"The principles of staying focused can be applied to chapters, paragraphs and even individual sentences."
—Noah Lukeman, author of the soon-to-be-released book, The First Five Pages: A Writers Guide to Getting out of the Slush Pile (SIMON & SHUSTER, JAN. 2000)
Developing a Fierce Eye For Focusing Your Manuscript
Noah Lukeman, President Lukeman Literary Management, Ltd, New York
An excerpt from Chapter Seventeen: Focus
The First Five Pages: A Writers Guide to Getting out of the Slush Pile
(abridged from 2,500 words)
Writing is like steering a ship: one will inevitably-and constantly-fall off course on the way to ones destination. Did you ever sit down to write a letter and end up saying something totally different than youd set out to? A term paper?
It is the writers job to distance himself from his work and then return to it with a merciless eye, an eye that ignores the beauty of the language, the brilliance of the characters improvisation. This eye-the focus eye-must fiercely ask if the writing is doing what it set out to. Editing to stay on track, to maintain focus, is not a criticism, as most writers take it to be. It is an inevitability.
Focus is traditionally talked of in a broad sense, as in, make sure your story stays focused; but few people know that focusing can also be applied in a narrow sense to help make a much better manuscript: the principles of staying focused can be applied to chapters, paragraphs and even individual sentences. Everyone seems to understand that no book should be by accident: what you set out to achieve in the beginning should be resolved in the end. But writers seem to forget this when it comes to smaller segments like sentences, paragraphs and chapters, where it is equally important.
Of course, there is always room for suspension of resolve, and not every chapter, paragraph or sentence can have a perfect beginning, middle and end, but a manuscript full of chapters, paragraphs and sentences that begin on one point and end on another (never resolving the original point) eventually lend a manuscript an unfocused feel (this especially holds true for non-fiction).
Solutions and Exercises
o Look over the events (even minor) in your manuscript and check to see if they are resolved. This sounds like a basic mistake but is more common than you think.
o Look for blatant digressions. You know when youve given yourself some sort of license, be it for pontification or indulgence. Can any be cut?
o Look at your opening. Is it wildly different from the rest of the book? Often after you settle into your style, you can look back to find some of the initial writing incongruous.
o Summon your original intention when setting out to write the book. What was your original goal? Did you have one? Did you at least have any general ideas about where youd wanted it to go? Did it go there? If not, why not? Where did you go off course? When you went off course, was it a tangent, or could it be the source of some other goal? Can you add anything to help bolster your original mission?
o Now apply the above to individual sentences, paragraphs, chapter and book breaks.
o Finally, beware the dangers of being too focused. If your manuscript progresses too cleanly, too neatly-is too rigid, perfect-then perhaps youve overdone the focusing and need to allow some room for spontaneity and digression.
Noah Lukeman is President of Lukeman Literary Management Ltd, a literary agency based in New York City. Among his writers are numerous Pulitzer Prize nominees, NEA and Pushcart Prize recipients, national journalists, professors of esteemed universities, New York Times bestsellers and major celebrities. He has worked on the editorial side of several major publishing houses and as editor of a literary magazine. He has spoken on the subjects of writing and publishing at many places, including the graduate writing program at Stanford University and Riker's Island Penitentiary. This excerpt is from his forthcoming book The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Getting Out of the Slush Pile, to be published by Simon & Schuster/Fireside in January 2000. To read more from the book, visit its dedicated web-site at www.PrePub.com/TheFirstFivePages.htm.