Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: November 2007

Endings

So here we are, the last day of November, the last day of my post-a-day experiment. I think it’s gone pretty well overall. At least, there weren’t more than a couple days when I had to reach to post something.

I think it’s fitting for this last post that I talk about endings. I keep referring to this being one of my big hobbyhorses, expressing surprise that I haven’t posted about it. I do remember writing a whole article about it for Sofawolf some years ago, so let’s see what I can remember off the cuff.

Endings are often the weakest point in a book, and they are perhaps the second most critical part (the beginning is the most critical; if you don’t pull the reader in, they never get to the ending). The ending of your book or story is the final impression the reader is left with, so it has to be good for them to remember it fondly. So many books and stories I read just stop when the plot ends, or when the author runs out of ideas, and though all the story elements may have been wrapped up, the reader is left with a distinctly incomplete feeling. Not good. Almost as bad are the endings where everything is wrapped up in a neat package. Unless it’s a fairy tale, those endings leave the reader feeling that the story was unrealistic.

So what is a good ending? For me, it comes back to character (gee, there’s a surprise, huh?). If your character has completed his or her arc, then there’s a good chance your ending will be just fine. “Completing an arc,” of course, means that the character has answered the question posed by your story. It may be an abstract question, or a mystery; it may be something internal (how can I reconcile my inner desires with my obligations?). At the end, the question should be answered, and the world and the character should be in equilibrium.

In my story “Spook,” in Shadows In Snow, the story ends when the character has solved his problem–which is short of a resolution to the events of the plot. But at that point, the events of the plot no longer matter, because what was driving the story was the character.

To make your ending aesthetically beautiful as well as satisfying, you’ll want to incorporate the imagery and themes common to your book. One of my favorite endings is from Richard Adams’s lovely “Watership Down.” It begins with the simple sentence: “The primroses were over.” The image of a bloom of flowers dying heralds summer, a dry and difficult time, a time of maturing. The theme of seasons plays out through the book, as the rabbits go through summer (travel), fall (finding their new warren, where food is plentiful), and winter (war). And when finally the book ends and the story is over, it ends with the following sentence: “… where the primroses were just beginning to bloom.”

Make your ending harken back to the beginning, to the way you hooked the reader into your story. Gently release him or her with the knowledge that the story is over, it’s wrapped up. You may come back for more, but for now, things are quiet and settled. We’ll let you know if anything else happens.

That way, you leave them with a happy (or at least satisfied) feeling. And they’ll remember that the next time they go to pick up one of your stories, or one of your books. They may not know they remember it, but they will.

And with that, I will close out November. I’ll be back in December, of course, but I won’t have Internet access for a couple days, so this timing works out well. Hope you’ve enjoyed NaBloMo! Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week. :)

Review: The Dive From Clausen’s Pier


The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, by Ann Packer
9/10, a rich, beautiful story about a woman figuring out her life

“Figuring out her life.” That’s a lousy way to summarize the trials and tribulations of Carrie Bell, the heroine of “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier.” We read the first chapter, a prologue of sorts, in our “Tension, Conflict, and the Unknown” seminar earlier this year, and when I asked our teacher for recommended books that handle tension well, this was one she recommended.

Packer certainly does know how to build tension. The first chapter nearly begins with Carrie saying “That year, the year everything changed…” but doesn’t tell us why until later, dropping other clues throughout until by the time her fiance Mike takes his fateful dive off the pier, we know something bad will happen. Things haven’t been good between her and Mike; like the lake, their love is at a low ebb. Carrie hasn’t had the strength to break things off, but she knows she will have to before they go much further.

This is a persistent trait of hers, to put off decisions until forced by a crisis. In the wake of Mike’s accident (a broken neck), she is trapped into the obligation she was planning to flee, now made more onerous by Mike’s disability. The first part of the book moves slowly, detailing how that one accident and her reactions to it unravel other parts of her life: her relationship with Mike’s parents, her friendship with her best friend Jamie, her friendships with the other members of their group.

It’s the second part of the book, after Carrie makes an initial decision about what path to take, where things pick up. Even though she’s made a decision, it isn’t final, and the path not taken still plucks at her even as she finds happiness in the course she chose. Tension between the two escalates until the end of the book, when she reaches a final decision, and a final peace of sorts.

For people who love good characters, this book is a rich Godiva chocolate assortment of them. I said once that characters become real from what they do, and memorable from how they do it. Packer’s characters are fully, achingly real, in such a normal setting that for them to be memorable would almost be a betrayal of the world. But they are all memorable in small ways, mannerisms like those we know in our own friends. I often felt frustrated with Carrie ignoring what seemed to me to be obvious choices, but had to realize that that is who she is; in her place, I would have acted differently (and it would not have been nearly as interesting a story).

