I just spent three hours writing 74 words.
I’m not usually so slow. In three hours, I’d more typically draft 750 or 1,000 or, on a good day, 1,500 words. But this project was different. I was drafting the back copy for the novel I’m revising. In other words, I was finding its focus.
Like the novel itself, the back copy draft has gone through several iterations. This won’t be the last. Publishers have staff who are really good at this sort of thing, and likely someone there will nail the focus of the book better than I.
Helping writers find focus is also a function I serve when I’m working with editing clients. Fortunately, I’m a lot more efficient when I’m looking at someone else’s work.
Finding focus is inherent to the writing process. Like the rest of the process, it’s recursive, cycling in and out and back again as a project is drafted and refined. The focus conundrum results from the fact that our subconscious tends to know what it’s doing, but it can take a long while for our conscious brain to catch on, and even longer for us to articulate the essence of the project in a way that’s both accurate and compelling.
Composed to lead the Sell Sheet for each big project I write, back copy is akin to a mission statement, defining the book and its focus. In early drafts, I look for places where the language is sketchy or generic. That’s a sign that I’m missing something crucial, that I need better focus—potentially, not only in the back copy, but in the project itself.
To illustrate, here are two early versions of the back copy I worked on this morning:
- Dead at the age of eighteen, Tad Lincoln is doomed to haunt the theater he loved—and hated—during his brief life. Teetering on the brink of madness, actor John McCullough is Tad’s best hope for escape. But as in life, Tad’s biggest obstacle is his brother Robert, sole surviving son of President Abraham Lincoln. Only by confronting hard truths about his family—and himself—can Tad’s ghost change his fate.
- Long his mother’s keeper, Abe Lincoln’s youngest son, Tad, dies just as he’d planned to break free. As a ghost, he haunts first an asylum and then a theatre. He crosses paths with his oldest brother, Robert, who reminds Tad of his many failings even as he refuses to acknowledge him. But through a famed actor and his madness, Tad may finally prevail.
Both blurbs highlight key components of the novel. In the first, there’s a good deal of generic language—biggest obstacle, hard truths, change his fate. There’s less in the second, but there’s still may finally prevail. Prevail over what, you may ask. Ah, there’s the rub.
Words are the tip-off that more focus is needed, but to come up with a stronger version, I had to go beyond wordsmithing. I had to think more precisely about what holds the book together.
After three hours of brainstorming and tinkering, here’s the version with improved focus:
In life, whims and pranks marked Tad Lincoln, the president’s youngest son. In death, madness defines him. He haunts the insane asylum where his brother Robert has committed their mother, then the theatre where a famed actor is descending to the abyss.
But beyond the grave, old wounds still fester. To prove himself better than he was, Tad must first contend with his eminently sane brother, who refuses to believe.
Now the conflict between the brothers comes into focus through allusion to their contrasting characters: whims/pranks/madness vs. eminently sane/refuses to believe. There’s mention, too, of the source of their conflict: old wounds. The theme of madness is also identified as central to the plot, unfolding in two separate settings.
The three hours of focus-finding also yielded a better working title for the novel. Instead of TAD, it’s now SO LIKE A WAKING.
When does the focus-finding end? In my experience, it doesn’t. You reach a point where you’ve found enough focus to guide the project to its best form. Then you release it to the world, and readers share with you the focus they’ve found in your work, which invariably reveals new points of focus.
That’s what make writing fun.
Named by Library Journal as “one of Alaska’s leading storytellers,” Deb Vanasse has authored seventeen books. Her most recent novel, Cold Spell, “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds” (Booklist). Wealth Woman, her “deeply researched and richly imagined” gold rush biography of Kate Carmack, was named a True West “Best of the West” selection. She also works as an editor for hire.