Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Noble Purpose: Writing Philosophy

I've gotten feedback from several readers of that chapter I offered, and I appreciate the quick responses. So far, I'm batting a thousand, in that the piece worked for everybody who has spoken to it ... well, save for one case that offered a conditional response, and I'll talk a bit about that because I think it might be useful for other writers to hear.

The correspondent thought the opening worked okay, and probably would buy the book, but not if the book was going to be about a bunch of mercenaries only interested in money. There needed to be a Noble Purpose to the storyline, I was told, else it wouldn't be about anything, and good stories are always about more than just the plot.

Mostly, I agree. Stories do need to be about something, and I fancy that all mine are, though sometimes it is less obvious what that is than other times. (Though the Noble Purpose of the Matterhorn Ride is probably to make Uncle Walt's heirs even more money, that doesn't make the ride any less fun or invigorating, so sometimes an e-ticket ride can just be about the experience.)

But for me, of course, I'm a romantic, all of my novels have at their hearts some kind of love story. And most of them positively reek with Noble Purpose. However ...

In my mind, the less obvious such a thing is, the better. The worst sin for a writer is to bore his or her reader. Doesn't matter how much Noble Purpose there is if people close the book because they can't keep from dropping into a stupor. The sound of the soapbox being dragged up does that better than Lunesta's giant green sleeping-pill butterfly.

On a panel with Tim Powers once, he spoke to something a fan said to him: What is the theme of your novel?

His comment, as best I can recall: "Theme? Theme? Oh, hell, I don't know–brush your teeth! Theme?!"

There are doubtless writers who sit down and decide upon their theme before they address the tale. I'm not one of them. Nor do any writers I know admit as much to me; probably because they don't want me having a heart attack from laughing too hard. 

Sometimes, I might be most of the way through the draft before what the book is about comes to me. Ah, that's what I'm saying. Hmm. Interesting ...

You chase your hero up a tree and throw rocks at him. What he does and how he does it defines his character and purpose and theme. Not complicated. You Just Tell the Story. If you can do that and keep it interesting, that other stuff will sort itself out. Don't wrap yourself around your own axle worrying about anything else.

Noble Purpose? Yeah, right. I want 'em sitting on the edge of their seats. Staying awake until three a.m. and cursing me because they have to go to fucking work in the morning and they have to finish before they can sleep. Laughing when I want them to laugh, crying when I want them to cry, happy to have spent their beer money on the book when they are done. That's more than enough. 

Plot, character, story: In genre writing, I believe that those are best revealed by actions, and Lord knows I talk too much anyway, so it's a constant battle for me to make sure I'm showing more and telling less. Sometimes I pull it off, sometimes I don't. 

If you, as a writer, hammer readers over the head with Noble Purpose, you risk losing them, and that's a Bad Thing. Best you sneak it in, and if they can get it without ever knowing it? That is ideal in my mind.

An opening chapter is, for me, to set the hook, and pretty much, you need to do that by the end of the first page, because if they don't turn that one, the game is over and you lost. What the book is about will be revealed as you go, and if it all has to be clear by the end of the first chapter? Ain't gonna happen.

My readers aren't going to get everything they want in the first chapter. I'm not going to fully describe my characters, nor their motivations, nor the setting, nor the all those things I have the rest of the book to play with. A first chapter is the first taste of an appetizer. That's all it needs to be. Anything less won't do, anything more isn't necessary.

If you've read my books and don't like them, there's no point in reading the next one, because it's going to be more of the same. If you do like the other stuff, then probably you can trust me enough to believe I'll pay off the set-up. 

That's Perry's philosophy. Are you in good hands?


Christian Berntsen said...

Funny, I hadn't even thought of that. It was to early in the story to necessarily think of the noble purpose.

Anyway, just tossed back my comments to you. Thanks for letting me play!

xen said...

Noble Purpose? Yeah, right. I want 'em sitting on the edge of their seats. Staying awake until three a.m. and cursing me because they have to go to fucking work in the morning and they have to finish before they can sleep. Laughing when I want them to laugh, crying when I want them to cry, happy to have spent their beer money on the book when they are done. That's more than enough.

Amen. I've been reading your books for more than twenty years, and it is because of those very reasons above.


AnonyMouse said...

My wife says it's a good book when I can only give a mono-syllable response:
"Good book?" - "Yes."
"Time for dinner." - "Soon."
"Take out the garbage." - "Meh."

Your books usually keep me there. Keep that going. And thanks.

William Adams said...

Barry Hughart is one author who has IMHO grappled successfully w/ what a book is about, and it's interesting to contrast his first draft of _The Bridge of Birds_ which is available on-line and the printed book (which is fabulous) re-written after he had decided the book would be about love.

Joe BNYD said...

I remember an author, Lawrence Block maybe?, saying that he starts his books in the middle because that's where all the fun is. The rest unfolds with the beginning and the end.

As for noble cause... meh. Just tell the story. Make it draw them in.

Rory said...

The exact quote is at home, but I recently read (from memory" "A story teller only needs to focus on content when he or she is lacking in personality."

You have, good sir, no lack in personality.

Steve Perry said...

Yeah, Bridge of Birds was great. But if it took him a draft to figure out what it was about, that's okay; sometimes it has to be tuned to get a clear channel.

I wrote eighty pages of a novel once before I realized it wa in the wrong voice and I had to go back and recast it. And there have been dead-ends.

Summer movies are mostly fluff, but now and then, one hits better notes. Spider Man II was better than the one fore or aft. Ditto Aliens II. Or the second Star Wars movie. More heart, as they say in the biz.

My point was that whatever the theme, you don't need to lay it out in the first chapter. (And that sitting down in advance and laying out themes and Noble Purpose can only be the most general of notions. You won't know how it manifests until you actually write it. At least I don't.)

Dojo Rat said...

Thanks Steve, you always have good advice for us aspiring authors--

Justin said...

I struggled in my first book, not with Noble Purpose, but how descriptive to be early on. I don't think you can appease everyone, because they all want varying degrees of detail as it pertains to characters. I guess it's better to let them make it up in their head than it is to beat them over said head with specifics.
One of my closest friends, upon reading the first 3 chapters of Still Man Fights, was under the impression that Idle was very tall -- like 6'8". I have no idea where she got that from, but it's not necessarily "wrong." Once the reader gets an image of the character, it becomes theirs as much as it is the author's.