goals, process, tips, writing

Stuck? Narrow Your Focus

dw_all i hear is meh

I remember when my American Literature professor assigned us a paper and told us to make our argument as specific as possible.  For an 8-page paper.  I thought this woman had completely taken a dive off the plane of reality.

Of course, I had to write this 8-page paper and as I got into it, I tried what she said.  For grins and giggles.  I was a college student delirious with panic because this 8-page paper had to magically appear by the next morning.  I thought, fine.  She said it, that’s what she wants, so that’s what I’m going to do.

So I made my argument incredibly specific:

Despite the criticisms that this novel is disorganized and meaningless, the analysis of the episode of the mutiny onboard the Grampus leads to an interpretation that suggests that the seeming madness of the story can actually be understood as a repressed fear of slave rebellions in the American South, and this interpretation leads to a unification of the piece as a whole.


(I was writing about The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe, if you were wondering.  It’s an extremely weird and chaotic book that I had to argue was actually a work of genius.)

Initially, as you may imagine, I was terrified.  What was I going to write about?  I had my argument, but it was a list three bullets long, and I had an 8-page quota to fill.

What ended up happening still amazes me to this day.

By narrowing it down as much as possible, I was able to lay down a very strong argument with plenty of examples and background to give it some padding.  My paper, though long (full 7 pages), was concise and well-structured, with one argument leading into the next.

(I just want to say that I’m only this complimentary about my own work because I am so damn proud of it.  I typically pussyfoot around with papers, but with this one I spent a solid 5 hours in the library and then another hour of editing at my dorm.  It was the night before it was due and I got an A on it.)

Of course, all this bragging is all well and good, but how does it relate to writing?

I’m facing a problem right now with one of my manuscripts, and I think this approach — to make your argument as specific as possible — may help.

The ending of my story is way too vague and scattered and lacks a cohesiveness.  And it’s been like that for a while.  I can’t figure out what it’s going to be about, and I’m one of those people who wants to know before they get there.

Katherine Lampe told me on Twitter:

It got easier for me when I looked at it in terms of the protagonist solving a problem.

I really love this because it fits perfectly with this idea of specificity.

Narrow down the problem to something really specific and all of a sudden you have a line of cohesive thought that you can gently pad with descriptions and symbolism and all kinds of neat stuff.

My issue writing it was a WRITE ALL THE STUFF attitude.  I had way too many plots and I’m not clever enough really to get all these plot threads to weave together nicely in the end.  Nor should I try.  The ending will lose impact if, because of the numerous and fuzzy threads, the reader can’t understand what’s going on.

So my fresh goal for this story is to pick one plot thread and make that the problem my character has to solve.

What do y’all think?

Image by Michael Dales

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