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?