The writing itself is marvelous, too. Carrie’s hobby is clothing and sewing, and Packer makes us aware of what everyone is wearing, to the point that I started to look around in my own life and notice clothes. This loving detail extends to the characters themselves. One of the lasting effects of this book, and the reason for its high score, is because after reading it, I feel less able to ignore the stories in all the people I meet and pass every day.

That sounds either terribly pretentious (“I can now see the hidden depths in everyone”) or ignorant (“I didn’t realize other people had depth!”), but I can’t think of a better way to say it. I think we all know that everyone we meet has a story just like we do, but most of the time we don’t think about it. It takes too much time and effort to think about what the woman who rushes onto the train every morning to get a double seat went through as a child, or why the guy with the laptop open in the coffee shop is just staring blankly out the window. But a book like this, so rich in characters and their stories, makes you reach out from your own story and touch other people’s, if only to wonder what they might be, if only for a moment.

And by the time Carrie has finished this chapter of her own story, you understand that although this is an ending, there will be more to come. She has reached as much of an equilibrium as any of us ever do. If it is not a completely satisfying ending, it is at least a very real one, and maybe the two are mutually exclusive, after all. If you love characters, if you love drama, if you love the small town and big city and all the people in them, you will love this book.

Too Close For Comfort

I like much of Dean Koontz’s writing, but good heavens, even his photo is trying to be like Stephen King.

True Stories You Can Be A Part Of

In the spirit of the Christmas season, you might want to take a jaunt over to Kiva, where you can loan money to people in underdeveloped countries who are trying to get a business started. They post their stories, and you can go pick and choose where to invest your money. It’s not a gift; they are expected to pay you back (not with interest–that’s the gift part, I guess). I know that one friend of mine has had some success there, and I just registered and made my first loan today. So a woman selling groceries in Tajekistan now has completed her fundraising, thanks to me. That kinda makes me feel good.

As a bonus, you can get very inspired (in many ways) by how creative people get with the means they find to survive and prosper, all over the world.

With your help.

(EDITED to add: if you register, and you feel like telling them that I referred you, use this e-mail address for me: hading75595@mypacks.net. It’s one of Earthlink’s ‘register with this to keep spam out of your main account’ things. And thanks! I don’t think I get anything except a thank-you, but I’m all about the networking, you know.)

Episodic Stories

The workshop met last night and reviewed the last chapter of the first part of the novel. Reactions were generally very positive, with a lot of good points brought up that I will need to work on in editing. My big question for the group was: could the story stand on its own as the first novel in a series of three? The answer was a fairly emphatic “no.” They did note that the character seems to have completed a story arc of her own, but the intrigue outside her is just heating up to the point that it would be unfair to drop the reader out of it. I can see the point, though I’ve known “first in a series” novels that did the same. Not as drastically, I suppose. So it looks like I’ll keep up with Aya for a bit longer before considering her story complete.

I am taking a break, however, in order to try to write something for New Fables #2. And all of you should try too! Poems, essays, stories, anything that uses anthropomorphic animals to get its message across is welcome. Check out the mission statement and the first issue, if you can, and send something by December 15th to editor@sofawolf.com, or to me directly at tsusman@sofawolf.com.

Envy and Suspense

Okay, that last post was sort of a cheat. This was something I thought about in reading Ann Packer’s “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier” (very good so far). I’m not sure how it will relate to writing, but I have confidence that somehow it will.

One of the characters in her book lives with very few possessions. The main character (at first) envies him his uncomplicated life. This is a pretty common emotion, commamdments notwithstanding (or maybe there is a commandment because it’s a common emotion). We envy the person happy with their job and say, “I want to work there!” We envy people who are content in their situations because we imagine that the situation and not the person is responsible for that contentment. And we imagine that because we want to believe that our situation, and not ourselves, is to blame for any unhappiness we feel.

What we really envy, though, is the contentment other people feel, not the specific situation they’re in. If the guy with no possessions was filthy and miserable, we’d say, “man, I’m glad I have my car and my library of books and my collection of Hummel figurines.”

Packer actually uses this in the book. Further along, the heroine starts to examine her possessions more critically and then to criticize the person living without. “Would it be so much trouble for him to hang one painting, something he liked?” (paraphrased). So she took something common (envy) and probed it, exploring the real foundations of it, and turned it around. Without the heroine actually saying, “I realized that I envied his contentment and not his sparse life, so I decided to become content with my life,” she eases us into that realization.

