Ending a Book (Do’s and Don’ts)

20180423_210102.jpg

I said two weeks ago I was going to talk about what I’d been reading lately, but I got distracted and posted about other things last week. (Welcome to conversations with me.) So here are some of the last few things I’ve read: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore. All three are historical fiction, and all mystery/thriller in some way or another. I adored the first 2/3 of The Luminaries, the way the story was told, the style and atmosphere, and the setting. I adored the first 2/3 of The Alienist for its plot and pacing, characters (including Theodore Roosevelt), and attention to detail. Unfortunately, in the case of both these books, I can only describe the last third of each of them in terms of Johnny Rotten:

I almost stopped reading Catton’s book (which I never do once I’m past the first 100 pages), though strangely I forgot how disappointed I was in the last section of it afterward. Which does speak volumes about Catton’s writing skills, since her style, characters, and world completely overshadowed a black hole in the plot. Props for that! As for The Alienist, I was willing to go for it up until the very end. And then the chapter that needed to be there…wasn’t. It’s like if a Sherlock Holmes book stopped before the part where Holmes explains to Watson how he figured out the mystery. Sure, we know who the killer is, but what we’re interested in at that point is what was going on in the detective’s mind when he was working on the solution–or in this case, the Alienist’s mind.

The Last Days of Night, I’m happy to say, was consistently good all the way through. A legal thriller set during Thomas Edison’s lawsuit against Westinghouse (with Nikola Tesla sort of caught in the crossfire), it’s very well-written and clearly well-researched. In fact, everything I thought was a bit far-fetched in the story turned out to be true, according to Moore’s detailed afterword.

The part of a book I struggle with the most is after the set-up and before the first major shift happens, rather than the ending. That said, endings do require a lot of decisions. How far after the climax do you go on? How do you give readers enough extra without dragging on too much? What’s the most emotionally satisfying point to end on? Do you show an action, a scene of dialogue, or narrative reflection to wrap up? Oh, and of course, is there going to be a sequel? Personally, I’d say a good ending should have the following properties:

  1. Resolves the main conflict in a way that makes logical sense within the rules of the story world.
  2. Resolves or shows the promise of resolution for secondary conflicts.
  3. Shows or reflects on how the events in the book affected the world of the story.
  4. Shows or reflects on how the events in the book affected the main character(s).
  5. Reflects at least one significant change in the main character(s).

Because you don’t want your reader to leave feeling like this:

cheated

Advertisements

The Wisdom of James Herriot

I don’t know how much of what I’ve written this week I’ll end up keeping vs. cutting. I finished a chapter tonight which may well be completely replaced. But I’m not sorry I wrote it, because 1. I enjoyed writing it, and 2. it gave one of my characters room to open up on the page–not that I didn’t already know certain things about him, but just like with real people, it’s one thing to know a character, and another thing to really empathize with them, to feel what it’s like inside their head. Whether the scene is integral enough to the plot of the novel or not to keep it remains to be seen, along with whether or not it’s anything a reader would care to sit through when there are much more adventurous moments to be had in the book. In a first draft, you can’t worry about that kind of stuff, or you’ll never finish. Be generous with your first draft and ruthless with your second, I always say. Or, in other words, write the first draft as a writer and the second as an editor.

Image result for james herriot

Alfred Wight, a.k.a. James Herriot with doggie. Image cribbed from James Herriot Twitter account.

And speaking of writing, I just finished re-watching the excellent BBC series All Creatures Great and Small, based on the autobiographical books of a Yorkshire veterinarian. The books were written under the pseudonym of James Herriot, real name Alfred Wight. I grew up on his books, which both my mother and my grandmother read to me as a child, and on the BBC television series which aired on PBS when I was little. The time period is the 1930s-50s, the setting rural Yorkshire, the style funny and touching by turns, and the characters (both human and animal) portrayed with a beautiful balance between honesty and compassion in the narrative. Herriot’s (or rather, Wight’s) stories are as ingrained in me as if they were the mythos of my personal culture. So when I finished the series and sat down to check out the special features, I was thrilled to come across a 1970s interview with the author.

