How to focus on the heart of your novel. Plus, a special offer for writers

At the time of writing we’ve just started a new year – a time many people resolve to write the novel they’ve always wanted to write.

If you have a great idea for a story and you’re setting out to write your first draft, even if this isn’t your first novel, I’ve put together this post for you. If you find it helpful, I have a special offer for writers. More on that below.

But first, as a developmental editor I get sent many manuscripts, and many writers later tell me how they wish they’d been in touch before finishing the entire novel; how if they’d been in touch in the early stages, it would have saved them a lot of thought and rewriting.

writing, editing, writing tips

What is your story about?

Very often the reason for this is the simple question in my feedback: ‘What is your story about?’

This may sound like a simple question, but it’s surprising how hard some writers find it to answer in a line or two. If you can’t answer in a line or two, it can be a sign your novel is drifting.

There are lots of reasons for a drifting story.

  • Perhaps you’ve had too many ideas you just had to add and couldn’t bear to cut anything
  • Perhaps you reached the middle and ran out of steam with your original idea, so you threw in other elements in the hope of keeping the reader interested
  • Maybe you simply lost sight of your first idea during the months it took to write the novel, and the story drifted into something else.
writing, writing tips, editing

Story is everything

For me, story is everything. I mainly edit commercial fiction, and in particular romantic fiction, but classic literature involves a cracking story too, with a beginning, a middle and an end.

People say James Joyce’s Ulysses is one of the most ‘difficult’ works of literature, but it’s also a story. Like nearly all good stories, the core premise can be summed up in a couple of lines: Ulysses is a remake of Homer’s epic, set in Ireland. It tells the tale of the day in the life of an ordinary guy making his way home through the streets of Dublin to his wife, and the people he meets along the way. It’s a simple but intriguing premise.

You may feel I’ve reduced Joyce’s epic novel, but the story is what engages the reader to think about his themes, his ideas and his wordplay.

It’s all about focus

The writers for Pixar have made some of the most successful commercial films of all time, with some deep underlying themes. I love Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling because they encourage writers to focus on the core of their story and resist the urge to drift.

Before you start writing…

Decide ‘what is my story about?’ Write out a two- or three-line synopsis. This is your core premise.

With every single scene, piece of dialogue and character introduced, it helps to ask yourself how does this relate  to my core premise? If I cut it, would it matter to the core premise? If the answer is ‘no’, then why not cut?

Here’s Pixar’s Rule No 5: ‘Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.’

Making things simple

And here’s Pixar’s Rule No 4, and the most simple rule of all:

‘Once upon a time there was……Every day, ……One day……Because of that, …… Until finally……’

Thinking of things simply helps you focus, focus, focus on the core premise and resist the urge to stray with unrelated events and characters.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the writers of South Park, give another really simple piece of advice in this talk which has always stuck in my mind.

‘This happened, then this happened, then this happened’ does not make a story.

A story is ‘this happened because this happened’, and  ‘this happened therefore this happened’, and ‘this happened but then this happened.’

The job of a developmental editor

writing, romance editor, editing

It’s not easy to see where your own story is drifting. Writing a novel takes months – sometimes years. Even the best authors have editors to help them make their stories the best they can be.

Here are some tips to help you keep your story on track before you send it to an editor.

  1. Avoid the temptation to inject ‘more interest’ with storylines that are unrelated to the key characters.
  2. Be brave! Don’t create characters and then ‘run away’ from them to introduce someone new. Keep your characters in the spotlight and get to know them.
  3. You don’t have to keep thinking up dramatic situations to keep readers interested. Think of testing your characters. What will make them tense? Even a quiet gathering of friends at home can be the source of undercurrents
  4. If you introduce a new character, ask yourself what is his/her purpose?
  5. Ask yourself what would happen to your key story if you removed one of your characters. If the answer is ‘nothing’ then why are they there?
  6. You’ve just had a brilliant idea! But ask yourself if that idea really belongs in this particular story. No matter how wonderful, you can’t just shoehorn them all in, or they’ll just become random fluff. Keep the brilliant idea for the next book, and focus on the story and characters you have.
  7. Remember, a book isn’t just a series of great scenes. A series of scenes, no matter how well written, will start to become dull. A scene has to be there to drive the story forward or reveal something about one of the characters. If it doesn’t, cut it, no matter how hard that is.
writing, romance novel editor, editing

This might seem contrary, but don’t worry if, after a while, you think your story is losing focus. Perhaps the story you first thought of isn’t the one you’re going to tell. This is where a rewrite and reworking comes in, but as you rewrite, ask yourself what purpose every single scene and character serves, and make a conscious decision about whether you keep them in or not.

Special editing offer

And now for my special offer. You may have seen from my editing services page that I offer writers a sample edit. This edit consists of a full copy edit of the first 5,000 words of a novel, plus developmental feedback on your opening and the story as a whole – as much as I can tell from your one- or two-page synopsis. My feedback is thorough. (Feel free to check out my testimonials page.)

This year I’m increasing my fee for a sample edit to £75. But for those who include a link to this page with their enquiry, I’m offering a sample edit for the old fee of £60. My email address for enquiries is helena.fairfax@gmail.com, or you can contact me here, and don’t forget to mention this article and include the link.

If you’ve read this far, happy writing this year, and wishing you every success with your novel.

writing, romance novel editor, editing

With thanks to Saydunga89 on Pixabay for the images

10 thoughts on “How to focus on the heart of your novel. Plus, a special offer for writers

  1. Well, a bit like James Hunt, I usually just turn up drunk, put my foot down and beat the hell out of my characters to see what makes them tick, but this is good advice.

    I once knew a young “film maker” (or rather, sausage) who thought he could write, too. But even back then, I had some conception that you had to draft and edit stuff while a lot of the people round me were young, egotistical and full of it.

    One guy even thought he was so good he didn’t have to do drafts…

    Anyway, I got this first draft, there were too many characters and it was a complete mess. I tried to instil some order, this other guy’s ego got in the way and he might as well have had attention deficit disorder. I trimmed things down, he added them back in, went off at another ridiculous tangent then suddenly said it all had to be set in Ireland…

    I quietly absented myself and let him go straight up his own backside.

    Sadly, there are many like him.

    Looking back on that lot, we actually did have a lot of talent between us but were so young, egotistical, control-freakish and up ourselves that almost all of it was wasted.

    I’d like to think that I myself did succeed, and maybe had a little ability; but I also knew that I had to do drafts until my hands bled!

    The greatest writer in the world can’t write a great novel in one go, but try telling some people that…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The editor / writer relationship is such a tricky one. It’s essential both parties get on, which is why I always offer a sample edit. It gives both editor and writer the opportunity to see if we can work together. One of the freedoms for freelancers like me and the indie authors I edit for is that we can choose who we work with. I’ve been lucky to work with a great bunch of writers and to make genuine friendships.
      I love the idea of turning up drunk and beating the hell out of your characters :D Your characters always turn out all the better for it!
      Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your great comment. Wishing you all the best with your writing in 2023!


  2. Thanks for the Pixar rules of writing. I can use them for my life story writing workshop this winter. Best wishes on another year of writing and in your case, developmental editing!! Have fun with your kids! J

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    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you found the tips useful. Regarding high drama, there is a famous quote by Jane Austen in which she compares her stories to painting in miniature (‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush…’). Her stories are full of strong emotions, but few highly dramatic incidents.
      Thanks so much for dropping in, and for taking the time to comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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