You’ve heard the saying about what those construction workers use to smooth out the blacktop between Yourtown and Hell. Good intentions. In my mind’s eye, I picture it looking like pyrite, fool’s gold, polished and smooth and false.
In spite of that, sometimes nuggets of the real thing get lumped in with the dross. Since I’ve been talking a lot about goals and dreams and sugar plums lately, I thought it might be a nice moment to draw a nice line between the pyrite and the gold when it comes to those paving stones.
Working on my Camp NaNoWriMo novel has diverged almost completely from the process I wrote with for my first two and a half novels. I’ve always been a solid “pantser,” making it all up as I went along, draft after draft, hoping to find at least a couple agates among all the rubble. But I realized when I had to scream a war cry and murder some darlings this spring that that process can work, but it’s ultimately like chucking a bunch of hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen in a Dyson canister and hoping it gives birth to new life.
I started my beloved trilogy with the best of intentions — I wanted to write a sweeping epic urban fantasy trilogy. I wanted self-actualized vampires who were dangerous and predatory, cognizant and diverse. I wanted magic woven from the earth itself. I wanted characters who got messy, had dirt under their fingernails, got knocked on their arses, and then got up swinging their fists into the evil noses of their antagonistic counterparts. I wanted antagonists who gave you chills, made you pity them, and stuck their greasy fingers into every pure, lovely bit of my story.
Road to hell, right?
As a beginning writer (of novels, I ought to clarify), there is very little out there in the way of a comprehensive “how to” when it comes to your manuscript as a whole. Sure, there are seminars and conferences with sessions on writing effective scenes and how to make your characters do the macarena, but how story works? How you make a story that adheres to the only accepted form of structure that sells? Not much.
It took me seven years to finally get my paws on three books that finally break it down and show writers what fundamental aspects make stories and how they really (I mean REALLY) have to work in tandem to create a serviceable manuscript, let alone one that soars to the top of the bestseller list.
Starting this new book has been an exercise in ditching the Fuzz Factor. For the first time I’m writing after I sit down and think critically about the development of my characters. After writing a logline for my book. After coming up with a concept, and after digging into not just what might be a fun scene, but what would be effective and logical progressions of plot based on my characters’ backstories and multiple dimensions of being.
This is that line I mentioned.
Good intentions are one thing. Without a plan, they’re just pyrite and cheap tricks. Intent is something else entirely. Intent is what makes you from a writer into an alchemist. It’s what takes that pyrite and changes it to real gold. Intent has a plan. Intent has focus. It’s a fine line, but it’s a necessary one. You can have all the good intentions in the world without being intent on doing something.
I’m finding that being deliberate in my writing process has improved the pacing of my novel. It’s made me ask myself hard questions about where things are going and the relevance of each and every scene and character. It’s made me ask myself over and over how I can show things instead of telling them, how I can slip in backstory instead of chunks of exposition. And I think all of this will result in a more cohesive first draft. I will likely still have to write a few drafts to get it right, but my goal for this is better. It’s to grasp structure, character, concept, and theme in order to play the right chords.
Between 2006 and now, I have spent almost 500,000 words just paving the road to hell. I dived in and pantsed my way to two and a half novels that will need to be completely overhauled if they’re ever to be publishable. And that’s half a million words that some people might call wasted. I’ve learned many expensive lessons in my life, but this one is a biggie. Being a pantser works for some big names — but let’s not forget that they’ve learned those fundamentals through often decades of trial and error. If intent and focus can help me master them sooner, I’ll take that straight to the bank. And you should too.
It’s been uncomfortable in many ways. There are some aspects of story structure that I can intuit, and others that I need forced down my throat with a syringe. I have had to admit to myself that, much like building a car, there are certain elements that must be in the right place if I ever expect to go anywhere.
Thus the intent.
Even though I’m still aiming for speed with this first draft (Camp NaNoWriMo is a harsh taskmaster), I’m using any spare time I have to learn how to better my craft and write with intention. I can fly by the seat of my pants another time — those last two books just resulted in a massive wedgie. It’s time to try something different and look for nuggets of the real thing.
How are you trying to maximize your goals by utilizing intent rather than good intentions?
And in case you are wondering which three books have so revolutionized my way of thinking about my novels, here they are:
Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell
Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks
And for extra credit:
Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass