Saturday, September 20, 2008

Raw Clay and Alternate Endings

Writing the first draft of a novel has been challenging, fun, frustrating, exhilarating, depressing and wonderful. Over time I've been able to learn enough to get on the right path and I've accepted that each writer is on her own to figure out what works best for her. Here are some things I've learned that work for me:

1. Books and classes on craft can be a huge help, but only when I take advantage of them at the right time and only if I'm not subconsciously using them to procrastinate. The trick is to close the book, finish the class, stop effing around and get writing.

2. Reading is crucial. I am convinced that 97% of what I know about writing, I've absorbed through a lifetime of reading.

3. Web sites and blogs on writing, books, publishing and literary criticism have taught me a great deal. Starting a blog has introduced me to a writing community and it's helped me to clarify my own thoughts. On the other hand, the internet is the single biggest threat to my writing time, so I've had to tackle my addiction. Sometimes I specify a time limit for web surfing, or I go offline for a specific number of days, or deny myself internet access until I've hit a specific writing goal. All of those methods work, but it's absolutely critical that I establish limits.

4. I have to write every day or I lose rapport with my work. Author Tayari Jones made a comment I loved after she returned from a vacation. She said, "My novel is like a cat. It's mad at me for leaving it alone for a week. Now it refuses to speak to me." I find this is true for me. If I don't keep the novel with me all the time, it gets cold. Daily word count goals don't work for me. If I don't make the number, I feel like I've failed and I'm discouraged. My goal is to write something every day, and I usually end up writing more than I expected. Sometimes I only manage a paragraph and now and then I miss a day. If I'm really stuck, I hammer out a piece of flash fiction that's unrelated to my novel or I jot down notes about the novel and that usually triggers something.

5. To my surprise, writing longhand works for me. I used to write exclusively on my laptop, but this summer I started writing in a notebook and it opened up something different. I still generate quite a bit of new work directly on the keyboard, but often it's after I write a fair amount in longhand and transcribe it. Writing in a notebook allows me complete isolation from the internet. I always have a notebook and pen close by so
I tend to write more. I've captured many more ideas since I started doing this because I don't need to get my laptop and open a document when inspiration strikes.

6. I've tried several approaches to writing a novel. I doubt I'll ever be someone who outlines. I've written chapters and edited as I wrote them. It seemed to work pretty well at the time, but in hindsight, it didn't work nearly as well as I thought it did. For the last several months, I've been working the story out as I go along. I am committed to moving forward until I get to the end of the first draft. I thank Tim Hallinan and his Writers' Resources for helping me understand the importance of finishing a complete first draft and giving me a sense of urgency to do it. As many wise writers have said, "you can't revise a blank page".

This is what is working for me now. Next week may be different. I feel like I'm working with wet, raw clay and by the time I get to the end, I'll have something with a recognizable shape. I may have to tear entire chunks off, or move them around, or add some, but I'll have something I can work with. Throughout the process, I've made notes on lots of things I need to change. I confess to rewriting my first chapter once already, but I've resisted further temptation to stop to rewrite and revise before I finish.

The first draft is nearly done, but I'll share something that many of you may find horrifying. I still don't know how it ends. I'm not one of those people who has known from the beginning exactly how the story ends.

Scott and I watched the movie, Married Life on DVD tonight. I always watch DVD special features and sometimes I'll even watch the movie over again with the commentary on, so I can understand why the film makers made certain choices. Married Life had three alternate endings and the film makers screened them to decide which one to use, based on audience response. This is a common practice and it's not surprising that the reason many novel adaptations end differently on film is that test audiences often react negatively to a book's original ending.

I've been struggling a bit because I'm ready to end my story and I haven't yet had that moment of clarity I was hoping to have. I suppose if Hollywood spends the time and money to shoot and edit four separate endings for a movie before they decide which to choose, perhaps I'm not the only writer in the world who is challenged by the end. I've noticed that Amazon reviewers tend to complain about unsatisfying endings more than just about anything else. No doubt, there is a lot of pressure on endings.

The importance of the ending to a novel varies for me as a reader, depending on what kind of story it is. Mysteries and thrillers have got to tie things up at the end or the book is ruined for me. With more general types of fiction, the ending is still important, but less so as the reader isn't usually expecting a "payoff".

What about you? Can you enjoy a book all the way through and then be disappointed by the end? Have you ever been angry at an author because of how a book ended? Do you tolerate a mediocre book, hoping for a payoff at the end? Does genre factor into it for you?

