Imaginarium 2015

Last weekend, I attended Louisville’s second annual Imaginarium Convention for creative writers (and readers). I went last year, too, and have had a blast both times. Great programming, great networking, and great company. Plus, it’s held in the same hotel where the long-gone Rivercon Science Fiction Convention used to be held, which means it brings back great memories for me of attending my very first convention with my mom, 23 years ago. I’ve decided that I need a reversible hat to wear next year, with editor on one side and writer on the other, so people will know from which point of view I’m speaking.

This year, I was on 5 panels: one about the role of an editor; one about the writer-editor relationship (and how the editor is, in fact, your friend, even if they put enough red on your manuscript that it would never make it past Hollywood censorship); one about choosing and pulling off either a lone hero tale or a heroic group story (which, ironically, had neither a lone hero for a speaker nor a heroic group of speakers, but yet a third narrative choice: a dynamic duo of speakers); a panel about steampunk (which was lots of fun, and in which we discussed various other ‘punks, too, such as deiselpunk, clockpunk, etc.); and a panel about plotting, and how different writers do it (or don’t). So now you know the kinds of things writers sit around and talk about in secret.

I also attended a couple of panels as an audience member – one about balancing a day job and a writing schedule (because it ain’t easy getting back into a routine after four years away from creative writing), one about writing non-human characters (because the sequel to Erica Flynn includes some), and one about writing the zombie apocalypse (because two of my editing clients do). There were a bunch more I *wanted* to attend, but they were at the same times as the panels I was speaking on. These included, but weren’t limited to, panels on historical writing, unconventional fantasy, and comic books. As you can see, there’s a pretty good variety of topics at Imaginarium, which is one of the reasons I love it! Plus, they had a dragon this year. I mean, how can I not love it?

If I could change one thing about Imaginarium, it would be to add a tea/coffee room for the convention, so there would be a hangout spot to just shoot the shit with other writers. Because writers, myself included, love nothing better than to shoot the shit over caffeinated beverages!

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Mom, the dragon, and me

Back When I Could Draw….

Once upon a time, around 1999-2003 or so, I used to be able to draw. I’m out of the habit now, although I still occasionally do an art project. But I’m scanning in some of my old drawings so I’ll have digital copies of them, which is a bit of a trip down memory lane. The two drawings included in this post were done toward the beginning (the tree frog) and end (the hawk) of my first semester of art class at Corydon High School, back in 1999. I have many good memories of learning to shade without scribbling in that class, most of them with a soundtrack of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, with many good conversations with my friends and with our awesome art teacher.

Something I learned in that class about drawing, I’ve also learned to apply to my writing: if you try to put a drawing together by drawing and shading each part perfectly, you’ll end up with a distorted (if well-shaded) image, essentially impossible to fix (short of erasing the whole thing and starting over). The same applies to writing a book – at least, in my experience. If you painstakingly perfect every scene as you go, you might end up with beautiful sentences or passages, but the pacing is terrible and the plot is too thin in places and too overdone in others. And you can’t just pull it apart and stick it back together so easily, because moving those lovely sentences into a different context usually takes all the power out of them. Having learned this the hard way, I compare my writing strategy these days to the process of drawing:

002 First, you sketch the outline. The outline is rough, vague, and leaves out the details and the shapes the shading is going to fill in. Then you write your rough draft, which is like the first pass at shading a drawing – get your contrast set up where you need it by filling in your darkest darks and marking off where your lightest lights will be, making sure all your proportions (pacing) are right. The second draft is blending – smooth it out, shade in your grey areas, and get rid of the pencil marks left over from your sketch. And in your third draft, you perfect your details, clean up, and bring out anything that needs sharper focus or more definition.

So that is how my art teacher from 16 years ago taught me both how to draw and how to write novels. Further proof, as if we needed it, that one kind of creativity informs another.

