Sometimes the most important concern when it comes to crafting a manuscript is to focus your writing.
To a point we already know that. In fact, we discussed how to focus your writing quite a bit last month in the second installment of our series on overwriting. Specifically we discussed the dangers of too many points of view, and how focusing on a limited number of perspectives can enable readers to experience a story the way we intend.
But focus affects writing, and overwriting, well beyond point of view. Indeed, focus is one of the most difficult elements of crafting any type of book. So as we continue our series on overwriting, we’re going to discuss several more reasons a canny writer must focus on focus.
(Missed the previous articles in this series? Start here.)
Focus Your Writing in Fiction
One of the more important questions we ask of any narrative is “What story are you trying to tell?”
Recently I edited a promising novel by an author whose narrative ran off in a few too many different directions. At heart it was a work of character-driven literary fiction, but it introduced elements of mystery, crime procedural, and even thriller—not intrinsically disparate genres, but certainly different in execution. The problem came from a story line that took the author too far away from the character-driven story she set out to tell.
But such issues with focus can manifest themselves in any number of ways. Maybe your narrative is overrun by subplots. There’s nothing wrong with a subplot, but if it’s thematically inconsistent with the rest of the manuscript, then it can—and probably should—be cut. Similarly, if there are sequences and scenes that you could remove without actually changing the story in any substantial way, it’s a sure sign that your net is cast too wide. Removing these scenes will create a stronger focus on the arcs that actually drive your story, enabling you to better engage your readers.
Sometimes, though, it’s not so much a matter of extraneous scenes and story lines than a manuscript that keeps going beyond the point at which it probably should have ended. And one possible reason for this is that you’ve written more than one novel. My very first developmental edit as a freelancer was of a sprawling manuscript that covered multiple generations of two different families and comprised more than 160,000 words. Today you can find that manuscript as three different novels. As one novel, the manuscript was uneven and thematically inconsistent; by dividing it into three, the author was able to focus on each individual generation with the story lines, themes, and concepts that most applied.
Some novels are by nature epic, and in those genres that best support stories of such scope—most often fantasy, science fiction, and some historical fiction—average word counts tend to be higher than for other genres. But at the same time, many such stories are parts of ongoing series, and it’s not always easy to know where one book should end and the next should begin. So if the first book of your grand fantasy epic has crossed, say, 150,000 words, then there’s a reasonable chance you’re already on Book 2. And making such a realization enables you to save time and money by presenting a smaller manuscript to your editor.
(Be careful though. Your first book isn’t finished just because it passes a certain word count. It still needs to read as a cohesive, self-contained narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end.)
Focus Your Writing in Memoirs
What’s the difference between autobiography and memoir?
The difference is that a memoir tells a story.
A memoir is a work of narrative nonfiction, relating a story from the author’s life rather than simply relating the full sequence of events of the author’s entire existence. The question is what story—and it’s a question that needs to be asked because a life, generally speaking, includes many stories. One of the most challenging aspects of writing an effective memoir, just as with writing an effective novel, is determining what story you really want to tell.
One of the best memoirs I ever worked on was written by a woman who has lived a truly extraordinary life. The first draft of her manuscript was filled with interesting anecdotes and compelling conflict, but while the first half of the manuscript was about human trafficking, the second half of the manuscript was about the author’s search for love. Both parts were individually interesting, but they lacked the thematic focus for the overall story of the memoir to be effective.
So we figured out what story the author most wanted to tell. We focused on those anecdotes that related to that story, while cutting a number of legitimately compelling moments that simply didn’t fit. The resulting streamlined narrative—still covering both portions of the author’s life, but framed and presented very differently—was not only some 15,000 words shorter, but also a good deal more compelling.
So although in the abstract it may seem obvious, one of the most important means of reducing the length of your overlong manuscript is determining that at all times you’re focused on telling the story you mean to tell.
Focus Your Writing in Prescriptive Nonfiction
Just recently I was editing a terrific work of prescriptive nonfiction that included aspects of the author’s autobiography. The challenge for the author, through multiple edits, was determining which parts of this autobiography were necessary and which should be cut so that the manuscript remained focused not on her life, but on the medical issues she meant to discuss with the reader. The author needed only those aspects of her personal story that led her toward the realizations informing her process and the book. She also needed context to clarify those elements. Anything else could be removed from the manuscript, and was—and the manuscript was stronger (and shorter) for it.
Prescriptive nonfiction has a purpose: to inform, educate, and often provide guidance on a particular topic. The intent of such a book, typically conveyed in the early pages, is referred to as the promise—as in the solution your book promises to provide, or the lesson it promises to teach. Determining the promise of your manuscript early in the writing process is a great way to ensure your writing remains focused.
As you write your prescriptive nonfiction book, ask yourself these questions:
• What is your area of expertise and what are you promising your readers?
• What specifically do you want readers to learn from your manuscript?
• How does each chapter, and each subject, help readers understand the overall topic?
• What questions are readers likely to ask about this topic? What questions are they not likely to ask?
It’s easy for a manuscript to meander beyond the realms of points you have the background to make. It’s easy to find yourself addressing issues that don’t actually support your point. And a book that spreads itself too thin teaching everything ultimately teaches nothing.
The same principle basically applies to fiction and memoir: If your focus is too wide, you’re not effectively communicating your narrative. And the result is a sprawling, overwritten manuscript.
Next month, we’ll wrap up our series on overwriting by studying story arc and how repeated plot beats belabor a narrative. For now, let me know in the comments below what tools have helped you focus your writing.
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.