A Letter . . . to my Characters

For the past few days, I’ve struggled with rewrites. I’ve gone through the manuscript. I’ve made my notes. I’ve sorted what worked and what didn’t. I’ve reconsidered scenes that I tossed long ago, thought about bringing them back.

Then I sit down to write . . . and the fingers won’t move on the keyboard. Words don’t become sentences. Sentences don’t become paragraphs. What I do get down, I don’t trust.

I poke and prod at it. Hoping to wake it up. Knocking on my characters’ doors, hoping to find them at home, letting them know I’m here. But where are they? Do characters go on vacation? If so, mine must have done so. Are they, at this very moment, tossing back highballs on a beach in Maui? If so, why the hell didn’t they invite ME?! ūüôā

But it’s time for them to come home. Time to sort them, and their stories, out. So I wrote them a little letter.

Time to get to work, guys.¬† I know we just finished that first novel and you think it’s time to slack off a little, but it’s really not.¬†We’ve done great work in the past – I’ve seen it. I’ve read it! Some of those scenes are popping! But we need to get the rest of them popping.¬†

Remember, we’ve got new characters. Demon – sorry, Nicholas – it’s your time to shine! I know you. I re-read your bio last night. I’d forgotten all that stuff! You told me your life story a long time ago, and I’m sorry I sort of let it sit on the sidelines for so long. You deserve better. You’re witty and loquacious and I really like you – you know, for a demon – and this book needs you. The series needs you. You’re a worthy adversary for Erin and Kai, and I’m sorry you’ve been through so much, but let’s get it sorted, shall we? Tell me how you do what you do. Tell me your plans. Tell me how you’ll execute those plans.¬†

Erin and Kai – this is YOUR book! This is the one that started it all – the trust and mistrust, the sidelong looks, the questions and non-answers. Neither of you is trusting,¬† yet you both trust each other. The demon knows this . . . and you do, too. It’s time to take your story to the next level. Let’s do it!¬†

Shannon . . . I know you don’t play quite as large a role in this book as you’d like, but then again, if I ever let you, you’d take over the entire books and then where would I be?! You’re sassy and smart and scary and – well, let’s face it, you’re evil and you like it that way. I know you didn’t want to die, and I know everything you do now is a reaction to that. I’m sorry you barely got your heart’s desire and then had it ripped from you. Not my fault, though. And your time’s coming. But for this book . . . you’re in the backseat, girlfriend.¬†

Nick . . . wow. I got nothing. Seriously, you’re a douche. And you know it. You say ‘cad’ because you’re British and you’re describing yourself, and I can feel you. You’re ready to go! I’ve got no problems with you. And I know all your little secrets, too.¬†

In short, guys – I know it’s going to be another long slog. I get it. It’s not going to be easy at all. It’s going to be another round of ripping apart scenes, adding new ones and cutting the old, using a hatchet and then maybe a scalpel. I really do get it. Who wants to do all that work?! Well – we do. Right? I mean, isn’t that why you all came to me to begin with?¬†

I know – there’s a lot of people out there who roll their eyes, even get downright hostile, when I talk about my characters like they’re real people. But how can anyone spend time with their characters and not feel like that? How can anyone write day after day, feel that exhilaration of blinking your eyes and realizing that you don’t remember writing anything on the page – yet not only is it there, but it’s really good – and deny that their characters are real? You guys are. I live with you. You go with me to work, to the grocery store, on my walks. When I can’t sleep, you’re there sometimes, giving me whispered lines and paragraphs.¬†

So sadly, guys, if we want this book to get done, it’s got to be a team effort.¬†

I’m here. Get back from vacation, and let’s get started.¬†

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“The Boys in the Boat”

Sometimes – too rarely, I’m afraid – we read a book that haunts us. Envelopes us in its cadence and rhythm, its words and images, and we barely realize we’re¬†reading¬†until suddenly, we’re at the end. Bereft. Left staring at the bookshelves, knowing that no matter what book we choose to read next, it will be unfair – because that book, no matter how good, will simply not be able to compete with the book we’ve just finished.

I’m at that point now.

TheBoysintheBoatI just finished Daniel James Brown’s¬†The Boys in the Boat – Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.¬†In fact, I was up until 1 this morning finishing it.

There are so many things I want to say about this book. So many, many good things I want to say about this book. Including how much I love that gorgeous, magical cover. I will try to keep it brief.

As a historian, I love what is commonly called ‘popular history,’ as long as it’s well-written and well-researched. Anything that gets people excited and interested and longing to know more is a plus, in my book. Most of us have heard of Jesse Owens, who famously won the gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, defeating the top-ranked Nazi runners – and sticking it to Hitler’s grand plan. But most of us don’t know about the rest of the Berlin Olympics and the¬†other¬†athletes who participated – and won. This book is the story of the eight-man rowing crew from the University of Washington, who fought tooth and nail for three years to earn their right to go up against the best in the world.

