Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Watermelon and Seed

blog3I was volunteering in my daughter’s classroom on Friday for a Thanksgiving party for 4th grade. 

While I was in there (supposedly setting out snack supplies so the kids could make their own teepees out of ice cream cones, chocolate, and hard candy), I couldn’t help but look at all the writing-related posters on the wall.

Fourth grade is a big writing year in elementary school.  There were posters covering punctuation mechanics, grammar rules, commonly misspelled words, etc.

There was one poster though, that was a little more interesting to me.  “Is your story idea a watermelon or a seed?”

Kids, naturally, sometimes come up with big ideas for stories—that don’t really work for a short writing assignment.  “My Summer Vacation” instead of “The Worst Amusement Park Visit Ever!”  The teacher’s point was that they needed to narrow their focus to get a better story.

But novelists are working with more pages to fill.  We can afford a bigger picture.

Sometimes, though,  that big picture doesn’t always work.  I’ve definitely read books where I felt lost in the imaginary world the author had created.  What was the primary plot?  What character am I supposed to care about…and who is the protagonist?  These books felt unfocused and rambling.  What was the point?  Was it a murder mystery or a family saga or lit fic with an agenda? What was the seed?

With genre fiction, the seed is pretty easy to find.  The underlying thread of my books is a murder.  And I don’t need to get too far away from it or else I’m off-target.

I’ve definitely edited down books before to get to the seed.  Maybe there’s a subplot that’s fun, but doesn’t really tie in enough with the main story—maybe it’s an idea that needs its own book instead of being squeezed into a subplot.  Or maybe there’s a secondary character that’s stealing the show and needs his own book.

Have you read books that don’t have a sharp enough focus? How do you winnow your plot down to the seed when you write?