WRITERS AT WORK: Wrestling with Endings (Part 1)

Hi everyone,

March has five Tuesdays so WRITERS AT WORK has a bonus week. We invited Jane Yolen to kick off a new conversation and she chose endings. She divided her article into three parts and here they are in their entirety. The source of this material came from a speech Jane gave. So get ready for some straight advice. Today, we’re her audience.

Topic 6: Wrestling with Endings
Response 1: Jane Yolen
March 1, 2011

What I know About Endings part 1

“Endings,’ the conference director directed. ‘Talk about endings.’ She was assuming that after almost 300 published books I had some idea of how to make an ending. Assuming that elves don’t sneak in at midnight to finish each and every book for me. Assuming that the editor doesn’t write all my final pages. Assuming that I have more to say than just: ‘A good ending is one that is both inevitable and surprising,’ which is really all that you have to know.

Besides, how can I talk about endings without first saying a word about beginnings? They are the poles of a book, story, even an essay. They balance one another out. If the beginning holds the DNA of the
story, the ending has to be able to prove that.

The traditional ending solves the problem, dilemma or conflict of the main character. The loose b all bits all tied up. Usually (especially in children’s books) the ending is happy or at least satisfying. Once Max is home his supper is still hot; once Charlie gets to live in the Chocolate Factory his life is good; once the Little Princess finds her father, the book is done. Finished. Over.

But think of this: The ending without the beginning is simply a block, a stoppage, a single bookend, one side of an equation, omega without an alpha.

I am better at beginnings. Can write them all day – and I do. I can show you a file cabinet full of beginnings. Nowhere do I have even a small folder of endings. Most authors don’t write endings to
start a book. But, it is the endings that people leave the books so in some ways the endings are the most important part.

As I thought about endings and – being a lover of fairy tales – I knew immediately that the deeply rooted last line in folk stories, ‘And they lived happily ever after’, is the core of what we think we know about endings. We hear it always in our hindbrain because it’s the last line most of us in the West have grown up with. That line stops the story at the point of greatest happiness. The wedding, the homecoming, the mystery unraveled, the villain disposed of, families reunited, babies born. If we went on in the story Cinderella, she might be whispered about in court: after all, her manners are not impeccable, she always has smudges of ash on her nose, and no one can trace her bloodline back enough generations. Perhaps she has grown fat eating all that rich food in the castle, and the prince’s eye has strayed.

If we went on in The Three Little Pigs, the brother who builds with bricks will have kicked the other two lay-abouts out of his house, or hired them to run his successful company and they – angry at their lower status – plot to kill him. But, having little imagination, do it the only way they know how, by trying to boil him in the pot that still holds the memory of the wolf’s demise, so of course the brick building pig finds them out.

But modern books pose a different problem. They present harder choices. It’s no longer fairy tale endings we are talking about, but the other stuff, more realistic, stronger, difficult, and maybe not happy-ever-after stuff.

What I Know About Endings Part 2

The biggest three problems for me about endings are:

1. I don’t now how to plot, and how do you have an ending without a plot?
2. You have to get over the great wall of Middle to get there and I hate Middles.
3. What happens if the character insists on a different road than the one you thought you had planned?

Whether I think I know the ending before I start, or think I really know it halfway through the book, the right ending always surprises me as much as any reader. And what surprises me the most is how inevitable the ending really is. Even if I hadn’t known how things were supposed to go, the story had known it all the time.

When I wrote the historical novel The Gift of Sarah Barker – ‘Romeo and Juliet in a Shaker community’ is what I called it to myself – I expected the boy Abel and the girl Sarah to fall in love, which they did. Have adventures, which (in a way) they did. And leave the Shaker community, which they certainly did, because the Shakers did not believe in any boy/girl or man/woman (and certainly no homosexual) pairings at all. Shakers were meant to be as asexual, as innocent, as angels. But I also expected that the two would get married, have a child, and Abel would go off to fight and die in the Civil War, leaving Sarah to return to the Shaker community with her baby, there to become her baby’s “sister”, me her child’s “sister”. As her own mother had done with her. It was a perfect arc for the novel. In the beginning is the ending. But it was not the arc my novel wanted to take. When I reached the end, I so loved my characters and what they had gone through to earn their love, I knew the book couldn’t turn into tragedy. Not even a Cold Mountain kind of transcendent love tragedy. Sometimes a book earns a powerful tragic ending. But not this one, it needed a positive ending. Actually, it insisted on such an ending. So Abel lived a long, good life with Sarah, helped raise their child, not only because I couldn’t bear to kill him young, and not only because I knew that Sarah would never go back to the Shakers dragging a child with her, but because the story wouldn’t allow it. So I discovered the ending as I began to write it, as it turned away from tragedy into the proper love story it was meant to be all along.