Writing Troubles

I don’t know how many other writers have this problem, but if I can’t visualize a scene, it’s like banging my head into a brick wall to get through it. I’ve hit that point in my current work in progress. I have a solid opening to the novel, and I know where I want to go with it. I have clear ideas about the themes, tone, characters, motifs, plot, and many of the settings. Now, usually, I just go from the last section I’ve written and see if things start to connect up. Usually, once I start writing, I start being able to picture the events unfolding, and it all goes fine. So what happens when, like now, the scene doesn’t start playing out on its own?

It’s not exactly writer’s block. I can write what the character is thinking just fine. It just isn’t going anywhere. Here are some steps I generally take to move forward:

  • Keep writing what the character is thinking – I can always trim it to a “scraps” file if it isn’t necessary to the book – until something clicks.
  • Work on the setting. Where is the scene taking place? Did I pick that setting for a reason, or was it just the first thing I thought of? If the former, then why is that setting important? What about that setting helps move the scene forward? Is there something the character notices in the setting that causes a reaction or a realization? If I picked the setting because it was just the first idea I had, then (a) Was there actually a purpose to the setting that I didn’t realize? and (b) if not, is brainstorm at least three alternative settings and try them out. For example, did I pick a coffee shop because that seemed like a “normal” setting? Do I even want a “normal” setting for this scene? What if I picked a library’s room for rare and antique volumes, an abandoned train station, or the alligator house at a zoo?
  • Work on the details. Going off the previous idea, if I want to picture a setting, I need to think about the details if they aren’t coming automatically. Usually the first place I start is making sure I have at least one detail per sense – sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. And touch doesn’t have to be texture. It could be air pressure, humidity, temperature.
  • Find something external that inspires you. For me, music is often the key to getting my brain going. If I hear a song that fits the story or the character, everything can just click into place at once. Some of my favorite scenes from Erica Flynn came about entirely as the result of daydreaming while listening to music. Something I like to do these days is look around Pinterest for inspiration. Between the architecture, nature, art, and travel pins, there’s usually something that strikes me and gives me something to start with.
  • Writing exercises. There are plenty of writing exercises to get you going when you don’t have a story yet, but there are also plenty out there to help you once you’ve got a story going – and even for the revision process – and are having trouble getting it where you want it. My personal go-to when I’m struggling is Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction, which is chock-full of advice, examples, and exercises for character, plot, setting, tension, bad guys, good guys, and everything in between.
  • Back up. Instead of trying to force a scene that’s lying there like a miserable blob on the page, consider that it might not be working because you’re trying to do something wrong for the story. Are you ignoring a character’s reservations about something? If so, back up and use those reservations to create inner conflict – that’s prime stuff! Are you trying too hard to make something happen that doesn’t need to happen? Are you trying to put in a scene that isn’t necessary, that’s just padding in the end? Are you writing yourself into a corner? Sometimes you subconsciously know better, and it’s worth listening to the signals. For example, I just realized that I’m totally ignoring the fact that, even though my character has motivation to do something she’s been asked to do, she currently has no reason to be in a hurry about it. *facepalm* Maybe that’s why I’m stuck, d’ya think?
  • Talk to someone. Another writer, a friend who likes to read, a friend who hates reading but likes good movies….anyone you trust to give a damn if you need to vent about your writing frustrations. Sometimes, like anything in life, you’ll find the answer in talking about it. Sometimes, other people ask good questions and have good suggestions. And sometimes, you end up with a great brainstorming session.
  • Chill out and do something else for a while. It may not look or feel like you’re writing to anyone else, but some of your best work as a writer happens when you’re not typing or scribbling things in a notebook. Daydream for a while. Cook. Draw. Color. Go to work. Get groceries. Take a shower. Take the dog for a walk. Go to the park. Call your mom. Go out with friends. Sleep on it. Your brain will still work on your story. The best part of your brain – your subconscious – is always working on your story. Just make sure you sit down at that computer or scribble in that notebook again tomorrow.