For writers, when do you know the end of your story? Have you rewritten endings that you initially thought would work, but then decided were wrong?

Odds and ends:

Rent it or buy it, but watch Young at Heart. I will watch this anytime I find myself whining about the unfairness of growing older. This documentary is uplifting and touching. I challenge you to make it through without crying at least two or three times and I promise you'll laugh most of the time.

Everybody has probably found Pandora Radio by now, so I wanted to share my Art Tatum Radio. It's something I can write to. Maybe you'll like it.


Rachel Green said...

Congratulations on finishing :)

G√ľnter said...

Lisa, I love your multipurpose posts. I'm really and verymuch excited for you. Can't wait to read your novel, whenever you decide it's readable - or before. Or whatever.

Funny thing: I have an "Art Tatum Radio" Pandora station, too.


Anonymous said...

Lisa, you are so close to the end of that first draft, and I am so excited for you. I will go on record as saying, the process of writing and rewriting and revising only gets better once that first draft is complete.

I don't remember when I knew the end, but as soon as I did, I wrote it. Even though it was out of sequence.

It will come to you. As you live and breathe your characters, they'll show you the end. Of that, I am certain.

Sustenance Scout said...

Kristen is so right, Lisa! It'll arrive when you least expect it and may be stubborn and wait until you're in the middle of revisions. I'm so excited for you and so impressed that you've made so much progress so quickly. (Yes, I use "so" too much, but in this case it's SO appropriate!!)

I've read plenty of books that were good until a lame ending but your book will not suffer from that because you won't allow it. So go ahead and write a lame ending for now, confident the true ending will show up on your doorstep in its own due time. K.

debra said...

And with clay, although you have a recognizable shape, it might not be what you thought it would be like. Not better or worse, just what it is.
That is the magic.

Charles Gramlich said...

I started out writing longhand when I was younger but eventually went to the computer and have never gone back. AT least not much. I do write longhand if I'm in meetings sometimes, but I quickly transfer it to computer as quick as I can because I can't read my own handwriting after more than a few hours have passed.

Patti said...

i have never ever known how my stories end. i usually start with an interesting conflict and write until resolved in some manner.

i knew you will/would finish. and i appreciate getting to tag along for your journey.

virtualjourney said...

Good insights and I loved the comment about the cat. I did a post a couple of days ago with links to info on right or left brain dominance - one of the characteristics of being mainly right brained is difficulty with outlining, if you're interested.
Plus an ability to be totally absorbed in blogging....!

Glad to hear you're approaching the finishing post.

Riss said...

I get mad at authors all the time for bad endings...but that's not to put pressure on you to come up with the best ending ever written-you aren't going to please everyone. Even the authors I get mad at I usually go back and re-read the same book or a different book. The means are what matter, not so much the end. I don't want to say "it will just come" because that's the easy answer, I think you just have to remember the same thing Tim did and that a lot of us have-things don't always get resolved. An ending can be at a weird, uncomfortable spot. So long as you've told all the parts of the story you want to tell, I think you can end it how you want. I wouldn't overthink it...this is coming from me who can't finish chapter 6 but whatever. I read a lot. (c:

Anonymous said...

This post reflects everything I go through every day of my (working) life: how to juggle and how to keep motivating myself. Point 4: I have to write every day or I lose rapport with my work. Author Tayari Jones made a comment I loved after she returned from a vacation. She said, "My novel is like a cat. It's mad at me for leaving it alone for a week. Now it refuses to speak to me." I find this is true for me. If I don't keep the novel with me all the time, it gets cold.
Sadly, most weeks I completely lose touch with my novel, although I now try and work in the background: developing my characters through stories, thinking about structure. One lesson I have learned, as you also say, is that you have to finish it, stop faffing about with chapters and settings and everything else: just finish it and then start worrying about the editing and getting it right. I'm years behind.... but I'm still hanging in there and it is still moving forward. This is a lovely post and helps me tremendously.

Julie Kibler said...

Heh, the real end of my WIP came about 50 pages after the original one. I knew what was going to happen, apparently, but I didn't know how it was going to end.

I'm not typically disappointed by book endings. I guess I just figure the author had a reason that worked for them to end it how they did, and who am I to argue with their muses?

I am sometimes disappointed when a story ends in a way that seems abrupt or unfinished, but I usually end up thinking about those the most. Movies, too. They stay with me longer.

