Focus on the Now

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Focus on the Now.

Writing the Now is crucial in those segments or scenes of dramatic relevance (particularly action or emotionally-charged sequences). The Now is all about focusing on an immediate moment in your plot or in your character’s story—and not reminding us of what’s previously occurred or inferring what might happen next. In those tension-charged “inhale” moments (see Rule #8: Keep your characters moving) one’s writing should never dawdle, or drift, or pull away from visual or emotional impact. Thus, this rule’s addendum to #8’s sage wisdom is this: Keep your characters—and the reader—grounded in space/time. (Seriously.) Keep us here. Keep us now. When you’re confronting drama, your writing should be its most concise and free of asides and philosophical segues. Keep your writing linear.

Ah, yes, linear writing! We humans lead our physical lives (and we writers tend to tell our tales) in linear progression. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to do otherwise. Yesterday, today, tomorrow. It’s how to build a house, how to prepare a meal, how to walk from here to there and how to write a book; word by word, page by page, chapter by chapter.

Yet in terms of thinking—that is, processing our thoughts—we’re typically all over the bloody map. In a single moment, we may be pondering the water bill, what we ate for breakfast—do I have clean clothes for tonight? What was her name again?—while concurrently anticipating a vacation to Maui. We’re a myriad, a kaleidoscope, a raging volcano of random and unconnected thoughts, every minute of every day.

Unfortunately, we writers have to mute this cerebral cacophony and assemble a string of linear thoughts sufficient to complete a coherent book. When we sit down to write, some of us have barely a vague notion of what comes next. But we typically begin with a single idea that will (and must) grow and expand in a polite and orderly fashion—that will eventually encompass several hundred pages.

So how do we squeeze out the fat but leave the gristle? My suggestion (and now Rule #16) is this: Focus on the now. Stay in the moment. Don’t remind us of what’s already happened, and don’t allude to what might happen.

Thus, midway through a daring cavalry charge against a hoard of angry hostiles, a writer shouldn’t suddenly decide that the protagonist once had an aunt named Rita who smelled like persimmon blossoms. Maybe the dear woman exists in your mind—but now isn’t the time to introduce her.

Or perhaps we’ve maneuvered Rhonda and Robby, a pair of young lovers, atop Misty Mountain, alone beneath a full moon and about to share that first kiss. Once the puckering begins, we shouldn’t decide to pause to extensively examine what Rhonda ate for breakfast this morning. If there’s a plot-specific reason for depicting breakfast, sure, mention it—but not here. Not now. See Rule #26: Don’t mix action and information (and vise-versa). Meaning that once you’ve decided on action, stay with the action—follow it through. When you’ve fully inhaled—that is, infused your scene with sufficient drama—then it’s OK to exhale.

Ideas often form in bits and pieces; can ease into a writer’s consciousness like fragments of a wispy dream. It’s too easy to sidetrack ourselves, or to take off on flights of irrelevant fancy. Our fragile minds generally lack the comprehension skills to immediately structure each necessary thought in proper sequence, chronologically from A to Z.

That precise chronology requires editing and re-editing and re-re-editing. Adjusting. Pruning. So replay each scene, stripping needless verbiage until you’ve whittled your prose down to raw excitement. If you determine that Aunt Rita’s germane to the story, then by all means include her—but at the proper moment, where she can enter your tale bringing her own excitement with her. (As Sophocles once said* about drama; “T’is better to crash through a window than stroll through a doorway.”)

It’s typical to write a draft or two filled with holes and gaps, fits and starts, of competing scenarios and conflicting timelines and ‘what if’ possibilities; additions, deletions, asides and notes-to-self. We’ll rearrange our thoughts—finding Aunt Rita a proper home at the proper time, for instance—and telling us, preferably, only what’s transpiring at this moment.

To more closely examine the two major culprits that I typically find bogging down the momentum of Now:

The Recap. Recapping is reminding a reader, or summarizing, passages or events that have already transpired. A good novelist tells the reader once and moves on. Typically, a recap tends to be an unnecessary reiteration of a previous scene or sequence. Yet strong prose needs no reassurance. If you’re unsure whether a reader will remember your relevancy, revisit that scene and strengthen its potency (in its own Now.) Then move along.

BTW: Beware summarizing any verbiage as a fictive device. Usually lacking drama and stylistic intensity, a summary is a limp noodle of a segue or brief passage. Say it eloquently, or not at all.

The Telegraph. It’s common for some of us to inadvertently sneak bits of clairvoyance to a reader. For instance, I already know that Sheriff Bob and the Schoolmarm are going to sneak a kiss in Act II, even if I’ve barely started writing Act I. So it’s easy to placate my own excitement by writing: One day, Sally Sue knew she’d share a kiss with Sheriff Bob, and had dreamed of little else for the last two months… if only because I’m damned excited about that impending kiss. So I deliberately or subliminally tease the reader to wait for the fireworks. But what I’m really doing is telegraphing that probability to the reader—defusing the tension—and when the moment of the kiss arrives, many readers may feel cheated. T’is far better than to surprise the reader than render the moment predicable by providing that unnecessary wink and a nudge.

BTW: There’s a difference between a telegraph and the perfectly acceptable foreshadow. The foreshadow is a whisper; the telegraph is a shout. Or, to revisit Sally Sue’s predicament in a less obtrusive way: Sally Sue had never been kissed. So, sure, in the midst of revealing her loneliness, such observation can provide insight, yet won’t tease away any secrets or deflate tension.

So… Beware of recapping past events. Of foretelling the future. Stick with the events of the moment. Mesmerize your reader with the vibrant immediacy of the Now.

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* Or maybe not.
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