Well, since blogging about my frustrations seems to have pinpointed a trouble spot, I think I’ll go do something else for a while and then try sitting back down at the laptop again later!

yWriter 5, and Why I Might Become an Outliner

Thorough outlining is not generally my thing.  My attitude is usually more like, “Well, this is a cool storyline, and I know where I want it to end up.  Here’s a couple cool things that could happen in the middle.  Let’s connect the dots!!!”  But.  It’s very hard to pace an entire novel with the by-the-seat-of-your-pants method.  It can be done (though probably not in a first draft, unless you’re the Mozart of novelists), if you’re willing to tear the entire thing apart and put it back together a bunch of times.  But.  I’d like to make it a little easier on myself for the second Underworld novel, especially since there will be multiple points of view involved.  It was hard enough keeping things on track with just Erica, let alone the crazy-ass hooligans who’ll show up in Book II!

So I’m using yWriter 5, a free program by Spacejock Software for novel outlining.  What, good ol’ pen and paper isn’t good enough anymore? you ask.  Index cards were good enough when your mother started HER second novel, you sneer.  But, dear reader, it was my mother who told me about the yWriter Project, so…dear reader, kindly shut yer gob.  (J/K, you know I love y’all!)  Point being, yWriter is pretty sweet.  It seemed a little complex and overly-detailed to me when I first started playing around with it, but now that I’m really trying to get this novel laid out, I’m seeing the usefulness of all of the program’s tools and reports.

Example 1:  You can rate each scene’s relevance to the main plot, as well as its humor and tension level.  Then you can look at a chart of all your scenes and see how the flow of your plot builds, the build-up and release of tension, and the ebb and flow of humor throughout the course of the novel.  If there’s no forward movement of the plot in the entire middle section of the book, you’ll see it visually right away.  If you have no tension in the first section of the book, you’ll see it in the chart.  And if the first half of the book is funny and the second half is pure tension and anguish, you’ll know you need to fix that before you plunge into full-on writing.  Example 2:  Characters, locations, & items.  Especially for a series, this is great.  You add characters to the file and then add them to whatever scenes they appear in (and which scenes are from their viewpoint).  Since your character descriptions, biographies, goals, alternate names, etc. (you can even load a photo or drawing into their  file) are clickable from the outline, it’s easy to keep everyone’s stories straight (no pun intended) and everyone’s hair/eye color in mind (don’t you hate when you mix them up?)  You can also put in specific locations and items, each in their own separate files within your project – again, helping you keep your details straight, or reminding you of settings that your characters might need to return to, avoid, etc.  Nifty!  You can also pull up a report to see how many scenes each character appears in, which is a great early-warning signal that somebody might be trying to hijack the book to be All About Them when it isn’t.

Of course, nothing ever goes as outlined – I know once I get started, a billion things will shift around and run off in different directions and go at a different pace than I wanted…but that’s the fun part!  I like writing best when my stories surprise me with being more awesome than I could ever have planned on purpose!

Writing Process

I’ve been tagged!  Marian Allen posted about her writing process over at her blog, and tagged me to write about mine.  So here goes:

First off, the process is a little different for every project.  Of course, everything starts with an idea, whether it’s for a character, a storyline, a scenario, a pivotal scene, a setting, or a conflict.  Generally, I’ve got a ton of random ideas floating around in my head at any given moment.  While I’m doing other stuff, my brain is constantly fiddling around with these ideas and trying to connect them in interesting ways.  At some point (seems like it’s usually when I’m either in the shower or about to fall asleep), my brain succeeds in coming up with something cool for me, and I know it’s time to start putting stuff on paper.

Generally, I don’t do a whole lot of planning, per se, but I do make notes of the pieces as they come together.  If anything particularly complicated comes up, I’ll outline as much as I need to in order to keep things straight while I’m working on that section of the story.  If nothing complicated comes up, I generally just write in the direction I want things to go, let the characters take the lead, and see how things turn out.  If I get stuck, I might outline, I might cut a scene (I have a “scrap” file for anything I cut, in case I need it later), I might use a subplot point to push things forward, or, if all else fails, I just do something awful to the main character and force them to deal with it.  (That’s partly a good way to move things forward, partly a good way to ramp up the conflict, and partly a sadistic way for me to take out my frustration on my character for not cooperating).