There were several things in the interview that particularly struck me. First, Wight spent twenty years saying he was going to write a book before, at age 50, he ever attempted the task. He described his struggles with learning to write from the heart, rather than trying to write “well,” with finding his own voice in the shadow of the literary classics he loved. And then his struggles with rejection letters and the inevitable depression that accompanies their repetition, disasters like having an editor who liked his work but asked him for rewrites leave for another company by the time he did the rewrites, and a host of other obstacles. And yet, he ended up with one bestseller after another, translations into languages for readers all over the world, and a TV series on the BBC.

Second, I was struck by the accuracy of his portrayal of himself and his wife, and their relationship, based on the books in comparison to things he said in the interview. It can’t possibly be easy to portray anything that close to home without skewing it. And I’m sure there’s some of that, but it made me smile to see him act so much like the James Herriot I knew from his books.

Third, the interviewer asked several times, in different wording each time, why a multi-national bestselling author was, at that time, still working full time as a country vet. Wight’s answer: He loved being a vet, his love of being a vet is what he writes about, and he felt it was important to balance his writing life with the activity his career provided him with. All of which just makes me love his books more, because of the depth of his feeling for his work with animals–and the people who care for them. But that third component, balancing creativity with daily life, struck me in particular. It’s something all but the most successful writer struggles with: balancing a day job with writing. And yet, here’s an author who could easily have lived on his sales, who felt that without his day job (if you can call a job where you’re on call 24/7 a “day job”), he wouldn’t have been as productive as a writer. Granted, he wrote about what he did for a living. But still, it’s a point to ponder. We tell ourselves we need time to write, but is it time we need, or is it motivation, self-discipline, and drive?

For my own part, if I’m honest, it’s the latter. Thank you for the reminder, “Mr. Herriot”!

Write Like a Social Animal

One of the most delightful parts of writing–and reading, and watching a well-done movie or TV series–is character dynamics. Playing characters off of one another, testing them against each other, seeing how their differences clash or compliment (or how their similarities clash or compliment) is just fun. It’s probably the same thing that makes a good party entertaining for people who enjoy parties (Personal Fact: I enjoy parties until I get home and think about all the ways I might have looked stupid). An ensemble of characters is great in its own right, but for now, I’m going to talk about dynamic duos.

Let’s face it, the original Star Trek would not have been nearly as good without Spock and Bones perpetually digging at each other, or without their obvious friendship in spite of that. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing wouldn’t have been the least bit fun without Beatrice and Benedick aggravating the hell out of each other and falling in love (either outcome of their interaction, by itself,  would have been pretty vanilla, but both made it both spicy and hysterically funny). Even better is Wuthering Heights, where Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship simultaneously makes each character redeemable and monstrous.

The pitfall for a writer, particularly with duos and particularly particularly with opposite-sex or romantic duos, comes when one character is too strong for the other. One way to go wrong with this is to tone down a great character to prop up another. The first example that comes to mind, for me, is the Golden Compass series. We had a strong female lead in the first book, and in the second book she is completely different in her behavior and responses to things. She goes from being courageous and active in the first book to being passive, submissive, and unsure of herself once a male character becomes the lead in the second. To me, this does not come across as, “Oh, this guy must be really something, if a strong girl like her looks to him for answers.” It comes across as, “Well, someone doesn’t know how to balance two strong characters.” This irritated me to no end. And it can certainly go both ways, when it comes to gender. Some writers of strong female characters think that toning down men boosts their women.

