The Power of Focus in Your Art

oqx70jjbslomi5ackhxm_urbex-ppc-030Last month, an editor whose blog I’d been following for over a year offered me a free consultation, because the 20 pages I’d sent to her for feedback (paid service) showed her enough problems she wanted to give me a shout. Long story short, she said to restart a novel I’d been working on for the past two years. Ouch.

But I took her advice. The original one had grown to 92,000 words, I was on ending #7, and I had more plates in the plot’s air than a 20-year circus veteran. Even worse, I didn’t know how to make them stop spinning without breaking them. My gut feeling said to restart, but I ignored it: who wants to restart 92,000 words? I needed a kick in the ass to make it happen, and that freelance editor was it. She also helped me decide what to focus on, and something that had been right in front of my nose finally made it inside my brain. Let me explain.

Over the past three months, I’ve spent a lot of time at our local roadhouse theatre (disclaimer: also my client). I sat a few rows away from American folk and rock legend David Crosby, kids’ entertainment powerhouse The Wiggles, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, National Geographic photojournalist Brian Skerry, and West End and Broadway superstar Colm Wilkinson. The main similarity was that each artist, The Wiggles included, had distilled their artistic lives into a two-hour show:

  • Crosby condensed his 50+ years in the music business and included songs from a newly released album.
  • The Wiggles song catalogue, 25 years old and growing, apparently has over 1,000 melodies in it, yet the group only performed a handful plus some from a new release.
  • Chris Hadfield had stories, songs, and photographs to share with us about Canada and space exploration. He even included some family history. That’s about a hundred years of stories reduced to two hours.
  • Brian Skerry just finished 19 years at National Geographic. He filtered that down to two hours.
  • Colm Wilkinson has been performing on stage since the 70s, almost as long as Crosby. He picked his favourite songs and sang for two hours.

In only two hours, they had invited me into their lives and shared something significant with me (and the other 1,000-2,000 in the theatre) that remained in my soul. Two hours. Clearly I was wasting time and words in my novel of 92,000 words.

So that begged the question: what is the true focus of my novel? I won’t answer that here, but I was giving each topic I’d raised in it equal time; I didn’t see where I could connect and layer them. My goal now is to publish a novel under 60,000 words.

This is also a question you should ask yourself about your art. I think we keep adding material because we’re either afraid of running out of something to say or too scared to dive into it more. (Feb/17 update: This blog post talks more about digging deeper.)

Some time in the early fall, I returned to my old improv group for a workshop. The topic was working with what you already have and not constantly searching for new stuff. Despite the workshop leader’s best intentions, I couldn’t home in on that skill anymore, and I wonder if I even had it to begin with.

I believe that part of what makes an artist successful is the ability to reduce an idea to its core and then explore it from there. For most artists, that will mean digging into some personal stuff, even if the piece of art isn’t about something personal. But it’s that kind of focus that will, I believe, let you connect with your audience, because you’ll give a voice to the depths of their own emotions.

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