Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

Without Love We are Monsters. With Love, We Aren’t.

That is my theme. I’ve written nearly 200,000 words on a series of books I’m loosely calling The War of All Against All. This series title may make a bit more sense when you realize that the protagonist is a man named Hobbs. Before the year is up, I’m going to do another 100,000+ in this series. 200,000 words in, 100k+ plotted and I just figured out my theme. And they call writing a process. Ha!

Actually, I should complain less. It is a process and this is the most important step in it. It’s number three in Pixar’s screenwriting rules.

Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about ’til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

Paddy Chayefsky, the only man to win the Academy Award for Best Screenplay three times, said this:

As soon as I figure out the theme of my play, I type it out in a single sentence and Scotch-tape it to the front of my typewriter.  After that, nothing goes onto the page that isn’t on-theme.

And I learned that from this excellent blog post from Stephen Pressfield. In it he wrote

…the part I love best about Paddy Chayefsky’s quote is “As soon as I figure out the theme … ” In other words, even the great Mr. C. didn’t necessarily know his theme when he started. That makes me feel better, because I almost never know mine. I’m flying by the seat of my pants for 300 pages. Many times I’ll finish the entire book and still won’t know what the theme is, even though I’ve spent hours along the way trying to dope it out.

It only took me 2.5 books.

My word count of The War of All Against All currenlty calculates that I have written 712 pages. 712 and I just figured out my theme! Pressfield is a pro. It takes him one book. Evidently it takes me 2.5 books. I am less than 50% pro 😉 To be fair, I conceived this as a sprawling crime series, so it really is all of a piece. But don’t mind my grousing, look at that theme. It’s beautiful.

Without Love We are Monsters. With Love, We Aren’t.

It explains everything I’ve been working at. It fills all the holes, squares all the corners and rounds all the circles. I speak in generalizations, because the specifics are a novel. I just hope I can adequately convey my enthusiasm. As I look at the post-it note above my monitor it fills me with — well it just fills me, and that overflowing will soon pour out as more words and more daring edits.

The thing is, this is a series of thrillers about vicious criminals who betray each other, kill people and steal things. Real, taut suspense and technical action. Ripping tales, real yarns, action and escapes, sudden reversals and unexpected ironies. And, in this, I have succeeded. The few people I have run the bones of the story for need to know what happens next. The plot works.

But plot is not enough.

But plot by itself is… well, plot by itself is hollow. The simplest way I can describe a good book is that it has three working parts.

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Transport

To get two out of the three is huge. All three, plus a little luck/timing is a blockbuster. Beyond that, lies the unknowable and immeasurable that make art.

Take Game of Thrones. It has great characters. Personally, Arya is the one I care about the most, but there are so many, there is almost literally someone for everyone.

Plot? Yeah, we’ve got all kinds of war and political intrigue, revenge and, ultimately, a doomsday scenario with the White Walkers. Yeah, there’s good plot. Might be too intricate in the middle of the books, but it’s got Plot.

And, does it Transport you to another time or place, a different reality or way of being? Sure. It’s fantasy and it does it well. A book doesn’t have to be in the fantasy genre to do this, of course. F.X. Toole’s writing about boxing (from which the film Million Dollar Baby was drawn) transports you to the physical and emotional realities of the sport of boxing. And his writing is as real as real gets.

The work re-begins.

Which is a crappy way of saying the work never really ends. Now I get to go back through and see how every chapter and beat of my story relates to that theme. The crazy thing is, even my quickest review reveals that most of it already does. I just couldn’t see it until now.

My plan is to write everything in draft, then come back and give it a pass altogether, so that everything is tight and polished by the time I send it for editing. If I’m honest, this is the way I should have worked with How to Succeed in Evil. But it was my first book, and I had no idea what in the hell I was doing. But I’m learning, and that is something. Maybe the most important thing.

Next time, maybe it will only take me two books to figure out my theme. And the time after that a book and a half. But that’s next time. For now, one at a time. One at a time.

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