Ending the Never-Ending Story Right, or How to Keep Readers From Hating Your Book

(from wikimedia.org)

I am currently working through National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. The aim is to write 50,000 words during the month, or 1667 words per day. Day 15 is already here, halfway through the month of November, and I am happy to say that I have reached more than 25,000 words.

But this post is not about NaNoWriMo, per se. Instead, I want to write about an observation my wife made when I read my story-so-far to her the other day. She’d been travelling for the better part of the week, so there were about eight chapters to read through. She sat quite patiently, listening as my story unfolded, not saying much. When I was done, her response was, “It sort of feels like The Neverending Story.”

Most people will be more familiar with the movie of that title than with the book, by German author, Michael Ende. I read the book a few years ago, and in the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I did not like it. (I loved Momo, also by Ende, but that’s for a different post, perhaps.) In the words of the Horse from the Ren & Stimpy Show, “No, Sir, I didn’t like it.” You might even say I hated it. In fact, just about the only thing I liked about the book was the title, which I felt was an attempt at being honest with the reader. The story literally seemed as if it would never end, no matter how much the reader (or at least this reader) might want it to.

SpectrumBut what could possibly make me hate it so? After careful consideration, I’ve concluded that the thing that I disliked the most about it is the thing some people may have liked the most: the extreme fantasy element. Imagine a spectrum. Actually, I’ll save you trouble of imagining anything, provided you can stomach burnt orange. On one side, we have Hyper Realism, and other side, Abstract Fantasy. It its most essential form, Hyper Realism is so real that it approaches boring — a description of your day, or a summary of a business meeting. The only thing that keeps it from being non-fiction is that it didn’t happen. Abstract Fantasy, on the other hand, is meant (I assume) to cast off the shackles of the “known” and immerse the reader in something completely foreign. I’m sure that palatable examples exist near the both ends of the spectrum. As a general rule, however, the nearer one gets to the ends, the more challenging the read. We need a little fuel for the imagination, but not so much that we simply can’t imagine it at all.

In my estimation, The Neverending Story sits deep in Abstract Fantasy territory, somewhere between the Swamp of Sighs and the Delta of Disappointment. Building from an admittedly cool premise (a boy finds a book that, when read, draws him into another world), it never manages to put meat on the bones of its plot, characters, or settings. Even the nemesis is abstract — a nothingness that is destroying the world in the book because children in our world are no longer reading or believing in stories. How much concern can the reader have for a world they can barely visualize or feel?  And as if Ende was flipping the bird to readers who thought, “Surely, if I just make it to the end(e), I’ll be rewarded with something concrete,” he ties up the loose ends of the story with “that’s another story and shall be told another time.” (Shorthand for, “My editor says that if I go over 500 pages, he’s not taking the book.”)

OK, I hope you were able to take that mini-rant about The Neverending Story in stride, because it wasn’t actually the point of this point. It was context for the comment my wife made to me after I read a portion of my first draft to her. “It sort of feels like The Neverending Story,” she said.  We’re allowed to be straight up with each other like that… if you can’t be straight up with your spouse, then I’m not sure who you can be with.

Even so, comparing my story to one that she knows I care for so little seemed like a low blow. But I thought about it a bit, and eventually I had to agree. The part she heard was particularly abstract — two boys on a sailboat become lost in a storm, find out they are in another world, climb a mountain to see a mystical old man, and receive instructions about what to do next. It wasn’t just that though. Through all this, the boys’ emotional response to their circumstances (i.e., what they were feeling) was not clear.

Ordinarily, an observation like that would have sent me back to page one, determined to write in all the things I felt were missing. I wanted to pull it out of Abstract Fantasy territory by adding something more concrete. But I didn’t. I had (and still have) 50,000 words to write by November 30, and a good way to make sure they don’t get written is by puttering around with the finer details.

A comparison, for those of you who draw, would be to begin a drawing that is meant to occupy an entire page, but then get bogged down detailing an area of just a few square inches. This is easy to do, unless one intentionally steps back from page and takes a wider view. Detail that is built on in layers gives the work a uniform and complete feel; detail that is added on sporadically results in a helter-skelter mess.