Denis said...


Steve Malley said...

In that strange alchemy of enjoyment, I have *sometimes* been known to hang in with a mediocre middle if the promise of a powerful end is there. Once in a while, the end even happens.

More often, a powerful open that seems to develop with promise seems to come apart in the final pages. Too rushed, too drawn out, or a resolution that doesn't seem to fit.

I'm a cruel judge of endings.

Anonymous said...

The two things that stuck out for me in this post were:
1 Long hand. I would really like to know more about how and if this has changed/improved the quality of your writing. Perhaps a post to it. I have been considering this for some time now.

2: Endings. I'll speak from experience. In my current WIP, i jumped in with a nebulous idea of an ending. I am not an out liner. As I reached the end of the first draft, I made a crucial mistake, I left out the Ending. The plot and story line had changed in the writing of the story. Two years and many revisions later, I still hadnt got the ending I wanted, that seemed satisfactory.
Somewhere after months of agony, after trying out different endings, writing them, I had the epiphany that gave me, what is now my ending.
It took a long time, cost me to a lot of sweat and spirit.
My advice: write free hand, but try to develop the ending as soon as you can. I dont mean write it. Just know where it is all headed. Who dies, who wins, who loves etc. and How.
Change it later, if you must.

Therese said...

Richard Russo has talked about how a novel's structure is built through a series of diminishing choices, like a logic flow-chart, and I find that I agree entirely.

In that scenario, there is really only one "correct" ending--but it can be awfully challenging to see it in the first-draft stage...

I took a wrong turn in the first draft of REUNION; after my agent read it, she said that a particular event lacked a sense of inevitability--and she was SO right. Correcting that one thing led to my finding the "correct" ending.

Consider leaving your wip un-ended for now, trusting that when you've read and assessed and analyzed the whole draft up to that point, it may well come to you in flashing neon.

Therese said...

--I should have said, a novel's structure SHOULD be built through a series of diminishing choices, because it's clear that many aren't!

Melissa Amateis said...

Great post, Lisa. Lots and lots of things to think about.

I wish I could write longhand, but unfortunately, I get intensely frustrated if I do. I just can't write fast enough.

I also need to try to write every day or as close to it as a I can. When I don't, I get out of touch with my characters and then it is very hard to get back IN touch with them.

Lana Gramlich said...

"Can you enjoy a book all the way through and then be disappointed by the end? Have you ever been angry at an author because of how a book ended?"

I have two words for you; Stephen King. I gave up on him after "Misery" (at least THAT had a decent ending.)

steve on the slow train said...

Dickens had a dismal, hopeless end to Great Expectations, which a lot of English professors think he should have stuck with. Personally, I'm glad he changed it.

I was disappointed with the end of The Liar's Diary even though I did enjoy the book all the way through. I felt really terrible about it because I believed (and still believe) Patry Francis is a great soul. I suspect I was unfair because I was reading it as a mystery and thus was disappointed with the Roger Ackroyd/Laura ending. It did end with a message of hope, for which I am thankful.

Writing my Dickens Challenge novel has, I think, been a remedy for depression. Even if it never sees publication, it was, and I hope will be good therapy.

P.S. I'm glad youo heard from Usman. I knew that chances of his being hurt or killed in the Islamabad attack were slight, but I'm relieved to find that he wasn't.

Anonymous said...

Thank you steve,

I was actually out that evening with my family, at another restaurant.

I do have at least one dinner at the Marriott each Ramadan.

Still in shock though, from all that I am hearing.
Thanks for remembering me.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

You are close! Don't give up! I know the ending will come to you and I can't wait to read it!

Barrie said...

The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve. I love this author, but was totally annoyed by the ending of the book. Totally. My local librarian was too. She couldn't wait until I'd finished to see if I was as upset by the ending as she was. We got over it, though. :)

Lisa said...

Rachel, I'm not quite done, but almost, I hope -- thanks!

Gunter, I make 'em multi-purpose because I'm so scattered. If you wait until I think my novel is readable, you'll be waiting quite a while -- I know the kind of books you read! You have an Art Tatum radio too? That's too cool.

Kristen, I am excited for you too, friend. It's been great to go through this with you and you've been a perfect sounding board. Thank you. xo

Karen, I think there is only one right ending and since I posted this, I've decided I need to read what I have from start to finish, move some of the "big rocks" around a little and hope that through that process, I'll uncover the answer. Wish me luck.