When writing short stories, I usually have a specific concept and/or conflict I want to explore, and the characters come about from thinking through what kinds of people that concept or conflict would involve.  Short stories also involve a lot of staring at the screen and cursing and fighting the urge to bang my head on a desk, because pacing and balancing enough/not too much conflict is brutal for me on a short story scale.  With a novel, I tend to have an easy time weaving plot and character together so that each drives the other forward in a way that’s unique to both those specific characters and that specific storyline.  Most of what makes that possible is establishing strong but flexible characters early on in the process – once I know what my characters’ first instincts would be, but also what they’re capable of doing that isn’t in line with their normal behavior, it’s easy to let them guide the action, but it’s also easy to throw in plot points that are beyond their control and have them respond in ways that are both true to the character and helpful in advancing the story.

How do I create strong characters that feel real enough to work with this way?  That’s a hard question, because the answers are vague and overly simplistic…  I could say, I make them up, and it would be true, but I’d sound like I was being snotty – even though I’m really not!  I could say, I try to look at them as people I’d have to figure out in real life, and that would be true, too, but it isn’t enough…it’s not just my attitude toward characters in general that makes a particular character really pop out in my imagination, or it would always be easy to do (and it isn’t, with 90% of all the characters that occur to me).  I could say, I come up with a character who has the right personality for the kind of story I want, and that’s definitely the case, but also not enough to flesh out a 3-dimensional character that a reader (or I) would be interested in knowing better.  For example, with The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn, I knew from the beginning that it was going to be a book about someone determined to come back from a really cool afterlife in spite of all obstacles (I did have specific scenes in mind for the Underworld, the mini-climaxes, and the final outcome before I was even sure who the main character would be), and I knew it was a book about someone who needed to get back to their partner.  I thought it would be too cliche to have the husband be in the wrong (let’s face it, ladies, sometimes we’re jerks, too) and have to do all kinds of feats and action-hero stuff to get home to apologize to his wife, so I went with a female narrator.  I knew I wanted someone skeptical and funny to keep the book feeling modern and upbeat in spite of the focus on death.  I wanted to keep myself from exploring a billion possible plot lines in a really cool setting, so in order to stay focused I wanted (a) first person narration and (b) a single-minded narrator. In order for anyone to willingly go through everything Erica would have to go through just to apologize – to leave behind the security of being invulnerable and having all her needs met, and go back to being mortal and vulnerable – and for her to be up to the task, I knew she needed to be (a) tough as nails, (b) fiercely loyal, (c) stubborn, and (d) clever.  Now, this gives you, as a writer, a list of traits: skeptical, funny, single-minded, tough, loyal, stubborn, clever, and (given the need to apologize) probably impulsive.

A list of traits does not a character make. But you think about this character – this person – the way you might wonder about a new acquaintance.  You know this person is tough and stubborn, and you wonder why.  What have they had to deal with, or who did they admire and look up to who was that way?  This person is impulsive, and you know that’s caused them trouble already – how are they going to deal with situations where they have to restrain themselves (or should restrain themselves) and what will happen if they can’t?  She’s single-minded – does she miss things that you’d expect her to notice (given that she’s clever)?  See, questions like this start to fill in the character’s background, family and friend influences, regrets, potential for making things worse on themselves, and how their traits play off of one another or augment each other.  More like a real person, less like a list.  And the process is the same for secondary and cameo characters, although generally not as in-depth or detailed as for the main character(s).

That’s about as organized an explanation of my process as I can come up with!  Oh, and WRITE YOUR ROUGH DRAFT AS A WRITER, NOT AS AN EDITOR!  You can edit once you’ve got the story on paper (or screen)!

