On Writing: Finishing

The hard part about writing a novel is finishing it.
~ Ernest Hemingway

 

Endings. Whether it’s short or long fiction, sometimes the hardest thing to do with something you’re writing is how to end it. I have heard of many writers who write with an end in mind. In a way, that could make things easier because your only problem would be to figure out how to bring your story to that ending. Of course, sometimes, the characters have a mind of their own and decide to move in a different direction, turning your expected ending into something completely unexpected. Some writers are inspired by a great beginning. I imagine Dickens’s beginning for A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” gave him a huge field to explore, assuming he started that story with the beginning. Not every writer writes purely out of sheer inspiration, and I don’t imagine every great book began with the ending in mind. The more methodical and structured writers will plan their stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end. In fact, that is how I teach students to write their stories. I do emphasize that this is a plan, a blueprint, if you will, for the story, and the final work may not even be anything like the original plan. However, with a clear story arc formed by three distinct parts—beginning, middle, and end—you can proceed along a path that gives your story direction. I’d like to say that, most of the time, it should and will work out as planned, and it does, especially if you build on the basic parts and not lose sight of them. As you write, though, it’s important to be flexible and adapt to how your story develops. Sometimes, you might see a better ending or a more effective climax; or, as you write your ending, you realize you need to revise your beginning. That’s all to be expected. The worst thing that can happen is when you insist on writing the story the way you planned it even if the other story elements aren’t fitting in as planned. I’m not saying you should ditch the whole story, maybe you should just change it and work with what is getting written. You might end up with two completely different stories. When writing a novel, it becomes a little more complicated because you are dealing with several characters, several subplots, several scenes. Sometimes, some of the characters threaten to take over the lead, sometimes the subplots become larger than the main plot. There will always be a great deal of adjusting and adaptation as the smaller stories develop and the characters interact. No matter what ending you plan, once your characters come alive, your novel will have a life of its own and will continue. Unless you have excellent control over it, the tendency will be for that novel to beget a sequel and another until it becomes a series. That is how sequels, trilogies, quadrilogies, quintilogies, and so on have become so popular. Neither reader nor author wants the story to end. However, end it must, and if it can only happen by killing your favorite characters, then so be it. What is important is that the novel is written, ended, and completed. That’s quite the accomplishment, especially considering there must be thousands of novels that writers began to write that were never finished.

We often hear our elders, teachers, mentors, and parents, no less, to always ‘finish what you’ve started.’ In a world where everything seems to get shorter and shorter, fiction being no exception, it seems harder to complete a novel when you’re not even sure people will be reading it through and through. Nonetheless, there is a market for novels, with upwards of 50,000 novels published in the US alone. The number is an approximation, based on 2007 statistics, and if a projection is made worldwide, there might be upwards of 80,000 novels published each year in English alone. Top sellers reach circulation numbers of at least 1,000 books each week to get into the NYT (New York Times) bestseller list, which is the most significant and probably most prestigious bestseller list to be on. PEI bestseller status is achieved with a sale of 900 books and numbers are greater in the rest of Canada. This is actually good news for writers because we know there are still readers out there, so go ahead, write that novel, but make sure you finish what you started. As a writer, I am living proof that it’s easy to start a novel–I must have started about a dozen already–but it’s nowhere nearly as easy to finish one. Poetry, short fiction, and creative non-fiction are child’s play in comparison. I have to admit length is a huge factor. Anything else but a novel can be done in a single sitting. (Incidentally, I’m only speaking of creative writing here, as opposed to academic writing. Academic books also take a very long time to write, certainly more than one sitting.) Poetry might take a few minutes. Short fiction, depending on how short, can take anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours–with the exception of the longest short stories every written–forty pages of print takes more than a couple of hours. Essays and all other forms of creative non-fiction can also be completed within an hour or less. But a novel! To write 35,000-50,000 for a children’s novel, 80,000 words, which is the standard length for a YA novel, or over 100,000 words for a 200-page novel can easily take 100 hours, assuming you can write 1,000 words per hour. If you type fast and the ideas are just pouring out, you might get out more than 1,000 words per hour–that’s about 4 pages of print, double-spaced. So if you were to write just an hour a day at that rate, you’d have your 200-page novel in about 50 days; a month or less if you wrote two hours a day at that rate; if you’re a full time writer and spend at least 6 hours a day writing, you might have a novel in half a month. Pretty impressive, but you’d have to be a very methodical or very manic writer, or a combination of both–which is what I’d say most writers are. If your aim is to write a book a year, aiming for 1,000 words per day, or about an hour of writing, can get you enough content to fill a 200 pages in a couple of months, leaving you the rest of the year to edit and revise–which really usually takes a lot more work than the original writing. Unless you’re a very methodical writer and have everything planned out down to the last scene so that practically all you need to do when you’re writing the book is putting in the dialogue, or whatever other method highly disciplined writers do. The point is to write, write as often as you can, and aim to finish what you started. Otherwise, you’ll get a dozen opening pages that will, in all likelihood, be chopped out anyway. It’s time for me to take my advise.

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