Reblog: How Do You End a Story?

So, for the last couple stories I’ve written, I’ve really struggled with endings. One of them, the best I could squeeze out of myself so far, was just thrown together into a cobbled flop across the finish line; the others didn’t even get that far, ending when I simply couldn’t force myself to keep working on such profoundly flawed projects. It’s been really frustrating because I don’t like quitting on things, especially not things that I’ve devoted so much time and heart to.

Cue DIY MFA. This is a really cool blog that I’ve come to quite a few times with specific questions, or even just to browse. And sure enough, they had a nice article go up about this very problem of mine just a few weeks ago. How timely is that??

Without further ado (since I have so much catching up to do with my NaNo project, ugggggh), enjoy Elizabeth Kauffman’s How Do You End a Story? Hopefully you’ll find it as helpful (or at least encouraging) as I did! Happy writing!

Ask the Editor: How Do You End a Book?

 by Elisabeth Kauffman

I’m nearing the end of a novel–or, I’ve been nearing the end of a novel for some time–and each time I hit the 90k mark, I have an uncontrollable urge to throw the whole thing out and start over. (Uncontrollable as in, I already have. Several times.)

Basically, I look back through the draft under the guise of trying to make the ending gel. Over the course of rereading the first few chapters, I convince myself the problem isn’t the climax, but that the whole book is so deeply flawed a full rewrite is probably the best thing I can do. On some level, I’ve recognized this as a form of creative resistance, and understand routinely scrapping my projects isn’t part of a productive writing process. But it’s also hard to ignore the fact that there are some serious structural issues with my draft.

So, in every sense of the question, how do you end a book?

Need Some Resolution

 

Ready to read the reply? Click through for sweet, sweet knowledge! Link!

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Sample Chapter: Copper

Howdy, friends! I am sick and behind on my word count, so I’ll dispense with the pleasantries and vomit up this first chapter of my current project, Copper. Enjoy, and don’t catch plague!

Chapter One

Phoebe stared up at the single naked lightbulb in the room, suspended hiiiiigh out of reach from the ceiling. It flicked on every morning at six. It flicked off every night at eight. It was a tiny sun, beyond her control and beyond caring for someone like her.

It wasn’t a particularly strong bulb. The corners of her room were always in shadow. The darkness was under the bed; she would move the thing if it wasn’t bolted down, just to see what the floor looked like in relatively bright detail, rather than lying on her belly coughing on dust bunnies with her cheek to the cold concrete floor. Like every other inch of the floor and the walls as high as she could reach, she knew every bump and grain and gouge. Nearly every moment of the past five years had been spent in this room. She knew every inch of it by touch and sight and smell and even taste and the sound it made when she tapped it with a knuckle or slapped it with a palm or stomped it with a bare heel.

But on the days she was strapped onto the bed, sedated half out of her mind, bored out of the other half, she had nothing to do but stare up at that one dim bulb and think about how grand it would be to take it down and handle it and peer at its little insides. It was the one great mystery left in the room.

The room Phoebe had had before the electricity had been put in had had a window high up by the ceiling. She could trace its path along the wall and have a kind of clock. She missed that.

The room before that had been in a different facility entirely. It hadn’t seemed nice at the time, but Phoebe realized now that her grandmother had probably chosen the place with care, not realizing they would decide within months of her deployment that Phoebe was too dangerous to be kept there, and off she went to Bloomingdale. Phoebe used to wonder if knowing where she would end up would have changed her grandmother’s mind, but had decided it probably wouldn’t have. Her grandmother had never been one to be bothered by anything less than the needs of the whole world. The needs of one little girl just weren’t important enough.

She had promised Phoebe she would come back for her.

She never had.

The lightbulb overhead flicked out, plunging Phoebe into blackness. She closed her eyes, and then opened them again. It made no difference.

 

#

 

Mrs. Alice Mae Phillips stepped closer to the window, staring out over the manicured lawn of St. Anthony’s Home for Aged Exceptionals, its grass still slick with last night’s rain. She watched the abandoned grounds for a few moments, absently running her large-knuckled fingers through the plush fur of the Turkish Angora lounging in her windowsill. The cat arched her back appreciatively, a low purr rumbling in her throat.

“Well, Maggie,” the old woman murmured, tired already. “Time for the morning jailbreak.”

The old woman pocketed a small cube of copper, rolling her stooped shoulders, and then ambled toward the door. She paused in the frame, glancing back at the cat again, and gave her a conspirator’s nod as she said in a low voice, “Don’t forget the plan.”

 

 

To read the full chapter, click here!

