February 3, 2007


Recently, in Miss Snark’s Crap-O-Meter on plot hooks, I saw over and over in most of her comments the word, “FOCUS.”

Sometimes that was all she wrote when the hooks were all over the map; they were about this, a little of that. There was no cohesion anyone could see in many of the entries. They weren’t focusing on the job at hand, which, make no mistake about it, when you set out to write a book, it IS a job and you want to get paid for your time, am I right? Or are you still waffling around saying all you want is to ‘hold your book in your hands’? That’s a nice vision, but your attitude about the $$ will change once you get that first taste of blood.

How do you get that first $$ flavored taste?

In this blog and on my Workshop pages, I’ve previously written about several problems in constructing a novel, but up to now I haven’t talked much about focus, which is actually one of the the main things that separates a published novel from an unpublished one.

When I say focus, I’m talking about making sure your entire book is in sync, that everything blends smoothly, that it all makes sense according to what the book actually IS. Not an easy thing to do when a lot of people are telling you to just sit down and write what you love to read, is it? Write the book of your dreams? Sounds nice, right? Easy, right?

Well, by following only that advice, at least you’ll be interested in the book you’re writing.

But you have to be more than interested. You have to be aware, at the same time, of the pitfalls that can derail your book.

You have to maintain your focus in every sentence, every single word you write. You can’t let your book or your characters wander all over the place, you can’t write whole scenes where nothing happens to forward the plot, you can’t let your characters fill up pages with meaningless dialogue, or have them doing things that don’t further your plot just because you’re letting them do what they want. Can’t do that. You need to focus on your job.

First, for new authors, instead of just having a vague idea of what you want to write, you need to sit down and give some serious thought to the genre you’re aiming at AND THE TONE YOU WANT TO PORTRAY. Just deciding it’s a romance, or it’s a mystery, or whatever you choose isn’t enough. Too often we think it is, but it’s not. You need to be aware of the nuances throughout your book and make sure they’re all aiming at the same thing. Do you want funny? Poignant? Fast-paced? Lyrical? Haunting? Scary?

What, exactly, do you want this book to do for your readers? You need to think about that, because the answer to this question drives your book as long as you know what you want for your readers to feel when they read and then FOCUS ON THAT.

Here’s an example. You say you want to write a fast-paced mystery. You’re good at writing comedy. It starts out fine, the lines are snappy and funny, the book’s moving along, you’re halfway done with the book and suddenly one of your lead characters veers off into a completely different type of personality and problem than the one he started off with and you discover you really like how it’s going. Now, that is. You’re liking him better. Now. He’s got more depth, more humanity than you recognized at first. Now. You think he’s growing, the way everybody says your characters should do–and they should. But you can’t let them change enough that it starts your book off all over again in an entirely new genre.

Before, you had him racing around town looking for criminals who committed a particularly terrible crime, plus sorta kinda falling, temporarily, for every female he sees. No holds barred for this slick, wisecracking, basically romantically insincere guy. NOW he’s turned into a guy who WAS mainly looking for the killer, but suddenly THAT takes second place to a flaming romance with a woman who has turned him into a gauzy, daydreaming, waffling mass of Jello-O who is only thinking about picket fences and three-point-seven children.

What’s happened here?

You lost your focus. Changed his personality AND HIS GOALS midstream. Now most of the things he did in the first half of the book don’t make sense. Worse yet, you probably don’t recognize this because it’s hard to see these things in your own book, particularly if you’re a new, basically undisciplined writer. So you go on and finish the book the way he is NOW and then wonder why you’re collecting nothing but rejections.

You lost your focus.

You need to give him his goals at the beginning of the book and then stick with them. If he changes to any large degree, his goals are going to change because the thing that drove him at the beginning disappears when his personality and goals change. And there goes your plot. His initial goals are no longer relevant.

That may be okay if you’re really writing a romance. But you SAID you were writing a fast paced mystery with this wiseass guy, and you’ve already spent several months (if not years) with a mystery in mind. But now it’s turned into a romance, and now the romance takes precedence.

