Focus on this, baby

In my post Pitchmen, I used the TV show by the same name to highlight my point about learning how to communicate your story. Well, TV did it again. It was the Food Channel this time – which is ironic since my cooking skills normally result in a quick visit to the ER for those suffering some sort of gastric blowout.

The show was one of those cake competitions where five chefs are tasked with designing and creating an amazing cake. One of the judge’s comments to a chef was something I found interesting because it’s much the same with writing. His crit?

“There is so much going on, it’s hard to see the main focus of your cake.”

Big sloppy kisses to Judge Whoseewhatzit because I say this all the time. It’s much harder to see this in a manuscript than a six foot cake, but the lesson is nonetheless vital to the foundations of your creation, n’est pas? I see writers with enough subplots to sink a ship, and it’s sometimes impossible to figure out the plot from the white noise. If I can’t figure it out, will your readers? Doubtful.

Whaddya trying to say?

There are stories that have two opposing forces ripping at the fabric of the book. This is different from many-subplot-a-tosis. Case in point, I just rejected a memoir that I thought had real possibilities. Mother/daughter getting re-connected through a cancer diagnosis. Right up my alley. I wasn’t expecting a travelogue. Page upon page was filled with the histories and lives of the other patients they encountered in chemotherapy.

In my rejection letter, I suggested to the author that she hadn’t fully defined her message. It’s as simple as saying, “What do I want to say with this book? Have I done that?” Had she asked herself those two questions, she would have easily seen that over a third of her book was completely off the reservation. That’s a big misfire.

Outline, baby

Chapter outlines are particularly useful because they keep you focused on the bigger picture in smaller chunks. If your chapters are on task, your book will be on task. Outlines basically ask:

  • What is the purpose of this chapter?
  • What are you trying to say?
  • Is what you’re trying to say vital to the plot?

This is applicable to fiction and nonfiction. You want your book to be that six-foot cake that the judges and audience oohs and aaahs over because you focused on your message.

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