So I’ve decided to push through and get a rough draft done before going back to add anything. Interestingly, by pushing through as I have, I’ve discovered my characters in a way that is, perhaps, more organic. When I do go back, after I’ve tacked on the final period and amen, I’ll be much better equipped to go back and enhance (or even rewrite) the parts I have reservations about.

(from neverendingstory.com)

To bring myself full circle, I find it interesting that in the movie version of The Neverending Story, the writers thought it best to end the movie at a point that is actually only 1/3 or so of the way through the book. It is as if they, with the gift of hindsight, were able to see that the book would have been better if it had ended sooner and invested more in developing its characters and setting into something that could be imagined and felt by the reader.  After all, who doesn’t want to share in the experience of riding their own dragon?

Do you totally love The Neverending Story and think I’m way off base?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

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NaNoWriMo: The Islands Beyond, Day 14

Day 14

Today I blitzed the NaNo quarterback and flattened him to the turf, figuratively speaking. I got off 3200 words. Very satisfying.

Jacques Cousteau

Jacques-Yves Cousteau – Underwater Explorer, Pipe Smoker, and Temporary Guest in the Islands Beyond (josephcrusejohnson.blogspot.com)

I wrote most of my stuff in a notebook before copying it into my computer document. It was an interesting exercise, and one that I ought to do more often, as I find that it gets me thinking in different directions than when I am working on the computer. I am much less inclined to micro-edit my writing when I can’t simply hammer on the backspace key. The annoying part is when it comes time to copy the text from the notebook into a computer document, mostly on account of the fact that I don’t have a convenient way to position the notebook. I am thinking of building a little stand that I can place between me and the laptop.  I’ll post a picture if I ever build it.

So, today the boys wrecked their sailboat, and it now lies flooded at the bottom of Bromyv Strait. Lucky for them, Jacques Cousteau steams into the channel with the RV Calypso a few minutes after the wreck. Although Monsieur Cousteau never went missing (that we know of), I have taken the liberty of snatching him from our world for a while. He’s just too useful (and too snazzy with that pipe and red toque) to stay put.

Today ended at 25,600 words. Here’s an excerpt:

“Ethan, we’re sinking!”

“I know! We need to get to shore.”

He tried to steer the Dagger towards the rocks once more, but with her hull filling with water, she was sluggish and unresponsive. Waves were washing over the deck, but the nearest rocks were still a few yards off.

“Get up to the prow,” said Ethan.

Pete ran, but Ethan lingered a few moments to undo the halyards that held up the mainsail and the other sails. The booms fell to the deck with a thump and were buried beneath a heap of sailcloth.

Water was soaking into Ethan’s shoes as he ran to join Pete at the bow. The stern was mostly underwater now, and the rest of the boat would follow quickly. They were coming up on a broad, flat rock. Everything beyond it was sharp and steep, and would be impossible to jump onto without breaking their bones.

“Pete, follow me. Aim for that rock!”

Ethan ran a few steps and jumped, knowing that his life depended on it. He landed squarely on the rock, falling hard onto his elbows and knees. He tried to ignore the pain, and rolled out of the way. A second later, his brother landed beside him, groaning with pain.

“Ugh. My elbows!”

“Never mind that,” said Ethan. He pointed at the water. “Look!”

Just the bowsprit and mast of the sailboat were out of the water now. The current appeared to be tipping it onto its side, until just the tip of the mast could be seen, poking up like the branch of a submerged tree.

The boys were silent for a long time before Pete finally spoke.

“What are we going to do now?”

Ethan didn’t answer. He gazed across the channel, first at the swiftly moving water and then at the cliffs beyond it. They were sitting in the shadow cast by rocks that loomed up high over their heads, impossible to climb. They were trapped on the flat stone, with no food or shelter from the wind, and no hope of getting their boat back.

