January 15, 2106–We’ve been at this writing thing together for more than three years now, a total of 43 columns so far, and I hope you are near the end of your first novel — or at least the end of your first draft of your first novel. This is the point when many new writers ask, “How do I know I am at ‘the end’?”
My turn to ask: Has the central conflict been resolved? Have you wound up the subplots? Has the “hero” changed internally and in a significant way?
If you answer these questions in the affirmative, you’ve probably reached the end of your novel.
The next question is, “Is the ending compelling?”
Next to the opening pages, which hook a reader and get them to take the book home or download the rest of the chapters, “the end” is the most important part of the book. Hopefully readers will continue to think about the ending — better yet, continue to feel something about the story — long after they’ve finished reading.
You know yourself the feeling you have when you’re slightly disappointed that the story is over and the characters have left your life.
Ideally, there has been a climactic incident, depicted in dramatic action and dialogue, and the hero has been the instigator or the catalyst for the resolution. No new exposition or information had to be added at the end to make it what we call “earned” — the ending has been subtly foreshadowed, or has already been in play. The ending logically follows from who the characters are and what they have experienced and while it makes sense in retrospect, it also surprises.
But no dreams, please. No elaborate flashbacks. No fairy godmothers.
Think “organic.” If the ending isn’t growing naturally — almost intuitively — out of what you’ve already written, then you may need to go back to the first three-quarters of your book and see what’s missing in your story.
Are the stakes high enough? Has the main character faced enough challenges, won some, lost some, learned incrementally what he or she needs to learn? Is the climactic incident greater in emotional impact than the ones before it?
Larry Brooks, author of “Story Engineering” and “Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling,” puts it this way: “If you can make the reader cry, make her cheer and applaud, make her remember, make her feel, you’ve done your job as a storyteller.”
That’s an effective ending.
And I hope that I’ve done my job in these columns. As “amicus scriptor,” I’ve tried to be a friend to you, the writer who is also a lawyer.
I have appreciated the space the Daily Law Bulletin has given me in its pages to share with you what I have learned over the course of my own journey on the parallel paths of writing and the law.
When I review what I’ve written in these columns, my friendly advice boils down to this:
Write every day. Daily notes to yourself will help you develop this habit, but writing a creative passage every day is what will get you to a book-length work.
Study the craft of writing a novel. Both the building blocks — words, sentences, scenes and dialogue — and also the architecture. You can discover your story by writing, but the more you know of your story in advance (a blueprint, not an outline), the easier it is to tell it.
Persevere. Make your writing a routine, an appointment with yourself, your most important client.
Feed your soul. Do writerly things. Entertain yourself. Make yourself uncomfortable.
Ask for help. Join a workshop, read your work to others and hire a professional editor. Read “Colum McCann’s Letter to a Young Writer” from The Story Prize’s blog. He says it better than I ever could.
Share your work. Send it out. Do not be discouraged by rejections. Independently publish.
Support fellow writers. Contrary to popular belief, the practice of law need not squeeze the ever-lovin’ creativity out of you, but that your lawyerly skills and your love of language and nuance will serve your creativity if you let it. In the coming year, give yourself the most precious holiday gift of all, the gift of time to write, write, write.