It may seem that writers create something out of nothing. Often when I sit down to write, I have no more going on in my head than a hankering for English Breakfast tea. Luckily, somewhere beyond my conscious mind, the elves are at work putting together words and images and ideas.
Those elves are sloppy. Whatever they do comes through as a mishmash that may touch my heart, but is sure to insult my inner critic:
- What’s with all those adverbs?
- Could dialogue be more wooden?
- Are you trying to gross me out?
- That’s a cliché!
Peace, my little friend. I know you will make it all right during revisions.
It helps to keep the inner critic calm if I the prose has something to do with my current project and if I have an occasional thrill along the way. That doesn’t always happen. (You have those days, too, right?) The trick I use to have more writing sessions that are full of words I can use and positive moments is writing with intent.
With nonfiction, writing with intent is pretty straightforward. I have already defined the purpose of the work and the audience beforehand. I know what tune I want the audience humming when they are through.
I’ve done my research, so there is plenty of content to draw from. And, though the ultimate choice on structure will determine how successful the piece will be, I can always fall back to using a conventional structure, like the inverted pyramid, for my first draft.
You plotters probably have many of the these answers at hand – research done, audience in focus, protagonist’s goal and motivation for the scene defined and the disaster at the end of the scene specified. A hardcore plotter knows a lot when he or she sits down – which is why plotters don’t get stuck as often.
But… Is there hope for pantsers (like me)? Yes. Usually, a pantser sits down with something that can be turned into intent.
- If the character is speaking (or you hear dialogue) or you have a clear idea, the intent is to capture it faithfully, wherever it goes.
- If the scene’s ending is in mind, the intent is to bridge from the last scene to that ending. It may be clear how that could be done (if so, good). If it’s not, brainstorming ten or more ways to link the two endings and choosing one can provide intent. But do this the day before, so the elves have something to work with.
- You may sit down with a strong emotion (or develop one through prompts or actor’s exercises), and the intent here would be to convey that emotion. I often find that beginning with words and phrases that reflect my mood, rather than with sentences, gets me off to a good start.
- For lack of a better word, you may sit down with an orientation toward the scene. This is a sense of possibility that, for me, is a recognition that I am in the story space. It feels roughly equivalent to my taking myself to my grandfather’s farm or my first grade classroom via imagination. When I find myself oriented within the story, I allow myself to be present. This is the only pantser circumstance I know of where intent might be counterproductive. Any attempt to focus, can move me out of this space, so I wait and allow the story possibilities to overwhelm me. And then I come back to the real world and convey as much of that experience as I can.
But what if you have nothing? Ideally, you have something available from the day before. I never finish a writing day without writing a full sentence about what the next day’s task will be.
Otherwise, your intent becomes very basic – putting down nouns and verbs. This is what Damon Knight called (with more explicit language) defecating masonry. Every professional I know has had to do this. The most useful preparation for this is an appeal to your commitment to being a writer. Whatever mantra reminds you of your promise to yourself, your dedication to your vocation, your obligation to your audience, and your conviction in your identity as a writer – now is the time to pull it out and start chanting.
What about you? Does your intent when you sit down make your writing session more productive? How do you make sure you begin with intent?