So you need to decide, at the beginning, whether this is going to be a romantic suspense OR a mystery, which are two entirely separate kinds of books with an entirely different set of reader expectations.

I have to say one thing right here that probably won’t gain me any votes when I decide to run for President of the USA. (Any day now. I’d love to see Maureen Dowd take out after me. 😉 I get weary, hearing mostly new writers blathering on and on about how “Oh, my characters just took over the book and did what they wanted and I couldn’t stop them because they wanted to do it this way, not that way…” and then you hear five hundred reasons why the writer can’t finish the book, when the real reason is, the author lost her focus. She forgot why she was writing the book. Forgot what emotions she wanted to evoke in her readers.

Face it, your characters come from inside you. If you lose your focus, so will they. Don’t blame it on them, not to me, anyway.

So what do you do with the romance you’ve wound up with, short-sheeting the murder mystery you started out with so that it barely matters anymore, but you’re STILL calling it a mystery? I can tell you right now, mystery readers will nab you sure as God made little green outer space men IF you even get out of the starting gate, which you won’t because agents and editors spot early on whether or not you have focus. They look for focus. If it’s not there, BEEP, get out of the box. Reject.

What you do is, you reconnect with your focus. You take a long, hard look at your book. What did you intend to write? What tone did you want to project? Did you do what you set out to do? If you’re not sure, ask someone with experience. They’ll spot it fast enough. And then you do a rewrite, probably one of many, and re-establish the focus you need for the genre you’re aiming at. (I think I just dropped a participle, please forgive me.)

I’m not saying everything you decide at first is cast in stone. Books can change and often do, but one thing you need to be aware of. The professional writer doesn’t want to lose weeks or months because she lost her focus and now has to rewrite before she even thinks of submitting. The professional writer picks her poison and then sticks with it. Even pro writers who don’t plot at all know pretty much where they’re going from the git-go and if they’re working, consistently selling writers, they go there. Period.

I once read a book written by a guy who was a fantastic writer, as far as writing the words and phrases went. He had written his book starting with one problem for his protagonist that he solved by chapter three, then his protagonist started off in chapter four trying to solve the big problem that was the real reason for his book. I can’t tell you how jarring that was to read because the first problem had nothing whatsoever to do with the protagonist’s main problem. Nothing. It was just there.

He lost his focus. He never found a major publisher willing to publish it.

You have to focus on the book’s main plot and make sure your protagonist/s jibe with the main plot, and this takes some concentration. If your plot is one genre, your protagonist can’t be a character who clearly belongs in another type of genre. If he/she is, then the book can’t have focus because the focus isn’t there. Tone of book, plot, and your lead characters, all three must jibe. If they don’t, something is out of kilter and you need to change it. This is really important, so I hope you’re paying attention to what I just said and think about it. Decide on what kind of book you’re writing, and make sure your characters are right for that type of book.


As for focusing on finishing a book you’ve started and just can’t seem to finish, and I’m speaking from sad experience here, the holidays are over now. It’s hard to focus on writing when the holidays are upon us, we all know that, although the professional writer under deadline does it anyhow, so you might as well start training yourself now if you intend to be a professional author because sooner or later you’re going to have to do it. Your $$ may depend on being able to focus enough to do it.

One thing I can promise you. If you think about the tips in this blog and stick to them, it’ll make it a whole lot easier for you to keep on keeping on, because it will feel right to you and you’ll be more apt to finish a saleable book. That tiny feeling inside any author has, that something’s not quite right is always a signal from your inner self telling you something is off.

Don’t let it be your FOCUS.

Thank you for visiting our blog this week. We love y’all, you KNOW we do. Come back again next week, ya hear us?

Warm Hugs from Hotclue and Beth here in frigid Chicago, IL, USA, where it’s heading for below zero and we’re heading for a great book to read–Eileen Dreyer’s new one, SINNERS AND SAINTS. We’ll tell y’all next week how we liked it.

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