I can hear you now – rowing? What’s that? In a boat? Yes. Rowing. Eight men, plus a coxswain, in a hand-built racing shell, rowing together. Look. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything about rowing, because Brown will take you through it all, tell you everything you need to know – and do it in a way that leaves you with a sudden realization, a few hours later, that he taught you something, and you were so enthralled with the story that you didn’t even know you were learning.

So no. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know a thing about rowing. I didn’t. And it didn’t matter. Brown tells you everything you need to know, so that by the time he describes the races, he doesn’t have to explain anything, again. He can just tell the story, in his masterful, flowing way. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never even seen a race, because by the time Brown is done, you will have – in your mind. Brown’s writing is beautiful, ethereal. He has the ability to put words to paper that come to life, so that the reader isn’t even aware of the words on the page – all they’re aware of is the images unfolding in their mind, a movie reel of the imagination. Take, for instance, this passage:

Bobby Moch set the varsity boys to rowing at a leisurely twenty-two or twenty-three. Joe and his crewmates chatted softly with the boys in the other two boats. but they soon found that they had pulled out ahead without meaning to, just pulling soft and steady . . . And then, one by one, they realized that they couldn’t hear anything at all except for the gentle murmur of their blades dipping into and out of the water. They were rowing in utter darkness now. They were alone together in a realm of silence and darkness . . . Bobby Moch recalled, “You couldn’t hear anything except for the oars going in the water . . . it’d be ‘zep’ and that’s all you could hear . . . the oarlocks didn’t even rattle on the release.” They were rowing perfectly, fluidly, mindlessly. They were rowing as if on another plane, as if in a black void among the stars, just as Pocock had said they might. And it was beautiful.¬†

This is not a book about¬†rowing,¬†per se. This is a book about the humans in the boat, and the humans behind the boat. This book is about the nine-man crew – Joe Rantz, Don Hume, Bobby Moch, Stub McMillin, Roger Morris, Gordon Adam, Chuck Day, George Hunt, and John White, Jr. But it’s also about their coaches, Tom Bolles and Al Ulbrickson. It’s about George Pocock, a master craftsman who designed and built all of Washington’s racing shells. It’s about their families and girlfriends, and it’s about the 1930s.

Perhaps one of the reasons why I fell in love with this book so much is because I could, on a deep, almost instinctive level, relate to it. One of the themes of the book is teamwork – becoming not part of a team, but nine people and a racing shell rising above everything that makes them individuals to become something more, something greater, something¬†else.¬†I ride dressage. The principle’s the same. When I’m in the saddle, the horse and I are partners. There is constant communication between us, and when you become so in tune with each other than the rest of the world fades away, and you can feel each footfall, feel the horse’s mouth playing with the bit, the reins a live thing in your hands . . . it’s a feeling you can’t find anywhere else. It’s up to the rider to make the communication happen, every second of every ride. It’s 100% focus, 100% of the time. But eventually . . . you reach a place where, when you get into the saddle, you and the horse just¬†know.¬†You’ve transcended being horse and rider, and become that something else. This is precisely the feeling that top rowing teams have – each man in that boat is in perfect tune with every other man. Individuality slips away. They become one, with each other and the shell.

Another thing I loved about this book – it’s a master class in structure. Brown realizes that this story is larger than the nine boys in the boat. It’s larger than the rivalry with California, and the coaches. It’s emblematic of an era. Laura Hillenbrand does this quite well in her books¬†(Seabiscuit¬†and¬†Unbroken),¬†and Brown gives us the backdrop of the 1930s – both in the US and Germany – in unflinching, poetic detail. Brown looks at Nazi Germany and the creation of the ’36 Olympics, interspersing the story of Leni Riefenstahl (Hitler’s personal movie-maker), and her rivalry with Josef Goebbels, along with the efforts to ‘cleanse’ Germany of anything that might reflect poorly on it. Both stories are told, side by side. You understand what’s at stake for everyone.

I could go on about this book. Yes, this book was published in 2013. Yes, it’s been sitting in my ‘to read’ pile for about six months. YES, I am sorry I didn’t read it earlier – though truth be told, I probably needed to be able to sit down with it when I was on break, and could really devote myself to the story, without distractions.

Please. Do yourself a favor. Go read this book. Now.

In the meantime, I’ll be staring at my bookshelf. Bereft.

Are You Tough Enough . . . for Rewrites?

Rewrites are really tough.

I don’t mean the nit-picky line edits to catch grammar and spelling errors. I mean the kind of rewrites that require you to rip apart entire scenes and stitch them back together, then rewrite the segues between chapters. The kind that make you look at characterization and character arcs.

