Seek Out Your Writing Intention…and Engage!

Have you ever read through to the end of a book and still couldn’t figure out what it was about?

Chances are you probably gave up long before that happened.

When assessing any kind of manuscript, the first thing that an editor looks for is the author’s intention. What is the author trying to accomplish with this text? It’s a simple question, but it can be a challenging one to answer.

As an editor, I have found myself lost in the deep space of a manuscript with no apparent way home. I’ve completed first reads on manuscripts that were trying to pack everything into 250 pages. I understand the writer’s need to include all of their favourite shiny bits. But this makes the editor’s job more difficult. Before I can provide any meaningful advice on what to change, move, remove, or add, I need to understand the intent of the work.

While reading through a chaotic manuscript, I was reminded of the classic Star Trek: TNG episode “Darmok.” In this episode, the crew of the Enterprise are trying to establish relations with the Tamarians, who communicate using metaphors. One of the Tamarians, Dathon, tosses a dagger to Captain Picard while saying, “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra.” Picard interprets this as a request for the two of them to duel, and refuses. Dathon was actually referring to a story of two warriors who met and became friends by fighting a beast together on the island of Tenagra. He wanted to forge a relationship with the Federation by fighting an enemy together. Picard had completely misunderstood Dathon’s intention.

Dathon and Picard intend to confront the beast together...

Dathon and Picard intend to confront the beast together…

An author’s intention can be as mysterious to an editor (or to a reader) as a Tamarian metaphor. Please don’t force your reader into a tragic experience. You need to get to the heart of your story and find the core that your audience can recognize and engage with. To help you on this journey, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned about various elements of intention. Just think of yourself as the Captain of the Starship Enterprise, where you need to find out your mission before the story can begin.

Overall Purpose

A good starting point for defining intention is to identify your overall purpose in writing the work. There are four main reasons for writing: to inform, to instruct, to entertain, or to persuade. You need to think about your primary purpose. There may be a secondary one, but your primary one helps you determine the best structure and appropriate content for your work.

Most fiction stories (like those on Star Trek) are there primarily to entertain the audience. But they can also serve as moral instruction, or as a method of persuading people to accept a point of view. The trick is to make sure your secondary purpose does not overwhelm the first.

Audience

Who is your ideal reader for the book? What experience are you trying to provide for that reader? You need to construct your work according to your target audience’s expectations so they can understand your intention. Thinking about the age, gender, interests, reading habits, and knowledge of your readers will help you refine your approach.

From a practical perspective, the broader your work’s appeal, the more likely you are to have success in selling your manuscript. So think about your secondary readers as well as your ideal ones. Star Trek has had multi-generational success because it appeals to a large audience (and not just to sci-fi geeks like me).

Logline

A logline is the one-liner description of your work. Blake Snyder discusses how to create a marketable logline in his excellent book Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. He stresses the need to be able to answer the question “What is it?” in one line. According to Snyder, a good logline is emotionally compelling, creates an intriguing mental picture, and attracts the target audience.

Think about the logline for your work. It’s difficult, I know. But if you can’t explain your story in one line, you may need to look at all the threads and think about how to focus your intent.

Here’s an example of a logline from the Star Trek universe to help get you started:

War breaks out across the stars as the Klingon and Romulan Empires fight for supremacyโ€ฆ with the Enterprise caught in the middle.

(Can you imagine having to write a logline for every single episode of the television show? The mind boggles.)

Personal Intent

I’ve saved the most important piece for last. There was a reason why you chose to spend hours of your life writing or typing rather than surfing the internet or chilling out on the couch. Why did you write? Was your intent to write a famous story that would sell millions of copies? Did you want to tell everyone about a cause that matters to you? Or did you simply want to put your thoughts on the page, and say you have written a book?

Everyone’s intention in writing is ultimately a personal one. Knowing this will help you determine your direction. Maybe you don’t care about marketability, and only want help in writing clear prose. Maybe you want to make sure that your theme is coming across to a wide audience. Know what you want, and tell your editor. Then you’ll be able to collaborate together and create a work that both you and your readers will love.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, stated that โ€œStar Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.”

Even the fictional crew of the Starship Enterprise had a clear intention: “To explore new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

So what’s your intention? Seek it out, and you’ll be ready to engage.

***

How do you deal with intention? Do you find you have a clear idea of what you would like to accomplish before you begin, or do you figure it out as you write? What helps you to focus your writing?

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18 thoughts on “Seek Out Your Writing Intention…and Engage!