So perhaps one way to look at endings is a process of discovering what the book itself wants and needs, and in that way also finding the ending that you – the author – wants. Maybe the moral of this is that sometimes you have to write the wrong ending many times till finally, by a process of elimination or sheer fatigue, the right one gets written.

What I Know About Endings Part 3

I want my novels to end with what I call ‘the getting of wisdom’. Authors have major themes in their lives that they tend to hit over and over again, even when they don’t realize that’s the story they’re telling. So Hannah/Chaya comes home to the future with an understanding of the past in The Devil’s Arithmetic. Young Merlin at the end of The Young Merlin Trilogy knows that he has a destiny, and a child to care for, though he is barely out of childhood himself. Marina and Jed in Armageddon Summer find out that they have to and can make choices for themselves, not just carried willy-nilly into their parents’ crazinesses ever again. The getting of wisdom – for the characters and – I must admit, for this author as well.
Because make no mistake about endings. Though in real life they are final, and we have no do-overs, in fictional life this may not truly be The End. Especially not when the publisher waves a rather large check in your direction, and promises much marketing and . . .

Here are three things that you should NOT do when you get to that END:

1. No deus ex machina ending. No glorious messenger arriving with the king’s pardon out of the blue. Your characters, and what they have done throughout the book, must be the ones to have set in motion what happens at the end.

2. No changing horses or plot or conflict in midstream in order to make things more exciting at the end. You have to have everything grow organically to earn the ending.

3. Don’t give us 300+ pages of a book in which we are totally invested in the story, only to give us the climax offstage. Because after that, no ending will seem worth the hard ride.

Here are three things you SHOULD do when you get to that END:

1. Deliver what you promised. This means you must be true and logical to what has gone on before. The last page, the last line is not where you give us a Glasgow kiss. (That’s a head butt, for those of you who don’t do Things Scottish.)

2. If the book is meant to be really and truly over (not just a set-up for books 2-7) tie up the loose ends, offer the explanations, and then leave.

3. Brevity in an ending is to be desired. Not forty more damned pages while you let us know what EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER will be doing for the rest of their lives, not to mention their children and grandchildren.

Oh and that last line: the kicker, the killer. Make it sing. Make it memorable. Let it rise to the numinous. Have it break out into the ether.

From Where the Wild Things Are: Max gets home, finds his dinner waiting, ‘And it was still hot.’

From George Orwell’s Animal Farm: ‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’

From Orwell’s 1984: ‘He loved Big Brother.’

From Charlotte’s Web: ‘It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.’ (Okay, I cheated on the last as it’s two lines.) But that’s what you aim
for. THAT kind of last line.

WRITERS AT WORK, Reality of Rejection (Part 3)

Hi everyone,

We’re back with another episode of WRITERS AT WORK. Sandy Asher and I started this informal chat about the nuts and bolts of writing two and a half months ago. This is our third subject. We’ve talked about The Care and Feeding of Ideas and Dealing with Obstacles to Writing. This month we’re focusing on The Reality of Rejection. Remember, if you feel moved to join the conversation, jump right in. If you are interested in writing a longer piece on the subject, get in touch with me to see about being a Featured Author. And at the end of every month, Sandy brings together the total conversation on the subject and posts it on America Writes for Kids. http://usawrites4kids.drury.edu/

This week is Sandy’s turn again. And here she is now.

Topic 3: The Reality of Rejection
Response 3: Sandy Asher“ . . . Ignorant editor, stupid economy, out of touch editorial board, backward sales force, malicious promotion director, clueless art director . . .”

David! What a delicious incantation! I think I’ll post it above my computer and chant it out loud – with gusto! – whenever another rejection rolls in. Take that and that and THAT! I just know I’ll feel cleansed, cheered, and most importantly, energized.

Anger has its up side. It tells us our needs are not being met. It provides the adrenaline rush needed to get them met. Earlier I mentioned “revenge” as a response to rejection. Sounds destructive, but guess what? Properly employed, revenge can be quite a healthy and productive response. I figured that out just about the time the steady waves of rejection finally began denting and rusting my faux armor of ignorant self-assurance. (For more about that, see Response 1.) As I tore open more and more dreaded envelopes containing returned manuscripts, I took to sprawling on the sofa for long, sometimes tearful, sulks. My husband and children would wander by, murmuring words of sympathy and encouragement. Sort of.

Me: Whatever made me think I could publish my work? What made me think I could even write? Never again. I give up. I mean it!

Them: How long is it going to last this time? Are you planning to cook dinner or what?

Eventually, even I would grow tired of my own self-pity. That’s when the second tsunami would wash over me: REVENGE!

