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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The Agony of Ether to Substance: Bringing Your Story to the Page

In this post, I’ll explore the process of writing the first draft of a novel, with particular attention paid to that awkward period between “Nothing on the Page” and “Done”. (Yes, the part where the writer is writing.)

Because every writer and the creative patterns they follow are different, it may be helpful to share how I go about the process of creating a story. In a previous post, Before Page One, I detailed the process of how I plan for writing a novel. In a nutshell, I follow this pattern:

  • Explore a landscape (where the story happens)
  • Consider the possible implications of that landscape on the story
  • Populate the landscape (create characters)
  • Develop an intimate understanding of those characters
  • Establish point-of-view
  • Build a plot around the actions of the characters on the landscape
  • Outline the story (to whatever level of detail makes sense)

I have never had a problem coming up with story ideas. Like a rabbit, I am an endless source of gestating stories, each one waiting to spill onto the page.  And when they do, the first 5000 words or so come easily. Blind and wriggling and pink, they are born almost of their own volition.

But then, gradually, a few chapters in, the flow begins to taper. I look back at the notes I crafted around the story for inspiration, but what I see haunts me. The landscape, the characters, the plot, the details, they all seem less real than they did before something was put down on the paper.

I’ve asked myself, Why is this? What is it about the physical act of plucking ideas from the ether and making substance of them so agonizing? And why do the ideas seem inherently more diminished or even hollow when they’ve been transformed into words?

I’m not alone in wondering this. Fellow blogger, Anastasiabetts, recently wrote in A Room of My Own:

I think I just need to keep writing until I have a breakthrough. Someone […] said, “First drafts are an act of discovery,” and boy are they! I never really realized this before — just how much I thought I knew before writing, completely goes out the window while writing. I feel like the story I knew so well, for years even, doesn’t even exist — and suddenly this new imposter story has shown up in its place. (11.9.2014)

I suspect that there are two reasons for this agony: (1) it takes time to write well; (2) there is an implicit trade-off associated with writing about what we’ve imagined. I’ll explain.

Time

As for the first point, the relationship between writing and time has been on my mind of late. I am currently participating in NaNoWriMo, an annual writing event that challenges the individual to write 1667 words per day for 30 days. That’s 50,000 words total. It’s a major achievement reaching the end, because at that pace, many people (myself included, in 2012) burn out before the halfway mark. There are folks out there who top 100,000 words by December, which leaves me speechless. That’s in excess of 3333 words every day — the sparks must be just flying off the keyboard at that speed.

Of course, word counts mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. Ultimately, writing is a product, and like any product, it is judged according to the consumer’s tastes. (Sure, we may wish to use more favourable comparisons — works of art to be experienced, perhaps — but a quick scan of the Amazon website or the shelves at Barnes and Noble, or worse, the endless parade of form rejections from agents and publishers, makes that desire feel a little idealistic.) If writing is wine to be sipped or swilled, then some people are after Pinot Noir, and some evidently want Boone’s Farm.

If we assume that the 3333+ words-per-day writers are the statistical outliers (a safe assumption, I think), then for most of us, writing takes a long time. Not necessarily the 17 years it took James Joyce took to write Finnegans Wake (that’s probably at the extreme opposite end of the bell curve, statistically speaking), but somewhere in between.

What I’ve found is that enough time passes during the writing process to allow the writer to lose vision. In the beginning, the panorama of a story idea spreads in all directions. Then, as the writer begins to select words that represent the idea and places them on the page, frustration and doubt begin to creep in. These come long before the rewards of seeing something tangible and exhilarating, which only come after a long and sometimes awkward process of pushing through the discomfort.

In this sense, writing differs from painting, in which the artist can see the entire product-to-date, even if that product is incomplete. It is more like sculpting from stone, an act of discovery.  And that brings me to my second point.

The Trade-off

A sculptor begins with a block of stone, three dimensions of infinite possibility. I imagine the terror of that first swing of the mallet, the moment that the chisel reduces, however infinitesimally, the sculptors’ possibilities. The very act of realizing her vision reduces her options. She can’t reattach the crumbs of marble to the block.

The very first line of a book is a door closed. There can only be a line after it, another step away from the infinitely elastic concept, something that was felt more than it was seen. The writer begins to feel constrained and frustrated as the feeling that was so initially strong is not realized. Thankfully, backspace is just a pinky’s stretch away, and words can be undone. But something about giving birth, only to commit infanticide moments later, is demoralizing, and seems to leave its ghostly mark on a canvas that was once white.

Only time and dogged determination can rescue the writer, looping us back into my first point, time. In the long-run, perseverance and even the willingness to surrender the panoramic perspective that was had in the beginning, will pay off. Pushing through discomfort allows new excitement to build, as something tangible and concrete takes shape. The words become something greater than the sum of their parts, and a story emerges.

As Anastasiabetts says, first drafts are an act of discovery, and boy are they!

Grind Away, Little Rumour Mill

Have you ever driven to British Columbia from Manitoba? It’s an endurance battle. I am, by no means, the type of person who thinks that the Prairies are boring. Far from it. But after driving for hours and hours and hours, there is something — the flatness of it all, maybe, or the absence of people — that starts to wear on a person.

Writing a book can be a little bit like that, except that instead of 20-some hours, it can take you months, or even years.

And then… you see your first glimpse of the mountains. You’re not in Banff yet — that won’t happen for a while. But the ground isn’t so flat anymore. You look around, and suddenly realize that you’ve already climbed, without even noticing it. You’re in the foothills.

What am I getting at?

Well, I feel as though I’ve reached the foothills with my novel. I’m not finished-finished (as in, close the file, I’m never touching it again). But I’m sure getting close. And when that happens, it will be time to start a whole new chapter — mountaineering.

I expect that mountaineering is probably a pretty good approximation of the “trying to get published” process. Maybe only for some. But I’m already trying on my crampons (my favourite climbing word, aside from crevice — both so distasteful). I’m donning my oxygen tank for those extended periods above the Clouds of Try-Try-Again, where the air is too thin to support life.

One last tidbit before I extinguish the flame of my Metaphor Machine: I’ve settled on a name for my novel. In actuality, I’m returning to the first idea I had for a name, way back when the writing process began. I’m going to call it Minzanto.

Bye for now.