We always draft our novels, hesitate over things that don’t seem quite right, and say ‘Well, that’s what rewrites are for!’ but the fact is – rewrites are bloody hard work.¬†

But. If you ever want your manuscript to see the light of day, you have to do them. Seriously. Think about it. How many times have you read a novel where you threw it across the room because it a.) was poorly edited, b.) had major plot holes, c.) characters did things out of character, or d.) ___ (insert reason here). This is why YOU have to do them – so no one, hopefully, throws your book across a room.

I just finished rewrites on the first novel in my urban fantasy series (which – I am hoping – may actually meet an agent this year), and now that it’s off to my beta readers, I’ve started re-reading and editing the second book.

Here’s the thing:¬† in my mind, that book was already done. In fact, that book was originally Book #1 of the series, but – well, I discussed this in another blog post (¬†https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/wrong-path-wrong-focus-whats-your-novel-really-about/ ). It had issues, I knew, but nothing on the scale of the one I was currently working on. Suffice to say that for the past few months, while I’ve been frantically editing and rewriting on Book #1, I’ve been consoled by a single thought:¬†¬†Book #2 isn’t as bad. In fact, it’s really good. I remember it flows well and the characters do great things and it’s funny and full of tension. It’ll need a few tweaks, is all.¬†

HAH!!!!

OMG. I long for those halcyon days. They were what, four days ago?!

I’m about halfway through the first read of the draft of Book #2, and I can’t believe I thought this was anywhere close to being done. It’s not. It’s SO not.

I suppose every writer goes through this. Neil Gaiman, when he came to Tulsa, told us that there’s a point about halfway through his books where he calls his agent and tells her he can’t do this and the book sucks and he’s a horrible writer (and his agent says “Oh, you’re at¬†that¬†point in the book.”). In her book¬†Write Naked,¬†Jennifer Probst talks about her rewriting woes as well (in fact, she tells a story about her editor calling with a bombshell:¬† the book sucks, and you need to rewrite the entire thing in seven days. Probst told her editor that she had two small children, and rewriting an entire book in seven days would be problematic – to which the editor said, “Well, you’ll just have to give your children away for the week.”).

And it’s not even so much that I have to do the rewrites – I knew that was coming – it’s the fact that I could be So Freaking Wrong about how good I thought this manuscript was! The book I have in my memory was 85% complete. It needed tweaked. I remembered a couple of scenes that needed some work, and a few that I wanted to move around for better flow, but after that . . . in truth, I was thinking I’d have this thing wrapped up in a week or two.

Yeah. Well. No.

Maybe this is like when you break up with someone, and after a few months, they want to get back together, and you’ve conveniently forgotten why you broke up with them in the first place. You forgot the hideous laugh, or the crude humor, or the way he strips his transmission rather than go into the proper gear, or . . . whatever it is, you forget it. Then, when you’re back together, poof! You remember!

Like I said, I’m about halfway through that first read-through, making notes and sticking turquoise Post-It Notes to nearly every page. Sometimes two or three per page. Realizing, as I go, that this isn’t a quick fix, and it’s not an ‘edit the existing manuscript’ thing, even.

It’s a¬†let’s rewrite this entire manuscript¬†thing.

As I’m reading, I’m struck by several factors that I can’t believe I forgot about. They must have been there – and not lurking in the shadows, either, but right there out in the open. Nearly every page has entire paragraphs that are circled, with a big black REWRITE next to it.¬†A lot of things that were changed in Book 1 need to be addressed – new events, thing that got switched out between Books 1 and 2, motivations. My entire Chapter 1 has to be trashed and redone. Scenes don’t flow – in fact, they don’t even go together in some cases! It’s confusing, convoluted, and crap.

I have the glimmer of some goodness. Some scenes are okay. Some paragraphs are all right. Some sentences can even be left alone. If I can figure out how to fit them back in and where they go, anyway. But overall? IT’S CRAP!

I’m tempted to start rewrites right away, but I need to finish this re-read first. I know it will be a total rewrite. I also know I can do it – but I feel so blindsided! How the hell did I think this was any good?! How?!

My saving grace, I think, is that since I just finished the rewrites to Book 1, I’m in the right mindset to be brutal for these. With Book 1, I was¬†downright¬†brutal – I cut entire scenes! If a scene didn’t propel the story forward, ask or answer questions, and hold my attention, it got cut. By the time I was done, I¬† was so close to it that I don’t know if I accomplished that or not. We often refer to books as ‘babies,’ but the fact is, when you reach a certain point in the writing/rewriting cycle, that ain’t your baby anymore – it’s the freaking enemy, and all you want to do is defeat it, by any means necessary!

And since I’m still in that ‘it’s the enemy!’ mindset – I’m ready to be brutal!

Yes, rewrites are tough.

