how to finish a novel

Ironman finish line

A friend who’s writing a book – a ‘publish or perish’ tenure track type of book – asked me if I have any tips on finishing. Well… not really. I mostly need help in the great chaotic middle when it looks like the entire book is going to fall apart and I’ve just wasted months of my life. Otherwise known as Act 2. Once I get past that hump (the literary version of mile 22), it’s fun – or a relief – to race to the finish line. Of course, then we all face the problem artist Paul Gardner articulated (and the rest of us creative folk adopted), “A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places.”

In his lecture on “How to Make a Scene,” my mentor, Rob Roberge, illustrated the point that dialog is people saying no to each other in interesting ways. Take a look at ABOUT A BOY (both the novel and the film, and here I’m quoting the film for concision) when the couple wants Will to be the godfather to their daughter:

Will: I couldn’t possibly think of a worse godfather for Imogene. You know me. I’ll drop her at her christening. I’ll forget her birthdays until her 18th, when I’ll take her out and get her drunk and possibly, let’s face it, you know, try and shag her. I mean, seriously, it’s a very, very bad choice.
Couple: We know, I just thought you had hidden depths.
Will: No. No. You’ve always had that wrong. I really am this shallow.

That’s the final ‘no.’ If scenes are built this way, then if you consider the larger narrative arc, this same element exists and the book has a natural conclusion and the protagonist has either fulfilled the desire driving them through the book or is finally, and perhaps irrevocably, thwarted.

This is likely not of much help to my non-fiction friend. For both fiction and non-fiction there’s only one piece of advice to finish a book: perseverance. For the novelist, it’s that, plus crafting a great conclusion that satisfies the reader yet does not tie up everything in a bow. The reader is satiated and the action has come to a place that feels both inevitable and unexpected (in the best of all possible worlds) and is at a point that could open up in a new way. I think of it as a journey through woods where the end is the arrival at a meadow.

A SciFi/Fantasy writer has some thoughts on the writing marathon and community of writers. Perhaps that’s the real secret – to have a group of writers around you whether in person or online who understand the journey and encourage you (no bitter people allowed). I know it works for me and I right now I want thank the group I check in with regularly. They definitely keep me going and help me solve problems. Thank you!

file under less is more

A hand, a foot, a leg, a head,
Stood for the whole to be imaginèd.
(Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece, ll. 1427-8)

What if you write a scene of sex, violence, or intense emotion and focus only on one of the character’s body parts? Oh stop, not the obvious ones either. And yeah, I’m being silly with the crab legs. Have some fun, for goodness sake.

What would happen if you select just one of the senses and focused an entire scene through it?

 

Kilgore: I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

 

As far as sensory detail goes, the sense of smell is often overlooked. Writing can gain power not only with focus, but with the specific. Simple words can pack the most punch. Try zeroing in on only what your character smells in a paragraph and see where it takes you. It needn’t be as dark as Apocalypse Now, but it can be just as memorable.

Aaron Gansky discusses deeply imagining over at his blog. Check it out, then spend some time daydreaming (purposeful daydreaming, that is). Then of course, you have to write it down.

If you get tripped up by rules, take a look at what it perhaps the best copy editing blog out there, The Subversive Copy Editor. Now then, no more excuses. Go write.

work habits

Last week I finished revisions on my latest novel and sent it off to a reader I trust. Note: always have a couple of people who will tell you the truth look at something before you send it out. Agents and publishing houses don’t have the time and money to edit you the way they used to. (Remake of Shane for the literary set – Come back, Max Perkins, Max, come back!) It’s also a good idea to hire an editor as well. However, not my point. My point is about the writing life and work habits. Writers who are prolific, successful or both, put in long hours with their story. They write because they cannot not write. So what did I do after finishing? Let a couple of the people closest to me know, posted it on social media and started researching the next novel. I can’t say much about the next novel, but I am going to give myself some time for background reading because at the moment, it looks like a much bigger book than I’ve written before.

My preferred schedule is to go to the gym or for a hike in the hills, work till lunch, errands, then more writing, then if I’m on a roll, more writing in the evening. When I was wrestling with the revisions, it took a lot of staring into space while I struggled to solve the problems of replacing and moving scenes. One of the instructors at Antioch pointed out the value of writing immediately after sleep and sometimes I try to do that, just to see if more creative solutions come first thing out of dream time. I’m not sure it makes a difference for me. Basically, all you can do is what works.

done done

Well, done for now. The problem with novels is that you can tinker with them endlessly and it’s not always clear at first when it becomes counterproductive. HOWEVER, for now, I am done with Wrestling Alligators. I gave it to four trusted readers. They only had light notes, so I’m getting better at revisions. Then I read the whole novel aloud. Surprising what you catch (even after it’s been past 5 pairs of eyes) so it’s a technique I highly recommend.

Go read my friend Andrew Panebianco’s post, Six Degrees of Robert Langdon (Dan Brown’s protagonist). If you want the longer, juicier version, go here.

List of the words circled by David Foster Wallace in his dictionary.

So, the dreaded synopsis (is there a writer who likes writing them? no), a short bio and the first three chapters are out to an agent. As all writers know, Tom Petty was right.

The Norman Mailer Writers Colony invited me back (with scholarship) for one of their summer workshops, so am hoping the timing works out.  It was nice to hear that they consider my work the quality of a Fellow though they could not seat me as one of the seven this year. A week’s probably better than a month for me considering how busy this summer will be. See there? Things work out for the best.