Writing a damn fine story? Read ‘Damn Fine Story,’ then!

damfinestoryIf you’ve read my blog for long, you know that I have a bit of an addiction to books about writing. I firmly believe that if you’re having an issue with your writing – whatever it is you write, however long you’ve been writing – it can be helpful to see what others have to say.

Often, if I’m stuck on a manuscript and don’t precisely know why – or even if I do know why, but can’t figure out how to fix it – I’ll go to Barnes & Noble and see what’s new in the writing aisle. I did this a couple of months ago, and came home with one of the best books about writing I’ve ever read – Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story. 

If the name’s familiar, that’s because Chuck has written many novels. He’s also a regular columnist with Writer’s Digest. And in this book, he uses popular works to illustrate his points about how to write your story. Emphasis on story. 

I bought this book because – well, the cover, for one thing! Who doesn’t love a deer in a monocle? Seriously. Who? But I also bought it because of the paragraph I read when I flipped the book open to page 7:

“You can’t plug a bunch of narrative components into an equation and spit out a perfect story. The truth is, most of what I’m telling you here is wildly imperfect. It’s guesswork. It’s lies layered with horseshit layered with I-don’t-know-what-I’m-talking-about. You don’t have the answers, either. Now writing is beholden to very specific rules, and those these rules are very flexible, they’re also teachable. Storytelling is far more . . . wiggly.” 

I knew. The moment I read those lines, I knew I wanted to read this book. Chuck doesn’t pull punches. This is not a book about getting to know your characters or crafting the perfect descriptive sentence or creating rules for your paranormal universe (although those things are covered). No. This book is about how to tell a story. And the next thing that grabbed me, and turned me upside down and shook the loose change out of my pockets, was this gem from page 10:

“Storytelling is an act of interrupting the status quo.” 

Yeah. Think about that one for a second. Chuck makes you think about it. Really, when it comes down to it, that’s what a story is, right? You have a character in stasis, until Something Happens and their status quo is shattered. The rest of the story is about the fallout and what the character does as a result. Does he come into possession of a magical, dangerous ring that must be destroyed in the fires of Mt. Doom? Does she learn she can see ghosts? Do your high school classmates wake up one morning to find the Russians have invaded? Status quo – interrupted. And your story starts there.

Before you start the book, I’ll warn you:  it’s helpful if you’ve seen Die Hard and Star Wars (like, the whole series) recently. Chuck uses them to illustrate the points he makes. You’ll understand why.

One thing I absolutely love about this book is Chuck’s take on the traditional three-story arc. He hates it. See, I always thought I was the weirdo, the wrong one, for never being able to make my stories adhere to that damn thing! Rising action, climax, denouement. Never worked for me. And if you’re like me, Chuck is here to assure you that it’s okay! We’re not the weirdos! (You can chant it if you want! I did!) His argument is this:  “No story conforms to a standard shape . . . if you think about story in a three-dimensional way, suddenly you get a roller coaster – it rises, it falls, it whips left, it jerks right, it corkscrews through the air before spinning you upside down in a vicious loop-de-loop.”

See? Don’t we want to write stories like that?

Now, Chuck also has a lot to say about characters. Here’s another way to look at story:  your character has a problem; the story is the solution. Again, the status quo is interrupted. What your character does about that is the story. But more than that:  how does your character change during the story? Because they should, Chuck argues; otherwise, what’s the story about? In fact, he like to give a character three transition points:  who is this person in the beginning, the middle, and the end? He also believes that every scene, every line of dialogue, should drive home who this character is (using, of course, hero John McClane from Die Hard as his example).

There’s so much to this book – structuring scenes, how to give your characters agency in the novel, using subplots, themes and symbols – and all of it will make you consider your own work-in-progress in a new way.

There are lots of general books about writing out there. There are books that are genre-specific, those that tell you how to create characters, or structure plot, or create better descriptions, or add comedy to your writing. Damn Fine Story is not quite one of those. 🙂 Instead, Chuck looks at things through a different lens. A different, irreverent lens. Yes, he uses language. If that’s a problem for you, overlook it and read the book anyway.

You will be SO glad you did.

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/damn-fine-story-chuck-wendig/1126583462#/

http://terribleminds.com/ramble/ – Chuck’s website and blog

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“No, please, not THEME!” Can we make peace with Theme? Sure we can!

Theme.

Oh, I hear the groans now! Have I just evoked hours of torturous agonizing in Lit and Composition classes, while your evil teacher stares down at your through her cats-eye glasses and demands to know what you think the theme of this short story is? 