We, as writers, have to be tougher.

 

My blog post about seeing Neil Gaiman in Tulsa:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/a-magical-evening-with-neil-gaiman/

And Jennifer Probst’s website:¬†¬†http://www.jenniferprobst.com/

 

Minor Characters: can they do more?

Sometimes, you can read a book or watch a movie several time, and never notice something important in it – until one day, you see it. And that changes the entire book or movie for you.

truman show

This past week, my Philosophy class watched¬†The Truman Show.¬†If you’ve never seen it, it’s an awesome movie! The basic plot goes like this:¬† Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carey) is a normal man living a normal life, with his slightly overbearing wife, slightly overwrought mother, and slightly less-than-ambitious best friend. But Truman has one ambition:¬† to leave his hometown and travel. And this, the directors cannot let him do.

See, Truman was adopted at birth, and is now the unwitting star of a television program that has been running, nonstop, for 29 years. His wife? An actress. His mother? An actress. His bet friend? Say it with me . . . an actor. (Hell, half the time he’s being fed his lines directly from the show’s producer!) As Truman slowly begins to realize that his life is a total fabrication, he’s forced to confront all his fears and – eventually – the unknown world.

My Philosophy students watch this to better understand certain philosophical questions and theories РPlato, Locke, Descartes, Spinoza, even Camus comes up in discussion. Of course, as a writer, I look at it from a slightly different perspective. For Truman, everyone is an antagonist; everyone is out to keep him from his goal of finding his lost love and sailing away to Fiji.

Or are they?

See, this is where that whole ‘watch something a hundred times . . .’ thing comes in. There is one character – a very minor character – who, I finally realized, isn’t actually trying to hinder Truman at all. And that character is the bus driver.

bus driverYup. Bus driver.

In one scene, Truman attempts to escape Seahaven by taking the bus to Chicago – which, of course, cannot happen because a.) the entire show is filmed inside a huge dome, and b.) you can’t let the star escape. The poor bus driver is ordered to figure out a way to stop the bus from leaving, and intentionally strips the gears. As everyone else gets off the bus, he looks back at Truman – still sitting in the back, with his little plaid suitcase – and then walks back to him and says, “I’m sorry, son.”

You think, at first, that he’s merely repeating a line. What else would a bus driver say, after all?

But later in the movie, when it’s discovered that Truman has escaped in a sailboat and is trying to find a way out, the producers order the ferry to be launched. The bus driver (who has no name, apparently), is brought to drive the ferry and – voila. Strips the gears.

Coincidence? I’ve read essays about the show that claim this is about white superiority and ensuring that the only non-white character really shown is ignorant and incompetent – but you know what? I think that’s total BS.

I think the bus driver did it on purpose. 

And, I think he did it to help Truman. 

soapboxHere, give me my soap box. That’s better. ūüôā

I think he is the only character, in the entire movie (except for Truman’s true love), who has any sense of decency, compassion, or morality. Everyone else has to be pushed to the absolute outer limits of¬†murdering¬†Truman before they call it quits! But not the Bus Driver. Here, I’ll capitalize his title. ūüôā It only took me what, a dozen times of seeing this movie to figure it out? But. I think this is a very subtle, almost Easter-egg-like, thing the movie’s writers slid into the script. Maybe the Bus Driver really can pilot the ferry. Who knows? The point is,¬†he didn’t.¬†I think he took his opportunity to give Truman a fighting chance to escape. Had the ferry started up, they would have caught Truman, and that would have been the end of it. But because the ferry¬†couldn’t¬†run, Truman had his chance to escape. And he does it in a way that is totally in keeping with his character and the show’s plot.

And suddenly, what looks like a random, rational event that helps Truman escape becomes a real plot point. From a minor character, no less!

So. The question becomes, how can¬†your¬†minor characters change the odds for your main character? For better or worse? Is there any place where a minor character can drop a hint to your MC, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time? Say something, randomly, that jogs a memory or makes a connection? Provide them with some bit of knowledge they need for their journey? JK Rowling does this a lot – small, seemingly insignificant things in the beginning of the book become Very Important later on, and almost all of them are from secondary – sometimes, even minor – characters.

So think about those throwaway characters. Can you give them a little heart and soul? Can you give them a real reason to be there?

Just some food for thought. ūüôā

Can you relate to your antagonist?

This past week, I’ve been deep in the bowels of rewrites – and just printed the draft yesterday! I’ll be going through it this weekend, making changes and edits next week, and hoping to get it to my betas soon. ūüôā

But let’s be honest – that’s not all I’ve been doing. ūüôā

There were a couple of things this week that provoked some deep thoughts. (Besides Trump thinking it’s okay to murder an endangered species.) Both had to do with how we think about our antagonists, and how we can humanize them.