Pants, Plans, and In Between

pantsLong time readers may have noticed this about me, but I like to experiment from time to time with my writing strategies. Sometimes I try a bunch of creativity inducing activities to see which ones I like best. Sometimes I try out several writing programs to see if there’s a better system out there. I know what’s working for me now, but I don’t always know what will work better.

To that end, I’ve been experimenting this last year with various degrees of plotting preparation. When I first started out this writing gig, I was pretty deep in Pants territory, writing whatever the heck I wanted as the whimsy took me. I planned absolutely nothing. In recent years, I’ve been taking an increasingly structured stance for starting out new projects. I even sometimes use wonky little character sheets that might have details about their dietary preferences in childhood and how their first pet died. Real who-cares sorts of details, but it helps me get into the characters’ lives a little more.

The last three books I’ve written, current project inclusive, I’ve taken pains to plan them to different degrees. In the first book, I did no planning whatsoever; I went into it with a very brief premise idea, and just wrote whatever little rabbit trails came to mind. For the second book, I did just a little bit less than my usual degree of preparation, falling about midway between no plan and front-to-finish omniplan. And for my current project, I planned and planned until I felt like I had everything down and if I did any more planning, I would puke.

Here are my thoughts!

The Plans-Are-For-Sissies Approach: This one was a little painful. The words seemed to come alright, and I never really lacked for inspiration, but story wandered quite a bit before I found the track I wanted to take, and this poor baby will require gobs of editing to clean up all the foreshadowing that never went anywhere, the events that came out of nowhere, the sudden and significant eye color change of the secondary main character midway through the book, et cetera ad infinitum. (Heck, I never even nailed down which title I want to use.) Not only was the story all over the place, but writing the thing out took kind of forever. I never really lacked for things to write, but not having a plan meant moving forward at a snail’s pace. It took nearly six months to write this meandering draft, while first drafts of a similar size usually take me about two or three. I like the story, and I enjoyed the totally-free-to-explore feeling of writing, but it came at a huge time cost.

The Moderate’s Approach: This one was even more painful, but for different reasons that are probably not the method’s fault at all. I planned out the story just a smidgeon past the midway point in moderate detail, leaving myself a bit of wiggle room for exactly how things would take place, and a whole lot of wiggle room for how things would wrap up. The story progressed pretty easily at first, following my nice little plan. But the closer I got to the end, the more I realized I was in deep water. As things came onto the paper, all the little gaps and giant holes became painfully apparent. When I got past the outline’s reaches, I was swimming blind but, unlike the Plans-Are-For-Sissies story, nothing was coming. I tried to force it and things just got more and more lame, until finally I quit a couple chapters before the anticlimactic final battle. Blehhhhh… But as I said, this is probably more due to the story idea’s weakness than the method’s invalidity. The Moderate’s Approach is probably closer to my regular degree of plannedness (which is totally a word, shhh) than either of the others. I think I just picked a bum story idea for the experiment. 😦

The Doomsday-Prepper Approach: I can’t totally write this experiment off as done, since I’m still working my way through the book, but I have been so far most comfortable with this one. This story- and the historical timeline, the magic system, and each character and location- was planned out in detail, start to finish, before I even created the new Scrivener file. Honestly, the planning stage is usually the most fun part of the whole process for me, and I was a little worried I would use up all the funness (also a word, sh) before I got to the drafting phase. But I’ve been working on it for about a month now and things are still fun! I will say, though, progress is being made, but the words aren’t flying onto the page the way I assume they would with the way ahead so clear from the start. But this could also be a product of my writing habits; when doing the meandering no plan book, I got into the habit of just sort of picking at it- about five hundred words a day- and that habit has so far stuck. But as I write this, I am resolving anew to pick up the pace. Ask me how I’m doing in another month!

So this little experiment is inconclusive. Turns out each story (like each pregnancy?) is different. Go figure. But still, I had fun playing around with the degree to which I plan a story, and I now have a firmer awareness of exactly what my most comfortable planning style is. Not quite a pantser, and not quite a full on planner, but a plans-oriented plantser, which is kind of what I had figured I was before. Turns out I found the spot just by wandering there all on my own over the last twenty years of writing.

How about you readers? What’s your planning style? Why do you like it that way? Let me know in the comments! Happy writing!

Reblog: 5 Ways to Save Your Character From A Drowning Story

Hey, gang! I’m down south visiting family in Anchorage Alaska, and getting very little writing done while I instead plan vacations, bake all the things, and hold the tiniest of humans far more than is necessary.  Fortunately, I’ve got the word count buffer to sustain this kind of lifestyle for another few days during this NaNoWriMo adventure. Any of you fellow wrimos- how go the literary hijinks?