Yup. Been there, done that. But I think it’s because – and this sounds odd to say – but I think it’s because I never had theme explained to me properly. I remember when we talked about THEME, it was all in CAPITAL LETTERS, and it HAD TO MEAN SOMETHING BIG AND IMPORTANT and IT WAS LIFE AND DEATH, and if we didn’t get the THEME OF THIS STORY, we were DOOMED.

For me, the problem was . . . no one ever seemed to take the time to explain what theme actually meant. It was esoteric, mysterious. To get ‘theme’ meant you were inducted into some mystery cult like the Illuminati, where copies of romance novels (which, of course, could not possibly be good enough to have THEMES) were sacrificed on bonfires. And if you didn’t get theme . . . well, you weren’t good enough. You hadn’t thought about it enough. You were either lazy or dumb.

So yeah. I hear you. Theme = Bad.

But this past week, I had two encounters with the idea of theme that made me reconsider how I look at it – and maybe, just maybe, start to overcome those years of antagonism and consider it . . . something I can actually use.

The first was from one of my favorite books, Writing the Paranormal Novel by Steven Harper. Yes, this is a book about writing paranormal novels (which I’m sure is right now giving that high school Lit teacher a heart attack). But as Harper points, out themes are going to be part of your novel anyway, so you may as well learn to recognize them, harness them, and utilize them. As he puts it:

The story is what happens, one event building on another. The theme is the idea your book explores. It can be a big concept like love or death, or war or choices, or it might be more specific, like defying authority or loss of love, or restriction of choice. Once a big idea appears, it usually needs to be narrowed even more. This is what the book is saying about the big idea. It can – and should – be extremely specific, like no one finds his dreams, or Death finds everyone . . . 

See? Isn’t that easy?

Take any good young adult novel, and themes abound. Divergent, for example – to me, the larger theme is conformity; the book’s take on that is, challenging conformity and daring to be yourself. The Harry Potter books take on several themes – death, the search for immortality, doing what you know is right, friendship.

This week, on her Facebook page, Diana Gabaldon also wrote about theme. She had written for a long time without focusing on a theme in her novels (and of course, that didn’t do a thing to deter sales!), but then realized that even if she hadn’t been conscious of it, the themes had appeared anyway. In this post, she sums up the theme of each of her novels in one word, and then explains. But, as she says,

Still, the general notion of a theme is sometimes useful to a writer, in that it influences both the content and the organization of your story. Not always—or even often—in a deliberately conscious way, but it’s there. And once you’ve assembled most of a book, you really ought to be able to tell someone who asks what the theme is.

This is also something that Harper says – even experienced authors may not be aware of the themes in their novels. But themes aren’t just there so that some future high school student can be tortured into discovering them. No. As Harper points, out, themes are there to strengthen your novel. Even if you’re unaware of it, you’re probably infusing theme into your work right now. It may even have something to do with your own life – something you’ve been through, or something you’re going through. Both Gabaldon and Harper advise you to think about that for a moment. If you can identify the them of your novel, how can you work it into your novel even more? Can you change a scene or two, or perhaps tweak a subplot, to magnify and reflect the theme?

Harper says “It’s much better if a theme is developed on purpose. That way, the disparate elements in the story will point toward that theme in a more unified, careful way . . .” In other words, once you identify what your book is about, you can find small ways to bring it out even more (though hopefully without it hitting people over the head with a sledgehammer).

I was thinking about this in relation to my own novels.

When I was first starting with Nicky, my rumrunner, I thought about the theme of being an adult – what does it mean to be an adult? When can you call yourself one? What happens when the adults in your life just aren’t? But there’s another theme as well – secrets. Everyone’s keeping them, Nicky most of all – or so he thinks, anyway. With those things in mind, I can think about scenes that have yet to be written, and consider how they might support those themes.

With my urban fantasy series . . . Book 1 is about betrayal. That’s my overall Big Theme. Erin is betrayed by her boyfriend and her family. Rebecca is betrayed by her husband and the people she trusts. I suppose the smaller theme could then be – how do we handle betrayal? Is revenge ever the answer? With Book 2, it feels like my Big Theme is simply survival. But there’s also the issue of trust. Who can Erin trust? Why can/should she trust them? Can she trust anything, even herself?

What this does – for me – is help me solidify in my own mind what these novels are about. If we take the issue of trust in Book 2 – I can see several ways to expand that as I go into my rewrites. I already know the points where we touch on it. Can I expand them a bit? Can I add the theme as an undertone to scenes I have yet to write?

