Thursday, September 24, 2015
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Often I get impatient. I want to START already. But the one time I did that – start already – without knowing my ending, I just flailed around and created a mess.
But if I stick with my process—my noodling and my lists and my meditations—eventually an opening scene comes to me. And then a closing scene. I almost never know what’s going to happen between those two scenes. But once I know my final wrap-up scene, I can discover how to get there. Then I’m ready to begin.
I’m open to changing the ending, but I almost never do. When I was researching and thinking about MICHAEL AT THE INVASION OF FRANCE, I realized that Michael would choose to stay in France to continue working with the French Resistance, helping American airmen who crash landed evade the Nazis. While I was writing, I started to worry about Michael and my readers. Could I leave Michael in limbo? Why didn’t I just bring him to England with one of the pilots he saved? Hadn’t he earned that?
I’m working on a new idea now. I’m spending a lot of time with my main character and his friends. I’m meditating. I’m noodling. I’m making scene lists. Over the weekend the final scene came to me and now I can start already.
I know my ending, and so I can begin.
Saturday, September 19, 2015
I think endings are one of the main differences between books and real life. When writing a book, you get to decide, "This is the point where you know everything you need to know to understand these characters and this story."
But in real life, you never really reach that point. Sure, you may break up with a lover or end things with a friend. You might even never see them again. But years later they'll pop up on Facebook. Or you'll hear their favorite song, and you'll discover you never really listened to the lyrics before, and they cause you to see this person and your time with them in a different way. You'll realize your story wasn't really over.
I love this about book endings. It makes them so final. So concrete. So hopeful, that we can all, eventually, come to some place of true understanding.
It also makes them really hard to write. Because the best book endings hint at the real life conflict. You know what you need to know, but you also believe that these characters will go on, will continue to grow and change. And as a reader you are left with the bittersweet wish that you could be there to see that too. Even though it's over.
Friday, September 18, 2015
Spoiler alert: we're all going to die.
This may be why, when it comes to endings, I'm less interested in what happens than I am in what it all means. Why did the author choose this particular stretch of experience in the life of one particular fictional character to enclose between the covers of a book? Unless the main character does die within the time frame of the story, lots more stuff is going to happen to him or her later on. So why end the story here? Surely the reason has to do less with plot than with theme.
Do Rhett and Scarlett get back together or not? Even on the last page of the novel, Scarlett thinks she'll win him back at some near or distant future time, and maybe she can and maybe she can't. But if she won him back at the end of this book, it wouldn't be called Gone with the Wind.
So what I read for is not to see how the events of the story play themselves out, but to see what the character or reader learns along the way, what central truth about the human experience is revealed in the all-important epiphany moment. That's when I get tears in my eyes: when I reach that achingly wonderful moment when the main character finally gets it.
No author is better at delivering fabulous epiphany moments than the incomparable Katherine Paterson. Here are two of my favorites. (Note: Paterson also delivers her stunning epiphany on the very last, or next to last, page, something I can never quite manage to do.)
Lyddie opens with a great first line: "The bear had been their undoing, though at the time they had all laughed."After scaring off a literal bear intruder into their Vermont cabin, Lyddie is determined to save herself and her younger siblings from the bears of debt, poverty, and her mother's inner demons. But at the end of the book she realizes that the bear she needs to stare down is not what she had thought it to be: "The bear that she had thought all these years was outside herself, but now, truly, knew was in her own narrow spirit. She would stare down all the bears!"
The Great Gilly Hopkins closes with an epiphany moment that changed my own life, as Gilly talks on the phone to her foster mother Trotter, after she has thrown away her best chance at happiness by pursuing an empty dream. Trotter tells Gilly that "life ain't supposed to be nothing, 'cept maybe tough." Gilly asks her, "If life is so bad, how come you're so happy?" Trotter replies, "Did I say bad? I said it was tough."
Yes, yes, yes!
So, as I write my own endings, I care first and foremost what that epiphany take-away will be, even if I may not discover it myself until my character finds it for me. Epiphanies are the reason I read. They are also the reason I write.
Thursday, September 17, 2015
That's the point when I have to ask myself: who is writing this book, me or this character I thought was mine?
Certainly, I am in control of plenty when it comes to writing. When I write. Whether I write. What and who and where I choose to write about. But there is this wonderful rush of story that takes over when the timing is just right, and I get swept up in this new adventure that doesn't feel like it's of my own choosing.