The Cussedness of Short Stories

I am not here today to post writing advice.  Today, I am here to post about an aspect of writing that is incredibly difficult for me.  Call it a rant, call it a cry for help…whatever.  So these calls for short stories keep coming to my attention…short stories for anthologies with absolutely awesome themes (I can blame my publisher, 3 Fates Press, for 2 out of the 3 painfully cool themes).  And short stories, for me, are like pulling teeth.  Ask me for a novel any day – I mean, it’ll take a year to write and another year to edit, but I can come up with the material – no problem!  But a short story is a different animal.

“Nonsense,” you say.  “Surely a short story is much easier than a novel!  It’s short.  A novel is long!  It’s simple A novel is complex!  It only needs one conflict and one climax.  A novel needs many!”  Ah.  Yes, all these things are true.  But therein lies the difficulty.  I feel claustrophobic about short stories.  I have to have enough conflict to make a story, but not enough to draw it out.  I have to develop and push the characters – but very succinctly.  I have to make the story world vivid, but I can’t put in anything that isn’t directly relevant to the forward progression of the plot.  Mind you, I can write a haiku poem like it’s nobody’s business – I can be efficient with words!  One of my personal rules for novels is that every scene has to do at least two jobs, or it gets cut.

My hope is that the motivation of having 3 awesome themes to work with, combined with the process of actually writing 3 short stories within a few months, will kick my brain into understanding how it’s done.  In the meantime, those of you who find it easy to churn out short stories should count yourselves lucky – and feel free to offer advice on plotting (and keeping a plot on task)!  Ha!

Order and Chaos

In my post last Wednesday, I mentioned that, leading up to the climax of a story, every choice closes one door and opens three more.  That’s another of the things that makes The Middle the hardest part of a book to write – for me, anyway.  There are so many variables, an infinite number of ways to get the characters from Point A in the storyline to Point Z, and of course, any writer worth his/her salt wants to find The Best Way.

There is your first mistake.  Go with your instincts and don’t worry about whether it’s The Best Way or not.  If it isn’t, guess what?  You can rewrite it!  But often, I’ve written things in on impulse and trusted that there was some reason my brain wanted it in the story, only to find that the whole solution hinged on it or that it was the one thing that tied everything together in the end.  Also, many times I’ve written in something entirely useless and had to cut it, but the point is, you can cut something you don’t need, but if you don’t try anything out for fear it isn’t the right thing, you’ll stare at a screen all day and have no progress to show for it.

The difficulty in the middle of a story is that everything is in flux – as I mentioned last Wednesday, the beginning is a status quo and the end is a status quo, even if they’re vastly different.  In the middle, you have to create the chaos that demands change.  Except it can’t really be chaos.

It should seem messy to the characters, because when life gets demanding and we’re in transition, we feel like everything is up in the air, like things are beyond our control, and we don’t know what will happen next or how things will turn out or how best to rise to meet our challenges.  During times of major change, real people are plagued by these kinds of doubts and this sense of the unsure future.  Naturally, then, you want your characters to wonder what will become of them, how best to move forward, what’s really going on, etc.

But your plot cannot be chaos to you, the writer, obviously.  To you, there must be a clear direction at all times, at least one purpose for each scene, a reason behind every choice every character makes, and an overall structure to the “chaos” of the plot.  Simultaneously, you have to keep your characters in the dark, never forgetting that they don’t know what you know, letting them reach the conclusions that are logical to them based on the information you’ve provided them with through revelation, other characters, personal interests, or twists of fate.  They have to find everything out on their own, though – they can’t just Know to go to such-and-such place at such-and-such time to find the person they’re looking for…and you can’t get away with very many fortunate coincidences, either.  They have to make their decisions because those are the decisions this person you’ve written would make.

Dostoevsky’s character Dmitri Karamazov is the kind of guy who would lose his temper and humiliate a man in public, and he’s also the kind of guy who is sorry for it later, when he finds out how badly it’s affected the man’s little boy.  Thomas Hardy’s character Tess is the kind of woman who would suffer for her principles, in spite of an easy out.  Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff could’ve chosen to find happiness somewhere other than with Catherine, but he’s not that kind of person – he’s the kind of person who’d rather live in bitterness and spite and hatred for the rest of his life, as long as it meant everyone around him had to suffer for it, too.