As someone who is in the process of writing a novel with a strong female character with a husband, I have to say that my approach is not to tone either wife (Erica) or husband (Dom) down to up the other’s game. Like ANY good dynamic duo, the key for me is to show the ways, both quirky and vital, that each plays off the other. It’s par for the course in writing to match the antagonist’s strength to the protagonist’s. Why should it be any different for a pair of protagonists? If it takes a strong person to fight a strong person, why wouldn’t it follow that it takes a strong person to love a strong person–whether that love is romantic, platonic, or love-hate? The fun part is digging around in the realms of whose strengths compliment whose–who’s too focused on this to pick up on that, who picks up the pieces when the other goes too far–and how each of them sees their own strengths and weaknesses compared to the other? This is far from applying only to romantic couples, or even to duos. Any system of human interaction depends on members contributing something or other, and good storytelling brings together individual contributions to the whole of a satisfying story. Even the bad guys, because they did their part to make the story good, too. We’re social animals, when it comes down to it. Write like a social animal.

Happy Sunday! Now I’ll have another glass of amontillado in honor of you, dear readers. Next week, I think I’ll write about what I’ve been reading lately!

Getting Back in the Groove

I’ve been a good little writer this week, getting at least a little bit done every day and (gasp!) actually doing some outlining. Well, for a given definition of “outline”. I’m not a plotter by nature, but with a complex story sometimes ya gotta take a step back and organize. Sometimes, it’s even inspiring, and leads to connections between parts of the story you didn’t see when you were face-down weeping into the keyboard over the details.

I have to say, as someone who spends a lot of both work time and spare time researching and writing, fiction is by far the hardest type of writing I do. Harder than academic writing, harder than technical writing for archaeology reports, and way harder than journalism-style articles. There are times, of course, when fiction rolls off one’s fingertips like you’ve been possessed by your muse and she’s the one doing all the work. But then there are the times when you’re like, “Hello? Muse? Where the %$#@ did you go now that I’m a third of the way through this book?” Crickets chirp. “MUSE? My brain is dying. Help!” Silence. “MUSE!!! I HATE EVERYTHING, ESPECIALLY YOUR DUMB FACE!” Definitely silence, except for the sound of author’s tears splashing into a glass of room-temperature stout*. (*The ONLY proper temperature for dark beer, thanks.)

This is not the same with non-fiction writing of any kind, for me. The problems with non-fiction are usually deadlines, word count limits, and the like. Although trying to find correlations in masses of data that can be compared for about 10,000,000,000 factors can break your brains in half, I count that as a research difficulty. Once I know my material and I have my correlations, non-fiction is easy because it’s just a matter of expressing something I know in whatever language is appropriate for the situation. And it’s quirky enough as it is. You would think this would mean that, if I know what I’m going to write about in a fictional story or novel (i.e., if I outlined everything to begin with), it would be easy for me. You would also think I would prefer writing non-fiction to writing fiction.

Neither of these things is true, however. If I outline a story too well, I don’t feel any urge to write it anymore because I already know what’s going to happen! I already told myself the story, see? Selfish, I know. I’m supposed to write for my readers. Bad author! No biscuit. And as much as I do like non-fiction writing (as long as it’s about things I’m interested in, anyway), I would always rather be working on my book(s), which I love to do as long as I’m not stuck. Although lately, I’m feeling more and more like stealing weird things from history (that’s not plagiarism, it’s research!) and putting them into stories.

Anyway, two things I’ve posted lately on the Clio history website that I particularly enjoyed writing are these:

Whistler House Museum – I had no idea how versatile or prolific the artist Whistler was until I researched this article! Or that he matched wits with Oscar Wilde at parties and held his own, which takes some serious doing.

Look at this freaking gorgeous room Whistler designed!! I want one in my house, and it will be my library. And there will be a wet bar in there somewhere. Yes. And a hidden mini-fridge.

 

Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site – I had NO idea that you could still see a standing building from the first Iron Works on the continent of North America until I researched this article. I also really enjoyed reading about all the different groups of people involved in working the business…in fact, I ended up having a dream that I was an indentured Scotsman while I was working on it, which is not something I would normally come up with.