Writing books, conferences, tutorials – they’ll all tell you the same thing:¬† you can’t have an antagonist/villain who’s completely bad. Sometimes, that comes across (and I’m as guilty as anyone of thinking this) as your antagonist has to do something great like rescuing kittens, or donating 30% of his ill-gotten gains to charities and orphanages, so the reader, you know, has to sort of root for him.

But it’s not really like that. What all these tutors and books really mean is this:¬† you need to make your antagonist relate-able.¬†And here’s a couple of examples of making your antagonist¬†human,¬†without necessarily making them¬†heroic.¬†

The first came with my 134th watching of¬†Ever After.¬†If you’ve never seen this movie, do go watch it, please. It’s a historic retelling of the Cinderella story, and fairly historically accurate as well (to those who say that Leonardo da Vinci was never in France – well, he was!). Drew Barrymore plays the title heroine, Danielle du Barbarac, who will catch the eye – and heart – of Prince Henri. Now, in the original fairy tale, the wicked stepmother is just that. Wicked. She hates Cinderella for reasons we don’t really understand, dotes on her horrible daughters, and makes Cinderella’s life a living hell. She’s a villain.

9302f59bf71b5164267079b635e71deaBut. In¬†Ever After,¬†the stepmother, Rodmilla de Ghent (played masterfully by the incomparable Anjelica Huston), is a woman widowed and having to do whatever it takes to raise three daughters – well, two daughters and one stepdaughter¬† – alone. There is one revealing scene in the movie in which Danielle is brushing her stepmother’s hair, and Rodmilla allows her – for a brief moment – to ask about her father. “You look so much like your father,” she says . . . and when Danielle asks if she loved him, she replies, “I barely knew him.” Yet it’s clear that his death shook her to the core; she could have married again, and in fact it would have been much easier if she had. But she didn’t. Now, this could be because no man in his right mind would take on a total witch who’s already been through two husbands, sure. But it might also be that, having been married twice, she has chosen a different path. At any rate, though it’s a small – very small – scene, it gives the ‘wicked stepmother’ a hint of humanity. We can identify, in a way, with her. And when she finally gets her come-uppance, we almost feel a little sorry for her. (Almost.)

Then, last Sunday, I was listening to The Moth Radio Hour (which, if you’ve never listened, you HAVE to!). One story in particular had me spellbound. A young musician, living in LA and working as a super in an apartment complex, was called by the FBI and asked to identify a couple of photos. The woman, he said, didn’t look all that familiar. But the guy, sure. That was Charlie. He lived upstairs with his wife.

Only Charlie was really – Whitey Bulger. Yeah. THAT Whitey Bulger.

Here’s a link to the episode:¬†¬†https://themoth.org/stories/call-me-charlie But as you listen, you’ll understand why this one made me think. The musician, Josh, didn’t know Charlie as the FBI’s Most Wanted. He didn’t know him as a ruthless mob boss who has since been convicted of money laundering, extortion, and nineteen murders. Josh knew Charlie as the guy who came downstairs one day, listened to him play his guitar, and then gave him a Stetson. He knew Charlie as the guy who gave him Christmas presents, and then – when he forgot to write a thank-you note – gave him a box of stationary. He knew Charlie as – Charlie. Not a murderer. And when the FBI wanted Josh to participate in taking Charlie down, that’s how Josh thought about it –¬† not that he was helping arrest a wanted criminal, but that he was helping arrest someone he considered a normal, quiet tenant who might even be thought of as a friend.

In this case, it’s all about perception. Could a notorious mob boss be – a nice guy? To someone who had no idea who he was, maybe. Take author Ann Rule. In the early 70s, she famously worked a late-night shift on a suicide hotline with none other than Ted Bundy. They became friends – and even after he was arrested and charged with the murders of thirty women, she remained friends with him because he was charming and – well, to those he liked, he was¬†nice.¬†In a jailhouse interview, he apparently once told her, “I liked you. I would never have hurt you.” (Here’s a story from the Washington¬†Post¬†about her relationship with Bundy:¬† https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/07/28/crime-writer-ann-rule-and-killer-ted-bundy-were-friends-before-they-were-famous/?utm_term=.b8ed8134155a¬†)

So maybe this is all there is to it, then. Make your antagonist someone your reader is able to relate to. That makes it harder for your readers to know what they want to have happen. And it makes it harder for your protagonist, maybe, to do what they have to do. Ann Rule is the one who tipped off police about Bundy. Imagine the doubts and second doubts she had to go through before she placed that call. What if your antagonist is someone that, under other circumstances, your protagonist could actually like? How much inner tension could that add?

