January 4th, 2013

Plot Fixer #10: A Loss Of Focus

KaraKara Lennox aka Karen Leabo is back today with her great Plot Fixer series. Don’t miss her other blogs!

Here are the links for Parts 1-9:

Part 1 – Your Premise Isn’t Compelling
Part 2 – How To Fix a Weak Opening
Part 3 – A Lack of Goals
Part 4 – Is Your Conflict Strong Enough?
Part 5 – Raising The Stakes
Part 6 – 5 Tips To Help Improve Your Story’s Pacing
Part 7 – Pick Up the Pace
Part 8 –  Is Your Plot Predictable
Part 9 – Plots That Rely on Coincidence and Contrivance

Do you get rejections or comments from contest judges that say your story is “episodic”? This is another way of saying your book lacks focus, or loses focus.

I read a book once by a popular author that seemed very much like a typical romance. But about 2/3 of the way through the book, the hero and heroine were together and the story seemed … done. So the author had the hero turn into a jerk, and a new hero was introduced, and the last third of the book was the heroine dumping the jerk and getting it together with the new hero. Weird, to say the least. This was the most egregious case of “loss of focus” that I have ever seen. It was clear the author finished her book but didn’t have enough words, and tacking on another romance was how she solved the problem.

(If anyone thinks they recognize the book or author, please don’t say. I love this author and I think most everything she writes is brilliant, plus she is a very nice person.)

Every book needs to be ABOUT something. This would be the book’s theme.

The first time I learned anything about theme (other than college lit classes) it was from my first editor at Silhouette, in an eight-page revision letter for my very first published book. She said something like, “You’ve established a lovely theme of renewal–children grow up and separate from their parents, only to marry and have children of their own, starting the cycle over again. Your heroine is struggling to make that break. Even the scene with the horse giving birth ties in to this theme.” Well, this just got me so excited. I had a theme of renewal!

The rest of the letter was not quite so heart-warming. My editor asked me to cut about a third of the book because it didn’t support the theme of renewal.  I had lost focus and wandered away from that theme for chapters at a time. Talk about an eye opener!

Popular Themes:

You must let go of the past before you can move forward
Love is better the second time around
Love can triumph over unfortunate circumstances
Opposites attract
Compromise is necessary in any strong relationship
To be grown up means accepting responsibility for your life
You must not be afraid to reach for an impossible dream
There’s no place like home
Good triumphs over evil
Love triumphs over fear
A family doesn’t have to be related through blood
Home is where you make it
Money can’t buy happiness
True intimacy must include complete trust
Love can tame a beast
Every human being deserves to be loved.
No matter your mistakes, you can be redeemed.
There are hundreds of possible themes you can choose. I just jotted these down off the top of my head.

A theme is a “universal truth,” though it doesn’t have to be “true” for everyone, and you don’t have to believe it. It just has to be true for this book. Your book sets out to prove something, through the struggles of your characters, and by the end of the book, it does or it doesn’t. Plenty of books, including some I’ve written, have a theme something like, “A family isn’t complete without children.” Or “You can’t understand selfless love until you have a child.” This isn’t something I personally subscribe to because I haven’t experienced it–I’ve never had children. But I can imagine how it is true for many people, and I can write a book that proves it.

To discover your theme, here are some questions to ask about your own book:

♦  What is your story about?
♦  What question will your book answer? (or, what is the story question?)
♦  What do the characters need to learn? (Digging deep into your characters can help
with this. Look at their past mistakes, their flaws, their errors in thinking.)
♦  Why did I want to write this book?
♦  How did the germ of this idea start?
♦  How are the characters different by the end of the book, and what changed them?
♦  How do I want the reader to feel after finishing my book?
♦  What published books are similar to mine, and what are the themes of those books?
♦  Would one of those themes apply to my book? (Don’t worry about “stealing” a
theme. Can’t be done.)

Many writers are drawn to the same themes over and over, and that’s okay. You might even develop a readership that way, because readers are drawn to the same themes, too. Any theme you pick can be illustrated in many, many ways.

Once you have a theme, write it down and tape it somewhere near your computer where you’ll see it all the time. Then it becomes much easier to stay focused. Ideally each scene should somehow relate to your theme. If a scene or a subplot seems not to relate to your theme, you might want to cut it, or rewrite it. If a subplot seems to contradict your theme, you might have to do some work to make it fit.

For example:

Suppose your book is about a hero and heroine who come from vastly different worlds, and the theme is “People from different worlds can forge a lasting relationship if their love is strong enough.” But then you have a subplot, with a secondary couple who love each other a lot, but the differences in their backgrounds still drive them apart. Is this a problem? Maybe you need to rethink your theme. Maybe it’s “People from different worlds can forge a lasting relationship if each is willing to sacrifice.” Now your subplot agrees–if the couple from the broken relationship weren’t willing to make sacrifices. This is the lesson your hero and heroine have to learn.

Sometimes an author will have a dynamite proposal, leading to many requests from editors, but then the book stumbles. That is often because the author didn’t build on what she established at the beginning. Whatever is happening in those first crucial chapters of your book has to lead into the rest of the book. Each scene leads seamlessly into the next. Once you know your theme, this building process becomes much easier.

I confess, often I don’t know my theme until I’m done with the messy first draft. Then I can go back and take out or revise stuff that doesn’t fit.

What is your theme? If you don’t have one, what are some possibilities? Post here if you’d like.