  1. Great information. Thank you. It definitely helps to know the answer to these questions before we start writing the book. I’m a big fan of outlining so I have a pretty clear idea of what I want to accomplish before I even start writing the first draft. That doesn’t mean I can’t improvise or make changes, but for me, having a direction to follow makes the writing much easier.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Carrie. I’m a fan of outlining, too. What I like about the concept of intention is that it underpins the entire outline. You can have a structure for a work, but still have difficulty explaining what a work is about. If you have both, you’ve got it made. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. Hi, Sonia. A lot of our WiPs look like this. ๐Ÿ™‚ We just need to keep on plugging away and working through them. I’m looking forward to reading your WiP someday when you are ready to share it with the world!

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  2. Great post, Sue! This is very much on my mind lately as I grapple with my own work. I find it really, really difficult to summarize a book in a sentence. I’ve been told that being able to do this means that you’re writing “high-concept” fiction, in the case of a novel. But I think it’s useful for any work, large or small.

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    1. Yes, it’s tremendously difficult, but a wonderful mental exercise. And I agree that it can apply to any work – including non-fiction or essays or even emails. I love these concepts that have the flexibility to be applied everywhere. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  3. I think the number of times my agent or editor has come back with a statement that equates with the phrase, “Huh?” is probably more times then I’ve had hot dinners. And I like food.
    It’s particularly frustrating on the day you get your manuscript back and read the notes. I am wholly convinced the story is a bust and I am better off finding work in the service industry. But then, the next day I plunge back in and put on “their glasses.” Boy do you need those extra eyes. Writing a story takes a village. Okay, maybe mine require a small city at this point, but you get my drift, Sue.
    Fantastic (and timely) article. As always, a true pleasure to read your wise words!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As editors, we have many polite ways of saying “Huh?” – it’s part of our job description. ๐Ÿ˜‰ The last thing an editor wants to do is make the author feel discouraged. I’m glad you’re game to take the plunge, Shelley. Thank you for your encouraging comment!

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    1. Lori, I can think of no better purpose than writing the stories that you like to read. I’m baffled when writers try to take on “the latest trend” when it’s not their passion – it’s so difficult to sustain momentum. And I know what you mean about characters demanding their time on the page…persistent, aren’t they? Looking forward to hearing their stories when your book is published. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  4. This is great, intention is such an important thing for a writer to consider. I only got around to thinking about it consciously recently (until then I was writing as I wanted without worrying too much about the why of it all), and it’s made such a difference!
    I write to entertain. I want to write people’s ‘guilty pleasure’ or maybe not guilty, just something that gives people fun and pleasure. I want to write the kind of book people can pick up on the commute home and for that half an hour, get to experience fun and adventure, and forget about their day and stress and anxiety. Having thought about that and articulated it makes every writing decision so much easier!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you have a fantastic intention for your writing, Celine…and from what I have read of your blog posts, you are well on your way! ๐Ÿ™‚ I love books that can help you escape from reality and enjoy yourself.

      That’s a great point about intention helping you make writing decisions. Susan Bell has a thought I like on this in her book The Artful Edit: “We discover, as we work, new meanings that we carry back to the narrative highway.” (p.50) We need our creativity to discover new things, but then we use them to feed our intention rather than veering off on a side path.

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      1. Oh thank you so much for saying that – very encouraging! ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m the same about books as escapism. Sometimes it’s nice to read something more cerebral, but most of the time I like to have fun with my reading ๐Ÿ™‚

        That’s a great quote. And you’re totally right, you have to look at all the new things you discover through the filter of intention to work out what works and what doesn’t – depending on the ultimate goal something might be totally wrong for one story but totally right for another!

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  5. Uh oh. I’m in trouble! I’m a wandering writer, with no intention other than action and mayhem. Maybe if I can keep things moving, I’ll figure out where I’m going after I burst through that wall up ahead. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Joking aside, this was a great post, very informative and helpful. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Sue, I came here this morning after your kind comment on my post, only to discover a very timely article. You see, I’m off to meet with a publisher this morning to discuss my current self-published novel, but also my work in progress. I am a planner, but while I knew my intention when writing my first book, I’ve just realised I’m not so sure what it is with the one I’m working on. I now have six hours to work it out before I go tell the publisher ๐Ÿ™‚ Great advice, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Heather, I’m so glad that the post was timely for you! Thank you for taking the time to comment and let me know. Those intentions sure can be slippery beasts. All the best to you in your meeting with the publisher. ๐Ÿ™‚

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