This is our last reblog of the month, and then I have to start being thoughtful again. This one comes from Nicole Blades via Writers Digest, and stuck out to me probably because my story kind of stinks this month, haha. It’s nice to know that if the ship sinks, I might at least be able to launch a lifeboat and get my MC to dry land again.

5 Ways to Save Your Character From a Drowning Story

NBladeby Nicole Blades

As writers, we’ve all experienced that moment when it becomes painfully clear that the story we’re working on just isn’t. We’ve tried to twist and bend it this way and that, but then it’s time to finally admit that we’ve come to the end of the rope with the manuscript and will have to let go. It’s next-level kill your darlings, and it’s rarely pleasant or easy. But what if the protagonist or a key character in that sinking story won’t let go of you? What if the character continues to haunt you and you simply cannot give up on them? Is there a way to valiantly rescue a great protagonist from a less than great story? Short answer: Yes! So, move over, Rose; there’s definitely room for Jack on that floating piece of wood.

I’ve lived through this with my latest novel, Have You Met Nora? (Kensington). My main character, Nora Mackenzie, is a young woman with an incredible secret and a heartbreaking but complicated backstory. She is flawed and layered and fascinating to me. However, the initial setting of the book—an all-girls’ Catholic boarding school in Vermont, where a 17-year-old Nora reigned as the queen of Mean Girls—wasn’t connecting. As Dawn Brooks, a character in the revised book would say, “it didn’t curl all the way over.” I had received feedback from agents, writers, and early readers that kind of all said the same thing: she’s too mean. As compelling as Nora’s story was in my eyes, having readers say that they couldn’t relate to her, that they couldn’t find the connection site with the character, meant that they would never care about what happens to her. And that spells The End for the story. Who’s going to want to keep reading when they don’t care about the protagonist? Exactly.

The thing is, this character captivated me, and the heart of the story I was trying to tell was still beating strong. I just needed to strip away everything else around Nora’s foundation and rebuild it using sturdier, more developed bricks. I went about it by first growing Nora up, moving the character out of school and into full-blown adulthood. I had to construct a fresh world around her that included new relationships, experiences, and weighty conflict that served the character and the story. This kind of revise wasn’t a walk in the park; it took years to pull it off, but I did it. (After all, the book is going to released into the wilds come October 31, right?)

I wanted to share what I learned through this experience with others who may be trying to save a character from a burning book before just hitting DELETE on the whole thing. I asked some other author friends to loan me their two cents on the topic, too. So, here are five actionable tips on how to keep the baby when it’s time to dash the bathwater.

Ready to read some more? Head on over to Writers Digest for the full article. And until next week, happy writing!

Sample Chapter: Seasong

Boy, I haven’t done a sample chapter in ages! Probably because I produce horrible horrible first drafts that aren’t fit for human eyes until they’ve gone through at least two major revisions. BUT WHO CARES ABOUT THAT. I shall now assault your eyes nonetheless!

Enjoy!

Seasong

Chapter One

He was one of the older ones, old enough that he should have known better.

Meisa watched Urae carefully pull herself up out of the water, slowly, slowly, so as not to startle him. He bumbled forward, curious, blinking at her with spell-clouded eyes. The water washed around his ankles and he didn’t even notice. Urae held the spell tight around her, golden curls spilling over her pale shoulders, her round breasts. She sat on the rocks, keeping her true half hidden down in the water still. She flashed Meisa a quick glance, flicking her chin away to the far side of the bay.

Meisa slipped down into the water and darted through swirling seaweed and surging tide. The sea distorted her sister’s song, twisting the notes into tuneless keening, a nightmare of what could only be the sweetest dream to the unwitting landmeat above. Meisa breached on the far side of the bay, tucked back against the black rocks, and watched.

Urae sang without words, the seasong pouring from her elongated throat. She spread her arms toward the landmeat sloshing toward her in the tide, tripping and stumbling against the sharp rocks below him, scattered with mussels and weeds.

He had no idea. No idea.

Meisa felt a twinge of uncertainty.

Her sister sprang forward like a striking eel, grabbing the human around the waist. He fell backward into the water with a cry and a splash, and then all was stillness.

Meisa waited a moment, squeamish about what came next, and then sank without a ripple, swimming to her sister.

The landmeat was dead before they passed the tideline.

Want to read the rest? Follow this finely crafted link to the full chapter!

Unhappily Ever After

endingsI’m always prowling around for new books to read and a few of my friends (okay, basically all of my friends) are continually horrified that an incurable bibliophile such as myself hasn’t so much as read the back cover of Veronica Roth’s Divergent.