This is part of the revisions that I’ve been making. My antagonist was – well, to be honest, he was sort of what we call a ‘mwa-ha-ha’ villain. Motivated by greed, he was callus and dismissive of Erin’s concerns, and clearly didn’t care about the ghosts he hunted. I also never liked him and never felt comfortable with having him in my story. It didn’t seem like that’s really who he should be.

So – I hit the rest button. What would add more tension? For Erin, going up against a jackass is just par for the course – that would never keep her up at night! But what if he¬†wasn’t¬†an ass? What if he was actually a halfway decent guy who just truly didn’t understand that the things he was doing were actually harming the ghosts he was after? A bit bumbling, a bit stubborn, and a bit clueless. We all know someone like that. That’s easy to relate to. We can’t hate this guy, because he’s not really a bad guy. We can be aghast at the things he¬†does.¬†But even Erin, as much as she wants to, can’t really¬†dislike¬†him. That puts her in a bind. That adds a little tension.

I encourage you to at least listen to the Moth segment. ūüôā But also, to think about these things if you’re in the middle of your own rewrites, or if something seems slightly off-kilter about your antagonist. Sure, we like to hate villains. No one minds hating Jafar, or Jeffrey Dahmer, or Trump. They’re evil. We get it. But in fiction . . . sometimes, just¬†evil¬†doesn’t quite get the job done.

Sometimes, being able to relate to your antagonist is what you need.

Endings are Hard, part 2

Endings are hard. 

True dat!

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the struggles I’m having with the ending to my work in progress, and hinted at a few of the reasons why I think it’s not working. Since then, I’ve made some progress, but it’s basically like having a pipe full of frozen molasses – you can grab a knife or screwdriver and pick away at it, you can thaw it a bit at a time, or you can just . . . walk away.

Yeah, well, I’ve come too far to walk away.

The ending to my second book is good. I mean, really good. So good, in fact, that it’s hard for me to remember that it took me about two years and 40 drafts to get it that good. Not only did it change location,¬†but the roster of characters also changed. So did the motivations (which, yes, meant rewrites to the rest of the novel – which were what¬†allowed the ending to be written).¬†I keep thinking I have to get this one right, right out the gate. 100% there. No problems, no issues, no rewrites.

HAH! To paraphrase Shakespeare, what fools these writers be. It’s up to me to give myself the freedom to screw up. And I have, and I will again.

Endings need to accomplish certain things, like I said before. The basics of a good ending are that they:

1.) Answer all the questions – or the main ones, anyway. If you’re writing a series, then you may have plot lines that continue across several books, not being resolved until the end of the series, or at least, in a later book. To do this, you have to think about why you started this novel. What were the things your characters, especially your MC, were struggling with? This usually includes both their external and internal conflicts. If they’re afraid of snakes, put them in a pit of snakes before they can save the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis. ūüôā

2.) Wrap up all the loose ends. Raymond Chandler once famously forgot about a character – the chauffeur who gets killed and stuffed in a trunk in¬†The Big Sleep.¬†Don’t do that. Readers are still griping about that chauffeur. They’ll gripe about your loose ends, too. I promise.

3.) Are a result of the actions of your characters, especially your MC. Every choice they’ve made, every action they’ve taken – including the mistakes! – have to lead to this moment. This goes for both your antagonist and protagonist.¬†Remember, your protagonist and antagonist are in opposition to each other. One of them wants to blow up the White House? Then you’d better have the other one risking everything to stop that.

One other thing bothers me about the ending I’m trying to write, as I realized late last night:¬† My MC, Erin, isn’t able to do much in the ending.¬† And that frustrates the hell out of her and me both! It’s something we’re both going to have to think about, because the ending really belongs to another character, Rebecca. She wants revenge, and she’ll have it – and Erin can’t stop her. Truthfully, Erin isn’t even sure she¬†wants¬†to stop her. Erin’s job – her goal – is to bring the truth of Rebecca’s death to light, and then let Rebecca cross over. (Erin sees ghosts. She hates that I’m telling you that, by the way.) But Rebecca’s goal is revenge. Once Erin tells her how she died, and why, Rebecca has no intention of crossing over peacefully while her murderers are still out and about.

4.) Satisfy the promise you made in the beginning. In Chapter 1, you made a promise to your readers as to what this book would be about. If it’s a romance, you promised there would be a happily ever after. If it’s a murder mystery, you promised to bring the killer to justice. Renege on that, and your readers will throw your book across the room – and then, onto a bonfire.

5.) Let your MC uses all his skills and knowledge – including any he’s acquired since the book started. In¬†Angels and Demons,¬†Robert Langdon learns, in an early chapter, how to create resistance to air flow. It sees superfluous at the time, but it saves his life when he’s tossed out of an airplane at the end of the novel. (No, I don’t know if it’s accurate, and I don’t really care, either.)

