I lose my main plot entirely.

    But I couldn't think of an exact example, something where I could say "use this word, not that word."

    Any thought?

  5. You know... the scary thing is right at this moment I was looking at that flower picture (nice trick, btw)... and I was thinking about whether the 'main plot' (the flower, in my view) for my current novel really IS the main plot (the flower) or if it is just the butterfly on the flower.

    That's VERY bad if I don't know, isn't it. :O

  6. Catherine - I've had that problem too. And that's why this is a *draft* and not the final version. Sometimes you learn that the MC or plot is different than you originally intended, that's okay. We have rewrites :)