Writing and Other Afflictions

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

Category Archives: endings

How Do You Feel When You Finish A Book?

This is how Roald Dahl‘s grand-daughter widow remembers him feeling:

He used to get grumpy when he was finishing a book and I remember saying, “But you should be so pleased you’re reaching the end!” And he used to say, “You don’t understand – it’s the fear of never writing another one.”

(Edited to correct grand-daughter to widow–I misread the preceding paragraph.)

… Happily Ever After?

There’s a line in one of my favorite musicals: “But we go on pretending / Stories like ours / have happy endings.” In some of the recent memes floating around the web of “top ten signs a book is written by me” (which I have yet to complete), I saw several people write that there is usually a happy ending.

I think that’s true of my own work as well, but I started wondering how much of a cop-out it is. We complain about stories being unrealistic, but we often squirm at depressing or uncomfortable endings. Myself, I like a happy ending as long as it’s satisfactory. That is, the protagonist has to learn something and change somehow, but not be ruined or killed by the experience. There are some stories I’ve written that are a mix of the two; “A Prison Of Clouds,” the first New Tibet story, has what I consider a happy ending, though people have disagreed with me on that one.

Personally, I think in order to learn something and change, the protagonist has to give something up. It may be something tangible or something emotional, but some sacrifice has to be made for the lesson to have impact. Often in amateur fiction, you get wish-fulfillment endings, in which the protagonist basically gets everything he or she wants. Those ring hollow to me, because then the lesson doesn’t seem valuable.

“When Harry Met Sally,” a very good movie, had many people complaining about the ending. The happy ending in this case didn’t feel realistic enough to them. I’m not sure I agree with that, but I can see the point. To some extent, it does feel forced. The characters don’t really make any sacrifice or change to achieve their happiness.

How happy are your endings? What’s an example of an ending that was too happy for you?

Happy Endings, and a New Tool

No, not me, though I feel like a tool for leaving my notebook on a southbound CalTrain Friday night. Happily, I got a call Monday morning from CalTrain’s Lost and Found telling me that the notebook had been turned in. The cash was missing, of course, but all the credit cards were there (useless now I’ve canceled them and ordered new ones) as well as my new driver’s license (yes!) and, of course, all my precious scribblings (whew). So all’s well that ends well, I guess, even if there were a few tense moments when the clerk at the Lost and Found at the San Jose station looked at me with puzzlement and said, “Did they call you?” I thought, wouldn’t that be perfect, to get me to drive all the way down to the station only to have the Lost and Found have lost my notebook again. But no, it turned out it was in a locked cabinet somewhere, and she found it and handed it over to me. And because the station is right next to the Poor House Bistro, I treated myself to a Cajun lunch (half a baked ham po’boy and a cup of gumbo) in semi-celebration. After all, if I were writing this as a story, that’s how I’d end it: with a lesson learned (symbolized by the cash lost) and a delicious Cajun meal.

So, the tool. I’ve been thinking for a couple years that it’d be nice to have all my references for a world together in one document without it being a huge Word doc I’d have to scroll through to find anything. Enter WikidPad, which is exactly what it sounds like: a Wiki for your local machine. It’s exactly what I needed for my novel. I can have listings of the cities on the planet, the people in the story, even the outlines of what happens in each part. All of them have their own page and are interlinked and indexed for easy access. It’s easy to edit, easy to cut and paste into, and the only real problem with it is that it’s so easy to use that you could happily spend hours just building out all the details of your world and never manage to write the actual story.

There are a number of local Wiki tools for Windows or Mac. This is the one I heard of first. I’ve installed and used it and it works great. If you search Google for “local wiki” and either “Windows” or “OSX,” you’ll find many alternatives, I’m sure.

Oh, and lastly, I promise, pictures of the book signing are up on my Flickr account. Enjoy!

Review: Stumbling on Happiness

Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert
9/10, an entertaining look at the psychology of decision making

If you want to predict how happy you will be after a meal at a restaurant you’ve never been to before, would you rather look at the restaurant’s menu, or at a review by an anonymous person on the internet? If you’re like most people–me included–you would choose the restaurant menu, on the theory that Anonymous Joe might be some weirdo who likes raw squid, mouth-searing hot sauce, and/or SPAM. Gilbert demonstrates, methodically and fairly convincingly, that even though that might be the case, Anonymous Joe’s happiness during the actual experience of his meal is a better predictor of your happiness than your own imagination given the restaurant’s menu.

“Stumbling on Happiness” is a fascinating, detailed look at the way our unique and important ability to imagine the future is far from perfect. We allow our present state to influence our future imagining (compare the difference between grocery shopping when hungry and grocery shopping just after a meal), selectively edit memories, and attribute our mistakes to other factors, leaving us open to making the same mistakes again.

Gilbert explores this territory with authority and humor, slipping in wry observations and amusing remarks between the engaging discussions of how we trick ourselves. He offers many concrete examples (the restaurant example above is only one) for each progressive step of his journey, so that by the end, you emerge convinced that you can be happier by following his advice. Despite this, he observes with some weary resignation, you will probably not do it. To quote the late, great Douglas Adams: “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”

This is a quick read, and an entertaining one. It provides a few gems for writers, such as confirming that people’s impressions of an experience are disproportionately colored by their impression of the ending (something I have been saying for years–I wrote an article about it for Sofawolf Press, which I may re-post here in the future). It’s also a great window into decision-making and all the ways a character might go wrong with it. If you don’t read it for yourself, read it for your characters.