6.) Don’t let the characters act out of character! I think this may be the most important thing, because remember,¬†your ending has to be a natural outgrowth of the rest of the novel.¬†If your meek, quiet, pacifist heroine suddenly pops up with a broadsword, screaming like a banshee, and kills a dozen bystanders, you’re going to get hate mail – unless you’ve somehow foreshadowed this. Is it a spell? Trauma? This rule goes for ALL of your characters – secondary, main, and antagonists.

7.) Allow at least one character – which had better be your MC – to acquire what they wanted. What motivates your MC? Are they after a treasure? Knowledge? Revenge? Love? There are books I absolutely despise and would cheerfully burn every copy of because the MC’s motives change at the end. One of these is a horrendously awful YA book called¬†Sky,¬†about a spoiled teenage girl who wants a horse, finally gets the horse, then sells the horse to the meat truck guy when the horse breaks her leg. The author who wrote this hideous goat shite should be beaten. Repeatedly. I volunteer.

Now, I will say this:¬†¬†sometimes, it’s the antagonist who gets what they want instead.¬†Are you ready for that?!

7.) Satisfy the reader. You can’t satisfy all readers.¬† I get that. No one can. But you need to satisfy¬†most¬†of them, or your novel isn’t going to get that word-of-mouth buzz that can make or break best sellers. How do you satisfy them? See 1-7 above.

So as I review these rules, I remind myself that endings are hard. For me especially. One early story stumped me for nearly a year before one day, in a flash of insight, I realized how it had to end. I had three main characters. One had fallen by the wayside. He chose to make a comeback and take responsibility for his actions, in order to save the other two. It fit perfectly with his sense of honor, and no one acted out of character.

The other thing I have to keep reminding myself is that¬†it’s a draft. Only a draft.¬†The more I get down on paper, the better I can alter the structure later. I may throw away huge entire chunks of it. That’s what rewrites are all about. But I may find little nuggets of dialogue, or insight, that I can keep and build on. My setting’s not there yet. It feels more like dialogue exchanges right now. But it’ll get there. I have to keep reminding myself of that. It’ll get there. That’s what rewrites are for.

In fact, I’m finding that nearly everything with this novel is about rewrites. I don’t know why I think the ending should be any different. I’ve had to revise for character motivation, and focus. Holes I thought I’d patched have sprung leaks again, and new holes have been discovered since I’ve struggled with this ending. Character motives maybe aren’t as clear as I’d once thought.

But I’ll get there. Endings are hard, after all. But they’re worth it.

 

“Endings are impossible.” Can we make them possible?

“Any chapped-ass monkey with a keyboard can poop out a beginning, but endings are impossible. You try to tie up every loose end, but you never can. The fans are always gonna bitch. There’s always gonna be holes. And since it’s the ending, it’s all supposed to add up to something. I’m telling you, they’re a raging pain in the ass.

No doubt ‚Äď endings are hard. But then again… nothing ever really ends, does it?”

These are the immortal – yes, I said immortal – words of the prophet Chuck, from¬†Supernatural.¬†“Swan Song” is probably my second-favorite episode of that show, in part because of Chuck’s narration (Chuck is a prophet – well, a bit more than that, really – and chronicles the Winchesters’ lives in a series of tawdry books).

I was reminded of these words tonight as I struggle with the ending of my current work in progress.

Any chapped-ass monkey with a keyboard can poop out a beginning, but endings are impossible.¬†You know a writer wrote that! And it’s so true. Beginnings are easy. You’ve got your characters. They’ve got problems. You chronicle the problems. You watch as your characters solve one thing, only to have two more issues pop up. Characters come onstage. Characters die. They get ever-closer to what they want.

But endings are impossible.

Endings should be natural. We hear that so often. They should be the organic outcomes of every decision your characters have made. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, that’s exactly how it goes. You’ve written the novel so well that there can be only one ending, and it flows right out of your keyboard like water from a bottle. Maybe you tweak a word here or there, but then – you’re done. You’ve tied up the loose ends, answered all the questions, given the characters their happy-ever after (or their just desserts, whichever).

If this ever happens to you, please let me know which alternate universe you’re living in, so I can come visit. Because this is NOT where I am!

I’m working on rewrites to a novel I drafted a couple of years ago. The rewrites keep going well, but now it’s time to draft the ending. My beta readers had issues with the ending. They believed that it was weak, that it didn’t solve anything or answer any questions. I had to agree. I never liked the ending, to be honest. I didn’t mind that some loose ends weren’t tied up – but it was weak, and I hated it.

So what are the elements of a good ending? Think about an ending to a novel that¬† you’ve never been able to get out of your head. What makes it so strong? J.K. Rowling writes fantastic endings. Take any of the Harry Potter books. Read them through. Mark all the questions you have as you read. Then, ask yourself how many questions are left at the end. She’ll always leave something up in the air – it has to lead into the next novel, after all – but all the Big Ticket Questions are answered.