My friend Anna has been particularly insistent, but a few conversations about it ago (it comes up a lot) she admitted that she didn’t like the way the series ended.  Given how much she raves about these books, I was a little shocked.  “What do you mean?” I asked.  “What didn’t you like about it?”

Taking pains to avoid spoilers (isn’t she sweet?), she said didn’t like “the amount of closure”.

Well, what does that mean?  Plot holes?

No, not really.  She didn’t like where the characters ended up.

Huh?

“I am very much a happy ending type person,” she finally said, explaining that she understood the author’s choices, but didn’t like them.  “I’m supposed to feel triumphant, and there was no real victorious feeling.”

As curious as I instantly felt about how the Divergent series ends, that got me thinking about book endings in general.  Sometimes, we go into a book knowing it’s not going to end happily ever after, like the wonderful Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, which unsurprisingly made me bawl my eyes out.  Sometimes, the bitter end is shocking, like the first time I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  And unhappy endings are certainly not a new phenomenon (see The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Scarlet Letter, and like half of Shakespeare for just a few gut-kickers).

So what was it about knowing the Divergent series ends unhappily that makes me want to read it?  What is it that is so compelling about unhappy endings?

While I admit that not all unhappy endings work for me, there are a lot of features that seem to show up in unhappy endings that I find much more interesting than neat and tidy everyone-gets-what-they-wanted endings.

Endings that aren’t all happy-happy are often just more realistic.  I love an ending that I didn’t see coming, but that still makes total and perfect sense.  The girl doesn’t have to get the guy; the MC doesn’t have to defeat his every last demon; the protagonist doesn’t have to win, even.  But the ending has to be one that I can think, Yeah, that would totally happen like this.

Reality aside, sometimes I just find sadness more emotionally interesting than happily ever after, which probably says a lot about me.  Likewise, unhappy endings are more memorable.  Humans are evolved to remember pain better than pleasure; we cling to our failures more than our triumphs.  Likewise, I find that stories with a bit of bitterness at the end stick with me longer.  And while it’s all fine and dandy when the average, doesn’t-think-she’s-pretty everygirl manages to defeat the bad guys, make the world a better place, and take her pick between two equally hot and devoted studmuffins, it all starts to run together a bit, you know?

This isn’t all to say that I just automatically love an unhappy ending.  (I’m looking at you, His Dark Materials.)  There are plenty of things that can ruin an ending, happy or otherwise, catapulting it straight to just plain bad.

As mentioned earlier, an ending has to be realistic.  I mean, I love Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, but it has always irked me (even nearly twenty years after my first reading) that the romance problem at the end is so neatly fixed up out of nowhere on like the last page.  It’s too easy, you know?  As readers, we’re usually not picking up a book get another hefty dose of reality, but when a happily ever after is just handed to characters, it cheapens the rest of the struggle, somehow.

Another thing that drives me nuts is when characters are suddenly and radically… not in character.  I’m actually guilty of this myself in an early draft of one of my novels.  The main character was an honest and principled guy throughout the entire book, and then threw his values to the wind for the last chapter to become a lying, backstabbing jerk.  Why?  Because following plot points was more important to me than following character.  Don’t do this, guys.

And while we’re not doing things, here’s something you should do- do wrap up all your major subplots.  I mean, you don’t have to tie up every teeny weeny loose end and let us know where every character is going to be twenty years from now (*glares at Harry Potter*), but the more an author mentions and hints at a thing, the more important it is.  Into the Woods was really interesting, and the conclusion was realistic and unhappy and in character and all that good stuff, but a pretty darned major question mark was still dangling on the last page and to this day, I want to shake the author and demand, “What the heck happened to those kids he’s been having nightmares about for the last thirty years??”  I know having everything wrap up at the end isn’t necessarily realistic, but if I’ve had to read about it at least five times throughout the book, I think I can expect some kind of conclusion.

But even worse than dangling subplots is pointlessness.  Going back in time to before the adventure starts, exposing at the end that the whole thing was some kind of game simulation, a.k.a. anything that negates the story itself- these all drive me batty.  Again, with another book I love, Alice in Wonderland just about killed me [spoiler alert have you seriously not read this book yet go read it right now then come back] when Alice woke up from her nice nap, the whole thing having been a dream.  All that development, all that peril, all that plot, for naught.  Good morning, sunshine!  That was pointless.

So I guess this is all to say… realistic, in character, conclusive, and meaningful endings that aren’t necessarily super-saccharine happy?  Bring it on.  Maybe I’ll pick up Divergent after I finish Brown Girl Dreaming (which is beautiful, you should read it).