Debra, You are so right! This hasn't turned out to be anything like what I thought when I started last December, but it's...something :)

Charles, Sometimes I'm not in the mood for it, but a lot of times when it's late at night, especially after I've gotten into bed, I'll get an idea and I love grabbing the notebook and getting it down. That happens a lot during the day when I'm "working" too.

Patti, Oh good! I'm glad I'm not alone in this. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

Julie, So glad to see you again! I read the post and yes -- I've done that test a few times and it comes out differently every time. I think that's a good thing, but I suppose that it depends on what I'm doing at the moment when I'm more left or right brained.

Riss, You are never ever ever ever ever ever ever going to read my story when it's done.

Kidding :)

Seachanges, You and I seem to have a lot in common. I feel like I'm years behind too and I'm such a perfectionist that I constantly have to push past my analytical nature and force myself to "just do it" no matter what the time limits are. You are on the road so much and I don't envy you that. I used to beat a trail between Denver and Washington DC on a weekly basis and I was always too worn out from the travel to get much of anything done. But we will get there.

Julie, I think you and I may be more patient than many readers are! It's also good to hear that the end tricked you too.

Hi Uncle Denis!!!!

Steve, I can understand that. I'm guessing, based on your blog posts that you devour a lot of crime fiction and a fizzly end for crime fiction just sucks.

Lisa said...

Usman, On the longhand writing -- probably the biggest benefit is that if you keep a notebook and pen always handy, you're more inclined to capture thoughts and ideas and get them down. At least I am -- if my computer is in another room and I have an idea, I probably won't jump up to go to it.

On the endings -- yes, the downside to the DC was that I had no idea even what the story would be when I started, so I definitely had no idea how it would end. I am so glad you finally arrived at an ending for your novel!

Therese, This -- and your post about the same have been so helpful. INEVITABILITY is the key and it has to be building up from the very beginning...

Melissa, GREAT post at your place today with lots of great ideas. I should clarify that I don't have a longhand manuscript going. What I do have is a notebook with lots of disjointed passages, scenes and partial chapters that I write in longhand and then transcribe. Once I hit the PC, I tend to type in what I've written in longhand and by then I'm into it and just keep going -- so it's an adjunct.

Lana, You're kidding! I haven't read a Stephen King book in years, but when I first picked up CARRIE when I was a freshman in high school, I was King devotee and read every book he published for at least ten years and I loved them all. I wonder if you're talking about those books or the ones in recent years, which I haven't read...?

Steve, Even though I read GREAT EXPECTATIONS -- I don't remember the end. I may be in the minority on LIAR'S DIARY (but I'm also not a mystery reader, so I wasn't reading it as one either). You're not the first person to say you didn't like the way it ended, but for some reason, I honestly did like the way it ended. I suppose I was reading the book more as a character study though. You are doing wonderfully with your DC novel and I hope you keep going. Come on Steve! We're in this together, right?

I was relieved to hear from Usman too. I kept thinking that he lives in Lahore, but he travels all the time, so you never know where he might be...

Usman, We are so relieved that you're safe and so sorry for those who were killed and injured. Our mutual problems have got to be resolved soon. What's happening now is not good for either of our countries.

Ello, Thanks you agented about to be superstar! You know it's weird -- even though I didn't have any qualms about putting first draft chapters of The Foundling Wheel right out on line for anyone to see, I've suddenly gotten very self-conscious about it...don't know why, but it's true.

Barrie, I'm so glad you got over it :) I think one of the reasons I tend to stay away from books that get a lot of exposure is that it helps me to not have expectations. I'm nearly always a little disappointed by books that get lots of hype.

Terri Tiffany said...

I hate books that leave me with a bad ending! It is so important to satisfy the reader. I agree with your section on blogs-- a wonderful tool but need to watch how much time it takes from writing. Congrats on finishing the first draft-- now comes the fun part-editing and editing some more!

Shauna Roberts said...

I enjoyed reading about your process and other people's comments on it.

Personally, I prefer books that have a resolution. It ruins the whole book for me if I get to the end and it just trails off or seemingly stops three paragraphs too soon.

I like endings that reflect the beginning in some way. Have you tried taking a close look at your first or second chapter to see whether the protagonist can experience a similar incident (showing their character growth since the first time) or whether you can pick up a theme and develop it further?