Choose your characters’ basic personalities carefully – because even if you plan to transform a character, the choices they make before they change are going to be based on who they are to begin with.  A lot of the time, you need a character who is a certain way to carry off a certain plot.  I needed a stubborn, authority-hating, single-minded person to narrate my Erica Flynn novel – nobody else would’ve made the same choices.

Pacing & Payoffs

On the subject of the middles of stories and novels, the foremost topic that comes to my mind is pacing.  The road of pacing is fraught with many perils, traps, meanderings, and pitfalls.  It’s one of the single hardest things to fix about any given part of a story, if it goes wrong to begin with.

Pacing, like most things, is a continuum with two extremes at either end.  Slow pacing is boring because the story drags out longer than necessary to get to any satisfying point(s) in the storyline.  Fast pacing is also boring, because too much is going on to take any satisfaction in the events of the storyline.  What’s the key in both cases?  A sense of satisfaction.

Before you can be satisfied with something, you have to start out by having a desire – take eating, for instance.  If you’re hungry, you eat something, and you feel satisfied if the meal is good.  If you’re not hungry, maybe you still have a craving for a certain food, and if you eat that certain food, your craving is satisfied.  If you’re not hungry and you don’t have any desire for a specific favorite taste, then eating is anything but satisfying – even if you eat compulsively, the whole point is that you are never satisfied.

So you have to make the reader want something from your story, to begin with.  That’s your series of narrative hooks, where you plant the seeds of interest, curiosity, questions that need answers, the wish for a character to excel or be crushed, etc.  Once you have that established, the trick is to give them payoffs along the way while simultaneously planting more hopes/wishes/questions in their brains for the story yet to unfold.

Some tips about middles, payoffs, and lead-ups:

  • Sufficient payoff for the amount of lead-up attached to the event or realization.  If you’ve spent the whole book leading up to this moment, then this scene is your climax, and you need to make it count.  If there’s been only a hint or two, this either needs to be an unexpected major turning point, or it needs to be okay that this scene is only a minor moment of satisfaction – a hint to your audience that you know what you’re doing and they can trust you to give them more.
  • If you’ve built this up as something important, it needs to alter the story and/or the characters in some way.  A big action sequence that leaves the characters and the story right where they were before the action is a waste of words and a waste of time.
  • A payoff scene should raise the stakes, change someone’s mind about something, reveal a new side of someone, alter the dynamics between two or more characters, move the plot or at least a subplot forward and/or link a subplot to the main storyline, and/or answer at least one question raised in the earlier part of the story.
  • Your protagonist must suffer to achieve his/her satisfaction.  There is no growth without pain, and there is no story without growth.  Readers want to root for someone who’s having a hard time and toughing through it the best they can.  The reader’s sense of satisfaction in the high points of your protagonist’s journey are only as strong as the severity of what the protagonist faces at the low points, and how well he or she bears that suffering.
  • Until you’re approaching your wrap-up, continue to raise questions, doubts, internal waverings, and so on as you write scenes to answer for the previous questions and doubts and so on.  Every choice closes one door and opens three more, as you head toward the climax.  The immediate lead-in to your climax is where that changes, where choices narrow and everything suddenly hinges on THE HERE AND NOW for your characters.
  • Give a moment, even just a line or two, of reflection after a big change, heavy action, heated dialogue, etc.  Make sure you give voice to the aftermath, the undertones of your characters’ feelings, etc.  After an argument with someone you’re close to, you may be angry, but there are raw vulnerabilities rattling around in your head that you normally ignore.  There’s emotional exhaustion.  There might be unexpected tenderness toward the person you’re at odds with.  There may be a battle in your head about whether to push the person away or whether to pull close to them again.  Bring this stuff out in your characters in these “aftermath” moments, and your pacing will be the better for it – your story will be deeper for it, too, and your characters more accessible and more “real” to the reader.

