Monday, February 25, 2013

Writing This Novel IV

The end is near! 

The last two chapters took longer to write than the rest of my novel. Usually, writing the ending is easier than the beginning because as you near the final chapters the story should be converging on the event horizon, collapsing on itself like a black hole, and the ending should be inevitable. Right? It will seem that way to the reader. It isn’t that simple for the writer.

What if you didn’t end up telling the story you meant to tell? That isn’t always a bad thing, but that means there are choices to make. You can follow through with the ending that seems to flow naturally from what you’ve written or you can force the story back on track in the final chapters. I’m not a big fan of forcing for the sake of plot, but if you feel strongly about it, do it. (because later you're going to rewrite the novel in such a way that the forced ending seems to flow naturally, but more about that next month.)

For Night Creatures, I chickened out and wrote a weaker, albeit happier, ending. My beta reader wasn’t impressed. He felt cheated that everything pointed to a darker conclusion. I should have known better. Considering the extremes of the rest of the story, the end was no place to play it safe. I promised to fix that in the next draft.

If you’re a complete pantser, you might not have any idea how your story should end. But as a storyteller, I’m sure you have an instinct for the natural conclusion. Quest completed? Goal achieved? Character transformation complete? Congratulations, you’ve reached the end of this tale. Don’t linger too long after the big climax but do give the reader a sense of closure.

Please, don’t wrap up all your loose ends in the final two paragraphs. Those should have been woven into the story as you were nearing the ending. Twist endings take a deft hand so be cautious with them. Have you ever seen the play/movie Murder By Death? At the climax, the protagonist yells at the assembled detectives, “You've tricked and fooled your readers for years. You've tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You've introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it.” Don’t be that writer. (On second thought, since he was accusing parodies of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, maybe you should. Even the Doctor carries an Agatha Christie book with him in the TARDIS.)  

So… Now you have a completed first draft. Congratulations! That’s a huge accomplishment. Be proud of yourself. What’s next, you might be wondering. Send it off to a publisher?

Don’t. Don’t even think about that yet.

I used to think that if I were any good at writing my first draft would be perfect. *rueful chuckle* Then I read a quote that changed my mind. I wish I knew who to attribute it to. “Even F. Scott Fitzgerald wasn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald in the first draft.” Wait! What? Stories didn’t just flow from his fingers perfect and wonderful? He didn’t type The End at the bottom of his first draft then drop the manuscript on his publisher’s desk?  Holy smokes! So the work of writing isn’t simply the physical act of typing the words? Who knew? 

Apparently everyone knew except me. Ernest Hemingway stated, “The first draft of anything is shit.”  That might be a bit harsh, but I’m not about to argue that succinct comment with him. (I’m aware that he couldn’t win a debate with a flower at this point, but I meant hypothetical him. You knew that.)

You’re going to have to write a second draft. Even if you didn’t force the ending. Even if you never made a typo. Even if you ruthlessly polished every word before you finished your first draft, you’re going to have to do a second one. I can hear you groaning from here. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is. And I sympathize. I truly do. I’ve always hated reading my work once I finished writing it. Telling the story is fun. (Let me dream here that the first draft wasn’t a pain in the butt.) Fixing the first draft is the same work without the creative fun. This is the craftsmanship level of writing. This is where you put in your time.  

So – onward to the second draft, right?

Sorry. No. I have some advice that I hope you’re ready to hear. This is one of the biggest secrets of writing. It’s probably the most important trick up a writer’s sleeve. Are you ready for the big reveal?


Boo. That’s no fun. I know. It sucks. It’s a virtue, fer chrissakes, and I’m not exactly a virtuous person. I hate it and part of me wants to rebel against it, but I’ve learned how important it is.

My novel needs all the breathing room I can give it. Yours does too. A couple months is ideal, but at least give it a few weeks. The longer the work, the longer the break. Don’t open the file and don’t touch anything for a while. Time will make you more objective and you’re going to need that distance.

Do you have problems bringing your story to a close? Do you know before you start how it will end? Has the ending ever changed while you were writing your novel? Share your tricks for wrapping it up.

Next month, we’ll talk about the second draft.

(This series originally appeared on ERWA blog, where there's discussion about the post, but I will answer any comments here too.)

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