See, I knew I’d be able to bring that back around to writing somehow.

She also does a good job with suspense, often peppering the book with little teasers like, “it was only a week later that I saw his bedroom. […] But first, we walked.” She lets you know what’s coming, just enough that you wonder, “how do they get to that point?” It keeps the book exciting. I am actually anxious to keep reading and find out what happens. But more about that in the review, when I finish.

Clarity of Language

This job (the highlighted one) is for the engineering lead who tells you that you don’t have to stay late, then comes by as you’re packing up and says, “Oh, you’re leaving already?”

Books Into Movies

There are a couple movies hoping to ride the success of “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Chronicles of Narnia” coming out this fall: “The Seeker” (formerly “The Dark Is Rising: The Seeker”) and “The Golden Compass.” I read both those series and have seen neither movie, but they offer interesting contrasts in how to bring a fantasy book to the screen.

The Dark Is Rising” is the name of the book and the series by Susan Cooper, one of my favorites of all time. Will Stanton, born as the last of a magical race known as the Old Ones, is fated to fulfill a quest that will help the Light defeat the Dark in the upcoming battle that will determine the course of the world. “The Golden Compass,” by Philip Pullman, is a more recent book, the first (and best) in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. In it, young Lyra Belacqua must travel to the far north to unravel the mystery of Dust, a magical substance much studied and coveted by the people in the college where she grew up–including her mother and father.

In both books, a young protagonist undertakes an adventure (Will is eleven, Lyra thirteen). Neither kid has a particular talent, although Lyra is able to read the alethiometer, a kind of fortune-telling machine that gives the first volume its (U.S. edition) title, and Will has the powers common to all the Old Ones. Their quests are more a product of their situation than of any particular skill. I think this is a big part of the appeal of the books, because it allows the reader to place himself or herself into the role of hero of the quest. If I’d been born into the Old Ones … if I’d grown up around Jordan College in Oxford… (Harry Potter and the Narnia books also have this “everykid” protagonist.)

The trailers for “The Golden Compass” do center on Lyra, but they are much more about the world and the setting and the adventure. She is portrayed as arrayed against a fearsome set of obstacles, with fantastical creatures and machines and people. It looks great.

The trailers for “The Seeker” mainly focused on Will, and showed it as an adventure about what a special kid he was. There were fantastical elements, but the trailer made it clear that the movie was all about this sassy, American kid. It drew interest, but of the wrong sort, and eventually the studio removed the “Dark is Rising” appellation from the movie title. It was already released (did you know that?) and was gone from theaters in weeks.

I don’t know if there’s a lesson to be drawn from that or not. I just think that if you’re going to adapt a book, you should make sure that the elements of that book that really appealed to its readership are preserved in the movie. Will is a great character, and he does go through some issues in “The Dark Is Rising” (growing up and being accepted in his family), but the adventure of the book and the setting are the main draw. The movie replaced the English setting with America and decided to give Will a strong, overpowering personality.

How about this as a trailer, focusing on the adventure and the quest:

FADE IN

MERRIMAN: Throughout history, the Light and the Dark have fought for men’s souls.

CUT SCENES: Howling noises, flaring blue candles, the Walker’s twisted face.

MERRIMAN: All of these battles are but prelude to the final conflict.

CUT SCENES: The Lady fighting back the Dark, light flaring, the Rider.

MERRIMAN: For the Light to prevail, we Old Ones must have the Six Signs. That is your task. As your birth completed the Circle of the Light, so you must complete the Circle of Signs.

First view of Will

WILL: Me?

MERRIMAN: Wood. Bronze. Iron. Water. Fire. Stone.

SCENES OF EACH SIGN AS HE NAMES THEM, SOME WITH WILL FINDING THEM.

MERRIMAN: They were fashioned for the Light throughout history, and we need them, Will. Some have been lost, some hidden. They must be found and reunited.

WILL: But I’m just a kid.

MERRIMAN: You are that, and more. You will have help, Will.

SCENES OF MERRIMAN, MISS GREYTHORNE, THE LADY, JOHN SMITH, FARMER DAWSON.

MERRIMAN: You will need them. For the Dark will try to stop you, however they can.

SCENES OF THE RIDER, WILL STRUGGLING WITH THE WALKER.

MERRIMAN: But in the end, you must prevail.

WILL LOOKING UNHAPPY.