I do have a choice: do I stick to my notes, my plans, all the things I thought this book was leading up to?
Or do I write just a little way down the new path? Just to see what's around the next bend? After all, if I don't like it, I can always turn around, retrace my steps back to the path I've marked, continue on my original course.
The paths spill ahead through the pages, taking me past landmarks that start to seem familiar. A touch of character development that wormed its way into Chapter Three suddenly makes sense in Chapter Seventeen. A setting I spent too many paragraphs on, just for the sheer joy of walking around in it, suddenly comes back into play, already designed and waiting for this scene I didn't know was coming.
Who is writing this book? Is it me? Or is it the writer I can be, the one who sneaks out when I turn off my worries and let the writing take over?
It's a question I love getting to ask again and again.
Tuesday, September 15, 2015
1. I personally love endings that are conclusive and I am pretty sure after reading it that I know what happened. So, yes to Breaking Bad and no to The Soprano's endings. Love the ending of the book, City of Thieves, which was written for adults, but would make a great YA. It ties the ending back to the beginning, and I am a total sucker for that even when I see it coming.
2. When I write, I sometimes know the ending in advance and sometimes don't. Even when I think I know it in advance, sometimes it gets changed up and I have to go with the flow. If I don't know it in advance, I have to trust the process and hope that the characters lead me there. When writers tell other people about characters leading you somewhere, we usually get some pretty weird looks, right?
3. I love ending a book. I mean, I love to finish. I like the process too, but it feels so good to hit send or put that big envelope in the mail. I just finished a six book series for teachers and it was a euphoric moment to see the postal clerk take that last package and toss it in the big outgoing bin.
4. Endings can be gradual, and you are lead there, and the journey is great, you see what's coming, but you can't wait to get there. Abrupt endings are very cool too. I love the element of surprise and the way that ending brings you up short and makes you go back and reconsider everything you read up to that point to see if it makes sense and how you couldn't have seen it coming.
5. My wife loves an epilogue. She wants one for every book and movie. I think that's true for most of us. Once we invest in characters, it is very fun to speculate about what happens to them after this chapter of their lives. There's something really engaging about that. As a writer, sometimes I've had very natural epilogues emerge, but other times I had no real interest in writing about what came next, even though I love all my characters.
Monday, September 14, 2015
Sunday, September 13, 2015
Saturday, September 12, 2015
Let's look at the first sentences of some award winning books to see.
In Harper Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, she begins with this: "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow." We readers immediately want to know HOW. So we read on.
CHAINS by Laurie Halse Anderson begins with: "The best time to talk to ghosts is just before the sun comes up." WHO is talking and WHY is this person telling us about communicating with ghosts?
Katherine Applegate's soon to be released book CRENSHAW has - what I think - one of the best first lines ever. "I noticed several weird things about the surfboarding cat." Oh my. Don't you wish you'd written that?
In my own MG historical WHEELS OF CHANGE (Creston Books), I wanted to fix the time and place from the first sentence. "Henry's hammer hits iron - pig, pa-ping." WHO is Henry? WHERE are we and why is he hitting iron?
In all of these examples the first sentence works because it makes us want to read on and learn more.
Stay away from cliches, we are also told, or an editor will go no further than page one. Yet Madeleine L'Engle's Newbery classic A WRINKLE IN TIME begins with the queen of all clicles: "It was a dark and stormy night." Why does it work? Because we've all experienced such a night where fear is unleashed and nightmares take over. We read on to see if our own fears and nightmares are revealed on the page.
First lines can be powerful things.
Friday, September 11, 2015
A Guest Blog on September’s Theme
by Cassie Feldman
When my mom asked if I wanted to write her blog post this month—with the theme of “endings”—I said sure then procrastinated for 2 weeks. So here I am, trying to figure out what endings mean to me. I think I’ll consult my inner dictionary. Let’s flip to the “E” section:
Cassie’s Inner Dictionary:
Enchilada (n.): 1) A tasty treat
2) A party in my mouth
3) The delicious snack you ordered at fake Mexico in Disney World
Not far enough; keep going…
Endoscopy (n.): Tell your doctor, “Hell NO!” and run for your life
Too far. Oh there it is:
Ending (n.): 1) Done-zo
2)The part you hate writing
That doesn’t help. Okay, let’s look at it another way. My inner dictionary also tells me it’s a noun, meaning it’s a person, place or thing. An ending isn’t a location and it doesn’t feel like an inanimate object either. An ending can evolve. To me, endings are more like people—like lovable, schizophrenic jerks. So maybe I should redefine “ending” for myself.
