Revising Leah

February 5, 2009

The End

This blog has been an act of redemption.

In the months and years following the publication of the first edition of Leah back in 1996, I found myself increasingly unhappy with the book and the quality of the story I had written. My unhappiness loomed over all of my other writing, eventually paralyzing to me to the point where I stopped writing creatively altogether for a few years. It became a goal of mine to revisit and rewrite the novel someday. I needed to redeem myself as a writer, because I knew I am a better writer than the fool who published that poorly written book in 1996.

And, perhaps more importantly, I wanted to redeem Leah Nells, one of my favorite characters that I’ve ever created. She deserved so much better than to languish in the flawed fictional universe where I abandoned her over a decade ago. This project has been for her as much as it’s been for me.

The project is complete now. The novel has been revised and republished, my sense of myself as a writer has been redeemed, and Leah Nells is at last in the story that I imagined for her so many years ago. With nothing left to do and nothing left to revise, I’m bringing this blog to a close. This will be my last post.

I want to thank everyone who visited this blog, everyone who left comments, and everyone who linked to me from their own blogs. It’s been fun meeting so many different people.

I’ll be starting a new writing project — and a new blog — soon. The new book and the new blog will both be titled Juvenilia (there’s a link in the sidebar). Both the book and the blog will be an ambitious project in which I’ll be collaborating with the two main characters in the creation of the novel. It should be a lot of fun, and I hope everyone who followed this blog will join me for my next one. It will probably launch sometime around the first of March. Until then, I’m going to take a little time off, try to drum up some publicity for the new edition of Leah, and continue to proselytize over at Publishing Renaissance.

Endings are often awkward, but at least this is a happy ending.

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.

May 27, 2008

Progress Report #2: The First Third

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:46 am
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An update of where I’m at and what I’m doing . . .

Most of my revising work has been in the first third of the novel (about the first 75 pages or so). This section of the novel finds Leah alone, and the narrative focus is almost entirely on her. By focusing so narrowly on a character who rarely speaks (I think the total number of words that Leah speaks in the opening chapters is probably less than 30 words altogether) I am forced to tell my story using only descriptive prose — there is almost no dialogue at all. It’s a bit like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, or a Jose Saramago novel. For me, it is not the easiest way to write. One thing that I have learned about myself as a writer over the last year or two is that I really enjoy writing dialogue. Some of my favorite passages in The Spring, for example, are passages of dialogue between two or more of the characters. When I was reading through Leah a couple weeks ago and marking passages that need to be revised, I was shocked by just how much the novel seems to come alive in the later chapters of the novel when the characters talk to each other more.  One of my tasks as the author is to try to make the opening chapters of Leah, chapters that don’t really have any dialogue at all, as interesting and compelling as the later chapters. It’s hard to do.

As I’ve mentioned in another post, I’ve given myself permission to skip around a little bit. Even though I’m concentrating on the early chapters of the novel right now, if I feel inspired and want to work on a later chapter, I will do it. Yesterday, I did a lot of work on the very last chapter of the book. The last chapter — in fact, the very last couple of pages — is a section of the book that definitely needs work. Indeed, the last two pages of text have all been highlighted for revision. So the other night, as I lay in bed, trying to fall asleep, I suddenly had an idea for how I might structure the conclusion of the novel. Inspiration often finds me late at night, which isn’t really the best time since I frequently forget my brilliant ideas as soon as I fall asleep. This time, though, I did remember my idea, and when I woke the next morning, I jumped out of bed and got right to work.

Without giving the ending away, let me just say that the novel ends precisely at the moment when Leah experiences what I might describe as an “emotional epiphany.” It’s tricky for me to narrate this event because this epiphanic moment is entirely internal. I fumbled the ending in the 1996 draft by trying to describe logically and step-by-step, in simple and rather boring prose, the realization that Leah reaches. I did this for almost two pages, so that when I reached the final paragraph with the epiphany itself, I had somewhat undermined the impact of the ending for the reader. The ideas that came to me the other night offer a framework or outline for rewriting the end of the book. I still have a lot of work to do in the final chapter, but I feel like I’m on the right track.

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