MERRIMAN (smiling): Happy Birthday, Will.

TITLE, CREDITS.

Hey, that’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure Hollywood could do better.

The Answer

From my Inspiration panel, from a friend’s LJ where a lot of people seem to be asking about inspiration and motivation, from my writer’s workshops and all, the most common question aspiring writers seem to ask is “How do you motivate yourself to write?” There are variations on this: “How do you find the time?” or “How do you find the energy?” or “I always have shopping/chores/friends/meals/classes/movies/ninjas taking up all my time, so I can’t set aside time to write. What do you suggest?”

I know that everyone wants a magic bullet. They want me to say, “Oh, I learned this ancient Navajo trick of focusing my mind on writing that allows me to be amazingly productive. I learned it from Stephen King’s book “On Writing.” It’s at the beginning of Chapter 3. Just recite those lines whenever you want to write and your mind will be clear and the words will come.” Or something.

The answer is simple, but it’s not easy. You have to get into the practice of writing. It’s as simple as that. Develop it as a habit. Your body and mind form habits easily. The more you do something, the more you will expect to be doing it. But at the beginning, you have to force yourself in order to acquire the habit. So I’ll tell you what every other writer will tell you: make time to write.

Okay, you’re nodding, but you’re not listening. Make Time To Write.

You know best how you can accomplish this. If writing is important to you, you will figure out how to squeeze time out of your day. Maybe you’ll set aside an hour a day, or an hour and a half a day. Maybe you’d rather do a four hour block once a week. Maybe you can work it out twice a week. However you work it, make sure that you can observe that time, come what may. Because if you skip it just once, it’ll become easier to skip it next time, and before you know it, you’re saying, “what’s the point, I’m not getting anything done,” and you look up at the calendar and it’s been six months since you wrote.

Once you get into the habit of writing, you can become more loose with your schedule–you can fit your writing into your day, rather than fitting your day around your writing. But to start with, to get writing ingrained into your routine, be rigid with it.

You will hear this same advice over and over and over again. The other part of it is: if writing is important to you, you will make time to do it. The converse, the part that people don’t want to hear, is that if you aren’t making time to do it, then it isn’t important to you. “But,” they say, “it is important, it’s just that I have all this other stuff/I can’t think of anything to write.” Look, it’s okay. You make your decisions based on what’s important to you, not what should be or what you want to be. If writing is important to you, you’ll do it. If it’s making you terribly unhappy not to be writing, look at the things you can give up to make time for writing. Would giving any of them up make you more unhappy? Is there just one you could give up?

It sounds silly, and trite, but the line from one of my favorite movies is a great one here: “A writer writes.”

Connecting To Your Readers

The whole reason we read fiction is to find a connection to something else. It may be that we want to imagine a new world, that we want to live someone else’s adventures, that we want to escape our life for a short time, that we want to find out how someone might handle a certain kind of conflict, but in order to do any of those things, the story has to connect to us in some way. The characters have to be human and going through things that we can at least imagine ourselves going through, or else the story doesn’t grab us.

(Yes, there’s a lot about world-building and description and realistic characters. Those are all for other postings. Bear with me, here.)

We were watching “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” with Mark’s parents. It’s a great Thanksgiving movie. It also engages us because anyone who’s traveled has probably encountered one of the litany of problems that befall Neal Page (Steve Martin): late for his flight, flight delayed, trapped next to irritating passenger, flight re-routed, hotels booked solid, robbed, train broken down, annoying bus passengers, and so on. We know how he feels: he just wants to get home. What makes the story good is that although we can sympathize, Neal’s plight is taken to the next level, exaggerated for dramatic effect. But the base connection is there.

What makes the story great is the underlying message of looking past someone’s flaws to find the real person inside, which is a lesson Neal not only learns about Del (John Candy), but also about himself. He’s not aware of his flaws in the beginning of the movie–he thinks he’s a pretty good person. By the end, he’s not only seen that Del is a good guy and a friend, he’s also seen his own flaws, but understands that he’s a good person underneath as well. There’s connection there, too, but it’s on a subtler level. We’ve all known someone who made a bad first impression, and maybe second and third. We’ve all done things from time to time that weren’t in tune with our better nature. This movie tells us that that’s okay, as long as we learn from it and gain a little patience and understanding.

This goes back to what I’ve said a couple times about writing from life. Take little snippets from your own life. Chances are, at least something about that experience is universal. Expand on it, exaggerate it, but don’t lose that universality. That’s where people will engage with your writing. That’s where you’ll make your connection.