If an ending were a person, in order to define it, I would have to utilize the characteristics of every guy I’ve ever had a crush on. An ending can be your first crush. It sticks in your mind for days. You picture yourself in its story, and when your crush looks at you? Game over. That is, unless your crush openly rejects to hold your hand on the playground. Then, an ending can be your first taste of heartbreak. It can send you spinning into the arms of the only people who understand you: Mrs. Fields and Sara Lee.
An ending can make you think. It can be the intellectual you spent nights discussing foreign policy with, or the unpredictable guy with a Mohawk and Shel Silverstein poem tattooed on his back.
An ending can be the awkward guy you met at intramural kickball. Sure, it was funny when he kept missing the ball and falling on his butt. But now you’re wondering where the attraction came from when he continually failed to satisfy the only objective of kickball (aka kick the ball).
An ending can surprise you. At first you think he doesn’t know you exist. But one day, he turns around in math class and tells you he likes you. Then you say, “I like you, too.” And he looks at you funny because, you realize, he didn’t confess his undying love for you; he only wanted to borrow a pencil. Then you’re mortified that you told your inner, most-secret feelings to the guy you like, so you have to get out of the classroom immediately. You go to your teacher and tell her you feel ill. She asks what’s wrong and you need it to be bad. So you say you have “the clap” because you heard people talking about it on MTV, even though your Dad told you not to watch that channel. And you don’t know what “the clap” is; you only know that everyone on The Real World doesn’t want it. So your teacher rushes you to the nurse and tells her you have “the clap.” The nurse shrieks and calls your parents who barge into the school and demand you tell them who you did “the nasty” with. And you have no idea what “the nasty” is so you think of the first man who pops into your head and you say Hans Gruber. And your dad yells “That son of a—” You get the picture.
So which type of ending should you settle down with? I wish I could tell you exactly how to choose, but I’m single, so...
What I will do is tell you how I chose my last ending.
The last book I wrote was a humorous middle grade coming-of-age story. I slogged through my first draft, re-wrote the second, and polished the third. As a result, I had a novel I loved with an ending I hated. I had no clue how to fix it. So I took some time away and tried not to think about it…which turned into me actively thinking about how I shouldn’t be thinking about it. Then I tried something different. I pictured myself in a bookstore, purchasing the book I wrote. I thought about how I would feel reading my book for the first time. “As a reader,” I asked myself, “what do I want to know before it’s over?” Suddenly I had a few places to start.
With that beginning to spark my ending, I thought not only about how my characters would respond to their issues, but how I wanted the reader to feel when it ended. Because if your ending has the characteristics of a former crush, make sure you choose the crush that has the right feel for your story before you commit.
So the next time you find yourself stuck on an ending, give this a try. Think of the reader, think of the characters, and think of that dreamy person you shared an enchilada with in Disney World.
Cassie Feldman is one part science nerd and one part business professional, and most of her parts parts are always thinking about her next project. Currently she’s writing a sitcom pilot while she’s contemplating another novel and trying to place her middle grade with a publisher. She’s fun to follow on Twitter @cassiefeldman
Thanks for the day off, Cassie!
Thursday, September 10, 2015
Tuesday, September 8, 2015
I believe my books should have happy endings.
I don't have a lot of power in the world, but I do have that one. I can, if I rewrite enough times, provide a satisfying conclusion to whatever drama I have just put my character through. If my girl is hiking, she will reach her goal. If my parrot is lost, he will find his way home. If my ghost is unhappy, she will find peace. And if my boy believes in believing, then he will get the girl. At least for now.
But I also believe in justice. I won't arbitrarily provide a heap of happiness just because we're a few pages from the end. My characters have to earn their rewards.
Actually, that means the writer has to write well enough to earn them. Yup. That means me. I have to make my characters' troubles real, and their reactions to their troubles even more real. Consequences must be suffered. Lessons learned. I have to punish the wicked––or at least not reward them. Because that's part of justice too.
Yes, I believe in happy endings. And I hope that those endings will make my readers happy.