Friday, January 20, 2012

Lessons on Truth from Novel X

What a great start to the year--a guest post by Ariel on Monday that reflected what we intuitively know about a great book but she put into words: "Character and Plot and Setting and Theme slip away with time. But I can pull any book from that shelf [of keepers], dust off the cover, flip to a favorite passage and tell you exactly how it made me feel. And really, that’s all that matters in the end." If you missed Ariel's post, backpedal a few days to enjoy her passion for a good read. And then, there's Katy's post on Wednesday that left us gob-smacked as she gave voice to her astonishment, the true calling of the novelist, according to Annie Dillard. Thanks, Katy.

At the end of Katy's post, she said, "Truth is what happens underneath, and how it resonates like a great voice through a vast impossible mouth." And that's our job as fiction writers, to tell the truth.

I gave this a lot of thought. I know excellent fiction is truer than life, but what goes wrong when it isn't?

It just so happens I finished reading a novel for my book club a few days ago, and I couldn't quite put my finger on why it left me flat. I'm not going to tell you the title or author. The Novel Matters writers are looking forward to reviewing novels in the coming months, novels that matter for their craft and for "the way it made [us] feel." This novel (Novel X) was a worthwhile read, to be sure, but not one that gob-smacked me, so I'm only using my reading of the novel as a jumping off point for our discussion.

I must say that the author did an amazing job of plunking me into a landscape and culture of intense contrasts and unequaled beauty--the mountains of Kentucky--with exceptional skill, so much so that his words set my heart longing for a place I'd never been. And his descriptions--oh my.

But the read was dissatisfying, despite the plethora of 5-starred reviews the book received. (The novel read more like a memoir, which should read more like a novel, but that's a topic for another day.) I think my dissatisfaction came down to the question of truth. John Truby says in his book The Anatomy of Story: "...You must give the hero desire. Desire is what your hero wants in the story, his particular goal...Desire is the driving force in the story, the line from which everything else hangs."

In Novel X, the hero wants what she already has, and that would be a fine desire to structure a story around, if the author had created obstacles to the hero keeping her family and home, but there weren't, not really. And that's not truthful. We are all driven by desire, and we all fight against an army of obstacles to obtain those desires. This is the very reason we read novels. We want to see the hero struggle toward their desires, just as we do, sometimes failing, perhaps being betrayed, always being sidetracked, and frequently a bit misguided.

What I'm suggesting is that a big part of "the truth that happens underneath," as Katy said, is desire, and the stronger the desire the stronger the obstacles and the more satisfying the story when that desire is met, or traded in for something higher, more noble, or holy.

Perhaps Novel X's hero's lack of desire hit me because I'm guilty of this flaw. Not that I lack desires. I'm a zoo of desires! But it's scary to embue my hero with a desire that will take him or her places that make my skin itch, or toward a thicket of obstacles with no discernable path. It's a process, for sure. Here's a recent conversation I had with my latest hero-in-the-making to demonstrate my point:

Me: So, Reece, what do you really, really desire?
Reece: For the last year to go away.
Me: That's not going to happen. I wish it could, for your sake, but then we wouldn't have a story to tell. Think about it. What do you desire? What are you willing to die for?
Reece: I want my family back.
Me: Your ex-husband is married to another woman. Maybe you should desire something else.
Reece: You asked me what I would die for.
Me: So I did. What's your first move?
Reece: Isn't that your job? I could use some direction here.
Me: probably shouldn't have had the affair.
Reece: Are you sure you're qualified to write this story?
Me: This isn't getting us anywhere. Tell me about your parents. Why are you back home?
Reece: My mother's crazy, always has been, and she's finally driven my father away. She can't live alone, just can't.
Me: Let's see, you're a divorced adultress who wants her married husband back, and you're trying to save your parents' marriage. I suppose there are kids involved. This is getting messy.
Reece: You're the one who asked about desire.
Me: So I did. Let me get back to you.

As you can see, Reece and I have some work to do. This piece of the story--the hero's desire--is so very important that I'm willing to revisit it many, many times. Without a strong desire and plenty of obstacles, I don't see how we can say our fiction is truthful. This is where our heros find their motivations, after all.

