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.
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.
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.
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).
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 supremacy… 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.)
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 “Star 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?