Me: I will revise this thing until it’s so wonderful the next editor to see it will snap it up – and it will be so successful the rest of them will eat their hearts out that they didn’t grab it when they had the chance.

Them: Okay. So what’s for dinner?

I’m not a vengeful person normally, but I do have an older brother, so I learned early to stop sniveling and fight back. My current household confirmed that sniveling would get me nowhere. But thoughts of literary revenge gave me the energy I needed to stand up and get back to work. And cook dinner, too.

These days, I’m less of a drama queen. No kids at home means a reduced audience anyway. “Self-pity Meets Revenge” is a short one-act instead of a full-length play, and it’s performed mainly inside my head. But that “I’ll show them!” impulse still gets the adrenaline flowing.

Not everyone needs to face rejection. Writing is a good thing. Writing for oneself, one’s family, one’s friends – all valid and worthwhile endeavors. Writing for professional publication is a whole other challenge. As I’ve often told my students, “It’s art when you create it; it’s art when your audience receives it. Everything in between is BUSINESS.” Rejection is an unavoidable part of that business. But no one’s required to go there. If you can be happy doing anything else, do that other thing and write for the joy of it. But if you can’t be happy without sharing your work through professional publication, figure on spending considerable time wending your way through the Big Business Forest that stands between you and your audience. Prepare to meet lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my.

I don’t remember which Hollywood mogul said it, but an agent passed it on: “If I’d known I was getting into this business, I never would’ve gotten into this business.”

Well, I’m in it. If you decide publication is the way you must go, learn to read between the lines of those rejections. The standard form says, “Not for us at this time.” Okay, that’s a “no.” But it does leave open, “Maybe for someone else at some other time.” The handwritten note, even a “Sorry” scribbled at the bottom of a standard form, means “Not for us, but, busy as I am, I still want to let you know you’ve impressed me.” The more extensive personal comment means, “Not for us, but likely for someone else, and I’m hoping we connect with another piece soon.” And if an editor’s comments end with “If you’re willing to revise along these lines, I’d like to see this again,” you’ve got an open door. Walk through it!

Hang onto those personal comments. Editors do not make them lightly. I keep a collection of them and was able to remind an editor of her former kind words when submitting something entirely different to her years later, after she’d moved to another publishing house. She remembered. That’s how much those comments mean to a busy editor taking the time and making the effort to write them!

Oh, and given her new job and my new material, she was able to offer an entirely different response: “Yes.” So, burn no bridges behind you. David’s incantation is strictly for home use only. Repeat as needed, then forge ahead!

Your turn to wrap it up, David.

WRITERS AT WORK – Care and Feeding of Ideas (Part 4)

Hi Everyone,

Here is the fourth and last response to Care and Feeding of Ideas, the opening issue discussed by Sandy Asher and me as part of the new segment, WRITERS AT WORK. If you are keeping track of the three previous segments, here are the links.



September 21, 2010
Topic 1: Care and Feeding of Ideas
Response 4: David

Sandy, we’ve both pointed out how much we rely on the ready presence of pad and pencil to capture those ideas when they appear unannounced. I don’t want to bloody the point, but many a delicious plot, scrap of dialogue, perfect description, or fantastic rhyme has slipped into that murky river of our subconscious and lodged somewhere out of reach — all for the lack of a piece of paper. Some ideas speed off like a hit and run driver. When they’re gone, they don’t want to be found.

Today I was refilling my hummingbird feeder. While I stood outside the kitchen, empty container in one hand, teapot of fresh sugar water in the other, a hummingbird materialized beside me. It hovered two feet away, sizing me up and down, while I stood transfixed by my good fortune. When the tiny feathered dart vanished across the yard, I knew I had to capture the moment as quickly as I could return to the kitchen. I did better than make myself a note. I shared it with all of you too.I tell young people that to be a writer they must believe they are a writer, think like a writer, and behave like a writer. Writers love ideas. They feast on them. They don’t let many good ones get away.

Sandy, this wraps up Care and Feeding of Ideas.

Next Tuesday we’ll pose another issue and start posting our responses to it. It will be my turn to go first. See you then.David


WRITERS AT WORK – Care and Feeding of Ideas (Part 3)

Hi everyone,

Here are the latest remarks from Sandy Asher for WRITERS AT WORK, the serial conversation between Sandy and me about the work habits of writers. We plan to bring you this chat on (most) Tuesdays. Sandy led off two weeks ago, responding to a general question that we dubbed “The care and feeding of ideas.” I responded last Tuesday.

Our guidelines are that we are each alloted one extra opportunity to add or clarify; then we’ll move on to another frequently asked question. Today I’m posting Sandy’s second response to the question and my second response will go up next Tuesday.