So if you were one of those students, like me, who never quite got THEME in school, I hope this may have helped. I’ve included a link to Diana’s Facebook post from last week as well.

Happy Writing!

 

The Manuscript is Not Sacred!!

A little while back, I posted about how blindsided I was by the manuscript I’m currently editing. How many things were wrong with it. How many Post-It Notes I have used (an entire stack!). How much ink has been spilled in corrections, cuts, and extensive notes.

But every time I try to sit down and actually make those revisions . . . my fingers still on the keyboard.

I know enough to listen to that feeling. I know there are scenes that just have to go. I know there are others to be put in. But something else was bothering me, as I tried to make my fingers and brain work, something that had nothing to do with the amount of work involved, or how daunting all this was. Been there, done that.

It was the fact that in some small way, I was thinking about this manuscript almost as something sacred.

The fault lies with me. We all get these ideas about things. We remember the taste of something being better than what it really is. We remember reading a book in one sitting – then going back to read it a second time, a few months later, and suddenly realizing that it totally sucks (Twilight and The Clan of the Cave Bear, I’m looking at you!). Or a house being bigger, or our parents being perfect.

That’s the way I was with this manuscript. Even though I had the evidence – 50+ Post-It Notes, scribbles on every page, a mountain of comments in my journal – to provide otherwise, the sad fact was . . . I’d spent so long on this project, put so much of myself into it, loved certain scenes and passages so much, that there was this block in my mind.

So tonight, faced with yet another round of staring at the computer screen, dreading the moment I opened that file . . . I instead decided to confront my issues head-on.

Okay. So what are my problems here?!

I think part of it is still feeling blindsided by how much work there is to do to this thing. I have to get over that. Even if all those edits I made to the manuscript end up being thrown out later, I have to make them. I have to get motivated on this!

A huge part of it is simply – where do I even START?! I have no idea! There are so many issues and so many things wrong that it honestly feels like I need to take the first few chapters, put them in a new file, and then just go from there. Rewrite the entire thing, blank slate, without the cumbersome burden of what I already have. Maybe that’s what’s holding me back – not knowing what to do with what I already have. I don’t want to toss it all. There’s some really excellent things in there. Things that have to stay. But on the other hand – it’s also holding me back. It’s a mental block. It feels like a sacred thing that I can’t deface.

Well. I have to get over that, too. It’s not sacred. It’s a creation. It evolves. As my writing evolves, so does this manuscript. As my writing changes, as my characters change, so does this manuscript. Nothing stays the same. The writing I do now is not the writing I was capable of doing a few years ago, when I drafted this. I have to keep that in mind. The tone and style I wrote Book 1 in, is not the same tone and style that this is written in. All of Erin’s quips and snark is gone – it’s there in the end, sure, and that’s part of the reason why I love the ending so much. But in the middle, it’s nowhere to be found. She’s just whining about the demon. And that’s it, really – she whines. For like 100 pages straight!

And that has to change, too.

So does Kai. Well. Not change as much as just take on more of a role. It’s one of the things that bothers me, the transition from where they are in Book 1, to where they need to be in Book 2. It’s a bit too sudden, maybe, and Kai still isn’t quite trusting her. She still has tons of questions about how he saved her from Rebecca – and the demon. Questions he won’t answer. Is she okay with that? The tension between them feels forced, and not organic. That has to change. That’s a huge issue for me.

Wow. So. I feel better now! I know what the problem is – and much as I hate to say it, I know how to fix it, too. Rip it apart and start from scratch. I know it means a lot of scenes may not return. I know it means that things are going to be cut. I have to be okay with that. And I think I am. I think I know what’s strong and what isn’t, and I think I know what I can leave on the table and what I can use again.

I mean, what I wrote isn’t GONE. It’s not like it won’t be there, in some draft. Maybe it can be used in a different book, like the scene with Abigail. Scenes can be recycled, you know. J Lines, dialogue, situations, even just the germs of the scenes can go in other books. It’s not the end of the world.

I do feel a bit better now, having written that. In her book Write it Down, Make it Happen, Henriette Klauser says that sometimes, just writing down all of our fears makes us feel better, because we know. They aren’t lurking in the shadows anymore (like the Turbo Tax commercial!) – they’re out in the open, and once our fears are in the open, we can figure out how to deal with them.