Friday Exercise – Compiling Conflicts

A crisis occurs in your story.  Doesn’t matter what kind of crisis; any crisis will do.  Obviously, that means there’s conflict occurring – but don’t stop at one conflict.  Dig a little deeper into the situation, and find at least 3 forms of conflict within this one event.

As an example, say one character is threatening another.  The obvious conflict here is one character vs. another.  But then there’s the threatened character’s response to account for – are anger and fear battling for dominance?  The desire to strike first vs. the fear of repercussion or vs. the desire to do the “right thing”?  What about other external factors?  Is another character pushing one of the others toward a certain decision, angling for a certain outcome?  Or is the threatener internally conflicted, too?  Or do the police get involved?  And are there legal considerations at odds with one another in this instance?

The more angles you have on any conflict you write about, the more depth you can put into it, the more you can make it count, the more your characters will come across as “real people”, and the more intriguing the events themselves will be.

Middles and Endings

I’m thinking of devoting my Wednesday posts to topics on middles and ends.  It seems only fair, since my Friday posts are exercises – and exercises are generally for the purpose of getting started.  Beginnings get all the glory, with writing, and in some ways that makes sense.  After all, nobody will get to the middle or end of your book if you don’t have a stand-out opening.  Readers and agents judge you by your first few pages, your first few paragraphs, your first few sentences.  I, myself, as a browser of books, have often put a book back after reading the first line.

However, there’s nothing more disappointing in the world of readership than a book that starts great and goes steadily (or abruptly) downhill from there.  It’s frustrating, because the writer has gotten you invested in the story, convinced you to care about the characters, and lured you into taking the time and attention to find out What Happens Next, only to let you down.  I hate it when I’m invested enough in a book that I can’t just stop reading it, but wish I could just stop reading it.

Like most avid readers, I have a hefty stack of titles I want to get around to, and if you hook me into reading your work, I expect something back for my investment.  If I don’t get it, I’ll be disgusted with you as a writer, resent you for wasting my time, and I’ll never buy or recommend another of your books…ever.  This is not the reader response an author wants, obviously.

The beginning’s job is to catch the attention of the reader and make them want to find out about the plot and the people in your story.  Once you do that, you have an obligation to follow through with a middle that does its job well – being the story.  That’s the middle’s job.

All the elements of being the story (questions raised and answered, intrigue and tension built and relieved, complications arising and being overcome (or not), downfalls suffered, redemptions achieved) have to work together to advance your plot in a way that holds the reader’s attention.  It isn’t enough to have an interesting plot.  You have to have the storytelling skills to tell it in an interesting way.  I’ve read a few books, actually, that I loved in spite of a weak plot simply because they were told in a way that kept me turning the pages, thirsty for more, curious about the characters’ next moves.

Which leaves, of course, the end.  Last but not least, dear ending.  You are just as important as the beginning, except during the slush pile years.  The ending’s job, then, is to be the payoff.  Yes, it’s there to wrap things up, but just tying up your loose ends or saying Happily Ever After may not be enough.

True, there are some genres we expect a certain type of ending from – horror usually ends with a twist or a final scare, sometimes the gruesome death of a character who thought he/she had gotten away; romance is often the happily-ever-after scenario; a series will sometimes set up the conflict for the next novel; etc.

Specifics aside, however, I think what makes for a truly great ending is this:

  • A sense of how things have changed, especially in the characters’ internal landscapes.  A sense of how far things have come or how far things have gone.
  • A sort of Zen acknowledgement that things began in a status quo and that things will return to a status quo, even if the new status quo is entirely different from the old.
  • A payoff worthy of the journey, whether your book is a wild adventure or an introspective/interpersonal struggle.  A payoff that suits the story, too.  Don’t get melodramatic if the rest of the book was low-key and subtle.  Don’t have a drawn-out, ho-hum ending to a book full of explosions and gunslinging.  Don’t kill someone off arbitrarily just to end on a poignant note if the rest of your book was light-hearted.