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!

NaNo Update: Week 3

Boy oh boy, am I ever sick!  Fortunately, it’s only been messing with the writing for the last couple days.  I really hope to start getting back up to speed in the next day or two.  You know, right in time for Thanksgiving.  *sighs*  I had a pretty sizeable buffer, so I’m still good on words, but I’m a little worried about getting through the whole story by the end of the month.  Hopefully, I’ll be a little more upright tomorrow!

My writing students are doing really well.  Still plugging away, still loving every minute of it.  One whined and pleaded and begged me into helping her do some illustrations for hers.  I love Thanksgiving, but I’m sad we’ll be missing a week of writing with our kiddos!

For your writerly entertainment this week, please enjoy this beautiful infographic courtesy of The Expert Editor‘s Rachael Lui.  (I snagged it off the Writer’s Digest website!  Love that site!)

bestseller-anatomy

NaNo Update: Week 2

Hello, friends!  Week two treated my class and I pretty well.  I’m on track for my stretch goal of 70k, and one of the students smashed her goal in a writing blitz that stunned us all.  A few of us are lagging a bit, but that’s okay. I have full faith that they’ll rally in the end.

Hopefully you are all meeting your own writing goals as well!

For your entertainment this week, enjoy this cool iconographic from Electric Lit about how long famous novels took to be written.  Some took days and some took years- and all are now reaching millions of readers!  Whatever your goals are, keep making magic.  You never know where it may lead.  Happy writing!

noveltime

Infecting the Next Generation

ywpNaNooooooo!  Once again, National Novel Writing Month is upon us!  And once again, I have forced my exuberant presence on Fairbanks’ impressionable youth for some enforced creativity! *cracks whip*

I love working with kids on writing projects, and the Young Writers Program makes it so easy!  And the students are just naturals at it anyway.  Kids are wonderfully creative and, at least until puberty hits, are unashamed of their imperfect little darlings, plus these students are so eager to write.  From our initial brainstorming session to today, I’ve been working with this group for a little over two weeks now, and nobody’s even asked about erasing a single word.  Kids are great!

And I like to think that writing is great for them too.  There’s the basic curriculum aspects: critical reading, writing proficiency, i before e, etc.  You know, all the boring stuff.  But of equal importance is teaching children that art is accessible.  That their voices are important.  That they can achieve big goals if they are determined.

So!  Here I am, infecting the next generation with this terrible literary affliction of mine.  Between that and it being a NaNo month, I won’t have a whole lot of time for blog posts, but I’ll slip in a quick update on the class’ progress with each week’s reblog.  Plus, as part of the lesson on brainstorming and what a story is, the kids helped me come up with the comic for this month, so that’ll be fun to share in a few weeks.  (And don’t forget to check out last week’s comic, in case you missed it in all its late-posted glory!)

Until then, keep hitting those keyboards!  Or notebooks, or whatever.  Happy writing!

Writing Events!

I wanted to recap on a couple writing events I participated in earlier this year, but they were both small enough that they didn’t quite merit a full length post.  So rather than taking the time to expound meaningfully on each one and really dig into it, I’ve decided to be lazy and crowbar them together!  (Plus this is my last full week before we take off for our three-month-long roadtrip through the Lower 48.  Oy, so much to dooooo.)

Panel Poster

 

SCBWI Panel

Earlier this year, I helped to organize an author panel and workshop in Fairbanks Alaska, riding on the coattails of the statewide librarian’s conference taking place that same week.  The panel featured Carole Estby Dagg, author of The Year We Were Famous and Sweet Home Alaska, and local authors Cindy Aillaud, Lynn Lovegreen, Jen Funk Weber, and Marie Osburn Reid.

The turnout was pretty small, so we all managed to wedge in around a few large conference tables, and it was all very snug and casual.  The panel was more of a round robin, with the authors- or anyone else present with writing or publishing experience- sharing tips and advice.

Here I’ve picked out the best advice for you!  (Ain’t I sweet?)  Common core, at least in Alaskan school districts, has upped the need for informational stories for children, so there is a high demand for fic-informational (also known as faction).  National SCBWI conferences are awesome, and check out savvyauthors.com for even more networking opportunities.  SCBWI itself is very helpful for non-agented writers, but agents can get a much better deal than an unrepped writer can.  Take your time, and write what you love.

Following the panel, I ate too much candy and then Carole Estby Dagg presented about the stages of writing, from selecting an audience through writing and editing, and on to publication and marketing.  She approached the topic through the lens of her own work as a writer of historical fiction.

While I love a gal who plugs research so heavily (because research! I love it!), I think the most relevant thing that I pulled out of her presentation was the Shrunken Manuscript technique.

Shrink your manuscript to the tiniest print you can read.  Cut out all the open spaces: paragraphs, section breaks, everything, until it’s crammed onto as few pages as possible.  Then get three highlighters.  Everything with high emotion, highlight in red (or whatever).  Everything with high conflict, highlight in blue.  Every major plot point, highlight in green.  Then lay your whole manuscript out.  No matter how much you love them, any spots without color need to be either cut out or amped up.

 

AWG Reading

Just a few days after the SCBWI stuff, I attended an AWG meeting.  It was actually one of the meetings I usually skip- a chance to read some of your own work and get feedback.  But I had a short story competition coming up and I wanted a test audience for the piece I was planning to submit.  So why not?

