Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Beginnings and Endings

Guest Post by Terry Odell

Sometimes, the hardest part of writing is writing the third word. You know, the one right after "Chapter One." But you have to start somewhere, and if you're not a detailed plotter, that somewhere is often tough to come by.

Recently, as I chugged into the day's writing, the first thing I did was delete the beginning. By that time, I was about 13,000 words into the manuscript, and I didn't need them anymore. I've used that same basic opening at least two or three times, and it always gets cut. But you have to start somewhere, and as has been said over and over: "You can't fix a blank page."

It's kind of like revving the engine. The race doesn't begin until you cross the starting line, but sometimes you need that running start. Helps burn out some of the impurities. There's more to beginning a story than starting with a paragraph that hooks a reader. It has to hang together with the rest of the book, and since I really didn't know where I was going, it was more like messing around with a bit of clay, seeing if there was a shape inside.

We're advised that a reader is likely to want to read "one more scene, one more chapter" before putting down a book. So, writers are told to make sure that scene ends with something that will keep the reader reading. I discovered this long before I started writing. I knew I had to get enough sleep to make it to work the next day, and I realized that the end of a chapter made me keep going. So I started arbitrarily stopping mid page when the hour got late.

But what about that last page? The one where you can't turn any more pages.

It's been said that your first page sells the book. Your last page sells the next book. If you're writing a romance, that ending will include a happy resolution to the relationship. If it's part of a series of connected books, the author will have introduced some secondary characters and laid a foundation for an upcoming book that will the their story—their turn for that Happily Ever After.

Very few romances actually pick up with the same hero and heroine as the first book. JD Robb does this well in her In Death series, although she's expanded the cast of characters exponentially as the books continue. Would Eve and Roarke be enough to carry 20 or 30 books alone? Maybe. Maybe not.

Mystery series are another animal. Detectives come back, book after book, solving case after case. Is it 'fair' to the reader to end the entire book on a cliffhanger? I've noticed it in several series I've read recently. In one, the protagonist is thinking about three women he's dealt with during the course of the book. The phone rings. A woman's voice. And … 'the end."

It's clear the author is setting up the next book in the series, but I find endings like that less satisfying. The author needs to create compelling characters in their own right. The major plot threads in the book need to be tied up. It's all right to leave the reader with questions, but they shouldn't be in your face questions.

Leaving a totally unanswered question leaves me dissatisfied rather than feeling that a story has been told to completion. Will I read the next book in the example mentioned above, with the unknown voice on the phone? Of course, primarily because I like the characters. But I have this feeling that I've been coerced into it. Keep your endings strong without relying on gimmicks.

By Terry Odell
Author of four published romantic suspense novels and several romance short stories. Upcoming releases include two mystery short stories in an anthology, and another romantic suspense novel.


Kathleen A. Ryan said...

You've made so many good points, Terry. I really enjoyed this post. I agree, when writing starts, it's like trying to find your way around in the dark, and lots of "throat-clearing" goes on. But we have to get through it to get to the good stuff -- and we must start somewhere. We can always jettison the beginning or rework it.

I understand the concept of setting things up for another novel, but I agree, the reader must be left satisfied.

Not that it has anything to do with novel writing, but I think about the scene in "A Christmas Story" when Ralphie gets his secret decoder ring and the answer is "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine." He felt so ripped off!

Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Terry!

darkangelauthor said...

Ha! Just FB'd today that I met my goal of five pages yesterday, only to sit down today and scrap every one of them. Funny how a good night's sleep can change your perspective...and good to know I don't face this struggle alone. :)


Terry Odell said...

Kathleen - payoffs are definitely something to consider. If something is worth page space, it needs to have a very good reason (preferably more than one) to be there.

Linda - writing those five pages helped move you forward, even if you hit the delete key, because you've eliminated a "this won't work" scenario. And, odds are, your brain is now ready to move down the right path.

Jen said...

These are fantastic points! I love how you said the third word is the hardest... after "Chapter One" you couldn't be more right, the beginning is where the magic happens!!!

I agree the first page sells the book and the last page sells the next one! Great Post!

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post Terry. First and last pages are so important - no wonder they get all that extra time spent on them :)

Terry Odell said...

Jen, Jemi - thanks for stopping by. Getting started can be scary, and often, I hate to leave my characters, so I don't want to get to the end.

Carol Kilgore said...

Great post, Terry. A lot of wisdom here.

Terry Odell said...

Carol - glad you found something useful. Thanks for commenting.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Hi Terry -- Sorry to be bringing up the rear like this, but I played hooky from blog-reading yesterday. It's good to see you here.

My first page, first paragraph, first sentence get rewritten umpteen-million times (really). I don't have nearly as much trouble settling on chapter/book endings. I'm not sure why beginnings are so hard for me.

Kerrie said...


I liked the idea of stopping mid page. It probably makes it easier to come back the next day since you know what is coming next.

Sheila Deeth said...

Excellent points Terry, and excellent food for thought, though I'm stuck in a middle at the moment.

Terry Odell said...

Patricia - once I allow myself to accept that the beginning won't be the "real" beginning, I don't mind the rewrites.

Kerrie - it does help get things going the next session if you know where you're going. Although I confess many a time I've stopped at the end of a scene when I don't know what's next. Then there's a lot of thinking before I move forward.

sheila - since I don't do a lot of plotting, everything's pretty much the same for me.

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