What about you? How important is desire when conceptualizing your hero and his/her story? Are there other story elements more important to establishing truth in a novel? If you've read a Novel X--let's be nice and not name it--what was missing?


Susie Finkbeiner said...

You know, there's always a lot of pressure when a friend says "Novel X was my favorite book EVER! Here's a copy that I bought for you. Read it and tell me you like it, too".

I read Novel X about 1 year ago. It seemed to be borrowing characters/plot/conflict from "The Color Purple", "A River Runs Through It" and "As I Lay Dying". It was such a hodgepodge that it didn't sing the truth.

As writers, it's essential that we read. But, it's also important that we don't try to jam everything we read into one story. It isn't from us that way.

Bonnie Grove said...

Patti, I so appreciate this post. Telling the truth is so much deeper than it first appears.

I appreciate you sharing the conversation with your hero, too. It's difficult to share those early development moments--they are so messy and incomplete. I commend you for showing us what the beginning of the journey might look like. What you have is a set of circumstances that have transpired to bring your hero to where the novel begins (backstory, or ghost). It will take time and total honesty to get to the root of what Reese's deep desire will turn out to be.

Great post! So much to think about.

Lori Benton said...

Patti, such a timely post. I enjoyed your conversation with your new hero. I'm right there too, figuring out the desire of a new character. I've peeled back several layers now and still don't think I've put my finger on it. When he yelps, I'll know.

It's daunting. But fascinating.

Patti Hill said...

Susie: Very true! A novel should be cohesive while being surprising. That requires starting with a theme and characters with strong desires. As you can tell, I'm NOT a seat of the pants kind of writer. I'm not smart enough for that. I have to do tons of prewriting and rewriting of my prewriting. Daunting.

Bonnie: Thanks for noticing how difficult it was to show that conversation. I wanted our readers to realize how much mining must go on to get to the real desire of our characters. I'm feeling exposed, for sure.

Lori: I love that. "When he yelps, I'll know." Yes, yes, and yes.

Marian said...

Thanks for the post. I'm going to have one of those conversations with my hero. She is much too noble. Maybe she'll tell me a few things. I'm also going to interview my villain, he is only showing his evil side. My, this novel-writing is intricate.

NikoleHahn said...

I know what you mean. I reviewed a book recently whose story left me flat. I also couldn't put my finger on it. The writing seemed well put together, but it seemed...maybe...unbelievable? Or I don't know. Still don't. Maybe it was the lack of a goal with the heroine?

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Thank you Patti! I think you've hit the source. Desire lurks in our deepest souls and precedes consciousness or thought.

'God' is our desire and truth....
To be god to ourselves
Or allow something or someone to be god for us
Or to find the One who should be...

None of this happens 'way out there' in the universe or multiverse or polyverse. It happens in relationship, right here in the down and dirty dust of our bodies. For us writers it happens between characters and within situations.

As you showed, we don't have control over what we write. If we try we will lose our authenticity very quickly. That would be playing 'god of the pen (or keyboard)'. Would you feel less exposed if you knew we are all there with you interviewing our characters and being doubted by them. They want us to be god too.
I write best when I sit at the feet of the Desire of Hearts, the Heart of Truth, the Transcendent One, the Creator Magnificent and the Irredeemable Lover of Human Weakness.
"And Moses said to the Lord,(gobsmacked to the limit)(but nothing compared to what was coming to him) 'Show me Your Glory'" Ex.33:18

Patti Hill said...

Marian: To write a novel that matters is not for the faint of heart. It is perhaps one of the most challenging cognitive exercises I've faced.

NikoleHahn: Once you've encountered a novel that gob-smacks you with its beauty and rhythm and resonance, it's like encountering the best Turkish Delight ever! You're ruined for anything else.

Henrietta: You are a wonder. I love hearing from you. Thanks for expanding on my idea so beautifully.

Heather Marsten said...

Not only does desire fit in, but the desire must be redeeming, noble, and something a reader can relate to. In my WIP - a memoir that reads like a novel :), one of the things people critiqued me for was making sure I was not a victim, but a survivor. The other thing I got critiqued for was too heavy a hand with the salvation part because I would lose the new age and abuse victims if I become too preachy. It is hard to maintain a balance. Have a blessed day.

Nikole Hahn said...

Amen to that, Patti! :o)