- As I near the completion of my first novel, I’m constantly reminded of something a mentor of mine told me some years ago. “Writing a novel is an extreme act,” he said to the class. People in the room chuckled lightly at this, myself included. “No,” he said, “it’s true. In fact I can’t think of anything more extreme than expecting someone to read hundreds of pages of your thoughts and enjoy it.” Now that I’m so near to the end of my first major work (around 100,000 words), and I don’t mean a first draft, I mean revisions for my thesis adviser, (there will be more revisions in the future I am sure), I come to see now that expecting anyone to be interested in what I have to say rather baffling. My thoughts are not metaphorical gold and neither are most author’s. But through language an author can create a world that leads people to a belief system, if only for the duration of the illusion of the novel—the belief that these characters have scope, choice, and agency.
- A novel is not a reflection of reality. It is a reflection of the author’s reality. Or how the author perceives the reality we all share. Why I would think it is worth someones time to peer into my own reality, even through the keyhole is a strange phenomena that boarders on the exceptionalism of the self. Sure, the term way commonly be used as to refer to a time that is deemed, or thought to be exceptional, but individual exceptionalism is the only way I can understand an author to justify their actions in writing a piece that lasts for hundreds of pages and expects to hold the attention of my readers, let alone one.
- A novel is a natural act of subversion. The reader must want to be tricked into believing in the characters, the plot, and the world, or else they will find the novel lacking. But the author must be willing to subvert the reader as much as necessary to achieve the illusion of the novel. I can’t think of a higher compliment than a reader asking why a character within a novel made a certain decision. There is no other decision that character could have made, because the character is not real—but the illusion and subversion is such that the reader believes the character could have acted differently. Writing a novel is a constant act of subversion of the self as authors trick themselves into creating characters they, themselves want to see or hear or know. Why readers want to be tricked, and why authors want to trick themselves and others at the same time, is a mystery, but one I perhaps will explore in my later works.
Within my novel, which is a series of novelettes, are bridges between each novelette. Until recently these bridges were written in the second-person PoV i.e. “you wake up, stretch and crawl out of bed.” Now, obviously this is a problematic literary device in many ways. Readers typically reject being told what they do, and, more so, how they feel–even if the You character is specified to be an actual person other than the reader. In an attempt to serve the novel rather than my own literary eccentricities, I’ve rewritten these bridges in the third person PoV i.e. “He does this, he does that.” Not only this but I found myself adding great swaths of backstory for my protagonist, who turns out to be something of an anti-hero, unintentionally.
Wow. I had no idea what this characters, what this guy, had been through. I mean I know he had a tough childhood, but he was seriously emotionally abused–completely on accident. But he was also sorta a weird kid to begin with.
I find relating each bridge thematically to the novelette before it a perfect way in which to guide me in this revision process. So, I think a great rule, or at least guideline, is, when revision and noticing the lack of verisimilitude, if you just re-read the chapter or story, that chapter or story will actually let you know what happens next. It will feel right when it is connected thematically and emotionally. I think that’s what I’ve been able to accomplish in the last week, and it’s been extraordinarily satisfying. Sometimes writing through something only gives you more things that don’t fit. Sometimes you have to read your way through it, and stop trying to think critically about technique and craft. That’s what I’ve found, and thus far, it feels right.
I have been working on my novel for a little over 2 years. Those of you who have been working on your novels longer than I, may scoff. After all, the average novel is said to take nearly 5 years, while some authors, like Susanna Clark, someone I hold the utmost admiration for, took 10 to complete her book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, though in fairness that book is over 1,000 pages long.
What I’ve been struggling with over the last couple weeks is an ending. Sure, you can look up the prescribed rules of how novels should end–Writer’s Digest actually has a step by step guide, which probably isn’t horrible advice for a linear novel. But my novel isn’t linear–indeed, I’m unsure if it will ever qualify as a novel in general, as it’s a collection of novellas all packed together, sharing themes, ideas, timeline, and the references to some characters. Between each story is a bridge that links them all together. There is a character within the bridges that has his own arc. So finishing off his story is somewhat difficult. It’s quite Kafka-esk, theater of the absurd, kind of stuff.
So here are the elements of an ending I need to remember.
1: Don’t introduce anything new.
Don’t introduce a new theme, new characters, or a secret about one of the main characters unless it’s been hinted at already. Everything in the ending must have been seen or referenced earlier in the book.
2: Hero as catalyst.
The protagonist must be the catalyst for the change. Or, I believe, at the very least, react accordingly to whatever has happened. This could mean taking initiative. Then coming to a larger realization concerning the nature of his/her world. This can also be seen as the hero, or protagonist, growing internally.
3: Change for the better:
I don’t agree with this completely. I don’t like fairy tale endings. I don’t like Disney characters who are better at the end of the story for whatever reason. A story about a man who is through with his term of service in the army isn’t going to renew his contact after nearly being killed a bunch. . . Behind Enemy Lines. That was a poor attempt to show how cool the army is.
There does need to be change, but it doesn’t always need to be an end, to be an ending. Instead, I think, to show something has changed and now the character will push off from here into new territory, is enough. Stories only end when someone dies–and even then their story continued in the form of the people who loved them or were effected by them during their life. So I have a difficult time putting any kind of absolute on an ending. I think for an ending to work something needs to have irrevocably change for the characters at hand. If this is established, and then a new ground state acquired the story can end and the reader will fill in the blanks of what happened next. These open ended endings are always my favorite. They are the kind that spark conversation among friends and reading groups. They are ambiguous to the point where people will agree to disagree how the protagonist came it and where they are going. Think Birdman! Freaking love that movie.
That’s enough for now. Until next week, keep writing. I know I will. Would love other peoples ideas on endings if you have time to start a little discussion.