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!

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Swag Review: Stephen King’s On Writing

On WritingI’m not the biggest Stephen King fan in the world, and I don’t write novel-length horror, so I wasn’t sure how useful I would find the much-lauded On Writing.  But it had been recommended to me countless times so I figured I’d get around to it some day.  Then the inestimable M Elizabeth Tait got me a copy for my birthday and I was plumb out of excuses.

This book was not what I was expecting.  Part memoir, part craft treatise, On Writing really hit that sweet spot for me between narrative and technical.  It skirted right between being a grammar book- which I love and own zillions of- and being a biography- which I love and own zillions of.  Both engaging and informative, heaven help me, I was hooked. *melts*

The book is split into three sections, but the first and last are both pretty autobiographical, so I’ll lump those together.

 

Memoir

Not sure how I missed the whopping huge hint in the subtitle, but I was not expecting a memoir!  Go figure!  This part was wonderful, particularly his childhood.  A little sad, a little funny, I found a lot to relate to.  There were struggles I’d never had, and other struggles lacking that I’d known, but it felt wonderfully real and sincere: the same sort of quirky, bizarre, magical childhood I’d had, stuffed with childlike ambitions and adult problems only half understood.

And then adolescence and adulthood.  Again, I felt I could relate- at least right up until the checks started pouring in, haha.  But still, it gave me hope.  Like maybe I just had to keep hustling and I too would eventually get my break.

 

Craft

Ahh, the meat and potatoes.  This is what I had come for, and On Writing didn’t disappoint.

Framed within the analogy of a toolbox, which I loved, Mr. King sets out the skills and rules that a writer will need to write a good story.  Personality and a sense of humor enliven this how-to section in a way that my other grammar books always seem to lack.  (Possible exceptions: The Pen Commandments by Steven Frank, which has a refreshingly light tone, and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, which is just too absurd to be taken seriously.)

What are the tools Mr. King recommends?  Frankly, the same stuff we always hear recommended.   I don’t think there was any advice here that I didn’t already know or hadn’t already heard elsewhere.  Simple things- like reading other books, respecting grammar conventions, and writing what you love- that we all know already.  But as King himself points out, this isn’t an advanced course in creative writing.  This is the baseline stuff.  This is crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s so that some time after you’ve put years of your life into this, you have the foundation necessary to write amazing stories that grab your readers and never let go.

The craft section did not change my style or my process.  It didn’t give me some magic potion to make me sell books, or teach me the secret code for making publishing houses fling money at me.  Quite the opposite. This book, if nothing else, set my expectations straight.  And we all need that sometimes, that slap in the face to get us thinking right when it feels like the plane’s crashing down around us.

It will be hard.  Most of us will never make it to King’s level of success.  But the journey is worth the effort.  Love of writing is reason enough.

 

Conclusion

The thing that makes this book so unique on the craft shelf of my bookcase is the ‘memoir’ bit.  This isn’t just about how to write.  It’s about being a writer.  It’s about what it feels like to have stories bubbling out your fingertips, what it feels like to ask the bizarre questions, the creepy questions, the inappropriate questions.  What it feels like to get shot down over and over again, what it feels like to have that first tiny success.  It’s more than about the writing craft.  It’s about the writing life.

So my whole-hearted recommendation: Read this book!  Even if you don’t write horror and even if you don’t read his other books.  Read this one.

Free bonus?  Mr. Stephen King himself gave me full permission to read and write for 4-6 hours a day, every day.  I can get behind that.

 

Unrelated, but I’ll close this week on an ominous warning.  Tomorrow, I and my beloved family will fly out for the start of our entire-summer-long road trip.  I’ll try my very bestest to keep up with the Monday posts, but I cannot guarantee reliable internet access all over the country.  (Heck, I can’t even guarantee reliable internet access all over my house.)  So be ye warned! There will still be twelve posts in the next twelve weeks. Just… maybe at weird times.  Your safest bet is probably to subscribe (there’s a button over on the sidebar and I promise, promise, promise not to spam you), or just check back every now and then and scroll through the archives.