But more importantly, nothing is left to chance. Rowling lays the clues down one by one, so subtly and thoroughly that you always smack yourself in the head for not seeing the ending coming, even as you’re on the edge of your seat, begging Harry to win. Think about¬†Goblet of Fire.¬†We knew all about Portkeys, and wand duels, and of course, we loved Cedric. (cry!) So when the Goblet turns out to be a Portkey, we’re shocked – but we know what it is and we know what’s about to happen. And where did we first encounter Portkeys? Oh, that’s right – in Chapter 1, where they’re an integral part of the plot, a means to get everyone to the Quidditch World Cup. See how neatly she did that? (I highly suspect this was the result of rewriting, but – you know what? It works.)

Setting your readers up for the ending is a challenge, and one I’m facing right now. I’ve been trying for a week to figure out precisely why the old ending was so weak, and what I have to do with the new one to make it work. The ending has to be a natural outcome of the previous events. Let me say that again:

soapbox

 

The ending has to be a natural outcome of the previous events. 

 

 

Here’s some problems I’ve seen with book endings:

1.) They’re too long and boring.¬†Wuthering Heights¬†comes to mind. Who gives a flying monkey’s butt about Heathcliff and Cathy’s children? I sure didn’t. Although come to think on it, I didn’t care about Heathcliff and Cathy, either.

2.) The promise of the book isn’t delivered.¬†The Lovely Bones.¬†I literally threw this book across the room because of the ending. Susie remained as a ghost to see if her killer would ever be brought to justice, and¬†nothing happened!¬†The killer isn’t even brought to justice by Susie, her family, or anyone else; his death is a random event. Hated this book¬†because¬†of the ending.

3.) Something is tossed in at the last second to save the day. Either the cavalry comes riding in (which denies your hero his moment), or some random knowledge/ gun/sword/superpower is suddenly discovered that gives the hero the edge. You think Harry ever had that? Nope! When he pulled the Gryffindor sword from the Sorting Hat, that was foreshadowed. Whatever your hero needs to defeat the enemy or accomplish his goal, you have to foreshadow it. Otherwise, the reader will be cheated. Not feel cheated –¬†be¬†cheated.

4.) There’s no logic to the ending. Again, the ending is a product of the rest of the book. Every choice your characters make, every scene, every bit of dialogue, are leading to this. Your MC can’t act out of character, either.

5.) The MC or hero isn’t the catalyst for the ending. The ending has to be¬†because¬†of your hero’s decisions. It also need to be affected by your secondary characters, especially your antagonist, but the MC has to be driving it. Again – when Harry calls out Voldemort at the end of Book 7, it’s¬†his choice.¬†He knows there’s like a 99.9% chance he’ll die. But he’s going to do his best to take Voldemort out with him. If your MC has made mistakes, or wrong choices – those have to bring about your ending. In one of my early stories, my MC’s hubris led to the death of someone he was supposed to be protecting – and, in turn, led to his imprisonment. Your characters aren’t perfect. They’ll make mistakes. Use those to create a tension-filled conclusion.

6.) And oh, yeah – there’s no tension. If you’re writing a suspense novel, there’d better be real questions about whether your MC will make it out alive or not. A romance novel better have a real question about whether your happily-ever-after will happen or not. Your characters have to face some kind of risk of death – which can be a lot of things. Death of a career, a dream, a love – or their lives. It’s life and death. Make your readers believe that. How? By emphasizing – in the rest of your novel – how important this is to your MC. Again, the ending has to be the logical, organic outcome of the rest of the book.

And ultimately, I think that’s where my problems lie – although my manuscript is a lot better, it’s not perfect, and I’ve still got a few holes that weren’t apparent until I started trying to draft the ending. That’s when all my characters took a step back, raised an eyebrow, and said, “You want us to do WHAT?!”

I tried! I tried to write it. And the first part is good. It’s everything that comes after that isn’t coming. My characters are acting like puppies put in a collar and leash for the first time – throwing themselves on the ground, growling, whining, jerking backwards. Resisting. Because I didn’t do¬†my¬†job completely, they can’t do¬†theirs.¬†So now, my job is to go back through the manuscript and revise specifically for the ending. It’s a bit odd, I admit – and in the end, I still may not have a workable thing. But I feel, for now, that this is the best way forward for me.

“No doubt – endings are hard.” Yes, Chuck, they are! But maybe I’ve got a bit better handle on mine, now.

 

Here’s some links to articles and stories about endings (and how to write better ones):

https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/on-bad-endings

http://www.foremostpress.com/authors/articles/endings.html

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/how-to-structure-a-killer-novel-ending

https://www.ravishly.com/2015/01/14/happily-ever-after-romance-novels