Life has not been letting me focus on writing--I assume this will only get worse as the holidays descend. But I've been reading some less-than-fully-enjoyable things that have caused me to think a lot about focus, or the lack thereof.
One of the things that separates the modern novel from the picaresque novel of yore is simply this matter of focus. In your typical picaresque novel your loveable lower-class outsider goes over here and has an adventure...and then he goes over there and has an adventure...and then he goes over there and has an adventure...and then he goes over there and has an adventure...and then he goes over there and has an adventure...and then he goes home. The end.
In other words, there's not some larger storyline holding the whole thing together. You could break the picaresque novel up into its component bits, and each bit could stand alone without any trouble.
And it's really less satisfying, at least in my opinion as a modern reader. Nothing builds. There's no larger A plot moving things along and hooking your interest.
I can see the temptation to write a picaresque novel, especially if you've got a bunch of fantastic worlds going on in your head. But just spitting them out onto the page, one right after the other, with very little to connect them--well, it's like after they ran out the Kobol plot in Battlestar Galactica. You're basically asking me to gin up interest and become emotionally invested in an entirely new scenario every 50 pages or so, and that's hard for me to do, especially because your last scenario wound up not really meaning much.
Right now I'm reading a novel that I'm probably going to ditch because it's so unfocused--and I basically never quit novels without finishing them, so that should tell you something. In this case, the lack of focus affects detail.
This book is a blizzard of details. Every thought, every word, every gesture, every object is recorded in loving and extensive detail. The result is a book that is VERY long and not going anywhere. There's no filter and no focus.
You can definitely get deep within a character's point of view and tell me all that they're thinking--but there needs to be a reason behind it. I don't need all the thoughts and feelings of a random person making a minor decision unless there's something really interesting going on with that random person. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulker is a good example of that done well--you are intently within each character's point of view, and they are all desperately screwed up and sometimes quite terrifying people, so it's actually quite interesting.
If you don't have that sort of ambition--you just want to write a plot-driven adventure--then that's great! In that case, don't give me the entire stream-of-consciousness blow-by-blow thought process of someone as they get in a car and get dinner. It's not important.
And don't give backstory by having your characters sit around with nothing to do (a nothingness that is described in, you guessed it, excruciating detail) until boredom drives them to ask each other about their respective backstories. (And then they each discuss their backstory in turn, neatly combining the too-much-detail problem and the picaresque-plot problem.) If your characters are that bored, imagine how the reader must feel.
Anne R. Allen has a good post on avoiding episodic writing.