Maybe this wasn’t helpful for anyone else – but if you’re having issues with something you’re working, try writing about it. Just let the fingers do the talking and see what comes of it. It might be nothing. But then again, you might just find a nugget you can use to go forward.

Either way, please remember:  in rewrites, your manuscript isn’t sacred. 🙂

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 – Plato, 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. 🙂

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. 🙂 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. 🙂

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. 🙂

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

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. 🙂 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. 🙂

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.

 

Wrong path, wrong focus – what’s your novel really about?

Sometimes, we get stuck. Stuck with flat tires, stuck in muddy ruts, stuck in dead-end jobs we hate, stuck with that last cold slice of sausage and mushroom pizza with the congealed grease on top. Stuck, stuck, stuck.

We get stuck when we write, too. We get stuck on a scene we can’t quite finish, or sometimes even on a sentence we can’t let go of. Sometimes we get stuck because we’re not quite sure where the novel is going – or because we didn’t know, when we started, just what the story would be.

I’m going to make a confession here, one that will make some of you question my sanity, and some of you question my right to talk about writing, and some of you jump up in the air and scream ‘YES, SOMEONE ELSE GETS IT, I’M NOT ALONE!’ and the confession is this:

I’ve been working on the same novel for nine years. 

Yeah. I have to let that one soak in, too. But it’s true. About nine years ago, this novel idea came to me, with the characters, and it was in part based on some research I was doing at the time. At first, I thought it was a one-off, a single novel. Unfortunately, secondary characters sort of moved in and demanded rooms of their own. That, I realized, meant that the original idea was expanded and this was likely going to become a series. Then, my MC, Erin, demanded to speak in first person. That called for rewrites. Then, about two years ago, after already submitting to an agent and having my friends DEMAND that I quit and just publish the damn thing already, it occurred to me that there was a scene early in the book that made little sense and really should be its own book.

And so. The entire first quarter of the book got cut. I had to feel my way through the rest of it. This one little scene, that could just as easily have been cut, turned into an 81,000-word standalone work.

That’s the book I’m working on now. Scenes were cut. Rearranged. Rewritten. Added back in. Characters milled around backstage, thumbs in pockets, waiting for their cues. Rebecca – who may or may not have been a 17th-century witch – made an unwilling foray to the foreground, to become the focus of the novel, insisting the entire time that this was not her job and would I please figure that out already? 

And about three weeks ago – I did.

I’d struggled with the rewrites all summer. I’d done everything I knew to do – I’d printed a hard copy. gone through it with pens and Post-It Notes, made a to-do list . . . and nothing was turning out the way it should. In short, I was stuck.

Then, blessedly, a revelation hit. As I sat amongst the ruins of my ink-spattered manuscript, wondering how the hell it had all gone so wrong and what I was supposed to do with it all now, a little random thought bubbled up from my subconscious:  Wrong focus. 

Huh? Nope. Right focus. Rebecca. Witch hunter. Got it.

Wrong freaking focus, idiot! 

And suddenly – I glanced down at the first page, and realized that the novel didn’t even start in the right place. We didn’t know Erin or Kai. We had no idea what Erin’s life had been like in the US. I needed a scene that I’d cut, and that scene had to be my opener. I sat down and spent about two hours totally rewriting that scene – and once it was done, I knew what I had to do.

Wrong freaking focus, indeed. I’d been so tightly honed in on Rebecca that I’d forgotten where my true focus was supposed to be – on my main characters, Erin and Kai. Their relationship. Their internal problems.  My focus wasn’t Rebecca. Rebecca was a catalyst, a way for Erin and Kai to work together while trying to iron out their own inner demons.

Not that I regret the wrong paths I took. Every single thing I know about Rebecca is necessary, and that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t told her story first.

And since that night, the rewrites have been going smoothly. It’s like my novel finally woke up and said, “Hey! Glad you figured it out, dillweed! Let’s go.” Now that the focus has changed, I see all the other small problems with the novel. Scenes are changing. Tension can be added. Transitions are smoother. Every time I sit down at the keyboard, I know precisely what needs to be done toward that end goal, and I walk away from the keyboard feeling good. I think this time, the novel may actually get done. I may be – for the time being, anyway – unstuck.

So if you’re stuck and aren’t sure why – I know this is a HUGE issue, and one I should have seen earlier, but if you’re stuck, take a look at your focus. Are you focusing on the right characters? Are you engaging readers in the true conflict? Are you telling the real story?

I wasn’t.

But – nine years on – I think I’m finally getting it.