Thursday, May 13, 2010

Focus, or lack thereof

by David Ellis

When I was at the L.A. Times Festival of Books a couple weeks back (no, I didn't win the Book Prize for best thriller, but it-was-an-honor-to-be-nominated and really a blast overall), the panel I was on concerned thrillers. It was a great group: Karin Slaughter and Andrew Gross, neither of whom I had previously met, and one of my favorite writers and people, Gregg Hurwitz.

These panels are helpful to me because they get me to focus. And they sometimes remind me how unfocused I can be as a writer. People will often ask me why I chose some character, or this plot twist, or that theme, and more often than I would care to admit, my answer is that I don't have much of an answer. It seemed cool? It just sorta happened?

We talked on the panel, for example, about the amount of violence we show in a novel. To listen to my comrades, you'd think they thought through this question very carefully. Their answers were informative and interesting. I stuttered through an answer that went something like this: Whatever the novel requires.

"Whatever the novel requires" is basically my answer for everything. How much sex? How much violence? Length of the book? Gender of the main character?

Rules can be helpful, and general rules that allow for certain exceptions are more helpful still. Especially if your biggest goal is to be a best-seller.

I'm just not good at them. Maybe that's because I have a job with the government, which has very rigid rules, and I like having none when I write. Maybe there's some other reason. But when I'm writing, I like to take my hands off the steering wheel and let things happen, and in my experience it has made the novel better for having done so. More marketable and commercially successful? Maybe so, maybe not. But more fun for me, which fortunately or unfortunately is the most important criterion for me.

Still, I'm going to re-focus on focusing. Put more advance thought into characters and plots ask myself the "why" question in a deeper way than I normally do. Maybe it will make some perceptible difference in my writing. And maybe it will help me have snappier answers at the ThrillerFest and Bouchercon panels this year.


Dana King said...

I don't know, I think "whatever the novel requires" is as good a rule as you can have.

David Ellis said...

Me too, Dana. Always what I fall back on.

David Terrenoire said...

Working 60 hour weeks as a copywriter blurs my focus, no question. It's a struggle to get 1000 words a week when in the past I did that in a day. Still, my wife has become accustomed to regular meals.