They sat back to back, trying to trap a little warmth between them, but they were soon shivering anyway. When his butt had gone completely numb, Ethan stood and began stomping warm blood back into his toes. He scanned the dark rocks and the lip of the cliff high overhead.

“There’s no point sitting here on this rock until it gets dark,” he said finally. “I’m going to climb up there and see what’s up top.”

“But Ethan—”

“Don’t try to stop me.”

“But Ethan—”

Ethan spun on his brother, cold and angry. “You think I want to climb up there?”

“No! Look!”

Pete pointed down the channel in the direction they had been heading. A ship was approaching. It was long and white, with a black stripe just above the waterline. There was a small yellow helicopter parked at the front of the top deck, and the word Calypso was written on it. A blue, white and red flag fluttered above the deck that Ethan felt pretty sure was French.

The boys shouted and waved their arms, trying to get the ship’s attention. When the ship was nearly alongside them, it let out a long blast from its horn that echoed from the walls of the channel. They’d been seen.

NaNoWriMo: The Islands Beyond, Day 13

Day 13

I did not post about NaNoWriMo yesterday because I went to bed early. Really early!  In total, I got 10.5 hours of much needed sleep. I suppose there had been one too many late nights of writing.

Thankfully, before Morpheus snatched me away, I got to 22,400 words. Here’s an excerpt:

“Excellent.” Tapper Tom clapped a hand on each of the boys’ shoulders and smiled. “Well, best of luck to you both. I’m sure we’ll meet again soon.”

He shot a glance at his companion, who, for the first time, smiled, revealing a row of yellowed teeth. The boys climbed aboard the sailboat, and the men untied the ropes from the dock. Ethan felt incredibly self-conscious as he and Pete fumbled with the mainsail cover. Thankfully, they managed to get it off without too much difficulty.

Ethan remembered how to hoist the sail, pulling on the two halyards and tying them to the cleat so that they wouldn’t slip, but he wasn’t sure about what do next. He tried to think back to what Henry had done. Not surprisingly, Pete seemed to know what to do, and he stepped in and took over the operation.

The wind was mild and blew gently from the direction of the inlet. They would need to sail into the wind, tacking in a zig-zag pattern to reach the open sea. Pete let the boom come across the deck until it caught the wind, and then tied off the mainsail sheet. The boat began moving away from the dock, leaving the men and the town behind.

After they had passed between the vessels anchored in the harbour and were safely past the seawall, they put up the staysail and the jib. Yesterday, with the wind coming across and from behind them, they had not needed to do any tacking. At first, the boys found it challenging to keep adjusting the sails every time they changed directions, but after a while they got the hang of it.

At the mouth of the inlet, the wind direction changed, blowing up from the southwest. The boys could now run at a broad reach, and only had to trim the sails every so often. They sat side by side in the cockpit in silence, staring at the rocky coastline and the waves that moved across the surface of the water. Pete was quiet for so long that Ethan began to wonder if he was refusing to speak to him.

Ethan finally asked, “You’re not still mad at me for telling you to shut up back at the tavern, are you?”

Pete looked a little surprised. “Oh. No, I was just thinking.”

“About what?”

“Well, I guess it’s kind of dumb, really.” Pete hesitated. “It’s just that guy who was with Tapper Tom. He really creeped me out.”

“Me too.”

“Actually, Tapper Tom creeps me out as well,” said Pete.

“Why? After all, he helped us by paying the slip fee.” In spite of this, Ethan couldn’t explain why it was that he agreed with his brother.

“Yeah, I know.” Pete shrugged. “It just seems like he has some reason for acting so friendly.”

That’s exactly what it seemed like, thought Ethan with a shiver. Tapper Tom seemed like the kind of guy who helped people because he expected to get something out of it in return.

“Well, it doesn’t matter now,” said Ethan. “We’re on our way to find Dad, and we’ll never see him again.”

F*ck This! I Quit…Kind Of: On Poetry, Contests, and Opportunity Cost by Les Kay

Les Kay has said it better than I ever could. A brilliant summation of the “pay-to-play” publishing game. This goes for prose as much as it does for poetry.