Wish me luck! *clutches dramamine*

Swag Review: Writing Children’s Books

ChildrensBooksSome time ago, my parents-in-law gave me a copy of Writing Children’s Books by Lesley Bolton and Lea Wait. (The book is part of a series modestly titled The Only Writing Series You’ll Ever Need, which also includes how-to’s on grant writing, screenplays, and publication.)

This book is full of straightforward, basic information. I think if I had read it when I was first stepping into the world of writing, I would have found it much more helpful. It is a very good primer, with excellent tips on getting started, coming up with a plan, and what it takes to fight your way through traditional publication. (I will say, however, that the title is a bit of a misnomer. Only one chapter of twelve is actually about writing and revising. The rest is about prep, research, publication, and the industry in general.)

Writing Children’s Books covers a lot of ground. Starting with the history of children’s books, it brings you up to speed quickly and touches on the broad array of audience ages- from infant’s board books to the awesome-for-all-ages free-for-all that young adult books have morphed into. It runs the gamut of experience from first toying with the idea of maybe writing a book, to the moment your sweet baby hits the shelves. A lot of detail gets glazed over, but the book goes over quite a bit of information. Like I said, very good primer.

Another thing this book does well is that it is absolutely accessible. The language is clear and easily understood, the information is broken down into logical and digestible segments, and even the things that normally terrify me (You want me to show this stuff to other people? Send it to agents and publishers? Whaaaat?) are made somehow less scary. The authors lay it all out calmly and practically, and it maybe doesn’t sound too bad after all. It was a quick and engaging read that I generally enjoyed.

However, its handling of some pretty important pieces to the modern publishing scene seems outdated. The authors have little to nothing to say about indie- or self- publishing, and seem almost dismissive in their few mentions of digital publications. Traditional publication is really the only respectable venue in this book, whether it’s approached with or without the help of an agent.

Another shortcoming is that, in the book’s herculean task of covering all that information, a lot of detail gets lost. The book offers few concrete examples, and few specific resources on where to get more information. While there is an appendix which offers a list of resources, none of the resources are tied directly to the text, or organized by topic, so you’d still have to do quite a bit of hunting to find the information. Furthermore, we’re given a lot of things to do- such as submit to magazines, query agents, etc- without being told how to do them or where to get more information.  I feel like this could have gone from a very good primer to an excellent primer if it had put a little more effort into pointing readers toward other sources of information. As things stand, you’re pretty much left with… a google search? reading a rival title? guess work? Not sure…

My final analysis? A good beginner’s read that is quick and simple and unintimidating. If you’re new to the literary world, give it a read! But if you’ve already waded out into the wide waters of writing and feel like you have some sense of what you’re doing and where you’re going, it’s probably not worth your time- you’ve likely already gathered much of the information here. There are many other much more comprehensive and specific books out there for the intermediate and advanced writers.

(Looking for other writing books to try out? I found the following titles to be helpful: The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Arielle Eckstut and Davide Henry Sterry; and your particular flavor of Writer’s Digest Books’ market books– I have the Novel & Short Story breed mucking up my desk. Maybe give one of these a shot. And there’s always the vastness of the internet!  Tons of resources are available online. Some of my favorite websites for writing information and encouragement include Writer’s Digest and various agent blogs. Next on my writing books to read list? Terry Brooks’ Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life.)

The Hero’s Journey

Nelson Mandela, a hero of mine, passed away today. I know this is a writing blog, not necessarily a personal blog, so I’ll couch this in a book recommendation.

Five or ten years ago, I knew relatively little about Nelson Mandela. I knew that he was the first black president of South Africa, that he fought against Apartheid and was an all-around good guy. I like human rights and I like rugby, and so my sister-in-law sent me a book by John Carlin called Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation (previously titled “Playing the Enemy“). You can look at it on Amazon here or just Google it for other reviews. I loved this book. Loved, loved, wanted to sleep with it at night, loved. I highly recommend it.

[If you prefer a shorter read, here is his obituary from BBC.]

Nelson Mandela is one of the most brilliant, compassionate, and courageous people this world has produced and I was sorry to hear of his passing today. My condolences go out to his family, friends, and nation. May all of us leave the world a little better than we find it.