Jennifer Duncan said...

So good to hear that Usman and his family are safe!

I'm so excited for you, Lisa! I hope you'll let us know when the first draft is complete so we can celebrate with you!

I like the way you're addressing the Internet addiction issue--having a handful of different approaches is good. It's so tricky, and some days are easier than others. :/

Daily word/page counts have never worked for me either, for the same reason you gave. Plus, they've caused me to force a story that I KNEW wasn't yet ready to be written. I'm much more careful, now, to make sure that whatever I do each working day provides forward momentum. I may not touch the actual manuscript, but I still engage with the story in some way.

I write flash fiction longhand, but most of the time, I type, simply because I'm impatient and can type way faster than I scribble. :)

Re: Endings . . . I'm trying to think of the last ending that really upset me, and the only things that come to mind are Alan Moore's Watchmen and the recent film remake of A Room with a View. Moore's ending wasn't BAD; I just hated it. But, as crazy as this may sound, that made me admire Moore's storytelling even more. As for the ARwaV adaptation, the dramatic license taken resulted in a very unsatisfactory ending. If I didn't know the story on which it was based, I probably would have bypassed the novel. (But I knew it had another ending, so I just finished the novel yesterday and loved it.) I get the most satisfaction from endings that tie things up somehow. I don't, in general, like abrupt stops.

I used to outline compulsively, but I found it too restricting because I'd feel forced to stick with it to the end, even when my intuition was telling me to change something. I've since learned to trust that intuition, but I still create "road maps" for my stories. I have a vague idea of where I'm headed, but writing is like a road trip: I never know what sights, detours, or potholes will throw me off course. Sometimes I end up at my pre-planned destination, and sometimes I hop a plane to another continent. =) It's crazy and scary and lovely.

Riss said...

Aw. I'll just have to steal it from someone who is reading it then when you're not looking hehe. Pft. I know you're kidding-I can't wait to read your story and your ending. If it's anything like the story, then it will be a knockout. (c: Just don't end with "and then she woke up and realized it had all been a dream." The end. hehe. That's about the only way you could write a bad ending I think.

Anonymous said...

Lisa --

I'm so thrilled to hear that you're getting into end days with FOUNDLING WHEEL. I know you'll arrive at the ending that's probably been there waiting all this time, but sometimes it happens by trial and error, and I have sometimes written as many as three endings before I found the right one. But if I could finish MISDIRECTION, you can finish FOUNDLING WHEEL. If I could finish MISDIRECTION, anyone could finish anything -- as long as they keep their butts on the seat and their fingers on the keys -- or, in your case lately, the legal pad. Will be waiting eagerly to hear the news.

Lisa said...

Terri, I'm so glad you stopped by! Thanks so much for weighing in and thank you very much for your encouragement -- I'm not quite done with the first draft, but I'm almost there.

Shauna, You've hit the nail on the head on the ending reflecting the beginning. I think that's really the key and that's why I find myself drawn back to my first chapter. People focus often on hooking the reader in the first chapter, (which of course is important), but laying the foundation to bring the reader full circle to a satisfying end is probably the most important thing of all. It's just too bad I didn't know where I wanted to take the reader when I began :)

Jennifer, I hope Usman checks back in often to let us know he's ok. I'm with you on the word count goals being counter-productive. I've written some things, knowing even as I wrote them that they weren't right, but desperate to write something. I don't do that anymore. You know, I'm often disappointed with movie endings that deviate from the novel because typically, they are altered to some kind of upbeat happy ending that might not have existed in the book. But that's popular culture, I guess. I'm a realist and I don't expect happy endings in books because interesting stories don't often end happily -- maybe, hopefully.

Riss, I'll let you read it WHEN I find the ending that's eluding me at the moment. There really is only one. I just need to find it.

Tim, Come hell or high water, I am finishing this and I want to thank YOU for really making me understand how important it is to work it through until the end, no matter where I end up burying it :)
I think the biggest thing I'm learning in my struggle to find the end is that it may take quite a bit of trimming and adjusting and adding up front to create the symmetry I need to get to the right ending. Do I sound crazy now? Anyway, I know what I mean, so I guess that's what's important. I plan to spend the next week or two mapping out what I've got, analyzing what happens in each chapter, making notes on all the heinous continuity issues I've created, and I am confident that when I get the big rocks moved around and in the right places, I will be able to write the final chapter. Wish me luck!

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf