Revising Leah

November 14, 2008

How My Novel Ends

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:52 am
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One thing that you don’t often hear when authors comment on their own work is a discussion of how their novels end. This is understandable. No one wants to give away their ending and spoil the experience for a reader. But endings are such important parts of stories that it’s a shame authors can’t talk about them more. I don’t plan to give away the endings to Leah or The Spring in this post, but I would like to discuss how and why I end my novels the way I do.

(I’ll try to keep this post sufficiently vague — perhaps so much so that I wonder if it will make sense to anyone who hasn’t read the novel. Perhaps this is a post to come back to in the future.)

I’ve always enjoyed endings that are ambiguous and open to interpretation. I don’t like the “And they lived happily ever after” kinds of endings that tie up all the loose ends and answer all the lingering questions. The best endings are those that raise as many questions as they resolve, that give the reader the impression that something else is going to happen. As a reader, I want to wonder, “What’s going to happen to this character tomorrow?” If I can ask that question, then the author has succeeded in creating a realistic character that I care about.

I also like the idea of the dual ending — that is, when the final pages are not only open to multiple interpretations, but they quite literally offer two distinct endings. I did something like that in The Spring. As that novel ends, the multiple plot threads coalesce into two distinct plot lines, each of which comes to its own conclusion in both the final chapter and an epilogue. In my next novel that I’ll be writing next year, I intend to push this method of plotting to its extreme. I will offer two very different endings to the story, endings which contradict each other and allow the reader to decide for herself which one she wants.

The final chapter of Leah doesn’t have two distinct endings, but the final chapter of the book does flirt with other possible endings. If I’ve done my job as a writer, the reader will go into the final chapter not quite sure what is going to happen. The reader might be led to think that one particular ending is about to happen, but suddenly something very different and unexpected happens. (At least, that’s my intent!)

But it’s not just a last-minute plot twist that I’m after. I want to leave the reader with ambiguous feelings about where my main character, Leah Nells, finds herself on the last page of the novel. I want the reader to wonder, “Was this supposed to be a happy ending or an unhappy ending?” and I want different readers to disagree about how to answer that question. When you read the ending of Leah, you will find that it certainly seems like a happy ending, but at the same time it is a little unsettling. The very last sentence of the novel does a lot to undermine the apparently happy ending. I worked hard on that final sentence, and it’s one of the most ambiguous statements in the whole book. I’m quite pleased with it!

Personally, I consider the ending to be a happy one, despite the way I intentionally undermine it. But I’m only the author, and perhaps, ultimately, my opinion does not count for much. What I hope is that no one will be able to say, “And Leah Nells lived happily ever after.” The novel may end on that last page, but Leah’s life goes on.

October 17, 2008

New Beginnings and the Same Old Endings

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:17 pm
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I’ve decided to kick off the seventh cycle by isolating and evaluating the different ways that I start my chapters. It’s worth paying attention to both the beginning and the ending of chapter because a strong beginning can give a reader a reason to read, and a strong ending can spur that reader to continue reading.

In my opinion, I tend to do a pretty good job of ending my chapters. A lot of times, I use the last paragraph as the “climax” of the chapter. Often I’ll try to insert the most powerful emotional moment here, or I’ll add a plot twist, or something else very important will happen. I like how I end chapters, but the beginnings of my chapters are another story altogether.

They tend to be very weak, and I noticed months ago when I broke the 12 chapters of the 1996 draft down into the 24-25 chapters of the current draft that I tend to rely, again and again, on the same boring strategies for opening a chapter. So, what I’ve done is to copy the opening paragraph(s) of each chapter into a new word processing document. Once I quarantined them, I placed each one into one of six categories:

  • Beginnings that use dialogue: I only had two of these. I wish I could have more because I really like starting a chapter with a conversation, but there is already a shortage of dialogue in Leah, so I guess I’m lucky to have these two.
  • Beginnings that pick up exactly where the last chapter left off: I like this method a lot because it really accelerates the narrative flow and keeps the reader hooked into the story. I don’t feel like I’m hitting the “reset” button every time I start a new chapter. Alas, I only had three of these.
  • Beginnings that describe the weather: I have three of these, mostly towards the end of the novel when the weather starts to have an effect on the plot. I don’t really like this tactic; it’s not a very exciting way to start a chapter. I feel like I’m making small talk with the reader (“Gosh, it’s really cold outside, isn’t it?”). What’s worse, two of the chapters that use this tactic are right next to each other. One of them will have to be changed.
  • Beginnings that describe Leah waking up from sleep: By my count, only three chapters start this way. That number seems small to me because I feel like I use this tactic way too much (I might have combined this tactic with some of the others mentioned in this list). If I could, I’d like to eliminate these entirely from my story, but I might have to settle for eliminating just one or two of them.
  • Beginnings that mention the passage of time: There are seven of these, and I hate them all. These are chapters that begin with phrases like, “The next day,” or “On Friday,” or “Over the coming weeks”. I know what I’m trying to do here: I’m trying to show that time has passed since the previous chapter, but I think this is just a really clumsy way of doing it. These chapters are calling out for revision, and that call will be answered.
  • Beginnings in the “other” category: Six chapters have beginnings that don’t fall into one of the categories above. Generally speaking, that’s a good thing, because it means they are each unique in their own way. I might make some little adjustments to these beginnings, but for the most part, they are fine.

So now that I’ve diagnosed the problem, it’s just a matter of revising these paragraphs so that they are stronger and more likely to grab the reader’s attention rather than slow her down and bore her to death. I always say that writing the first and final paragraphs of any piece of writing is one of the hardest tasks that a writer faces. In fiction especially, where so much importance is placed on how a writer starts and finishes a story or a chapter, this difficulty can sometimes lead to writer’s block. I myself have agonized over how I should begin and end this novel, rewriting and revising the first and final paragraphs of the novel dozens of times.

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