Something wonderful happened this week.
I wrote the climactic scene of the YA fantasy novel I’ve been working on since early last year. I’d had a bit of a break over Christmas and the New Year, eased into it again by reading from the very bumpy start of my first draft through all 107,000 words to the point at which I’d left the work at the end of 2015: the moment before the final Big Thing was to happen, still not sure exactly what it was going to be. Which is often where I get stuck.
I am bad at endings. This is something I will readily say about myself. Another thing I will say is I am bad at titles. So a lot of the stories I’ve started work on haven’t ended up with either, which doesn’t seem fair to the stories really.
I think it’s partly a confidence thing. A title is definite, declarative, people will have an instant reaction to it – like/dislike/uninterested/perhaps slightly embarrassed for me.
And getting to the ending – that’s the make or break. Do it badly and everything else you’ve done doesn’t count for anything at all. It’s where your characters finally show their cards: who they really are, what really matters to them, how far they are willing to go for it.
It’s not that I don’t do the work. I have written thousands upon thousands upon thousands of words, pages and pages, but often something stops me before I make it to The End.
Sometimes, like the story I wrote just after my son was born, it is due to a strange resistance on the part of the narrative to settle on what it should be. That story started out as a thriller about a woman who unwittingly finds herself on a luxury yacht trafficking boat-loads of cocaine, and turned into an odd surrealist comedy about a Demi-Goddess messing around in the lives of her relatives.
How? I do not know.
I was sleep deprived. I just kind of let it happen, the way sometimes I sit in the middle of the lounge-room floor after not enough hours of shut-eye and watch on apparently powerless as my one-year old son smears peanut butter on the couch, unwinds an entire roll of toilet paper, and gets random hardcover books down of the shelf and starts flipping through the pages. Sometimes, these things just happen.
Other times the story is there but my connection to it seems to peter out as I head towards the end. I get most of the way through but the ending feels forced, tacked on, improbable. I just can’t crack it. And I know as I’m writing it that that’s the case. It doesn’t resonate, but I push on and put the words down anyway. I tell myself I can go back and rewrite, but later, transfixed by the horror of what I’ve done, I don’t. The crappy ending seems to render the entire story unworkable.
So getting this almost-ending down on paper for me is a big thing. Not just because it’s the culmination of a lot of work, but because writing it has told me, in one scene, so much about my characters that I hadn’t realised.
You have to write the end of your novel to know how it needs to start. I’ve read something like this so many times –but this is the first time it has actually felt true to me.
I have a lot of work to do, but I have a much better idea of what that will be than I did a week ago. Because I kept going and wrote to the end. I wrote through the insecurities I feel about what I’m doing, through the psychological weight that has built up from so many unfinished or badly finished stories. I wrote through the challenge of only being able to grab small chunks of time, not enough to feel I’m really sinking deep and inhabiting my characters. I kept going in part because I’m so tired of not finishing things: I don’t want to have to tell my writing buddies or my family or the people at my work – yeah it kind of didn’t work, I might come back to it sometime.
Of course, the novel still might not be any good, but at least this time I’m well on the way to giving my story the dignity of a conclusion. It only seems fair.
Now I just have to figure out what to call the damn thing.