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 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.)

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 “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.

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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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When universes collide

Have you ever suffered through a one-sided conversation? Maybe you have nothing in common with the other person, and you find the topic dead boring. Or maybe your conversation partner is an “expert” on everything, and is lecturing you about what you should do. This is sheer torture, you think. When can I make my escape?

Consider yourself lucky. You could be listening to Vogon poetry.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tells us that Vogon poetry is the third worst in the universe. (Earth poetry is the worst, of course.) The Vogons know how much everyone hates their poems, but they force people to listen to them out of “sheer bloodymindedness.” Just witness what happens at a friendly Vogon poetry reading:

The sweat stood out cold on Ford Prefect’s brow, and slid round the electrodes attached to his temples. These were attached to a battery of electronic equipment—imagery intensifiers, rhythmic modulators, alliterative residulators and simile dumpers—all designed to heighten his experience of the poem and make sure that not a nuance of the poet’s thought was lost.

– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Let’s face it, we all have an inner Vogon. We can get so caught up in what we think is important that we ignore what everyone else thinks. We keep on talking or writing, hoping that the sheer volume of our words will convince others of our rightness.

If you truly want to get your message across, remember that you are not the centre of the universe.  Everyone sees things from a unique point of view. You need to connect with others, not collide with them. Here’s some ways you can do this:

  • Address the “So what?” factor. This is also known as WIIFM or “What’s in it for me?” Why should people care about what you have to say? How will it benefit them? You may think the inner workings of the Infinite Improbability Drive are fascinating, but that doesn’t mean they will. Focus on the “So what?” and your message will be more successful.
  • Show some respect. Respect your conversation partner’s time by keeping your message short. Respect that person’s intellect by listening to what he or she has to say. In any conversation, try to spend more time listening than talking. You’ll be amazed at what you discover.
  • Speak in their language. Don’t use uncommon words or jargon that a lot of people don’t know. Your audience shouldn’t need a Babel fish to understand what you are saying.  If you need to use an unusual term to get your message across, then smoothly define it and move on.

And if you find yourself stuck listening to that annoying person? Just remember what The Hitchhiker’s Guide tells us in “large friendly letters” on the cover:

Picture by Jim Linwood. Source: Wikimedia Commons.CC-BY-2.0

Picture by Jim Linwood. Source: Wikimedia Commons.CC-BY-2.0

It will be over soon. Then you can go back to enjoying your universe.

Excuse me while I freeze

Oh, the joy of public speaking. You get to stand up in front of your peers as they stare at you blankly. (You just know they are thinking about when this will be over, so they can go grab lunch.) You persevere regardless, until suddenly you forget what you were going to say. The silence stretches.

If only you had a good excuse, you think. Maybe a Death Eater has cast a petrificus totalus spell on me. Or I’ve been transported to that episode of Buffy where nobody could speak. (At least then your audience would be suffering along with you.)

But no, it’s only stage fright. How humiliating.

Best episode of Buffy, ever. Except maybe the musical episode.

Good question.

I used to really hate being in front of an audience. I took drama classes in high school to get over it. Trust me, after you’ve squawked like a chicken as part of a class exercise, nothing is embarrassing anymore.

If you’re like me, it will never be easy for you to speak in front of people. But you can definitely master it, and even be known for your fantastic presentations. Here’s some suggestions on how to get there:

  • Rehearse. When a witch mixes up the words of her spell, she can accidentally summon a demon. (Oops!) You’re lucky—all you have to worry about is sounding like you know what you’re talking about. Grab an empty room and present to the wall. The first time you talk through it, you are going to feel like an idiot. Do it again and you’ll start to figure out what you want to say. By the third time, you’ll sound like a natural.
  • Take your time. Pretend you are speaking in slow motion. This will help you go from too fast to just right. You will look and sound relaxed. This will fool your body into thinking it’s relaxed, too. As a bonus, your audience will easily understand what you are saying.
  • Use the silence. Got stuck somewhere? No problem. Use this time to drink from a glass of water and casually glance at your notes. Don’t feel the need to add any fillers, like “um….” People like a good pause—it gives them time to digest your words. If you’re still struggling, then ask your audience a question. (“What do you think?” “Any questions so far?” “Did anyone else see that demon over there?”) By the time someone else finishes speaking, your brain will be back on track.

I’ve had people tell me, “You made it seem so effortless when you were up there. I could never do that!” The secret is that it’s not effortless. You need to do your prep work. Then you’ll be the one casting a spell on your audience.