I’d never done a critique group thing like this before, so I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect.  I managed to position myself in the seating circle so that I went dead last, which afforded me the perfect opportunity to chicken out, or for the meeting to run out of time, or all kinds of exciting possibilities.

None of which materialized.

I took my turn in the hotseat and read a short story I’d been prepping for a writing competition.  Historically, I have always been a terrible reader when it comes to my own works.  I stumble on words, read too fast, too quiet.  I get nervous.  But I knew this going in, so I had read it through several times out loud.  I find it’s harder to suck at reading when you memorize the piece instead. 😛  So the reading didn’t go as terribly as I’d been anticipating.

After I finished my reading, I whipped out my notebook.  The others in the group had lots of excellent questions and suggestions that really helped me zero in on what was working in the story, and what could use a bit more tweaking.  It was great to get some alternative perspectives on the piece, since I’d so thoroughly exhausted my own.  But on top of that, they were all very encouraging, and meaningful encouragement is sometimes had to come by in this line of work.

In the end, though, the critique must have done something right, because the piece took first place in the competition, leading to many a happy squeal.  So maybe consider trying a live critique some time, even if you never have before.

Until next time, happy packing writing!

A Year of Rockin’ It

rockOkay, okay, “rockin’ it” might be an exaggeration. You may recall from one year ago that I had a few vague writing resolutions that rapidly morphed into several specific writing resolutions. I wanted to finish a book during each of the three NaNo months, as well as the third Star Daughter book on the side. I also wanted to send out at least two queries and two short story submissions per month.

I am proud to say that I knocked out four ugly (as in mega-ultra-ugly) duckling drafts: Crown of Shadows [SD3]; The Sad, Sad Tale of Dead Timmy [which I adore- def my favorite of the year]; Love Notes [which I am sadly dropping, but it was fun while it lasted]; and Blood and Ebony [still deciding what I think about this one]. Boy do they all need work, haha. Still, I feel pretty good about four first drafts. I knew it was ambitious at the start, especially with the baby on board, but I managed to pop ‘em out. I am a little less proud to admit that I only sent out about half the queries I intended to and about a third of the short story submissions. But both were still improvements on previous years, though, so win!

This year, I’m approaching things a little differently. I find myself with an abundance of unsightly first drafts cluttering up my laptop. None of them are fit to be seen and that’s a problem. So next year, I intend to switch my focus over from drafting to editing. Rather than writing four new books this year, I’d like to polish up three to four and draft only one. (Hopefully, the year after that I can settle into a nice 2/2 ratio.)

The second Star Daughter book, Goddess Forsaken, can probably stand to just be picked at, as far as editing goes, which will eat up most of my early year, I imagine. Crown of Shadows, however, needs to be rebuilt completely and so April NaNo will be devoted to a full rewrite, with further clean up bleeding out into June. Likewise, July NaNo will go to bulldozing another draft, although I haven’t decided which one yet. (Likely Blood and Ebony, but we’ll see.) The next three months will be given to polishing either Dead Timmy or BCS (both of which definitely merit some polish), or maybe Blood and Ebony if I can still stand to look at it. November will be spent on a completely new book (and what a relief that’ll be!), possibly the next Star Daughter book, or maybe even another stand alone- I have a contemporary fantasy idea I’ve been toying with as well. December will just be general wrap-up for the projects.

I know all my ultra-classy beta readers were probably SUPER BORED without all my doofy stuff to read through this last year, so start warming up those red pens now.

As far as querying goes, I’m considering a different approach. I think I’ll let City of the Dead rest for a while and start querying either BCS or Dead Timmy once they get a little cleaned up, which means I probably won’t be querying steadily for the first half of the year. Also, instead of submitting two short stories every month, I think I’ll do either that OR write and edit a new short story each month. I think the drafting of shorts will help me stay sane with all this editing business going on. ‘Cause I loves me some drafting, and darling husband got me a shiny new license for Write or Die 2, which I am super stoked to take for a ride.

So! That’s what I’ve been up to / will be up to! How about you? Did you have any writing resolutions from last year? Any new ones you’d like to share?

Fun With Funerals: A NaNo Excerpt

NaNoWriMo is rapidly drawing to a close (cue terrified screaming) and I am barely, desperately clinging to a viable pace.  If I can shake off the relatives for just a few hours during the four-day Thanksgiving extravaganza, I think I can pull this off.  But the rarity of writing time does make for a pathetic lack of blog writing time.  So, rather than make up something stupid right now, I present to you something stupid I made up a while ago!  You’re welcome!

This is my favorite scene that I’ve written so far in this year’s NaNo novel, Blood and Ebony.  It’s also super unedited and probably really weird, but I like it nonetheless.  Hopefully you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Aerold’s Funeral

One week. Aralee had been longer a widow than she had been a wife.

The chapel’s yellow drapes had been replaced with gray, their somber windows weeping. Aralee stood at the head of the chapel with the priest, staring out into the gathering throng with dry eyes and a bleak heart. Most of these people had known Aerold for as long as Aralee had been alive, some longer. What right did she have to lead their mourning, she who had hardly known the man?

The funeral began, Aerold’s spiced ashes brought in by those last few who could claim any blood relation to the king, however distant it was.

Aralee had never been to a funeral before. She’d never tasted the ash of mourning. Her stomach turned as the priest started the fire.

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