What about you guys?  Any endings that you loved or hated?  Any endings mentioned here that you think I’ve maligned that you think were perfect?  Let me know in the comments!

Happy reading!

Conference Lessons: Age Categories

readingIt’s pretty easy to tell what your age category is.  So imagine my embarrassment when, at this year’s AWG Writers Conference, I was mid-pitch and the lady stopped me to ask, “Wait- what did you say your age category is?”

“Young Adult.”

“But… how old is your main character?”

“Twenty-two.”

Her brow furrowed in concern.  “Hm.”

Twenty-two-year-olds aren’t young adults?  Apparently not!  My pitch quickly turned into a brief run-down of the upper age categories in the hunt for mine.  Then the pitch continued, and she was very gracious and asked for a partial, even though I’m clearly an idiot.

So to spare you similar mortification, let’s talk age categories!  This is a really important aspect of your book and your pitch.  In fact, pitches often start with this information right up front.  (I’m querying a MG urban fantasy about… Ochre Skies is a YA historical romance about… etc. You get the idea.)   So let’s take a look at some of the common features in each of the main age categories.

Target Audience Age Main Character Age Typical Content Word Count (varies by genre)
Board Books 0-3 Varies Simple, familiar kinds of stories of everyday life, or concept books (colors, numbers, vocabulary, etc). 0-300
Picture Books 3-8 Varies Revolving around a single character that embodies a child’s viewpoint. Can be mirrors of child’s world, or windows into how others live. 0-1000
Early Reader 5-8 6-10 Simple sentences and words. Story mainly told through action and dialog, with setting left mostly to pictures. 200-2000
Chapter Books 6-10 9-12 More complex stories and structures, and typically run in a series.  Pictures are not relied on to tell any part of the story. 10k-12k
Middle Grade 8-12 10-13 Focus on friends, family, and immediate world. Little introspection and not super dark.  Little to no pictures. 20k-55k
Young Adult 12 and up 14-18 Focus on finding place in world beyond family and friends. Profanity, violence and sexuality acceptable for older target audience. 55k-75k
Adult 18 and up 25+ Varies by genre. Profanity, violence, and sexuality acceptable. 75k-110k

As you can see from these age divisions, children tend to “read up” by about two or three years; a twelve year old tends to read about middle teens, a seven-year-old would likely read a book with a plucky pubescent protagonist, etc.  Another defining feature is the content- is there swearing? sex? violence?  Any of these features can bump a book up in category.

You may notice that I didn’t put New Adult on the chart.  This is because we were told at the conference in no uncertain terms multiple times by literary agents that this is no longer a thing, that it was a blip on the screen that quickly turned into subcategory smutty romance, and we can move on now.  Which is a little disappointing for me, because I feel like, age- and point-of-life-wise, that NA would have been perfect for my books.  (I ranted about this before years ago in Writing an Utterly Unsexy New Adult.)

As far as overarching adult themes go, there’s very little written about it, at least that I could find.  (It’s actually really hard to find anything about the adult age category  right now because it’s so drowned in all the bazillion articles about young adult or even new adult. *whines*)  But it seems to largely come down to the genre.  Each genre will have its own specific themes and goals that are expected within that classification.  If I handed you a mystery, you could probably guess what it’s about.  Likewise for a rom-com or a thriller or a western.  Speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, alt history, etc) can vary quite a bit thematically, though.  (Seriously, though trying to research this age category was like expecting to see a forest and instead finding yourself on the lip of the Grand Canyon.  This might merit a more specific tons-o’-research blog post later.)  So, while other age categories seem to have broad themes found throughout genres, adult literature seems to be more of a mixed bag.  (For reals- I’m gonna research this more, this is driving me crazy.)

There are, of course, exceptions to the generalities presented in my pretty, pretty chart.  For example, Neil Gaiman’s fabulous The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which has a seven-year-old boy as the main character, but is definitely not a children’s book.  If you think you might be one of these exceptions, remember that content and target audience usually trump character ages, and then check, and double check, and ask around for second (and third and fourth) opinions before you start flaunting your exceptionality.

So!  I’m sure you all know exactly what age category you’re writing in now so you can present a pitch that doesn’t make someone interrupt you to tell you gently that you’re an ignoramus.  In case you’re not totally sure (because this is a super basic chart about broad generalities), there are a few links at the bottom of this post with more details.  Good luck, and happy writing!

More resources:

Categories by audience age http://www.dummies.com/education/language-arts/getting-published/age-levels-for-childrens-books/

Categories by ages, pages, and content http://www.right-writing.com/genres.html

Standard wordcounts by genre and age category http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post