The Sundress Blog

Last December, I received an urgent text from my father: CALL ME. My father, like most fathers, normally reserves the use of brief text messages in ALL CAPS for important news or emergencies. Since he’s retired now, well into his 70s, and his wife has been diagnosed with terminal bladder cancer—a cancer that should have been caught much earlier and should have been curable with simple resection—I assumed the worse, something health-related and horrific.

When I phoned, my father told me about an advertisement he’d seen for a poetry contest, a Christian poetry contest with a small fee and cash prizes. Instead of counting my inevitable winnings, I imagine my brow furrowed as if I’d just heard the compensation package for an adjunct teaching position. I thought immediately of Poetry.com and similar scams, suspecting that if I were to enter such a contest, the only plausible response would be solicitation…

View original post 2,304 more words

Respect for Character – Masterclass with Marina Endicott

On Sunday, November 23, the Manitoba Writers’ Guild will host a masterclass, led by Marina Endicott.  The title of the class is Respect for Character, and will guide writers in developing rich and believable characters in their work. Excitingly, Marina will present through the lens of the theater, sharing techniques that playwrights and actors use to enhance characters.

See the official notice from the MWG below.

A Helpful Word Tool for Writers: The Online Etymology Dictionary

No, it’s not a dictionary about insects.

As writers, we sometimes need to know more about the word than just its definition. Where did it come from? How has its usage changed over time? This is especially useful when writing historical fiction, because language, especially spoken language, changes so much over time.

For example, let’s say I’m writing dialogue for a woman living in Philadelphia in 1753. Would she have used the word sticky?  It turns out that she could have, but not in all the senses that we use it today.  Here’s what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say:

sticky (adj.) 1727, “adhesive, inclined to stick,” from stick (v.) + -y (2). An Old English word for this was clibbor. First recorded 1864 in the sense of “sentimental;” of situations, 1915 with the meaning “difficult.” Of weather, “hot and humid,” from 1895. Sticky wicket is 1952, from British slang, in reference to cricket. Related: Stickily; stickiness.

So, my character would have said, “This honey is very sticky,” but she would not have said, “We’ve gotten ourselves into a very sticky situation here.” (Unless, of course, she’d somehow become covered in honey.)

Personally, I find the history and evolution of language to be fascinating in general, and so I’ve spent some time just looking up words I think might have interesting origins. For more discussion on that, see another post I wrote, called The English Language is the Brady Bunch on Steroids.

Hope the dictionary is useful to you in some way.

An Actually Helpful Pep Talk

I admit that I am generally nonplussed by pep talks. Ever since high school pep rallies, since football games doomed to be lost to teams with more money to spend, the cheerleaders have rolled out (sometimes literally) from all quarters, hoping to inspire us about something. “You Can Do This!”

Well, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and right about now, on Day 13, some people can use a shot in the arm to keep them going. The pep talks are wriggling up from between cracks in the sidewalk. I’ve read a few, and the general theme is much like the tagline of NaNoWriMo itself: “The World Needs Your Novel”. Only trouble is, the world’s never gonna get your story if you’re so darn tired and frustrated with writing that you walk away from it halfway. Perhaps the story has stalled. Some useful kickstarters to get the story moving again might be needed.

This morning I read a post by Tamora Pierce on the NaNoWriMo website that was one part pep talk, and two parts useful kickstarters. In addition to encouragement, she offered some very practical suggestions for ways that you, the author, can get your story moving again.

Here are her main points:

  1. Try adding something short. (A sudden injection of randomness.)
  2. Try something surprising, painful, or frightening to jolt your character into behaving violently.
  3. Try something small. (A mysterious object, a talisman, etc.)

The second point may be the most enduringly useful. In a recent post, fellow blogger, Charles French quoted Mark Twain, saying:

“Put your characters up a tree, and throw stones at them.”

Fun advice any day.

For Tamora’s article, see here. But if you’d rather skip the pep talk and go find some stones right away, then be my guest.