Premature Climaxing

Neil Gaiman once remarked that the middle of a story was the hardest part to write for him. With the beginning of a story comes the heady rush of ideas and the thrill of setting up all the elements. With the end, there is the thrill of tying together all the various threads you’ve laid out and the satisfaction of accomplishment. The middle, that is where a lot of the gruntwork lies, and it’s often dull and laborious.

I’ll agree with that assessment, but I find I hate writing endings more than I hate slogging through the middle of a story. An ending can make or break a story; a strong ending can make a weak story good, or at least worthwhile, while a weak — or worse, a cheap cop-out — ending can cause a reader to retroactively hate every preceding page…and a strong ending to a strong story? Then you get something like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which I will forever love for how much the last page kicked my ass (Justin Cronin’s The Passage is a very close second for powerful last pages).

I want to write endings like that: final pages that very literally take your breath away and leave the reader sitting there with an expression of complete awe on his face.

To be honest with myself, I don’t think I’ve achieved that with Bostonia, but I’d like to think that the last few pages (epilogue number two) will tie a satisfying bow around the tale I’ve told.

The preceding final chapter, however…

Remember what I said about the surge of creative energy that propels a writer through the climax? Yeah, there’s a downside to that, and it’s called sloppiness.

Kate (of Time Traveler’s Wardrobe), one of my go-to test-readers, recently finished reading my manuscript, and so far the first batch of critiques is all about the final set piece in the last chapter, and they confirmed what I suspected: I rushed the ending. There were elements that made perfect sense to me that did not make sense to her. Some we traced to plot points revealed earlier in the story that she’d forgotten — some of which were so far in her rear-view mirror it’s not surprising she’d forgotten all about them — and others were flat-out flaws. In either case, I think a strategic line or two here and there would clarify matters greatly without sacrificing the pacing, which I need to keep brisk in order to heighten the sense of urgency in the scene.

This all falls under the umbrella of “that’s what re-writes are for,” so I’m not at all dismayed that draft one has some leaks that need plugging. It’s all part of the process.

The Pros and Cons of an Organic Writing Process

On my way in to my day job this morning, something hit me about my recently finished novel project, an inconsistency that, at the time I wrote a particular chapter, was not an inconsistency.

Here’s the thing: when I began writing Bostonia more than five years ago, I had a very broad road map. I knew what the story was; I knew the general directions I wanted it to go in; I had certain scenes and concepts I wanted to play out. But I’m not the kind of writer who painstakingly details every last bit of plot and characterization, so there were a LOT of pieces of the puzzle that were utter mysteries to me.

I kind of like writing that way. It gives me the thrill I get as a reader when I have maybe an inkling of what’s coming, but ultimately I don’t know where the story will take me (quick aside: Justin Cronin’s The Passage accomplished this marvelously, pick it up).

Besides, when you work on a lengthy project like this, it’s inevitable that new ideas will constantly pop into your head as you progress; you’ll write a line of dialog that reveals a new possibility for a character, or you’ll hit a sticking point in the plot you need to resolve, and the best solution takes you in a totally different direction than you’d planned. You can’t let storytelling be totally driven by these on-the-fly discoveries, because what you end up with is a disjointed mess.

So: when I began Bostonia, the second chapter introduced Sara, a woman born with the power to manipulate magic but who refused to tap that power. I knew from the outset exactly why she denied her abilities, and I had a strong idea of how that would come into play when it came time to build toward the climax — and then, by the time I got there, literally five years later, that vision no longer fit what the story had become. New needs had arisen and I had completely rethink my plans.

What I got, I think is a stronger outcome all around, but because chapter two was now such a distant memory, I completely failed to realize certain things I’d written there were not just irrelevant, they were contradictory. When I next pick up the full manuscript, after my loyal band of test-readers have their wicked way with it, one of the first things I need to do is scour the text for any other moments that contradict Sara’s resolution.

Does this add to my overall workload? Sure, but I think it will be worth it. What I got was much better than what I planned.

I guess the take-away here is that the creative process, at its best, is spontaneous, and that spontaneity needs to be guided but shouldn’t be restrained. I’ve often heard that many writers’ first drafts can be very stream-of-consciousness because the writer is simply trying to get the ideas out of his head so he can sift through them later and build upon the strongest concepts, so don’t treat writing as such a mechanical exercise in simply getting characters from plot point A to plot point B.