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Announcement: There’s a New Year’s party for all us creative types this evening at the #myWANA hashtag on Twitter. All details (and the chance for some shameless self-promotion are over at Jenny Hansen’s place, More Cowbell.

Where else can you find Kara?

Books as Kara Lennox: Project Justice series for Harlequin SuperRomance
Six titles now available in e-book or print!
Karen Leabo: Loveswept Classics e-books
Website: www.karalennox.com

No comments yet to Plot Fixer #10: A Loss Of Focus

  • Kara, how generous you are. Thank you.

  • Karen, I love this, and it’s going in my Craft folder. I’m still discovering the theme that runs through my novel (though I have one.) Every time I think I know it, I discover another layer! I’m learning so much about myself this way — an added benefit to writing!

    Jenny is our crit group’s ‘theme girl.’ When she reads, that’s what jumps out at her first. That’s proved invaluable to me! Thanks for the super post!

  • Christopher–my blogging here is totally self-serving. Every time I go over this material, it’s a refresher for me, too. If I don’t trot it out every once in a while, I forget it!

    Laura, glad it’s useful.

  • marsharwest

    Great post, Kara. Love the list. I was looking for something like this last year. Thanks for all your super tips. My theme seems to be many of us get a second chance at love, even when we’re not looking for it.

  • Like Laura, this is getting saved in the craft folder. Great post, Kara!

  • Hmm. Maybe that’s why I’m having trouble with my ending. I’m forgetting my theme. Thanks for the reminder!

    Barb

  • Very helpful post. I don’t write fiction, but I discovered that memoirs also need a theme to help the snippets of memories or stories hang together as a whole that continues to propel the reader forward. It’s tougher than you make it sound! 😉

  • “I confess, often I don’t know my theme until I’m done with the messy first draft. Then I can go back and take out or revise stuff that doesn’t fit.”

    I’ll see that, and raise you, Kara: I think an author who intentionally writes to a theme should knock it off. The best stories get churned out raw, and then we discover the theme (often using a great list of excellent questions just like yours.)

    Themes are the type of subtlety it’s hard to do intentionally. As Stephen King says in “On Writing,” what works better is to let the theme reveal itself, then go polish it up so readers pick it up on the FIRST pass instead of the third, which seems to be my habit.

    The mystery I’m rewriting now is about the strength we derive from loyalty, whether our own or that of others.

    The mystery I’m still writing? Who knows what it’s about. I do know there’s this lady and she does some stuff, and other stuff happens to her. I’m sure the theme will become clearer than that after I’ve written it.

  • Brilliant advice on theme. I printed this post out. The questions are really useful as theme can be slippery. We can be too close to our book and not see the theme clearly until an outsider (editor or beta reader) points it out.
    I’ve loved the whole Plot Fixer series and I hope it continues for a long time 🙂

  • My book has a few themes. Is that too scattered of me? They tie together … 1. The painful legacy of lies and secrets. 2. The sins of the father (or mother) are visited upon the son (or daughter). 3. Learning to accept your unique talent and making the most of it despite trauma and loss.
    I write epic fantasy. Emphasis on the epic 😛 Maybe complex themes aren’t a bad thing in that context? Ah well.
    Love your posts Kara!
    I always learn something here at WITS 🙂

  • Marsha, thanks for contributing your theme to the discussion.
    Orly, thank you!
    Barb, you’re welcome!
    Lorna, I’m guessing theme is even more important with a memoire. I think everyone likes to believe they were put on this earth for a reason, that their life has meaning. When you think about it, articles and essays also benefit from a strong, identifiable theme.
    Joel, I agree, you have to tread with caution if you know your theme from the start, because you risk the book becoming preachy or one-note. Heck, if Stephen King said it, it has to be true! On Writing is one of my favorite writing books.
    Retta, thanks. Actually, the series will be wrapping up pretty soon. I think I have one or two blogs left.
    Melanie—Long and complex books might well deal with more than one theme. But the more you can tie them together, the more cohesive the whole book will be, I think. And one theme should predominate—the lesson your main character learns, for example. (Then again, sometimes the theme experienced by readers will be different than you had in mind. Reading is a subjective experience, colored by the reader’s own life experiences.)

  • Kara, I love your Plot Fixer blogs. I’m a pantster and don’t always realize what my theme is until I’m a third of the way through the book. Probably not the best way to fly but I do go back and reinforce it where I need to. I liked the way you demonstrated how unwanted themes can creep in. That’s something we pantsters have to be aware of.

  • Thank you so much for you wonderful article.

  • Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author and commented:
    Another winner from WITS.

  • I’m just getting into your plot fixer advice, Kara, and finding it to be great help! Thanks! As for theme, I’m a write it out and hopefully discover it along the way. Thank you Ella Quinn for reblogging this helpful article.

  • […] I’ll be reading and sharing useful links. In particular, this week I was taken by the Plot Fixer series Karen Leabo posted over at Writers in the Storm as containing helpful tips for anyone […]

  • I saved this post for a while, wanting to read it when I could really mull it over. I know my current WIP is struggling with focus. Your emphasis on theme resonates. Thanks!

  • Thanks, Karen, for a great series on plot. I’ve kept all of them, and will refer back many times, I’m sure. The theme in my book is the classic, good triumphs over evil. That qualifies has a high theme does it not? 🙂

  • […] for instance, lesson ten on Loss of Focus. This lesson not only covers when you are drifting away, but why. You need to figure out your […]