As always, comments and suggestions are not only welcome, they are encouraged!

To help you review or catch up on what has been going on, here are the first two links. https://davidlharrison.wordpress.com/2010/08/31/introducing-writers-at-work

September 14, 2010
Topic 1: Care and Feeding of Ideas
Response 3: Sandy

Hello, David –I totally relate to the notepads everywhere – and the random scraps of paper when a notepad can’t be grabbed quickly. I must say I’ve never tried writing on toilet tissue. But I don’t rule it out. So far, my most unusual stand-in for a notepad has been the back of one my son’s Bar Mitzvah invitations.

I also second the motion for writing those notes in enough detail that you recognize the idea when you come back to it. I once found a scrap of paper in my “ideas” file that said, “Laura – brown hair.” I had no memory of having written it, or of anyone named Laura, or of why her brown hair might have been significant. But even this snippet has come in handy, as a prime example of too little information!

It occurred to me when I reread my comments on “mulling” that I’d never mentioned where those ideas come from that I mull. From my life, of course. What else do I have to draw on? But my life is more than just what happens to me directly. What I observe about others counts as part of my personal experience, and that includes what I read about in books and newspapers, what I see on TV and in the movies, what I overhear on subway platforms and in waiting rooms. Whatever the source, the best ideas grow out of things that hit me hard – that frighten, worry, anger, amuse, surprise, intrigue, or fascinate me. Those are the ideas that won’t turn loose until I make something of them and share what I’ve made.

In my book WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS?, I compare writers to oysters and ideas to the grain of sand that gets under an oyster’s shell. The sand irritates the oyster; the oyster deals with that irritation by coating the grain of sand. The result is something others consider beautiful and valuable – a pearl – but for the oyster, it’s relief.

I consider it a good sign when a possible project scares me a little. Or even a lot. That tells me I’m moving beyond my comfort zone and taking on a real challenge rather than playing it safe and repeating myself.

Back to you, David!

As a reminder, Sandy also plans to post these conversations on the America Writes for Kids website. Here’s a link. (http://usawrites4kids.drury.edu ).

Writers at Work – Care and Feeding of Ideas (Part 2)

BULLETIN: I have no Guest Reader for tomorrow. Sigh. Where are my volunteers? You’re going to make me mess up my very first week of my new schedule. Show me some love around here!

Hi everyone,

Last Tuesday I introduced the new segment called WRITERS AT WORK, a serial conversation between Sandy Asher and me about the work habits of writers. We plan to bring you this chat on (most) Tuesdays. Sandy led off last week, responding to a general question that we dubbed “The care and feeding of ideas.” I’m responding today. Our guidelines are that we are each alloted one extra opportunity to add or clarify; then we’ll move on to another frequently asked question. As always, comments and suggestions are not only welcome, they are encouraged!

As a reminder, Sandy also plans to post these conversations on the America Writes for Kids website. Here’s a link. (http://usawrites4kids.drury.edu ).

September 7, 2010
Topic 1: Care and Feeding of Ideas
Response 2: David

Hi Sandy,

I love what you say about new ideas wanting to crowd in at the head of the line. They’re a provocative lot and it’s tempting to let them. A new idea seems fresh, vibrant, filled with hints of brilliance that urge me to forsake all others and set out at once to woo the newbie. When I first started flexing my teeny writer’s muscles, I chased everything that crossed my mind, like a kid swinging his butterfly net in all directions. These days I’m a good deal more selective.

Still, the ideas come. They must. They just don’t always materialize on command or arrive at convenient times or places. I try to keep note pads in places where my ideas seem most prone to hang out: by the shower, in my car, in the bedroom. I often guess wrong and must make do with whatever writing material lies at hand: paper napkins, backs of bills, toilet paper, envelopes.

I also agree with you that good ideas have a longer shelf life than those shallow wannabe notions that flit through the crowd in my head and soon blink off like fireflies with no notion of where they’re going. You speak to the need to pause with an idea long enough to get acquainted and see if it’s sincere or just a kiss and run sort of tease.

One way I learn to tell the difference is to jot down a new idea the way it comes to me, keeping it brief but with enough description to help me remember it later when I come back for another look. When I review some of my cryptic notes in my idea files or journals, I have no earthly recollection of what excited me so in the first place. Others, though, are right where I left them, winking as brightly as ever, and I know I have something worth developing to at least the first draft stage.

I see my desk as my office rather than an incubator for ideas. I report to work each morning, coffee in hand, check e-mail from the previous night, make sure the latest blog post is up, reread notes to myself about the day’s tasks, and get started. The funny thing about new ideas is that, like Bo Peep’s sheep, leave them alone and sooner or later they’ll come home.

Now, back to you, Sandy.