Let’s say you’ve been ruminating over a creative writing project based on true facts, compiled research, or a memoir. At first glance, you have a choice of two markets—fiction or non-fiction—but if we delve deeper, we see an emerging trend in publishing of successful combinations of truth mingling with fiction, offering readers information presented in an engaging, emotionally driven story arc. Publishing: it’s kind of like life, isn’t it?
Author Terri Giuliano Long offers insight about how to make the right choice to execute an effective, focused writing plan. Below are excerpts from her post 8 Steps for Focusing Stories.
At first skim, this info might look like Writing 101, but there is plenty of (mostly self-published–sorry) material out there lacking focus, a clear theme, direction and a point. I only post what rings true for me–which is to say I too once overlooked the importance of theme–and I’m here now to advocate against it.
1. Decide what form your story will take. This may seem basic, and to some extent it is, but there’s currently a great deal of crossover between fiction and nonfiction. Writers use the same techniques to craft narrative nonfiction as they use when writing fictional stories.
In the past, questions about form often came down to whether the writer preferred or felt more comfortable with expository writing or fiction. It’s no longer necessary to make that distinction. Frank
McCourt’s wonderful memoir Angela’s Ashes, for example, reads like a novel, with carefully rendered scenes, dialogue, description and so forth pulling readers into the moment. This flexibility gives us greater freedom, and also presents a confusing array of options.
2. Consider your purpose. What do you hope to achieve by writing this story? If your goal is to educate readers, you might consider a news or magazine article, in which you state your ideas in a straightforward manner, and then use concrete evidence–facts, examples, expert testimony–to support them. If your goal is to create a work of art or enlighten your audience by inviting them to experience a situation, choose narrative.
You’ve defined your purpose, you know what you hope to accomplish, now –
3. Brainstorm. Although most how-to articles offer specific suggestions –map, create bubbles, free-write –experience tells me that there is no one correct way to brainstorm. For some writers, mapping works, while others, like me, figure out what they want to say only after writing it down. Do whatever you makes you feel comfortable.
Let you imagination run amok. Try to get as much down on paper as possible. Allow yourself to digress. If you’re writing about parent-child relationships and suddenly find yourself writing about
baseball–let yourself go. That may be the perfect lens for your story.
4. Draft and assess. Write a draft of your article, essay or story. Now read what you’ve written. As you read, ask questions. What appeals to you? Why? What stands out? What surprises you? Why? What catches your attention? Where did you spend the most time?
Look for patterns. Which words, descriptions or snatches of dialogue have you repeated? The answers to these questions will tell you what interests you most in the piece.
If you have trouble answering these questions or finding a pattern –
5. Create a rough outline. If you’re like me, you have outlines and lists and details on everything. But, there is a growing and rowdy population pantsing it, writing organically. –RL. That’s
fine, says Ms. Long, but, “lie if you must. Tell yourself this isn’t really an outline.”
Go through, paragraph-by-paragraph or scene-by-scene–chapter-by-chapter, if you’re working on a book –and jot down the main point in each. No need to write in sentences, but each point must be
simple, precise, and clear. When you’re finished, read your descriptions.
After we’ve read and reread a piece, words tend to blur. Ideas that seemed perfectly clear in our head morph into confusing, amorphous blobs. This exercise does two things: first, it breaks the work into component parts. There’s a reason marketers write in bullets–they’re easier to see, read and absorb. It also creates distance. If you don’t have the time to put the work away, let it rest and look at it later, dissecting it puts you in a different frame of mind and enables you to see the piece more objectively.
6. Identify Meaning. A story may have a clear beginning, middle and end, yet lack focus. While the plot moves clearly from A to B to C, the meaning or focus is unclear. This is called an anecdote. Focused stories add up to something; they have a focused meaning, a theme.
We can tell a story in many different ways. Suppose you witness a fire: you can ramble, give a directionless accounting, listing any detail that comes to mind. Or you can focus on a single aspect of
the fire–the courage of the firefighters, for instance, or the way the community rallied around the victims. By shaping a story around one particular focal point, selecting and relating only those details that further the point, you convey meaning.
Consider the example of the parent-child story and the baseball details that emerged in your draft. Maybe to make your point about changing parent-child relationships, you tell a story about
baseball. The plot relates the events of a story; the focus divulges your meaning, also known as “theme.”
7. Select and weed. Now that you’ve identified your focus, reread your draft or list. Which of the details or your list relate directly to your main idea? Which digress? Be precise. Muddy thinking produces muddy writing. Retain only those details that have a strong, concrete connection to your focal point. Cut all loosely connected ideas. I know, you can’t bear to throw your lovely words
away. Don’t. Use them in a different piece.
8. Revise. Be sure each scene–every detail–relates directly to, or in some way clarifies or develops your theme. Emphasize the most important scenes or points – in other words, emphasize those sections that crystallize your meaning. In a story, develop key scenes or important details or
descriptions. In essays, emphasize, or spend the most time developing, key points. Emphasis provides direction, tells the reader when to pay close attention. These signals clarify focus and pull your meaning to the forefront.
What strategies do you use to focus your ideas?
Terri Giuliano Long’s debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, hit the Amazon and Barnes & Noble bestseller liststhis summer. (You can also visit IndieBound and order for pick up or delivery through your local bookstore.) She teaches writing at Boston College and blogs about writing and the writing life here.